Cichlid Room Companion


Apistogramma, Dwarf Cichlids From South America

By , 1996. printer
Alan R de Angelo,

Classification: Captive maintenance, South America.

Apistogramma borellii Apistogramma borellii male in aquarium. Photo by Paul V. Loiselle.

To the uninitiated, cichlids of the South American genus Apistogramma might appear to be tiny fishes that are hardly worth keeping. To those of us "in the know" however, "apistos" are the true gems of cichlidom. Are they the perfect cichlids? That's a mighty big order to fill for such a diminutive fish but in my eyes they come very close.

I got started with apistos in the early 1970s when they were fairly available in the Chicago area. They were also inexpensive, so for a kid like me, they were the next best thing to convict cichlids. However, my early experiences were anything but encouraging. For example, I had never heard of reverse osmosis or deionizers and had no idea what a pH meter was for. So, when it came time for me to leave home for college, I took a break from apistos that lasted about ten years until I joined the Apistogramma Study Group. Soon after Bill Clay, a fellow apistophile, and I combined efforts on a quest to collect and breed every different type of apisto that we could get out hands on. By comparing notes, swapping fry and breeders, and trading "recipes" on maintenance, we eventually succeeded in breeding 31 different species over a span of about five years. I myself bred 27 of the little beggars, along with dwarf species of the genera Microgeophagus, Laetacara, Dicrossus, Nannacara, Apistogrammoides, and various West African dwarves.

The standard set-up for apistos is a well-planted aquarium of a size of at least ten gallons. My personal preference is for 15-20 gallon tanks, although many apistophiles keep them in 5-gal aquariums. These smaller tanks, in my opinion, are too restrictive, even for these little fishes. In additional to space considerations, the larger aquarium provides more environmental stability than a smaller tank.

Tank size is only one factor to consider in getting started with Apistogramma. Let's look at several other variables. A gravel substrate is an option that I recommend, except for in fry-rearing tanks (which require daily waste removal). The layer of substrate (a depth of 0.5" will suffice) allows for a greater number of bacteria to colonize the tank, which I believe yields a healthier environment. Gravel size should be approximately the size of this letter "o".

Rockwork and caves are features that are necessary in my view. Providing a number of choices is always the best strategy. Though apistos will spawn on stones or leaves, inside caves, and even on the tank wall, I find a cave with at least a 2" depth to be the preferred site. In nature apistos spawn on leaf litter, but unless you like a lot of mulm on the bottom of your tank, l would not suggest attempting to mimic this arrangement.

Planting the aquarium is also a must in helping these fishes feel "secure." Either live or plastic plants will do fine, as long as your choices are bushy and provide a lot of cover. Watersprite and Cabomba are two options that can fill an entire tank and provide surface cover too. I've rarely had an apisto jump out of a tank, but it can happen. A layer of plants at the surface will do three things: prevent jumping; provide a sense of safety from predators; and cut down on the amount of light that reaches the lower sections of the tank. Keep in mind that "at home" for an apisto means leaf litter and detritus in slow-moving streams and backwaters. Duckweed (Lemna sp.) is also an appropriate choice for top cover.

Perhaps the most important variables in keeping and breeding Apistogramma are water chemistry and quality. As a rule, the softer the water, the better. If you're not attempting to breed your apistos, most water conditions are not harmful. For breeding purposes however, soft water - 50 ppm TDS or less - is required for most species. Unless "blessed" with naturally ocurring soft water, a reverse osmosis (R/O) unit or deionizer is required. Reverse osmosis is a method of forcing water through a membrane thereby "squeezing out" most of the hardness, resulting in soft water. How soft? My tap water for example is "liquid rock" with a hardness of 840 ppm TDS. After using an R/O unit, the water that results has a hardness of only 20 ppm TDS. That's quite a difference . . . and perfect apisto water.

Deionizers remove all the hardness from your water, yielding absolutely pure water, a situation that presents problems. First of all, a bit of hardness leaves ions to buffer the water so pH is less likely to crash. Secondly, acid is used to recharge a deionizer, adding a bit of potential danger to the endeavor, that I'd rather avoid.

If you invest in an R/O unit, buy one with a capacity of at least 50 gallons per day. The greater capacity is well worth the added expense.

Though not as important as hardness, pH levels should be kept near neutral or slightly acidic (< 7.0). A few species can spawn and have viable eggs in an alkaline pH, but these are the exceptions. To obtain an appropriate neutral pH, use peat filtration, blackwater tonics, or pH Down. With species such as A. nijsseni, a pH of 5.0 or less may be needed to produce a viable spawn; pH Down is the easiest way to produce these low pH levels. However, a caution: due to the fact that soft water has few minerals, it lacks the ability to buffer. Add ph Down carefully. As you titrate the acid, you will reach a "flashpoint" where the pH drops precipitously with only a few drops. Monitor the water carefully and add pH Down slowly for precise pH control.

Hardness and pH meters are a must if you are playing with water chemistry. Meters give you greater accuracy than test strips, and the results are instantaneous. I lost a tankful of A. nijsseni - parents and fry - when pH crashed from 4.7 to 3.2 overnight. Soft water can be touchy at low pH ranges, so be careful. Also, here is where larger aquariums again come into play; the larger volume of water is more stable and more forgiving of errors (or neglect).

The need for good filtration cannot be stressed enough. Low pH and soft water bring about low bacteria counts, especially if you have no gravel. Low bacteria counts mean that your tank cannot absorb a lot of wastes before the water fouls; I use a large Jungle Goldfish Sponge Filter (rated for at least 60 gallons of goldfish tank water) in a 15-gal tank. This may seem like overkill for a pair of apistos in 15 gallons of water, but the best water quality possible is the goal. Undergravel or box filters can trap fry. Power filters create too much current and will also trap fry (although you can use a sponge over the filter intake tube and divert the outflow so that only a very slight current is produced). Sponge filters also become colonized with rotifers and other "goodies" that apisto fry can feed on in a pinch.

Change water, too! You should plan on changing at least 50% of the water in your tanks every two weeks. I use a gravel washing siphon to remove the water and clean the gravel all at once. Be careful not to suck up any fry. Also, adjustments in pH should be done before adding new water to a tank so the fish are not exposed to drastic changes over a short period of time while you try to re-balance the pH. To do so, I ran my R/O unit into two 30-gal Rubbermaid garbage cans connected with a large diameter hose and silicon sealer. This set-up provided me with 60 gallons of R/O capacity. Having quickly tired of hauling buckets of water to thirty different aquariums (yes, I was once heavily into apistos!), I purchased a submersible water pump, hooked up a hose, and did the changes the easy way. Not exactly high tech but it sure beat manual labor. Not all of the tanks needed the pH altered though, so any water needing treatment was pumped into a 5-gal bucket and adjusted. When ready, I would have to hand carry it to the tank; however the majority of the tanks were filled with the pump and hose arrangement. Water temperature for apistos is not crucial. None of my tanks have heaters; temperatures fluctuate between 68-82°F depending upon whether the furnace or A/C is running. Though spawning occurred at both extremes, ca. 78°F is probably optimal.

Apistogramma species will eat about anything that fits into their mouths, including flake foods. The only things to avoid are live black worms and tubifex. It seems that worms carry either parasites or bacteria to the fish's intestinal tract, causing it to bloat up like a balloon. To date there is no known cure. The best way to avoid this condition is to refrain from feeding live worms, even if you think they're adequately washed.

Diseases other than "bloat" are not a problem. "Ich" may appear infrequently but this occurs only with severely stressed fish. "Pop eye" may develop if water quality is poor. Treat these conditions as you would for any other fish. Whenever new apistos come into my fishroom (whether wild or tank-raised), I immediately treat them with Hexamit (metronidazole) to ensure that the fish are parasite-free. Naladixic acid (Small Fish Saver) is also beneficial. Even in tank raised fish, the stress of shipping may allow a parasite that was lying dormant in the fish's tissues to take hold. Prevention is always the best medicine, so treat all arrivals and never feed black worms or tubifex.

Apistogramma cacatuoides Apistogramma cacatuoides male in aquarium. Photo by Roger Häggström.

If the above conditions are met, breeding apistos should be no problem. As nature takes it course, you'll see the female turn bright yellow with black markings as she approaches spawning condition and then maintain that pattern while tending eggs and fry. You may fail to see the fry at first, as they are tiny and tend to hide in the gravel, but don't worry. They'll feed off organisms in the sponge filter and gravel for the first day or two. Pulling the eggs is rarely necessary as female apistos are fantastic mothers and almost never eat a viable spawn. They can however be a bit overprotective and can kill a mate if enough hiding places are not provided.

Fry will accept baby brine shrimp, microworms, vinegar eels, or finely crushed flakes as first foods. Live foods are best, and freshly-hatched baby brine shrimp are ideal for both fry and adults.

Given clean, soft, acidic water and nutritious foods, apisto fry should grow at a steady rate. Keep the water quality high. Here again is where I keep away from using too small of an aquarium. The presence of uneaten baby brine can foul the water quickly, so a small aquarium will need diligent maintenance while the larger tank is more forgiving.

When ordering apistos, never order only a single pair. Instead either buy several pairs or start with a dozen immature fish and raise them to adulthood. I just purchased two pairs of Apistogramma sp. "Tucurui" only to find a female dried up on the floor just a week after it, they were released (if you recall, I stated that apistos seldom jump - not never!). If I had started with a pair, I would now have to pay for shipping again, assuming the seller had any and more females available. It is well worth the added expense to have fail enough specimens to work with.

For more information on the genus Apistogramma, the best source at this time is American Cichids I - Dwarf Cichlids (H. Linke and W. Staeck, 1994, Tetra Press, Melle, Germany). The photos are outstanding and the text is very helpful too. Pick up a copy and read every word, because I know that after you expose yourself to the many beautiful species available, you'll be hooked on Apistogramma too!


de Angelo, Alan R. (June 09, 2000). "Apistogramma, Dwarf Cichlids From South America". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on December 17, 2018, from: