Tank Mates for African Cichlids: 11+ Most Harmonius Fish

Who can resist the call of the cichlid tank?

The sheer variety of colors and patterns combined with the activity levels and character of these fish draws aquarists to pursue this setup.

The well-known challenge with cichlids is managing their temper.

Labidochromis caeruleus also known as lemon yellow lab cichlid swimming with other lake Malawi cichlids in a freshwater aquarium decorated with rocks
Lemon yellow lab (in the center) is one of the most common mbuna varieties

Many, but not all, cichlid species tend to be aggressively territorial, which can make it difficult to select tank mates.

Often, aquarists choose a single-specimen or single-species tank. While that is a workable solution, others desire a multi-species tank. 

How do you choose?

Types of African Cichlids

First, learn all you can about your African cichlid.

Most African cichlids come from one of three lakes in the Rift Valley.

This is important to know because the water conditions for each lake differ slightly, and that can impact the tank mate you select.

Lake Malawi

Flavescent Peacock also known as Aulonocara stuartgranti swimming in a community freshwater fishtank
Flavescent peacock (Aulonocara stuartgranti ‘Usisya’)

Lake Malawi has a massive number of cichlid species.

This sandy bottom lake ranges in temperature from 76 to 82°F (24-28°C) and has a pH of 7.4 to 8.4.

Species include the peacock cichlid and the brilliantly colored electric yellow and blue cichlids.

Sizes of these fish range widely from as small as three inches to as large as 10 (7-25 cm).

These fish tend to be more aggressive and require rock work and cave features in their habitat.

Lake Tanganyika

Aquarium with Cyphotilapia frontosa also known as frontosas from lake Tanganyika swimming together in aquarium
School of frontosas (Cyphotilapia frontosa)

This lake features a rocky, sandy bed, with temperatures varying from 72 to 82°F (22-28°C) and pH from 7.8 to 9.0.

This pH range makes it slightly more challenging to pair fish from these waters as any tank mates need to tolerate this amount of alkalinity.

Malawi lake also boasts one of the smallest African cichlids, the shell dweller, which barely reaches two inches (5 cm), as well as the massive, foot-long (30.5 cm) frontosa cichlid.

Lake Victoria

Sciaenochromis fryeri also known as well as electric blue hap from lake Victoria swimming in aquarium with another cichlid
Electric blue hap (Sciaenochromis fryeri)

Lake Victoria is a shallow lake with a rocky bottom.

Temperatures are slightly cooler, ranging from 70 to 81°F (21-27°C), and the pH sits between 7.2 and 8.6.

There are numerous Haplochromis species residing in these waters.

They are vibrantly colored and range in size from three to five inches (7-13 cm).

Some are peaceful while others can readily hold their own in a tank of more aggressive fish.

Outside of the Rift Valley

Male of Kribensis with pointed dorsal and anal fins swimming in aquarium
Kribensis cichlid (Pelvicachromis pulcher)

Numerous cichlid species inhabit other lakes, rivers, and waterways.

As you can imagine, the water conditions vary and some of these species favor neutral or acidic waters.

One of the most popular of these species is the kribensis cichlid.

This river-dwelling fish from Nigeria and Cameroon tolerates water pH ranges from as low as 5.0 to as high as 8.0.

Other lake dwellers come from neutral, soft waters, such as those from Lake Bermin or Barombi Mbo.

Managing Behavior

Once you have selected your ideal pairing, it is all about behavior management.

Give them space

Cichlids need space, so do not skimp on tank size.

Smaller species can get by with a 20-gallon tank, but 30 gallons is better.

For each fish you add to the mix, plan on an additional three to five gallons (minimum) of water.

Keep water parameters stable

Cichlids have specific water requirements.

When selecting tank mates, choose those compatible with the cichlid’s needs rather than trying to make it work the other way around.

Many cichlids are already prone to aggressive behavior and stressing them with poor water conditions will exacerbate the situation, leading to an unhappy tank at best or sick/injured fish at worst.

Feed them well

One way to keep your cichlid happy, and by extent less aggressive, is by ensuring it has a steady, nutritional diet.

Food scarcity is one of the main drivers for aggression. Cichlids run the gamut of nutritional needs.

Many are omnivorous and love a treat of fresh or frozen brine shrimp, while others are strictly carnivores or herbivores.

Feed your cichlid two to three times a day and no more than they can finish within two minutes.

Plan your tank setup

Cichlids enjoy digging, plus many of their ideal tank mates are bottom dwellers, so a sandy substrate with rock features is safe.

Fish like to access hiding places, and decorations break up the line of sight to reduce conflict.

Live plants are acceptable, but make sure there is adequate swimming space.

Selecting Tank Mates

When choosing a fish to pair with your African cichlid, look for fish that are:

  • Larger, peaceful bottom dwellers
  • Fast swimming schooling or shoaling fish
  • Fish from the same area, lake, or water conditions
  • Fish of the same size and temperament.

Avoid the following:

  • Fish with different water needs, such as corys, clown loaches, and American cichlids: do not try to force fish with differing needs together. You will negatively impact the health of your tank.
  • Small, peaceful fish, such as the kuhli loach, tetras, guppies, and kribensis: these will be far too tempting for your cichlid, who will view them as a snack.
  • Closely related African cichlids that could breed and produce unwanted hybrids
  • Slow swimming fish or those that do not do well with excessive activity, such as angelfish.

The following are some of our favorite fish to pair with African cichlids.

Recommended African Cichlids Tank Mates

1. Plecos

Pair of Baryancistrus demantoides also known as fancy green phantom plecos L200 dwelling the bottom in a community aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 150 gallons

Common plecos are easy-going, large bottom dwellers that will stay out of a cichlid’s way.

These nocturnal algae eaters need sinking foods, fed on a different schedule, to complete their nourishment.

Their size necessitates a big tank as common plecos can reach up to 24 inches (61 cm) in length.

Fancy plecos are significantly smaller as adults and can work with cichlids if they are larger in size when introduced.

While the water temperature needs of the two species overlap well (most plecos like 72 to 78°F or 22 to 26°C), the pH for most cichlids is slightly over the upper limit of the pleco (6.5 to 7.5).

2. Other African Cichlids

Aulonocara-baenschi also known as Yellow Regal Peacock swimming close to aquarium rocks
Yellow regal (Aulonocara-baenschi)

Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons

In general, you cannot go wrong in pairing an African cichlid from one lake with another cichlid species found in that same lake.

You are guaranteed to have matching water conditions, which makes that part of the equation simple.

Always research the behavior of the individual species before pairing them and look for potential incompatibilities that would provoke aggression, such as the species looking too similar.

As we have mentioned, do not pair closely related species that could mate and produce unwanted hybrids.

3. Zebra Loach (Botia striata)

Botia striata also known as zebra loach staying on a stone in a freshwater aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons

The zebra loach is another bottom-dwelling option.

It is a small species, maxing out at three to four inches (7-10 cm), so make sure that you introduce larger zebras so that the cichlids do not consider them food.

Zebras need to be kept in a group of at least five for them to be confident and healthy.

Smaller groups could result in stress and aggression among the loaches.

Overall, they tend to keep to themselves and make good tank mates.

Water temperature needs match well but keep the pH toward the upper end of the loach’s range to match with the cichlid.

For some cichlid species, the pH needed will be higher than the loach’s upper range.

4. Red Tail Shark (Epalzeorhynchos bicolor)

Epalzeorhynchos bicolor also known as red tail shark swimming in front of a grotto in a planted freshwater aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons

Sticking with the theme of bottom dwellers, consider the red tail shark.

These bi-colored fish have a striking appearance with a dark, black body and contrasting bright red tail.

They reach anywhere from four to six inches in length (10-15 cm), making them a good fit with your cichlid size-wise. 

Their activity level is high, which should not present a problem provided the tank is large enough for the red tail and cichlid to have their own territories.

To better keep the peace, keep only one red tail in the tank, as they will readily go after any other fish that looks like them.

5. Paratilapia (Paratilapia polleni)

Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons

The paratilapia is a cichlid species native to Madagascar.

Males grow to an impressive 11 inches in length (28 cm), while females reach half that.

They live in water conditions ranging from cold to hot, alkaline to acidic, and fresh to brackish.

Their ideal conditions match the warm, alkaline, and hard water favored by African cichlids. 

This fish can be aggressive toward others of its kind, so keep it as a single specimen or a monogamous pair.

Add plenty of hiding spaces that break the line of sight and allow territory establishment. 

This species is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. Purchase captive-bred specimens to protect native populations. 

6. Jewel Cichlids (Hemichromis bimaculatus)

Adult of Hemichromis bimaculatus also known as jewel cichlid swimming in a bottom tank's area in a decorated aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 40 gallons

The adaptability of this West African species makes it an excellent match for Rift Valley cichlids, especially the peacock and Haplochromis.

They enjoy the same warm water conditions; however, the pH will need to be on the upper end of the jewel’s tolerance. Keep the hardness under 12 dGH. 

Jewels tend toward aggression, which can worsen if you have a breeding pair.

This six-inch-long species (15 cm) can kill larger fish than itself if it is stressed, underfed, or overstocked.

Monitor any pairing, ensure a large habitat, and include decorations to break up the line of sight.

7. Giant Danios (Devario aequipinnatus)

Devario aequipinnatus also known as giant danio swimming in a planted aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons

Giant danios bring movement, character, and interest to a cichlid tank.

Their schooling behavior can also help calm aggression in your cichlids.

Danios’ most comfortable and playful activity comes when they are kept in a school of eight to 10 fish.

They prefer the middle to bottom areas of the tank.

Make sure the danios are large when you introduce them to avoid having the cichlids view them as food.

Your danios should grow to an adult size of 5.9 inches (15 cm), so plan on a large, long tank with moderate current flow to accommodate them.

8. Rainbows (Melanotaeniidae)

Melanotaenia boesemani also known as Boeseman's rainbowfish swimming in a planted freshwater aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 10 – 50 gallons, depending on the species

Rainbows include four sub-families – each with slightly different water needs.

Most of these fish love the same warm, hard, alkaline water as do the African cichlids.

However, there are some that do better in slightly more acidic water, so verify their needs before purchasing.

These shoaling fish do best in groups of six or more, prefer the top one-third of the tank, and have healthy appetites.

Select a rainbow species that is outgoing in behavior. Shy species will not do well in a cichlid tank.

Introduce larger rainbows to the tank as smaller fish may become lunch for your cichlids.

9. Lake Malawi Synodontis (Synodontis njassae)

Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons

This Synodontis is endemic to Lake Malawi waters.

Pairing it with cichlids from those very same waters ensures common parameters.

This 7.6-inch (19 cm) omnivore is nocturnal and will be active when your cichlids are resting and hiding in caves during the day.

Synodontis prefer to stick close to the bottom of the tank, using their sensitive barbels to feel their way around.

This fish does well with other active fish. Make sure that your cichlids are large enough that the Synodontis will not mistake them for food.

Do not pair other Synodontis species with S. njassae as that may lead to aggression.

10. Siamese Algae Eater (Crossocheilus siamensis)

Crossocheilus siamensis also known as Siamese algae eater in planted aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons

Another gentle bottom dweller from Southeast Asia, the Siamese algae eater is not only a favorable community tank member that will not provoke your cichlid, but they also help keep the tank clean by feeding off algae.

These fish are in constant motion along the tank bottom.

They reach an adult length of six inches (15 cm) and need room to swim and places to hide.

Siamese algae eaters prefer slightly more acidic water than do most African cichlids.

Pair them with cichlids that can tolerate a neutral pH.

11. Flying Fox Fish (Epalzeorhynchos kalopterus)

Minimum Tank Size: 100 gallons

The upper end of the flying fox’s pH range overlaps with cichlids that tolerate ranges closer to 7.0, which limits your choices.

For Lake Tanganyika species, the pH is out of range.

This Southeast Asia native grows to a decent size of six inches (15 cm) and needs a massive tank.

These fish do well in a community tank with species that do not look like them.

However, they are highly territorial and will fight any fish in their space.

Do not house them with their own kind, other bottom dwellers, or similar species, such as Labeo sp. as the flying fox will consider them targets.

12. African Red-Eyed Tetra (Arnoldichthys spilopterus)

Arnoldichthys spilopterus also known as African red-eyed tetra close-up in a planted aquarium

Minimum Tank Size: 50 gallons

A larger tetra species, the African red-eyed tetra reaches an adult length of four inches (10 cm).

Not only do they pair well with African cichlids due to their size, but they also favor identical water conditions and similar food sources. 

Red-eyed tetras are highly active, so should not be kept with any shy species.

This activity level, however, will not bother your cichlid and may help deter aggression as the school swims in the open water.

A school of 10 fish is ideal as it will bring out their best behavior. They will occupy all levels of the water column.

13. Murray River Rainbowfish (Melanotaenia fluviatilis)

Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons

The only Australian native on our list, the Murray River rainbowfish is a hardy species that inhabits a wide range of aquatic environments.

They tolerate a wide range of pH values from as low as 6.5 to as high as 8.5, so check the location from which your rainbowfish comes to make sure their water parameters are compatible with your cichlid’s.

These omnivores reach a length of four inches (10 cm), which matches well with many African cichlid species.

They are fast, active, and should be kept in a group of at least six.

Pair them with gentle-tempered cichlids for the best result.

Closing Thoughts

There are many things to consider when choosing a tank mate for your African cichlid.

Well-matched water parameters, temperament, and behavior patterns all come into play.

Once you have the pairing of your choice, ensuring optimum tank size and setup, stable conditions, and quality nutrition lead toward a peaceful and enjoyable tank. 

With a plan in mind, you can successfully build your dream cichlid tank!

We would love to hear from you! What is your dream cichlid tank?