Convict Cichlid Fish Overview, Care & Breeding Guide

If you are looking for a medium-sized fierce fighter fish for your freshwater aquarium, the convict cichlid will not fail you. The species is super expressive, which often mesmerizes aquarists. In fact, it also ranks as the third most popular cichlid, with freshwater angelfish and Oscars taking first and second place.

It’s also a delightful experience to feed and raise this gluttonous fast-growing fish. So, if you’re ready to have a few convict friends 😉, keep reading!

What is Convict Cichlid?

A convict cichlid is a freshwater fish that belongs to the Cichlidae family and has its origins in the Central America.

OriginRiver Sucio: El Salvador, River Patuca: Honduras, River Suchiate, River Jutiapa: Guatemala, Central America
Scientific NameAmatitlania nigrofasciata
Common NamesConvict Cichlid, Zebra Cichlid, Zebra Chanchito
IUCN Red List StatusData Deficient
AppearanceStocky oval fish with bluish-white body, black stripes, and yellowish fins
SizeIn captivity, up to 8.5 cm (3.3 in); In the wild, up to 10 cm (3.9 in)
LifespanUp to 10 years; rarely with good care up to 15 years
TemperamentTerritorial, aggressive towards conspecifics and others
Tank LevelBottom to middle dwellers
Water Temperature72-86 °F (22-30 °C)
pH Level6.5-8.0
Water Hardness10-20 dGH
Care LevelIntermediate
Minimum Tank Size50 gallons for 2
Tank EnvironmentSpacious tank with lots of hiding places
DietOmnivorous with a carnivorous preference
Tank MatesSpecies-only tank with pair; otherwise, a well-researched tank of South American cichlids and other large and aggressive fish

What is the Natural Habitat for Convict Cichlid?

Naturally, this freshwater fish is widespread in Central America. It is native to the Pacific slope from the Sucio River of El Salvador to the Suchiate River of Guatemala. You will also spot it on the Atlantic slope from the Patuca River of Honduras to the Jutiapa River of Guatemala.

In these water bodies, the fish inhabit the benthopelagic zone of small streams and creeks and the shallow rocky areas among the crevices and roots of large rivers. You will also see it in the warm pools and springs.

Some also claimed that the fish is native to Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua, but that’s not true.

However, it has been introduced to the natural habitat of Portugal’s water bodies and has turned into an invasive species there.

Many researchers claim that this led to the displacement of the native aquatic species of Hawaii and Mexico.

As per the 2019 assessment of IUCN Red List Status of Threatened Species, convict cichlids are labeled Data Deficient.

Which family does the Convict Cichlid belong?

The species belongs to the Perciformes order and Cichlidae family. Its binomial name is Amatitlania nigrofasciata, whereas it’s popular worldwide as convict cichlid, zebra cichlid, and zebra chanchito.

Fun Fact: It gets the name “convict” because of its alternating black and white pattern, just like prisoners’ outfits.

How do Convict Cichlids look?

Albino convict cichlid front facing

Now, if you’re interested in knowing more about its physical characteristics and habits, let’s get down to business!

What is the size of Convict Cichlid?

Captive-bred convict cichlids usually grow up to 8-8.5 cm (3.15-3.3 in) long. But the wild-bred ones can be much longer, up to 10 cm (3.94 in) long.

What is the color of Convict Cichlid?

There is more than one color variant for convicts. But the one found naturally has a bluish-white or bluish-grey base body color and clear to light yellow fins. There are about 8-9 black vertical stripes on its body, like a zebra.

There’s another pseudo-albino leucistic variant which is known by various names like white, gold, or pink convict cichlid, which is pinkish cream color and lacks stripes.

Scientifically, it is called Amatitlania nigrofasciata “Kongo.” This strain is formed by selective breeding.

In this, the male is uniformly colored, but the females have a slight orange patch around the belly which brightens during spawning.

On the other hand, there is a darker variant called the black convict cichlid.

What are the Features of Convict Cichlid?

The deep-bodied zebra cichlid has a stocky oval shape and pointy dorsal and anal fins. Its vertical stripes just behind the head have a break, making a U-shape.

Like all cichlids, other than their actual teeth, it also has teeth in its throat. The dorsal, anal, pelvic, and pectoral fins have spiny rays that protect the fish from predators.

However, the front side of the same fins is tender and flexible, which helps them swim fast and effortlessly.

It also has a pair of nostrils that helps the fish draw and release water to test for the smell of other species.

How does a Convict Cichlid male differ from the female?

The adult male convict cichlid is larger than the female, with much more pointed dorsal and anal fins and a steep forehead.

Sometimes, he might accumulate a vestigial fat lump on his forehead which looks like a nuchal hump similar to flowerhorn cichlids.

On the other hand, the female fish has an extra dark patch on her dorsal fin. During mating, her colors brighten. She also flaunts an orange shading on the dorsal fins and lower body.

What is the Behavior of Convict Cichlid?

Convict cichlid is territorial and aggressive towards its own species and can only be peaceful with its mated pair. It becomes the most aggressive during the spawning season.

Usually, it likes to loiter on the substrate looking for food, but it marks its territory on both the bottom and middle water levels.

What is the lifespan of Convict Cichlid?

Most aquarists can sustain the convict cichlid for 10 years at most. But in my experience, it can survive up to 15 years if you’re extremely careful with its maintenance.

Author’s Note: If fed well and regularly, the adult fish can survive until 7 days without a meal.

How to Take Care of Convict Cichlid in Aquarium?

Group of convict cichlids in aquarium

Now, if you’re all set to buy this fish, then let’s build its soon-to-be home here!

What is the Tank Size for Convict Cichlid?

If you buy a group of small convict cichlids, you need no more than a 20-gallon tank. However, a pair of mature convicts need a 50-gallon tank.

Some people may suggest smaller ones, but in my opinion, slightly bigger tanks allow the fish to move freely.

If you’re an expert and want to build a community tank, invest in a 125-gallon tank.

What should be the Water Chemistry for Convict Cichlid?

The water can impact your convict cichlid’s health a lot. So, to sustain it for the longest time, maintain these levels.

  • pH Levels: 6.5-8.0
  • Water Temperature: 72-86 °F (22-30 °C)
  • Water Hardness: 10-20 dGH
  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: Below 30 ppm

What should be the Tank Environment for Convict Cichlid?

The landscaping of the aquarium also has a lot of effect on your pet fish’s mood and health. So, let’s design the best for it!

Do Convict Cichlid tanks need Substrate?

To keep your convict happy and safe, use a mixture of smooth and fine sand and smoothened gravel substrate. This mimics its rocky natural environment.

Which Plants do Convict Cichlid need?

The fish hides around plants in its tank but may also nibble or uproot them while searching for food. So, always go for hard-stemmed strong-rooted potted plants like Anubias or Java Fern.

What type of Lighting does Convict Cichlid need?

Adequate lighting is vital to keep convicts healthy and happy. However, you must also have some dim corners for the fish to hide and feel safe.

What Décor does Convict Cichlid need?

Add plenty of caves, rockets, bogwood, driftwood, and branches as hiding places in the tank.

What type of Filtration does Convict Cichlid need?

A reliable and efficient canister filter is a great way to keep the water clean and your fish healthy. You can also add a water conditioner to get rid of toxins.

What is the Water Flow Rate required by Convict Cichlid tank?

Convicts are great swimmers, so they love to explore moderate to high water flow rates.

Fish Care Tip: You must perform 15% water changes twice a week to maintain the best water quality.

What do Convict Cichlids eat?

Convict cichlid is a no-fuss omnivorous fish but definitely loves carnivorous meals. It can survive on a range of feeds, but to maintain its good health, you must keep it on a diet of:

  • Spirulina
  • Blanched vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini, peas
  • Earthworms
  • Bloodworms
  • Brine shrimp
  • Small fish
  • Snails
  • Insects
  • Larvae

Feed the young fish at least thrice a day for 2 minutes for faster growth. But for the adult fish, only 1-2 meals for 2 minutes each is enough.

What are the Tank Mates of Convict Cichlid?

If you don’t have much experience with aquariums, you must always keep the fish in a species-only tank.

But if you’re a pro-aquarist, then a community tank with South American cichlids and other equally big and intimidating fish will be great for you!

Some suitable tank mates are:

However, while mating, it’s better to keep only a pair in the tank, away from others, as the species becomes extremely sensitive then. Sometimes, they may even injure or kill species more aggressive and bigger than themselves.

Which Tank Mates to Avoid for Convict Cichlid?

Never house the following types of fish in the same tank:

  • Peaceful species: they will get harassed to death
  • Smaller species: they will eventually get eaten
  • Weaker species: even if they are large, they won’t be able to defend themselves from convicts
  • Shy species: convicts are incredibly active, which can make them anxious
  • Slow species: they can’t escape if convicts chase or attack them

Species like tetras, corydoras, and guppies are absolutely no-go!

What are the Diseases that Convict Cichlids get?

Convict cichlids are pretty hardy and disease-resistant. But it’s not an invincible fish, so be prepared to treat the following:

Disease NameCausesSymptomsTreatment
IchProtozoan Parasitic InfectionFlashing, white spots, inactivity, appetite lossAdd aquarium salts or ich medication, raise water temperature
Fin rotBacterial InfectionFin discoloration or redness, fin disintegration, fin fraying, inactivity, appetite lossImprove water quality, remove any object that may hurt the fish, add antibiotics
ColumnarisBacterial InfectionFin fraying, white patches, inactivity, appetite lossEnhance water quality, reduce stress, add antibiotics
Skin FlukesParasitic InfectionExcess mucus secretion, breathing troubles, hazy skin, scale loss, red spots, inactivity, appetite lossImprove water quality, improve diet, administer medicines orally, injections, and with medicated baths
DropsyStress, water issue, infectionBloated, swallowed belly, protruding scales, ulcers, red and sore skin near vents and finsQuarantine, improve diet, regular water changes, add medicine

Quick Tip: Before introducing any new item to the tank, remember to clean it properly to avoid introducing parasites.

How can you breed Convict Cichlid at home?

This is one of the most easily bred fish, and it spawns spontaneously, but it still has some basic needs for breeding, so let’s know them here!

How to Prepare the Tank for Breeding Convict Cichlid?

A pair of mated convict cichlids must be bred in a different tank as they become highly aggressive during this time.

So, to urge a pair to mate, house them in a 50-gallon tank with caves (since they are cave spawners) or turned pots (to mimic caves) and a temperature of 75-79 °F (24-26 °C).

What is the Mating Process of Convict Cichlid?

Introduce a sexually mature mated pair, i.e.; the pair must be 6 months old. If they agree to mate, they shake their head and dance.

The male then assumes a vertical position and darkens its color, while the female’s belly becomes slightly red. The pair then digs a hole or finds a cave to lay their eggs and fertilize them.

The female fish lays up to 40 eggs each time after a mating ritual. This continues until she lays 100-300 eggs.

What is the Incubation period for Convict Cichlid?

Depending on the tank water conditions, the eggs hatch after 48-72 hours. The female fans the eggs throughout the incubation period.

After hatching, the young fry absorb the yolk and become free swimmers after 6-8 days. You must start feeding the fry baby brine shrimp, daphnia, crushed flakes, or fry pellets.

The female parent may often help her babies find food by moving the substrate and exposing the food to them. She may also chew the larger pieces and spit them out to feed them. Or, the parents secrete mucus from their body, and the fry feeds on it.

Historically, convict cichlids provide the best parental care. They protect their babies, hide them in the sand, and also help them find food.

When should you separate male and female Convict Cichlid after breeding?

After a few weeks, house the fry in another tank. Otherwise, the female parent might eat the young fish leading to the male attacking her.

Note: Don’t be shocked if you see the parent fish sucking the young ones in their mouth. They are actually moving the young fish to a safer place.

What should you consider while buying Convict Cichlid?

  • Larger convict cichlids are more expensive than younger ones. Moreover, this fish grows pretty fast, so buying young fish is more economical.
  • Always buy a group of 5-6 young fish and house them together to get naturally mated pairs.
  • Avoid housing convict cichlids from different stores, as you might create a non-viable brood when hybridized.

A word from FishInAquarium

Convict cichlid is an intriguing fish with strong parental instincts. Its curiosity and behavior are bound to leave you feeling more mesmerized with time. If you have some experience with raising cichlids, raising them will be nothing less than sheer fun!

With that, if you feel one step closer to getting a handful of convicts, don’t forget to share this article with other enthusiasts. But if you have any questions or face any roadblocks with your journey with convicts, drop us a mail, and we’ll guide you through!

Minnie B Miller - Professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium

About Minnie B Miller

Minnie B. Miller, a professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium, has over 8 years of expertise in fish breeding and care, gained through her roles at AquaticTX and Sea Lion Landing. Having honed her skills with various aquatic species, she is dedicated to empowering fellow enthusiasts by sharing her knowledge and experience.