Keyhole cichlid care guide

The keyhole cichlid (Cleithracara maronii) is a very nice, but not very popular freshwater tank fish. Most of pet shops and breeders ignore it because of its timidity and not very bright coloring and this is a big mistake. Since this is a peaceful, clever, good-tempered fish unlike the majority of other cichlid species, which are brighter, but much more aggressive.

Habitat in the wild

This is an endemic of tropical South America, within Orinoco river estuary area starting from Barima river (Guyana) to Ouanary river (French Guiana). This species is the only one from Cleithracara kind.

The keyhole cichlid inhabits numerous slow rivers and streams flowing in tropical forests. Bottom of these waters as a rule is covered with fallen leaves, branches, various fruit from trees. Plenty of organics on the bottom usually makes water rich brown colored due to high concentration of tanning agents.

Wild keyhole cichlid species are hardly ever seen on sale, most of cichlids you see in pet shops were grown in fish hatcheries and private farms.

Scientific NameCleithracara maronii
Common NamesKeyhole cichlid, keyhole fish
Ease of keepingEasy
Lifespanup to 8 years
Tank size80 liters (17,6 gallons) and more
Tank typeCommunity of fishes
Temperature72-78 °F (22-26 °C)
Water hardness9–20 dGH
Sizeup to 10 cm (4 inches)


Males can be up to 7-10 cm (4 inches) long, they are a bit larger than females and they have longer rays of dorsal and anal fins; these of adult species reach the end of their tail fin. The keyhole cichlid lifespan is 6-8 years.

A dark stripe that starts at the dorsal base goes through the fish eye up to the bottom of its gill cover. In the center of the body closer to its tail there is a group of dark spots that resemble a keyhole. Due to this the fish got its name.

Difficulties in keeping

The keyhole cichlid is neither large nor aggressive. It is quite undemanding and has very interesting behavior. It can be recommended even for the beginners, but still you have to keep in mind that this is a cichlid species and it is hardly suitable for community tanks with small sized fishes.

Care and keeping in a tank

Tank size

Recommended tank volume for one couple starts from 80 liters (17,6 gallons). Keyhole cichlid is a monogamic fish, it forms couples. When keeping the fish in a school you should bear in mind that the fish is a territory dependent one and there has to be a sufficient number of shelters in the tank, that will divide it into some areas.

Tank decor

The keyhole cichlid requires large number of shelters: stones, snags, flower pots, ceramic tubes, coconut shells. The fish is fearful and timid and if there are a lot of shelters in the tank it’ll help to decrease the stress.

Since the keyhole fish doesn’t dig the tank bottom substrate, it can be kept in most of amateur planted tanks.

The keyhole cichlid looks best in a tank simulating its natural biotope – small grained sand on the bottom, tree leaves, roots and snags. Several large flat stones you put may become future spawning substrate for the fish.

Water parameters

It has quite high requirements in terms of the tank water quality and composition – it should be soft and acidic. The fish originates from the tropical areas, so the tank water temperature has to be within 22-26 °C (71,6-78,8°F), soft or of average hardness, pH 6,5-7,2.

Presence of efficient filtration system and regular renew of some portion of tank water with fresh one as well as timely cleaning of the tank bottom substrate is a must. However, keep in mind that powerful filters quite often create excessive water flow, which fishes that used to dwell in slow waters don’t like.


The keyhole cichlid feeds on worms, crustaceans, larvae and insects. In a tank you can successfully feed it with live, dry and frozen food. I myself give some of this food to my pets and as for the rest I’ve heard and read lots of good reviews. Yet, all of the food is of high quality and it is the best one for this fish kind as well as it keeps the tank water clean.

Tank mates

This is a small, timid fish that prefers hiding if it feels danger. It’s better to keep it in a school of 6-8 species without large and aggressive tank mates. But the tank should be roomy enough and have enough of shelters.

It’d be perfect to keep the keyhole fish in biotope with the species that dwell together with it in the wild (angelfish, for example). But it can be another species, like bolivian ram, dwarf gourami, betta, kribensis, neon tetra . The fish doesn’t demonstrate aggression towards its tank mates if they are at least several centimeters long.

It becomes aggressive only during the spawning process while protecting the offspring. Therefore, maximum of the aggression the keyhole cichlid demonstrates is to ward off other fishes from their territory.

Gender differences: male vs female

It is impossible to tell between the juveniles and young species, but as for the adult males – they are sufficiently larger than the females and they have larger dorsal and anal fins.


Adult keyhole cichlid male and female species create a constant couple that they keep even after the spawning is over. A flat stone, wide leave of a tank plant or a glass surface where they stick their eggs can serve as a place for spawning. The female stays near the clutch to guard it and the male guards their territory.

The parents take care of their offspring after the juveniles hatch and it can last for several months. We should mention that inexperienced couples quite often eat their fist offspring, especially if they feel threatened by other fishes.

In an overcrowded tank the chances are high that the offspring dies even when guarded by both the male and female species, therefore it’s desirable to put the fish into a separate tank for spawning.