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Africa's Community Tank Cichlids

Not all cichlids do well in community tanks, but those in the Pelvicachromis genus are an exception and are readily available.

By Oliver Lucanus |

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Cichlids are, at least by behavior, the most interesting group of aquarium fish in my opinion. Nearly every species (close to 1,000 in total) can be bred in the aquarium without too much trouble. Observing the brood care of the parents is one of the most satisfying moments for any aquarist.

Pelvicachromis humilis
Pair of P. humilis, the largest species in the group is from Guinea. Photo by Oliver Lucanus/

Keeping and breeding cichlids in a community aquarium, however, is not always easy. Most species require space when they have young. A number of South American cichlids will breed in a small community aquarium without doing major harm to the other inhabitants. Among these are Apistogramma, Laetacara and Microgeophagus. Africa also has some small cichlids, some well-suited for a community aquarium and easy enough to breed and keep. The smallest in this group are Congochromis and Nanochromis, but these cichlids are not always easy-to-find in the hobby, and can be demanding aquarium fishes in both food and water quality.

Most species of Pelvicachromis, on the other hand, are ideal fish for the beginner, readily available in the hobby and will breed in most water conditions in a planted community aquarium.
The common name, kribensis, stems from an older synonym of Pelvicachromis taeniatus, although it is usually attributed to the species P. pulcher. Such name confusion is not uncommon, and it can lead to crosses between various species. When buying fish, it is always good to note the scientific name and, when possible, the capture location of the species. In general, crosses of two species of fish turn out less attractive than the originals.

Pelvicachromis pulcher
Pelvicachromis pulcher pair with young. This species is one of the most common cichlids in the hobby. Photo by Oliver Lucanus/

Pelvicachromis In Nature

Pelvicachromis cichlids are tied to a strictly defined biotope, and they do not occur outside this ideally suited habitat. All species are found in small streams or rivers that drain to the coast in relative short distance. In Lobe Falls in Cameroon, Pelvicachromis are found just 20 feet from the ocean. These rivers are often also the habitat of the famous African aquarium plants of the genera Anubias, Bolbitis, Crinum and Nymphea.

These habitats are clear or black-water streams with slightly acidic pH around 5.5 to 6.5, very soft water, of medium temperature from 73 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (23 to 27 degrees Celsius). Forest cover is essential to maintain the clear water and healthy environment for aquatic plants, and this factor also contributes to the cooler water that the Pelvicachromines are found in. The substrate is always a fine sand, with some leaves, driftwood and often fist-sized rocks providing cover.

Common fishes found in these same habitats include: killifishes of the genera Aplocheilichthys, Epiplatys, Procatopus and Scriptaphyosemion; cichlids of the genera Chromidotilapia and Benitochromis; Chiloglanis and Microsynodontis catfish; characins such as Phenacogrammus, Micralestes, Nannocharax and Neolebias; Barbus species as well as a diverse group of African oddball fishes such as mormyrids, Polypterus, Pantodon, and Mastacembelus. Enough diversity exists to make an interesting biotope aquarium with species from the same habitat. Of course, the small cichlids may also be kept with Asian barbs, South American tetras, plecos and a number of other smaller fishes that do not compete with them for territory.

Pelvicachromis roloffi
Pelvicachromis roloffi. Photo by Oliver Lucanus/

Pelvicachromis are found in these coastal river habitats from the western border of Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia, are then absent in the West African nations of Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo, and reappear in estuary of the Niger River in Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon. One species occurs in Gabon and the lower Democratic Republic of the Congo. The countries with the highest Pelvicachromis diversity are Guinea and Cameroon.

Pelvicachromis In The Aquarium

The only species readily available in stores is P. pulcher, commonly sold as kribensis, at times even available in an albino form. European and Asian breeders are also producing P. taeniatus of the Nigerian form. Beyond that, all Pelvicachromis in the trade are wild-caught, with the exception of small quantities produced by local breeders. Guinea, Nigeria and Cameroon export aquarium fish on a regular basis, and given that these cichlids are found in coastal streams they are easy to obtain. Only P. subocellatus is exported rarely, because there are no commercial exporters in Gabon, and a trip to the Congolese coast is too far for commercial exporters from Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The genus can be split into two groups, which should be treated differently. The fish in the first group are considerably larger and more aggressive than those in the second. This first group includes the longer, more slender-bodied species, which have a longer snout: P. humilis (9-inch males/6-inch females), P. rubrolabiatus (6-inch males/5-inch females) and P. signatus (4-inch males/3-inch females).

Pelvicachromis rubrolabiatu
Pelvicachromis rubrolabiatu. Photo by Oliver Lucanus/

Males of all three species can be rough on the females, which remain around one-third smaller in total length. To keep these larger species requires an aquarium of 6 feet in length, with a strong current (they are more rheophilic than other Pelvicachromines) and plenty of wood and plants as hiding spaces are needed.
Ideally one male is kept with three or four females to disperse his aggression. Adding some other cichlids as dither fish is also recommended, especially strong fish such as Chromidotilapia and Tilapia. They are well-suited to distract the Pelvicachromis so they are less likely to damage each other. Unlike the smaller species of the genus, these cichlids may also prey on smaller tetras and other fish in the aquarium.

The second group are much smaller fishes, ideally suited to the average community aquarium: P. sacrimontis, P. pulcher and P. silviae. These should be kept in aquariums of 36 inches in length, while the others can be kept in 15-gallon aquariums of just 24 inch length. As with all cichlids, these fish require additional space when they are protecting their eggs and young, so any attempt to breed them in a community tank will be more successful in tanks of 48 inch length. This allows other fish to move away from the breeding cave and young.

Species in Flux

Pelvicachromis presently includes nine described species, but changes will come to this group of fish soon, with new species being described. Generally, cichlids and all other fish are traded with the name of the location where the original stock was collected. In the case of the P. taeniatus variants, this is usually a village or a river where the fish is from.
To better illustrate the diversity of the fish, this list of species includes some location names, as they may eventually be split up. Especially for breeders of P. taeniatus it is important to always add the location name to any fish sold.
Included also is the closely related and monotypic genus Enigmatochromis. As research in this group is completed, up to 15 species may be described. The species are listed from West to East to give an impression of how the group may eventually be structured.

Enigmatochromis lucanusi Fotou, Guinea 
Pelvicachromis humilis  coastal Guinea, Sierra Leone
Pelvicachromis rubrolabiatus southeast Guinea
Pelvicachromis roloffi  Guinea, Sierra Leone
Pelvicachromis signatus Guinea, Sierra Leone
Pelvicachromis humilis "red” form from Liberia
Pelvicachromis pulcher Benin, Nigeria (aka kribensis)
Pelvicachromis sacrimontis Niger Delta, Nigeria 
Pelvicachromis silviae Niger Delta, Nigeria 
Pelvicachromis taeniatus Warri, Isokpo, Calabar, in Nigeria ("Red Nigeria” and "Green Nigeria”)
Pelvicachromis taeniatus Muyuka, Moliwe (Mt.Cameroon variants)
Pelvicachromis taeniatus Yabassi (Wouri River), Cameroon
Pelvicachromis pulcher Ndonga, Cameroon
Pelvicachromis taeniatus Kienke, Bipindi, Ndonga, Dehane, Lobe, Lokoudje, Bandewouri, etc.
Pelvicachromis subocellatus from Libreville, Gabon to Matadi, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Breeding Pelvicachromis

Pelvicachromis are omnivores that will eat flake foods and dry pellets, but they prefer frozen bloodworm, brine shrimp and Daphnia. For some species, some live or frozen food is essential for the females to reach breeding condition. In all species, females signal their readiness by displaying a hot pink, red or purple stomach. All species breed in pairs, but it is better to place two or three females with one male. This competition will make females ready to breed more quickly.
Once a pair has formed they will excavate one or several nesting sites. At this time the extra females should be removed, unless the aquarium is large enough to ensure they will not be harmed by the breeding couple. An ideal breeding cave can be made of a halved coconut shell: remove the coconut flesh, then drill a hole in one of the sides, just large enough for the fish to enter. This kind of cave is readily accepted by all species — and is easy to defend against nocturnal predators (most catfish will eat cichlid eggs at night).

Depending on the species, 30 to 200 young will hatch and emerge from the cave after six or seven days. Some java moss planted on top of the coconut will provide a grazing area for the fry when they first leave the nest, which is carefully guarded by the female. The fry can be fed with finely crushed flake food, newly hatched brine shrimp, or simply left to find food on their own. The fry are protected until they reach almost 1 inch in size, or until the pair decide to lay eggs again.

Pelvicachromis  taeniatus
Pelvicachromis taeniatus in its natural habitat, the Moliwe stream in the foothills of Mount Cameroon.<. Photo by Oliver Lucanus/

Pelvicachromis are small in size, easy to breed, brightly colored and their relatively mild manners make them ideal aquarium fish and great beginner cichlids. Unlike the more delicate South American Apistogramma and more aggressive Central American Archocentrus, Pelvicachromis can be kept in nearly any aquarium, and make an ideal introduction for children and beginning aquarists who want to observe their fish’s broodcare.
Especially P. pulcher and P. taeniatus are among the easiest of all cichlids to breed and ideally suited for the beginner. In a well-planted community aquarium with slightly acidic and soft water they will reproduce eventually. P. humilis, on the other hand, provides a real challenge even for experienced aquarists.

Oliver Lucanus has collected, filmed and photographed fish in many countries. He has been a tropical fish wholesaler for more than 15 years and has published several books and more than 100 articles on fish husbandry and habitat. Visit his website at  
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