Cichlids of Central America

Firstly, I should state that ‘central america’ is a reference to the southernmost countries in North America. It is made up of seven countries.


These countries include:

  • Costa Rica – there are 14 major river systems originating in Costa Rica. Lake Nicaragua is a lake from which many ‘centrals’ originate, and is the largest lake in Central America. Of the 14 species currently found in the lake, only one is endemic, however some of the species found include several of the parachromis family, Amphilophus Labiatum, and Neetroplus Nematopus. The one of the well known species which is endemic to the lake is Citrinellum.


  • Panama – Panama contains 29 known species of cichlids, one that stands out is Aequidens Coeruleopunctatus… traditionally known as a South American species. Other species include Amphilophus Lyonsi, a species thought to be extinct in the wild until very recently, and Vieja Maculicauda, otherwise known as the the black-belt cichlid.


  • Belize – Belize is the northernmost country of Central America, bringing it further away from the equator, this results in a slightly cooler climate. One of the better known cichlids from this area would be the Jack Dempsey, or Rocio octofasciata, as well as the firemouth cichlid, Thoricthys Meeki. An unusual Vieja species was found quite recently,currently known as Vieja Synspillum var. ‘Belize’


  • Honduras – Honduras is home to one one one most well known cichlids in the hobby, the convict cichlid, or Amantilania Nigrofasciata, amongst other similar species, although they’re quite widespread as a species. We also find Cribroheros Robertstoni, a personal favourite of mine.


  • Nicaragua Nicaraguan cichlids are varied hugely,we find a lot of cichlidae within the country, from amphilophusspecies which regularly hit in excess of 12”, to parachromis dovii, the wolf cichlid! We also find several of the amantilania/cryptoheros


  • El Salvador – Being one of the smaller countries in Central America, we don’t find a huge range of cichlid species in El Salvador. A few species of oreochromis were introduced and continue to do well. Amantilania coatepeque is one of the endemic species this can be found, alongside the ever-present convict cichlid (nigrofasciata). Amphilophus Trimaculatum is also native, an old school favourite amongst central keepers.


  • Guatemala – home to a fair few species, Guatemala is a varied country in terms of rivers and lakes, we can find several Amphilophus, Parachromis, Theraps, Vieja, Thorichthys and more in this country. We also find a large amount livebearers, like xiphophorus helleri and xiphophorus signum.


Central America is rich with rainforests and highlands and the rivers contain tons of river shrimp which tends to be a main source of food for the cichlid of these rivers.

You can divide the Central American cichlids into two distinct sections, those from rivers and those from lakes, but I should add that the range of environments is huge! From volcanic lakes to fast flowing streams, and even brackish conditions in which several species of cichlid have been confirmed to have adapted to and spawned in.


Limestone is almost ever-present in central america, this means the pH and kH is generally higher than South American water. Water temperature is usually around 25-27°C, so an average temperature around that figure should suffice. Remember a stable environment is much more healthy for fish than one that jumps around all the while, causing particular stress on the internals of the fish, therefore we should avoid chasing numbers and instead aim for a stable environment.


A fair few species  in central america are found to consume algaes, plants and other organics, but diet varies hugely between species and research into a particular species diet is critical. Diet is important for all fish, but centrals in particular are known to suffer vitamin deficiencies which can, and often does, lead to hexamita infections, which many know as ‘hole-in-the-head. We mainly see the issue amongst omnivorous and herbivorous species.


River-originating species.

We know species from fast flowing streams and rivers as ‘rheophilic’. They are known to be sensitive to low oxygen and poor water quality, high flow is critical for these fish to thrive.


In rivers, substrate tends to be rock and sand based, with little to no plants present underwater, some plants grow outside of the water and the edges can be rich with plantation in some cases.

Flow can vary hugely, from rapids, to almost stagnant ponds with minimal flow. Total dissolved solids (TDS) are moderate, with clear water usually taking a blue-green hue. PH varies between 7.0-7.8, temperatures between 22-26°C are average.


Fish from this region should be in large tanks with strong filtration to quickly process the waste these larger fish create. Submerged smooth rocks and pebbles, and some wood alongside fine gravel or sand make for a natural-sque setup.


Large tanks, with equally large tankmates is considered vital for keeping riverine centrals, an all male large community in something above 150 gallons is more than possible, providing their is careful consideration when adding to the group. Parachromis in general can be a pain, where as amphilophus males do well in a large community. A popular option is a vieja/paratheraps community, the variation amongst these species is huge and adult males are stunning.


Popular riverine types

  • Amphilophus citrinellum
  • Vieja synspillum
  • Parachromis dovii
  • Parachromis managuense
  • Archocenturus multispinosus


Lake-originating species.

Species that originate from lakes are in general, smaller and more tolerant of conspecifics. thorichthys, amantilania, cryptoheros are all examples of centrals from lakes, they are usually found alongside livebearers, so when aiming for a biotope, natural-form swordtails and mollies can work very well.


It’s fair to say a lot of lot of smaller central american cichlids can be considered more peaceful and much more easy to stock alongside other species.


Popular lake based species

  • Amantilania nigrofasciata
  • Thoricthys meeki
  • Cryptoheros cutteri
  • Neetroplus nematopus



Central American cichlids going forward

Central American cichlids used to be much more popular and sadly declined once the past 10 years. They are now beginning to fight back into keepers hearts, with smaller lake species seemingly being more popular than the larger species from Amphilophus, parachromis etc…


With the rise of biotope-specific aquaria, lake-originating species can certainly find a space in our ever-evolving hobby, and I personally hope to see the larger species follow, especially since we now have greater access to certain areas, any new challenges in spawning much rarer species like Amphilophus lyonsi.