Why Your African Cichlids Are Shaking (Twitching)

Why Your African Cichlids Are Shaking (Twitching)

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African cichlids are fascinating fish and probably my favorite of all tropical aquarium pets.

Apart from the brilliant colors and an attitude from down south, they also show some pretty unique behaviors that include shaking, almost like they are dancing the shimmy.

Rubbing on rocks and chasing each other around the tank, either playfully or while in a brawl and even kissing, are standard practices as well.

Im sure you might be wondering why they shake, to begin with…

Well, the truth is that it might be a little hard to tell, especially if you do not have much experience keeping these cichlids.

Even so, the most probable reason why your African cichlids might be shaking, twitching, or shimmering is the males trying to get it on with the ladies. However, if the movements are coupled with violent behavior or your fish rubbing on rocks, the cause might not be flirting.

Shimmering and aggression is mostly associated with hostile fish while trying to establish who is the leader in the tank and quite often is accompanied by chases around the aquarium.

Whereas, if your African cichlids are shaking, rubbing on rocks, and look stressed or sluggish, the cause is more likely parasites or injury than a love dance or belligerence.

See more insight below.

African Cichlids Behavior

As stated above, the behavior of your African cichlids can be quite complicated to a non-experience or a not very keen owner. As such, it is recommended that you understand the species' behavior before purchase.

Below are some of the behaviors to expect from African cichlids, including shimmering (shaking, vibrating, twitching).


Porbably, the first and most important thing to note is that most cichlids, including Africans, are pretty aggressive and territorial. They, therefore, don’t make good community candidates and should only be kept with their own kind.

Keeping a group of up to 8 individuals is also recommended to keep aggressions levels down. And if considering Malawi cichlids (most popular African cichlids), try and avoid mixing Mbunas, peacocks, and Haps.

And if you must mix them, only a mbuna-peacock pairing has been known to work; Haps are too big to keep with Mbunas.

I’ve seen circular chasing and nippings during flirtation, though when the parties involved are both males (usually more colorful), it’s probably a brawl.

Conflict and aggression will also often be more violent, last a long while, and include chasing across the tank’s length.

Sometimes, African cichlids will even have turf wars within an area or near a cave or rocks they are trying to inhabit.

Overall, you can readily tell the difference between cichlids fighting or mating if you know the gender of your fish. The rules of thumb is male-male or female-female when it’s a fight, and male-female when they’re mating.

How to Calm Aggressive Cichlids Down

The first thing you should know about most territorial tropical fish is they are almost always likely to cause trouble when there is an even number of males and females in the tank.

Staggaring your cichlids' ratio in favor of the females will go a long way in calming your fish down.

Another efficient trick, especially when keeping African cichlids, is to have a large school of them in your tank. Mbuna and peacocks have a fairly standard size, and a large number (two to three groups of six to eight) will fit in a 55 gallon.

Keeping a large number help prevent a bully from setting focus on a specific fish.

But please note this hack does not work with all tropical fish. If you try keeping more than one male betta in your tank, rest assured you’ll have a couple of dead fish in a not so long while.

Using caves, rocks, and wood to partition in the fish tank will create separate turfs, where each male cichlids can dominate. As such, this is another trick that should work.

Having said that, if you only have two specific fishes going at each other, you might want to separate them. However, you do not need to get a spare tank, you can simply use an aquarium divider to keep them from killing each other.


If your African cichlids are not fighting or showing aggression, any other apparent movement would only be caused by flirting, parasites, or bad water quality.

When flirting, the male cichlids quite often do the shimmy (shake) to attract and announce his intentions to the female. If the lady is interested in the male, she might also show this through the same body movements.

Sometimes, flirting (or mating) dances can culminate with the fish rocking lips (kissing), a trait that is also seen in some gourami species.

If your water chemistry is good (ammonia and nitrite at 0), and the fish only shakes occasionally, it could be perfectly normal aggression or mating behavior.

Even so, please note that an African cichlid’s shimmy and twitching movements are not synonymous. If your fish is twitching and rubbing on rocks, the cause is more likely poor water quality or parasites, and not an intention to mate.

Skin parasites such as white spot or costia will especially cause twitching in your cichlids. If you are not sure, check the fish for other signs such as tiny white specks or a grey film over the body.

Check if your twitching fish rubs against rocks or ornaments, or has tiny white spots or a grey film over its body. If it does, parasites are the cause, but if not, it is probably water quality.

One other movement you will encounter quite often with cichlids is what’s some aquarists described as flashing.

Flashing is when they seem to make quick darting or twisting motions that allow them to rub their gill area on something, often a rock, or piece of wood, but I’ve seen them do this on the tank bottom or on plants, too.

A more comical, but rather accurate way to describe flashing (twitching) is a quick movement as if the fish is trying to escape its own skin.

All in all, as I mentioned above, the movement, regardless of the naming, is caused by pretty much anything that irritates the fish skin such as Ick, gill flukes, a bit of stuck sand, sudden water chemistry changes, ammonia, and nitrates.

That’s all for this post. See you in the next one.

Happy fish🦐🐠 keeping.

Eddie Waithaka

Resident Content Creator and Marketer at AquariaWise who talks about aquariums and fish and aquascapes a lot.

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