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The Ultimate Peacock Cichlid Care Guide

Peacock Cichlid aquariums are one of the closest ways you can get to a marine reef tank in terms of color and variety.

Peacock Cichlid

The sheer diversity found in just this small group of beautiful fish is remarkable. And considering how easy they are to care for, it is no wonder that peacock cichlids have become some of the most popular rift lake cichlids in the hobby.

Whether you prefer red peacocks, an orange color, metallic blue tones, or something else entirely, there is a peacock cichlid for every aquarist’s desires.

  • Scientific Name: Aulonocara sp.
  • Origin: Lake Malawi
  • Length: 4 to 7 inches
  • Aquarium Size: 40+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Peaceful to Semi-Aggressive
  • Ease of Care: Easy to Intermediate

Peacock Cichlid Species

Peacock cichlids come in multiple species and a variety of colors, all of them beautiful. That said, most of the peacock cichlid varieties have similar to identical care requirements. Here are a few of the most common species to find in the aquarium trade.

Blue Peacock Cichlid

Blue Peacock Cichlid

One of the most colorful fish in the aquarium hobby is the Blue Peacock Cichlid or Emperor Cichlid. Medium-sized and fairly peaceful, they are excellent rift lake cichlids to start out with if you have never kept them before.

Their scientific name of Aulonocara nyassae is a nod to their home lake. “Nyasa” is what Lake Malawi is called in this region of Africa.

Many of the hybrid fish out there, including the OB Peacocks and many albinos, have genetics from this species of fish. What’s more, OB Peacocks also have genes from multiple species of other cichlids; specifically mbuna.

The OB gene is responsible for the mottled spots that these peacock cichlids have; they don’t naturally occur in these fish. But peacocks are closely related to mbuna as well and will crossbreed with them in certain conditions.

Sunshine Peacock Cichlid

Sunshine Peacock Cichlid
found on Pinterest

It is easy to see how the Sunshine Peacock Cichlid (Aulonocara stuartgranti) gets its name. Lake Malawi is so large that there are often many regional variants that have different colors from other fish of their own kind from different areas.

This variety is found only around Maleri Island in the southwest portion of the lake. They grow a little larger than most peacock cichlids; up to 7 inches when well cared for.

Red Peacock Cichlid

Red Peacock Cichlid
found on Flickr

Also known as the Flavescent Peacock, the Red Peacock Cichlid is another manmade color morph, not a regional variant. Being a hybrid, its genetics are a little uncertain but most believe it to be a mixture of Aulonocara stuartgranti and A. nyassae.

While it is hardy and stunning the Flavescent Peacock is also fertile. So be careful keeping it with other peacock cichlid varieties. Because you might get hybrids that will lower their resale value to folks looking for specific kinds of fish.

Yellow Regal Peacock Cichlid

Yellow Regal Peacock Cichlid
found on Pinterest

Another gorgeous naturally occurring morph is the Yellow Regal Peacock Cichlid (Aulonocara baenschi). At first glance, it looks almost identical to the Sunshine Peacock Cichlid. Except that the Yellow Regal has much more blue along its flanks while the Sunshine has a pure yellow body.

African Butterfly Peacock Cichlid

African Butterfly Peacock Cichlid
found on Pinterest

In terms of the sheer richness of color even other peacock cichlids find it hard to beat the African Butterfly Peacock Cichlid (Aulonocara jacobfreibergi). It is also highly variable and comes in several color morphs in the wild that can often look like other fish entirely.

Lake Malawi and the Rift Lakes

Peacock cichlids are found exclusively in Lake Malawi, a rift lake in East Africa. It is one of the largest lakes in the world and also one of the most unique in terms of water parameters.

Its water is extremely hard and alkaline due to the local geology, with chemistry more like that of seawater in terms of dissolved mineral content (except for sodium salts). Nearby Lake Tanganyika has even harder, more alkaline water.

The natural habitat of these freshwater fish is the benthic zone. This is a region of lower light where the rocky region that many African cichlids favor stops and the sandy bottom is visible. Here the algae that sustain the brighter regions can’t easily grow so fish need to adapt to different sources of food.

Rock-dwelling fish are called “mbuna.” These include many of the more popular African cichlids – but also most of the more aggressive fish because they live in such close proximity to each other all of the time.

The rocky mbuna zone is more like a freshwater coral reef and it’s highly competitive. Peacock cichlids, on the other hand, live in the spacious benthic area where they have plenty of food and space in their native habitat.

These are sand sifting cichlids who spend their time hunting for worms and other invertebrates in the substrate.

Caring for Peacock Cichlids

Peacock cichlid care is not especially difficult. These brilliant, beautiful freshwater aquarium fish are also quite hardy and accept a wide range of prepared and frozen food options.

Caring for Peacock Cichlids

Peacock Cichlid Tank Requirements

The minimum tank size for a group of peacock cichlids is 40 gallons. They are medium-sized cichlids that grow between 4 and 7 inches long, depending on the species. They are also active fish and need plenty of space to roam around the tank.

A 40 breeder, therefore, gives them plenty of space to hunt, interact, and occasionally squabble with one another.

A sandy substrate is required for these fish because peacock cichlids are sand sifters. They feed by taking in mouthfuls of sand and pushing it through their gills, looking for small invertebrates to eat.

This behavior means that very few leftovers remain to foul the water quality over time. But larger gravel grains can damage their gills should they try and sift them.

Peacock Cichlid Water Parameters

For such a large body of water, Lake Malawi is very warm, even in the deeper regions where the peacock cichlid tends to live. So you need to keep your water temperature elevated as well.

A water temperature of 75-82°F is perfect for these freshwater aquarium fish, with the higher end of the range ideal if you are looking to breed them.

Water chemistry is even more important because Lake Malawi has very hard, alkaline water. Fortunately, tap water in most countries tends to be hard and alkaline as well so few adjustments are needed.

A pH of 7.5 to 8.1 is what peacock cichlids tend to prefer. If they are captive bred then they will likely be very flexible. Wild-caught peacock cichlids may need chemistries on the higher end of this range.

Fortunately, you can buy Lake Malawi salt blends that contain all of the elements needed to boost your pH to the appropriate range.

By the way, these conditions can make keeping aquarium plants with them pretty difficult. Most prefer only slight alkalinity to neutral or even acidic water parameters. But a few hardy plants do well in these conditions, including eelgrass (Vallisneria sp.) and Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus).

Peacock Cichlid Tank Mates

Peacock Cichlid Tank Mates

Cichlids are famous for being fairly aggressive towards their tank mates, sometimes to the point of even wanting to kill them outright. But the peacock cichlid is a freshwater fish that is quite tolerant of not only neighbors but even each other.

Often we are forced to keep only one male of many fish species. This is unfortunate because male fish are usually far more colorful than female cichlids.

But peacock cichlids break this trend. Male peacocks will show some territorial behavior but they are not so intolerant that they will kill each other. Just make sure that you provide each male peacock cichlid with plenty of space for him to have his own territory.

Also keep at least one female per one male as well to divide his attention and further diminish aggression.

As I said, for cichlids, blue peacocks are on the peaceful side. Any cichlid tank mates, therefore, need to be on the more peaceful side of the temperament spectrum. One great choice is Mdoka White Lips (Placidochromis phenochilus).

It lives in the same benthic zone as peacock cichlids and it has similarly mild manners. It does grow to be up to 10 inches long, however, meaning a 75-gallon tank or larger is required.

More peaceful Lake Malawi mbuna can also work, such as the Lemon Yellow Lab (Labidochromis caeruleus). Stay away from most of the Pseudotropheus species of fish. They are easy to find in pet stores but they tend to be too aggressive for peacock cichlids. Other cichlids should be kept to mostly different species of peacocks.

Any fish that loves hard, alkaline water and is large enough not to be food is a good addition to the peacock cichlid tank. Larger livebearers like Mollies will fit in just right here. As will Giant Danios, Barbs, Rainbowfish, and other medium to large schooling fish that are peaceful and colorful.

What Do Peacock Cichlids Eat?

Many of the fish found in Lake Malawai are herbivorous or omnivorous. This is because of the vast amounts of algae that grow along the rocky shoreline zone that mbuna favor. It is just too convenient and ready a food source to ignore.

Peacock cichlids, whose natural habitat is in much deeper waters, are entirely carnivorous. However, they are not predators of smaller fish.

The peacock cichlid feeds mostly on invertebrates that live buried in the sand, such as worms, small shrimp, and insect larvae. So when feeding them you should be looking for similar high protein, invertebrate-based meaty foods to mix with a high-quality cichlid pellet.

Frozen brine shrimp is a standard offering for peacock cichlids that includes valuable fats and color-boosting carotenoids to their diet.

Other items you can offer to provide a varied diet include blood worms, tubifex worms, and even finely chopped seafood like shrimp or mussel meat.

Any pellet or flake food formula should be mostly whole animal ingredients. Look for whole fish, krill, squid, and other animal products. And avoid soy, corn, wheat, and other cheap fillers that won’t nourish these wholly carnivorous fish.

Breeding the Peacock Cichlid

Assuming you are able to provide them with the right conditions and food, breeding peacock cichlids is practically a given. Here is the rundown on how to spawn them successfully.

Breeding the Peacock Cichlid

How to Sex Peacock Cichlids

Fortunately, peacock cichlids are some of the easiest fish to sex. They are strongly sexually dimorphic, meaning you can tell males from females by sight.

Male peacock cichlids are almost always far more brilliantly colored than females are. A female is usually dull shades of silver, brown, red, or yellow.

The dorsal fins of male peacocks will often have a slight to significant point to them. The dorsal fins of female peacock cichlids usually aren’t so distinctive.

The last major clue is to look at the anal fin of your peacock cichlids. Male peacock cichlids always have distinctive egg spots that are usually yellow, orange, or red. These spots are meant to guide the female’s attention here so he can properly fertilize the eggs during spawning.

Females occasionally have a few egg spots but usually have none at all.

Spawning a Peacock Cichlid Pair

In the wild, a male peacock cichlid will usually breed with several females. In an aquarium, this depends mostly on how receptive the females are as well as competition with any other males in the tank.

Assuming a female is receptive, she will have visibly swollen in form, with a bigger belly. Her ovipositor (egg-laying organ) may also be visible. Breeding is imminent at this stage.

The male peacock will guide her to a nearby cavity to spawn. So you will want to use some flower pots or rocky caves to give them some privacy.

Like so many rift lake cichlids, peacocks are mouthbrooders. This means that one of the two parents (the female in this case) will collect the eggs into her mouth and hold them, providing perfect protection for them until they hatch.

Since the female does not eat while the eggs develop you should be feeding them more heavily than normal with rich frozen and prepared foods. The extra food allows her to not only create nutrient-rich eggs but also enough fat to survive the fasting stage.

When spawning the female will lay eggs and immediately picks them up in her mouth. She will also peck at the egg spots on the male’s anal fin, which allows him to them fertilize the clutch in her mouth.

Caring for Baby Peacock Cichlids

As the fertilized eggs develop they will turn a bright yellow or orange color. Incubation is a fairly long process, taking as long as a month. This is why the mother needs to be very well fed beforehand.

But once the fry hatch, she will then start eating again. There are typically a few dozen peacock cichlid fry and they can be started right away on baby brine shrimp nauplii as their first food.

When startled, they will retreat right back into her mouth for the first few weeks. But eventually, they grow large enough to fend for themselves and will leave their mother’s care.

More Frequently Asked Questions about the Peacock Cichlid

How Aggressive are Peacock Cichlids?

Peacock Cichlids are some of the most peaceful cichlids around. But when breeding they can exhibit territorial behavior strong enough to stress rivals that are lower on the totem pole. Once the fry are free-swimming they will also chase away any other fish that might try and eat them.

What Fish Can Go with Peacock Cichlids?

Any fish that exhibits mostly docile behavior can live with peacock cichlids. Rainbowfish, mollies, and barbs will all coexist with them. Other cichlids can also work but they should be on the more peaceful side and also prefer hard water parameters.

How Large do Peacock Cichlids Get?

Peacock cichlids are medium-sized fish that grow to be 4 to 7 inches long, depending on the species. They are also social fish, so you should keep 4 to 6 of them in a group. However, they also get along in mixed African cichlid community aquariums so long as their tank mates are not too aggressive.

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