Blue Dolphin Cichlid Care Guide7 mins read

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Blue dolphin cichlid care guide
Image from Flickr

The blue dolphin cichlid is a very distinctive-looking Cichlid that is actually recommended as one of the best African Cichlids for beginners.

There are quite a few misconceptions about the simplicity of the needs of this fish. Many aquarists are also unsure how well-suited it is if this is your first time looking after Cichlids. Therefore, this handy guide will let you know everything you need about their difficulty level, blue dolphin cichlid male vs female differences, how to provide the right environment for them, and what sort of tankmates are best – so read on.

Breed Overview

OriginLake Malawi, East Africa
LifespanUp to ten years
Size10 inches or 20-25 cm males v females
ColorsElectric blue, vivid blue
Water TypeFreshwater
Tank Size150 gallons minimum or 568 liters
TemperamentGenerally peaceful but can be territorial
FoodOmnivorous
Water Temperature72-84 F
Water pH7-8

Appearance

True to its name, the blue dolphin cichlid, also known as the Malawi Cichlid, is a brilliant blue color. Like all Malawi Cichlids, it’s appearance is distinct from closely related species, a feature of the lake believed to derive from sexual selection.

But how does it get the rest of its name? The forehead hump that marks this out as a very unique fish is a feature it shares on a smaller scale with the Firemouth Cichlid. Yet in addition to its coloring, it also resembles the rounded forehead of a dolphin. For this reason, it is also known as the Humphead Cichlid.

How Big Is A Full Grown Blue Dolphin Cichlid?

You may be wondering how big a full grown blue dolphin cichlid is, especially if you want to keep a mixed Cichlid tank. There is actually a difference between the male and female fish here too!

The male generally reaches about 25 cm or 12 inches, whilst the female reaches 20 cm or 10 inches. Either way, you will need a tank with a minimum capacity of 150 gallons (568 liters) for a full-grown fish.

Blue Dolphin Cichlid Male VS Female

Generally speaking, blue dolphin cichlid male vs female appearance is relatively similar.

Both of them have the same vivid blue color and the forehead hump, as well as darker indigo stripes along the sides of their bodies. However, the female is smaller than the male, and some parts of her appearance are less angular and prominent such as the jaws and the forehead ump.

Apart from this, both sexes have jaws that extend beyond their mouth, something that helps them catch free-swimming live prey.

Forehead Hump

The forehead hump isn’t just a feature of these fish, it actually grows larger with age. The hump is made of soft tissues and scientists still don’t actually know what its purpose is. However, some think it may be to do with territorial competition and recognizing mates.

Tank Setup And Maintenance

Tank setup and maintenance for blue dolphin cichlid
You may see it is recommended that these fish need a minimum capacity of 75 gallons.

The Blue Malawi Dolphin comes from the sandy parts of Lake Malawi where it hangs around the substrate. As a result, without a sandy substrate, you can keep these fish, but they will thrive if you try to recreate their natural habitat.

Substrate

A sandy substrate is best and if you include this you will be able to see your fish burrow into it. Types of sand are as follows:

  • Aquarium sand – this is the most basic kind of sand designed for a wide variety of fish.
  • Aragonite sand: made from crushed aragonite, a form of mineral
  • Coral sand: made from crushed coral and generally used in marine tanks and reef setups
  • Volcano sand/lava soil – made from volcanic rock, this substrate has the added benefit of regulating the pH of your tank.

Author’s Note: The habitat these fish come from is in the East African Rift Valley, which is an area of high volcanic activity. As a result, the lakes ther, including Lake Malawi, have a lot of minerals dissolved in the water. This means the Malawi dolphin can actually survive with a slight amount of salt in the water (maximum 10%); this can be regular aquarium salt or, if you have access to it, specialist mineral supplies for Cichlids can be purchased online or at a large aquatics center.

Tank Capacity

You may see it is recommended that these fish need a minimum capacity of 75 gallons. However, this generally only applies to the territory of one male. If you want to keep a group, a tank size of 150 gallons is much better. If you adjust for free swimming room, the 150-gallon metric can even apply to just one fish, as all fish prefer extra room to swim.

Filtration

To ensure your tank filters properly, choose a canister or HOB filter that has a flow rate of 5-10 times your tank capacity. You should opt for something higher, especially if you plan to have a greater density of fish as the tank will get dirtier.

For the kind of large tank needed to keep these Cichlids, a sponge filter is generally too weak.

Maintenance

Like with any aquarium, it’s best to change a third of the water once per week. However, things are more complex if you have added mineral salt or aquarium salt to the tank. Bear in mind you will have to replenish this in the correct quantities, which requires precise calculation.

Planting

Many species of aquarium fish love plants, but with the Malawi dolphin and some other great lakes Cichlids, this isn’t the case. These guys prefer plenty of swimming ability, and they appreciate clear spades of sand where they can claim territory.

That’s not to say you can’t include plants, as these can be helpful for tankmates. But keep them to a minimum and also include rocks and caves, as the Malawi Dolphin prefers these as a hiding spot.

Best Tankmates

What fish are ideal blue dolphin cichlid tankmates?

As a rule of thumb, the best tankmates are other haplochromine Cichlids with a similar disposition. They won’t get on well with aggressive Cichlids such as the red devil Cichlid.

However, you can also include other fish that won’t threaten your Malawi dolphin because they are of a very different species and family. A sample list of suitable tankmates is as follows:

Author’s Note: Bear in mind if you choose to include aquarium salts, this list goes down dramatically as most of the algae eaters won’t tolerate them. Thus, it’s best to keep a tank with just peaceful Lake Malawi Cichlids, which mostly means the Blue Dolphin and African Peacock Cichlid.

Passive VS Aggressive Cichlids

How are passive vs aggressive Cichlids classified? Aggressive Cichlids such as the Jack Dempsey or Firemouth Cichlid tend to be more carnivorous. The Malawi Dolphin, on the other hand, is a peaceful omnivore. It does eat protein but it doesn’t have so much of a hunting instinct as other Cichlid types.

Thus a good list of what to avoid is as follows:

  • Jack Dempsey Cichlids
  • Oscar Fish
  • Blood Parrot Cichlids
  • Salvini Cichlids
  • Mbuna Cichlids Of All Kinds

Feeding

Malawi Dolphin Cichlids are neither vegetarian nor carnivorous, they are omnivores who are easy to feed and will eat a wide variety of flakes, algae, and fresh and frozen protein.

Some aquarists even report them eating spirulina algae. Diet is a great way of enriching your Cichlid’s environment in general, so start off with a basic Cichlid flake or pellet and move on to make things more interesting with some of the following foods:

Author’s Note: Fish generally all have individual personalities and tastes and will have their own preferences. However, a good rule of thumb is to treat the above foods as treats and only feed them two to three times per week.

Behavior And Temperament

Behavior and temperament in blue dolphin cichlid
Generally, Malawi dolphins are peaceful Cichlids. Image from Flickr

Generally, Malawi dolphins are peaceful Cichlids. However, there is so much more than just aggression level with fish. These guys have complex behavior that is a delight to observe.

Schooling Behavior

This is a fish that likes company and exhibits schooling behavior. Thus, ensure that you calculate enough room in your tank to keep not one but several, as they do best in groups.

Females And Males

Malawi dolphin fish are polygamous and territorial. This means one male will pair up with multiple females, and that males will compete with males over territory.  However, they won’t compete with females, or at least to a much lesser extent.

These fish are definitely difficult to sex! When mature, you will notice that males tend to have a larger and more pronounced hump, and that they are slightly larger.

However, one way to tell is to look at behavior. A fish that seems to be carving out and defending territory is almost certainly a male!

Male Aggression

Male aggression generally only happens over territories. This is why they are not called a peaceful fish; although they are one of the more peaceful haplochromine Cichlids out there.

Fortunately, it’s easy to prevent the worst of male-on-male aggression. In fact, this is as simple as ensuring there is enough territory and an imbalance in the male-to-female ratio where there are more females than males.

Malawi dolphin fish generally won’t be aggressive to tankmates of a different species. The only thing to worry about is if smaller fish are intimidated by their large size.

Harem Forming Behavior

The male Blue Dolphin Cichlid forms harems with up to four females that may swim alongside him. This can be in return for protection from predators and rivals, and for company. This is a social species and these harems play a large role in their mating behaviour.

Pests And diseases

Pests and diseases in blue dolphin cichlid
Hoel in head disease is caused by a parasite called Hexamita and causes small holes to form in your fish’s skin and flesh. Image from Flickr

Blue Malawi Dolphin Cichlids are subject to the same pests and diseases as all other freshwater aquarium fish. Below are some of the ones you may commonly encounter.

1. Hole In Head

Hoel in head disease is caused by a parasite called Hexamita and causes small holes to form in your fish’s skin and flesh. However, you can treat it as you would with any other parasite. This means by changing aquarium water and moving the infected fish to a quarantine tank. Once you’ve done this, you can give it a saltwater bath to kill the parasite.

2. Fin Rot

Fin rot is a bacterial infection that comes from dirty water and generally affects the fins and tail of fish, although you may see it appear elsewhere such as around the mouth and gills.

It is generally caused by dirty tank conditions, so it’s best to clean the tank immediately if you notice it.

However, you can treat it by quarantining the sick fish. Then, give it with over-the-counter antibacterial medication. It’s best to do this in a separate tank so you don’t accidentally eat their tankmates.

Breeding

Breeding Malawi dolphin Cichlids is generally relatively challenging. As a result, this is a rare species that you won’t always encounter in every aquarium store. However, if you do want to try your hand at breeding, the following information can give you an idea of what it involves.

1. Egg-Laying Behavior

The male and female Malawi dolphin fish are very interactive when breeding and laying eggs. This can be one of the best parts for any aquarist to watch if you are lucky enough to see it. If you have a sandy substrate, the male will dig a pit for the female to lay her eggs in. Then he will fertilize these immediately. Otherwise, they will use a flat rock.

2. Mouth Brooding Behavior

Like many other Cichlid species, Malawi dolphins are mouthbrooders.

What happens is after the female lays the eggs, she will pick them up in her mouth and carry them around as a form of protection. This process will last about three weeks.

The fry will then hatch but she may hang onto them for a week longer until she lets them swim freely. This ensures they are strong enough to survive.

3. Breeding Overview

Malawi dolphins can be difficult to sex. However, due to their harem-forming behavior, it’s easy to do this in groups. If you see a group swimming around there will undoubtedly be one male with a group of females.

Author’s Note: If you wish to breed these fish the best way to do so is to put a group in a specific breeding tank away from other tankmates (if you have the space) or otherwise just let their behavior develop naturally. It’s relatively hard to predict when they will breed or to influence this process in any way.

4. What To Feed The Fry

Like many other small fish, the fry can be fed on infusoria at first and then on crushed flakes or pellets once they are large enough. As they grow, you will be able to graduate them onto the same diet as the adult fish.

Final Thoughts

Is the Blue Malawi Dolphin aggressive or gentle?
The blue Malawi dolphin is often a tempting fish for beginner aquarists to get, especially if you’ve heard that they are relatively easy. Image from Flickr

The blue Malawi dolphin is often a tempting fish for beginner aquarists to get, especially if you’ve heard that they are relatively easy. However, almost all Cichlids need quite attentive care and this one is no different. However, if you do have the experience, you will find that the blue Malawi dolphin makes an excellent and unusual pet

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Blue Malawi Dolphin aggressive or gentle?
The Blue Malawi Dolphin is not as aggressive as some Cichlids but it’s not fully peaceful either due to its territorial and harem-forming nature. However, once you understand this behavior you will find with the correct tank setup you won’t have too many problems.
Can African Cichlids live with South American Cichlids?
Not all African Cichlids can live with South American Cichlids, but some can. The main thing is whether the species are compatible in terms of aggression, and territorial behaviour, as opposed to which continent they come from. However, the Blue Dolphin has a limited selection of tankmates, which is outlined above.
Is the Blue Dolphin Cichlid beginner friendly?
The Blue Dolphin Cichlid is one of the easiest Cichlidhins for a beginner to look after, however, it’s not necessarily beginner-friendly. For starters, there are unique skills that come from managing a large fish tank such as you might need with a Blue Malawi Dolphin. Additionally, they are intelligent and social fish meaning their behaviour is less predictable than true beginner fish like danios or rasboras.
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Sydney Perry

Sydney Perry has loved fish since she was a child and has enjoyed keeping many varieties over the years, ranging from black moors and shubunkins to betta fish. As a lover of nature and of Japanese culture, her dream tank is an Iwagumi aquascape, combining fish with carefully crafted aquatic landscapes in miniature.