With their flashy colors, outgoing nature, and feisty behavior, cichlids have long been a favorite for both beginning hobbyists and experienced fishkeepers alike. But while cichlids often have a reputation for being large and aggressive, there are a number of dwarf species well suited for the typical community aquarium. With what they lack in size, they often make up for in color and activity, making dwarf cichlids an ideal addition for anyone looking to add something a bit outside the ordinary to their home tank.
The family Cichlidae is one of the most diverse families of freshwater fish, and cichlids are found throughout Central and South America, Africa, Madagascar, and even Southern India. Not only do cichlids occupy an enormous range of habitats – from softwater creeks to nearly full-strength marine environments – but they also display an incredible range of body shapes and size. With the largest cichlid species (the Emperor Cichlid of Lake Tanganyika) growing to nearly 3 feet by some accounts, and the smallest species – some even found in the same lake – growing to only an inch, there are cichlids suitable for almost any size aquarium.
The so-called dwarf cichlids aren’t any one distinct group of species, and in fact small growing species are found in almost every sub-family, or “tribe” of cichlids. In the aquarium hobby, generally speaking any cichlid with an adult size of less than 4-5 inches is usually considered a dwarf. But of the dozens, if not hundreds of species that can be found in the hobby, which are the best choices for a community aquarium? We’ll take a look at some of the most colorful and generally peaceful species of dwarfs and how best to care for them.
Checkerboard Cichlids (Genus Dicrossus)
One of my personal favorite dwarf cichlids, and perhaps one of the most underappreciated cichlids in general, are the Checkerboard Cichlids of the genus Dicrossus. Found throughout the warm, acidic waters of Amazon tributaries in Brazil and Colombia, checkerboards are usually found in groups or pairs alongside many other well known aquarium species like Rummynose Tetras, Cardinal Tetras, and Marble Hatchetfish. The most commonly seen species of Checkerboard is Dicrossus filamentosus, found in Brazil’s Rio Negro and the Orinoco in Colombia and Venezuela. Its juvenile black-and-white pattern makes it easy to see where these fish get their common name from, but adult males of this species develop stunning blue and red iridescence as well as long streamers extending from the tail fin. With a maximum size of around 1.5”, checkerboards are well suited for even smaller community aquariums and although they can be somewhat territorial towards each other they will rarely bother other species of fish. Checkerboards prefer soft, slightly acidic water and prefer an aquarium with lots of cover in the form of driftwood, live plants, or even natural botanical items like seed pods or leaf litter.
Blue Ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi)
The Blue Ram could probably be considered the “original” dwarf cichlid in the hobby and is easily the most well known and widely available species – for good reason. Blue Rams are colorful, easy to keep, compatible with most other peaceful aquarium species, and a single fish or pair would be comfortable in a tank as small as 10 gallons. Over the decades that they have been bred for the aquarium hobby, the wild form of Blue Ram has been developed into a variety of color forms, including gold, longfin, the “German blue”, and more recently the solid-colored electric blue strain. Because the overwhelming majority of rams found in the hobby are farm or tank raised, they will adapt to most water conditions and pairs will often spawn in the aquarium without any special treatment. Like most cichlids, they can be territorial towards each other so if you wish to keep more than a single fish or pair a larger aquarium with ample cover is best.
Buffalo Head Cichlids (Genus Steatocranus)
Hailing from the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Buffalo Head Cichlids are found throughout the Congo River drainage in Central Africa. While they’re not the most colorful of the dwarf cichlids, they make up for it in behavior and personality. Generally found in fast-moving waters, Buffalo Heads have reduced swim bladders and generally ‘hop’ along the bottom of the aquarium instead of actively swimming. The common Buffalo Head (Steatocranus casuarius) grows to about 3” and makes a great addition to a 29 gallon or larger aquarium with medium sized fish (smaller tetras, livebearers, or rasboras might be at risk of becoming a meal). They can be aggressive towards each other and other cichlids so it is best to keep a single specimen or a pair in a tank along with more robust tankmates like Congo or Buenos Aires Tetras, most barb species, or larger species of rainbowfish. Although quite adaptable, Buffalo Heads will feel most at home with some current in the water so the addition of a circulation pump or powerhead can be helpful. There is another, less common species of Buffalo Head that is occasionally seen in the aquarium hobby known as the Slender or Dwarf Buffalo Head (Steatocranus tinanti) which, as the name implies is less heavy-bodied and slightly smaller than its counterpart.
Nicholsi Mouthbrooder (Pseudocrenilabrus nicholsi)
A small cichlid with huge colors, the nicholsi mouthbrooder is also found throughout the Congo River drainage in central Africa. Its habitat in the wild is largely restricted to small lakes, creeks, and streambeds where it can be found in the shallows among vegetation and driftwood. In the aquarium, these fish are remarkably adaptable and will thrive within a wide range of parameters. Unfortunately, these fish remain somewhat rare in the hobby but with some persistence can be located. With an adult size of 3-3.5”, this fish is also best kept with medium sized tankmates in a 30 gallon or larger aquarium. Even young males can be quite aggressive towards other males and immature females so if kept in a group, a larger aquarium with an abundance of cover and other fast-moving schooling fish can be very helpful to diffuse aggression.
With literally hundreds of smaller species to choose from, there are dwarf cichlids suitable for almost any aquarium. The species mentioned above are just a selection of some of my favorites and those most compatible for community aquariums stocked with other relatively peaceful fish. With the perfect combination of color and unique behavior, dwarf cichlids make for an ideal “centerpiece” fish or focal point for small- to-medium aquariums and for this reason been one of the most enduringly popular groups of freshwater fish in the aquarium hobby since its inception.