What is a Cichlid?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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Cichlids are a large and varied family of fish that can be found in oceans from the Americas to Africa and Asia. With more than 160 genera and 900 species of fish in the family Cichlidae, they come in almost every shape, size, and color. One trait that characterizes the cichlid family of fish is their aggressiveness in protecting their young.

When it comes to raising their young, there are similarities almost across the Cichlidae family. Most cichlids lay their eggs on some sort of structure, from rocks and sand to plants. The family is divided into two groups: open brooders and shelter brooders.

Open brooders lay their eggs in on open area such as on rocks, on the sandy ocean floor, or on the leaves of underwater plants. Shelter brooders, which include cavity brooders and mouth brooders, lay their eggs in an area that provides some protection. Cavity brooders lay their eggs in caves. At some point in the reproductive process, mouth brooders shelter their eggs or newly hatched fish in their mouths.


It is during the breeding and hatching period that aggressiveness is most noticeable in the cichlid family. Depending on the type of cichlid, there can be a number of different family groups ranging from monogamous and polygamous, with nuclear families, matriarchal and patriarchal family groups and even extended family groups. For a number of species, the male or the female takes the responsibility of watching over the eggs while the other defends the territory. Parents are known to be aggressive not only to other species of intruding fish, but toward members of their own species as well.

Many cichlids are raised in captivity, but not all are social fish. Some cichlids are carnivorous, and will eat any tank mates of a smaller size. When there are no other fish available, they will eat insects, worms, small crustaceans, and larvae, or may require regular meals of feeder fish and eggs. Other species cichlids are herbivores, and will feed on live plants in a tank and algae that grows on rocks and tank walls. Omnivorous cichlids thrive on a combination of both, and many can also be fed commercial flake food.

Within the family of cichlids there are some familiar fish. The triangular, black and white angelfish belongs to this family, and is native to rivers in South America. The colorful peacock fish, including the sunshine peacock and the rubin red peacock, are a branch of the cichlid family that comes from Africa and are among the less aggressive species. On the other end of the spectrum, the American and predatory wolf cichlid will not only eat smaller tank mates but attack almost any other fish they are paired with.


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