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Solving aggression in African cichlids

African cichlids are extremely popular in the aquarium hobby due to their vibrancy and liveliness, but they are especially known for their natural aggression. However, there are a number of ways in which this can be curtailed.

Planningis key

First,while there are steps you can take to reduce aggression, keep in mindit isn't likely to be entirely eliminated. The first step to take inhaving a more peaceful African cichlid tank is to do your researchand plan beforehand. Not all cichlids are compatible and many havedifferent temperaments. Many cichlid tanks fail simply due to poorplanning, but don't worry! Below are some things to keep in mind whentrying to maintain a less aggressive cichlid tank!


For some cichlid owners, the most useful tool used in fighting cichlid aggression ends up being the aquarium setup. You can aquascape the tank to help diffuse aggression by breaking the line of sight for bully fish. This can be done with the use of caves, rocks, slate, terra cotta pots, etc., which will give fish that are being chased somewhere to retreat to. The more hiding places you provide, the better off your fish will be. Also, using larger and taller items will help further diminish the dominant fish's line of sight, and some hobbyists recommend using both large and small decorations.

It is a good idea to know the breeding habits of your cichlids as well since some will breed in caves, others will look for a flat rock to breed on, and some will lay eggs on driftwood or plant leaves. Knowing the breeding habits and natural habitat of your cichlids beforehand will help tremendously with planning your aquascape. Keep in mind that some fish will guard their eggs and fry quite vigorously once they breed, sometimes against the other parent and sometimes against other fish in the tank.


Since dominant cichlids will claim their own territories, you can help lessen aggression by changing these spaces occasionally. Of course, they will eventually stake out other territories to defend, but this practice will help temporarily. Switch your plants, caves, and decorations around to disrupt the territories that have been established, though it is recommended to wait at least several months in between changes so your fish don't become too stressed.

Horizontal Space

Going for a tank that is long rather than tall can have several benefits: it can allow more cave structures or decorations lower to the ground to be available for cover and protection, and it offers more space for bottom dwelling species, so there is less need to fight over territory.

Solving aggression in African cichlids By Nicolas COUTHOUIS - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Similar size and temperaments

While many juvenile cichlids will begin around the same size, not all species will remain a similar size once they reach adulthood. It's important to know if there is a size difference between the adults if you are putting different types of cichlids together. The smaller ones will often get bullied and harassed by the larger fish.

The same goes for looking for cichlids with similar temperaments. Although individual behavior and temperament varies from one fish to another, some species are naturally more aggressive than other. A more aggressive fish housed with a more docile one is likely to become a bully to the more easygoing fish, where two together who are both more aggressive can defend themselves and two together that are less aggressive should coexist more peacefully.


Food and mating are two contributing factors when it comes to the reasons cichlids can be aggressive. When food is scarce, competition is more likely to occur and these fish are even more inclined to guard their territory. More plentiful amounts of food will help to reduce aggression to some extent, but this isn't to be taken as encouragement to overfeed. Rather, smaller feedings at several intervals throughout the day is often practiced in these tanks.

Aquarium Levels

Combining fish that occupy different levels in the aquarium also helps to ease tension in the tank. Some cichlid species are more inclined to stay near the bottom, while others are more attracted to the top or the open areas. By mixing fish that will occupy different levels of their enclosure, there is less of a likelihood that they will try to claim the same territories.

Coloration and Patterns

In their natural habitat, cichlids view their own species as competition more frequently than other species. One of the ways in which they go about determining if another fish is the same species is by looking at their colors and patterns. The more similar they are, the more likely they are to be seen as a threat. With the large cichlid variety that is avaiable, this should be an easy problem to prevent.


In just about any other situation, the advice is always to make sure your aquarium doesn't become too overstocked. However, many cichlid enthusiasts have found success with overstocking these tanks. The thinking behind this scenario is there won't be enough territory for a cichlid to claim as its own and that it may cause confusion or just be enough chaos for fish to be less territorial. If this is the case, you should do a 50% water change every week or 75% every other week.

Other ways to distract a dominant cichlid

You may want to consider adding a school of smaller schooling fish, such as giant danios or tiger barbs, that will take some of the pressure off your other tank inhabitants. A school of 6 or more of these fish will stick together, and will dart away from a cichlid heading in their direction. This can give other fish a break from a bully fish. As long as the schooling fish have plenty of hiding places to utilize, they are typically able to move out of harm's way.

Another technique employed at times is to put the dominant fish in a ""time out tank."" If the fish at the top of the heirarchy is moved to as separate tank for a few days, the other fish will establish new rankings. Once the cichlid is moved back to the tank, it will not be the top fish at that point. For some cichlid keepers, this has worked wonders.


As you can see, there a lot of methods you can try if you notice your cichlids being too aggressive with one another. Of course, it is best to keep an eye on the tank and its inhabitants regularly and respond to any issues as soon as possible. Often, experimenting with a variety of these methods may be necessary to find what's best for your specific tank inhabitants.

Links of Interest

Two articles by Aqueon:

Designing an African Rift Lake Cichlid Aquarium

African Rift Lake Cichlids Care Sheet

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