Convict Cichlid: Care, Size, Tank Mates & Breeding


Hardy, easy to breed, and easy to feed, convict cichlids are popular additions to aquariums, especially for beginners.

However, even the easiest fish have important steps to follow and needs to meet in order to live a long, healthy life. The convict cichlid is no exception.

That’s why we’ve created this complete guide to teach you everything from the proper diet to breeding to tank setup!

Common Name:         Convict cichlid; Zebra cichlid
Scientific Name:         Amatitlania nigrofasciata
Temperament:Can be aggressive, territorial
Size:4.5 to 6 inches
Lifespan:8 to 10 years
Care Level:Beginner
Minimum Tank Size:30 gallons
Compatibility:Medium – works better with same species tank partners


Convict cichlids get their name from the black and white stripes running vertically up and down their bodies. This is because they resemble the black and white striped prison uniforms popularized in many places in the 1800s.

These stripes have also earned them their other name: zebra cichlids.

Convict cichlids are found naturally in freshwater lakes and streams in Central America, as well as Australia. Here, they’re used to a moderate amount of current and have plenty of rocks and logs to use as hides.

They’re relatively easy-going and hardy, making them good beginner fishes. However, due to their territorialism, it isn’t recommended that you house them in community tanks.

Learning the dos and don’ts and needs of the convict cichlid is important in helping them reach their full potential. If taken care of properly, you’ll get the chance to enjoy around a decade of companionship.


At a maximum length of around 6 inches, convict cichlids are one of the smaller varieties of cichlids. They have the typical cichlid body shape, however.

Convict cichlids are known for their stripes. The average convict cichlid has around 8 or 9 black stripes running vertically over their body, which is a blue-grey color.

However, many factors can play into coloration, such as lightening, age, and health.

As a result, normal breeding and a combination of factors can result in two varieties: black convict cichlids and blue convict cichlids.

There is also selective breeding. Many convict cichlids breeders have set up their tanks to breed for a leucistic strain of convict cichlids.

Leucistic coloration is a lack or complete lack of pigment in certain areas of the body. This has resulted in several other varieties including white convict cichlids, pink convict cichlids, and gold convict cichlids.

For those convict cichlids owners interested in genetics, the leucistic coloration is caused by a recessive autosomal gene mutation.

Amatitlania nigrofasciata

There is also usually a splotch of dark coloration along the operculum – the protective covering over the gills.

As juveniles, convict cichlids are identical between males and females – also known as monomorphic. Once they reach sexual maturity, they develop different physical appearances, which will be discussed more further below in our section on breeding.

All healthy convict cichlids have dorsal, anal, and ventral fins, though size and shape varies between sexes. Some – usually older males – have a vestigial lump of fatty tissue on their foreheads.

Like most other varieties of cichlids, convict cichlids do have teeth. As omnivores who catch smaller fish and organisms to eat in nature, these teeth are often visible at the front of their mouth.

Food & Diet

When it comes to convict cichlids, they’ll eat just about anything. This can be good and bad.

First, it means you’ll never have to worry about a picky eater. Convict cichlids are omnivorous – meaning they eat plants and other animals – and they don’t have any foods they particularly dislike.

However, with your convict cichlids eating nearly everything you put into their tank, it’s easy to think that they’re eating a well-rounded diet. However, even though they’re eating a lot and often, it doesn’t mean they’re getting the right nutrients, which can lead to malnourishment.

As a result, it’s important to implement a standard diet for your convict cichlids to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need to live a long and healthy life.

In the wild, cichlids eat a wide variety of different foods. This list includes the likes of crustaceans, small fish, insects, worms, plants, and algae.

This variety comes from the fact that convict cichlids’ jaws can protrude, allowing them to eat many different foods.

One of the best diets for convict cichlids is a mix of dried food and live food. This means combining either pellets or flakes with either live or freeze-dried food.

Options for live food include:

  • Bloodworms
  • Brine shrimp
  • Black worms
  • Daphnia

It’s also recommended to establish a regular feeding schedule. This will help keep your cichlids from becoming hungry throughout the day.

A common schedule many owners use is once in the morning and once at night.

It’s also important to supervise your cichlids during feeding time, especially early on in your ownership.

Since convict cichlids are so eager to eat anything possible, they have a tendency to overeat. Watching them carefully will help prevent any issues with eating more than they need.

Behavior & Temperament

While convict cichlids are great beginner pets, you will want to be careful in your research of their behavior and temperament. Understanding their aggressive tendencies, especially around their lifelong mates or during spawning seasons, is essential to healthy and safe fish keeping.

First, convict cichlids, like other cichlids, are known for being territorial and feisty.

This isn’t necessarily something to immediately worry about, however, especially if you give them the right tank environment to live in. With enough space and hides, as well as the right tank mates, they should be able to live a healthy life free of incidence.

We’ll talk more about the proper types of hides for you convict cichlid below, in the section about setting up your tank. For, now, however, we can explain why they’re important.

Convict cichlid near aquarium decoration

While convict cichlids are territorial, they’re also extremely private. In the wild, they live in streams with plenty of plants, rocks, and driftwood.

This means that adding these aspects in as hides can help give your convict cichlid a place to call their own and get away from their tank mates. This can help control aggression as a result of territorialism when living in a community tank.

You can also control aggression by keeping an eye on the temperature within your tank. Science has proven that convict cichlids are more likely to be aggressive at 86 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the temperature they spawn at.

For behavior, convict cichlids love to stay moving.

While they will spend a nice portion of their time either swimming about the middle or hiding away, you’ll often catch them checking out their surroundings. This includes snooping around plants, checking out the substrate, and occasionally even digging.

As a result, convict cichlids are a great choice for fish owners looking to spend a lot of time watching their fish.

Habitat & Tank Requirements

One reason that convict cichlids are such popular options is that they’re very flexible when it comes to tank setup and water parameters. They’re hardy fish, making them easier to care for compared to some other species of fish.

Of course, even with a fish as hardy and flexible as the convict cichlids, there’s still an ideal spot to aim for.

In the wild, convict cichlids are found in warmer areas, such as Central America. As a result, the ideal water temperature is anywhere from 79 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

They like their water around neutral in pH, ranging from 6.5 to 8. For water hardness, they prefer a range of 10 to 15 dH.

When it comes to setting up their tank and decorating it, the best way to go is mimicking their natural environment as much as possible.

First, you should start with the substrate. This is the base of your tank and will layer the bottom; it also affects the type of plants you’ll be able to plant.

For convict cichlids, they do best with a sandy substrate. This is because, as mentioned above, they enjoy digging, and anything coarser than sand could injure them by scratching them.

Tank Mates

You already know that convict cichlids are aggressive and territorial fish, so seeing a section for tank mates might come as a bit of a surprise. However, you actually do have a few options when it comes to giving them tank mates.

Before we get into that, however, it is important to mention that giving a convict cichlid tank mates would be better for more advanced owners. This is because it isn’t the absolute safety option.

There’s no guarantee that your convict cichlid won’t attack your other fish, even when taking precautions. As a result, if you don’t want even the possibility of aggressive behavior within your aquarium, it’s better to keep them either alone or with a mate.

However, do not put a male and female pair in a community tank together! This can lead to higher levels of aggression as the male is territorial of his mate.

Also, when you put a male and female together, there is a very high chance they will breed.

Now since that’s finished, however, we can talk about the species you can try keeping with convict cichlids. These have the best results compared to other species and includes;

  • Oscar fish
  • Pictus catfish
  • Jack Dempsey fish
  • Clown Loach
  • Silver dollar fish


One reason convict cichlids are popular is that they’re one of the easiest to breed.

Before you can breed them, however, you need to have a male and female pair.

Female convict cichlid protecting eggs

Sexual Dimorphism

Thankfully, distinguishing between male and female convict cichlids is easier than some other species. This is because of sexual dimorphism.

Sexual dimorphism is the noticeable differences between a male and female in the same species. In humans, sexual dimorphism includes things such as internal and external reproductive structures and gonads.

In convict cichlids, the male is larger than the female. They have pointed ventral, dorsal, and anal fins that extend into filaments.

Females are more brightly colored. They have more intense black bands along their body and warm colorations from pink to orange in the ventral area and along the dorsal fin.

How to Breed Convict Cichlids

Now since you have a male and female pair, you can work on making a suitable breeding habitat.

First, you’ll need to have a 50-60 gallon tank set aside for our parents to be. Never encourage convict cichlid breeding in a community tank, even if only with other convict cichlids.

This solo tank will need to be decorated as well. Adding in rocks and a cave is important to encourage the female to lay her eggs.

With the tank set up right, you’ll want to raise the temperature. A good range for spawning is anywhere between 80°F and 84°F.

From there, your convict cichlid pair should do the work themselves!

After the eggs have been laid and fertilized, your pair will work endlessly to protect them. This is why breeding in a community tank is a bad idea that is not at all recommendedthe parents will fight to the death for their offspring!

Once the eggs hatch, it’ll be a good idea to separate them into their own tank so as not to encourage any parent-child aggression. You should also begin feeding them – brine shrimp is a good choice.


For beginner fish owners, a convict cichlid, or even a pair, can be a great introduction to maintaining an aquarium and raising fish. Their hardiness allows for you to become comfortable with keeping proper water parameters, and their willingness to eat helps keep them healthy.

Since maintaining a community tank with convict cichlids is difficult, it also allows you to focus on your cichlid without a variety of other fish to care for. This helps beginners develop the fish keeping skills needed.

With an 8-10 year-long lifespan, convict cichlids can be quite a commitment, however, so it’s important to make sure that you’re ready to follow the steps needed to keep them healthy before taking one home.