Are African Cichlids Tropical Fish?

Ah, African cichlids, the fish everybody hates to love. African cichlids are extremely popular in the aquarium world, which is rather peculiar, seeing how this category of fish isn’t exactly the friendliest or easiest to care for. If there’s any aspect about African cichlids that have stuck to their name ever since the beginning, it has to be their born aggression.

Cichlids are generally very territorial and combative, especially when it comes to protecting their space, access to food, females, and even as part of a well-established hierarchy. That being said, African cichlids are hardy, adaptable, and beautiful fish, displaying a variety of colors and patterns.

Today, we will discuss African cichlids, looking to find out more about their genetic makeup and ideal environmental conditions. To start things off, are African cichlids tropical fish, and what is a tropical fish anyway? Let’s find that out!

What Are Tropical Fish?

Tropical fish don’t belong to a specific taxonomic group since the term ‘tropical’ only defines the fish’s native area. Tropical refers to warmer waters, be them freshwater or saltwater, with higher temperatures overall.

Your typical tropical fish species feels comfortable in temperatures revolving around 72 to 82-85 °F. Anything less than the minimum value displayed here will cause the fish discomfort and even affect its health long-term.

However, the notion of ‘tropical fish’ is more prevalent in the aquarium business, describing fish that live in heated aquariums. African cichlids are some of them.

Are African Cichlids Tropical Fish?

Yes, they are. All cichlids rank as tropical fish, not only the African ones, due to their predilection for warmer waters. This means you should provide your cichlids with environmental conditions that would mimic their natural environment.

In this sense, investing in a tank heater is absolutely necessary. Especially seeing how African cichlids prefer higher and, more importantly, stable water temperatures. Temperature fluctuations can disrupt your cichlids’ normal life, causing visible discomfort and even leading to potential health issues. It’s been noted that frequent, sudden, or massive fluctuations in water temperature affects the cichlids’ immune system.

This tends to happen in cold waters especially, affecting the cichlids’ immune system and leaving them more vulnerable to diseases and parasites. A good heating system will prevent these problems, keeping your cichlids’ environment stable and avoiding any dangerous fluctuations.

The heater will also allow you more control over the cichlids environmental temperature in case you need to adjust the values to accommodate the fish better. As a plus, cichlid fry are even more sensitive to temperature changes, making investing in a heater much more necessary.

Where do African Cichlids Live in the Wild?

To better understand African cichlids, let’s consider their natural environment. All African cichlids live in 3 major lakes on the African continent: Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria. These environments provide cichlids with the perfect conditions to thrive and live stable and healthy lives over the years.

African cichlids live in warm and preferably shallow waters with sandy substrates, vegetation, corals, and in each other’s company. That being said, despite all being tropical fish, not all African cichlids are the same. They may require different environmental conditions based on the species and subspecies they belong to.

At the same time, African cichlids vary quite greatly in size and space requirements, as they can grow between 2 to 12 inches. They are also egg layers or mouthbrooders, which, again, influences their behavior during the reproductive phase.

So, if you’ve fallen in love with African cichlids, always research your preferred species before committing to get it. The ‘tropical fish’ notion leaves out many of the aspects that build the African cichlids’ profile.

What Temperature do African Cichlids Need?

As tropical fish, African cichlids require temperatures around 75 to 85 °F. These are high values even for most tropical fish, seeing how guppies, for instance, require temperatures between 72 to 82 F. Ideally, you should keep your cichlids’ water temperature around 78 to 80 °F for maximum comfort and a healthy cichlid population.

The only problem arrives with the cichlid fry. The cichlid offspring may require slightly higher temperatures than the adults, primarily in their first few weeks of life. I wouldn’t recommend raising the main tank’s temperature to accommodate the fry unless you’ve determined that your adult cichlids won’t mind.

Other than that, relocating the fry, or the pregnant female, in another tank may be a wiser move. This is mostly true for egg-laying cichlids since mouthbrooders will handle the situation themselves. Mouthbrooding female cichlids will keep the eggs in their mouths until they hatch to provide protection and extra warmth. They will also use their mouth pouch similar to a kangaroo, taking in the fry during their first 2 weeks of life for the same reasons.

The fry will only emerge to feed and investigate their habitat and get inside their mouther’s mouth pouch at the first sign of danger.

Can African Cichlids Live in Cold Water?

No, and I wouldn’t advise testing their limits either. All cichlids are tropical fish, whether they’re African, American, or Asian, and all of them prefer warm waters, with the 72 F value being the minimum accepted. Anything below that will put the cichlid at risk. Most cichlid species prefer temperatures above 74 and will begin to show discomfort when temperatures drop.

They will showcase lower activity and swimming, as their metabolism will slow down and experience weaker immune systems, causing vulnerability to parasites and various diseases. The only exception, if we can call it that, comes in the form of Asian cichlids. These fish are more acceptant of lower temperatures, capable of going as low as 68 °F.

Other than that, the rest of the cichlids, including African ones, can’t cope too well with cold waters. Keep their environmental temperature above 74 °F at all times and prevent any sudden or major fluctuations, including during water changes. The latter presents the most risk for temperature fluctuations, so be wary of that and always heat up the water during the procedure.

Can African Cichlids Live with Tropical Fish?

Many people seem to be interested in this question, but I see it as irrelevant. Or, rather, poorly formulated. The fact that 2 fish species prefer similar environmental temperatures says nothing about their compatibility as tank mates. Case and point – African cichlids and any other tropical fish like guppies, mollies, platies, swordtails, and whatever species you can think of.

African cichlids are notoriously aggressive and territorial, males especially. They will attack all fish entering their turf, which is the entire tank and will often display disproportionate violence. It’s not uncommon for African cichlids to kill other fish, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the wounds getting infected.

It’s also worth noting that African cichlids have varied diets. Some are omnivorous, others are more herbivorous-leaning, while others prefer a largely carnivorous diet. They may also display predatorial behavior at times, especially towards smaller and shier fish.

At the same time, most African cichlids are famous for attacking long-finned and brightly colored fish, and that they hate the presence of other species in their habitat. This makes African cichlids unfit for community tanks for the most part. You can probably make it work if you pair cichlids with a species of bottom-feeders like plecos.

The latter will clean food residues off the substrate and keep the water clean and stable for all tank inhabitants to enjoy. They will also remain hidden around the substrate and will rarely interact with your cichlids, if ever. You may also have some additional options like giant danios, rainbow shark, zebra loach, and other fish species, but don’t take anything for granted.

I suggest decorating your cichlid tank with plenty of plants, rocks, corals, and various hiding spots before introducing any other fish species to the habitat. These hiding spots will serve as safe places for all fish looking to avoid your cichlids’ aggression.


African cichlids are beautiful and hardy fish that can withstand environmental fluctuations to a point. They are also resilient and won’t get sick that easily, compared to many other tank fish.

Just keep in mind that African cichlids require a clean and healthy environment, regular tank maintenance, weekly water changes, and a natural-looking habitat. And most importantly, male African cichlids will never get along with each other.

Aside from all these factors, provide your cichlids with a healthy and diverse diet, and they will flourish.

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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