Freshwater Fish

Convict Cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata): Aquarium Care Guide

The convict cichlid is one of the most popular cichlid species you can find. Due to their unique appearance and easy care requirements, it’s only natural that they are a preferred choice for many freshwater aquarists.

We are huge fans of these fish and recommend them to anyone looking to take the next step into middle ground. While convict cichlids are definitely not an “experts only” species, there are a few things you will need to be aware of as an owner (i.e. their potential for aggression).

In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about convict cichlid care. Diet requirements, ideal tank mates, breeding tips, size, and growth rate are covered in depth.

You’ll also learn some nifty facts about this species that will make you a more informed owner!

Species Summary

Convict cichlids (Amatitlania nigrofasciata) are a species of freshwater cichlids that hail from Central America. Its different types can be found in countries along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

These fish come from lakes and streams in this region with a moderate amount of current. Their natural habitat has plenty of wood and rocks for them to use as a hiding place between meals. Convict Cichlids are omnivores and are not fussy when it comes to finding food!

An interesting note is that this species can also be found in Australia. This is not a natural occurrence and is only sustainable due to similar conditions in certain parts of the country.

Due to their attractive appearance, convict cichlids have been sought after on the aquarium scene for many years. This has raised some concern about overfishing/harvesting, but so far the population has not been affected outside of normal levels of fluctuation.

Life expectancy

The average lifespan of convict cichlids is approximately 8 to 10 years. There have been many cases where these fish have exceeded this range, but that is the average, assuming proper care is given.

If you do not properly care for these fish and keep them in an unsuitable environment, they are unlikely to live to eight years. Always do your homework on what is needed before you buy one!

Author’s Note: Another factor that can influence the lifespan of convict cichlids is their genetics. If these fish are bred and raised by a mediocre breeder, this could hinder their ability to live a long and healthy life. Buying from reputable sellers is an easy way to avoid this.


Convict cichlids get their name from the series of vertical black bars that run down their bodies. Coloration can vary by age, gender, and type, but we’ll talk about the standard convict cichlid variation that most people are familiar with.

These fish typically have around eight of these rods, but this number can be slightly higher or lower depending on genetic components. Bars are one of the most important things sellers look for with these fish, so if you’re buying from a reputable party, the fish you buy will likely have a lot of well-defined stripes.

While the bars that cover the body of convict cichlids are black, the rest of the body is a grayish blue. The hue of this color may vary slightly, but it is usually fairly consistent. Some buyers think they are buying a different colored convict cichlid when it is really just the lighting on the tank that is playing tricks on them!

Convict cichlids have the classic cichlid body. They actually look a lot like African cichlids, but with a different color and pattern.

These fish have a long dorsal fin that starts about a quarter of the way from their mouth (this point is where their pectoral fins also start). The dorsal fin continues to the beginning of its caudal peduncle and is semitransparent. Usually their black stripes will also continue a bit on the dorsal fin.

Convict cichlids have medium-sized pectoral and ventral fins that are quite transparent. Its anal fins start at the midpoint of its body and end at the beginning of the caudal peduncle.

Both its dorsal and anal fins hang back a bit like a sail. This causes a sharp visual effect when they swim and makes them quite fun to watch.

Its caudal fin is partially transparent and of medium size. None of the colors or stripes reach this fin, unlike the dorsal fin. Their caudal fin is shaped like a symmetrical shell that helps them generate energy and have full mobility in the water.


The average size of convict cichlids is around 4 to 5 inches when fully grown. These fish are quite small compared to other cichlid species. The advantage of this is that it means you can also keep them in smaller tanks than other species.

Convict cichlids have a fairly normal growth rate, so no special adaptations are necessary in that department. It’s worth noting that the markings tend to be larger than the females, but you won’t be able to identify their gender until they’re adults.

Convict Cichlid Care

Proper convict cichlid care requires that you understand the behavior and temperament of these fish. When it comes to their recommended tank and water requirements, these fish are not that challenging.

However, things get a bit complicated when you start thinking about how they will get along with other fish. The next two sections will cover the basics of setting up a suitable habitat for them so they stay healthy and aren’t tempted to rumble all the time.

tank size

Our minimum recommended tank size for Convict Cichlids is 30 gallons. Some aquarists say you can get away with tanks as small as 20 gallons, but we disagree.

The extra space will go a long way when it comes to keeping these fish happy. Territorial fish that are prone to aggression tend to do significantly worse in small tanks. For a few extra dollars you can make your fish much more comfortable.

Author’s Note: This will affect your lifespan and overall health as well. Constantly elevated stress levels take their toll over the years. Happy fish = healthy fish!

water parameters

The convict cichlid is a very hardy fish that can tolerate a wide range of water parameters. This makes taking care of them a bit easier and gives you a bit of flexibility when it comes to tankmates (more on this later).

That said, it’s important to know your ideal forward and backward parameters. There is always a sweet spot to aim for!

  • Water temperature: 79°F to 84°F
  • pH levels: 6.5 to 8
  • Water hardness: 10 to 15 dH

Although these fish are hardy, it’s smart to invest in an accurate test kit to ensure you get the correct readings. Bad test equipment can lead you to believe there is a change in water parameters when there really isn’t!

What to put in your tank

Setting up a convict cichlid tank is pretty straightforward. All you need to do is try to mimic its natural environment as best as possible.

We always like to start with the substrate because it will affect the type of plants you can include. Convict Cichlids do best with a sandy substrate. This is because these fish will periodically dig and poke a bit, and a thick substrate will end up scratching them.

Author’s Note: This behavior is not consistent by any means. These fish typically spend most of their time near the middle of the tank. However, it’s smart to plan these sporadic digging episodes ahead of time.

It is also a good idea to include some plants in the aquarium. There are plenty of great options, like hornwort or even one of the better floating plant species. You have some room to be flexible in making this choice based on your personal preferences.

You may find that some plants you want to include are too flimsy to handle any digging. This comes down to the individual behavior of your fish, as some like to root more aggressively into the substrate than others.

Some rocks and driftwood are also a great idea. The waters where convict cichlids come from have them in abundance. Including them will help your fish get comfortable and give them places to hide and get their own space (this is also helpful for controlling aggression).

A gentle current is also something these fish will appreciate. This is not something to worry about, but if you can provide it, we think it will help keep them happy and stress free.

Possible common diseases

When it comes to convict cichlid care, there is no disease that haunts this species. specifically. While this is obviously a good thing to hear, it doesn’t mean they can’t get one of the other common freshwater diseases.

Things like Ich or fin rot are possibilities if these fish live in poor conditions. We’ve covered each of these conditions in separate guides, but they’re worth mentioning so you know to be on the lookout.

It’s always smart to give your fish a thorough inspection from time to time. This simply means taking an extra minute to really look at each one and see if you notice anything out of the ordinary.

It may be a change in behavior (such as being unwell or not interested in eating) or something visible in your body. For example, if your convict cichlid has Ich, you will see white patches on its body that will get progressively worse as the disease spreads.

Taking the time to look for these signs will help you nip anything unwanted in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem.

As always, the best course of action is to not let the fish get sick at all. While this may sound too good to be true, it really isn’t.

Let’s say you’re doing a great job as an owner and your convict cichlid lives in an ideal habitat with great water, food, and little stress. This means that they will be much less likely to develop one of the common diseases that can possibly affect them.

If you take convict cichlid care seriously early on, your fish will thank you later.

Food and Diet

It is important to have a solid understanding of their diet if you want them to live as long as possible. In the wild, Convict Cichlids are omnivores, eating a mix of insects and plant matter for nutrition.

Because these fish are the opposite of picky eaters, beginners assume that you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to their diet.

We see it differently.

When a species eats almost anything, this can fool inexperienced owners into thinking that a poor diet is acceptable. Instead, you need to realize that since they will eat whatever you put in the tank, it is up to you to find the right dietary balance.

The ideal diet for convict cichlids is a mix of pellets or flakes with live food options as well. This will ensure they get the variety and nutritional intake needed to stay healthy. Our two favorite live foods to feed them are brine shrimp and bloodworms.

Establishing a regular feeding schedule is also recommended. The standard combination of morning and night is fine.

Author’s Note: Keep an eye on how much food your fish are eating (especially early on in your property). Fish that will happily eat anything can be prone to overfeeding. Stay consistent and disciplined with what you are feeding them, and always check to see if there is any food that is not being eaten.

behavior and temperament

Understanding the aggressive tendencies of the convict cichlid is essential if you want to provide good care for them. These fish fit right in with many of their cichlid relatives and are quite territorial and feisty.

However, this is not something you need to worry about as long as you put them in the right environment. Giving these fish enough space and pairing them with the right tank mates should keep them happy.

His temperament is also why it is so important to include hiding places in his tank. Plants, rocks, and driftwood can help give everyone in the tank some element of privacy. In our experience, Convict Cichlids are much less territorial when they live in a large tank with plenty of hiding places.

In terms of their general activity level, this species loves to move. While they spend a lot of time in the middle of the tank, Convict Cichlids often check the substrate and even dig a bit.

This is not a fish that is afraid to investigate different areas of the aquarium. This makes for fun viewing as they always seem to be up to something!

Convict Cichlid Tank Mates

Despite their potential to be aggressive freshwater fish, you do have a few options when it comes to dooming cichlid tank mates.

However, it is important to mention that this is not the safest option you can take.

If you are someone who doesn’t want even the slightest chance of fighting or aggressive behavior in your tank, keep them alone. Community tanks come with some element of risk with this fish, even if you pair them with the recommended species.

A convict cichlid alone or a combination of male and female are two common choices. The more you add, the greater the chance for territoriality and aggression.

Also, don’t put a male and a female in a community tank! This will significantly increase aggression and territorial behavior and will surely get someone hurt.

As for other species, here are some possible convict cichlid tank mates:

  • oscar fish
  • pictus catfish
  • jack dempsey fish
  • clown loach
  • silver dollar fish

Author’s Note: If you decide to put a male and a female convict cichlid in your tank, there is a very good chance that they will breed.


Breeding convict cichlids is a piece of cake. They could be one of the easiest freshwater fish to breed in a home tank!

The most important thing you can do is make sure that their habitat is conducive to the breeding process. This means providing them with enough space (ideally 50-60 gallons) and including some rocks and even a cave for the female to lay her eggs in.

Once you have the general design of your aquarium ready, simply increase the temperature of the water a little. Look at the normal range and take it to the higher end of the spectrum (somewhere between 80°F and 84°F). This should be all you need to get started.

After the eggs have been fertilized, the couple will diligently protect the eggs. This is why trying to encourage breeding in a community tank is a terrible idea. Convict cichlid parents will attack any other fish that gets too close!

After about a week, the fry will be ready for you to feed (we recommend brine shrimp). It is a good idea to separate the parents to avoid any aggressive behavior towards the little babies.


Caring for convict cichlids is not as difficult as it seems. Once you understand their territorial and aggressive tendencies, it actually becomes quite easy!

These fish are an absolute delight to keep, and they are definitely one of our favorite cichlids. Their interesting pattern and active nature make them a highly entertaining species.

If you have any questions or stories about Convict Cichlids that you’d like us to add to the guide, let us know!

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