Convict Cichlid: Species Profile & Best Care Guide for Beginners

| Updated: June 11, 2023
Side profile image of a male convict cichlid

If you are looking for a colorful, hardy, and easy-to-breed fish for your freshwater aquarium, you might want to consider the convict cichlid. This is one of the most popular cichlids in the hobby! It has a striking appearance, a fascinating behavior, and a low-maintenance care requirement.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about the convict cichlid, including its natural range, appearance, size, care, tank mates, breeding, and more. We’ll also give you tips on keeping your convict cichlids healthy and happy in your aquarium.

What is a Convict Cichlid?

The convict cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata) is a fish species from the family Cichlidae, native to Central America. It is also known as the zebra cichlid because of its black vertical stripes on a blue-gray body. The species name nigrofasciata means “black-striped” in Latin.

Convict cichlids are popular aquarium fish because they are very hardy and can tolerate a wide range of water conditions. They are also easy to breed and have a strong parental care behavior. They can form monogamous pairs and defend their territory and offspring from any intruders.

Convict cichlids are also very interesting to watch because they have a complex social structure and communication system. They can recognize their mates and offspring and display different forms of aggression and submission. They have been the subject of many scientific studies on fish behavior and intelligence.

Natural Range and Habitat

Convict cichlids are native to the lakes and streams of Central America. In particular, the species occurs along the eastern coast of Central America from Guatemala to Costa Rica, and on the western coast from Honduras to Panama.

Their natural habitat is usually clear or turbid water with a moderate current and a rocky or sandy substrate. They prefer areas with plenty of hiding places such as wood, roots, plants, or caves. They are omnivorous and feed on algae, plants, insects, worms, crustaceans, and small fish.

Convict cichlids have also been introduced to other countries such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. They are considered invasive species in some areas because they can compete with native fish for food and space.

Appearance and Varieties

The wild-type convict cichlid has 8 or 9 black vertical bars on a blue-gray body and a dark blotch on the operculum (the flap covering the gills). The bars are more prominent in juveniles and females than in males.

The males are larger than females and have more pointed dorsal, anal, and ventral fins that often extend into filaments. The males also have a prominent bump called a nuchal hump on their forehead.

The females are smaller than males, and they have rounder fins that are shorter than the males’. The females also have orange or red spots on their belly and dorsal fin that become more intense during breeding.

There are several color varieties of convict cichlids that have been developed by selective breeding. Some of these include:

  • Pink convict cichlid: This variety has a pink or white body with faint or no stripes. It is caused by a recessive gene that reduces the amount of melanin (the pigment that gives color to the skin) in the fish.
  • Black convict cichlid: This variety has a black body with no stripes. It is caused by a dominant gene that increases the amount of melanin in the fish.
  • Marble convict cichlid: This variety has a mottled pattern of black and white on its body. It is caused by a gene that randomly switches on and off the production of melanin in different cells.
  • Gold convict cichlid: This variety has a yellow or gold body with no stripes. It is caused by a gene that inhibits the production of melanin in the fish.
  • Calico convict cichlid: This variety has a mix of black, white, yellow, orange, and red colors on its body. It is caused by a combination of genes that affect the fish’s production and distribution of melanin.


The average size of a convict cichlid is about 4 inches (10 cm) for males and 3 inches (8 cm) for females. However, some individuals can grow up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length.

The size of a convict cichlid depends on several factors such as genetics, diet, water quality, tank size, tank mates, and stress levels. To ensure that your convict cichlids reach their full potential size, you should provide them with optimal care conditions.

Convict Cichlid Care

Convict cichlids are easy to care for because they are adaptable and resilient. They can survive in various water parameters and temperatures as long as they are stable and consistent.

However, this does not mean that you can neglect their basic needs or expose them to extreme conditions. You should still follow some general guidelines to keep your convict cichlids healthy and happy.

Tank Size

The minimum tank size for one pair of convict cichlids is 20 gallons (75 liters). However, you will need a larger tank if you want to keep more than one pair or add some tank mates.

A good rule of thumb is to provide at least 10 gallons (38 liters) of water per pair of convict cichlids. This will give them enough space to swim around and establish their territories.

You should also avoid overcrowding your tank because this can cause stress and aggression among your fish. Too many fish in one tank can also lead to poor water quality and disease outbreaks.

Water Parameters

Convict cichlids can tolerate a wide range of water parameters as long as they are stable and consistent. However, you should still try to mimic their natural habitat as much as possible.

The ideal water parameters for convict cichlids are:

  • Temperature: 75°F to 80°F (24°C to 27°C)
  • pH: 6.5 to 8
  • Hardness: 6 to 20 dGH
  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: less than 20 ppm

You should use a heater to maintain a constant temperature in your tank. You should also use an aquarium thermometer to monitor the temperature regularly.

You should use a filter to keep your water clean and clear. You should also perform regular water changes (about 25% every week) to remove any waste or toxins from your tank.

You should use an aquarium test kit to measure your water’s pH, hardness, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels. You should also adjust them if necessary using appropriate products.

Tank Setup

Convict cichlids like to have plenty of hiding places in their tank such as rocks, wood, plants, or caves. These will provide them with shelter, security, and places to spawn and guard their eggs.

You should also add some form of rocks or gravel to your tank substrate. This will allow your convict cichlids to dig and rearrange their environment according to their preferences.

You should avoid adding too many plants to your tank because your convict cichlids might uproot them or nibble on them. However, you can use some hardy and fast-growing plants such as java fern, anubias, or hornwort to add some greenery and oxygen to your tank.

You should also provide some lighting for your tank, but not too bright or too dim. A moderate level of lighting will enhance the colors of your fish and plants and simulate a natural day and night cycle.

You should also use a lid or cover for your tank because convict cichlids can jump out of the water when they are startled or excited.

Common Possible Diseases

Convict cichlids are very hardy fish and rarely get sick if they are kept in good water conditions and fed a balanced diet. However, they can still be susceptible to some common fish diseases such as:

  • Ich: This is a parasitic infection that causes white spots on the fish’s skin, fins, and gills. It can be treated with increased temperature, salt, or medication.
  • Fin rot: This is a bacterial infection that causes the edges of the fins to become frayed and discolored. It can be treated with improved water quality, salt, or medication.
  • Fungus: This is a fungal infection that causes cotton-like growths on the fish’s skin, fins, or mouth. It can be treated with improved water quality, salt, or medication.
  • Bloat: This is a digestive disorder that causes the abdomen of the fish to swell up and become hard. It can be caused by overfeeding, constipation, or internal parasites. It can be treated with fasting, laxatives, or medication.

To prevent these diseases from affecting your convict cichlids, you should always quarantine any new fish before adding them to your main tank. You should also monitor your fish regularly for any signs of illness or injury. You should also perform regular water changes and maintain good hygiene in your tank.

If you notice any symptoms of disease in your fish, you should isolate them in a separate tank and treat them accordingly. You should also consult a veterinarian or an expert if you are unsure about the diagnosis or treatment.

Food and Diet

Convict cichlids are omnivorous and eat almost anything in their mouth. However, this does not mean that you can feed them any food that you have at hand. You should provide them with a varied and balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs.

The best food for convict cichlids are high-quality pellets or flakes that are specially formulated for cichlids. These foods contain all the essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins that your fish need for growth and health.

You should also supplement their diet with some live or frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, daphnia, or krill. These foods will provide them with some extra protein and natural color enhancers.

You can also offer them some fresh or blanched vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, zucchini, cucumber, or peas. These foods will provide them with some fiber and vitamins.

Depending on their size and activity level, you should feed your convict cichlids once or twice a day. You should only give them as much food as they can eat in a few minutes. You should avoid overfeeding them because this can cause obesity, bloat, or water pollution.

You should also vary their diet from time to time to prevent boredom and nutritional deficiencies. You should also observe their feeding behavior and adjust their portions accordingly.

Behavior and Temperament

Convict cichlids are very active and curious fish that like to explore their surroundings and interact with each other. They have a complex social structure and communication system that involves body language, color changes, and sound signals. They can also recognize their mates and offspring and cooperate or compete with each other depending on the situation.

Convict cichlids are very aggressive and territorial fish that will defend their space and resources from any intruders. This behavior is more pronounced during breeding, when they will form monogamous pairs and guard their eggs and fry from any potential predators or competitors.

Convict cichlids can also display different forms of aggression and submission depending on their social status and context. For example, they can show a gall of subordination, which is a physiological response to chronic social stress that causes the gall bladder to swell up and retain bile. This can affect their digestion and energy assimilation, as well as their coloration and behavior.

Convict cichlids can also show a vertical black stripe on their body, indicating their readiness to fight or flee. This stripe can be turned on or off depending on the threat level of the opponent. The stripe can also be used to communicate with other fish, such as signaling dominance or submission.

Convict Cichlid Tank Mates

Convict cichlids are not very compatible with most other fish because of their aggressive nature. They will often attack or harass any fish that they perceive as a threat or a rival, especially if they are similar in size, shape, or color.

Therefore, it is best to keep convict cichlids either alone or in a species-only tank. However, if you have a large enough tank (at least 55 gallons) and you want to add some tank mates, you should choose fish that are:

  • Larger and more aggressive than convict cichlids, such as jack dempsey, oscar, green terror, or red devil cichlids. These fish can hold their own against convict cichlids and will not be bullied by them.
  • Smaller and faster than convict cichlids, such as tetras, danios, rasboras, or guppies. These fish can avoid the attacks of convict cichlids by swimming away or hiding in the plants. However, they might still become prey if they are too slow or too close to the convict cichlids’ territory.
  • Different in appearance and behavior than convict cichlids, such as plecos, catfish, loaches, or snails. These fish can coexist with convict cichlids because they do not trigger their aggression or competition. They also provide some benefits such as cleaning the tank or eating the algae.

You should avoid keeping convict cichlids with fish that are:

  • Similar in appearance and behavior to convict cichlids, such as other cichlids (except for the ones mentioned above), angelfish, discus, or gouramis. These fish will be seen as rivals by convict cichlids and will be constantly attacked or chased by them.
  • Too large or too aggressive for convict cichlids, such as arowana, flowerhorn, piranha, or shark. These fish will not tolerate the presence of convict cichlids and will either kill them or injure them severely.
  • Too delicate or too peaceful for convict cichlids, such as betta, goldfish, neon tetra, or dwarf gourami. The aggression of convict cichlids will stress these fish out and will either die from disease or become food for them.

You should also avoid keeping convict cichlids in community tanks with many different species of fish. This will create too much chaos and competition for your convict cichlids, making them more stressed and aggressive.


Convict cichlids are very easy to breed because they are very prolific and have a strong parental care behavior. They can breed at any time of the year as long as they have suitable water conditions and enough food.

You will need a separate breeding tank (at least 10 gallons) with a heater, a filter, a lid, and some decorations such as rocks, caves, or pots to breed convict cichlids. You should also add some gravel or sand to the bottom of the tank.

You should transfer a healthy and mature pair of convict cichlids to the breeding tank. You can either buy a proven pair from a reputable breeder or store or select a pair from your own tank.

To select a pair from your own tank, you should observe the behavior of your convict cichlids and look for signs of courtship and compatibility. These signs include:

  • Swimming together and following each other around the tank
  • Nipping and chasing other fish away from their chosen territory
  • Flaring their fins and displaying their colors to each other
  • Cleaning and preparing a flat surface or a cave for spawning

Once you have identified a potential pair, you should use a net or a divider to separate them from the rest of the fish and move them to the breeding tank.

You should also make sure that the water parameters in the breeding tank are similar to those in the main tank. You can use some water from the main tank to fill up the breeding tank, or you can acclimate the fish gradually to the new water.

You should also feed your convict cichlids well with high-quality foods such as pellets, flakes, live, or frozen foods. This will help them to condition for spawning and produce healthy eggs and fry.


Once in the breeding tank, your convict cichlids will start to spawn within a few days or weeks. They will choose a flat surface or a cave as their spawning site and clean it thoroughly. They will also defend their territory from any intruders or disturbances.

The female will lay hundreds of eggs on the chosen surface and the male will fertilize them. The eggs are adhesive and will stick to the surface until they hatch. The eggs are usually white or cream-colored when they are first laid, but they will turn brown or gray as they develop.

The parents will take turns guarding and fanning the eggs to provide them with oxygen and prevent fungus growth. They will also remove any unfertilized or dead eggs from the clutch.

The eggs will hatch in about 3 to 5 days depending on the water temperature. The newly hatched fry will still have their yolk sacs attached to their bodies and will remain attached to the spawning site for another 3 to 5 days until they absorb their yolk sacs.

Fry Care

Once the fry are free-swimming, they will start to explore their surroundings and look for food. The parents will still protect and guide them around the tank. They will also retrieve any stray fry that wander too far away by sucking them into their mouths and spitting them back into the group.

The fry are very small and delicate at this stage, so they need very fine foods that they can easily swallow. You can feed them with infusoria, baby brine shrimp, microworms, or powdered flakes. You should feed them several times a day in small amounts.

You should also maintain good water quality in the breeding tank by performing regular water changes (about 10% every week) and using a sponge filter that will not suck up the fry. You should also avoid any sudden changes in water temperature, pH, or hardness that could stress or harm the fry.

The fry will grow quickly under their parents’ care and start showing their characteristic stripes after about two weeks. They will also become more independent and adventurous as they grow older.

At this point, you can decide whether you want to keep the fry with their parents or move them to a separate nursery tank. If you keep them with their parents, you should provide enough space and hiding places for them to avoid overcrowding and aggression. You should also be prepared for more batches of fry as convict cichlids can breed again soon after raising one brood.

If you move them to a nursery tank, you should make sure that it has similar water parameters and decorations as the breeding tank. You should also acclimate them gradually to the new water and monitor them closely for any signs of stress or disease.

You can keep feeding them with small foods until they are big enough to eat regular fish foods. You can also start looking for new homes for them if you don’t plan to keep them all.

Final Thoughts

Convict cichlids are amazing fish that can provide you with hours of entertainment and enjoyment. They are easy to care for, easy to breed, and easy to love.

However, they are not suitable for everyone because of their aggressive and territorial behavior. They need a spacious tank with plenty of hiding places and compatible tank mates. They also need a varied and balanced diet and good water quality.

Providing these conditions for your convict cichlids will reward you with a colorful, lively, and fascinating aquarium.

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