South American cichlids are beautiful, intelligent, and often misunderstood. While many of these fish have a reputation for being hard to keep, the truth is that maintaining tank balance is easier than most people think. There are definitely some that aren’t suitable for beginners, but let’s take a look at some of the types of South American Cichlids that are.
- Size: 4-6”
- Temperament: Semi-Aggressive
- Diet: Flake, Pellet, Frozen
Convict Cichlids, or Zebra Cichlids, are a great way for beginners to get in on the fun of keeping cichlids. They’re rather small for the species, and, unlike Rams, quite hardy since they’ve been bred in captivity for so long.
They’re sexually dimorphic in size. If you have a group of them, then the big ones are the males. Try to keep the number of males to a minimum to avoid serious problems. If they begin to breed, then the relatively-docile(for a cichlid) fish will become extremely aggressive and territorial.
When kept singly, however, they’re one of the less aggressive cichlids. Up until about 3”, you can even raise them solely on flake food. After that point, it’s best to switch them to cichlid pellets with occasional additions of frozen bloodworms or brine shrimp.
They’re the beginner South American cichlid, in my opinion. They’ll get you used to cichlid behavior, are attractive, and can handle pretty much any standard water conditions. Most people find them easy to raise, and breeding them is a snap if you’re into it. Give them a shot first if you’re on the fence about cichlids.
2. Blue Acara
- Size: 6-7”
- Temperament: Relatively Peaceful
- Diet: Pellets, Frozen
Acara are one of the most attractive South American cichlids. Often billed as the “Electric Blue Acara”, their patterns make them stand out even among colorful fish. They’re interesting to watch, and they’re one of the more peaceful species of cichlids.
Please note I used “relatively peaceful” when describing their temperament. Cichlids are all aggressive when compared to most community fish. Remember, an Acara will still make short work of any schooling fish you foolishly add to their tank.
One of their most peculiar behaviors is digging. They’re not on the level of the Geophagus genus when it comes to sifting and digging, but they’ll regularly engage in it. Try to keep any equipment in their tank off the ground for the best end result.
They’re not going to eat flakes. That’s actually a given among the larger cichlids from the New World. Instead, the bulk of their diet should be made up of bloodworms, brine shrimp, and other meaty foods. If you can handle that, however, they’ll be fine in almost any reasonable water conditions.
Among the South American cichlids, they’re one of the most beautiful. They can be on the expensive side as well, but they’re surprisingly beginner-friendly.
- Size: 8”
- Temperament: Aggressive
- Diet: Pellets, Frozen
Severum can be found in a few different colors these days, but they’re all pretty much the same in care requirements. They’re hardy, aggressive carnivores that should be kept singly in any community cichlid tank. “Severum” actually covers several species, all of them in the Heros genus of the Cichlidae family.
That said, they’re on the higher end of the intelligence scale. What does that mean for the keeper? Well, it means that any individual Severum will act differently from others. Some will be peaceful and leave their tank mates alone. Others may decide the whole tank is their territory unless there’s another fish big enough to keep them in line.
They’ll need a steady diet. Bloodworms help keep their color up, especially in variants like the Yellow Severum. Pellets can be used as well, but make sure the size is suitable for your fish and upgrade to larger pellets as they grow.
It’s best to get Severum when they’re under 3-4” and observe them carefully to figure out their compatibility. If you do that, however, they’re another beginner cichlid that you won’t have any trouble raising. A cycled tank, food, and a few rocks are all they really need to be happy.
4. Cockatoo Cichlid
- Size: 3 1/2”
- Temperament: Peaceful
- Diet: Flake, Pellets, Frozen
If you’re looking for a fish that is smaller, but still has a cichlid attitude, the Cockatoo Cichlid is perfect. Unfortunately, they’re most suitable for a standard community tank as they’re not aggressive enough to compete with most South Americans.
That said, there are some advantages. They’re great for peaceful to semi-aggressive community tanks. These tanks can also be planted. The Cockatoo Cichlid isn’t the type that tears up plants for fun like many in the family. If you already have a planted community tank, they’re an excellent addition. They do well alongside most barbs, tetras, and catfish that usually inhabit that style of tank.
They’re not particularly picky eaters either. It’s another quality that makes them particularly well-suited for those who aren’t ready for a dedicated American cichlid tank. Flake, pellets, and frozen foods are all accepted. Just remember that bloodworms will always bring out better colors in your fish.
My only issue with Cockatoo Cichlids is their overall incompatibility with the majority of other cichlids. You just use them differently than if you’re building a regular cichlid tank. Of course, that’s a large part of the appeal for many people, so take a closer look and see if they’re the right fit for you.
One more thing: Cockatoo Cichlids are Betta-incompatible. If you’re using a Betta as a showpiece fish in a tank, your Cockatoo will end up killing it. You’ll also want at least 2 square feet per pair or trio of these fish to avoid aggression.
5. Green Terror
- Size: 10-12”
- Temperament: Highly Aggressive
- Diet: Pellet, Frozen
Now we’re getting into the big boys. Green Terrors are a hardy cichlid, and perhaps the best example of the family I can think of. They’re large, in-charge, and beautiful as they reach maturity. They’re also among the most common cichlids found in fish stores.
Just don’t buy a little, cute one and expect it to remain that way. With proper food and tank conditions, they will rapidly grow. They do well with smaller Cichlids until about 5”, at which point they need to be moved to a larger tank. A full-grown Green Terror needs a minimum of 25 gallons of space just for its territory.
Fortunately, two of the most common South American cichlids are great tank mates. These are the Oscar and the Jack Dempsey. Both of which are large enough and aggressive enough to hold their own. Cichlids are intelligent, and given enough space, even the most belligerent will gain mutual respect.
There’s one caveat: do not breed Green Terrors in a mixed tank. At least one of the fish involved will end up dead before the end of it. Still, they’re beautiful and a stunning example of the genus and don’t require specialized care.
6. Jack Dempsey
- Size: 12-15”
- Temperament: Highly Aggressive
- Diet: Pellets, Frozen
The Jack Dempsey, named after the famous boxer, is a strong, territorial cichlid with a few quirks. It’s easy to provide for, however, and they’re a staple in South American Cichlid tanks. Their iridescent sides get even more colorful as they grow, and there’s a beautiful electric blue variant as well.
Jack Dempseys prefer a different sort of territory. They’re a big fan of caves, so provide them with a place to hide in the hardscape of your tank for the best results. They’ll often guard this area vigorously, but they can co-exist with other large cichlids with no issue.
They’re carnivores but don’t seem to eat flake very often. Stick with pellets and frozen food for the best results.
They’re among my favorites. Of the larger cichlids, they tend to be the shyest. Don’t mistake that for weakness. They can hold their own with all but the most aggressive fish. They grow a little more slowly in my experience as well, giving them a 1-2” headstart on the other cichlids in your tank is a good idea.
- Size: 12” to 16”
- Temperament: Highly Aggressive
- Diet: Pellets, Frozen
Saving the best for last, I highly recommend keeping an Oscar at some point. They’re one of the most intelligent fish that you’ll ever find, and their ability to interact with their owners is second to none.
Keeping an Oscar alone is the best way to use that intelligence. If you’re looking to train the fish, then it’s best to keep them alone. This has some disadvantages, however, as Oscar are easily bored and can even become depressed if you’re away for too long.
They’re a bit like a puppy in a tank.
On the other hand, Oscar tend towards the highly aggressive side with other fish. They’ll eat any fish small enough to fit in their mouth, and I’ve seen them attempt to eat larger fish as well. Each of them has their own personality, however, so just keep an eye on how they interact with others.
There’s one problem with Oscar: they’re huge. Oscar get bigger than any other South American Cichlid by a couple of inches, and they’ll use that size. A single Oscar should be kept in at least a 55-gallon tank. Any community tank involving them should be closer to 80 gallons.
Understanding Your Cichlids
Cichlids, as a general rule, are some of the most intelligent fish you’ll ever keep.
If you ask me, cichlids are some of the most interesting fish around. They’re curious, exhibit strange behaviors, and have some real personality to them. If you’ve seen one Neon Tetra… you’ve seen them all, but two Oscar might act so differently. You’d be hard-pressed to believe they’re the same fish.
Teaching people how to build a community tank with South American cichlids isn’t an easy task. It’s beyond a beginner article, but we’ve got something for you.
Cichlids need the following to really thrive:
- Hiding Places: Even the bravest, boldest Jack Dempsey needs a place to call his own. Keep some places hidden from the outside of the tank, allowing your fish to de-stress away from prying eyes. Rocks and driftwood are ideal.
- Sandy Substrate: Use a sandy substrate for your cichlids. Some, like Geophagus sp., actually require it, but most will be more comfortable if you do things that way.
- Large Tanks: Ignore the 1” per gallon rule with cichlids. They’re messy eaters, they need their space, and take up more room than you’d think. Trust your test kit (nitrates should always be under 15ppm) and intuition instead of going by a hard and fast rule.
For a beginner, I recommend at least a 55-gallon tank for any attempts at a community of SA cichlids. 30 to 40 gallons can be used for a single species tank, particularly if they’re kept in pairs. A true community tank for South American cichlids will likely be 80+ gallons.
One final thing: most people recommend fish like Rams and other dwarf cichlids for beginners. I don’t. While docile, they can be too touchy in water requirements.
And frankly, if you’re keeping cichlids, you’re probably expecting some action. If it’s just bright colors and easy management you’re after, then stick with a standard community tank.
Ideal Water Conditions
Most of the South American cichlids above are quite hardy. They can stand most water conditions easily. In particular, those which are heavily associated with the aquarium trade, like Oscar and Convicts, are fine in the majority of water conditions.
However, as messy eaters, they tend to drive nitrate levels high in even a cycled tank.
For the most part, a South American cichlid tank should be kept around the following parameters:
- pH: 5.5-7.5
- Nitrates: <15ppm
- Temperature: 76-83°F
- Hardness: 5-12 dH
These parameters are for optimal health. If you’re a bit out of range with anything but the temperature, you’ll be fine.
What Can I Keep With My South American Cichlids?
For many people, keeping fish alongside their cichlids is the eventual goal. Fortunately, these cichlids come from an environment rich with tough critters. After all, they come from places like the Amazon Basin and mountain lakes in Peru.
There are two general rules you need to follow when considering adding additional fish:
- Most cichlids will eat anything that fits in their mouth. The largest cichlid in your tank determines the minimum size of any additions.
- Absolutely no African Cichlids. None. Zip. Nada. They will eventually cause problems, and you will lose at least one fish.
Keeping South American species together is easy to do… for those with experience. There really are no hard and fast rules here. These fish are intelligent, which means they’ll also display their own personality traits.
Watch the above video. There are a few things wrong here. The first is that the tank is far too small. The second is the goldfish. But the fight which is going on? If cichlids begin lip locking while fighting, then you have problems.
Some owners kind of encourage it. It’s a magnificent display, but I’ve found that roughly 75% of the time, it’s a sign the violence will escalate.
As for non-cichlids? Consider the following, just make sure that all of them are of the appropriate size:
- Catfish: There are a ton of South American catfish that you can put in a cichlid tank. They tend to keep to themselves and avoid conflict, making them ideal as long as they’re at least 50% the length of your most aggressive fish.
- Pleco: Armor plated bottom feeders? The Common Pleco reaches up to 18” in length and can take hits from most fish all day without noticing. They’re a good cleaning option in SA cichlid tanks.
- Angelfish: They’re native to the same area and tall enough to avoid being eaten in most cases. While they’re not my first choice, it does happen with varying degrees of success, depending on the cichlids.
- Arowana: Arowana, particularly Silver Arowana, are good tank mates but bring their own host of complications. If you think keeping cichlids is a headache when it comes to size and needs… you’re in for a world of hurt with one of these majestic giants.
With smaller, less aggressive cichlids like Cockatoos and Convicts, you have much more leeway. The above guidelines should be followed for any fish which will grow to over 6” however.
Take On the New World!
South American cichlids come in a wide range of sizes, but they’re all intelligent carnivores. While I may make it sound a bit rough, I just want people to make sure they know what they’re doing first. Like any tank, your best bet is to go in with a plan, just be prepared to adapt if the tank mates you wanted aren’t working out. Give them a shot!