The Behavior of African Cichlids

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    Aggression and Dominance

    • In wild populations, cichlids establish a distinct hierarchy according to size and personality within their local group. In the aquarium the fish will attempt to do the same, but the confines can create interesting situations that would never occur in nature. A smaller fish could become the dominant force over much larger specimens simply because of personality, or even the order in which fish are introduced to the tank.


    • African cichlids display a high degree of territoriality in the wild, especially around the breeding season when males stake out a small area within which to attract a mate and raise their offspring. Unlike many other fish, however, cichlids maintain relatively narrow territory borders and are often undisturbed by the presence of other fish nearby as long as the borders are not crossed. This is why breaking up the visual space within an aquarium setting is so vital. This allows the cichlids to stake out small, private areas and can drastically reduce disputes within the tank.


    • Males intensely court females at breeding time, chasing and nipping and trying to herd them back to their specific breeding area. When a female complies, an elaborate courtship dance will begin, unique to each species and individual. Most African cichlids take care of the offspring together, protecting the young until they are old enough to survive on their own. Some species even brood the eggs in their mouths.

    Hunting and Feeding

    • African cichlids are voracious feeders--particularly amongst carnivorous varieties--and are known for “attacking” their food as if they have not eaten in days. As such, any changes in feeding behavior are often a good indication that something may be wrong with the fish. In wild populations, many species have developed distinct hunting techniques such as burrowing into the sand, or remaining motionless and dead-looking near rock crevasses, waiting for prey such as smaller fish and invertebrates. Even algae-eating cichlids are known for grazing with great vigor.

    Species Interaction

    • Aquarium owners can often observe interesting interactions between and among species that would otherwise unlikely to occur in nature. In fact, to disperse aggression and prevent one fish from being harassed to death, many cichlid keepers intentionally slightly overstock their tanks with numerous African species. Due to differing personality traits amongst tank-bred fish versus wild cichlids, smaller cichlid species may even establish dominance over much larger species of fish in such a set up--even fish that would naturally prey on them in the wild.

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