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Apistogramma Cichlids: The Complete Care, Breeding, & Info Guide

Apistogramma, more commonly known as dwarf cichlids or simply Apistos, are small brightly colored fish with a lot of personality.  While not the easiest of all fish to care for, they are certainly beautiful and fun, making them well worthwhile to care for.

Unlike some cichlid varieties, dwarf cichlids tend to be peaceful in nature and do well in community tanks.  Dwarf cichlids are a perfect addition to any freshwater tropical tank.

This complete guide contains everything you need to know to breed and care for these beauties, and the quick links below can help you navigate to the section you need quickly and efficiently!

Photo by Dornenwolf 

About Apistogramma Cichlids

  • Scientific Name: Apistogramma Cichlid
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Medium to hard
  • Origin: South America
  • Common Names: Apistos, Dwarf Cichlids


Apistos are known for being extremely curious and social, making them a great pick for all fish lovers. They often will come up to the glass of their tank to interact with the outside world, and enjoy exploring their environments.

While generally peaceful and gentle, they may become semi aggressive toward each other or other tank mate species if not provided with enough space or during breeding times.

There are several variations of apistos, with different temperaments, so aquarists can pick the type that best fits them, their aquarium, and their lifestyle.  With their beautiful colors and active nature, they are a delight to watch and care for.

Natural Habitat

There are over 90 species of dwarf cichlids, all hailing from South America.  As such, the environment needs vary from species to species but most tend to live in warm, shallow waters with lots of live plants and plant matter.

Apistos usually live in partially shaded environments with slightly acidic soft water.  Aquarists note that these fish do best with sandy substrate and lots of plants and hiding places, especially in the form of empty shells.

Some have noted the affinity of dwarf cichlids for burrowing into sandy substrate, and all species enjoy swimming around live plants in their habitats.


If well cared for, these beautiful fish can live between five to ten years, making them perfect for any established aquarium or dedicated aquarist.  Fry reach sexual maturity after about 4 months.


As their name suggests, dwarf cichlids are smaller than other cichlid species.  The males tend to be larger, growing up to 10 cm long.  The females tend to stay around 5 cm.

apistogramma cichlid
Cisamarc [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Apistogramma Care

Before you decide to bring one of these beauties into your life, there are a few things you should know about how to care for them!


Generally, it is best to keep a colony of these fish in a tank of 15 to 20 gallons.

Apistos prefer to live in pairs or in a group with one male and several females.  They tend to dwell close to the bottom of the tank, an need access to live plants and plant matter to be healthy.

Indian almond leaves are a recommended additive to help make their tank feel natural.

These fish require good filtration and weekly water changes of at least ⅓ of the tank water.  Several aquarists recommend using a reverse osmosis water filtration system for these fish to help keep tap water soft and safe to add to the aquarium.

It is important to note that these fish can be a little picky about their water conditions, so test kits are an absolute must.  They do best in water in the temperature range of 70 to 80 °F and prefer a pH level of 6 to 7.

As with any fish, it is important to cycle a tank thoroughly before adding fish and test regularly for harmful ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates to ensure safety and longevity for the fish.


While live or frozen foods are generally best, pellets and flakes are fine as long as they are high quality and supplemented occasionally with foods like brine shrimp and worms as well as vegetable and plant based foods to ensure a balanced diet.

Apistos tend to prefer sinking food to floating food as they spend most of their lives near the bottom of the tank.


While there is a lot of variation from species to species, apistos tend to live in “harems” with one male and four or five females.

These fish need to be kept in groups or pairs in order to thrive, and keeping a group will make breeding easier should you choose to try it.

Apistogramma Species

Here are a few common species of Apristogramma Cichlids:

Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlid

Apistogramma agassizii
Cisamarc [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
These beautiful dwarf cichlids are known to be a little territorial, so make sure they have lots of space and hiding places.  They are common and brightly colored, making them perfect for any aquarium.

  • Scientific name: Apistogramma agassizii
  • Size: 5-10 cm
  • pH: 6.0
  • Temperature: 72 to 80 °F

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid

Apistogramma cacatuoides
Redspider [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
So named for their brightly colored fins, cockatoo dwarfs are one of the most popular of the dwarf cichlids.  They are one of the easiest to care for and breed, and therefore a great fish to start out with if you’re looking to start caring for apistos.

  • Scientific name: Apistogramma cacatuoides
  • Size: 5-8 cm
  • pH: 6.5-7.5
  • Temperature: 71 to 85 °F

Yellow Dwarf Cichlid

Apistogramma Borellii
Gordon Axmann [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Known for their lovely blue and yellow colors, the yellow dwarf cichlid is a peaceful and adaptable fish, perfect for community tanks.  Due to the changing of their natural habitat, they can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and pH levels.

  • Scientific name: Apistogramma Borellii
  • Size: 5-6.5 cm
  • pH: 5.5-7.5
  • Temperature: 68-78 °F

Apistogramma Sunset

apistogramma atahualpa

Named for the distinct yellow color the females turn when breeding, the apistogramma sunset is a brightly colored and highly adaptable fish.  This species remains one of the most popular for aquarists.

  • Scientific name: apistogramma atahualpa
  • Size: 5-10 cm
  • pH: 5.5-7
  • Temperature: 72-80 °F

Apistogramma Tank Mates

While compatibility varies from species to species, apistos are generally happy with any of the following as tank mates, as long as there is plenty of space and food.

As with most cichlids, different species of cichlids and dwarf cichlids usually live well together.

  • Rasboras
  • Pencilfish
  • Cardinal tetras
  • Splash tetras
  • Pygmy cories
  • Otocinclus catfish
  • Black skirt tetras
  • Neon tetras

Tank Mates to Avoid

It is important to note that while dwarf cichlids are not predatory by nature, they are at risk of becoming prey.  Fish kept with them should be comparable in size to avoid any issues like this.

It is also important to avoid any “fin nippers” as they could potentially cause harm to the long decorative dorsal fins of male dwarf cichlids.

apistogramma tank
Photo by Dorenwolf 

Setting up an Apistogramma Tank

When deciding to add apistos to your home, it’s important to know the ins and outs of setting up the perfect habitat for them.  This guide will help you ensure they’re in an environment that is healthy and safe so they can thrive.


  • Tank: The best tank size for apistos is around 15 to 20 gallons, but 25 to 30 is better for a tank housing more than just a few apistos. Apistos do best in a long, wide tank since they are primarily bottom dwellers.
  • Filtration: A good quality filter with carbon is a must for these fish; the AquaClear power filter is a great choice. Since apistos tend to live in still water, the filter should be set to low power and a baffle should be added if necessary to further slow the flow of water.
  • Reverse Osmosis System: If you’re interested in helping make your tap water safer for fish (and yourself!), a reverse osmosis filtration system is a great investment for your home. Ispring and Apec are both popular brands, providing these filters for around $200.
  • Heater: While not a must if your house will always be at least 70 °F, a heater can be a nice safety net to ensure your fish stay warm enough. The cobalt aquatics neotherm is a great option in an affordable price range.
  • Vacuum: As with any aquarium, weekly water changes are necessary. As sand substrate is best for apistos, you will need a cleaning system that is compatible with this    The terapump aquarium cleaner is a great hand siphon for this job.


Apistos generally prefer sand substrate with lots of live plants and empty shells.  Aquarium sand is affordable and easy to find at most pet stores and on amazon.

Very fine gravel is also an acceptable substrate.

The CaribSea African Cichlid Mix Aquarium Substrate is a fail-safe pick since it’s designed with cichlids in mind.  With any substrate, root tabs are a great way to grow live plants, which are a must for apistos.

Live Plants

Apistos absolutely need live plants to feel safe and at home in their environment.  Luckily, they’re not too picky about which plants are in their aquarium.

I recommend a variety of at least three plants, both for aesthetic reasons and to help keep them happy.

  • Java moss
  • Java fern
  • Water sprite
  • Flame moss
  • Cryptocoryne
  • Ceratopteris thalictroides
  • Helanthium tenellum

In order to make sure your plants grow well, root tabs are useful for anchoring them.  They can also be anchored to decorations, shells, or pebbles at the bottom of the tank.

Apistos prefer a lot of green, so the more aquarium space taken up by plants the better.


It is worth investing in several cave decorations, especially if you are looking to breed apistos. Underwater Galleries Assorted Cichlid Aquarium Stone Caves is a great pick, supplying you with a variety of natural looking caves designed specifically for cichlids.

These not only look nice but will help make your cichlids comfortable.  They can also serve as a habitat for eggs and fry in a breeding tank.


Live plants need light to thrive, so an overhead LED light is a great choice for ensuring light without too much added heat.

Many apistos come from shaded environments, but they will easily adapt to a more lighted setup, especially if they can take shelter among the leaves of plants and inside empty shells.


It is important to cycle your tank fully before adding fish.

However, plants can live in an uncycled tank and may even help with the cycling process.  Cycling tends to take a few weeks, so be patient and make sure to purchase your equipment before you buy fish.

The API Freshwater Master Test Kit is an absolute must have to ensure your tank stays at safe levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate for your fish as well as pH.

If you are having trouble getting your tank to cycle, API Quick Start is a great purchase.  For more help with cycling, our complete guide to a fishless cycle provides all the information you need to successfully cycle your tank.

By Dornenwolf, CC BY 2.0

Breeding Apistogramma Cichlids

At some point after establishing your aquarium, you may decide you wish to breed your dwarf cichlids.  Luckily for you, these are some of the easiest fish to breed, making them perfect for beginners and experienced breeders alike.

One important thing to note is that apistos breed best in water with very little flow, so adding a baffle to the filter if you haven’t already might be beneficial.

The Breeding Setup

As with most fish, the two options are to either have a breeding tank set up specifically for a bonded pair or two bonded pairs to reproduce or to have them breed in the main tank and transfer the fry to a separate tank until they’re mature enough to join the community tank.

For dwarf cichlids, breeding conditions are pretty specific so a separate breeding tank is your best bet.

The mother is also heavily involved in caring for the fry, so setting up a fry tank would require transferring both the fry and the mother together for best results.

A breeding tank is simpler, requires less transfer of fish, and will improve both the chances of breeding and the survival rate of the fry.

It is worth noting that this advice is mainly for community tanks; for a tank with only dwarf cichlids, you may not even need a breeding tank as the female is capable of caring for and protecting her young among others of her species.

Like in the main tank, a test kit is vital to ensure safe water parameters, both for the adult apistos and for the fry.

While the main tank may not need a heater, apistos are more likely to breed in warm water.  As such, a heater is highly recommended to keep the tank between 75 and 80 °F depending on the species.

Getting Started

In order to encourage breeding, the best approach is to find a bonded male/female pair and place them in a tank of at least 10 gallons.

Ensure there is only one male in the tank to avoid territorial behavior.  If there is not a bonded pair, setting up a breeding tank with one male and several females should encourage breeding.

Water in the breeding tank should be slightly acidic (6-6.5 pH) and soft, around 5 dh.  The temperature should center around 75 °F.

Set up the tank using water, substrate, and filter media from the original bigger tank and add live plants and hiding places for the apistos.  It is recommended to change 10% of the water daily to ensure the water parameters stay safe.

A sponge or foam filter is best for a breeding tank to ensure low flow and safety of any fry that are born, as other types of filters may cause them to get stuck or even sucked into the filter.

During the breeding process, feeding the dwarf cichlids live food will help them stay healthy and encourage the females to produce eggs.  As mentioned above, a set of underwater cichlid caves are a must for the female to lay her eggs in and guard.

Determining Gender

In order to ensure breeding happens, it’s important to know how to tell males and females apart.

Dwarf cichlids have size differences, which helps tell them apart.  Males often have brighter colors, and distinct dorsal fin plumage that females do not.

Since the females tend to yellow during breeding, it is very easy to tell them apart from the males.

Breeding and Eggs

Once the cichlids are ready to breed, the females will become a yellow color and the males will become brighter.  Increasing the temperature slightly, to about 80°F or so, may help encourage them further.

At this point, the female(s) in the tank will have claimed territory in the underwater caves.  A female will coax the male into her cave to fertilize her eggs, and then drive him away.

The female will lay up to 80 eggs on the roof of her cave and spend from 2 to 5 days guarding her cave and tending to her eggs until they are ready to hatch.  When the fry do hatch, she will lead them out of the cave to find food.

It is important to disturb the tank as little as possible during this time.  Keep the light low but never pitch black and simply wait for her  to finish caring for her young.


Caring for the Fry

Once the eggs hatch, the fry will feed off of any algae in the tank, led by their mother.  The mother will defend her young for up to four weeks and care for them. The male may attempt to help her but she will often fight him off.

After three days, the fry can begin to eat live food such as baby brine shrimp.  New life spectrum fry food is also a great option if raising brine shrimp seems a bit complicated and time consuming.

This can be done easily by mixing a bit of the fry food in water and putting the mixture in a syringe, which can be squirted close to the fry and their mother.

Feed them regularly, but make sure to keep the tank as clean as possible as fry are very sensitive to the slightest spike in ammonia.

Once they are old enough, you can switch them to the flake food or live food that you feed the fully grown ones, ensuring they have a varied diet to stay healthy.

After a few weeks, the fry will begin to show characteristic stripes; they usually reach sexual maturity at 4 or 5 months of age.

Once they reach maturity, you can transfer them back to your main tank, sell them, or keep them in the breeding tank to produce more dwarf cichlids.

Jason Roberts
About Jason Roberts
Jason is an aquarium fanatic that has been a fish hobbyist for almost three decades.

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