by Paul Schuman (originally written for the Honolulu Aquarium Society )
One of the most interesting and endearing of the fishes kept by aquarists, are cichlids. Their antics and habits, especially in parental care are legendary. They seem to be some of the most intelligent fish you can buy. But there is a downside, most cichlids are aggressive and territorial. Plus, they get pretty big, so you need a very large tank to handle their size and aggression. If you want to breed them, you need an even bigger tank. However, there is a way you can watch all of their interesting behavior and even breed them in a tank as small as 10 gallons. How? By buying dwarf cichlids.
There are a lot of cichlids that don't get larger than 3 or 4 inches. There are even some that only reach about 2 inches. Many of these come from South America. One of the most popular is the Golden or Rainbow Ram, Microgeophagus (formerly Apistogramma) ramerezi. These have been in the hobby for a long time. Originally, they were only available in the wild "rainbow" or "blue" color form. Later, a golden form was developed. Almost every aquarium store has a tank of one or both color forms. Since they have been aquarium bred so long, they will adapt to most water conditions; however, they seem to be sensitive to ammonia, so your tank maintenance and filtration must be good. Adults reach about 3 inches, and they can be kept and bred in a 15 gallon or larger tank.
There are more dwarf cichlids from South America available from time to time. Most of these are in the genus Apistogramma. These colorful cichlids range from about 2 to 4 inches, depending on the species. The smallest can be kept and bred in a 10 gallon tank, while the largest will still be happy in a 20 gallon. Many of these have long fin extensions, bright colors, or both! As with the Ram, they tend to be sensitive about ammonia levels. Also, many of these are wild caught or just a few generations from the wild, so they prefer softer, neutral to slightly acidic conditions.
Another South American that shows up from time to time is Nanacara anomala, which is often simply marked "Dwarf Cichlid." These don't get over 3 inches. The males are a bright metallic blue color. The females are a drab tan and brown. Since stores often carry juveniles, the whole tank may look a drab tan and brown. Again, these can be kept and bred in a 15 gallon or larger tank.
From Africa, there are some dwarf cichlids to consider. Probably the most common is the Krib or Kribensis, Pelvicachromis pulcher. These are very pretty fish, with gold, purple, and pink colors, depending on their mood. Males reach 4 inches, with females reaching 3. These can be kept and bred in a 20 gallon or larger tank. There are other fish in this genus that are available from time to time. They are similar in color and care as the Krib.
This is a short list of some of the more commonly seen species. There are many other dwarf cichlids available at times, but I'm not going to list them all. Instead, I'll cover the basics of keeping them happy and getting them to breed.
All of the fish I've listed come from soft, slightly acidic water. As with most fish, they will adapt to different water conditions, as long as you avoid extremes. Honolulu tap water is pretty soft, and mine tests neutral (pH 7.0). This is almost perfect for these cichlids. You won't need to add any salt, since they come from virtually salt free water. Since our water is right, what next?
I use a lot of plants in my dwarf cichlid tanks. This gives them a lot of places to hide and makes them feel secure. I've noticed that the more hiding places I give them, the more I see them. I also provide them with driftwood and rocks. You might even consider clay flower pots or coconut shells cut in half (with all the meat removed). This gives them a choice of spawning sites. My Apistogramma cacatuoides and Nanacara anomala spawned on the driftwood, my Apistogramma ortmanni spawned on a rock, and my Kribensis spawned in a clay flowerpot.
To bring them into spawning condition, I feed a quality flake food in the morning and live or frozen food in the evening. The flake gives them any vitamins and minerals they need, while the live and frozen food seems to get them ready to spawn. Once they are properly conditioned, they will usually spawn on their own.
Just before spawning, you may see the pair flare their fins and gills and shudder at each other. Sometimes they even lock jaws. If one isn't ready to spawn, the other will often drive them away or chase them around the tank. This is another good reason to have lots of hiding places. You may wake up in the morning and find one of your dwarfs at one end of the tank, and all your other fish cowering at the other end. Upon closer examination, you will see that she (it's usually the female) is guarding a clutch of eggs. She will drive away any fish that gets too close. Sometimes, you may have to remove the other fish, if she's too aggressive.
If everything goes well, the eggs will hatch in 3-4 days. The female will keep guarding the fry, until they get large enough to fend for themselves. I feed my fry hard boiled egg yolk in water suspension, powdered flake food, and newly hatched brine shrimp. Sometimes, your dwarfs will eat their eggs, especially the first spawning or two. If you find they are eating the eggs, or not keeping the other fish away, you may have to hatch the eggs artificially. To do this, remove the object they spawned on and place it in a bare tank with sponge filter, filled with water from the spawning tank. Place an airstone below the eggs to keep water current flowing over them. Once they hatch, raise them as you would any fish. While you won't get to see the parental care this way, you will be able to raise some to adults.
Dwarf cichlids are one of the most fascinating fish you can put in your smaller tanks. Their behavior and parental care are a site to behold. I've covered the basics of which fish are usually available, care, and breeding. Now, it's up to you to give them a try. You may like them so much, you decide to specialize in them.