Convict Cichlid—Fish They Can Live With, How to Care for Your Convict

By Eddie Waithaka @aquariawise

Convict Cichlid—Fish They Can Live With, How to Care for Your Convict

The convict cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata) is a popular, freshwater fish of the family Cichlidae native to Central America. It is also called black convict cichlid or zebra cichlid which is derived from the fish appearance.

This fish is incredibly hardy and easy to care for hence ideal for beginner fish keepers. The convict is a pretty small cichlid as well that can be maintained anywhere from a medium size (30-gallon) home aquarium.

Even so, these fish are quite aggressive especially when breeding thus the best fish to keep with convict cichlids are species that can stand their ground such as barbs.

You can keep them with fast-swimming dither fish like danios as well or big-bottom dwelling catfish or plecos, and other cichlids.

To give the best care for your convict cichlids, you will need to replicate their native home conditions in your aquarium. And feed them with foods that constitute a diet akin to what they are used to in the wild.

Generally, the daily water temperature in convict cichlids natural environment range from 79°F to 84°F, although they can tolerate cool-water. Which is actually convenient since the species commonly get more aggressive in warmer conditions.

They also prefer moving water with a ph range of 6.6 to 7.8.

Convict cichlids mostly feed on small insects, worms, plant matter, and algae, hence in the aquarium, they will eat almost anything offered to them.

However, a good-healthy diet should be made up of high-quality fish food with occasional frozen food treats.

Read on to find out everything you’d need to know about keeping convict cichlids in an aquarium including tank size, water chemistry, tank mates, diet and feeding, breeding and more.

Convict Cichlids Overview

The convict cichlid is found throughout Central America where it inhabits a wide array of habitats. Commonly, the fish is found in streams and rivers, but can also live in ponds and lakes with thick plant cover.

Even so, convict cichlid mostly prefer moving water within sunken branches and rock formations.


The common name convict cichlid is derived from the verticle black stripes on the fish body which are reminiscent of the striped prison uniform of British convicts.

Moreover, the fish is called Zebra cichlid reference to the stripes akin to those of a zebra.

Usually, wild type convicts bare 8 to 9 black verticle stripes on a blue-grey body.

Both young male and female convicts look eerily similar with little distinguishable features, but mature males are mostly grey with light black stripes.

Fully grown males are also visibly larger than females and have more pointed fins which often extend into filaments. It is common for them to develop fatty lumps on their heads as well.

That being said, selective breeding has resulted in albino-like convicts strains which are commonly referred to as white convicts, pink convicts or gold convicts.

Convict Cichlid Size

The male convict cichlid grows up to 6 inches in length, while the female grows to an average length of 4 inches.

However, the standard length has been reported to be 4.7 inches with a body weight of about 1.2 to 1.3 ounces.

Also aquarium bred convicts can exhibit lesser sizes (3 to 7 inches) due to the gradual adaptation of the fish to smaller spaces which is different to what wild forms are used to.

Convict Cichlid Lifespan

The average lifespan of convict cichlids is anywhere from 8 to 10 years as long as the fish is provided with proper care and fed the right diet.

It is actually not uncommon for some convicts to live a little longer than 10 years when maintained in the best conditions.

How Do You Take Care of a Convict Cichlid?

As mentioned before, the best way to care for your convict cichlid is by replicating their wild environment and diet.

This includes their preferred water parameters (Temperature and ph), water movement, vegetations, substrate, and rock forms. Plus feed them with assorted foods that include adequate plant and meat matter.

What Tank Size Do Convicts Need?

Convicts are aggressive and can be quite messy, so you should generally keep them in a spacious (preferably species only) tank.

The minimum tank size for a non-breeding convict pair should be 20-gallons, though a 30-gallon tank is a much safer option.

If you plan on breeding your convict cichlids, then maintain them in a 50-gallon or more, which is also a good size in case you plan on putting them in a community aquarium.

Moreover, breeding convict cichlids are outrightly belligerent and usually protect their nest by all means necessary. They will even take on a fish nearly twice their size when need be.

For this reason, you may want to put your breeding convicts in a 40-gallon breeding tank to keep the aggression in check.

Convict Cichlids Tank Requirement

Convicts inhabit warm rivers and streams and enjoy slow-moving water. They are used to sandy and rocky substrates in the wild and can be found hiding underneath fallen branches and patchy rock patterns.

For this reason, add your convict cichlids in a warm freshwater fish tank with the temperature anywhere from 79°F to 84°F, meaning you will need to add a heater in your aquarium, especially during the colder months.

Howbeit, due to their wide natural habitat, they have learned to survive in a wide range of water conditions hence are not too susceptible to variations in aquarium settings.

When setting up your convict tank, remember to add a powerful filter that will adequately clean up after the somewhat messy fish. The fish especially dig and rearrange their tank constantly, so your filter should be able to remove solid debris as well.

Ideally, a strong hang-on-back filter should be adequate, but a canister filter is also recommended, more so when your aquarium is heavily stocked.

You may also want to add a second filter or a sponge filter in case you go with the hang-on-back as your first option to make sure your fish tank is clean.

Moreover, because of the said fish digging couple with a strong swimming behavior, make sure you use strong plants like Amazon Swords or Java Fern in your tank and anchor them in the substrate solidly.

For your substrate your should be looking to use sand, but you may also want to consider gravel since sand substrates get dug up easily and can create a big mess.

Plus freshwater aquarium filters are easily damaged when the sand substrate particles get inside the filter intake.

Since convict cichlids like to hide under fallen branches and uneven rocks in rivers and streams, consider adding driftwood and decorative rocks in your tank to replicate the wild environment.

An air-pump and bubbler system is a good idea as well to simulate the slow water movement in rivers.

Convict Cichlid Diet and Feeding

In the wild, the convicts’ diet is composed of various sources including crustaceans, small fish, insects, worms, plants, and algae.

The fish are therefore naturally omnivores and are not fussy feeders when kept in an aquarium. They will eat most fish foods that are placed in the tank.

Even so, to raise healthy convict cichlids, you should ensure their diet meets the fish nutritional needs. Normally, the proper diet includes high-quality flake food with occasional servings of live foods like bloodworms, blackworms, daphnia, or brine shrimp.

In addition to the meaty-diet, you can feed your convicts blanched vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, and spinach.

Remember convict cichlids are not exactly bottom-dwelling fish, so you’ll need to give them floating pellets. A good choice would be Hikari cichlid gold floating pellets.

That said, if you can’t get good fresh feeds for your fish, it is OK to feed them frozen foods, especially bloodworms, daphnia, and brine shrimp. They enjoy a nice treat of mosquito larvae as well.

What Fish Can You Put with Convict Cichlid? (Tankmates)

Companioning convict cichlids usually comes down to aggression and size because the fish have a reputation for threatening timid tank mates and even snacking on the smallest ones.

For this reason, black convict cichlids should only be housed with other more aggressive fish that are equally as big or larger. This way you’ll are sure the other fish will handle any aggression from the convicts.

Convicts are also territorial and are often fierce if another fish venture into their area. Hence, another great chop, especially when maintaining your fish in a community tank, is adding companions that occupy a different water layer from what the cichlids prefer.

Nonetheless, it is advisable to keep these fishes in a species only aquarium until you hone enough skills then you try adding them in a community.

Moreover, regardless of whether you will keep your convict singly or in a community tank, you should avoid maintaining a breeding pair with tankmates as they get more aggressive and territorial during spawning periods.

Overall, good convict cichlid tankmates include:

Convict Cichlid Breeding

The most crucial part of breeding convicts is a fishkeeper understanding that these fish are prolific breeders, though the process followed will determine whether you end up with joys or woes.

Breeding convicts get overwhelming at times, especially because you need a tank that meets specific requirements and once your fry are hatched, you may have to care for and be able to relocate up to 100 new fish at a time.

Even so, convicts normally take care of their young and stay with them in a group till they are ready to breed again.

Overall, by selecting the proper equipment, creating an appropriate environment for the fish, and taking care of the newly hatched baby fish, you can easily breed these amazing fish.

Convict Cichlid Breeding Tank

While a pair of convicts can live in a 20-gallon aquarium, it is technically not feasible to breed them in these size tank. You will most likely need at least a 30-gallon tank.

Moreover, if you are interested in maintaining two breeding pairs, a 40-gallon breeder is the smallest you should go for.

Then it is imperative that you don’t skimp on filtration because the bioload in your tank will constantly increase with every new fry being born.

Ideally, the filter you use should be able to clean at least double your aquarium capacity per hour, meaning a 30-gallon would require a system that can go through 60-gallons within an hour.

Hiding places and visual barriers are also important because convicts can be naturally aggressive. If you try breeding them in a bare tank, either the male or female fish will end up injured or dead.

You will want to add some flat stones and a cave or broken flower pot in the tank as well. The fish will lay their eggs on the stone, and the caves will provide shelter for the fry once they are born.

Adding driftwood in the tank is an easy and brilliant way to break the horizontal line of sight and also provide an environment akin to what black convict cichlids are used to in the wild.

The fish also find shelter in the nooks between large rocks hence adding river rocks in your breeder is recommended. However, as opposed to driftwood, rocks are quite heavy and difficult to rearrange, so keep that in mind when making your decision.

That said, make sure when you add broken flower pot (great spawning sites) there are no harmful fertilizer or chemical residue in the pots.

You can also use PVC pipes and plastic decorations instead of broken pots, though these products may also leach potentially harmful substances, so you will need to exert some caution.

Lastly, you will want to raise the water temperature in your tank to promote breeding. Ideally, the temperature should stay between 75°F and 79°F. The ph in your aquarium should be between 6.5 and 8.0.

How to Tell The Difference Between a Male and Female Convict Cichlid—Sexing

Convict cichlids can reach sexual maturity as young as 16 weeks, though it is more commonly attained at 6 months. Consequently, it can be a little challenging to sex the fish.

However, mature convicts are more distinguishable than juveniles with males being visibly large and mostly grey with light black stripes along the body.

Females are in turn more lightly colored with intense bands across the body and pink to orange coloration in the ventral region and on the dorsal fin.

Also breeding females will mostly reach a standard length of 4.2 to 4.5 inches whereas males will grow up to 6 inches long.

Spawning and New Fry

Convicts are serially monogamous, so pairs bonds may form first before established a territory together.

Naturally, the female convicts will take the initiative in the mating cycle and court the male. They lay eggs in a chosen dark spot either on the flat rock or the side of the flower pot.

The parents from that point will carefully guard the eggs until they hatch and extend the care to young fry. This is when convicts display their most aggressive behavior.

After hatching, convicts fry spend 72 hours absorbing their yolk sacs and developing fins before they become free-swimming.

For the first 5-7 days after they hatch, the fry can live on the yolk sac. Feeding them during this period will only contaminate the water in your tank because the food will remain uneaten.

However, after the seventh day, you can gradually introduce your fry to brine shrimp nauplii for the first few weeks, then switch to crushed up flake food or special fry food.

The fry will also eat bloodworms and tubifex when they get a few days older.

Make sure that you feed your fish at least a couple of times a day to keep the aggressive, hungry-by-nature convicts fry from eating each other.

In conclusion, you may want to remove the new fry from the breeder to keep the parents from eating them once they are ready to breed again.

This can happens anywhere from 10 to 14 days after the fry are born, so make sure you watch for signs of aggression from the parents which may be a clue that they are preparing to breed again.

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