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Fish, Shrimp & Corals


June 27, 2019 | By Gary Elson

Most of us jump into aquarium keeping with brightly coloured fish. After a short time, those destined to “really get into it” become curious about fish behaviour. Unfortunately, six tetras in a small tank are not going to show you a lot about their species, which may live in shoals of tens of thousands across vast expanses of water.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were small fish that lived in pairs and behaved in endlessly interesting ways? It is. Welcome to the world of South American dwarf cichlids.

What is a dwarf cichlid?

Cichlids are a large family of usually territorial fish with complex behaviour, found in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. There are 3-foot cichlids, 2-inch cichlids, and everything in between. Assuming you have a tank like a 15-gallon Fluval Flex, let’s take our first look at the very small options. Small tanks are the most popular type now, so we need small fish to populate them.

Here’s a short overview of some of the South American small cichlids we sometimes see in stores.

  • Apistogramma borellii is a 2-inch beauty from the southern range of their group – so far south it begins to feel northern. They are cool water tolerant, unaggressive and very hardy. Males are blue and yellow, while the smaller, shorter finned females go into a nice brownish yellow color when they are thinking of spawning. The pair will defend a small cave and the fry they produce from it, but unlike larger Apistogramma, they aren’t hard on their tankmates. Their behaviour as a pair is fascinating, and their care for their young is one of the best shows an observant aquarist will ever encounter. They should be kept in pairs, with a small group of unaggressive tetras or Corydoras catfish as company.
  • Mikrogeophagus ramirezi, the Ram, come in a wide array of man-made linebred forms: golds, German Blues, Israeli Blues and others. They are peaceful, yet delicate fish whose sexes are hard to tell apart. All of the linebred forms are colourful, and gentle.
  • Nannacara anomala, the Golden Eye Dwarf Cichlid, is a fish that thrives in most tap water. These Guyanese beauties change colours quickly, and how they look in a store can be very drab compared to their beauty when they are happy in a planted tank. They have a reputation for disliking Corydoras, but that’s not something I saw when I kept them. Like all these fish, they should be the only cichlid if you have a smaller (15-gallon range) tank.
  • Finally, Dicrossus filamentosus, the Checkerboard Cichlid, is a long finned, delicate beauty with luminous colours. They like to live in small groups, and in a tank with a degree of shade from plants, their colours are really eye catching. They used to be a common offering in stores but have now become a fish you only see onceor twice per year in good stores. If you have a planted, Amazon style tank at the ready, don’t walk by them in stores!

Every aquarium article is an invitation to explore, and this one barely scratches the surface on a very rich and diverse type of fish. If you have a tank in the 15 to 25-gallon range and want a pair of fish to showcase on the bottom, dwarf cichlids offer enough possibilities to make a book, let alone a simple article. There are dozens more wonderful species in this group. The bottom line in our hobby is to have fun learning, and these fish can make that easy.


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