African Cichlids Temperament and Behavior

Nothing compares with an African cichlid tank in terms of exoticism, beauty, and overall vibe. Despite their rather pointy personality, African cichlids stand as some of the most sought-after tank fish.

African cichlids belong to 3 main groups, the Malawi, the Tanganyika, and the Victoria cichlids. These are the names of 3 major lakes in Africa that have allowed cichlids to separate into groups, each containing several species and subspecies. But if there’s anything that brings cichlids together, it has to be their color diversity and impressive predilection towards violence.

But are they actually as aggressive as many people portray them to be? Let’s see!

Are African Cichlids Aggressive?

Yes, they are. Expect a lot of violence in your cichlid tank, especially under specific circumstances like having too many males around, not enough hiding spots, or pairing cichlids with literally any other fish species.

Cichlids will fight for many reasons, including not enough space food, especially when scarce, females, and even hierarchy. The males are the ones causing the most ruckus and will often get combative towards one another, sometimes with dire consequences. It’s not uncommon to see male African cichlids hurting or even killing each other, primarily due to hierarchical and territorial fights.

There is one interesting aspect telling the story of the cichlid’s hierarchy. The alpha male(s) always displays more vivid coloring than the lower-ranked males and may also grow a bit larger. Removing the alpha from the tank will cause another to take its place and grow larger and more vividly colored.

But can you mitigate your African cichlids’ aggression? You can, and there are several tools at your disposal in this sense. These include:

  • Limiting the number of males – This should be your go-to strategy when it comes to mitigating cichlid aggression. Male cichlids will never get along with each other, no matter the circumstance. You should only keep 1 male in the tank if possible and only add another provided you have a lot of space available. By ‘a lot,’ I mean at least 40-50 gallons of water.
  • More rocks, more sand – African cichlids, Malawi-born ones especially, prefer rocky environments since they spend most of their time near the substrate. I suggest investing in some good aquarium rocks and aquascape your cichlids’ environment to create tunnels, crevices, and caves throughout the tank. These hiding spots will shelter cichlids from aggression and break the line of sight between aggressors and victims. The substrate also needs to be reasonably deep since cichlids love to bury in it occasionally.
  • Adequate feeding schedule – Cichlids require feeding around 2 times per day as adults. When feeding them, make sure every cichlid gets easy access to food. This will prevent food competition and minimize the risk of violence.

As a side note, you might want to avoid African cichlids if you’re a novice aquarist. This fish isn’t really the best option for beginners due to their water requirements and not-so-friendly personality.

Will African Cichlids Kill Each Other?

Yes, that can happen on occasions. It’s the male cichlids that will display the most violence, and deaths are bound to happen under specific conditions. These include:

  • Food competition and territorial fights – All male cichlids have violence ingrained in their DNA, and food and territory take on the highest spots on the violence chart, next to mating competition. It’s one of the reasons why male cichlids will never get along with each other. You could try to accommodate 2 male cichlids in the same tank, but you should consider the risks involved.
  • Male presence – If you have 2 males in the tank, one of them will necessarily become an alpha, ruling over the other. The alpha is bound to attack the lower-ranked male on sight, and there are no concessions to be made. The attacks are likely to result in death since male cichlids can’t share space, food, or females with another male.
  • Adult newcomers – Cichlids will establish specific hierarchies where every member will occupy a given hierarchical role. Introducing an adult cichlid into the tank at a later date is bound to degenerate into deadly violence. The newcomer will have no hierarchical position to occupy, causing the other cichlids to view it as an intruder.
  • Not enough cichlids – While other fish tend to grow more aggressive when overcrowded, it’s the opposite with cichlids. They could use a bit of overcrowding since living in larger groups spreads out the aggression. Otherwise, you will have a couple of cichlids becoming the focal points of other cichlids’ aggression. This doesn’t mean you should stack your cichlid group in a small tank, on the contrary. Your cichlids require a lot of space to remain comfortable and healthy long-term. Provide them with adequate space and add more cichlids than the recommended golden rule. I would recommend a 70-gallon tank with at least 20 cichlids. The larger the tank, the better, since cichlids could always use some extra space.
  • Stress – Fish stress is always a reason for conflict among cichlids. Stressed cichlids will display aggressive behavior towards each other and other fish, which can often result in casualties in more severe scenarios. Common reasons for stress include fish disease, parasites, improper water conditions, lack of adequate food, etc.

As you can see, African cichlids have a lot of reasons to kill each other. Fortunately, most murders occur indirectly as the result of injuries that infect over time. This allows you time to identify the problems and find immediate solutions and treatment fast.

Will African Cichlids Kill Other Fish?

Yes, that can happen too. There are, basically, 3 scenarios to look out for:

  1. Similar-looking fish – African cichlids are territorial and competitive by nature and rely on their visual input to detect their competition. Studies have shown that cichlids, in general, tend to become more aggressive towards fish species that are similar in coloring to cichlids. That’s because they will consider those fish as competition to their territory and food.
  2. Too small tank mates – African cichlids aren’t exactly predatorial fish, but will eat other fish, provided the opportunity. They will specifically target small fish that they can easily kill and eat. It’s worthy of noting that African cichlids can grow between 2 to 12 inches, depending on the species they belong to.
  3. Peaceful tankmates – The are few things that arouse cichlid violence, like the presence of peaceful tank mates. Cichlids will simply bully and poke them into oblivion, which can quickly end up in fatal outcomes. The only language that cichlids speak is violence. Only pair your cichlids with other aggressive cichlids, as this is the only way to mitigate their unhinged personality.

These points show that African cichlids aren’t exactly the best options for community tanks. Keep them in a cichlid-only environment and look for signs of targeted and repeated aggression to provide your cichlids with a safe and calm environment.

Most Aggressive African Cichlids

Not all cichlids, or even African cichlids, display the same level of violence towards each other. Some are less aggressive, while others can become quite fierce in their territorial battles. The most brutal and aggressive African cichlids today include species like Melanochromis Auratus, Melanochromis Chipokae, and Maylandia Crabro.

This species’ males will often fight to the death over females, food, territory, and hierarchical dominance. Only consider these species, and other similar, display similar aggressive tendencies, if you’re already experienced in dealing with aggressive fish. Otherwise, you may be in for a handful of surprises.

Most Peaceful African Cichlids

Fortunately, there are more peaceful cichlids to consider that are easier to manage in the long run. Some of them may even be fit for community tanks, which you don’t hear that often in relation to cichlids. Some relevant options include blue orchid peacocks, yellow-tail acei, and electric yellow labs, among others.

While these species aren’t exactly peaceful in the way the Oxford dictionary describes the term, they aren’t as combative as other cichlids either. This makes them more fitting for community tanks, so long as you choose their tank partners carefully. I recommend fish species like plecos, loaches, giant danios, and other cichlid species, including those of African descent.


African cichlids consist of numerous species, and not all of them will display the same aggression level. Some are more manageable than others, so you should understand your goals before choosing which species to invest in. Even so, expect African cichlids to find among themselves regularly, no matter their species.

As I’ve shown, there are ways to mitigate cichlid aggression if you’ve decided you can handle them. You can even accommodate them in a community tank, provided you take precautionary measures to protect other species from the trademark cichlid aggression.

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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