Scientific Classification

Common Name
Genus Species
Exact number of species unknown; possibly over 1,000

Fast Facts

Most cichlids have a classical fish-shaped body design and they come in a rainbow of colors.
Some species grow to only 4 cm (2 in.), but the largest cichlid, Boulengerochromis microlepis, can reach a size up to 90 cm (3 ft).
Feed on a variety of zooplankton and phytoplankton such as diatoms and green algae
Oviparous (egg layers); many species of cichlids are mouth brooders and some are substrate spawners
Central and South America, tropical Africa, southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent
Freshwater or brackish lakes and rivers
GLOBAL No data
IUCN: Several species listed at various levels
CITES: Not listed
USFWS: Not listed

Fun Facts

  1. Special Species
    Cichlids are an extremely diverse family of fishes, most of which are found in rift lakes in Africa. There are more than 500 species in just three lakes: Victoria, Malawi, and Tanganyika. Most are specialized feeders, which allows many different types to live together without much competition.
  2. What's for Dinner?
    Among the predatory species, tastes differ along with variations in jaw shape. Some mollusc eaters crush the shells of their prey and eat them whole, while others grab the extended foot of the prey and suction them out of the shell. Invertebrate eaters may pick through algae beds or dig through the muddy bottom searching for food. Species that feed on zooplankton usually filter feed in the open water. And although there are many piscivorous species of cichlids, some eat only eggs, larvae, or adults, or certain body parts of other fishes, including scales, fins, and even eyes! 
  3. Keeping Count
    New species of cichlids are discovered every year. Because scientists don't know how many types there are, creating conservation plans is difficult. As with all animals that are intensely specialized in adaptations or behavior, cichlids are vulnerable to habitat changes, such as pollution and the introduction of exotic species, which can increase predation, competition, and hybridization. Cichlids are also threatened by overfishing and collection for the pet trade. 
  4. Many types of cichlids are mouth-brooders. When spawning begins, male blue tilapias dig a pit with their mouths and fins in shallow water. They actively defend their territories from other males while courting females. An interested female lays eggs by the male, which he then fertilizes. The female takes the eggs in her mouth and swims off while the male awaits another female (although in a few tilapia species, males defend the female). The female incubates and hatches her eggs in her mouth. For about a week, the female allows the young to swim back inside her mouth if danger is nearby. 
  5. Some cichlids are substrate-spawners. With this type of reproduction, the female lays a string of eggs, which the male fertilizes. The male and female then guard the eggs until they hatch. 
  6. Vocabulary 
    Brackish: an adjective used to describe water that contains salt, but is not as salty as sea water
    Hybridization: the creation of offspring resulting from the mating of two parents of different species or subspecies.
    Larvae: a stage in the life of some animals that occurs between hatching and adulthood
    Piscivorous: an adjective used to describe an animal that feeds on fishes
    Zooplankton: tiny aquatic animals that drift with the water movement in their habitat
  7. For more information about bony fishes, explore the Bony Fishes InfoBook. 

Ecology and Conservation

Numerous cichlid species can coexist together. For example, of the 300 or so identified fish species in Lake Malawi, Africa, more than 250 are cichlids. Because they are colorful, peaceful, and hardy, they are popular among aquarium enthusiasts. Some, such as blue tilapias (Oreochromis aurea), have become an important food source. Blue tilapias are raised on fish farms in countries such as the United States.

Blue tilapias, native to northern Africa and the Middle East, were imported to Florida in 1961. They have become established in lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and canals throughout southern and central Florida. They grow rapidly during the first few years of life. The majority of blue tilapias in Florida range from 10 to 30 cm (4 to 12 in.) in length. The largest specimen found was 53 cm (21 in.) in length and weighed 4.5 kg (10 lbs.).


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Goldstein, R.J. Cichlids of the World. Neptune City, NJ. T.F.H. Publications, Inc. Ltd. 1973.

Konings, A. Malawi Cichlids in their Natural Habitat, 2nd ed. Cichlid Press, Germany, 1995.

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Moyle, P.B. and J.J. Cech, Jr. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology. Prentice Hall, NJ, 1988.

Wheeler, A. Fishes of the World. New York. MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1975.