Apistogramma fish: Complete Guide- 2020

Apistogramma aka Dwarf Cichlids are amongst the most recommended freshwater species. 

They ‘re not just stunning to look at, but they’re also a little different from your normal cichlid. They really break the mold from their size up to their temperament! 

But not many people have an accurate understanding of what those fish need if you want them to thrive in your aquarium, for some reason. And that is why we’ve put this guide together. 

You’ll learn everything you need to know about this species below. We have included tips on care such as diet, tank mates, and size as well as general information that will make ownership much easier.

Species summary

Apistogramma, also known as Dwarf Cichlids, are vibrant and lively fishes. Not only do they look great, but they are one of the most inquisitive fish you can get for an aquarium in fresh-water. They love to explore their territory and will often interact on the other side of the glass with things that they see. 

Technically speaking, the genus is called apistogramma. There are many species that fall under the umbrella of the Apistogramma.

As you may have guessed from their nickname for Dwarf Cichlid, these fish also belong to the Cichlidae family. They can be found in the wilderness all over South America. Usually, they are found living in slow-moving rivers and streams around the Amazon Basin.

The fish also live along the edges of larger lakes, although the majority tend to stick to shallower habitats. The easiest way to admire those fish in aquariums these days.

Apistogramma has become incredibly popular within the community thanks to its fun personalities. Their eye-catching appearances don’t hurt either. 

That being said, they ‘re not for newbies. These fish can be a little bit of a challenge to look after. To truly thrive they require excellent conditions of water quality.


Here is the scientific classification of Apistogramma given below

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Cichliformes
Family: Cichlidae
Subfamily: Cichlinae
Tribe: Geophagini
Subtribe: Geophagina
Genus: Apistogramma
Regan, 1913
Type species
Mesops taeniatus

Types of Apistogramma

There are over 90 different species of the Apistogramma in total! Many newly discovered species still need scientific community assessment. 

Although there are many similarities regarding care and the environment, each species is unique. They are to be found in various parts of South America. Plus, they have distinct appearances which make them relatively easy to identify. 

Here are some of the most common Apistogramma types available to Aquarians:

1. Apistogramma Cacatuoides

Apistogramma_cacatuoides_double_red_male in aquarium
Image from Commons Wikimedia

Lovingly referred to as Dwarf Cockatoo Cichlids, this species is among the fish-keeping community’s most popular. Often, they are bred in captivity. Look at these fish one time and it is not difficult to see why they have the “Cockatoo” moniker. 

Two Apistogramma cacatuoides floating in an aquarium. Males have an impressive dorsal fin that is nearly as tall as the rest of their bodies.

The fin has a somewhat spiky look, mimicking the appearance of the feathers of a cockatoo. Also, the pelvic, anal, and tail fins have that whispy feather-like form. 

Those types of Apistogramma are among the most vibrant when it comes to colour. For males, bright red spots are fairly common on fins. The body takes on a yellow tone which is more muted. Yet a prominent stripe of “racing” extends from the tail to the head.

2. Apistogramma Agassizii

Apistogramma agassizii in aquarium
Image by Cisamarc from Commons Wikimedia

The Dwarf Cichlids of Agassiz come in several different patterns of colour. The most common ones you will see are the vibrant ones in gold. Males have a shimmering body of gold accompanied by a staunch stripe or spot of black. Males sometimes have bright red tails too. 

As with all species of Apistogramma, the females are slightly duller and smaller. Some Dwarf Cichlids of Agassiz may also be covered in blue. The upper body half is a rich blue while its bellies maintain that yellow-gold hue. 

The fins take on a form different from that of the species Cockatoo. They are smaller and have a sleek shape that is tapering towards their bodies’ end.

The Dwarf Cichlids of Agissiz tend to be rather more territorial than other species. As such, they will need plenty of hiding space.

3. Apistogramma Borellii

Apistogramma borellii in aquarium
Image by Gordon Axmann from Commons Wikimedia

The Apistogramma borelli offers a more subdued pattern of colour. They are commonly called Umbrella Cichlids, or just Yellow Dwarf Cichlids. 

Yellow, as you may have guessed, is the primary colour. Although, most have beautiful shades of blue covering the fits. There are spots of dark blue along the body too. 

Those fish’s heads also have some distinct markings. Many specimens have blue iridescent spots which cover the whole head. Also, you could see contrasting red markings. 

Yellow Dwarf Cichlids are considered as one of the more gentle species of the Apistogramma. They do well in community tanks and are robust enough to thrive in changing conditions of water.

4. Apistogramma Macmasteri

Apistogramma macmasteri in aquarium
Image by Jorsha from Commons Wikimedia

The Apisto Macmasteri has some looks which are seriously intimidating. Their great dorsal and pelvic fins can identify them. Adult males have squared-off tail and long flowy fins. The dorsal fin extends all along the fish’s length and features prominent spikes. 

Compared with those bred in captivity, this species is known to have a more muted color pattern in the wild. To get the most vibrant color possible these fish have been selectively bred.

You will find, as such, that most specimens you find on the market are covered in bright red spots. Red is often found on the tips of the fins.

Some fish, however, have large red spots too. Usually accompanied by a black stripe contrasting with it.

5. Apistogramma Hongsloi

Apistogramma_cacatuoides_double_red_male in aquarium
Image by Mazapura from Commons Wikimedia

This species is known as Honglo’s Dwarf Cichlids and is one of the most colorful varieties you can get. In general, males are covered in a soft pink colour. It is normally found on the stomach and face. 

Bright red Swathes break up the pink. On the tail and face you could see some distinct red swirls on the fins or vibrant spots. Those bred in captivity could have even more red than pink on them! 

In most cases the Dwarf Cichlids of Honglo are doing very well with other peaceful fish. They tend to keep their distance and spend the majority of the time watching at the bottom of the tank over their claimed territory.

6. Apistogramma Viejita

Apistogramma viejita in aquarium
Image by lienyuan lee from Commons Wikimedia

These fish look a lot like Aposti Macmasteri. In fact, because of their similar profiles and color patterns, many sellers mix the two species up. 

Viejeta are very vibrant, just like the Macmasteri. The captive-bred specimens can be mixed with dark and light specks in red spots. Many got a prominent black stripe as well. 

The easiest way to distinguish a Viejeta from a Macmasteri is through looking at the dorsal and tail fins. The tail fin to Viejeta is rounded and flowing. Some fish have two distinct dots on top and bottom of the tail as well. 

Meanwhile, the dorsal finish features a large front-facing hump and an elongated back section.

7. Apistogramma Baenschi

This species, known as the Inca Dwarf Cichlid, or Apistogramma Inka, is relatively new to the scene. It was first found in the year 2002. That didn’t stop them from becoming a very popular choice for cichlid enthusiasts though. 

An Inca Dwarf Cichlid’s most notable aspect is their head. It is a bit bigger than you would have seen on other species. Their lips stick out, as well. They ‘re not only bigger but they’re taking on a dark color that makes them more visible. 

Those fish can vary quite a bit when it comes to coloring. Hues of yellow and blue are usually the most frequent. Vertical black stripes can also be found on numerous specimens.

8. Apistogramma Elizabethae

Thus comes a matching appearance with such a regal name. These fish are known by their trade name, Fisherman’s Dwarf, and have a very unique profile. 

Males have a fairly slender body. Expansive fins, however, make them look far larger than they really are. The dorsal and anal fins blend in with their tail fin and give a unique look. 

The dorsal fin extends over the length of their body. Compared to other species it is shorter and has a flat shape. The same applies to the anal-fin. 

What stands out most is the tail-fin. It has a spade form and is covered in thin stripes.

9. Apistogramma Trifasciata

Apistogramma trifasciata in aquarium
Image by Daiju Azuma from Commons Wikimedia

This fish is appropriately called the Three-Striped Apisto. Three thick black bands run their length through their body. Two can be found on either side of the body while the third runs below its dorsal fin. 

The stripes complement the vibrant blue fins they make. Like other species of Apisto, these fish have long fins. The upper part of the dorsal fin is a little longer than the rest, which gives the fish a whispy mohawk. 

While most of the body is covered in blue and yellow, certain specimens have red accents as well. The red is typically present on the tips of their fins or on their faces.

Lifespan of Apistogramma 

The average lifespan of the Apistogramma fish is from five to ten years. Their lifespan can vary a little depending on the species of which you are talking. 

You can do your part by keeping the water conditions and giving them a relatively stress-free life to reach the upper end of that range.

Apistogramma fish Appearance

What originally captivated aquarists was the appearance of Apistogramma. These are among the most colorful freshwater fish in the area. Among Apistos, vibrant shades of yellow, blue, and red are common. 

Color patterns vary across the board, but that is what makes it so fun to own an Apistogramma! To create a one-of-a-kind aquarium you can pick fish with wildly different looks. 

Apistogramma is dimorphic in sex. This means noticeable differences exist between males and females. Compared with men, females tend to be on the smaller side. Plus, their patterns of color are more subdued. 

Males are those with all the pretty colors. While females tend to be duller, this may change according to their behavior. During the breeding season, females often become more vibrant.


The average adult size of Apistogramma at full maturity is about 3 inches in max. length. Although the cichlid family is known to have some very large fish which can quickly outgrow a tank, these are not your average cichlids. 

Again you will determine the maximum size of the exact species you have. The range, however, lies between 0.8 and 3.1 inches.

Apistogramma Caring

Some parts of Apistogramma care can be a bit tricky and dwarf cichlids are generally not the easiest fish to keep. While they take some extra work to keep healthy, it is a very rewarding experience to raise those fish.

Tank size and setup

Apistogramma tank setup

You do not need a huge tank because of their small size to keep Apistogramma happy. A decent group of fish will generally need only around 20 gallons of space. Some breeders even witnessed success in a 10-gallon tank with small groups (though we are not big fans of that). 

We are actually recommending going with a tank size closer to 30 gallons. While they can make wonderful nano fish, there’s always more space to be appreciated.

Yet there is a fine balance between providing too much space for these fish and not having enough. The aim is to provide plenty of space for every fish to call their own. They can be a little territorial, remember.

Consider how many fish you plan to keep and choose a tank that is suitably sized to your needs. 

Water parameters

Water Parameters
Image from Pexels

The trickiest part of maintaining a healthy Apistogramma is the management of water conditions. They can be very picky and responsive to pH and temperature shifts. 

Mimicking the water conditions of their natural habitat is best. Water lies on the warmer side of the Amazon basin. There’s also a relatively neutral pH balance between the streams and tributaries where these fish live. 

As always, cycling your tank is important prior to introducing the fish. Those aren’t the types of fish you can just plop into some tap water.

You have to fine-tune the pH balance and stay regularly on top of the levels. We also recommend changing about a third of the tank volume every single week to prevent the introduction of too much ammonia into the mixture by organic matter.

  • Water temperature: 72°F to 86°F
  • pH levels: 6.0 to 7.0
  • Water hardness: 2 to 15 dKH depending on species

What to put in tank?

Question mark symbol
Image from Pexels

Setting up their tank is all about creating a space that makes your fish feel natural and comfortable. Like many other species of fish native to the Amazon Basin, it is always the best natural decoration. 

Starting from the bottom of the tank, adhere to fine sandy substrate. The rivers in which they reside are generally littered with leaves.

Although you don’t have to replicate that in your tank, the fish appreciate the sandy bottom. It is known that this species digs every once in a while, so sand makes that possible without injury. 

Sand is also great to keep the aquatic plants alive, which is a must-have for Apistogramma. Their environment requires lush vegetation.

Plants not only act as a food source, but they are also great hiding places for fish which need some protection. Java moss, Java fern, Cryptocoryne and more are great options for all. Hang on to natural tropical plants. 

Those plants can be supplemented with some rocks and driftwood. Those decorative items again act as safe hiding spots and provide shelter from the light. Providing some caves or artificial housing options, too, is a good idea. If you want to breed your fish they will prove to be useful. 

A potent filtration system is paramount when it comes to equipment. These fish, despite their tiny size, can produce a significant amount of waste.

A high-quality canister filter with carbon filtration media (such as the Fluval FX4) should help to maintain the water quality in good shape. 

Don’t use powerful air bladders or water pumps. Apistogramma prefers low flux of water. Most will not even raise unless the water is nearly at a standstill (more on that later).

Apistogramma Diseases

Apistogramma is not at risk for any major diseases which are unique to this genus. They may however suffer from many common freshwater health problems, such as Ich and parasite infections. 

These problems are mostly directly related to poor quality of water. Poor conditions cause stress, which can result in illness and death. 

This means you need to be vigilant in keeping the quality of water high! They should stay healthy as long as the water remains soft and relatively pH-neutral.

Diet and Feeding

Dwarf cichlids are omnivores of natural origin. Algae are often the meal of choice when it comes to plant-based foods. Sometimes, they will also nip at plant leaves whenever they get hungry. 

While eating plant foods they prefer protein to a large extent. However, they don’t really get a ton of opportunities to eat meat in the wild, because of their small stature. Their diets most often are limited to insect larvae, small invertebrates, fry fish, and worms. 

You can replicate that diet yourself by making brine shrimp and worms available to your fish. We also recommend using dry pellets to guarantee a balanced diet.

Hang on to sinking nutritionally dense pellets. Keeping your fish well-fed can also help to keep levels of aggression low. 

Behavior and temperant

Cichlids are usually perceived in the fish community as big aggressors. Fortunately, Apistogramma doesn’t really fit that profile. We would have them classified as semi-aggressive. They can be kept with other fish in tanks but you must plan the habitat accordingly. 

That’s because it can be a very territorial Apistogramma. Most of their disputes with other fish, even those of the same species, relate to territorial boundaries. 

That is why giving your fish ample space to swim around and hide is so important.

These fish are going to spend most of their time near the tank bottom. Some fish will pick spots to call and defend their own. You may also witness some aggressive behavior during breeding times or when there is insufficient food to go around. 

If you keep your fish well-fed and offer plenty of hiding spots, you shouldn’t have any issues. As we have already mentioned, Apistogramma has large personalities. They will playfully swim around and may even react to your moves!

Apistogramma Tank mates

Because Apistogramma fish occupies the aquarium’s bottom area, you can keep quiet fish that remain in other parts of the tank. Always avoid larger species that are aggressive. Because of their small size, these fishes can become targets very quickly. 

Keeping more than one Apistogramma in the tank is best. More females are preferred, as males tend to exhibit signs of attack. Common options are to keep bonded pairs together or to make a harem group to one male with multiple females.

Here are some of our favorite Apistogramma tank mates:

  • Fish of the same species
  • Neon Tetras
  • Rasboras
  • Pencilfish
  • Pygmy Corydoras
  • Otocinclus Catfish
  • Cardinal Tetras
  • Bristlenose Plecos

If none of the choices on our list appeals to you, there are other options you can consider. The tank mates on our list, though, are there for a reason. Don’t reinvent the wheel!

Breeding of Apistogramma 

This is one of the most asked questions by aquarists! Apistogramma is not too hard to breed. You need to give them the proper environment to trigger the process, however. 

These egglayers are those fish. Some species females will keep the eggs in her mouth. Most will however select a heavily guarded spot to lay the eggs. A cave system or overturned pot of clay is usually best. 

The cool thing about Apistogramma is they’re highly baby fish protective. Most of the heavy lifting will be done by the females. The males, meanwhile, will guard the breeding zone. 

Place a bonded pair in a separate tank that is at least 10 gallons, to start the breeding process. Reduce water flow through the tank by covering sponges with filters.

This not only makes the water stagnant, but it also prevents the fry from sucking into the filter. 

Then you can raise the temperature to some 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The female finds a nice cave when she’s ready, and coaxes the male to join her. She’ll then lay some 80 eggs in the cave. 

The eggs only need 2 to 5 days to hatch. The male and female will guard the area during this time and drive away any fish that even gets close. That’s why breeding the fish in a separate tank is a good idea. 

Once the eggs have hatched, the baby fry will eat food that the mother will find. She will lead them towards algae and other sources of food.

You can supply baby brine shrimp after a few days to help the fries grow. The majority of baby Apistogramma reaches full maturity by about 5 months. 


Now you should be very comfortable with the basics of Apistogramma care. Keeping these fish in your aquarium may sometimes be a challenge, but it is so darnly rewarding! 

Dwarf cichlids are a species that we intend to keep for a very long time. There is just something we have fallen in love with about them. 

If you have any questions concerning this fish we would love to hear from you. There are tons of less common types in this guide that we have not been able to cover as well, so if you think we should add more just let us know!


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