Home· Freshwater Aquarium Blog·Care Guide for Apistogramma Dwarf Cichlids — Housing, Breeding, & More

Care Guide for Apistogramma Dwarf Cichlids — Housing, Breeding, & More

How would you like to have a small, gorgeous, and inquisitive fish to add to your community tank as a showstopper? Then you need to try the Apistogramma dwarf cichlids, commonly known as “apistos.”

What are Apistogramma Cichlids?

This genus originates from habitats all over South America and encompasses almost 100 species. The brightly colorful males tend to reach 3–3.5 inches (8–9 cm) and often come with impressive, extended dorsal fins, while females are a bit drabber and stay around 2–2.5 inches (5–6 cm). Besides their striking appearance, one of the first things you will notice about this species is how curious they are. Unlike some fish that tend to dart away as soon as you try to peer into the aquarium, apistos will come right up to the tank wall as soon as they notice you and have a great reputation for interacting with their owners.

Apistogramma agassizii

Apistogramma agassizii

What are the different types of apistos? One of the most enjoyable aspects of the fishkeeping hobby is looking at all the color variations and researching your favorite types. It would be impossible to list them all, but here are some of the most popular ones.

  • A. cacatuoides, or the cockatoo dwarf cichlid, is probably the most common species found in aquarium stores and pet shops. The Super Red, Double Red, and Triple Red morphs look like little race cars with their striped bodies and cherry red fins, whereas the Orange Flash version has spiky, bright orange finnage.
  • A. agassizii also comes in many color variants like Fire Red and Gold, but it has a more rounded tail shaped like a ping pong paddle. Like A. cacatuoides, it is relatively easy to breed at home.
  • A. borelli is known as the “umbrella dwarf cichlid” and comes in a pretty, light blue with lemon-yellow fins.
  • A. trifasciata gets the nickname “three-striped dwarf cichlid” from the triple set of black horizontal lines on its body and vibrant blue fins.

How to Set Up an Aquarium for Apistos

A single or pair of apistogrammas would do best in a 20-gallon aquarium or larger, especially for a community setup, but they can be bred in a 10-gallon tank. Depending on the species, they usually do best in warmer waters from 80–82°F (27–28°C), somewhat acidic to neutral pH, and moderate hardness of 4–8 degrees (70–140 ppm) GH. This feisty, little fish likes to establish its own territory, so provide lots of caves, catappa leaves, and hardscape as hiding spots. Live aquarium plants with dense foliage will also help break line of sight and minimize aggression. As a close relative of Mikrogeophagus cichlids (or “small eartheaters”), apistos also like to sift through very fine sand, so add this kind of substrate if you want to see that behavior.

Apistogramma borelli

Apistogramma borelli

What fish can you keep with apistogrammas? While they are labeled as semi-aggressive fish, they actually do well in most community aquariums. Since they mostly dwell in the bottom half of the tank, we like to keep them with tank mates that won’t take up any of their valuable floor space. Tetras, pencilfish, hatchetfish, and other species that swim in the middle to top half of the aquarium are perfect. Be aware that they will hunt down your dwarf shrimp, baby fish, and any other small creatures that are big enough to fit in their mouths. Also, unless you have a huge tank, they probably won’t be good tank mates for a betta fish since both species are semi-aggressive and territorial.

How many apistogrammas should I keep together? You can keep a single, pair, or large group together, provided that you have enough space or caves for them to have as their own home. One male for every two to three females is a good ratio, whereas two or three males with no females will definitely result in fighting. Adding dither fish like rummy-nose tetras can be helpful for distracting the apistos from squabbling amongst themselves.

Apistogramma trifasciata

Apistogramma trifasciata

What Do Apistogrammas Eat?

This micropredator does best with a well-rounded diet for optimal health and nutrition. While they will happily eat a straight protein diet of bloodworms, tubifex worms, and blackworms, we find that they need some roughage mixed in to prevent bloating. This can include plant matter and crustaceans with nondigestible exoskeletons like brine shrimp and daphnia. Also, apistos usually have no problems eating smaller pellets, Repashy gel food, and other sinking fish foods.

Apistogramma macmasteri

Apistogramma macmasteri munching on a worm

How to Breed Apistogramma Cichlids

Apistos are so fun to breed because they are cave spawners that display parental care towards their young. Some species are harder to breed than others, so do your research before getting started. Of course, you need at least one male and one female, but apistos can sometimes be hard to sex at the fish store because subdominant males can hide their colors to look like a female and avoid the ire of the dominant male. Then once you bring them home, the “sneaker male” colors up and you realize you have no females at all. In our experience, we’ve had good success buying a group of apistogrammas and letting them form spawning pairs amongst themselves.

Once you have a definite pair (or one male with two females), set up a 10-gallon breeding aquarium. You can do a bare-bottom tank, but many apisto breeders like to add a 1-inch (2.5 cm) layer of gravel or sand (or more substrate depth for a planted tank). We like to place some cover (like large amounts of java moss) at the front of the tank and an apisto cave in each of the back corners. Make sure the cave openings aren’t facing each other so that if you have multiple females, they can’t see each while in the caves. Also, nestle the caves down into the substrate a little and deliberately push some sand into the entrance. That way you can tell when the apistos are breeding because they will push the sand away from the entrance.

For filtration, we like to use a sponge filter because it creates gentle flow and won’t suck up any babies. To cycle or season it, you can run the sponge filter in an established tank for 2–3 weeks before putting it into the breeding tank. Also, adding catappa leaves will help lower the pH slightly and tint the water, which helps the parents feel more hidden. If you find that the adults are still aggressive towards each other, try placing more plants and hardscape as cover, and look for top-dwelling dither fish like pencilfish to distract them. Depending on the species, the females usually guard the eggs and stay close to care for the babies, while the male defends the entire territory from would-be predators. Feed the fry tiny foods like infusoria growing on the java moss, vinegar eels, micro worms, and baby brine shrimp as soon as they are big enough.

Apistogramma cacatuoides

Apistogramma cacatuoides in front of a breeding cave

Whichever color variety that you choose, we are confident that you will enjoy having this smart, personable, and beautiful cichlid for many years to come. Check out our preferred online vendors to see which Apistogramma species they have in stock.  Also, keep reading to learn about the top 10 cichlids we love to keep in a 29-gallon aquarium. 

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