Central American Cichlids
Most of the Cichlid family we see in aquaria come from African or South American waters, but there are also several species from the Central American region, and are easy enough to find in most shops.
The distribution of cichlids in the wild extends up into the lower regions of North America, and anything from the Southern United States down to Panama can be included in the group known as the Central American cichlids.
A common trait of the Central American Cichlids is a formidable size, with most species growing in the region of about 30cm, so a large aquarium is essential, or a careful selection of the smaller species for medium sized aquaria.
In addition to their size, being cichlids, these fish are naturally territorial with varying degrees of aggression. Most individuals of a similar size can be kept together with few problems although two males of the same species will fight, and a breeding pair can cause problems when defending their spawning sites. It is therefore important to allow plenty of room for larger pairs, or stick to species that will not be too aggressive during spawning.
As with many cichlids, it is the fishes strong behavioural tendencies and associated intelligent nature which makes them so attractive to fish keepers. The Central American Cichlids are no exception, and are fantastic fish to keep and observe. A little fish keeping common sense is required to recognise compatibility difficulties and avoid incorrect mixes, so these are not recommended as a beginner's fish - intelligent fish need intelligent owners!
Species & sexing
Of the species seen for sale in shops at any given time there are usually a few of the usual suspects, and a number of occasional specimens which may need double checking for their correct identities. As with any fish, although particularly with these species because of their potential size and nature, it is important to know exactly what you are purchasing, how big it will get, and how suitable its nature is for your aquarium.
Sexing can normally be carried out by coloration, behaviour, or fin shape. It can be difficult to sex the young specimens which are normally seen for sale of some species and the only option in these instances is to take the advice of an experienced aquarist or purchase a small group of fish which can be grown-on in the aquarium until a pair is established, and the remainder returned to the shop with prior agreement.
In the wild, most Central American Cichlids come from open waterways with flowing water and rocky or sandy bottoms, so their decor requirements are not huge. Because the fish tend to make a mess of any intricate aquascaping it is best to keep things simple. A substrate of fine sand would be ideal, but can be difficult to maintain, so small grade gravel is a good alternative. Use decor such as fixed rocks or wood to make caves and hiding areas and alter the size of the decor to match the size of the fish you are keeping. Strong external filtration will help to cope with the fish's waste, whilst an internal filter may not be enough when the fish are fully-grown.
Careful selection of aquarium decoration is essential, since many of these species have a tendency to dig and move around any decor that is light enough to move. Objects should either be large or heavy enough to be too difficult to move, or light enough so that they will not break objects (e.g. heaterstats, thermometers) if pushed, dug under, or dropped.
Digging of gravel can be a particular nuisance if you have carefully aquascaped your tank, the only solution to this is to use a 'gravel tidy' mesh beneath the top layer of gravel, preventing the fish from digging too deep. Whilst Central American cichlids are not exclusive herbivores, some will nibble at plants and others will cause damage and dig up roots just for fun. If you intend to use live plants, choose hardy varieties and make sure they are well established whilst the fish are young and too small to cause damage. Alternatively, you can try introducing large, hardy specimens and surrounding the base of the plant with cobbles or rocks until the roots are well established
Tankmates & water conditions
Fish keepers with a moderate amount of experience can keep a community of Central American cichlids, but these are not fish recommended for beginners. Pairs or singles are best, and any non-cichlid tank mates should be large, robust, and different enough in shape and colour to be largely ignored. Shoals of medium to large barbs or rainbowfish and hardy armoured catfish are good candidates.
The majority of areas where central American cichlids are found tend to be neutral to alkaline although aquarium bred specimens are not too fussy about pH or hardness, providing those conditions are stable, and the water is well maintained. Most areas in the UK have naturally hard water, which is ideal whilst fish keepers in areas with soft water may need to add a mineral supplement to their water before use in the aquarium.
Texas Cichlid - Cichlasoma cyanoguttatum
Also known as the Rio Grande cichlid, from its original habitat, the Texas cichlid has a heavy white mottling over its body and a base colour which is normally slightly blue, although it can vary with some individuals sporting vertical banding or a darker rear half. At up to 30cm, a large (150cm min) aquarium is required.
Convict Cichlid - Archocentrus nigrofasciatum
So called because of its grey body and numerous vertical dark bands, the convict cichlid is well remembered by many aquarists who have bred the species, only to become stuck with hundreds of fry. Since the fish are such good parents, and easy to breed, it is worth thinking about what to do beforehand once you begin to see any spawning activity. Convicts are easy to keep and hardy species, and at only 10cm are an ideal starting point for a mixed Central American cichlid tank.
Jack Dempsey - Cichlasoma octofasciatum
A great looking fish, with distinctive reflective scales, the Jack Dempsey is one of the most aggressive Central American cichlids and a mature specimen will cause problems in all but the biggest aquariums. At up to 25cm (although normally no more than 20cm), this fish can only really be kept by experienced fish keepers.
T-bar cichlid - Archocentrus sajica
Similar to the convict cichlid, although more colourful, Sajica's are commonly available both as young and mature specimens and make good candidates for a Central American community. Sajica's will grow up to a manageable 15cm and can be kept as pairs or small groups with little problems. There are many reports of convicts and sajicas interbreeding so it may be wise to avoid mixing the two to prevent hybrids.
Salvin's cichlid - Cichlasoma salvini
Also known as the Yellow-Belly cichlid, these are sometimes confused with the more peaceful rainbow cichlid although they are larger with a more elongated head. Adults can be aggressive and destructive and at up to 18cm, will need a large aquarium.
Rainbow Cichlid - Herotilapia multispinosa
The Rainbow Cichlid, reaching up to 15cm, is well suited to a community of other similar sized peaceful cichlids or other hardy fish. During breeding the parents will aggressively defend a spawning site and the eggs and young but otherwise are relatively peaceful. For many fish keepers, including myself, the Rainbow Cichlid is a first foray into Central American Cichlids, and is a firm favourite due to its good nature and character. The name 'Rainbow Cichlid' comes partly from the fish's ability to change its body tone depending on its mood.
Redheaded cichlid - Vieja synspila
Also known as the 'synspilum', or Quetzal cichlid, this is an interesting fish due to its large forehead hump that develops in adults and its stunning array of colours. Adults typically have a pinkish-red head area and are mottled with blue and yellow areas that merge into each other. Although the Redheaded Cichlid can reach up to 30-35cm, they are well behaved and can be kept in a community with smaller (20cm) fishes.
Firemouth cichlid - Thorichthys meeki
Possibly the most well-known of all the central American cichlids the Firemouth is so-called because of the red markings on the throat and gills, which are particularly notable in males, which also display 'gill-flaring' when sizing up an enemy. Firemouths are well suited to a community of Central American cichlids or robust fish, but will become very defensive during breeding.