How Many African Cichlids in a 30-Gallon Tank?

African cichlids are a space-dependent species more-so than many other tank fish species you can think of. African cichlids require more space than other fish due to 3 primary reasons:

  • Mitigates aggression – A larger space comes with more room for cichlids to roam and allows for more extensive rock systems. These will provide a variety of hiding spots, breaking line of sight between cichlids and contributing to a safer and calmer habitat.
  • Territoriality – African cichlids are born aggressors, using their violent tendency as a tool for maintaining territorial dominance. Male cichlids will often fight to the death between them for the rights over certain territories. Expect the same outcome when pairing African cichlids with other fish species that trespass into their turf. The extra space can accommodate more fish and minimize the risk of aggressive displays from cichlids.
  • Breeding optimization – African cichlids are mostly mouthbrooders, which means they carry their eggs and young fry in specific mouth pouches. Bearing female cichlids can grow more irritable when lacking enough space, since this can make them feel unsafe. It can also lead to more bullying from other cichlids which may cause females to spit out their eggs. More space equals more hiding spots and an overall safer environment for the females.

I would say that a 30-gallon tank is only sufficient for a handful of African cichlids, mainly smaller species. Here are some cichlid species that could live in a 30-gallon aquarium, technically speaking:

  • Mbuna cichlids – There are a lot of cichlid species to consider here, including Yellow Labs, Electric Yellow cichlids, Maingano cichlids, Freibergi cichlids, etc. There are plenty of species available, varying in size, behavior, and overall requirements. Mbunas are primarily rock dwellers, so make sure you provide them with a rocky environment to keep them comfortable and calm.
  • Tanganyika Shell Dwellers – As the name suggests, these are Tanganyika-born cichlids, at least most of them. The notion of ‘shell dwelling’ doesn’t describe a taxonomic classification, but rather a behavior. These cichlids like to take cover and breed in empty shells of water snails. They can easily fit a 30-gallon tank, given some preparation and strategizing.
  • All rock-dwelling cichlids – Rock dwelling cichlid species require less space compared to other cichlids. That’s because they will rarely leave the substrate, so investing in a tall tank makes no sense. They do, however, require more horizontal space, preferably covered with a well-structured rock system to ensure plenty of hiding spots.

In essence, you may find a variety of smaller African cichlids fit for a 30-gallon tank, but I wouldn’t advise it. 30 gallons is generally not enough space even for smaller cichlid species. These fish require more space than that, especially since they need to live in larger groups and because of their territorial behavior.

How Many Cichlids in a 30-Gallon Tank?

If you only have a 30-gallon tank and have decided to invest in African cichlids, there are a handful of species that you can cram in there. How many you can accommodate in the 30-gallon aquarium depends on the fish’s size and behavior. Here are several species to consider:

Cichlid Species Number of fish
Electric Yellow Lab 6 – Preferably 1 male and 5 females. Yellow Labs will typically grow around 5 inches in size.
Yellow-Tail Acei 5-6 – Acei cichlids may reach 6 inches or more, so a 30-gallon tank may keep them overcrowded a bit. But you can make it work.
Neolamprologus Multifasciatus 20-25 – This African cichlid is among the smallest species, only measuring around 2 inches. This shell-dwelling species is small enough to even qualify for 10-20-gallon tanks.
Neolamprologus Similis Up to 15 – The fish can only grow to 2 inches, but require more space than similar-sized cichlids.
Lamprologus Ocellatus 15 – Ocellatus cichlids grow up to 2.5 inches and they are quite territorial, albeit rather peaceful in nature overall.
Neolamprologus Leleupi 4-5 – You can’t fit more than 5 Leleupi in a 30-gallon tank. The official recommended tank size is 55 gallons for a thriving community.
Neolamprologus Brevis 20 – This species can grow up to 2.2 inches, with females only measuring around 1.5 inches. This allows you to stack more of them in a 30-gallon tank.
Perlmutt Cichlid 4-5 – The Perlmutt cichlid grows up to 4 inches, which means it requires more space overall. I would suggest more than 30 gallons, but this can work too, provided you do your best to accommodate the cichlid.
Freibergi Cichlid 5-8 – Freibergi cichlids grow up little over 3 inches, making them somewhat qualified for 30-gallon tanks.
Lamprologus Signatus 20 – Just like Brevis cichlids, the male can reach 2.2 inches and the females will remain at 1.5 inches.

There are numerous other African cichlid species that could fit a 30-gallon tank, especially among the smaller ones revolving around 2-4 inches. Anything more than that is generally unfit for such a tight space.

However, you should keep in mind that most African cichlids, especially Malawi-born ones, are rock dwellers. Their tank needs to accommodate a variety of aquatic decorations meant to keep the fish calm and stabilize the cichlid population. So, you should also consider this aspect when looking to invest in a cichlid tank.

Is a 30-Gallon Tank Good for Breeding?

Yes, it is. Even more, it’s a fitting tank size no matter the cichlid species you have in mind. I was going to recommend a 20-gallon tank to set up the breeding environment, but a 30-gallon one is even better for a couple of reasons:

  • More space for more decorative elements – The fry won’t typically need that many decorative elements. Only rock-dwelling species demand more hiding spots to help them feel safer during their first few weeks of life. The aquatic rocky setup is mostly important for both egg layers and mouthbrooding females which keep the eggs, and the resulting young, in their mouth pouch. Providing the females with proper aquatic decorations will keep them stable, healthy, and happy during the breeding phase.
  • Allows for higher fry density – A larger space will allow you to house more fry at once, in case you have more than one pregnant female. It is a great option for aquarists who are interested in selective breeding, breeding cichlids for profit, or simply looking to expand on their cichlid population fast.
  • Easier maintenance – Having more space will diminish the need for strict tank cleaning and maintenance.

As a side note, remember that cichlids are champions at producing poop and the same goes for the fry. Newborn cichlids will consume food more frequent than adults, which may lead to more frequent pooping. So, always monitor the breeding tank’s water parameters and perform tank cleaning and water changes to keep the fry’s habitat stable and healthy.

Can You Keep a Single Cichlid in a 30-Gallon Tank?

Yes, but not really. Many cichlid species will live happily ever after, more or less, in a 30-gallon tank, but few will actually thrive. And it’s not about the tank’s size either. Most, if not all, African cichlids thrive in large and vivacious groups. Although you can technically keep one cichlid alone, it will definitely not live a high-quality life and will most likely experience a shorter lifespan as a result.

Some cichlids can thrive alone in a tank of their own, however, as is the case of the Oscar. But the Oscar isn’t an African cichlid, it’s South American. So, you should never assume that whatever applies to most cichlids also applies to African ones. I would suggest that, at a bare minimum, you should keep a pair of cichlids, since they will find some comfort in each other’s presence.

However, when it comes to African cichlids, you should only keep them in groups, preferably larger ones. The more of them there are in a given setting, the less likely they are to display unwarranted violence and aggressive behavior.

Can Different Cichlid Species Live in a 30-Gallon Tank?

Yes, you can mix cichlid species in the same environment, provided you take 3 primary factors into account:

  • Stick to the same cichlid group – By ‘group’ I mean ‘geographically-sourced group.’ In other words, African cichlids should only be paired with other African cichlids, even if different species. The same goes for South American cichlids and so on. Don’t mix cichlid species belonging to different groups, since their encounters are destined to turn deadly.
  • Look for cichlid species varying in colors – The problem with cichlids is that they consider similarly-colored fish as competition. This is more prevalent with certain African cichlids that display extreme territorial tendencies like Kennyi, Pindani, Ice Blue, Bumblebee cichlid, and others. If you can, look for cichlids of different colors to prevent that.
  • Control the number of males – Male African cichlids are extremely territorial and aggressive towards other males, regardless of the species. I would advise against keeping more than one male per tank, unless the tank is large enough and comes with a multitude of hiding spots.

As a general rule, try to decorate your cichlid tank with several hiding spots, mainly rocks and plants, so long as your cichlids won’t eat or unearth the latter. You should also keep the cichlids in larger numbers, even to the point of overstocking them. African cichlids don’t mind being slightly overcrowded, so long as you keep the tank clean and the water in pristine conditions.


As you can see, you can theoretically keep some African cichlids in a 30-gallon tank, but not too many and not any species. African cichlids, and cichlids in general, require a lot of space due to them being more territorial than you’d like.

And, whatever you do, don’t keep them as single fish. There are few things sadder than that.

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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