Convict cichlid fish: Complete care, lifespan and breeding

The convict cichlid also is known as Amatitlania nigrofasciata is a fish species of the Cichlidae family, originally from Central America, also known as the cichlid of the zebra.

Convict cichlids are popular aquarium fish and were also the subject of numerous fish behavior studies.


Here is the scientific classification on convict cichlid:

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Cichliformes
Family: Cichlidae
Genus: Amatitlania
A. nigrofasciata
Binomial name
Amatitlania nigrofasciata

The species was originally described by Albert Günther in 1867 after collecting specimens in Central America from Frederick DuCane Godman and Osbert Salvin.

In 2007, the species was moved from the Archocentrus genus to a new genus, Amatitlania, based on the study of Archocentus species by Juan Schmitter-Soto.

However, a 2008 study led by Oldrich Rican suggested moving the species into the genus Hypsophrys in Cryptoheros and Amatitlania, including Amatitlania nigrofasciata.

The convict cichlid shows significant color across their range. Some of these regional variants are now seen as various species.

Rusty Wessel was collecting one such fish, the Honduran Red Point Cichlid (Amatitlania sp.) from a stream in Honduras in the cichlid-keeping hobby.

The Honduran Red Point Convict extends from the south to Costa Rica in Atlantic Honduras. Other new species previously listed in A. Nigrofasciata are Amatitlania coatepeque of Lake Coatepeque in El Salvador and Amatitlania kanna of the Atlantic coast of Panama.

Species of the type, A. The nigrofasciata used to cover all of these species is restricted to northern populations ranging from El Salvador to Guatemala on the Pacific coast and from Honduras to Guatemala on the Atlantic coast. 

For this species, there are a number of synonyms including Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum, Cryptoheros nigrofasciatus and Heros nigrofasciatus.


Like the species name, the common name convict cichlid is derived from the vertical black stripes on the body that are reminiscent of the British convicts’ striped prison uniforms.

Likewise, the epithet species nigrofasciatus literally means “black-striped.”


The species wild-type has 8 or 9 vertical black bars on a blue-grey body, along with a dark blotch on the operculum.

Youth convict cichlids are monomorphic until sexual maturity is attained. Mostly the male is grey with light black stripes along the body. Males are larger than females and have more pointed ventral, dorsal, and anal fins that often spread into filaments.

Moreover, older males often develop vestigial, fatty lumps on their foreheads. The female is more colorful, unusually for fish.

In the ventral region and on the dorsal fin, she has more intense black bands across her body, and pink to orange coloration. The fish’s body mass is around 34–36 grams (1.2–1.3 oz).

Selective breeding has led to a leucistic strain that lacks the wild type dark barring. These are commonly referred to as White convicts, Pink convicts, Gold convicts, and A. “Kongo” nigrofasciata A mutation in an autosomal gene causes leucistic coloration and is inherited recessively.

One of the most popular members in the Cichlidae family is the Black Convict Cichlid, also known as the Zebra Cichlid. 

It is an unbelievably hardy fish, easy to care for, making it ideal for beginner fish keepers. The Convict Cichlid gets its name on its body because of its vertical black and white stripes. 

In this article, we will talk about everything you need to know about keeping them, including dietary needs, ideal tank mates, tank setup, varieties of pink and white colors, how to control their aggression.

Mostly it will find itself in larger streams and rivers, sheltering near rocks and sunken branches. 

They are behind Oscars and Angelfish among the most popular members of the Cichlidae family. Their popularity in the world of fish keeping is due to their resilience, low care needs and vibrant coloring.

It also makes an excellent beginner breeder fish because of its receptivity to mate. 

Males grow to 6 inches long, and females grow to 4.5 inches long. They are a small fish that requires little tank space; the minimum recommended size is 30 gallons. 

They should only be placed in a tank with other convicts generally for beginners because of their aggressive and territorial nature.

Typical Behaviour

The Cichlid Black Convict is an active fish known for its aggressive and territorial behavior. Among many cichlids this behavior is common. 

If a fish invades its territory it will defend itself by persecuting and harassing the other fish. They will spend most of their time in caves and plant matter, close to their territory. 

They make fantastic parents as prolific breeders; therefore their parenting ability is another common behavior that you’ll see. They ‘re attentive parents and you’ll see them feeding their fries.

Aggressive Behaviour

Convict cichlids are known to be highly aggressive and territorial in breeding, possessing a variety of complex behaviors and adaptations suggested to result from environmental conditions, individual development, and variation in traits.

Cichlids are popularly studied due to their aggressive nature to investigate the factors that could potentially cause their behavior.

Convicted cichlids usually show their aggressive behavior by biting and chasing, which involves high-speed bursts targeted at the intruder, and also show their aggression through their body size.

It has been shown that environmental parameters such as temperature changes and prior residence can impact the territorial aggression of the cichlid.

In contrast to 26 ° C, convict cichlids are more aggressive at 30 ° C, which can be explained by the fact that convict cichlids tend to establish their breeding sites and spawn at 30 ° C.

Appearance of convict cichlid

convict cichlid appearance
Image by Deanpemberton from commons Wikimedia

The appearance of these Black Convict Cichlids gets their name from the white and black stripes they appear. They are also known as the Cichlid Zebra. 

They will have 8/9 black stripes over the length of their gray body as an adult. The males will have larger anal and dorsal fins, while the females with more coloration will be smaller. 

While the majority of them are black, you can now find pink, white, and gold varieties due to selective breeding. Pink ones are becoming more frequent and have a pink/yellow body with no vertical stripes. 

Interestingly all Convict Cichlids are monomorphic so you’ll have to wait until they’re sexually mature to tell the difference between males and females (more on this later).

While many members of the Cichlidae family are big fish, the Convict is the family runt, with males growing to 6 inches and females growing to 4.5 inches.

Habitat and Tank requirements

Of course, Convict Cichlids inhabit Central America ‘s warm rivers, ranging from Costa Rica to Panama. 

They will be found in streams, as well as rivers. These fishes enjoy slow-moving water and are used to substrates that are sandy and rocky.

Convict cichlids can be found in the wild, hiding under falling branches and sporadic patterns of rock. They have learned to survive in a wide variety of water conditions because of their wide natural habitat and therefore they are very hardy fish. 

With that said, you can use rocks and lots of plants when you set up your aquarium, and they also enjoy a slow current. As for the substratum, you should look to use sand, you can use driftwood as well.

Convicts are strong swimmers and like to ‘rearrange’ tanks so make sure you use and anchor powerful plants (Amazon Swords or Java Ferns). 

Sometimes, they were even known to dig the substrate out and create a lot of mess! Because of this, you should make sure that a strong filtration setup is in place to stop the water from becoming turbid.

The bare minimum you should use is a good quality hanging on the back.

Condition for tanks

As they are used to South America’s warm water, you should make sure that the water temperature is kept between 79 and 84 ° F.

You don’t have to worry much about pH levels because of their hardness but try to keep it within 6.6-7.8.

Diet and Feeding

Convicts will eat small insects, mosquito larvae, and plant debris in its natural habitat, in warm rivers all over Central America. 

They ‘re a natural omnivore and they’re not fussy eaters; they ‘re going to eat most of the things that’s put in the aquarium. Omnivore means they will eat plant matter as well as meat. 

While Cichlids can survive a wide range of foods, your goal should be to raise healthy Cichlids, so you should make sure that their diet meets their nutritional needs. 

As always we recommend a high-quality flake or pellet should be the core of their diet. You should make sure this pellet is specifically produced for Cichlids.

You can feed them with live foods such as Blood Worms, Black Worms, Daphnia and Brine Shrimp. In addition to their flake/pellet.

If the fresh variety can not be found, then the frozen ones will suffice. Besides the meat, blanched vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli and carrots can be fed to them. 

Be sure to feed them in smaller portions throughout the day instead of a single large portion when you feed them; this large portion can pollute the tank and destabilize water conditions.

Instead, aim to feed them two to three times a day.

Aquarium care

convict cichlid
Image by Stanmar from commons Wikimedia

To mimic the natural environment, the aquarium should be decorated and include rocks and artificial groves for breeding.

Most experts agree that a pair of convicts should be kept in or larger than a 20-gallon aquarium. The species is an unfussy omnivore and will readily accept most types of prepared fish foods.

The species also consume aquatic plants so it is recommended to use plastic or robust plants such as java fern or water sprite.

During breeding, condemned cichlids are aggressively territorial and the pairs are best kept alone. Brood care for the aquarium strains is reduced.

External filtration is superior to under gravel filter systems, due to the tendency of the species to dig.

Convict cichlid Tank mates

Ideal tank mates for convict cichlids are robust fish of a similar size.  fast-moving fish like Giant Danios may also be used as dither fish.

Also remember, if you have a 40-gallon or smaller breeding pair of convicts you will most likely be unable to keep the convicts with any mates of the tank.

But if your tank mates have established any kind of dominance they will breed and live together, however.

If you ever saw Convict Cichlids before you might have been forgiven for thinking of them as having a timid temper. 

They are however extremely territorial and will be very hostile and aggressive when fish enter ‘their’ territory. In general, they don’t make a good choice for a community tank. 

If you’re a beginner then we’d recommend that you keep Cichlids without any other species in their own tank.

This is the easiest way to avoid any problems that arise with other fish. However, if you have some experience and you’re looking to add convicts to a community tank, then you need to follow some rules.

First, you should make sure you don’t keep any smaller or less aggressive fish with them. You should only keep them with larger species which, for example, can stand their own ground:

Keeping the cichlids convicted together

However you should be prepared for them to breed, you can hold convicts together. 

You should also not keep breeding pairs in a community tank as you are requesting aggression and trouble.

If you read the behavior overview above, you’ll know they ‘re territorial at best times, and the aggression gets worse during spawning periods. 

With each Convict being different, it is difficult to make general statements, but generally, if the aquarium is too small for them, you will find a male taking over the entire tank; so make sure you use at least a 50-gallon tank.

Breeding of convict cichlid

Pink convict cichlid
Image by Timmy Toucan from commons Wikimedia

Breeding convicts are as simple as having a male and a female with adequate water quality and feeding in the same tank.

Special conditioning is not required. Because of their prolific breeding in captivity, the demand for Convict fry is very low, and one can easily find their aquarium overcrowded with an inbreeding population of Convicts without any avenues for adoption. 

One area in which convicts excel is breeding; they ‘re incredibly easy to raise and make great parents. 

While many species will not breed in home aquariums, the exception is Convicts. Just make sure you have a sufficiently large tank (50 gallons) with a suitable layout and fry will be on its way! 

They reach sexual maturity at the age of about 7 months so they will be ready to breed afterward. Obviously you’ll need a paired male and female and they’ll spawn pretty much all year round. 

In the wild women lay their eggs inside caves or on rocks so you need to emulate this as closely as possible within your breeder tank.

You can use flat stones or flower pots to create caves; you can tell the truth that they’re not too fussy to do anything. 

As far as water parameters are concerned, follow the above guidance (in the section Habitat and Tank Requirements) with one exception; heat up to 84 ° F. 

Once the male has fertilized the eggs, the female watches over the eggs and the male guards the perimeter. 

You can expect the eggs to hatch after 4 days, and you will get around 30 Convicts! It is during this stage that you will notice what great parents they are making as they will find food and shelter for them and keep away any other fish.

You should expect them to abandon their yolk sac and start swimming after another 5 days. 

As a side note, this may be the time when the father can be aggressive towards the fry. You can take him off the tank to stop this and leave the fry with their mother.

Here are a few articles you might want to check

Ember tetra: Complete care, lifespan, tank size and mates

Firemouth cichlid: care, breeding, tank mates and size


Federal population

The species also occurs outside its natural range, even in Australia, where it can be found in the warm effluent of Victoria power stations, as well as in tropical Queensland.

It was also captured in Perth, Western Australia, though this initial capture also led to the eradication of it. The species was introduced in addition to Australia in Réunion, Japan, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan and the USA.

Reproduction life-cycle

The convict cichlid may reach sexual maturity as young as 16 weeks, although sexual maturity occurs more commonly at age 6.

Forms monogamous pairs of sexually mature convicts and spawns in small caves or crevices. In the wild, the fish dig caves by moving earth from below large stones. Females fasten eggs to the cave walls.

Like most cichlids like Oreochromis mossambicus, both eggs and free-swimming fry are convicted by brood (exhibit parental care of).

After fertilization, the eggs hatch about 72 hours. The parents expel intruders and potential egg predators from the surrounding nest until this time.

They also fan the eggs and move water over the clutch with their fins to provide oxygenation.

Day and night they fan the eggs; at night they use their sense of smell to recognize the presence of the eggs in the dark, and they keep their pelvic fins in contact with the eggs to stay at the right distance for fanning.

The pair recognizes each other in the darkness and detects predators using their sense of smell. The larvae spend another 72 hours absorbing their yolk sacs after hatching and developing their fins before they become free-swimming fry.

Let’s talk about the day-time

During the daylight, the fry forages in a dense school and returns for the night to the cave or crevice. The parents, like other cichlids, recover their young just before darkness, suck up three or four at a time and deliver them into the nest.

The parents anticipate night, using a sense of time; convicted cichlids continued to retrieve young in laboratory experiments as night approached even in the absence of any signal, such as dimming light. The fry bunch up at the bottom of the cave or nest during the night, where they were faned by parents.

Both parents continue to be involved in protecting the fry from brood predators and engaging in behaviors to help feed such as moving leaves or fin digging (digging the substratum with their fins).

Brood care in the wild for eggs, larvae and free-swimming juveniles can last from 4 to 6 weeks and only occurs once per season for most females.

Females in aquariums, on the other hand, are known to breed many times a year with short intervals of 12 or 13 days between broods as long as appropriate rocks or similar surfaces are available for them to lay their eggs on.

Should you keep convict cichlid in the aquarium?

Hopefully, now you know enough to find out if the Black Convict Cichlid is your aquarium’s right fish. 

Its hardy nature, ease of care, and vibrant colors make it ideal for a beginner. They are also perfect for beginners who want to get into breeding fish.

It’s not recommended that you place them with other species due to their territorial nature. Instead, you should keep them in a separate tank.

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