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Cichlids are a diverse family of fish kept in freshwater aquariums and mainly native to tropical water bodies in Africa, and South and Central America.
Because cichlids are mostly aggressive, they are generally not community fish and only do best in species tanks. Keeping cichlids from the same region together is also recommended.
For instance, mbuna and peacock cichlids will do well together since they both come from Lake Malawi in the east coast of Africa.
Dwarf cichlids like german blue ram and kribensis or Apistos also do well together even though they come from different geographical regions.
That said, the only large cichlids that will get along are those from South America like angelfish and discus, those from Central America are too feisty and do best alone.
Please read on for more insight on how to companion your cichlids.
Best Cichlids Type to Keep Together
As we’ve seen above, it best to keep cichlids from the same regions together, though there are a few species like dwarf types that will do ok in the same aquarium even though they are not from the one area.
So, let’s see how to keep each of these cichlid groupings.
Keeping African Cichlids Together
If you are new to African cichlids, probably the first thing you’ll need to know is there are several types of African cichlids.
The most popular are from Lake Malawi, which includes at least 700 species, and Tanganyika cichlids, which are also quite famous and are considered, together with the former, to be the undisputed African Great Lakes cichlids.
There is also a couple of species from West and Central Africa, and Lake Victoria in the East, though they are not as widespread as those from Malawi and Tanganyika.
Overall, all African cichlids prefer aquarium water that is on the harder side and with an alkaline Ph. As you would expect, they are the ultimate tropical fish and do best in water temperature from the higher 70s to lower and mid-80s (Fahrenheit).
They also like fish tanks with a lot of rock work and caves akin to their native environment.
And all this goes to show they can be kept together in one way or the other.
Most African cichlids are aggressive, so keep them in a large tank (longer than taller), but avoid closely related fish and those with similar body coloration. For instance, do not maintain different Aulonocara species together, but you can keep them with mbuna cichlids.
Moreover, do not keep two aggressive species like mbunas and haps together, instead, maintain either of the two with peaceful peacocks or Utakas.
One somewhat common trick to reduce aggression when keeping African cichlids is maintaining a heavily stocked tank. This makes it difficult for a dominant male to single out a particular fish as a target of its belligerence.
But there is a downside.
Most African cichlids (Malawi) crossbreed easily in a community tank, which can be a real incentive for breeders seeking new colors morphs, but it can be bad for the overall health of newborns.
This also make it difficult for aquarists to obtain true-species as most of the cichlids in the market will have at least two ancestries.
Away from that, you can also reduce aggression by keeping more females African cichlids in your tanks as opposed to males, albeit having better colorations.
When considering the most popular African cichlid pairing, which includes Mbunas, peacocks, and haps, here a few things you need to know.
Mixing Mbuna, Peacock and Hap Cichlids
Mbunas are the arguably the first of all Lake Malawi cichlids to be kept in aquariums, growing in popularity in the 70s and 80s and loved to date, but they have a tainted reputation.
Overall, they are smaller than haps and peacocks, but what they lack in size, they compensate in aggression.
As such, if you are going to maintain them with either of the other two species, just know you’ve got some work cut out for you.
Yes, they will be at risk of getting eaten by haps, but their aggression will make the haps not to do well, especially if you are looking to breed them.
The haps may also not show colors and get unhealthy and skinny.
But that is not to say you can’t keep mbunas with haps. If you manage to control their aggression, they will live happily and are a pairing I recommend you try.
From my experience, yellow labs and Acei are the best mbunas to keep with other African cichlids including peacocks and haps.
With other mbuna types, I would highly recommend keeping them with peacocks and haps that are large and a little more aggressive than them.
When considering mbunas and peacocks, they are an arguably good pairing. But please note both species are notorious for conspecific aggression, meaning they go for fish that look like them.
For that reason, only maintain them together only when your fish have unique colors, distinct from each other.
Plus if you do not want your peacocks and mbunas to crossbreed, opt for a mbuna/hap mix instead because they have different body shapes and sizes hence a lower rate of hybridization.
Mixing Malawi and Tanganyika Cichlids
I would not recommend mixing Malawi and Tanganyika cichlids, but I would not go as far as to condemn it, because if you have experienced African-cichlids before, you may have some success, albeit more with some species than others.
Even so, keep in mind Tanganyika cichlids water requirements are different (much higher ph range), and the fishes are considerably more sensitive to water conditions than their Malawi cousins.
Keeping Dwarf Cichlids Together
Dwarf cichlids are the next group of cichlids you can keep together.
Although they are not all from the same region, they are still tropical fish and prefer almost similar water conditions.
They include species from South American like German blue ram, Bolivian ram and Apistos and species from Africa like rainbow kribs.
Whats makes dwarf cichlids ideal as companions are their smaller body sizes and less aggression compared to their larger cousins, especially those from Africa.
Dwarf cichlids also prefer softer, more acidic water and can live in smaller tanks that are not ‘unnecessarily’ long.
That said, please know that even non-aggressive cichlids can be quite feisty especially when breeding, so you want to keep a limited number of different species.
Also, try not to add to many males in your fish tank, instead, go for more females; an ideal ratio would be 1:3.
Include a lot of decorations in your tanks like driftwood and rocks to mimic their native-wild environment.
If you have more species from South America, leaving your water a little dark with tannins is ok because they are used to the low light level in the Amazon.
African cichlids love rocks and caves, so when you have more of those (such as rainbow kribs), a good rockscape will go a long way.
Some fish keeper choose to keep these dwarf cichlids with other fish species, which is perfectly fine. Just make sure the fishes enjoy similar water conditions and are peaceful.
South American River Cichlids
The last group of cichlids that are barely aggressive and can live together are large river cichlids from South America, most notably, Angelfish and Discus.
Both of these species can not only live with each other but a range of other tropical fish popular in the aquarium hobby. They especially get along with fishes like tetras and corydoras, which are native to the Amazon region.
In the case of large South American cichlids, they tend to show a preference for water on the softer side, with a ph anywhere from 6 to 7.5.
Even so, discus tend to be more sensitive to water conditions, but are interestingly tolerant to high water temperatures sometimes even more than what angelfish can handle.
Keep these cichlids in tanks that are deep to accommodate their add shapes, plus also remember not to keep them in a community with fin-nippers because of their showy and somewhat conspicuous fins.
What Kind of Fish Can You Keep With Cichlids
As I noted earlier, all cichlids have some elements of aggression and for this reason, don’t make good community fish, but some are easier to keep with tankmates than others.
By far, the hardest cichlids to companion are African cichlids like haps, peacocks, and mbunas, and Central American species such as Jack Dempsey, convicts, wolf, and Firemouth cichlids.
The only fish you might have luck keeping with these cichlids are extremely docile bottom-dwelling species like plecos, and even those might have a pretty have a rough time.
On the flip side, if you plan on keeping dwarf or large South American cichlids with tank mates, you will have better success for sure.
Below are a couple of good tank mates for cichlids. We’ll look at ideal bottom-dwelling- cichlids companions a little later; in the last section.
Best Cichlid Tank Mates
This list looks at fish you can keep with cichlids that are not bottom-dwelling.
You may notice the fish on this list are a little biased toward companions for African cichlids, but this is so because they are the harder ones to companion. Other cichlids we’ve discussed are pretty easy to get tankmates for.
The fish include:
- Murray river rainbowfish
- Salmon red rainbowfish
- Red eyed tetra
- Giant danios
Murray River Rainbowfish
There is a host of rainbow fish that can live with cichlids, but only a few in the family like the Australian rainbow is capable of living with aggressive species like African cichlids.
Most of the others are best kept with non-aggressive cichlids like kribensis and Apistos.
Murray river rainbowfish (also called Australian rainbow) is a crimson spotted species from Australia. The fish are quite colorful hence complement the equally beautiful cichlid colors.
Regarding water parameters, the fish can live in hard alkaline water akin to what African cichlids and longer aquariums as well because of their active nature.
Salmon Red rainbow fish
The red rainbowfish is closely related to the Australian rainbow and an ideal alternative to companion your cichlids with.
The two fishes are closely related and belong to the same rainbow family, but the salmon red are native to Indonesia as opposed to Australia.
Even so, they have similar aquarium requirement save for the tank size, meaning they will co-exist with cichlids as much as the Murray river rainbow will.
Of the several tetras that can live with cichlids, the red-eyed species is probably the only one in the family that can co-exist even with the somewhat aggressive cichlids types.
This fish creates an equally impressive display as any in the fish tank as any cichlid and has a tolerance for a wide range of water conditions.
Their large size makes them less susceptible to intimidation by aggressive cichlids and also an ideal choice for big aquariums.
The giant danio with its stunning silvery to golden splotches and cobalt blue atop makes a beautiful display in home aquariums and are probably the only danio that can be kept with cichlids.
When kept together, the danio, which somewhat aggressive is used as a dither fish to make cichlids comfortable and bring out their natural behavior.
As much, they will live with both peaceful and aggressive cichlids including the infamous Central American and African species.
Giant danios are comfortable in almost any tank environment and are active enough to dish out aggression right back if they work as a pack, something that is quite crucial for any fish kept with cichlids.
What Bottom Feeders Can Live With Cichlids
A couple of bottom-feeding species are probably the only fish that are suited for cichlid tanks because they occupy different water areas and are too big to devour when once they are fully grown.
They also make good tank mates because they perform a variety of functions such as cleaning the aquarium and keeping it algae free.
These bottom feeders include various plecos, catfish, and loaches.
That said, please note that keeping cichlids, particularly those of African origin, with any other fish is at best a hit and miss affair.
As such, a ton of hiding spots are recommended, plus have a spare tank just in case aggression levels in the tank get too high that you need to move one of your fish.
Below is a list of four (4) species you should consider.
- Synodontis multis (Cuckoo squeaker catfish)
- Synodontis petricola (Pygmy leopard catfish)
- Bristlenose pleco
- Clown pleco
- Clown loach
Cuckoo Squeaker Catfish
Synodontis multipunctatus also called cuckoo squeaker catfish is a popular addition to cichlid tanks because not only are they from the same region as African cichlids, you will actually see them more than other catfish that tend to hide all day.
They come from lake Tanganyika and are somewhat famous in the wild because of their parasites brooding behavior. However, they are not known to exhibit this behavior in home aquariums.
Because they come from the Rift lakes region, they can be successfully maintained with Malawi, Tanganyika, and even Lake Victoria cichlids.
The catfish can handle aggression from cichlids although, for the most part, they choose to ignore each other. But remember to keep your catfish in a trio at the very least, and avoid other catfishes because the cuckoo can be bullies.
Pygmy Leopard Catfish
This catfish is closely related to the cuckoo squeaker. They both are synodontis cuckoo species, and both come from Lake Tanganyika with the petricola being the smaller of the two.
As you would expect, petricolas will get along with cichlids as well as the multis catfish will. They are relatively smaller compared to other members of their family maxing out at five inches hence a better option for smaller cichlid tanks.
Clown loaches will live with cichlids, but you will be really pushing the boundaries with this pairing. The loaches will survive but will not thrive.
For that reason, I recommend adding clown loaches with your cichlids only if you want them to serve a pretty specific purpose such as eat pest snails, which your cichlids will kill anyway.
If you still choose to go for this pairing, make sure you balance your water parameters in such a way the tank is comfortable for the cichlids and loaches.
As you may already know, loaches prefer soft acidic water, whereas cichlids like things on the harder, alkaline side, especially those from Africa. As such keep your aquarium ph between 6.5 and 7.5.
Better still, only maintain clown loaches with South America cichlids that don’t precisely like hard-alkaline water hence are more likely to thrive in the loaches preferred parameters.
Bristlenose plecos will live with dwarf cichlids and South American cichlids like angelfish and discus, but African and Central American cichlids are far too aggressive for these bottom dwellers.
If kept with the more belligerent types, they do not thrive even though they might survive if they make it past the juvenile stage.
Considering they are native to South America, they most likely will be comfortable in aquariums with water parameters that cichlids from the same region prefer.
The best settings are soft to moderately-hard with a ph anywhere between 6 and 7.
Also, provide your tank with adequate oxygen, and if possible, add a calm current in there; plenty of hiding spots will be appreciated by your bushynose plecos, with caves and rocks formation ideal even for the cichlids.
Have fun keeping fish.