How To Breed Large Cichlids

Introduction This is a very difficult subject to write about because it is almost impossible to make statements about such a diverse family of fishes as the cichlidae. I think that the only general fact about them is that they all exercise some form of parental care and most form a male and female pair. Some cichlids even pair up for life, and if one dies the other will often refuse to pair up with a new mate. In some ways their behaviour is surprisingly close to that of land mammals. They meet, they get excited, they prepare a nest, they have young, they look after them, and then they send them away to make their own way in the world. Then the whole process starts again with the same mate if possible. This cycle can be repeated as often as every month for an efficient cichlid pair if there is plenty of food available for the fry to grow quickly.

The following text concentrates on breeding the medium sized and large sized Central American cichlids, although it is often applicable to many cichlid types with the obvious exception of the mouth-brooders. One point of note is that once your fish have made up their minds to breed they are usually unconcerned by what you, as owner, do outside the tank. It is very rare, for instance, for fishes to be upset by your taking photographs. Sometimes they may try to push you away, but sometimes they appear oblivious to your presence. When I first started breeding cichlids I used to tip-toe around the room, making as little noise as possible, turing lights of in a slow sequence, making sure the stereo wasn't turned up too loud. It all turned out to be pointless. Wherever the fish are, whatever your normal habits are, the fish have signalled by their willingness to breed that they are very happy thank-you. So just act normally and the fish will be fine.
Tank sizes It is better obviously for large fish to have a large tank to breed in. Surprisingly, this is not absolutely necessary especially if the fishes have grown up in a smaller tank. I would hazard a guess that you may find it difficult to breed fishes in a tank which is less than five times their body length, but it is certainly possible in many cases. If the water quality is acceptable, plenty of food is available, and both fishes are willing then I believe that tank size will not be a great issue for the fishes. Once they have decided to breed then tank size will be completely un-important to them; they will proceed unless you take great steps to stop them.

My most successful breeding tank was an all-glass one that I made myself. I was limited in length so I made it 37"x18"x18". The extra width over most small display tanks gave plenty of room for quite large fish to breed, and the depth meant that the water volume was sufficient that it was not necessary to disturb the fishes, with water changes, during the whole breeding process. Usually, the fish would start again before you had time to replace any of the water.
Fish size It seems to be accepted practice that young fish get confused and eat their first batches of young and that later on, after a few tries, they get their act together and are successful. To some extent I have found this to be true, but very often cichlids are successful at the very first attempt. Fishes that you believe to be far too young are seem swimming around with a number of fry. Then you say to yourself "so that's what they were up to behind the stone"! Young fish can make superb parents but the quantity of fry is very much reduced because the mother is so small.
Water quality This depends on the fish. Naturally, the water should be clean, filtered to remove waste products and should not have built-up too much hardness due to lack of water changes. Normal tap-water is suitable for most central american cichlids, assuming that your water is not extreme. Normal slightly alkaline water with hardness levels up to 'hard' seems to be fine for cichlids such as Jack Dempseys, and once acclimatised to it hard water is suitable even for Severums which are supposed to be suited to soft water. If the fish are feeding well and looking healthy then I think you will find that if they want to breed, they will.

To encourage them to breed people often change large quantities of water, but this often has the opposite effect to that desired - it depends on the fish. My Severum hated water changes, and would refuse to breed within a month of one, even a small amount like 10%. Others can be tricked into thinking it is the breeding season by sprinkling water onto the surface from a watering can. This has worked for me on occasions.

Another tip given by many books is to raise the temperature a little. This can also be effective, but don't make it too large - 2c/5f is plenty. And remember to lower the temperature after the breeding season is over. In other words, once you have taken away the fry or to stop the parents starting another brood.
Food I've never been a lover of rushing around finding all sorts of yummy exotic live foods for my fish in the hope of starting them breeding. If they are happy and willing to breed then the supply of adequate quantities of good food should suffice. Once your cichlids are at the preparation stage, i.e nest building, then there isn't much for you to do. Do not encourage them further! Just let them get on with it. Fussing around with syphons and watering cans will not help at this stage. Feed them well and hope for the best.
Pairing off By this I mean allowing a pair the chance to pair off and start breeding proceedings - I have touched on the subject of introductions else on this site. If you have a pair of fish who you wish to breed from then they will need a tank to themselves. I assume that you have a cichlid community tank (yes, you can keep cichlids as a community) and a pair of fish are showing classic signs of breeding interest. For cichlids this usually takes the form of mouth-wrestling, followed up by obsessive interest in one area of the tank. Clearing the gravel from the bottom often follows this and cleaning of a nearby stone or the glass side of the tank.

There are two things you can do at this stage because it looks as if you have a compatible pair. The first, and easiest to ensure success, is to move all the other occupants out to another tank. This is the least stressful way for the pair but is no guarantee of success - sometimes fish need the 'competition' before proceeding. (I told you cichlids were peculiar fish!) The other method is to set up another tank for the breeding pair. This is, however, likely to stop the build-up to spawning because the fish will probably need to start afresh again. Make the change as gentle as possible by taking as much water to the new tank. You are likely to have a squabble develop between the pair because not only has everything about their tank world be turned upside down, but the outside world will look different to them. The squabble may develop into a full scale fight and one of your fish may be killed.

This is very likely to happen with fish at their first couple of breeding attempts. Keep the fish in the original tank if at all possible - remember that cichlids act like mammals. They can be happy, but also they can get very irritable. Once the fish have had a couple of successes you may find that you can get away with moving them and there could well be only a very temporary set back. Many of my pairs have bred in cichlid community tanks where they had been placed to discourage them! Once you have a good pair it can be difficult to stop them. The problem when a pair of fully grown cichlids are too successful is what can you do with the young? Local shops can only take so many and, in my case, I feel cruel splitting up the parents. Once paired cichlids can be life-long partners.
Just do it! By tank fish standards cichlids are big. Big in size, big on fun, but also big on problems! If things go badly you will have ripped fins, torn jaws, and possibly dead fish. They can be a menace. But, if you have a pair then you must try to breed them - there is nothing to beat a pair of large cichlids swimming around a tank in your living room with a hundred young fry following along behind. Good luck.

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