Convict Cichlid Care – A Complete Guide

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Whether you are brand-new to fish keeping, or a seasoned pro, the convict cichlid is a great fish to have in your tank. 

Although the convict isn’t the only member of the Cichlidae family, it’s certainly a favorite amongst aquarium enthusiasts. 

With its stand-out personality and attractive appearance, this aquatic creature has earned its favored status. If you choose to get a convict cichlid, it will never fail to entertain you! 

Plus, it’s a hardy species that is very easy to care for.  And to top it all off, this fish is a prolific breeder.

If you are interested in learning more about convict cichlid care, you need to read this article.  It will teach you how to provide the best care possible for this amazing fish. 

Let’s dive right in!

Brief Overview

Scientific NameAmatitlania nigrofasciata
Common NamesConvict Cichlid, Zebra Cichlid
OriginSouth America
Care LevelEasy
ActivityVery Active
Lifespan8 to 10 Years
Tank LevelMidwater
Minimum Tank Size30 gallons
Temperature Range74°F – 84°F
Water Hardness9 – 20 dkH
pH Range6.5 to 8.0
Filtration/Water FlowModerate
Water TypeFreshwater
BreedingEgg layer
Difficulty to BreedEasy
CompatibilityCan live in community tanks with certain tank mates that can stand up to the convict cichlid’s aggressive nature.
OK, for Planted Tanks?With caution

Origin and Habitat

As a freshwater fish, the convict cichlid resides in Central American rivers and streams.  This species is found in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador1

The convict cichlid’s natural habitat consists of gently flowing water and sandy substrate.  Its rivers and streams contain rocks and driftwood, giving these fish discreet places to hide.    

Appearance and Size

Want to know why this fish is called convict?  Just take a look at its black stripes.  This pattern looks like a prison uniform.

The exact number of stripes, or bars, depends on the particular fish, but most have about eight or nine.   

Although the convict cichlid is usually white with black bars, other colors include plain white, pink, and gold.  Some of these relatively rare varieties lack the stripes that these fish are known for.      

For most fish species, the male is more colorful.  But that’s not the case for convict cichlids.  Instead, it’s the female convict cichlid that has more color. 

When the female matures, an orange mark appears on her side.  When the male Convict Cichlid matures, a nuchal hump can be seen on his head.    

The convict cichlid is on the smaller side, with an average length of 4-5 inches.  However, some males can grow up to 6 inches long. 

Average Cost

It’s not hard to find a convict cichlid for sale.  This fish is very popular and easy to breed, motivating fish stores, online stores, and breeders to sell the convict cichlid.

And that’s good news for you because it keeps the price pretty affordable.  You will probably only pay about $5-$12 per fish if you find the locally.      

Ease of Care

The convict cichlid is super easy to take care of, making it a beginner-friendly fish.  Maintaining the proper water conditions, creating the right environment, and feeding your convict cichlid are simple, straightforward tasks.     

In addition, this species is easy to breed.  It’s just a matter of putting a male and female convict cichlid together, giving them the right environment, and providing plenty of space.  If you do that, you will likely have fry in no time! 

Feeding Requirements

Generally speaking, a convict cichlid’s diet should mostly consist of pellets.  But you might also want to include foods that wild convict cichlids consume.

As omnivores, this fish eats insects, mosquito larvae, and plants.  That’s why it’s a good idea to supplement your aquarium convict cichlid’s diet with live foods and blanched vegetables. Roughage is key to avoiding the dreaded Malawi Bloat that types many cichlids.

Some examples include:

  • Blood Worms
  • Black Worms
  • Daphnia
  • Brine Shrimp
  • Tubifex Worms
  • Lettuce 
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots

Although fresh foods are always best, frozen worms and shrimp are also fine.  And don’t be afraid to throw some insects and mosquito larvae into your convict cichlid’s diet.  If you can manage to get these foods, your fish will love them! 

As far as pellets go, look for a cichlid-specific option.  And whatever you do, don’t settle for anything less than high-quality food. 

Cheap pellets might save you money, but they will only end up hurting your fishy friends in the long run. That’s because poor quality food leads to poor health. An example of a high quality Cichlid food would be Ron’s Cichlid Food.

Great Balanced Food
Ron's Cichlid Food

Ron is an African Cichlid breeder with over 25 years in experience who created a line of food that is well balanced. A great option when you can't use frozen foods.

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If you prioritize high-quality food, your cichlid fish will thrive.  Plus, they will look amazing in your tank. You can’t ask for more than that!

Besides choosing the right food, you must also decide when to feed your fish.  It’s easier to feed once per day, but it’s probably better to feed several smaller meals throughout the day.  About 2-3 meals will do.

These smaller portion sizes will prevent tank water pollution, which helps to keep water conditions just right.  And that will further contribute to the health and appearance of your convict cichlid. 


Convict Cichlid Swimming

The convict cichlid is an aggressive fish, always ready to defend their territory.  Their combative nature increases during times of breeding as they protect their spawning areas. 

All that being said, they are still a delight for fish owners.  As long as you can keep their aggression at bay, their personality will keep you entertained.    

Fortunately, you can prevent fish fights from occurring.  All you have to do is make sure each convict cichlid has enough space. 

And if you will be keeping your fish in a community tank, just be sure to place them with compatible tank mates.  We will talk more about that later in this article.

You should also give your fish plenty of hiding places, such as rocks, plants, and driftwood.  These hideaways provide some much-needed privacy, which helps to keep the peace. 

When there is peace in your tank, you can enjoy observing your convict cichlid’s activities.  These activities may include digging, rearranging plants, and checking out the rest of the tank.      

All that activity is what makes them so fun to watch!

Tank Requirements

If you want your fish to thrive, you need to create an environment that matches their natural habitat as closely as possible. 

In this section, we are going to talk about how you can do that in your convict cichlid’s aquarium.

Make Sure the Tank is Large Enough   

Remember, the convict cichlid needs lots of space.  Forcing this aggressive species to share a small tank with other fish is just asking for trouble!

But how big should the tank be?

Here are some general guidelines:

  • Some experts recommend 30 gallons per convict cichlid
  • Others say 30-50 gallons is large enough for a pair of convicts
  • If you have a breeding pair, you will need at least a 50-gallon tank.

If you want to play it safe, it might be a good idea to choose a tank size that’s larger than what you think is necessary.  This is probably better than trying to get by with the bare minimum.      

Create the Right Conditions

Convict Cichlid

The Convict Cichlid is a very hardy fish, meaning they can survive conditions that don’t perfectly match their natural habitat.  But surviving isn’t thriving.  To make sure your fish are as healthy and attractive as possible, you need to get the tank’s conditions just right. 

That involves maintaining the proper pH and temperature range.  This species requires these conditions:

  • PH: 6.5-8
  • Water Temperature: 74 -84 degrees

Keeping the water on the warmer side is important because this fish comes from South American rivers and streams.  So, if your tank’s water doesn’t stay within the optimal range, you might want to look into getting an aquarium heater

Choose the Right Substrate   

Convict cichlid fish have a tendency to dig, making it vital to choose the right substrate.  Something soft, like sand, will allow your fishy friends to dig away without getting scratched. 

When choosing between light and dark substrate, it all comes down to personal preference and your budget.  In most cases, lighter substrates will be cheaper than darker options.  However, your beautiful fish will stand out even more against a dark substrate.  

Provide Hiding Places

Logs, driftwood, rocks, and plants make great hiding spots for fish.  Adding these elements to your tank gives your cichlid fish plenty of privacy, which helps prevent aggressive behaviors. 

Look for tough plants that won’t be easily disturbed by digging.  By the way, we should probably mention that your convict cichlid will likely rearrange the plants. Plants that do not need to be planted in soil make the most sense. In our experience, these plants work best with Convicts:

These fish definitely have their own ideas about things!  But that’s partly why they are so amusing. 

Generate a Gentle Flow

Wild convict cichlids live in gently flowing water.  You can mimic this by installing a powerhead that generates a gentle flow.      

Choose a Good Filter System

What happens when your fish start digging?  If you guessed a mess, you are right! 

That’s why you must choose a good filter system that can keep up with that mess.  This becomes especially important if you plan on breeding your fish, as the new fry will increase the tank’s bio-load.

Your best bet is a filter that filters at least twice your tank’s volume per hour.  Some convict keepers use filters that filter 10-15 times the tank volume per hour. A filter with a large amount of media capacity is best like a canister filter.

Convict cichlid breeders need to take extra measures to keep the fry from being sucked into the filter. A quick fix is to buy and install a filter sponge. 

How To Breed

When it comes to breeding convict cichlids it can be summed with a simple statement – convict cichlids are prolific, making this fish incredibly easy to breed.  There are just a few breeding tips to keep in mind. You can also check out this video by Blake’s Aquatics if you prefer a video explanation.

For starters, the water should be around 84 degrees.  So, keep an eye on the temperature to make sure it’s conducive to breeding. 

Secondly, the female convict cichlid naturally gravitate towards rocky overhangs to lay their eggs.  Turning a clay pot upside down or stacking flat rocks provides a similar laying space for your female fish.  

Thirdly (and this is very important to remember!) convict cichlids are extremely protective of their eggs.  If your convict cichlids are forced to breed in a community tank, they will view the other fish as threats and attack them.     

That’s why your breeding pair should be kept in a separate tank from all other fish, convicts or otherwise.

Also, the breeding tank should be large enough to house fry.  At a minimum, this requires a 50-gallon tank. 

Breeding and Raising Fry

Convict cichlids are ready to breed when they are about 4-7 months old.  After the female convict cichlid lays the eggs, the male fertilizes them.  Once the eggs have been laid, the breeding pair is on their guard, ready to defend their eggs from any threats. 

The eggs will hatch in 3-5 days, resulting in about 30 new fry.  After the eggs hatch, the parents care for the fry.  For the first 5 days, the fry remain in the yolk sac. After that, they start swimming around. 

Once the fry are about a week old, it’s time to start feeding them.  Some food options include baby brine shrimp, fry flakes, and infusoria. 

Fry should be fed about 3 times per day. It doesn’t take long for the male and female to be ready to breed again.  They will reenter the breeding mode about 10-14 days after the fry are born. 

At this time, the breeding pair may become aggressive towards the fry.  To keep them safe, move the fry to a nursery tank, about 5-10 gallons large.   

Eventually, the fry will outgrow that tank.  The next step is to place them in a rearing tank, about 20-30 gallons large.

Important Note

Before moving on, we want to point out that convict cichlids have a great reputation for being excellent parents. The male and female will do whatever it takes to protect the fry while providing food and shelter. 

That being said, the father can become a threat when the fry start swimming.  If any signs of aggression appear, the male Convict Cichlid should be removed from the tank.      


How many can live together in one tank?

That depends on how large the tank is.  Some experts recommend keeping one convict cichlid per 30 gallons, while others say it’s okay to keep a pair in a 30-gallon tank.  

Although a convict cichlid can live by itself, sharing the tank (as long as it’s big enough) with another convict can prevent stress. 

Just keep in mind, as the number of fish increase so does the risk of fights.  That’s why it’s probably wise for beginners to limit their convict cichlids to one or two.

Also, it’s usually not a good idea to put two male convict cichlids together as this will likely result in displays of aggression.        

And for those with more than two convict cichlids, it’s best to maintain a ratio of 3 females to one male. 

Can they live with other fish?

Due to the convict cichlid’s aggressive and territorial nature, putting this fish in a community tank can be somewhat risky.  For that reason, beginners should probably keep their convict cichlids in a separate tank, away from other types of fish.    

But for those with more experience, their convict cichlids can live in community tanks.  However, you can’t choose just any tank mates.  You have to carefully select certain fish that are most compatible with convict cichlids. 

That would not include fish that are smaller or less assertive than your cichlid fish.  Instead, you should pick tank mates that are larger and able to hold their own.  

Some good tank mates include:

If your convict cichlid will live with tank mates, be sure to buy a large tank that’s at least 50 gallons.  Depending on how many fish you have, you might need a tank that’s even bigger than that.   

But no matter how experienced you are, how big the tank is, or what other types of fish you have, never ever keep a breeding pair in a community tank.  It just won’t end well!

That’s because this aggressive species becomes even more combative during breeding time. 

How long does it take for them to grow to full size?

That depends on the fish, but most convict cichlids take about 2-3 years to reach full size. 

How many fry do they have?

The average number of fry is about 30. 

How long do they live in captivity?

With the proper care, aquarium convict cichlids can live for 8-10 years.  Keep in mind, this is just an average.  Your own fishy friends might live longer or shorter.

In Conclusion

By this point, you are probably convinced that the convict cichlid is a great fish to keep, especially if you are brand new to this hobby.  They are super easy to care for, a blast to watch, and a beauty to behold. And when you provide great care, you will be able to enjoy your fish for a long time. 

Do you have any experience with Convict Cichlids? If so, leave a comment below and let’s start a conversation. Thanks for reading! 

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