Convict Cichlid Fish – The Care, Feeding and Breeding of Convict Cichlids

convict cichlidQuick Stats

Minimum Tank Size: 20 Gallons (29 Gallons recommended)
Care Level: Easy
Water Conditions: PH 6-8 and Soft to Neutral
Temperature: 68-80 F (20-27 C)
Maximum Size: 6 inches (15.2 cm) for males, and 4 for females (10.2 cm)

The convict cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata) is found throughout Central America, inhabiting a wide array of habitats. It is commonly found in streams and rivers, but it is also known to live in ponds and lakes with thick plant cover. With that being said, it tends to prefers moving water, and is often found sheltering in submerged branches and rock formations.

The male convict cichlid grows up to 6 inches (15.2 cm) in length, while the female grows to an average length of 4 inches (10.2cm). When the females reach breeding maturity, the belly of the fish will take on red hue, making sexing quite easy in mature convict cichlid fish.


Convict cichlids can be a messy fish, and should generally be housed in a spacious, species only tank. The minimum tank size for a non-breeding pair should be a 20 gallon (75 litre) tank , though the ideal size is closer to 29 gallons (100 litres).

If a person is planning to breed convict cichlids, or hopes (and I stress the word hopes) to keep them in a community tank, then they should be kept in at least a 55 gallon (208 litre) fish tank. A pair of breeding convicts will terrorize any tank that they are housed in, and will viciously attack anything that comes near their nest. It’s not unusual to see a breeding pair of cichlids take on a much larger fish, and some have been known to attack fish nearly twice their size.

Since convict cichlids constantly dig and rearrange their tank, their aquarium should be over-filtered with a strong HOB (hang-on-back) filter, or in ideal circumstances, a canister filter. For extra biological filtration, a second filter or a sponge filter can be added to the tank, which helps keep the water sparkling clean. This is especially useful if a person is planning to breed convict cichlids, as the fry need pristine water quality.

If choosing an HOB filter, I would strongly recommend choosing an Aquaclear Power Filter for a convict cichlid tank. This filter combines excellent filtration with a durable design, and it will keep your tank sparkling clear for years to come. You can also read the Aquarium Tidings Aquaclear Filter Review here.


In the wild, convict cichlids primarily feed on small insects, worms, plant matter and algae. In the home aquarium, they will greedily eat nearly anything offered to them. But a healthy diet should be made up of a high quality fish food, with occasional frozen foods added for treats. I prefer to feed my convicts New Life Spectrum Cichlid Formula and have had great success with this high quality food.

When it comes to frozen foods, their favorites are blood worms, daphnia and brine shrimp. They will especially appreciate any live food that can cultured or caught – with mosquito larvae and live black worms being particular favorites.

convict cichlidsBreeding

Convict cichlids are among the easiest tropical aquarium fish to breed. Unlike many other cichlids, they don’t selectively pair off, and any male and female in placed in an aquarium will usually breed within a matter of weeks.

Since convict cichlids prefer to lay eggs on rocky overhangs in the wild, the easiest way to simulate their natural habitat in the home aquarium is to provide them with overturned clay pots. Stacks of rocks will also work, and they have also been known to lay eggs in PVC pipe “caves”, but nothing seems to beat the simple clay pots.

Once an egg laying surface has been provided, the male and female will begin clearing the area around their breeding site. Any plants will be removed and the substrate will likely be excavated and moved around to their liking.

During this time, the convict cichlid breed pair will viciously attack any other fish in their tank, and few fish – even the armored pleco, can take this abuse for long. Needless to say, any breeding convicts should be kept in a tank without any other fish present.

Once their territory has been staked out, the female will deposit her eggs on a clay pot, and the male will fertilize them. The parents will diligently guard the eggs, with the male chasing away anything that comes close to the nest, while the female stays close to the eggs.

The fry will begin to hatch in a few days, and after about a week, the convict cichlid parents will begin to herd the tiny fry around the tank. At this point infusoria, and baby brine shrimp should be fed to the fry three times a day. If someone doesn’t want to go to the trouble of hatching brine shrimp or culturing infusoria, then there are a few commercial products available for feeding fry.

One of the most interesting aspects of owning convict cichlids is watching the level of parental care that they give to their offspring. While guppies and many other fish will make a quick snack of their offspring, convict cichlids are extremely caring parents.  They will dig paths through plants for their fry, stir up the substrate to uncover food, and quickly get the fry to safety anytime they feel threatened. Even in a tank with equal sized predator fish, it’s exceedingly rare to even lose even one convict cichlid fry.


  1. maritzpd says

    hi all I am new to this so please excuse me.
    I just bought 2 males and 2 females convicts
    I have a 40l tank with all 4 of them in there
    there is a lot of caves/breeding nests
    the one male is in one of the caves constantly and chases the other 3 around like mad
    any reason for that?

    • says

      That’s totally normal. Convict cichlids become incredibly protective during mating. Have any of the females bellies colored up yet? As soon as one of the females becomes fertile, she should pair off with the male and start protecting the cave together.

      • Coldrose says

        The bellies turn after they lay the eggs. They are mature sometimes very early and will start very early. Its easiest to pick one that’s already turned but with time breeding you will be able to eyeball it. I’ve had scores of convict fish for years. If that dominant fish is the largest he will claim the territory first and you may have a tank of boys. The girls are compact so it’s hard to tell. Go get a girl, 2 or 3 actually with that many boys; as they will stress one to death. The alpha fish will have more fish to chase; they chase the other males the most. You can have other breeds in the same tank, the breeding pair just keeps them away and possibly in corners. I’ve seen convoys breed and fight with fish 3 times bigger. Its as much about size as it is attitude. I’ve never fed any generation of fry. I understood the red stripes on mom comes from feeding fry of her body. After a few weeks she starts to break up food and throws it on top of them in their herd. This is my experience. Good luck!

    • says

      In my experience, convicts don’t always get it right the first time. Sometimes they will eat the babies for the first few times, but they eventually get it right. It helps it you make sure that they are properly fed, and don’t stress them out unduly. Is the tank in a high traffic area of your place? If so, you might want to consider leaving them alone at first. Also, do they have any aggressive tankmates? Stress from that can also often cause problems for new convict parents.

      With that being said, if you just leave them to their business, they are convicts and they will eventually get it right.

      • Jan Thorkelson says

        When is a good time to separate the fry to put them into a grow tank? How old should they be before moving them?

        • says

          It really depends on why you’re separating them. IF you want to trigger breeding again as soon as possible, I would remove then at around the two week mark. Fish that young tend to become injured or stressed by nets, so I would either suction them out, or use a cup to capture them.

          Otherwise, if there is no hurry, I usually leave them in the same tank until they’re about the size of a dime. The parents generally start to get hostile towards them when they become a little bit larger than this, so I always try to remove them at this size.

          And I’m sure you’re aware of this, but always make sure that the tank you’re moving them to is fully cycled, and slowly acclimatize them to the water before adding them. Juvenile fish can be extremely sensitive to water changes.

  2. Dottiet says

    Thanks for this article, I am a beginner ornamental fish breeder in kenya ( Africa) and this article helped me a lot. I have my 5 convicts in an outdoor pond of 3ft x 6ft x 2.5ft with lots of rocks.

  3. Todd Stewart says

    My convicts laid eggs the other day and i was wondering if i do a water change will it mess up the eggs?

    • says

      No it won’t hurt the eggs. There is the off chance you could spook the convicts and they may abandon them, but its important to have the best water possible after they hatch. So just keep the gravel vac away from the eggs and you should be fine.

  4. says

    A friend gave me three Convict Cichlids. I have been my homework on them, so i can give them the best care, and to learn all i can about them. I had them in a tank for about two months in a tank at least 100gl. I cleaned it very good and put a shell flower pot in the tank to give the fish somewhere to hide. I did this before I did the homework on them, and about a week or two goes by and they had fry’s. It was great. When I did the homework on them, I have learned more but, i need to know if one of the males need to come out because I have found that there is two males and one female. Two of the Convict’s have paired up, but the other male gets chased off. The males seem to be attacking each other. With all this said what can I do to make the tank less stressful on the fish? I would love to know more about these wonderful fish.

    • says

      Just design your tank in such a way that there are a lot of breaks in the line of sight. This can be done with plants (which convicts maul) or decorations. This is especially important with convicts who get aggressive during breeding, though with a tank that large it should never get that serious. The loser will always have places to retreat.

  5. Todd Stewart says

    HI I have two pairs of convicts that Have babies and they are old enough to swim around… I was wondering if I should leave them with the parents or separate them.. each pair is on opposite sides of the tank. If I separate them can they live on their own at this point?

    • says

      It generally takes the eggs about 48-72 hours to hatch, and then the fry will take about another 48-72 hours before they become free-swimming. Keep in mind that it can sometimes take longer, but it usually falls somewhere in that time frame.

  6. Joanna Farrugia says

    I have a problem!! I have a 5 foot tank and many different species of fish, I had no idea the female convict was pregnant! Anyway the eggs are hatched and there are several babies, I have had to section a part of the tank so the other fish don’t eat them, is there any way I can remove the convicts and their babies from the large tank into a tank of their own? without harming them as I feel sorry for the other fish , they don’t have enough room now to swim, the babies are still quite small and have many more weeks, perhaps months of growing!!

    • says

      The convict fry might actually be safe in your tank even without the partition. Convicts are some of the best parents around , and they will rabidly defend their fry. Unless you have very aggressive and large fish with them, most of their fry should survive. However, your other fish might get beat up a little if they go near the convicts, so a partition might be best to keep the other fish safe.

      But if you decide to remove the fry, then you need a fully cycled tank to place them in. Fry are extremely sensitive to the water quality, and most will quickly die if you place them in anything but a fully cycled tank. Also, they can be injured if you use a net, so it’s best to use something like a turkey baster or a cup to capture them with. And it’s extremely important to acclimatize them to the new tank conditions, since even slight differences in water pH can be deadly for them. Take your time getting them used to the new tank, and the drip method is probably one of the best ways to acclimatize them to the new water.

  7. Dottie says

    Hi am Dottiesalim from Kenya. As I had said earlier, I put my convicts in an outdoor pond with rocks and all. I noticed some fry swimming near two adults. How many babies do convicts have per breeding session? I intend to leave them alone. However I added some water in the pond since I had noticed the pond water had evaporated Afew inches. Is that ok to have added the water through drip. Thank you and all your answers will be appreciated.

    • says

      My understanding is that convicts will lay up to 200 eggs, and usually about 25% of those survive to adulthood in the home aquarium. The numbers can vary though, depending on predators, water quality, feeding, and the experience of the parents. They will breed every few months if the conditions are right, so expect your pond to soon be overrun by convicts if there are no predators around.

      As for the pond, it is fine to add more water to top it up. Just make sure that the water is close to the same temperature, and that you treat it to remove any chlorine in it.

      I hope this helps.

  8. says

    I have got a breeding pair of Convicts, the female is cloured as well and I can see the egg laying tube. I got them in this state and they are well settled in the PVC pool I prepared with substrate on one side and thin layer of it and gave almost identical setup where they were kept already and they are hidinga nd feeding well. When can I expect to see the eggs and frys? and also how will i know if they have delivered or not, I am not touching the tank at all in this fear.

    • says

      They usually hatch after 3-4 days, and will stay in the spawning cave for a few days after that. Usually at around the 7 day mark after spawning, you will see the parents starting to herd the fry around the tank.

    • says

      I’ve kept them in the past, though I don’t have any currently. I’m going to do an article on them when I get the time. I have a huge list of articles that I’m planning to do in the near future.

  9. Gale says

    I just bought a 36 gallon bow front tank that is 21″ high. I am planning on having 3-4 cichlids in there as well as a school of tiger barbs. On what level do the convicts like to swim? (Bottom, Middle, Top) Do I need to try to build up the base in some areas to create more areas of protection at the top of the tank?

    • says

      I’m assuming that you want to keep convicts with tigers barbs, but the second that they start mating you will have dead tiger barbs. Tiger barbs can often hold their own against non-mating convicts, but they will die when they get really aggressive during mating. I would choose either a tiger or convict only tank.

      Also, convict cichlids normally dwell near the bottom or the mid. You should provide them with plenty of sturdy plants, and numerous flat surfaces or caves for them. They will also often create little nests in the substrate.

  10. Gale says

    Thank you! That was so helpful. I was told that having both male and female cichlids can be overwhelming because the propagate so well. :0) I’m not wanting to have to set up numerous tanks to keep from multiplying like crazy. I was planning on only having female convicts.

  11. says

    I need some urgent help… My convicts have laid eggs and i now have non swimmer fries. When is the best time to safely seperate the fries in different tank for feeding them well or what ever is the best way please suggest

    • says

      I would just keep them with the parents. In most cases the parents will look after them and care for them. In rare cases, new parents may eat their fry, but this will normally only happen with the first or second spawn.

  12. Joanna Farrugia says

    I have a breeding pair of striped convicts, I have moved them to a tank all of their own, they have laid eggs and they have hatched but then they just disappear, there are no fry in the tank, this is the third tine they have laid eggs and still no little fry swimming aroun.

    • says

      Often convict parents will have trouble with their first few breeding attempts. Though they usually start to get the hang of it by the third attempt. Are you feeding them regularly and keeping the water in good condition? Poor water conditions will kill fry fast.

      • Joanna farrugia says

        Yes, I constantly check the water and they are eating well, I don’t understand it, when they were in the 5 foot tank with other fish the fry were evident and growing, now they have a tank to themselves so I don’t know???

  13. Patrick Eckerman says

    Hello, I have a breeding pair of Convict cichlids… I have great luck with them… Over 400 babies have grown to 1″ or larger in a seperate tank… The pair have produced 5 litters in 6 months… I have enjoyed them so much and my children love them and watch the different stages of development. The catch is no one wants the juveniles… easy to breed not so easy to find homes for them. Pets stores laugh when I ask them to buy convicts..

    • says

      I’ve experienced that same thing in the past. Back when I used to let my convicts breed indiscriminately, I ended up with nearly one hundred full grown convicts. I had several tanks bursting at the seams. I couldn’t sell any of them, and I eventually ended up giving all but a handful to Big Al’s. It won’t make you any money, but several fish stores will usually take them off of your hands for free.

  14. Cheryl says

    Hello I am after a bit of advice I am up grading tank tomorrow to a bigger tank as my convicts are outgrowing my other tank but I have 3 pair of convicts that have fry and are swimming and about another 5 other convicts that are not matting but getting bullied by the ones that have fry I was just wondering how will I remove the fry and there mums and dads to the larger tank without hurting them thanks

    • says

      Small fry can be very difficult to capture without hurting them. I would recommend using something like a cup to scoop them out, or suction them out. It can be difficult, since the parents will try to hide them, or at least herd them away from danger. It’s usually easier to remove the other fish to start, and then remove the fry when they’re larger. Good luck catching the fry though.

  15. Karina says

    Hello my name is Karina, im only 16 but im a big fish fanatic. I have a 30 gallon tank with 6 convict cichlids and a sucker fish. I recently found out that a pair of my fish have had their eggs hatch and there are now non swimming fry, they are living currently in the cave of the castle I have in the middle of the tank. I feel horrible that my other 4 cichlids are getting terrorized by the male father but I cannot afford a seperate tank. Any suggestions on what to do? Also I have the temperature set on 78 degrees, is that good for the fry? I would really appreciate a reply back!

    • says

      Hello Karina,

      The temperature should be fine for the fry. And if you can’t afford a separate tank, the only thing that you can do is try to rearrange the tank to lessen aggression. The way that you do this is by creating breaks in line of sight for the fish. I normally do this with tall plants, or ornaments. If you create open areas, with objects dividing them, the aggressive fish will only tend to focus on the area that they’re in. And once has fish has run away to the other area, most times the fish won’t follow.

      This can be difficult in a 30 gallon tank, but it’s worth a try. I would also recommend fake plants, since convicts are so hard on regular plants. I only have success with very select plants in a convict tank, and they wouldn’t really suit your purpose here. Good luck.

  16. katie says

    I have a female and male convict who just laid eggs about two days ago…. I transfered the eggs and the pair into a separate tank. The pair were gaurding the eggs together in the initial tank and now the female will not allow the male near them… Is this OK? …. && how will I know the eggs are safe and will hatch?
    I’m new to this so any info about what to look for as far as warning signs or negative/positive things… ANY info lol will help greatly…. Thanks
    Is my email

    • says

      Are you sure you transferred the same pair? Or was it just the one pair in the aquarium? Assuming you have the same pair, in my experience it’s more normal for the female to remain close to the eggs, while the male takes up a position slightly further out. Once the eggs are hatched, both parents will move in to protect the fry and keep them safe from danger.

      And one of the great things about convicts, is that you really don’t have to do much to care for the fry. Just make sure that you maintain excellent water conditions and feed them regularly. It’s best to provide them with baby brine shrimp when they first hatch, or microworms if you have access to them. But they also tend to do well with very finely ground up flake food, delivered to a close location in the aquarium.

      Also, was the tank cycled? Because if it wasn’t, you’re likely going to run into some problems. The best thing in that situation is to add lots of fast growing plants to the tank like hornwort. But you may still lose a good chunk of the fry due to poor water conditions.

      • katie says

        Yes it was the same pair… I cycled the tank n its only them in there… Someone told me to take the male out n just leave the female w the eggs…. Is that OK?
        I have another community tank of cichlids but I know for a fact its the right pair

        • says

          If it gets to the point where it’s a real problem, you can remove the male. It is helpful having the parents with them, but it won’t hurt them at all if you remove one of the parents. Especially if you’re having aggression problems.

  17. katie says

    She ended up eating the eggs… Idk if they were bad or what… But little by little the eggs would be gone :(
    I’m not gonna move them If they mate again… When I put them back in my main tank they went right back to liking each other. The new tank I got has a silence filter, does that matter?
    My female Johanni is carrying tho and has been for about a week… I know they carry the eggs for about three weeks but is it the eggs she carries the whole time or do the eggs hatch in a certain time period and she carries the fry for a certain time period?
    Thank u for your help BTW … I’m new to this as u can tell

    • says

      A lot of cichlids need a few tries before they get the mating right and sometimes they eat the eggs like yours did. Usually they’ll catch on by the second time.

      As for the Johanni, I believe that they keep their eggs for about 2-3 weeks. But I’ve never actually breed this fish, so I’m just going with the information that I have on hand.

  18. Jesse says

    Hi my convicts just had fry I’m just wondering if I should be worried about the fry being sucked up the filter if so how can I prevent it as I want to leave them in the tank with there parents ??

    Help please !!!

    • says

      This is actually a really common problem with fry, though in my experience most convict fry are bottom to mid dwelling, so it’s not as big of a problem with them. But there are a few ways to ensure that none are sucked up.

      The first way to tie a non toxic nylon or mesh around the intake to your filter. Water will still be able to pass through it. but no fry will. You will have to keep an eye on it though, since it is prone to clogging after a short time. So you may need to rinse all the detritus off it every few days.

      The second option is to use a sponge to filter over the filter intake. You can actually find these in many fish stores and online, but in my experience they don’t work as well. They often impede the flow too much, and aren’t worth it in the long run.

      I hope this helps.

    • says

      The males are larger and have extensions on their dorsal and anal fins. But the easiest way to tell is that they female will have a pinkish patch on her belly. This only occurs in mature fish though, so if yours are very young then it may not have the patch yet.

    • says

      A convict can grow quite large, so as it grows I would definitely upgrade the tank size. A ten gallon is too small for an adult convict though. It will be difficult to keep on top of the water quality, and it may become stunted.

  19. Kesendre says

    I have a calico and regular convict that had offspring they are swimming around now almost to that stage where they go off without the parents. I can’t wait to see what they look like

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