When Cichlids Bond

When keeping species from a family as large and diversified as Cichlids, it is not only good, but its necessary to know what happens when our Cichlids form  bonds. Only then can we truly understand their behaviour and provide the optimal circumstances for them to remain happy and healthy in captivity.


Several different types of bonds are formed between male and female cichlids. These include:

  •  Monogamy — The female and the male remain together after spawning.
  • Polygamy — The male stays together with several females
  • Polyandry — The female bonds with several males. This form of pairing is rare.
  • Agamy — No lasting bond is formed between the pair. They separate immediately after spawning.

But cichlids bond for more reasons than just sex. Since sex inevitably leads to offspring and cichlids take care of their young in several different ways, they also form specific bonds for Brood Care. There are six such family forms:

  • The Nuclear or Parental Family: Both parents equally share the duties of caring for the young. Nuclear families are usually formed by monogamous, open-water brooders, although exceptions are common. It is generally very difficult to distinguish between the sexes.
  • Matriarch/Patriarch Family: The female watches over the brood, while the male defends the territory. When the fry become free-swimming, the parents share the tasks of parenthood equally. This family form is usually encountered in monogamous, open-water brooders. Sexual dimorphism and dichromatism is common. Sexual dimorphism is the phenotypic difference between males and females of the same species. Examples of such differences include differences in morphology, size, ornamentation, and behavior. Sexual dichromatism, on the other hand, describes temporary color changes associated with reproduction and occurs in many freshwater and marine fishes. This nuptial coloration functions both in agonistic interactions among males and courtship of females, so that it is subject to both intrasexual and intersexual selection as well as natural selection.
  • The Patriarch/Matriarch or Male-with-Harem Family: The male defends a large territory, which includes multiple spawning sites of several females. Each female assumes the responsibility of her own brood. The male is polygamous, and clear sexual dimorphism is present. This form takes place mainly among cavity brooders.
  • The Matriarch Family: No bond is formed between the pair. The female cares for and guards the eggs and the fry. In this family pattern, the fish are agamous, and usually the female is an ovophile mouth-brooder. Ovophile mouthbrooders incubate their eggs in their mouths as soon as they are laid, and frequently mouthbrood free-swimming fry for several weeks.
  •  The Patriarch Family: As with the Matriarch Family, no bond is formed between the parents.  The male carries the eggs and the fry. No sexual dimorphism or dichromatism can be found. Only one mouth-brooder is known to form a true patriarch family, namely Sarotherodon melanotherow. Courtship in this species is fairly lengthy and is initiated by the female. When in condition, she will begin to excavate a pit in the substrate. When a male is receptive, he joins the female in excavating the spawning site. At this point the pair begins to show a marked increase in territorial behaviour, particularly the male. During spawning itself, the female lays her eggs directly onto the substrate in the centre of the pit, and the male fertilises them immediately, but does not pick them up until the female has finished laying. There may then be short period before he finally proceeds to pick up the whole brood in his mouth. The female leaves the male’s territory after spawning and plays no further part.
  • The Extended Family: The parents,  as well as the offspring of the previous spawn all band together to care for the young. Extended Families are formed by the cavity brooders of Lake Tanganyika, including the fish belonging to the genera Julidochromis and Neolamprologus


Photo credit: Andreas Werth

But the complexity of Cichlid breeding does not end there. Cichlids have highly developed  reproductive and brood care behavior. Nearly all Cichlids lay their eggs on some substrate, whether it be rocks, plants, or sand. Cichlids are now characterized into two breeding groups:  Open and Shelter Brooders.

  • Open brooders lay eggs on an open surface, such as rocks, sand, and plants. The eggs can number as high as 10,000 from one laying. These eggs are usually small and clump together. Clear sexual dimorphism and dichromatism is usually evident. Examples of open water brooders include Pterophyllum, Symphysodon, and most species of Cichlasoma.
  • Shelter brooders, on the other hand, can be divided up into two groups: Cavity brooders and mouth brooders. In general, shelter brooders lay substantially less eggs, usually not more than 300, and have larger, more colorful eggs. These fish are easier to sex because the males are usually larger and more colorful.
  • Cavity brooders lay their eggs in caves. The parents participate in brood care and may become aggressive towards other fish while caring for the eggs and the fry. Examples of cavity brooders include Apistogramma, Julidochromis, Neolamprologus, and Pelvicachromis.
  • Mouth-brooders are fish that, at some point during brood care, will take their eggs, or their fry into their mouths. Mouth-brooders are in turn divided up into two further categories depending on when the parents take the eggs/fry into the mouth: 
  • Ovophile or “egg-loving” mouth-brooders – The male makes a pit in his territory, where the eggs are laid. The eggs are then usually sucked up into the female’s mouth during spawning, but occasionally in some cases are picked up only afterwards.  After hatching the fry in their mouths, the tiny offspring remain in the safety of the mother’s mouth until they can fend for themselves. The males of some of these species often have colorful, oval-shaped marks on their anal fins. These spots seem to serve an important role in the fertilization of the eggs and are known as egg spots or egg dummies. The theory is that after the female has laid her eggs and sucks them into her mouth, she sees the eggs spots on the males, and thinking that they are eggs she missed, will try to suck them up. At this moment the male releases sperm which the female sucks up into her mouth, thus fertilizing the eggs. New evidence seems to suggest that the egg-spots are merely a visual reproductive trigger for the female. Examples of Ovophile mouthbrooders include; Aulonocara, Haplochromis, and Pseudotropheus.
  • Larvophile or “larvae-loving” mouth-brooders lay their eggs on a substrate. After the eggs hatch, the female picks up the fry and keeps them in her mouth, as a matter of defense. Sometimes the parental protection stops after the fry are first released from the mouth. In other cases the fry return to the mother’s mouth repeatedly, until ready to tackle the vast open world. Examples of Larvophile mouth-brooders are Geophagus and Sarotherodon.
So now you know what is involved in Cichlid nuptial bliss, and are better prepared for the next time you observe your fish behaving ‘differently’.  
Photo Credit: Jacek Jackiewicz