5 Best South American Cichlids for Beginners

Cichlidae is a large family of fish containing more than 2,000 species. Many are found in pet stores, but with such a huge variety it can be hard to choose the right species for you.

Some of the most popular species, like Oscars, are also some of the largest and require huge amounts of space and filtration!

So to avoid accidentally getting in over your head, this is a list of the 5 best South American cichlids for beginners!

South American cichlids are any cichlids from the top of Colombia down to the tip of Chile. Coming from many different waters, there is a huge amount of variation between them. However, in general, they live in acidic (5.0-6.5) water to neutral (7.0) water.

Some are even found in brackish water, which is part fresh and part saltwater. Most are tropical fish needing a temperature of 75-81F and almost all are carnivores.

Best South American Cichlids For Beginners

1. German Blue Ram (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi)

German Blue Ram

German Blue Rams are native to the Orinoco River Basin. They are a dwarf cichlid, only getting 2″ long and a pair would fit perfectly in a 15 gallon.

Typically fish of this size would do fine in a 10 gallon, but Rams are territorial fish. They should always be housed either by themselves, female only, or 1 male per 1 female, unless proper space is provided for each pair to create their own territory. If you’re planning on doing two pairs, you’ll need about a 40-gallon tank to house them safely.

They are fairly indifferent to other species, save for any other territorial fish. Another concern is to avoid small shrimp, as these will easily become snacks. Otherwise, they can be kept with almost any South American tetra, any corydoras, plecos, loaches, rasboras, and less aggressive barbs.

They prefer to neutral to a very low pH level (4.0-7.0) and can tolerate slightly higher temperatures (75-82F).

They are carnivores are readily accept dry flaked food, freeze-dried food, and frozen foods like bloodworms, brine shrimp, or blackworms. A good variety and addition of brine shrimp will bring out their colors best.

Interestingly, if they are kept in a dark substrate they tend to be more colorful than if they’re kept on a light-colored substrate.

Image Source: Flickr

2. Cockatoo Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuides)

Image Source: Flickr

There are many species in the genus Apistogramma, the males of which are often very colorful! Cockatoo cichlids are similar to Rams in their care.

They are highly territorial with each other Apistogrammas and similar fish like rams and kribs. Because of this, they should usually be the only fish of this type in the tank. Males (3″) get slightly larger than females (2″) and are much more colorful. These colors are used to attract females and advertise their health and virility.

They are micro predators and will gladly accept any frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, blackworms, tubifex worms, etc. They will usually accept dry flakes or crisps unless wild-caught. They may take some conditioning to eat dry foods in that case.

They do pose a potential threat to small shrimp so care should be taken that they are not housed with any. Otherwise, they are unfussy about tank mates and not known fin nippers. Their aggression takes the form of chasing fish away from their “territory” or corner of the tank and not much else.

Native to much of the Amazon River Basin, water should have a neutral to soft pH (5.0-7.0) and be dimly lit. Floating plants are also much appreciated as are a low to moderate current.

Being territorial and larger than rams, a 20 gallon is the minimum tank size for a pair. Typical temperatures of 75-80F is ideal for this fish.

3. Severum (Heros serverus)

Image Source: Victoria Murphy

Severums are the largest on this list, but not the most aggressive! Despite being moderate-sized fish at 8-10″ long, they are not piscivores and do not typically attack other fish.

Native from the heart of the Amazon up to the bottom of Columbia, these fish are often found in slow relatively deep water dense with fallen trees and tree roots. They prefer a lower pH but will adapt to a range of 5.0-7.3.

They can be housed with most other South American fish from relatively small tetras like diamond tetras up to large predatory cichlids like Oscars or even fish like arowanas!

They are large enough to seldom be bullied but gentle enough that they will only attempt to eat the smallest fish. To house 1-2 severums you’ll want at least a 75-gallon tank.

These fish are omnivorous and should be fed dry flakes, pellets, frozen meaty foods like bloodworms and Mysis shrimp, plant-based foods such as frozen prepared omnivore, or herbivore mixes, and spirulina based pellets.

This is truly a unique fish that makes for a beautiful centerpiece in a tank of small fish.

4. Rainbow Cichlid (Herotilapia multispinosa)

Rainbow cichlids
Image Source: Victoria Murphy (Note: Juvenile depicted)

Rainbow cichlids get their name because of their intense colors. Adults are even more beautiful than this juvenile! They are native to Nicaragua down to Costa Rica, technically making this a Central American species.

They are relatively small, getting 6-7″ long. They are not particularly aggressive and can be kept in with virtually any South American tetra, Loricariidae catfish, barbs, even loaches.

They are omnivores with a preference to algae and should be fed mostly spirulina enhanced foods but will also eat frozen bloodworms, brine shrimp, etc. Blanched spinach and even algae discs are good foods for variety.

A 30-gallon tank is suitable for 1-2 and some small tank mates. In the wild temperatures can get quite high but they tolerate anything from 78-81F and a higher pH range than the rest of the list, falling anywhere between 7.0-8.0.

5. Blue Acara (Aequidens pulcher)

And the last on our list, Blue Acaras. This is a photo of a juvenile, adults develop a darker coloration that is easier to consider “blue”. They are native to Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Venezuela.

They are generally unaggressive species, however, they are active diggers and can destroy many live plants. Reaching a relatively small 4-5″ a pair or single adult can be housed in a 20-gallon tank with small tank mates.

They can be kept with most fish including corydoras, Loricariidae catfish, and any tetras too large to fit in their mouth.

Their water should be a standard 75-80F with a pH of 7.0-7.8. Ideally a tank with a sandy substrate that they can easily manipulate. They readily accept any foods and should be fed mostly meaty things like pellets, bloodworms, blackworms, etc.

These fish are widely considered excellent beginner cichlids and are generally hardy.


3 Responses

  1. I love my german blue rams, I agree that they are more difficult than their breakdown reflects. I have six standard german rams and two electric blue rams. My group of these thrived once I got the water right, I keep it at 6.8-6.9, and I make sure the water is clean. The temperature is at 79 degrees. Those are both kept constant. They are also housed with four bolivian rams, which are much easier to keep, they have less attitude, and are less sensitive.

    Bolivian Rams are also not subjected to hormones so there are less worrys there, they do have a nice color when established, I love their bright red fins, and olive green heads.

    Kept with the rams are an accidental pair of electric blue acaras (I knew after research they would be hard to sex, but I wanted two anyways, sure enough they are one of each) electric blue acaras are smaller than the blue acara on the list. They get to be around 4-5 inches. They don’t try to bug anyone, only chasing others away from there log.

    I will be getting a pair of cockatoo rams in the near future, I have been looking for a while in stores with no luck, so I will be ordering them.

    I may just be lucky but my group gets along great. They are fed bloodworms, omega one veggie flakes, a cichlid flake, and new life spectrum 2mm pellets. They live in a 100 gallon planted tank, I have tried to replicate all their natural environments. I have a few pieces of driftwood, live plants on bottom as well as on the surface, lava rocks with holes for hiding, with some slate rocks for more hiding spots. I will be getting some nice substrate for plants, then will be going to get many more plants.

    I don’t think that acaras do any damage to my plants, they do move rocks when they lay eggs. My rams like the plants as they can rest in them. My rams all hang out together in the front of the tank, the only aggressive behavior is a male may chase another male, but there isnt any marks or torn fins. I have had all 8 together for about six months with no illness. I hope this helps who ever reads this.

  2. I am a beginner at this but read a lot. Because our local water is soft and acidic I was drawn to South American cichlids and have a pair of German blues and Goldens in a 40 gallon aquarium. The blues have spawned once and are cleaning their favorite stone for another try. I am in the process of cycling a 20 gallon tank just for the GBR’s as the Goldens and Platy’s feasted on the fry. I agree dwarf cichlids are fussy as to water parameters if you want to see their colors and want them to spawn.
    The Goldens seem more aggressive except when the Blues are guarding their eggs. All in all the so. American cichlids are fascinating fish and I am hooked.
    My tank PH is 6.5, Ammonia 0, Nitrite 0, Nitrate 5.0, GH 5, KH 3, Temp. 82, use AmQuel and NovAqua+.
    Would appreciate any advise re how to better protect the next batch of fry.

  3. I have to disagree with some of the German Blue Ram info here. First of all, the majority of the stock out there is inbred and/or pumped up on hormones so that they show color at an earlier age. Consequently, these fish are famous for experiencing premature deaths. So, they’re really not a “beginner” cichlid unless you get hardy stock from an ethical breeder. And even then, they’re fussy about sudden water parameter changes and have other specific requirements (including very clean water). Bolivian Rams are hardier and easier for beginners, in my opinion.

    The temperature range given here is also not really accurate. GBRs need about 80-86 F, with 82-84 being optimal. Their immune systems are reportedly less effective in the mid-70s. This requirement makes them less compatible with many other tropical fish.

    Finally, I’ve been told that multiple pairs of GBRs in the same tank often do not coexist peacefully. This includes large, heavily planted tanks. I’ve never tried this myself and others may have differing results, but that’s what I’ve been told by those I know who have tried.

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