Cichlid Breeding Guide | All Of Your Questions Answered

Aug 13, 2021

cichlid breeding care guide

Credits: Peter A Photography on Flickr under Creative Commons license

There are over 1,300 known species of cichlids living in waters across tropical America, mainland Africa, southern Asia, and Madagascar. Their breeding process and behaviors are as fascinating as their captivating looks. 

With so many species spread across so many places, there’s bound to be a few differentiations on how they mate, how they care for their little ones, and so on. 

In this guide, I am attempting to shine a light on a few well-rounded and essential topics – equipping you with all the knowledge you need to breed cichlids from the comfort of your home. 

Let’s begin with a short introduction first. 

Overview Of Cichlid Breeding

cichlid with fry
Credits: Leonarda Dasilva on Flickr under Creative Common license

To speak broadly – cichlids can be divided into 2 categories: mouth brooders and substrate brooders. And they either practice monogamy or polygamy. For example, all from Lake Victoria, all except one from Lake Malawi, and most Lake Tanganyika cichlids are monogamous mouthbrooders. Some examples are spathodus cichlids, chromidotilapia cichlids, gymnogeophagus cichlids. 

On the other hand, most substrate brooding/cave spawning cichlids practice polygamy. Some examples are pelvicachromis, nannacara, apistogramma, and lamprologus species. 

Despite where they come from and how they mate or brood, all cichlids get territorial and aggressive when they’re breeding. They will defend the territory and eggs quite fiercely. 

Likewise, pre-spawning courtship includes shimmy, dancing, color exhibition, and finding a perfect spot to lay the eggs. 

How Do Mouthbrooder Cichlids Breed?

In mouthbrooding cichlids, once the female lays her eggs on a flat rock, she will immediately pick them up and scoop them inside her mouth. Here’s the exciting bit – male cichlids in this genus have egg spots on the anal fin. So as the female picks her eggs and transfers them into her mouth, the male will shake his anal fins and show off the egg spots. 

The female, assuming it’s her eggs, proceeds to pick them off the anal fins. At this very moment, the male will release his milt directly into her mouth – effectively fertilizing the eggs. 

The female will then continue to hold the eggs in her mouth. Mouthbrooding cichlids have a special throat pouch known as the buccal cavity, where the female stores her eggs until they hatch. 

You can quickly identify the holding female by looking at her distended mouth. Also, she will fast for the entirety of the holding period, which lasts around 3 weeks.

The mother will continue to care for her fry for some time after hatching. For instance, she will hide them inside her mouth if there’s danger nearby. 

Some species are even known to chew food and spit it out into clouds for young ones to consume. 

How Do Substrate Breeder/Cave Spawning Cichlids Breed?

After the courtship period, the female will lay her eggs – preferably in a cave. In most species, males are tasked with finding the right spawning spot and coaxing the female to get there. Once the female agrees and lays her eggs in the designated spot, the male will shortly fertilize them. 

Since substrate-breeding cichlids practice polygamy, a male will fertilize multiple egg clutches during one season. The to-be parents will then actively guard the eggs against potential predators until they hatch, which takes around 5-15 days. 

They will even fan the eggs to keep them aerated and pick out eggs that don’t look right to prevent a bacterial or fungal infestation from spreading to the rest of the clutch. 

Like mouthbrooders, these cichlids are also involved in parental care for a brief period after the eggs hatch. You’ll often see the young ones following a parent’s lead, who will usher them to food and safety. 

Mouthbrooding Cichlid Eggs VS Substrate Brooding Cichlid Eggs 

A mouthbrooding cichlid’s eggs are comparatively larger in diameter – up to 7mm. Also, the clutch size is naturally restricted by the buccal cavity’s capacity – 50-80 eggs maximum. 

On the other hand, substrate-breeding cichlids lay eggs with diameters just around 2mm. The number of eggs in the clutch varies largely from species to species – ranging from 10-20 eggs in small shell breeders to hundreds and even thousands in larger species. 

The time taken for the eggs to hatch is positively related to the egg size. Lastly, the duration of post-hatching care is relatively longer in substrate breeders than mouthbrooders. 

How Do Cichlids Court For Mating?

The courting process among cichlids differs slightly from species to species. In some, even females initiate the mating process. However, the most common mating ritual begins with the male constantly chasing the female and even harassing her. 

The male will dance, shimmy, and even vibrate – all while showing off his brilliant colors. The male will also then try to lure the female to a freshly dug cave to deposit the eggs. 

In most mouthbrooding cichlids, the male will continue to harass the female even after fertilization. Therefore, this is a good time to transfer the female to another tank since the male’s no longer needed. 

However, note that in some substrate brooding cichlids, both males and females continue to care for the eggs until they transform into free-swimming fry. 

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How To Induce Breeding In Cichlids?

First things first- you need to ensure your cichlids have reached the breeding age. This can take anywhere between 4 months to 1 year – or even longer – depending on the species you have. Then, you can conduct water changes, feed a nutritious diet, or several flat rocks or caves for egg-laying. 

Provide Flat Rocks And Hollow Caves 

Mouthbrooding cichlids breed on clean, flat rocks. On the other hand, substrate brooders prefer spawning in caves. So depending on the kind of cichlids you have, you need to provide several of these amenities to induce breeding. 

Make sure these rocks and caves are positioned along the secluded areas of the tank. 

Perform Major Water Change 

The most sure-shot way of encouraging your cichlids to breed is to perform a major water change. First, lower the water level and allow the filter to splash into it for around 30-40 minutes. Next, refill the tank with slightly cooler water.

But note that you don’t do it time and again. Cichlids, used to stable waters in lakes, don’t take too well to sudden changes. 

Provide Clean Water 

Although cichlids aren’t too picky about their water parameters, providing clean water often triggers them to mate. Thus, you need to ensure the tank’s clean and water’s healthy by performing small but regular water changes and vacuuming frequently. 

Feed Nutritious Meals 

Not that you can get away with feeding unhealthy meals the other times; giving nutritious, protein-rich food a tad bit more than usual can encourage your cichlids to mate. 

However, don’t give too much food at a time – as it will make the water dirtier. Also, herbivore cichlids may have problems digesting if they’re fed too much protein-rich food.

How Do I Know If My Cichlids Are Mating?

There are some very subtle and some tell-tale signs that signify when the cichlids are mating, are ready to mate, or have met. Some of these signs are increased levels of aggression, sudden reclusion by females, change in appetite, and so on. 

Change In Male Cichlid’s Attitude 

During the breeding season, male cichlids will get more aggressive than usual. They will lash out at fellow males and also bully the prospective female into mating. 

As part of the courtship ritual, the male will also show himself off to the females. He will dance, shimmy, and shake violently as he tries to lure the female to the nesting site. 

Examine The Rocks At The Bottom 

Carefully examine the rocks at the bottom. In substrate-breeding cichlids, the male will often move and organize rocks to form a concave, make-shift cave for the female to lay eggs in. Also, both parents will constantly swim in and out of the cave as they guard the eggs. 

In mouthbrooding cichlids, the female will spawn over a clean, flat rock. So you can see the to-be parents continually passing over a flat rock. 

Check Up On To-Be Mothers 

In substrate-breeding cichlids, you can see the eggs with the help of the magnifying glass as the female waves her tail frantically and deposits the eggs. The eggs will develop tiny dots – which probably are eyes – in a couple of days. 

It’s a lot easier to spot the mouth-brooding female incubating her eggs in the throat. Usually, a bulge beneath the mouth and overall swollen mouth regions are clear signs. 

You could also notice a few behavioral changes. For example, she will stop eating or eat very little. Also, she will seem more aloof and reserved than her usual self. 

How To Breed Cichlids? Step-by-Step Guide

Fry yolk sac
Caption: Calwhiz on Flickr under Creative Commons license

Breeding cichlids is moderately easy and doable for most fishkeepers. If you’re serious about breeding, you will need to set up a breeding tank (optional) and a fry tank. Perform larger water changes and create a suitable layout in the tank to induce breeding. 

Prep Your Breeding Tank 

The breeding tank should be at least 45-gallons and 4 feet long. Add sand or fine gravel substrate and a few hiding places. Add several flat rocks if you have mouthbrooding cichlids. And if you have substrate-brooding cichlids, add concave rock-like structures. 

The temperature should be maintained at around 80° F. Also, make sure the water is clean. Although cichlids are fairly hardy species that thrive in a wide range of water conditions, they prefer breeding in clear water.

If the water isn’t alkaline enough, you can use calcium or magnesium buffers to make it hard. 

Introduce Breeding Cichlids To The New Tank

Introduce the breeding school of cichlids to the breeding tank. The ideal ratio would be one male and five to six females. Make sure you don’t add 2 males to a breeding tank unless it’s a massive tank. This will lead to injury or death of the sub-dominant male. 

As discussed above, you can perform a water change and add flat rocks or caves to encourage breeding. 

You can observe the fish’s behavior for signs of mating. For example, the male will usually dig the substrate and try to lure females into mating. 

Also, the male and the consenting female will make several passes over the spawning site where the eggs are laid or to be laid. 

Monitor The Holding Female and Eggs 

If you have a mouth-brooding female, you can easily spot her by the shape of her distended mouth. As for substrate-brooding cichlids, you may have to take the help of a magnifying glass and pry around the tank. 

You may also remove the male and shift him to the main tank at this point. However, in some cichlids, males take on the role of hands-on dad and tend to the eggs. So, it depends on the species you have. 

Some aquarists also prefer stripping the eggs from the female and incubating them artificially so as to reduce any chances of her dying of starvation or swallowing the eggs. 

Transfer The Holding Female To Fry Tank (Optional)

In the case of mouthbrooders, you can transfer the holding female to the fry tank. If you’re going to do so, we recommend doing it only towards the end. 

Moving is a stressful situation even by a cichlid’s standards. And under stress, the matriarch tends to spit out the eggs prematurely. So, if you move her at a later stage, even if she spits out the eggs/fry, they have a better chance of survival. 

Also, the fry tank should have at least a 10-gallon capacity. Finally, install a heater and sponge filter. 

Caring For The Fry 

The mother will care for her baby fry for a couple of days after hatching. After that, she will occasionally take them all inside her mouth and hide them if she senses danger. 

Post-hatching care takes place for a bit longer in the wild, but it’s wise to take her back to the main tank after 2-3 days in captivity. That’s because the female will lose her rank in the pecking order and be subjected to bullying upon her comeback if she was gone for too long. 

The fry will depend on the yolk sac attached to their body for nutrition during the first few days. Once free swimming, you can fortify their diet with baby brine shrimp, pulverized flake food, and liquid fry food.

Perform 5-10% weekly water changes in the fry tank. And as it goes without saying, maintain the filtration, heating, and aeration system to the T to avoid unwanted fluctuations. 

Once the fry are about an inch long, you can transfer them to the community tank. 

How To Strip Cichlid Eggs?

Some owners prefer stripping the eggs and incubating them artificially. If you like doing so, we advise waiting towards the end of the incubation period. Start by filling a container with the tank’s water and turning off the lights. 

Once the tank’s inhabitants are used to the darkness, gently net the brooding female. Remember, you have to be super careful with the handling, so you don’t stress her out. 

After she is settled in the container, gently hold her using your left hand. Then, use your right hand’s fingers to open her mouth. You can also use a bent twisty tie. Just make sure it isn’t sharp. 

Next, slowly rock her and dip in and out of the water. If the eggs have already hatched, the fry will swim out her mouth. 

Otherwise, you will have to incubate the eggs in the tumbler until they hatch. 

Frankly, this whole ordeal of stripping eggs from the female is quite stressful to all parties. It can go south real fast in the wrong hands. So, it’s best to let the female go to term at her own pace. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Cichlid and her fry
Credits: Ken Schwarz on Flickr under Creative Common license

How Often Do Cichlids Breed?

Cichlids can breed once every six weeks on average. However, the duration can be longer or shorter depending on the cichlid’s species, health status, tank environment, and nutrition intake. 

How Long Does It Take African Cichlids To Breed?

African cichlids can breed once every six weeks. After breeding, the mother will incubate the eggs in her mouth for 21-36 days until they hatch into free-swimming fry. 

How Long Do Cichlids Keep Babies In Mouth?

Mouthbrooding cichlids will keep babies in their mouths for around 21-36 days on average. In most species, the mother will keep the fry safe in her throat even after they’ve hatched. 

Also, as part of post-hatching care, the mother will occasionally scoop all her fry and hide them in her mouth if there’s danger nearby. 

What’s A Cichlid’s Breeding Age?

Cichlids can take anywhere between 4 months to a year or even longer to reach sexual maturity. The duration taken differs from species to species based on their average life expectancy. 

Can I Breed Cichlids In A Community Tank?

Yes, you can definitely breed cichlids in a community tank if you’re not too keen on raising the fry. However, there’s a good chance other creatures will feast on the tiny fry in a community tank. 

Adding several hiding places would increase the fry’s survival rate – but it’s strongly advised to raise the fry separately until they come of age if you really want to raise them. 

Conclusion: Cichlid Breeding Guide

Breeding cichlids may sound daunting, with information flooding in from all over in bits and parts. That’s why I have created this guide to help you navigate through the info one by one at a time. 

If you are really keen on raising the fry, it’s best to set up a separate breeding/fry tank. The survival rate in a community tank is going to be very low. Nonetheless, if you cannot set up another tank, make sure to add a lot of plants and hideouts and hope for the best. A breeding box might be handy, too. 

The answer depends based on the species, but one male for five to six males is hailed as the ideal sex ratio for breeding. Also, steps like performing large water changes and feeding nutritious meals are known to induce breeding. 

That being said, make sure you read up on your cichlid-specific articles. There are thousands of cichlid species out there. While their general needs and mechanisms are quite the same, there are bound to be a few different needs here and there. Good luck! 

Happy Reading!

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rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.