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Central American Cichlids

The following article has been kindly provided by Jim Dawson who is the editor of the British Cichlid Association journal called Cichlidae which is where this article was first published. The article including the accompanying photographs are the copyright of Jim Dawson and may not be reproduced without his permission.

Starting From Scratch With Central American Cichlids

I have been keeping and breeding Central American cichlids for about fifteen years now and a recent query that came my way caused me to consider what I had written about them over the years. My rethink was for the very simple reason that the query was effectively “How do I get started with Central Americans?” I looked back over the articles I had written, thinking that I might just be able to send off a couple of them to get this person going and I realised that none were really what was required. As a result I decided to put a few thoughts on paper.

To start with the basics, what cichlids are classed as Central American? That is one of the easier questions to answer; Central America covers all the countries from Mexico in the North to Panama in the South and includes Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Not included in the area are any countries south of the Panama land bridge. The next questions are what cichlids are found in this area, what size do they reach and what conditions are required to keep them. This is not quite as easy to answer as there are multiple answers to each question. Let’s start with what sort of cichlids are found here. The cichlids of the area divide roughly into six categories firstly there are piscivores or guapotes, secondly there are herbivores, thirdly there are sand sifters, fourthly there are the detritus feeders, fifthly there are the rheophilic (fish from moving water) group and finally there are what can be termed the generalists. Next the question of size, fish from the herbivore and guapote groups are the largest with several fish in each group reaching eighteen to twenty inches and a couple reaching over twenty four inches and up to thirty inches. Other fish are much smaller and there are a large number that only reach four to eight inches. Finally what conditions are these fish found in, in their natural habitat? The huge area that is Central America is diverse to say the least but as a general rule the water is alkaline, hard and warm. Having said that the cichlids that come from this area inhabit lakes (some very deep), rivers both slow and fast moving and streams also both slow and fast moving, some of which either dry up in the hot season or become very shallow and warm.

The next and probably most important question of all is what does the aquarist have to provide by way of tanks, filtration, décor and water quality. Starting with tanks, I would like to quash the idea that all Central American cichlids require a swimming pool sized tank, they don’t! To start with centrals, a tank as small as 24 x 15 x 15 for a young pair from the Archocentrus group (now being called Cryptoheros) can be used, and for most of the medium sized fish a tank of 36 x 18 x 18 is adequate. Move onto the large Guapotes and, yes you will need a very large tank, 48 x 24 x 24 or larger. Tank size also depends on whether it is a species or community tank. A well matched pair do well in a smaller tank but if you go to a community set up you have to allow enough space for two or three pairs to set up a territory; this involves larger tanks of a minimum size of 48 x 18 x 18. Next, filtration - this has to be good, nearly all Central Americans are messy feeders, most dig in the substrate and none of them tolerate nitrite, ammonia or heavy metals well and nitrate is a definite killer. On this basis U/G filtration is a total waste of time, far better to use an external canister or a good quality internal filter returning to the tank via a trickle filter situated above the tank. Décor is the next question and this is relatively easy, a substrate of medium grain golden sand, several large smooth rocks, a few hardy plants planted in pots and a couple of caves made either from slate or clay pipes is all you need to provide. Bogwood and limestone rock can also be used. For the smaller cave dwellers a small plant pot with the drain hole suitably enlarged is ideal. Finally water parameters, water needs to be alkaline (7 to 8.2 pH) reasonably hard (7 to 15 GH) and warm (76 to 80 deg F). These are guide lines only and can be exceeded upwards, it is not advisable to try to keep Central Americans in very low pH or GH, and they do not like being kept in the extreme conditions of hardness suitable for most Tanganyikan species.

Having established what the fish need by way of tank, filtration and décor, the next question is how many and what type of fish to keep. This immediately goes back to the question of species or community set ups. As previously stated, species tanks can be smaller but community set ups must allow for one territory per species, should they decide to pair, so logically the more species you put in the tank the larger the tank will have to be. Central American cichlids need a low density stocking rate when the fish are paired and adult, younger fish can be stocked at a higher density but be prepared to do some very rapid thinning when pairs emerge, or to take casualties. The next question is what to mix with what. To keep this simple, do your stocking on fish shape, i.e. mix a long-bodied pair with a deep-bodied pair or a cave dweller with an open water species. All Central Americans have a name such as Nandopsis or Theraps - don’t put two types of fish from the same species in the same tank, it will lead to strife at the very least. A good reference book is a must when keeping Central Americans, sadly just now several “authorities” in the fish world are having a field day with Centrals, re-naming all the genus so it is not easy to keep up with the latest names or which fish have been shifted into different groups.

As an idea I will give the stocking levels and species that I am currently keeping in two 48 x 18 x 18 and two 48 x 15 x 18 tanks. Tank 1 (48 x 18 x 18): Six Herichthys pearsii, these fish are still sub adult (five inch plus, eventual size ten inch plus) and will be reduced to a single pair, if or when, a breeding pair emerges, no other fish will be added. Tank 2(48 x 15 x 18): Two breeding pairs of Thorichthys meeki (Rio Champoton) and a young breeding pair of Nandopsis salvini. This tank is unlikely to need a change. Tank 3(48 x 15 x 18): Six Copora nicaraguense all sub adult, this tank will be reduced to a single pair or a trio if suitable breeding fish mature in the near future, I will also consider adding another pair of different fish at a later date (having altered the décor to break up any existing territories). Tank 4(48 x 18 x 18): this is the ‘oddball’ tank and contains mature fish that I am seeking to establish breeding pairs with but do not as yet have enough stock or suitably sized mates. The current inhabitants are a large female Nandopsis salvini (five inch) a large male Copora nicaraguense (seven inch) and a South American female Caquetaia spectabile (eight inch).

A few thoughts on the differing species that are most commonly found in the hobby. Firstly the piscivores or guapotes, these are mostly large fish with extremely large appetites and need a meat/fish based diet. They mostly go under the name of Nandopsis and the most frequently found are, N.managuense, N.friedrichstali, N.salvini (the smallest and most colourful) and N.Trimaculatum (beware this fish – it might not be a Trimac! It is currently being sold in the UK as a ‘Flowerhorn cichlid’, this is a cross breed between N.trimac and Theraps synspillum and is valueless).

Next the herbivores, these go under three main names, Herichthys, Paratheraps and Vieja. All are large and the most common are P.synspilum, P.hartwegi and V.maculicauda. There are some twenty other fish in the group but are for the most part very rare and expensive. When dealing with these herbivores it pays to remember that their gut is nearly twice as long as a normal cichlid and as a result of this and their diet they produce prodigious quantities of waste.

Next the sand sifters, these are almost all from the Thorichthys group and are ideal fish for a person just starting out with Centrals, or for the more advanced aquarist with limited tank space. None are larger than six inches and none require special diets. They are on average less aggressive, and mix well with other genus as there is little competition. Again do not have more than one Thorichthys species in a tank as they will cross-breed and will swop partners regularly, this results in useless cross-bred fry.

Next the Rheophilic group, as the name implies these fish come from faster moving water and are sadly far from common in the hobby. This group has both large and small fish in it and like the herbivores comes from differing main genus, Paraneetroplus, Chuco, Copora and Theraps. The most common are C.nicaraguense and T.coeruleus. Again all fish in this group are omnivores and, provided the aquarist can provide water movement within the tank, are not a problem to keep or feed.

The detritus feeders. Mainly from one genus Amphilophus these are all fish from the larger species of Centrals and all require large tanks. Along with the Guapotes these are some of the most vicious Centrals so care has to be taken with then. Most common are A.labiatum (Red Devil) A.citrinellum (Midas cichlid), A.robertsoni and A.altifrons all can reach a size of twelve inches plus. No problems feeding this group as they are dustbins and will eat anything alive or dead.

Finally, the generalists, these fish come from the Archocentrus group (now being called Kryptoheros) Herotilapia and Neetroplus genus. All are relatively small i.e. less than four inches total length and all make suitable fish for beginners. However there are a few simple rules in dealing with these fish. Firstly most of the Archocentrus group are imports from the Far East, beware, they are often poorly bred or worse cross-bred. Do not mix two species from the Archocentrus group in the same tank, they will cross-breed at the first opportunity. Finally if you opt for Neetroplus nematopus, please keep them in a group in a species tank. Despite being small these fish can more than look after themselves, even when faced with much larger fish. On one occasion I have seen a four inch pair of Neetroplus batter a nine inch P.synspillum male into the top corner of a tank and keep him there with no problem and do substantial damage to the Synspillum in the process.

So where should a beginner start? I would suggest that a pair from the Archocentrus (Kryptoheros) group is a very good start point; for someone with a slightly larger tank then a pair, from the Thorichthys group, is fine. My own favourite, for a small tank setup would be Neetroplus nematopus - a tank as small as 24 x 15 x 15 will house a pair and a 36 x 15 x 18 will house two pairs. For a larger tank in the region of 48 x 15 x 18 then a pair of Thorichthys and a pair of Nandopsis salvini make a very attractive set up and are natural as both these fish are found breeding together in the wild.

If I can be of any help to any members on setting up with Centrals please ring me on 01652-640566 or E-mail me on

This article and the supporting photographs are the copyright of Jim Dawson and may not be reproduced without his written permission.

The British Cichlid Association is one of the largest clubs in the U.K and to learn more details about the club please go to the clubs section on the homepage. Alternatively, click on the link below which will take you directly to the BCA'S own website.

British Cichlid Association

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