How to Maintain a South American Cichlid Tank

Oscars are South American cichlids that need specific tank conditions to thrive.
Oscars are South American cichlids that need specific tank conditions to thrive. (Image: Red Oscar image by Mike Price from

South American cichlids are species of the cichlid family that are native to areas of South and Central American including parts of the United States and Mexico. With more than 300 species, South American cichlids come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. They do best when their captive environments mimic their native surroundings. Aquarium hobbyists who keep these fascinating fish will find that their pets thrive when they provide specific tank conditions.

Appropriate Aquarium Size

South American cichlids come in a variety of sizes, so the necessary tank size will depend on the types of cichlids that an aquarium hobbyist chooses. Large cichlids such as oscars, discus and angelfish need plenty of space for swimming and breeding. In addition, tanks that are no smaller than 75 gallons (280l) will reduce aggressive tendencies in these large fish. Smaller South American varieties such as dwarf cichlid and pike cichlid need less space to thrive and live in harmony. However, even the smallest of this species should have aquarium space that is at least 20 gallons (76l) in size for a breeding pair and 50 gallons (189l) for a community.

Tank Filtration

Like most cichlids, the South American varieties need proper filtration to thrive. A good filter will create water movement for ideal swimming and a clean environment that maintains a quality pH balance in the tank. Under-gravel and external filtration systems are good choices for cichlid aquariums, unless you have large South American cichlids: Because large cichlids can move gravel and dislocate an under-gravel filter, this type of filter is not recommended in tanks with large South American cichlid varieties. Keeping the filter clean and free of debris is vital to the vitality of the fish in the tank.

Water Considerations

South American cichlids need specific water conditions to thrive. A pH balance between 6.0 to 7.5 is ideal; check it regularly to maintain the balance. This variety of cichlid prefers water temperatures that range between 76 to 83 degrees Fahrenheit (24 to 27 degrees Celsius), though the best temperature depends on the variety of South American cichlid you have. An aquarium thermometer is necessary to monitor the water temperature in the cichlid tank so you can make adjustments as needed.

Hiding Places

Because South American cichlids have aggressive tendencies, hiding places are vital to their ability to thrive and reproduce. Rocks and heavy aquarium decor are best, especially for large cichlids, which like to uproot smaller items in a tank. Plants are also beneficial to a natural environment, though they may also be uprooted by the fish. Plastic plants that you can secure to the bottom of a tank with heavy gravel or aquarium silicone are good options for creating cichlid hiding places. Secure items that are easily uprooted, or remove them to avoid injuries to inhabitants of the tank.

Tank Cleaning

Regular water changes are vital to keeping South American cichlids healthy and comfortable. Some cichlids are messier than others and may require more frequent water changes. Depending on how murky or clear the water is, you'll wan to remove and clean approximately 25 percent weekly. Aquariums with large communities of South American cichlids may require that you change as much as 60 percent of the water each week. Remove rocks and decorations and clean them with aquarium-approved cleaners as needed.

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