Can You Keep African Cichlids in a 20-Gallon Tank?

As beautiful, exotic, and hardy as African cichlids are, as pretentious, they can be regarding their environmental setup. Their sensitivity to their water parameters, combined with their unhinged behavior, makes African cichlids rather difficult to grow and breed.

So, I wouldn’t recommend African cichlids to novice aquarists who aren’t used to aggressive and pretentious fish species.

If you’ve decided you can care for a family of African cichlids, you should understand their basic requirements before committing. Today, we will discuss the cichlids’ space requirements. How large should their tank be, and how will the available space influence the cichlids’ behavior?

Is 20-Gallon Tank Good for African Cichlids?

Not quite. African cichlids are notorious territorial fish that will fight over space more than anything else. This is especially true for male cichlids, which establish strict territorial borders and will attack any other male cichlid crossing them. A 20-gallon tank isn’t enough to accommodate a flourishing and stable cichlid population.

When it comes to accommodating your African cichlids, here are some key considerations regarding tank size:

  • 20 gallons are enough for cichlid fry – Cichlid fry don’t require too much space, even if you have a lot of them. Their breeding tank also doesn’t require too many decorative elements like rocks or plants. Having some will help, especially for rock-dwelling cichlids like Mbunas, which are hardwired to go into hiding when stressed. But, overall, cichlid fry will do just fine in 20-gallon tanks, at least for the first several weeks of their life. You can most likely move them into the main tank 4-6 weeks after hatching or whenever they have grown enough for adult cichlids to no longer hunt them.
  • Adult require more space – Adult African cichlids need a lot more space than 20 gallons. The absolute minimum is 30 gallons, provided you only have 3-4 cichlids, but that number is suboptimal. Although cichlids aren’t schooling fish, for the most part, they need other cichlids’ companies to remain healthy and stable over the years. Research shows that cichlids tend to be calmer in larger groups, so overstocking them isn’t really counterproductive as with other fish species. That being said, you need a group of at least 6-8 cichlids to create a stable cichlid population, which calls for at least 55 gallons.
  • Territorial behavior and tank setup – Cichlids are extremely territorial, with males often getting in conflict over the shared space. Rock-dwelling cichlid species like Mbunas require a lot of horizontal space, so keeping more than one male per tank comes with severe risks. Male cichlids don’t like to share their space with other males or even similarly-looking fish, causing cichlids to view them as competition. The tank setup also matters in this sense. Rock-dwelling cichlids require a lot of tank decorations, including rock structures, preferably filling up to 75% of the tank. Combine this aspect with the cichlids’ territorial tendencies, and you can see why their need for space is greater than other fish.

The conclusion is simple. Only consider a 20-gallon tank for the fry during their first several weeks of life. There’s no such thing as too much space when it comes to accommodating adult cichlids.

Best Tank Size for African Cichlids

I recommend a 55-gallon tank for a decent cichlid population. This makes for enough space to accommodate both cichlids and their environmental elements like rocks, plants, and any vital aquarium equipment. Providing your African cichlids with enough space will help you achieve 3 primary things:

  1. Lower aggression – The more cichlids you have, the lower the risks of repeated aggression towards certain members. At least, the cichlids will spread out their aggressive tendencies and poke at each other, always changing targets. This will prevent unfortunate scenarios where 1 or 2 cichlids are always the recipient of violence coming from other members.
  2. Consider creating a community tank – The larger the tank is, the higher the opportunity to create community tanks around your cichlid population. Granted, you need to weigh in your options several times over to make sure you’re getting everything right. Cichlids aren’t exactly famous for their acceptance of other fish species. Some good tank mate options include other species of African cichlids, giant danios, rainbow sharks, and even some species of plecos and loaches. Try to pair the latter 2 with Tanganyika and Victoria-native cichlids since these aren’t as substrate-dependent as Malawi-native species, leaving plecos and loaches more room for themselves.
  3. Better aquascaping opportunities – The larger the tank is, the more opportunities you will have to personalizing your tank. The extra space will allow you to include various rock formations, plants, and other esthetic elements, provided they fit your cichlid population. This is a great option for aquarists who also find value in aquascaping.

You can even rely on a larger tank than 55 gallons, but this should be the minimum when considering building the foundation to a stable and thriving cichlid community.

Why Do African Cichlids Need a Large Tank?

The most important reason comes down to territoriality. African cichlids can be quite aggressive when another fish invades their personal space. By ‘another fish,’ I mean another male cichlid or other fish belonging to a different species. In this case, the cichlid can become violent towards the intruder.

The idea is to provide the cichlids with enough room to mitigate their aggressive tendencies and create a calmer and more stable habitat. A 55-gallon tank is ideal for medium-sized African cichlids with sizes around 4 to 6 inches. A larger tank is ideal for your cichlids since:

  • It lowers aggression – A larger tank will contain more hiding spots, breaking line of sight between aggressors and victims. This will eventually contribute to creating a calmer and safer environment for your cichlids.
  • Supports cichlid breeding – A large enough, well-decorated tank will eliminate the need for a breeding or nursing tank. You can keep the pregnant females in the main tank since the resulting fry will have a lot of room to hide and run from adults.
  • Allows for territorial separation – Male cichlids establish their territories by relying on environmental reference points. Rock-dwelling cichlids will take various rocks as points delimiting their territory, and the larger the tank is, the more territories you can accommodate. You may even be able to accommodate more than 1 cichlid male in the same tank, which won’t happen in a smaller aquarium due to the risk of male aggression.

Generally speaking, African cichlids require more space than other fish of their size, primarily because of their native territorial tendencies and innate aggression. A larger tank allows for a more stable cichlid community, decreasing the risk of targeted or repeated violence towards the same recipients.

How Many African Cichlids in 55-Gallon Tank?

When it comes to African cichlids, I recommend keeping around 10-15 in a 55-gallon tank. However, the numbers will vary based on factors like cichlids’ size and the species they belong to. As a general rule, one 6-inch African cichlid requires around 30 gallons of water. But you won’t keep 1 cichlid alone, but a group of several cichlids; the more, the better.

Considering that cichlids do better when slightly overcrowded, I recommend providing each 6-inch cichlid with 10 gallons of water. So, 10 6-inch-long African cichlids are perfect for a 55-gallon tank. If your cichlids are smaller than that, say 3 inches, you can easily fit 15 in the same environment. If they’re larger, you should adjust their number accordingly.

As a general rule, don’t worry about overstocking your cichlids. They’ll thrive in larger groups, even if they seem overstocked by other fish species’ standards. However, keep in mind that overstocking your African cichlids will come with specific logistic problems, like faster fish waste accumulation.

African cichlids are notorious for their poop-producing capabilities. Having a lot of cichlids in the aquarium will result in rather impressive quantities of cichlid poop. This means you will need to invest in a filter, perform regular tank maintenance and water changes, and monitor water parameters constantly.

African cichlids hate fluctuating parameters and despise ammonia and nitrites. Even smaller increases in ammonia can affect their behavior and health with time.


If you’re ready to invest in African cichlids, know that they come with certain requirements like:

  • Sufficient space – The tank’s size depends on the cichlid species you’re aiming for, how large the cichlids are, and their personalities. More aggressive cichlids require more space, more hiding spots, and preferably no tank mates belonging to a different species.
  • Stable water conditions – African cichlids live in clean and fresh natural environments. Their tank conditions should mimic their natural setup, providing cichlids with stable temperatures, preferably around 80 °F, depending on the species, and as little water parameter variations as possible. Keep ammonia and nitrites to 0 to prevent cichlids from experiencing health problems.
  • Each other’s company – If you love African cichlids and want the best for them, consider getting several of them enough to form a larger and stable community. For a 55-gallon tank, get at least 10 cichlids, depending on their size.

Do all these things, and your cichlids will repay you with their love. You won’t be able to tell, but somewhere, beneath all that violence, there’s a lot of cichlid love aiming at you.

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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