How Big Do African Cichlids Get

What is the Smallest African Cichlid?

How Big Do African Cichlids Get7 mins read

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How big do african cichlids get
Image from Flickr

African cichlids are both some of the most beautiful, and some of the most challenging Cichlids to keep. Even though they are said to be very aggressive (with the exception of a few) they make rewarding and fascinating pets with plenty of different personalities and color variations. You may even find yourself adding many more to your collection.

An interesting fact about African Cichlids is the diverse range of sizes that they come in, African Cichlids are known to have some of the smallest and biggest species, which in turn also means that you will need the proper tank size for African cichlids according to the specific species.

Species Summary

Cichlids in general from the Cichlidae family consist of between 2000 to 3000 species, many of which have not yet been documented, and many still to be discovered. Scientifically to date, there are over 2500 known species., with 1650 species established in detail, making this one of the largest vertebrae families.

Cichlids are mostly found in South America and Africa, with 1600 of the species found in Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. African Cichlids enjoy clearer, warmer waters and sandy substrates with plenty of vegetation. When creating an aquarium for your African Cichlids it is vital to ensure that the tank is the right size and that your tank closely replicates their natural environment.

Color Variations And Sizes

Overall African Cichlids are a diverse species with plenty of color variations and patterns, from yellow, pink, red, and orange, to striking and intense blues, greens, and purples, some with spots, stripes, and other patterns, or even solid colors. As far as sizes extend African Cichlids can be as small as 2 inches 95cm) and as large as 3 feet (90cm) with a life expectancy of between 4 and 15 years depending on the specific species, in captivity.

A Few Quick Facts On African Cichlids

If you are interested in a freshwater aquarium bursting with color and individuality, an African Cichlid tank will surely not disappoint, with so many available species there is no shortage of finding a single species or more that can be kept together, to suit your hobby whether a beginner or advanced aquarist alike. However, here is some food for thought concerning African Cichlids in general:

  • African Cichlids are experienced to be some of the most exotic and colorful cichlid species almost resembling tropical reef fish.
  • They have been proven to be more aggressive and territorial, but on the other hand similarly active, friendly, and inquisitive depending on the species, and individual of course.
  • Not all African cichlid species are considered compatible tank mates, though some get along like two peas in a pod.
  • African Cichlids generally have strict dietary requirements and are prone to a disease called Malawi bloat, thus some species need more of a vegetarian diet than high-proteins.
  • African Cichlids, even smaller species, enjoy larger volume tanks with plenty of swimming space and rock crevices or caves for hiding and breeding.
  • Most African cichlids are more territorial than downright aggressive.
  • From first-hand experience in pet stores especially in Southern Africa, African Cichlids are many times referred to as “Malawi” under a common name, as most of the species originate from Lake Malawi in Africa.

Basic Care Requirements For African Cichlids

Basic care requirements for african cichlids
Most African Cichlid species thrive in hard alkaline water with a pH between 7.5 and 8.5, and water temperatures between 78 – 84 °F (25.5 – 28.8 °C) Image from Flickr

Most African cichlids have relatively similar requirements in care, though it is vital to do your homework on a specific species, from trusted sources, to fully establish the care requirements of that species, as well as compatible tank mates and tank size.

  • Tank Size for African Cichlids – As a rule of thumb, a four-foot-wide aquarium will be your minimum for African Cichlids, the length and volume will depend entirely on the exact species. Keep in mind some species can be kept alone or in pairs, while others thrive in groups. Nonetheless, once hooked, you will most definitely want to add more to your tank. Most African cichlids remain calmer when crowded with other compatible African Cichlids, though they will need to be monitored closely at first. The smallest African cichlid species can be kept in a pair in a 20-gallon tank, though 30 gallons is the minimum for a single average-sized cichlid, other than that tank sizes may vary from 55 gallons for smaller-sized to medium cichlids, up to 300-gallons for giant species.
  • Water Parameters – Most African Cichlid species thrive in hard alkaline water with a pH between 7.5 and 8.5, and water temperatures between 78 – 84 °F (25.5 – 28.8 °C), depending on how crowded your tank is and their diet requirements, more regular water changes and tank maintenance may be required. African Cichlids mostly prefer more subdued light and will need a heater, and proper filter to keep water pristine. It’s important to make sure that the water conditions in your African cichlid tank are ideal for them. African cichlids are used to living in hard, alkaline water. The ideal pH range is 7.5 to 8.5.
  • Tank Décor – Substrate is vital as most cichlids tend to dig; thus a thicker 3-inch layer of sandy substrate is ideal. Plenty of plants, especially live plants, and caves or rock hideouts will mimic their natural environment and provide hiding spaces. Similarly, for more active species, there will need to be some open spaces for swimming.
  • Feeding – Unfortunately not all African Cichlid species have the same diet, thus research must be done on the dietary requirements for a specific species. Ideally, you should never place cichlids that require more protein, together with those that require more vegetable-based foods, as this can quickly cause problems. Depending on the specific species they may be herbivores, omnivores, Carnivores, or Insectivores, and will even require a specific commercial food such as pellets or flakes.
  • Breeding – Luckily most African Cichlids are maternal or paternal mouthbrooders, meaning that the male or female will carry fertilized eggs and young in their mouth for protection. Cichlids make excellent parents and parents are either monogamous or polygamous. Breeding Cichlids will depend entirely on the species, whereas some are easy and prolific breeders, and others very tricky in captivity.
  • Tank Mates – Ideally it is best to keep similar African cichlid species together. However some robust and peacfull fish species such as the Giant Danio, Red Eye Tetra and Plecos, seem to do well as compatible tank mates.

Common Health Ailments In African Cichlids

Common health ailments in african cichlids
Very common in Cichlids especially African Cichlids, Malawi Bloat has symptoms such as swelling in the abdomen, discolored feces, rapid breathing, and a loss of appetite. Healthy fish have a slender abdomen like this one pictured. Image from Flickr

Before moving on to African Cichlids and their sizes, it is vital to note that they are susceptible to some health concerns, especially when their diet or water parameters are not in line.

  • Fin Rot – Fin Rot causes discoloration and fraying of the fins and tail. It is mainly caused by physical damage or ammonia burns that have become infected. Fin Rot is treated by quarantining your fish and using antibiotics, or antibacterial treatment.
  • White Spot /Ich – A protozoan Parasite usually introduced by new fish or plants that have not been quarantined first. You may note white spots on your fish, or clamped fins. In this case, it is best to treat the entire tank with salt, potassium permanganate, or malachite, as it is highly infectious.
  • Swim Bladder Disease – A swim bladder is an organ that helps fish stay afloat. It can become infected by fungus or bacteria which will determine your cause of treatment. Swim bladder will cause fish to struggle to stay afloat and swim.
  • Malawi Bloat – Very common in Cichlids especially African Cichlids, exhibiting symptoms such as swelling in the abdomen, discolored feces, rapid breathing, and a loss of appetite. It is a protozoan parasite in the intestines usually caused by improper diet or poor water conditions, which is still debatable. However, treatment can be done by performing a large water change and using metronidazole or medication. You will need to remove active carbon from your tank filter when performing the treatment.
  • Hole in the Head Disease – Known as hexamita is commonly associated with Cichlids. You may note symptoms such as dents in the head, a loss of appetite or weight, or lesions along the later lines of the affected fish. Treatment is multi-faceted, water quality must be improved, a proper diet provided, and antibiotics can be used.
  • Cotton Wool Disease – If you notice fuzzy white growths on your fish, it may be cotton wool disease, a fungal growth from poor water conditions or stress. Antifungal treatments and a salt bath are your best course of treatment.
  • Gill Flukes – A flatworm affecting the gills of your fish causing them to redden and become slime-coated. You can treat Gill Flukes with a slight temperature increase and add salt to the tank water around 1 tablespoon per 55-gallon tank.
  • Tuberculosis – Lastly Tuberculosis is highly contagious and usually fatal. Frayed Fins, White Blotches, a sunken stomach, and appetite loss are the usual symptoms. You will need to remove all other fish, quarantine them, and treat the entire tank with the sick fish with melafix.

African Cichlid Types According To Species Groups

African Cichlids are divided into these main categories:

  1. Mbuna – Native to Lake Malawi, and herbivorous, though they do enjoy meaty snacks. They are the most aggressive species, and are usually small and medium in size, with a dynamite personality and many color variations.
  2. Peacock – Some of the most striking and colorful variations, from the Aulonocara genus. They are sexually dimorphic and from Lake Malawi. Peacock cichlids are less aggressive and easier to breed, and should never be kept with Mbunas. Peacock Cichlids are omnivores requiring more protein-rich foods.
  3. Haplochromis (Haps) – One of the more diverse groups, they are a more peaceful species than Mbunas, though will eat smaller tank mates as they tend to be more carnivorous, with the addition of algae and spirulina in their diet. The species is larger, and available in Dwarf sizes known as Neolamprologus.
  4. Tropheus – They are a very small genus endemic to Lake Tanganyika, consisting of six species so far. They are maternal mouthbrooders, and males and females are very similar in resemblance. Interesting fact; the word Tropheus in Greek translates to “nurturing”, which is ideal because they are such nurturing parents and mouthbrooders.

African Cichlid Size And African Cichlid Tank Size And Requirements

African cichlid size and african cichlid tank size and requirements
African Cichlid each family, and each species will require specific care. Image from Flickr

Listed are a few species families and genus of African Cichlids according to their size and tank size requirements, as far as studies have proven. More diverse colors and species may be available in each family, and each species will require specific care.

SpeciesSizeTank SizeOriginNotes
Yellow Lab Labidochromis caeruleus4 Inches

(10.16 Inches)

40 gallonsLake MalawiMbuna
Malawi Trout Champsochromis caeruleus13 Inches

(33 cm)

150 GallonsLake MalawiLarge Predator
Fossorochomis rostratus


10 Inches

(25.4 cm)

55 GallonsLake MalawiLarge Hap
Tank Lemon Jack Peacock Aulonocara jacobfreibergi6 Inches (15cm)55 GallonsLake MalawiRock dweller
Johanni Melanochromis johanni4 Inches

(10.6 cm)

40 GallonsMalawiMbuna
Frontosa Cyphotilapia frontosa14 Inches

(35.5 cm)

125 GallonsLake TanganyikaLarge Rock dweller
Buccochromis rhoadesii16 Inches

(40.6 cm)

100 GallonsLake MalawiLarge Hap
Ngara Flametail Aulonocara stuartgranti


5 Inches

(12.7 cm)

55 GallonsLake MalawiSmaller Peacock Form
Malawi Hawk Aristochromis christyi12 Inches

(30.4 cm)

150 GallonsMalawiLarge Predatory Hap
Electric Yellow Lab Labidochromis caeruleus4 Inches

(10.16 cm)

30 GallonLake MalawiSmall Hap
Electric Blue Hap Sciaenochromis fryeri6.5 Inches


70 gallonsLake MalawiSmaller Hap
Kribensis  Pelvicachromis Pulcher4 Inches

(10.16 cm)

30 gallonsWest AfricaRock Dwelling Hap
Frontosa Cyphotilapia frontosa14 Inches

(35.5 cm)

85 GallonsLake TanganyikaShell Dwelling Hap
Peacock Aulonocara4 – 6 Inches

(10.16 – 15 cm)

55 GallonsLake MalawiMany Variations Mostly Rock Dwellers
Jewel Hemichromis sp.3 – 6 Inches (7.6 – 15 cm)40 – 55 GallonsWest AfricaSmaller Hap Species.
Zebra Pseudotropheus zebra4.5 – 5 Inches

(11.4 – 12.7cm)

55 GallonsLake MalawiAggressive Small Mbuna Species. More Colors Available
African Butterfly Anomalochromis thomasi3 Inches

(7.6 cm)

30 GallonsWest AfricaSmall Hap
Auratus Melanochromis auratus5 Inches

(12.7 cm)

40 – 55 GallonsLake MalawiMbuna Species More Color Variations
Saulosi Pseudotropheus saulosi3.5 Inches


55 GallonsLake MalawiDwarf Mbuna Species. Less Aggressive.
Calvus3 – 6 Inches

(7.6 – 15 cm)

40 GallonsLake TanganyikaPredatory Rock Dweller. Tropheus Species.
Demasoni Pseudotropheus demasoni3 Inches

(7.6 cm)

40 gallonsLake MalawiMbuna Tropheus Species. Rock Dwelling.
Duboisi Tropheus duboisi5 Inches

(12.7 cm)

30 GallonsLake TanganyikaTropheus Rock Dweller.
Acei Pseudotropheus acei5 – 7 Inches

(12.7 – 17.8cm)

55 GallonsLake MalawiMbuna Species. A Rock dweller with Many Color Variations.
Fairy Neolamprologus brichardi2.5 – 3.5 Inches

(6.3 – 9 cm)

20 GallonsLake TanganyikaCave Dwelling Hap Species.
Lionhead Steatocranus casuarius4.5 Inches

(11.4 cm)

55 GallonsWest AfricaOr Buffalo head Cichlid. A Peaceful Species.
Blue Dolphin Cyrtocara moorii10 Inches

(25.4 cm)

75 GallonsLake MalawiCommonly known as the Hump head, also from the Hap Family.
Giraffe Nimbochromis venustus8 – 10 Inches

(20.3 – 25.4 cm)

150 GallonsLake MalawiPredatory Hap.
Maingano – Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos4 Inches

(10.16 cm)

55 gallonsLake MalawiTropheus Species.
Livingston’s Nimbochromis livingstonii10 Inches

(25.4 cm)

125 GallonsLake MalawiA Mouthbrooding Hap.
Emperor Boulengerochromis microlepis30 – 36 Inches

(76.4 – 91.4 cm)

300 GallonsLake TanganyikaA Giant Hap Species.
Red Empress Protomelas taeniolatus4.5 – 6 Inches (11 -15cm)75 GallonsLake MalawiBrightly Colored and Peaceful Hap Species.
Kenyi Metriaclima lombardoi6 Inches (15cm)75 GallonsLake MalawiAggressive and Smaller Rock Dweller.
Daffofil Neolamprologus pulcher4 – 5 Inches

(10.16 – 12.7 cm)

20 GallonsLake TanganyikaA Neolamprologus Species.

Metriaclima Msobo

6 Inches (15cm)55 gallonsLake MalawiA smaller Mbuna Species that is sexually dimorphic.
Christmas Fulu Xystichromis phytophagus6 Inches (15cm)55 GallonsLake Kanyaboli and Lake VictoriaMbuna Species with Fascinating Male Colors.

Final Thoughts

jeweled african cichlid
Most beginners start with small to medium species that are hardy and more peaceful, while more experienced aquarists may want to try their hand at some larger species. Image from Flickr

African Cichlids come in various sizes from the smallest shell dwellers to small and medium species, and even larger and Giant species, such as the Giant Cichlid. Most beginners start with small to medium species that are hardy and more peaceful, while more experienced aquarists may want to try their hand at some larger species. The listed tank requirements are a minimum requirement, with the recommendation that larger is always better.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Largest African Cichlid?
The Emperor Cichlid can reach up to 90 cm (3 Feet), and is the largest African species so far, it requires a tank size of at least 300 gallons.
What is the Smallest African Cichlid?
A Dwarf Species known as the Neolamprologus multifasciatus, is the smallest at around 2 Inches (5 cm), also known to hide in shells, and could be kept in a tank of around 30 gallons, though 50 gallons is advised for groups.
Giant African Cichlid Tank Size?
For much larger African Cichlid species, a tank Size of at least 175 to 300 Gallons will be required depending on the species. Bigger is always better though, to prevent aggression and ensure that your fish stay healthy and content.
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