Convict cichlid care guide

The convict cichlid (lat. Amatitlania nigrofasciata) is one of the smallest and the least demanding Central American cichlids. Despite its small size, it has a quarrelsome and rough temper, so the task of selecting proper tank mates for it is a challenging one. Further in the article, you will find out where convict cichlid inhabits, how large it can grow, how to keep it in the tank, feed, and breed.

Habitat in the wild

The convict cichlid is native to Central America: Guatemala, Panama, Costa-Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras. The ones that got into local ponds from tanks have created a stable population in Australia and North America. The most known fish habitats are high altitude lakes of volcanic origin— Atitlán and Amatitlán on Guatemalan Highlands.

A typical fish biotope is a pond with rocky bottom. Its representatives are seldom encountered in open waters since they prefer waters with many shelters.

After the revision in 2007, systematizers separated convict cichlid together with three newly described similar kinds into a standalone genus that received the name Amatitlania nigrofasciata, which didn’t last long.

Nowadays, the name of the fish kind is Archocentrus nigrofasciatum. Most spread synonyms existing for this species include Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum, Cryptoheros nigrofasciatus, Heros nigrofasciatus.

Scientific NameAmatitlania nigrofasciata
Common NamesConvict cichlid; convict fish; zebra convict
Ease of keepingEasy
Lifespan11 years and more
Tank size250 liters (55 gallons) and more
Tank typeCommunity of large fishes
Temperature22–30 °C (72–86 °F)
Water hardness6–20 dGH
SizeUp to 12 centimeters (4.7 in)


Convict cichlid size is from 8 cm (3 in) to 12 centimeters (4.7 in) when fully grown. The fish body has about 8-9 vertical dark stripes on it, due to which the fish has got its name. Its coloring intensity may vary. At that, the stripes right under the gill cover have abruption and resemble Latin «U.» The fins are transparent with a slightly greenish tint.

You may often encounter pink convict cichlid – its body is pinkish and yellow, the eyes are dark-colored, but breeding and keeping are quite the same as for a classical species. Since the fish is easy to breed, there are many other color variations, for example, blue, green, or even gold.

Convict cichlid
Pink convict cichlid
Calico or marble convict cichlid

Difficulties in keeping

Zebra cichlid is very easy to keep and care for. It is undemanding.

However, it is a good pet only for aquarists who have experience in keeping cichlids. It has an intriguing appearance, ad, as many aquarists say, it is smart. If you don’t plan to breed convict fish, it is recommended to have just one species in a tank, to avoid spawning aggression. Otherwise, it is not a difficult task. The fish is fruitful, and it is not challenging to create tank conditions maximally close to those in the wild.

At the same time, this is definitely not the fish for beginners due to its quarrelsome temper and the habit of digging the tank bottom. It’s better to keep the fish alone or with other Central American cichlid species in a very spacious tank.

Care and keeping in a tank


On average, convict cichlid’s lifespan is about 11 years. Though provided with proper care, the fish may live longer.

Tank size

The most important thing to keep in mind when keeping convict cichlids is their strong territory dependence. The conclusion you can make based on this is about minimal tank size for the fish and peculiarities of its decoration.

It’s desirable to keep zebra cichlid in large capacity tanks and open spaces for the fish to swim. A couple of young fish can live in a tank of 100 liters capacity (26 gallons), but reproductive adult fish require about 250 liters (55 gallons) capacity tank.

Pay attention that, first of all, we mean community tanks, where other fish kinds will dwell as well. If you plan to have a species tank, a tank of smaller capacity will do.

Water parameters

Convict cichlids can live under various parameters of water acidity and hardness. However, tank water should have a pH of about 6.6–7.8 and a hardness of 6 — 20 dGH.

In the wild, the fish dwells at rather a wide temperature range. On the day, the air temperature is about 26–29 °C (79–84°F), while at night, it essentially decreases. This allows them to dwell in volcanic lakes at about 1,500 meters (4,900 ft) high. If the temperature in the room with a tank doesn’t get lower than 21°C (69,8°F), you won’t need a heater.

Tank setup: decorations and plants

This isn’t a demanding fish, and it’s easy to care about. You must pay close attention to the tank interior, especially if there are other species in the tank. Some large-grained bottom substrate, snags, roots, stones make the fish feel comfortable.

Each Convict cichlid couple must have its own shelter in the tank with natural borders. If you skip this point, you’ll constantly have fights in the tank. Territory zoning is also possible by putting tank plants, but these should be some tolerant and strong ones since the fish often digs tank bottom substrate and moves it, so some small and tender plants may be dug out completely.

For the same reason, we don’t recommend using sand as a bottom substrate, but some small- or medium-sized substrate will do. At that, tank plants must be surrounded with large stones to prevent them from being dug out by the fish.

Tank lighting must suit the tank plants’ needs since these cichlids don’t care much about it.


The tank requires filtration, aeration, and weekly water renews of about 1/3 of the tank volume. It’s highly recommended to use a rather powerful canister filter since the fish likes digging tank bottom.


The wild species feed on various insects and their larvae, worms, fish juveniles, aquatic vegetation.

Convict cichlid is omnivorous, i.e., it eats everything you give. You may feed it with different food: for example, some artificial feed for cichlids, some tablets and flakes with spirulina, blood worm, tubifex, brine shrimp. To prevent tank pollution with feed leftovers, feed the fish twice a day with small food portions.

However, you must remember that live food is dangerous because of possible bacterial and fungus infection and parasite worms and protozoaires. Also, don’t forget that in case of overfeeding, such food will quickly and significantly decrease tank water parameters.

Artificial food is completely viceless compared with the latter two. Thus it is the best choice for the fish diet. Several times a week, you should add some food with high spirulina content to it. Eating plant food is crucial for the proper function of convict cichlids’ digestive system.

Keep in mind that the fish tends to overeat, so it is better to feed it once or twice a day in small portions.

Tank mates

When keeping convict cichlids together with other fishes, there may be two situations.

The first situation when the coinhabitance is peaceful and trouble free, and the second one, when they demonstrate aggression towards their tank mates. The problems arise either during the spawning period or when other fishes intrude on their territory. When protecting it, convict cichlids fearlessly attack anyone, even unequal rivals.

In small tanks, it is recommended to keep a couple of convict cichlids. These species become very aggressive during the spawning period and any other time – it may attack other fishes. You must ensure that each male has at least one male.

Cichlids of equal size will be the best tank mates in this case: firemouth cichlid, blood parrot, kribensis, angelfish. While they won’t be able to live with African cichlids (like mbuna) since both species are territory dependent, and they fight till death for their shelters.

They get on well with active fishes that dwell in middle water layers: tiger barbs, swordtails, bala sharks. However, various bottom-dwelling species (clown loach, panda cory, pictus catfish, bristlenose pleco) are not always compatible with convict cichlids. This is because cichlids lay their eggs near the bottom, and the fishes constantly swimming near the bottom will often invade their territory and provoke fights.

Small-sized fish species (guppies, neon tetras, betta, goldfish) are very likely to become convict cichlids’ live food. In contrast, large cichlids (jack dempsey cichlid, oscar, flowerhorn, red terror cichlid) may kill convict cichlids themselves and aren’t good tank mates for them too.

That’s why even in a spacious tank, you should choose strong and proper-sized convict cichlid tank mates.

Gender differences: male vs female

A convict cichlid male is much larger than a female fish, and its anal and dorsal fins are elongated. Female has to a greater or lesser degree orange coloring in small spots on its abdomen and near the dorsal fin. Older males frequently develop vestigial fatty lumps on their foreheads.


It has a very interesting feature – how the Convict cichlid couple takes care of its juveniles, a process which is rather exciting to observe. However, you should keep in mind that this species is very aggressive towards its tank mates. That’s why in the case of small capacity tanks, the couple has to be kept on its own in a tank.

Starting from the age of 3-4 months, they form stable couples. Each couple tends to have its own territory. For this reason, you shouldn’t put more than one couple in a small tank. Otherwise, long and numerous fights for the territory will lead to bad consequences.

For successful breeding, all you need is a male and female fish, but if spawning happens in a community tank – it’s trouble for all its inhabitants. The convict cichlid is monogamous, and it becomes reproductive at the age of 7-10 months. When being just juveniles, create stable couples. If you want such a couple to be created in a tank, you need to keep a small school of fish with an equal number of male and female fish in it.

Convict cichlid spawning happens all the year round with some small breaks. This concerns both separate spawning tanks and community tanks. To get good and healthy juveniles still, it’s better to put them into a separate volume.

Chemical parameters of tank water don’t play an important part. To stimulate the fish spawning, raise the tank water temperature to 29 °C (84 °F) and renew ¼ of tank water with the fresh one.

The male convict cichlid courtship process takes a rather long time. Once it’s finished, the female fish lays the eggs in some place she likes. This can be some flower pot, flat stone, coconut shell, or a big seashell. Or sometimes it may be a big leave of a tank plant. When a spawn is in some nookery, its parents may show aggression to all trespassers (if spawning happened in a community tank). Just like all other cichlid species, this fish eagerly takes care of its breed, taking dead and unfertilized eggs from the nest from time to time.

Once larvae hatch from the eggs, their attentive parents take them to some other place. 2-3 days later, when the larvae have eaten their yolk sac already, they start swimming around the tank carefully guarded by their parents.

The female convict cichlid fish will wave with its fins to get the mud up from the tank substrate to help their juveniles to feed. She raises the food fallen on the bottom and mills it in her mouth, and then spills it out. The breeders surrounded by tiny juveniles carefully swim in the tank with their offspring. By the end of the day, all juveniles get together in their nookery.

As a rule, we don’t take the fish parents from the tank. However, there are cases when males become aggressive, and they may eat all the juveniles. To avoid this, male fish is taken back to the community tank, and the female fish stays to look after their juveniles.

Adult species become caring parents for their offspring for a long time. If you remove the juveniles from the tank too early, the breeders may fight, and as a result, usually, the female suffers. After some time, they start to get on well, and several weeks later, they already have a new offspring.

You should install filtration and aeration in a tank with fry, and you should renew the water about twice a week. Start feed for the fry is any milled live and dry feed. The juveniles are quite large, and they grow very fast. At the age of four months, they obtain adult coloring.