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What Exactly is a Dwarf Cichlid?
by Neil Lilliedoll
text originally published at Apistogramma.com

Crenicara punctulataWhat exactly is a dwarf cichlid? The parameters one could use to determine whether or not a cichlid might fall into the "dwarf" category are extensive and complex at best. It must be noted that determining "exactly" what a dwarf cichlid is is difficult. However, for the sake of establishing a list of species and genera that fall into this grouping, I will present a formula that may be useful.

I have always wondered why certain fish were considered dwarves and others of a similar size were not. If you refer to different books on dwarf cichlids you will find many similarities but also a number of differences in the fish that they present. Not so surprisingly, even the authors of American Cichlids I – Dwarf Cichlids, Horst Linke and Wolfgang Steack, acknowledge the ambiguity. " Small Cichlids with a maximum length of 10 cm, in exceptional cases of up to 12 cm, are usually referred to as Dwarf Cichlids amongst aquarists." Additional uncertainty arises when they continue- "Despite that this seems to be a clear criterion, experience shows that it is still a problem since many species do not exceed these lengths in the wild, but grow considerably larger in the home aquarium."

Apistogramma panduroIt seems to be widely accepted that all fish in the genus Apistogramma, Apistogrammoides, Biotecus, Crenicara, Dicrossus, Microgeophagus, Nannacara, and Taeniacara are dwarf cichlids. Furthermore, these fish are considered soft-water dwarves and are all from South America. They are, however, not the only soft-water dwarves in South America. Additionally there is a certain misleading quality to universally attribute the title "soft-water" to them. Many species in these genera come from neutral or relatively hard-water habitats. There seems to have been a widely held assumption in the past that these "soft-water" small fish are the only legitimately recognized dwarf cichlids. In the opinion of this author, that is far from the case. There are, in fact, dwarf cichlids from many continents with wide-ranging water chemistries in their natural biotopes.

Understanding why we might want to attribute the title "dwarf cichlid" to a fish or group of fish (aside from the obvious ichtheological categorization) can prove to be a valuable aid in developing a methodology of distinction. What is it about dwarf cichlids, for aquarists of that particular bent, that we recognize them as being different or special? Size is surely a strong contributing factor. The name "dwarf" itself carries the connotation of size as a predominant factor, but there is much more to it than size.

Apistogramma sp. ''Wangenflecken''It is possible to make a case by case study of each genus and attribute independent criterion for the maximum size limit, the cut-off point, of which species would be considered a dwarf cichlid. This approach, however, lacks the universal consistency sought by this author for easy determination by the average aquarist. I do not claim any specific scientific merit in this article, nor do I expect universal acceptance of its arguments. I do suggest a method for understanding various attributes of the cichlids that we choose to work with and enjoy. Applying the following guidelines will lend a more critical evaluation of cichlids in general and, hopefully, aid in the requirements for their husbandry which is at the heart of what we as aquarists seek.

Although cichlids are dynamic animals and can grow to significantly larger sizes in a captive environment, the average total length in the wild is the first and primary consideration in determining their "dwarf " status. The tank size, feeding methodologies, water chemistry (ph, GH, KH, conductivity, cleanliness, temperature, movement, etc. ), tank-mates, lighting, and infrastructure all have a bearing on the size a cichlid will ultimately reach in captivity. Surely the types of fish housed with a particular species will add to their security or insecurity, and may effect a fish’s growth. Or who knows what role a lack of predation, con-specific aggression, or geographically "inappropriate" fish of the original natural habitat may play in the over-all development of a cichlid.

Meeting the initial criterion of size is mandatory, but only the first step in determining the status of a particular fish. It is, however, the most important step and requires several points of examination. The following four criteria are all combined to distinguish a size standard for dwarf cichlids.

    1. Male specimen can be no longer than 14 cm in their wild biotope. This length allows for larger fish to be considered, but is modified by the other criterion.
    2. Female specimens may be no longer than 12 cm in their wild environment, regardless of their relationship to the males of their species.
    3. Size at sexual maturity must be 10 cm for males and 8 cm for females.
    4. For the larger candidates being considered that are close (within 2 cm) of the size limits, a minimal body depth should produce the "impression" of a smaller size. This means that long fish must not also be exceedingly tall or wide. Discus are a prime example of this and in many ways meet the requirements of a dwarf cichlid. However, they are far too high-bodied to be considered, even if the maximum length for a female in the wild was 12 cm. Whereas, Crenicichla regani (one of the dwarf pike cichlids) males are 13cm, but appear to be a smaller fish because of their slender body.

With the previous size requirements met, we may now look at several other factors that must be considered before assigning the "dwarf" stamp of approval to any particular cichlid. The following is a checklist of criterion that can be used in conjunction with this simple formula:

Apistogrammoides pucallpaensis"If a cichlid of the appropriate length and size can also meet at least 4 of the 8 criterion listed, and violates no more than 2, it may be considered a "dwarf."

This formula relates to the general qualities of a particular species and not to the exceptional individual. Because little work has been done with so many species of cichlid there is a lenient standard of 4 hits or 2 misses. These criteria all relate to the cichlids behavior (territoriality and aggression) in captivity and whether they are capable of a relatively peaceful captive existence during both breeding and non-breeding times.

  1. No or minimal live plant destruction.
  2. No or minimal substrate excavation. This does not include limited cave digging associated with breeding.
  3. They can be housed individually with other cichlids. This means a single specimen can be kept with other species of cichlids.
  4. Minimal predatory instincts. This suggests that they must have food requirements other than their tank-mates, as well as accepting of non-cichlid species ( see 5)
  5. Can be kept with "dither" fish. This suggests that other fish won’t be regularly killed during non-breeding times.
  6. Males and females of that species can be housed together.
  7. Can be bred in a 30 inch x 12 inch tank (20gal. long), although larger quarters would be more appropriate.
  8. Juveniles can be housed together as a group at sub-adult size. Some juvenile cichlids start killing or eating each other at a young age (i.e. Various Hemichromis species show cannibalism by 2 to 3cm).

Although Convict cichlids fit within the parameters of size, they are far too belligerent and aggressive to be considered a dwarf. Other cichlids are more marginal in terms of their behavior and should be closely examined for their ability to fit within the "dwarf" scheme presented here.

The standard for a dwarf cichlid in general is a fish complying with the size requirement that will not kill their tank-mates and destroy the tank itself. They should be reasonable candidates for a planted aquarium and should not have a vicious quality warranting an isolated existence.

Cichlids are interesting for their behavior, including territoriality, aggression, and breeding practices. Dwarf cichlids have most of the same characteristics, only on a level that makes them more suitable for life in the home aquarium. It would seem apparent that it is worthwhile to know what exactly is a "dwarf cichlid."


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