This always sounds pretty dodgy without context, but a common question is "Can I mix Africans and Americans?" - referring to the fish in the family Cichlidae, of course. For most cases I personally would not recommend it; however, what seems like a simple yes or no question actually has several different issues to consider, and there are many different opinions as to whether mixing Cichlids is a good idea or not. So, instead of us choosing for you, this article hopes to outline some of the things to think about when looking at keeping African and American Cichlids together.


What are African and American Cichlids?

As outlined here, Cichlids come from all over the African and American continents. The Cichlids we keep are usually sorted into three different categories: New World Cichlids (or American Cichlids, which may be split into South American Cichlids and Central American Cichlids), African Cichlids and Dwarf Cichlids (which may come from the Americas or Africa).

For this, we're focusing on the aggressive African Cichlids that come from three of the great lakes: Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, along with the larger American Cichlids that come from both South and Central America. Dwarf Cichlids tend to not be good mixes with most other Cichlid species in general, as they are often more sensitive to stressors. 

around the world of cichlids poster


Why Can't I Just Combine Them?

You may have heard of some combinations of the following species - Electric Yellow Cichlids, Demasoni Cichlids, Convict Cichlids, Angelfish, Discus, Jaguars, Oscars, Frontosa and many of the other colourful medium-large "feature" fish available in NZ, however where they come from and how they live can be pretty important as to whether they will really thrive together in a tank. As fishkeepers, we get our passion and joy for the hobby from watching our fish show bright colours, swim around actively, breeding and living long, healthy lives - essentially, thriving. We want our fish to thrive because it's best for our fish, our tank's ecosystem and us!

It can be tempting to mix fish that aren't always recommended to go together, and it may give you months of enjoyment watching these fish survive in the same tank. The issue is, unfortunately, the recommendations against mixing fish are often based on many years of many different experiences from fishkeepers around the world. For some fish, sudden changes like aggression (for example, when spawning is triggered) may lead to, ahem, one fish being the only one left in the tank. For other fish, it can be the long-term effects that aren't necessarily visible straight away.


Water, Water, Water

One of the primary differences between New World Cichlids (particularly those from South America) and African Cichlids are the conditions in which they thrive in the wild. New World Cichlids often come from blackwater rivers which are named due to the heavy staining from tannins. Tannins are produced as water runs over decomposing material (such as leaves and wood) and soil, and although they just produce a yellow colour in our tank water, in the wild these tannins are in such a high concentration that along with solids in the water they produce waters so dark they can be impossible to see through. Along with discolouring the water, tannins also increase acidity of the water - causing the pH to go as low as 5.0 and little to no hardness.


In contrast, African Cichlids from lakes come from clearer, bluer waters that are very hard and basic (alkaline). In fact, their pH can even get up to 9.0![1] Although 5.0 and 9.0 are only four numbers apart, there's actually a pretty major difference. The pH scale is logarithmic, meaning an increase in 1 on the scale means the water is actually 10 times more alkaline. This means that a pH of 5 is 10,000 times more acidic than a pH of 9.0 (and a pH of 9.0 is 10,000 times more alkaline than a pH of 5.0). 


 negro river lake malawi comparison

Above: Rio Negro in South America By Simara Couto de Abrantes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Left, Cape Maclear in Malawi, Africa Joachim Huber [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Right.


Now, I hear you say "But our fish aren't wild fish?" and you're completely right. Some fish in our care may be considered hardier than their wild counterparts, however there are two major situations that can't be predicted without knowing the lineages of our fish (which unfortunately in New Zealand, we rarely have access to). 


The first is how many generations ago our fish lived in the wild. For some fish, such as certain (typically more pricey) African Cichlids, we still have wild fish in the trade (although these are usually labelled as such). This means that it's nearly impossible to tell whether your fish had ancestors in the wild one generation ago, or 100 generations ago. In this case, it's usually safer to lean towards the former - it's better to put a fish in its known ideal conditions, rather than the unknown conditions that it may have grown up in.


The second is that intense captive breeding of fish may even reduce how hardy they are. Some people feel that they have more luck keeping wild-caught fish as they believe fish that have undergone years of captive breeding become less adaptable to fluctuation. Fish in the wild that have wet and dry seasons (such as New World Cichlids) experience fluctuations in temperature, pH, hardness and so-forth as the seasons change, whilst fish in captivity tend to have fairly stable parameters. This means some people feel that generations of a fish raised in a pH of 6.0 is going to be less likely to thrive in fluctuating or differing parameters than wild-caught fish!


A Herbivorous Fish Walks Into a Bar...

Another issue to note is the specialization of diets between different fish. Many African Cichlids, particularly those from Lake Malawi, have specialized mouths and teeth for rasping algae from rocks (Although a cool example of adaptation, I personally think they look a bit silly!). Compared to this, most American Cichlids are predatory and tend towards more carnivorous-based diets.


 full on fuelleborni

Above: Labeotropheus fuelleborni By Lee Nachtigal (Flickr: Full on Fuelleborni) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Of course, the different species of fish in community tanks often have different dietary requirements. However, many cichlids (including those that graze on algae) readily eat from the surface of the tank - making it difficult to accommodate the different diets of each fish species. One major concern that arises from this is Malawi Bloat.

Malawi Bloat is a bit difficult to define as it is often used for a range of diseases that cause the similar ‘bloating’ symptom, however in this case we’re referring to bloat that’s caused by diet.

Herbivorous fish have a long digestive tract and tend to digest food for a longer amount of time than carnivorous fish (which have short digestive tracts)[2]. While plant matter is suitable for sitting in the digestive tract of a herbivorous fish, meaty foods tend to cause irritation, leading gas buildup and swelling (note: whether this swelling is caused by a parasite or bacterial species in Malawi Bloat is debated). Along with creating swelling in the fish (which generally isn’t nice), this can put pressure against other organs, particularly the swim bladder. One main symptom of swim bladder issues is a lack (or increased) buoyancy of the fish - which can be a pretty scary symptom to deal with!


For both long-term and short-term benefits for the fish, an adequate diet is key - especially as internal issues caused by diet can be tricky to notice, diagnose and treat (often requiring antibiotics).


Cichlids Get Grouchy

One of the main features that make Cichlidae such an appealing fish to keep is their strong personalities. Unfortunately, with these strong personalities, Cichlids can be tricky to house together. Generally, the levels of aggression in Cichlids can range quite significantly among species, however almost all Cichlids are known for becoming territorial when breeding. This can become a problem when it comes to the size and 'hardiness' of the fish being beaten up.


Some fish are much better at handling stressors in their environment, while others might not fare so well. For example, the aggressive Mbuna may be able to readily handle their boisterous tankmates, but the Angelfish from South America might not be so forgiving - leading to an increased risk of illness in any wounds that might occur from being housed with aggressive Africans.


Size is also a big factor. Dwarf Cichlids for example, don't have any real kind of dwarfism involved - they're just much smaller than a 40cm Oscar cichlid! This means that the basic rule of "a fish will eat whatever it can fit in its mouth" applies, along with taking into account the increased aggression of Cichlids in general. However, it is worth noting that even in specific locations in the wild, there can still be a wide range of sizes and temperaments in the fish species present. A general rule of thumb that might be useful is to consider the diet of the fish - a smaller fish that eats predominantly insects in the wild might not get along so well with a larger fish that predominantly eats other fish in the wild.


apistogramma macmasteri male

Above: An Apistogramma macmasteri male. This species may have attitude, but is considered a Dwarf Cichlid - or an easy meal, if you're a Mbuna Cichlid! 


So... What's The Answer?

That, my dear reader, is entirely up to you. I know - it's a lot of information to take in. It's pretty scary figuring out which fish are going to be best buddies, versus which ones would be best separate (they don't do a very good job of telling us)! Personally, I prefer to put fish together that come from similar environments and fit their own niche in the tank (Biotopes being my favourite). However, that might be considered a bit more specific than some prefer, and that's a-okay.


What I hope to have provided in the above article is the opportunity to learn the difference between fish that live in quite varying environments and to have now provided the knowledge to consider for yourself what's best for your fish. An educated fishkeeper keeps happy and healthy tanks, which helps to keep a happy (and healthy?) fishkeeper!


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