Keyhole Cichlid – The Most UNDERRATED Dwarf Species

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The Keyhole Cichlid (Cleithracara maronii) is the most underrated fish in the hobby and also used to be difficult to find. My blog post today is to explain why its such a great fish and very much under the radar. In fact, I didn’t know much about this fish until a few months ago after I published a dwarf cichlid article and YouTube video. I’ll be updating the blog post, but learning more about this fish, it’s a better choice then a ram cichlid with its docile nature and it’s hardiness.

This comprehensive guide provides all the necessary information on Keyhole cichlid care, from understanding its natural habitat to effectively maintaining its health and breeding it successfully. Let’s dive in and learn more!

Key Takeaways

  • Keyhole Cichlids are sociable, adaptable freshwater fish that can live up to 10 years with proper care.
  • Create an ideal tank setup by mimicking their natural habitat and providing plenty of cover, such as plants and caves.
  • These fish prefer calmer waters and an acidic pH
  • Choose compatible tank mates like corydoras catfish, larger tetras, and angelfish

Species Overview

Scientific NameCleithracara maronii
Common NamesKeyhole Cichlid
OriginSouth America, primarily in slow-moving waters of the Orinoco River basin
Care LevelEasy to Intermediate
ActivitySlow to Moderate
LifespanUp to 10 years
TemperamentPeaceful (Mildly aggressive when breeding)
Tank LevelMiddle to bottom
Minimum Tank Size20 gallon (long format) otherwise, 30+ gallons
Water Temperature Range74°-80°F
Water Hardness5 to 20 DH
pH Range5.0 – 7.0
Filtration / Water MovementLow
Water TypeFreshwater
BreedingEgg layer
Difficulty to BreedEasy to breed
CompatibilityCommunity fish
OK, for Planted Tanks?Yes

Understanding Them

Keyhole Cichlids are native to the clear coastal creeks and river basins of South America and make great additions to community tanks for all levels of fish keepers. Slow moving water, rich in decaying wood, is what these freshwater creatures prefer along with their regular diet consisting of worms, crustaceans and insects.

What sets them apart from others is that they can change their coloring pattern depending on threats, which makes them even more appealing! This characteristic of this fish has lead to get the nickname “chamelon cichlid.”

Fun Fact: The Keyhole Cichlid was named one of the forgotten cichlids per Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine. 

As well as being peaceful by nature, Keyholes also like company so having multiple males or females together. They may have to bicker a little to establish their pecking order, but once they do that they should become peaceful among each other. However, one a breeding pair occurs, more aggression may occur.

Origin And Distribution

Keyhole Cichlids (Cleithracara maronii) have a wide distribution across various coastal regions, including Suriname, French Guiana, Venezuela and Guyana, as well as Trinidad & Tobago. These hardy aquarium fish need plenty of space to thrive – they inhabit small creeks and rivers, which offer the perfect habitat for young fish along with other smaller species.

Average Size

Considering their eventual adult size of 4 to 4.9 inches (10-12.5 cm), it is important for any aquarist to account for an appropriate tank space when setting up a home environment for keyhole cichlids, as they still need adequate room. They will technically qualify as dwarf cichlids to some hobbyists and can be kept in tanks as small as 20 gallons if the long configuration is used. Fortunately for you, this cichlid species grows slower than most.



Keyhole Cichlids, compared to other dwarf cichlid species, will seem dull in appearance with their muted colors. The body is round and compressed with muted colors that allow it to blend into the surroundings when needed, while there’s a black stripe above the eye, which contrasts effectively against this subtle coloration. The fish will become more yellow with its body color over time as it ages.

Keyholes possess an unmistakable key shaped mark on their head, giving rise to its common name. During mating season, male and female specimens become even more attractive due to changes in color – males turning white while females take on the black bar design resulting from where they got their title of ‘keyhole cichlid.’ Adding both genders of this fish species can be truly captivating for any home aquarium setup making it stand out amongst other similar types of fish.

Males tend to be larger than females while sporting longer dorsal fins compared with a female’s rounder shaped ones. Both sexes hold equal beauty making it difficult not love this unique species!


When taken care of correctly, Keyhole Cichlids can live for 7-10 years in aquariums. This is quite a lengthy lifespan which makes them good companions to fish lovers who are looking for longterm enjoyment as well as educational opportunities.

To maximize the health and lifespan of these cichlids, it’s essential that their environment remains stable with optimal water parameters and few stress factors present.

Ideal Tank Setup For Keyhole Cichlids

Keyhold cichlids will need a tank at minimum of 20 gallons. However, the tall style 20 gallon will not work at this size. You will need at least a 20 gallon tank so you have enough hortizontial space so the fish will not become overly territorial.

Substrate And Decorations

On top of this basic setup, cover like plants or caves are essential if they want these species feeling safe, so adding decoration such as driftwood, rocks, & aquatic plants will help recreate a more organic environment similar to their native habitats, make sure not pick bright lighting nor aggressive neighbors which can easily upset them.

Fine grained substrates such as soft sand should be used to replicate their natural setting. Decorations, including driftwood and rocks, can add even more visual appeal, plus provide safe hiding spots in the tank.

This is an excellent cichlid species for a planted tank. They typically will not eat plants or dig them up. They will also get along with most community fish as long as you don’t keep them with smaller fish that they can fit their mouths. If you want to replicate their natural environment Cabomba or floating varieties are best for them. Heavily planted tanks are encouraged as these are known for being shy fish.

Water Parameters

For your Keyhole Cichlids to stay healthy and happy, it is important to adhere to the required water parameters. The pH should be from 5.0 – 7.0 while they should have a stable temperature of 74-80°F. These fish prefer softer water as well.

Given their higher temperature requirements, they are based setup with a reliable aquarium heater to keep the temperatures stable. In addition, you should also maintain the following nutrient parameters:

Filtration And Water Flow

Creating a healthy environment for Keyhole Cichlids necessitates the need for efficient filtration, although their response to strong currents is negative. Many power filters and canister filters will be too strong for them and planted aquariums may require water that is not compatible with their preference.

To mitigate this, consider keeping a heavily planted tank that will have pockets of lower water flow where your fish can feel safe. Note their colors when they are swimming, if they start to display more black marks on their body, this is a result of their reaction to stress around them. This is sometimes your first warning sign that something is amiss with their environment.

For canister filters, you can use a spray bar attachment to lessen the flow into the tank. The fish is large enough to not get sucked up by intakes, but it is the output speed that will stress them out. Others will use sponge filters, don’t I’m usually not a fan as I prefer to hide as much equipment as possible in my setups.

Compatible Tank Mates


Being a medium sized fish with a docile demeanor, there is a large amount of potential keyhole cichlid tank mates you can add with your Keyhole Cichlid. Possible tankmates include:

In addition, you can also consider other cichlids such as:

For these fish, make sure they are either smaller or near the same size as your Keyhole cichlid when they are first introduced.

Lastly, due to these fish being naturally shy, it’s could help bring them out if you add dither fish in the tank. Look for dithers that are at least 2.5 inches long to prevent them from getting eaten.

Bad Tankmates

Avoid the following fish as they will be hostile to your Keyhole Cichlid:

There are a few fish I’ll include here as maybe. Sometimes they work, and other times they don’t. It’s up to you if you want to consider them. Just have a backup plan if it doesn’t work out:

Feeding And Nutrition

Keyhole Cichlids are omnivores and need a diverse diet consisting of both plant and animal based proteins. This mimics their natural habitat, where the primary sources of food are detritus, larvae, as well as small crustaceans such as shrimp.

To deliver that nutrition to them, provide them with varied dry foods like flakes or pellets alongside live insects and frozen items on occasion, all while making sure not to overfeed by monitoring portion size, as food fed should be consumed within two minutes. Ron’s Cichlid food is a great brand of food to use for these fish to ensure they get a good mix of ingredients.

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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Breeding Keyhole Cichlids

Breeding Keyhole Cichlids can be relatively straightforward since they form pairs and bond for life as monogamous substrate spawners. To raise their success rate, providing an optimal breeding tank with the right water parameters combined with a diet containing live or frozen foods is key having a successful breeding spawn.

Female keyhole cichlids can lay up to 600 eggs at a time and both parents will actively care for their young. These eggs can be laid on rocks, driftwood, plants, and even on the aquarium glass itself! A spawning site is recommended to create for them. You use flat pieces of rock, wood, or even title or pots so the fish have something to lay their eggs on.

Parental Care And Fry Development

One of the more noteworthy characteristics of Keyhole Cichlid breeding is that both male and female fish put forth exceptional efforts when it comes to caring for their eggs and larvae. The parents actively protect them from danger, seeing to it they remain safe until hatching occurs (video source).

While these fish will get more aggressive when breeding, they are not as bad as other cichlids. They will often push away a threat versus damaging or attacking tank mates. Even so, to keep fry from being eaten by other tankmates, consider moving the parents to their own breeding tank.

Once hatched, parental care will continue often lasting a few months, as they feed small organisms like infusoria or newly born brine shrimp on behalf of their fry. It is one of the most rewarding things to take part in the hobby.

Health And Disease Prevention

To properly care for Keyhole Cichlids, stay on top of water quality parameters. Some common diseases you may come across are:

  • Ich
  • Velvet
  • Flukes

Less common ailments include infections like fin rot and columnaris.

Quarantining is your best method of prevent, though I know most hobbyist will not practice this. In the even you do not practice quarantine, keep your tank as stable and stress free as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do keyhole cichlids eat?

Keyhole cichlids are omnivorous, and will eat a variety of food items such as small crustaceans, insects, larvae, worms or small fish. These fish also enjoy eating plant matter. To flakes and pellets that can be bought from the store. Frozen options are great too!

What color are keyhole cichlids?

Keyhole cichlids display a yellow-cream color, but when the fish is stressed it can change to brown. An identifiable feature of these species is their black spot situated at its center that looks like a keyhole.

What cichlids are nice?

Beginners looking for an easy, peaceful fish can find the keyhole cichlid to be a great option. Not needing much space and having hardiness on its side makes it simple to keep this species in aquariums.

What size tank do Keyhole Cichlids need?

Keyhole Cichlids require at least a 20 gallon tank long. If you do not have a long tank, then a 30 gallon would be the minimum tank size.

Are Keyhole Cichlids compatible with other fish species?

Keyhole Cichlids are typically harmonious with other aquatic life like larger tetras, peaceful barbs, and corydoras. Generally as long as the fish won’t fit in its mouth and it’s hostile, your Keyhole should get along with them.

Closing Thoughts

Fish keepers of all levels can have a rewarding experience with the Keyhole Cichlids, thanks to their remarkable adaptability and peaceful disposition. If you want to create an environment in which these fish thrive, make sure that your tank is set up according to its natural habitat as well as providing adequate care for them.

Have you kept this fish before? Let us know your experience in the comments below. I love to hear back from my readers. Until next time!

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