Why do african cichlids change colors

Why do African Cichlids change colors?

African Cichlids are one of the most beautiful and colorful fish in the freshwater aquarium hobby. But Why do African Cichlids change colors? Getting these fish to reach their full potential can sometimes be frustrating.

To answer a complicated question in a single word, dominance. Male African Cichlids adjust the vibrancy of their color pattern based on their role in the aquarium. This African Cichlid hierarchy is essentially the “pecking order” that the fish breed is based on.

The most aggressive and vibrantly colored male gets the benefit of breeding with the females. The alpha male, or tank boss, will have the brightest and most rich colors, while less aggressive males will be sub-dominant and faded in color.

An even more interesting fact is that these color changes can happen in minutes. In larger home aquariums, and definitely in the wild lakes that these species come from, once the most aggressive male leaves the general area of other subordinate males, one of the subordinate fish can move up the ranks to the role of alpha.

This African Cichlid will rapidly begin coloring up and immediately release hormones that allow him to begin to breed with females or sparring with other males to maintain the newly found position as leader or tank boss.

Read more about the Top 10 things you must know about African Cichlids

Male Color Vs. Female Color

Most species of African Cichlids are sexually dimorphic, meaning that male members of a species are brightly colored while females are a subdued hue. This odd color variation between sexes is important for ensuring the safety of the females in a colony.

It also advertises to females that a male is present, dominant, and ready to begin breeding. Since females are less attractive looking it allows them to blend into their environment much more easily and avoid any predators who may be looking for their next meal.

This trait is not isolated only to females. The subordinate males of these Cichlid species also tend to be a more dull color. They may be varying shades of yellow or blue, but they don’t “pop” and are basically bland-looking.

If the alpha male of the colony is attacked or eaten by a predator, likely because of his bright colors making him much more noticeable than the other fish nearby, this allows another sub-dominant male to step up, brighten up in color, take the place as a leader, and continue breeding.

Why do African Cichlids change colors? It is genetically hard-coded into these interesting fish’s DNA to always leave the ability to continue breeding, even if this comes at the cost of one of their own.

An All Male Tank Can Minimize Aggression And Maximize Color

We have already established that keeping both male and female Cichlids can lead to males sometimes attempting to revolt against their leader and become the new tank boss. This sparring or aggression is especially common in setups that have multiple females.

This tank setup means that the alpha male will want to breed nearly nonstop when there are females in the tank. There is a very simple way to handle this though, and there may be more benefits to removing females than you think.

 Flavescent African Cichlids
Flavescent African Cichlid

Maintaining a tank of all male African Cichlids can be both challenging and very rewarding. The initial challenge is the fact that your fish will be aggressive toward one another. It may be as simple as chasing another tankmate for a few inches, or it could potentially become an outright nipping battle between two or more members of your community. If you do choose to have a full male tank, keep a few things in mind to make the setup a little more easy.

Things to consider with an all-male tank

You will probably have to remove a fish or two. It is a genetic drive that causes fish to fight in the first place, and genetics can not be changed. It is very possible that one or more of your Cichlids will be much more aggressive than the rest of its tank mates.

If a male establishes dominance and begins to periodically attack, not chase or nip at another male, which is normal behavior, but launch a persistent attack on other fish, you will need to remove him from the tank. This is an even larger problem specifically with the Mbuna subspecies.

Why do african cichlids change colors
OB Red Empress

Keeping a watchful eye is the easiest and safest way to ensure everyone gets along. I’m sure I don’t have to force anyone to pull up a chair to their tank and enjoy a front-row seat to nature, but keeping an even closer eye out for the first few days that you establish a new male community is of utmost importance.

This allows easy observation of troublemakers and their behaviors. Sometimes an initially aggressive fish may return to a more docile nature after a day or two, it is definitely a case-by-case basis though.

Luckily if you are bringing multiple fish home from a store or breeder that have already been housed together the likelihood of inn-fighting will be reduced, as the caretaker would have likely noticed and separated the problem fish before passing them along to you.

Once the notable bullies have been dealt with, most fishkeepers notice a pleasant level of peacefulness among the residents of their tanks. Once the hierarchy is fully established, every fish knows their role and will not frequently attempt to become the alpha unless the current one is removed from the tank.

Avoid an African Cichlid surprise

For newer Cichlid keepers it may come as a surprise when you observe your tank one day and notice the additional 15 or 20 fry, seemingly out of nowhere. Female Cichlids birth their fry and then the mothers carry the babies in the mouth until they are fully prepared to be released into the tank.

Experienced Cichlid keepers are probably familiar with just how quickly these fry can add up, especially in larger tanks with multiple females. The numbers can become overwhelming in a short period of time.

Benefits of an all-male tank

One benefit to an all-male tank is the elimination of fry! While many fish keepers love the science behind reproduction and bask in the glory of tiny fish being birthed into their aquariums, it is a responsibility that not everyone can share the same enthusiasm for.

Fry are a lot of work. They require special care when performing water changes to ensure they are not siphoned out of the tank accidentally. These new additions also add to the established bio-load of your tank.

For those who may be unaware, the beneficial bacteria found inside your filters and substrate have an upper limit on the amount of waste they can efficiently eradicate before it is overwhelmed. It will almost always catch back up to the new higher bio-load, but often this does not occur rapidly enough to prevent the loss of some of your fish.

Why do african cichlids change colors
OB Peacock

The other notable benefit of an all-male tank is the perpetual coloration of the fish. This is the real bread and butter of male tanks. When a community of males share the same tank space they will all be constantly vigilant of an opportunity to establish dominance of the tank.

This is especially true if a couple of species are kept together, with species dominance being established as well as overall tank dominance. This means that most of your fish will maintain brighter and more vibrant colors than when in a tank shared with females.

Since there is never an established breeding regimen, males stay in a state of readiness, just waiting for a female to appear. This reason alone is why a majority of Cichlid keepers would choose to establish a male-only tank. The simple enjoyment of multiple beautiful fish, rich in color and personality.

Female to Male ratio

It is true that males color brightly to attract females, so it only makes sense that the presence of female fish will encourage your males to brighten up. If you do decide to keep male and female fish together it is important to maintain a proper ratio of female to male. This ratio varies based on species so ensure you do a bit of research before making a final decision on a species to bring home.

How To Help Your African Cichlids Color Up

Iceberg African Cichlid
Iceberg African Cichlid


There are many factors that contribute to how your African Cichlid colors will develop. The single most important factor in helping your fish to color up is pristine water quality. It is not hard to imagine that the presence of ammonia, nitrite or high levels of nitrates will stress your fish to the point of subdued coloration. It is a common characteristic of nearly all aquatic species to lose their color when put into a stressful environment.

In order for your Cichlids to even want to breed, they must be happy and healthy. Simply put, if they feel that their environment is unstable, they will not be comfortable enough to bring fry into the tank. This in turn means that male fish will have a difficult time maintaining vibrant coloration, even when kept in a male-only tank.

In addition to your water quality the fish food and supplementation of essential nutrients also contribute greatly to fish coloration. Watch this video for more info on quality fish food and supplementation.

Water Clarity

You should also strive for water clarity. Having beautiful brightly colored fish that you can’t see well because of bad water clarity is very disappointing. Here’s an article on helping you achieve that crystal clear water we all strive for.

Maintain regular testing of water parameters such as pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Ensure routine water changes are performed without fail and that all filter mechanisms are in good working order. Maintaining water temperature is also a key component to encourage coloration. If the temperature of the water in your tank fluctuates frequently it will lead to high levels of stress for your fish.

Ensuring that you provide your fish with a well-balanced diet rich in variety will certainly help as well. Some vegetarian-focused species of African Cichlids prefer food heavy in algae and plant matter. Other species are omnivores that eat both protein and plant-based food.

Some of the most commonly recommended brands of quality fish food include:

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