A cichlid (pronounced SICK-lid) is any freshwater or brackish water fish that is a member of the family Cichlidae (pronounced SICK-lid-day).

To be more precise, a cichlid is a fish which has (1) a single nostril on each side of its head, (2) a lateral line which is broken (interrupted) into two lines (one is usually slightly higher and starts just behind the head) than the other (which usually starts about mid-body and continues to just before the start of the caudal (tail) fin), (3) from 20 to, sometimes, more than 100 scales in the lateral line, (4) 7 to 25 spines and 5 to 30 soft rays in its dorsal (top) fin, (5) 3 to 15 spines and 4 to more than 30 soft rays in its anal (bottom, unpaired fin) and a couple of other minor characteristics that help distinguish cichlids from other, closely related, Perciform (perch-like) fishes.

How many different cichlds are there?

It has been stated that the cichlids comprise the largest family of fishes rivaled, perhaps, only by the gobies. There are approximately 300 genera of cichlids. Some of these genera are considered to be valid and others are synonyms to other valid generic names. Each genus, of course, has at least one species ascribed to it. One such montypic genus is Boulengerochromis, and the species is Boulengerochromis microlepis.

This cichlid is found only in Lake Tanganyika and is the world’s largest cichlid (reaching about 80 cm (>31 in)). However, other genera may have scores of species. The point is that there are hundreds or thousands of species of cichlids; more than enough to satisfy the most ardent aquarist and enough to give fish systematists and taxonomists many lifetimes of scientific research.

Where do cichlids occure naturally?

The cichlids are found, naturally, in North, Central and South America, the West Indies, Africa, Madagascar, Middle East, India and Sri Lanka. The Rift Valley lakes and Lake Victoria, all in Africa, are known for the immense explosive speciation of cichlids. The vast majority of the cichlids in these lakes are endemic (found nowhere else in the world).

The species flocks in Lake Victoria and on the island of Madagascar are highly endangered and are the subjects of intense species preservation and population recovery programs by amateur and professional aquarists around the world. Some cichlids, such as Tilapia (Oreochromis species, Sarotherodon species, etc.) are farmed around the world to feed the ever growing human population and unfortunately have been introduced into ecosystems that may never be restored to their natural states.

Do all cichlids look, basically, alike?

Cichlid body shapes are quite varied from perch-like (Cichla species), to sunfish-like (Heros species), to goby-like (Eretmodus species), to eel-like (Teleogramma species), and to disc-like (Symphysodon species). These varied shapes can best be illustrated by taking a “typical” cichlid shape and by squeezing or elongating it:

typical cichlid shape (sunfish-like) perch-like goby-like eel-like disc-like

This picture “morphing” is quite oversimplified, but it does help illustrate that cichlids can be found in many different shapes and sizes and what may, at first, appear to be wholly un-cichlid like is, in fact, a bona fide cichlid. The varied forms, as well as the startlingly beautiful colors, unusual parental care (and relative ease of captive breeding), and obvious intelligent behavior have all served to make the cichlids the most popular family of fishes kept by aquarists world-wide.

Follow these steps for keeping healthy cichlids: (1) Provide cichlids with an aquarium environment that takes into account their typical adult size and behavior. (2) While cichlids are relatively tollerant of varying water conditions it is best to do regular, large water changes and to provide reliable biological and chemical filtration. (3) Feed cichlids a varied diet, but be aware of the kinds of food each species would normally consume in the wild. Don’t feed algae-eating species a high protein diet. (4) Don’t assume all cichlids are preditory bullies or plant destroyers!

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