The Convict Cichlid or Zebra Cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata) belongs to the family Cichlidae – more commonly just known as cichlids. The name, Amatitlania actually means “place that is abundant in Amate” (Amate = Ficus). It likely describes the area where the original specimens were collected for Western Science. At first glance the convict cichlid appears rather drab and indeed they can be; the fish is light gray with eight to nine vertical black bars, hence the name “Convict Cichlid”. One of the more interesting facts about convict cichlids is that mature females, not males, will gain some bright colorations: yellows, greens and reds mostly on their underbellies. Males will be larger getting up to 6 inches in length while females more commonly will reach about 4 inches. Average size in wild populations is on the lower end of this. Other colors called white, yellow or pink are now available due to selective captive breeding.
Originally found in El Salvador, Guatemala & Honduras, the convict cichlids hardiness and popularity has caused it to have established populations elsewhere including Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia and even on islands in the Pacific Ocean. Always remember never to release fish into the wild, even if you think they cannot survive. They enjoy flowing water, inhabiting everything from small streams and creeks to larger, fast flowing rivers. They in habit the lower levels of the water column, living among the protection of rocks and other debris (tree branches etc) in the water.
Convicts have adapted wonderfully to life in aquariums through generations of captive breeding; as such they are generally not picky. That said, they will enjoy an environment with some flow to it, and plenty of places for them, and their young to hide in. Lots of rocks, and some driftwood over a sand bottom would be a good start. They are aggressive and territorial, so barriers to line of sight can help with keeping multiple pairs in a tank. They can be kept with live plants – but they love to rearrange their aquariums so they need to be well secured or they will simply be torn out; Anubias or Java fern may be options that work. A 40 gallon breeder aquarium or larger is a good place to start with a pair.
Convicts dietary needs are also relatively easily met, most any fish you can buy is well adjusted to eating aquarium foods such as pellets intended for cichlids or carnivorous fish. They will relish appropriately sized frozen or meaty foods as treats or supplements as well. Small portions of algae based fish foods or the occasional blanched vegetable will also be enjoyed by your convict cichlids.
Outside of guppies and other livebearers, the convict cichlid may be the easiest of all fish to breed. Given a pair (male and female fish), a good diet, and reasonable aquarium conditions, you will be rewarded with generations of fish living together sooner than you know – convict cichlids grow to sexual maturity in less than a year under the right conditions! The parents will clean a rock to lay their eggs on, and will lay up to 150 eggs in a single spawn! After this they will guard and care for the eggs; the male will not become aggressive to them until they become free swimming, and almost every aquarium of suitable size will have multiple generations of convicts living in it in a short period of time!
Convict cichlids are hardy, have interesting social behaviors, and are a great introduction to breeding cichlids or fish in general for the beginner aquarist. Ask your LFS for some convict cichlids from Aquatropic and start your colony today!