7 Smallest African Cichlids – Information & Facts

While most people agree that larger cichlid species make for a more exhilarating impression, they also agree that smaller cichlids are more manageable overall.

Some of the plusses to consider include:

  • Lower aggression levels – By ‘lower,’ I only mean ‘slightly lower,’ since African cichlids are all territorial and aggressive by nature. The difference is that, with smaller species, the dangers associated with the aggressive behavior are less impactful. After all, these 2-inch fish can’t cause as much damage as a 6-8-inch cichlid.
  • Great for smaller tanks – One of the main issues with African cichlids is that they require a lot of space. African cichlids demand at least 55 gallons of water, pretty much no matter the species. The smaller species, however, can easily thrive in 10-20-30-gallon tanks, provided you ensure optimal living conditions.
  • Smaller fish equals more fish – This is a definite plus, especially when considering that cichlids tend to display impressive colors and patterns. Small species can form groups of 20 or more members, depending on how large the tank is.

But how do small cichlid species fare in terms of care and maintenance when compared to larger species? And which species should you consider for your small tank? Let’s have a look!

Here are 7 of the most popular small cichlids available today:

1. Neolamprologus Multifasciatus

This species can only grow up to 2 inches, with females being slightly smaller than the males. They can do just fine in 10-gallon tanks, although such an environment will only accommodate 2-3 fish. The more of them you plan on having, the larger the tank. I would suggest at least 30 gallons for a decent group of up to 15 cichlids.

Multifasciatus ranks as a shell-dweller, which means you will have to decorate its habitat with a variety of snail shells. Go for escargot shells of different sizes to accommodate all fish and provide enough to mitigate territorial violence. This species can get quite territorial if there isn’t enough space, the shells are too close to one another, or you place them in overcrowded community tanks.

This fish will happily consume a varied diet, consisting of plant-based and animal-sourced foods. Regular cichlid-oriented food products are just fine.

Interesting facts:

  • The female Multifasciatus lays its eggs inside the shell and guard the entrance against other cichlids or fish coming near it
  • Multifasciatus sets small territories, usually no larger than 6 inches, but they will often defend them fiercely against any intruders
  • Plants, rocks, and other decorative elements are more than welcome since they will help these tiny cichlids feel safer and at home in their habitat


2. Neolamprologus Similis

The Similis cichlid is very similar in appearance to the Multifasciatus. Like the latter, Similis displays a small but elongated frame with a striped pattern. The difference is that Similis has additional stripes on its head and neck and that they are lighter in color, while Multifasciatus showcases darker variants.

Similis will rarely grow to 2 inches, with males more typically revolving around 1.8 inches, while females will only reach 1.4. This size difference is one of the few signs of sexual dimorphism, along with the males’ more intense coloring, especially during the mating phase. Otherwise, the male and female are almost identical.

Similis prefers stable and clean waters, with temperatures around 75-81 F and a pH of 7.5-9.0. These values need to remain stable to keep the cichlid comfortable and safe over the years.

I recommend a 20-30-gallon tank for a decent-sized group.

Interesting facts:

  • Similis cichlids don’t require a deep substrate because they are not good diggers anyway; they will spend most of their time in their shells
  • A lot of shells are necessary since Similis cichlids may lay their eggs in several of them, depending on how prolific they are
  • The newborn fry will remain in their mother’s shell for a couple of weeks until the female evicts them


3. Neolamprologus Brevis

This is another shell-dwelling species most commonly referred to as the Frog-Face fish. This cichlid can grow slightly larger than the previous ones, with males reaching 2.4 inches, while females remaining around 1.6 inches. While you can keep a couple of fish in a 10-gallon tank, Brevis cichlids feel more comfortable in larger groups.

A 30-gallon tank would be more fitting for this species, although you can even go larger than that. Especially since Brevis cichlids are slightly larger overall.

The tank’s layout is pretty much similar to any other neolamprologus species. The sandy substrate should be covered with a variety of shells, serving as resting places and breeding spots for the Brevis.

This species is moderately aggressive but can become quite territorial when overcrowded. The female will also become violent when protecting the eggs and the resulting young, which she will hide inside her shell.

Interesting facts:

  • You’d be better off by providing this species with a separate breeding tank. Otherwise, the fry risk getting eaten by other adult Brevis cichlids
  • When enough Brevis cichlids are brought in the same spot, they will form a colony that functions based on hierarchical principles
  • These fish are so territorial that will even poke and bite on your hand if you come close enough to their shells


4. Lamprologus Signatus

This small cichlid comes with a distinct look, showcasing a slim, cone-like body covered by vertical stripes. The dorsal fin is slightly uncanny-looking compared to other species since it doesn’t lose height towards the tail. Signatus cichlids only grow up to 2.2 inches (1.6 tops for females), and they require at least 20-gallons of water for 5-8 specimens.

I would recommend more room, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 gallons, especially if you plan on breeding them. And even if you don’t, the Signatus will breed anyway, unless you go straight for a female-only tank.

The main difference between Signatus cichlids and other species is that males cannot coexist in the same space. Only keep 1 male per tank otherwise, the situation can get messy fast, causing males to exhibit extreme aggression. You can add more than one male Signatus to the habitat, provided the tank is large enough.

This is a shell-dwelling cichlid species that likes more open areas with a decent number of hiding spots among rocks and plants. The ideal temperature should revolve around 73 to 81 F, with a pH of up to 9.

Interesting facts:

  • The sexual dimorphism is clearer in Signatus. The male will display vertical stripes on its sides, which females lack.
  • Since males and females are so different in appearance, it was initially thought they belonged to different species
  • Unlike other species, both the male and the female participate in raising the fry until they become free swimmers
  • The male and female will move the fry to different shells occasionally, so feel free to provide them with more shells than you would other species


5. Lamprologus Ocellatus

Ocellatus ranks among the most popular small cichlids thanks to their rather peaceful demeanor. They like to keep to themselves and avoid conflict with other fish as much as possible. Ocellatus cichlids only grow up to 2.2 inches (1.4 for females) and will require at least 20 gallons of water, depending on how many fish you plan on having.

Unlike many other small cichlids, this one likes to dig in the substrate. So, the substrate should be at least 2-inches deep. As with any member of the Lamprologus genus, try to maintain a healthy male-to-female ratio. This will decrease male aggression, which is a must, knowing that male cichlids will fight over anything, but especially females.

While this species is rather chill and friendly, it will often display extreme territoriality, even attempting to bite your hand if you get too close to their shells.

I would suggest at least 30 to 40 gallons of water for this species, although 55 sounds more fitting, especially if you’re aiming to create a larger community.

Interesting facts:

  • Just like Brevis, this species also carries the alternate name of Frog-Face due to the cichlid’s bulbous eyes
  • Ocellatus cichlids like to bury their shells and the shells around them in the sand. They do so mainly to provide extra protection, prevent other fish from moving near them, and create a water funnel, directing water and nutrients towards the shell’s entrance. The latter seems to be a strategy to provide newborn fry with adequate food during their first days of life
  • Selective breeding has created a gold morph of the Ocellatus cichlid that’s currently gaining a lot of popularity in the genus


6. Neolamprologus Brichardi

Brichardi cichlids are probably the most popular specimens on this list. This fish is slightly larger, as it can grow up to 3.5 to 4 inches, with females being smaller than the males. Unlike previous species, this one relies on rocks to find shelter and spawn its fry rather than snail shells.

Brichardi displays a handful of features that give it a unique and distinct look, side the brownish color with golden reflections. The elongated tail lobes are the most relevant example in this sense. Brichardi also showcases an elongated and compact body and will often display dark spots around the eyes.

Unlike other smaller cichlids, Brichardi requires a bit more space to thrive. The ideal tank size would be in the neighborhood of 20 gallons for one pair. So, you should realistically consider at least 55 gallons for a decent group of 8-10 cichlids.

Interesting facts:

  • Brichardi cichlids typically form pairs during the breeding phase, with both parents contributing to raising the fry
  • In the wild, Brichardi cichlids can often live in groups of thousands of specimens. In aquariums, however, they will rarely accept the presence of other fish, including other Brichardi cichlids. To prevent fights, only Brichardi cichlids should only live with cichlids they have grown with. Adding adult Brichardi cichlids to an already established population is bound to turn bloody
  • While males are generally larger, that’s not always the case, so size isn’t necessarily a good indicator of sexual dimorphism


7. Neolamprologus Leleupi

If the name of Neolamprologus Leleupi doesn’t sound familiar, try Lemon cichlid. This species is highly popular for its intense coloring and distinct body shape. Most Leleupi cichlids will display a bright, uniform yellow, while others will come in shades of brown; generally speaking, this species doesn’t display too much color diversity.

The body is rather long, as Leleupi cichlids can grow up to 3.9 inches in captivity with proper diet and stable water parameters. This species also displays elongated ventral and caudal fins and longer heads with prominent lips. All in all, this is a distinct-looking cichlid that’s bound to make a splash (pun clearly intended).

The recommended tank size would be 20-30 gallons for a pair and 55-75 gallons for a small group. The problem here is that Leleupi cichlids aren’t fond of groups. They have an underdeveloped social predisposition and like to live in pairs rather than larger communities. They will become especially violent towards other Leleupi cichlids as they take them for competition.

Interesting facts:

  • Leleupi cichlids are compatible with some community tanks, provided they have enough space and plenty of hiding spots available. A community tank should provide Leleupi cichlids with around 75 gallons of water and a rocky set up filled with caves of all shapes and sizes.
  • This is a mostly carnivorous species, thriving on live foods and generally protein-rich food sources.
  • Leleupi cichlids rank as cave dwellers, so make sure you provide them with a fitting environmental setup


African cichlids are quite a handful when it comes to accommodating them, especially for novice aquarists. However, they can become quite easy to care for and maintain once you get the basics down. Here are some top hints on how to care for your small cichlids over the years:

  • Temperature stability is essential – You absolutely need to invest in a heater to prevent temperature fluctuations. African cichlids despise sudden or massive temperature shifts, no matter their species, size, or other metrics.
  • Clean water and stable parameters are vital – African cichlids are particularly sensitive to ammonia, nitrites, chlorine, chloramine compounds, etc. Their water parameters need to remain stable with as few variations as possible. So, stick to a regular cleaning schedule involving vacuuming the substrate and changing up to 15% of the water weekly.
  • Choose tank mates carefully – Most African cichlids don’t do well in community tanks. Generally speaking, they will only accept the company of their own species or other African cichlid species that share their water requirements. If you plan on adding them to a community tank, make sure you meet the cichlids’ essential requirements in terms of environment, diet, and rocky setup.
  • Ensure enough room – African cichlids tend to be territorial, especially in smaller spaces. Provide your cichlids with adequate space, and you will mitigate their aggressive tendencies significantly.

I hope this list has provided the necessary tools to provide your tiny cichlids with optimal living conditions. Keep them safe and healthy, and they will thrive over the years.

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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