Are African Cichlids Freshwater or Marine Fish?

African cichlids are sturdy exotic fish. Apart from their aggressive tendencies, they’re easy to care for. They can adapt to a wide variety of water parameters. As long as you set their tank just right, you shouldn’t have an issue with them. But what does the right setup entail?

There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the ideal African cichlid water parameters. Should you have a soft water aquarium? Or a marine aquarium? Which is better for cichlids? And why do some people swear that saltwater is best for cichlids? Find out the answer to these questions and more, in this article! Let’s get right into it!

Are African Cichlids Freshwater Fish?

Yes, African cichlids are primarily freshwater fish, but there’s a lot of diversity among various species. Still, given their distribution in the major lakes of Africa, most cichlids share more or less the same type of environment. Most African lakes are freshwater.

But what makes fish freshwater as opposed to marine? Well, this all has to do with the salinity level a given species can tolerate. Marine fish live in saltwater. Saltwater has, as you would expect, a high quantity of dissolved salts. For an aquarium to be considered marine or saltwater, the salinity should be 1.023% or higher.

Freshwater fish, on the other hand, live in low-salt water. For water to be considered fresh, the salinity should be equal to or less than 1.05%. There are also some fish that can live in brackish water. That’s water that has higher concentrations of dissolved salt, but not enough for it to be considered marine water. A brackish tank would have a water salinity somewhere around 1.011-1.015%.

These are important distinctions. Introducing your fish to a type of environment that’s not natural to them can result in various health problems and even death. Still, it’s possible for cichlids to adapt to different water parameters.

Can African Cichlids Live in Salt Water?

Kind of. Cichlids aren’t adapted to marine environments, so they can’t live in true saltwater per se. But they can tolerate brackish to borderline salty water. That’s because African cichlids are “euryhaline” fish. This is a science-y term that refers to aquatic organisms which can tolerate a wide range of salinity.

If you do some digging around, you’ll find plenty of accounts of aquarists keeping their cichlids in higher salinity tanks. As long as you make the transition slowly, the fish should be able to acclimate to a water salinity as high as 1.020%! There are also some reported benefits of keeping cichlids in saltier water.

Higher salinity may prevent fungal and bacterial infections as well as parasites. A brackish environment can help not only stall the progression of various illnesses but also treat diseases such as ich. Salt also works as a disinfectant in wounded cichlids. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound… But this time it’s a positive!

You may not have to bring the salinity that high though. Your fish might still reap the same benefits with just half of the level of salinity. A brackish aquarium with a salinity level around 1.011-1.015% can be just as good and poses minimal risks.

Where do African Cichlids Live in the Wild?

African cichlids make up a large group of diverse fish. In the wild, they inhabit some of the major lakes of Africa, including Lake Victoria, Lake Kioga, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Malawi. Of the over 1,300 species discovered to date, most of them live in various areas of Lake Malawi. There are at least 700 recorded species in this lake, which is over half of all the African cichlid species.

Most cichlid species naturally prefer shallow waters with a sandy and rocky bottom. They swim very close to the floor of the lake, where they can feed, nest, and hide their eggs. If we were to generalize, we could say that the natural environment of African cichlids includes warm freshwater with an alkaline pH and a high dGH.

But Lake Malawi is a meromictic lake, meaning that the water has different thermal and chemical gradients. Depending on where a given species swims, the fish might be adapted to slightly different water parameters. The salinity, temperature, hardness, and alkalinity won’t be the same everywhere.

There will be some slight variation between different cichlid species. But don’t expect anything drastic. The fish are still part of the same group and cichlids are highly adaptable irrespective of their natural environment.

What Kind of Water do African Cichlids Like?

The best thing you can do is to emulate the cichlid’s natural environment, which includes the water parameters. As we’ve already discussed, African cichlids live in lakes with low salinity. The water in their natural habitat is warm, alkaline, and hard. Putting all of this together, these are the best water parameters for your cichlids:

  • A higher water pH, around 7.7-8.6.
  • High water temperature, roughly 75–84°F. You’ll need a water heater to achieve and maintain such temperatures consistently.
  • Medium to high water hardness, roughly 9-18 dGH, or 160-320 ppm.
  • Ammonia and nitrite levels as close to 0 ppm as possible. In a well-cycled tank, the values should be 0 ppm.
  • Nitrate levels below 10-25 ppm. The lower the levels, the less you’ll have to worry about algae growth.
  • A salinity level lower than 1.05%. If you want to keep your cichlids in brackish water, you’ll have to make the transition very slowly!
  • Gentle water movement. Cichlids come from lakes where there’s not much water movement. A strong current can be stressful for them.

If you keep all these things in mind, rest assured that your cichlids will feel at home in their aquarium. These parameters also help keep your fish sturdy and healthy!


As you can see, cichlids live up to their “hardy” fish reputation. They can live in a pretty wide range of water parameters, including different levels of salinity. You can keep healthy African cichlids in a freshwater aquarium, as well as in a high-salinity aquarium.

There are even some advantages to brackish water because it has disinfectant properties. Of course, you’ll need to keep an eye out for all the other water parameters such as temperature, pH, hardness, waste by-products, and even water movement.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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