What are the problems mixing 'African' and SA cichlids


Elite Fish
Oct 22, 2002
This is a real common question with a two part answer. Why can't I mix cichlids from different parts of the world, and expect long term success.

Incidentally when most people talk about 'africans' they mean mbuna, rock dwelling cichlids from lake Malawi. This is not the be all and end all of african cichlids as I hope this will partially illustrate.

Problem 1 is geology, and the resulting water conditions.... the numbers here are approx and I welcome edits, corrections. I am no great expect on mbuna so pitch in.

South American - almost always acidic to neutral pH, not much alkaline. pH down to 2! kH nil to not much. There are different enviroments called blackwater, whitewater, not the subject here. Temps can be quite low to very high.
Central American - pH kH all over the place between super low (4) to super high (9 or 10). The majority of typical CA fish in the trade are very, very adaptable here, but mostly mildly alkaline is a good bet.

West African - kribs, some others that are unusual. Similar to S American as they live from mountain streams down to W African coastal plain. Almost no brackish water, as is sometimes stated. Very in fashion incidentally, the more unusual not often imported

Lake Vic - Lake Malawi - Lake Tanganikiya - increasing pH through the 3 from 7.5 to 8.5. Increasing kH gH from high to super high. But always alkaline. There are a number of other lakes which have fish in the trade every now and then (quite a lot right now), some of which have amazing water conditions (pH 10+!!!)

For completeness - Madagascar - similar to CA I believe

India - brackish or moderately hard fresh.

Now you'll see from the above there is a degree of overlap, certainly between CA and W African, and between CA and West Africen. Also remember that many fish are quite adaptable, and will do quite well in most anywater, CA cichlids, angels, and kribs being good examples. The further away from wildcaught these fish are , the more likely flexibility is. Discus are another fine example.
Some of these fish are not too adaptable though. There are many SA fish, especially blackwater fish that are not going to do very well at all, and certainly won't breed successfully in anything hard or above neutral (Dicrossus, some apistos, rams), and I wouldn't advise trying to keep Tropheus for example in acid water, despite the story of them living in a drainage ditch in florida. Also remember that ammonia is more toxic in alk, and nitrite more so in acid, and these fishes will have varying sensitivites as you reach neutral.

The other big issue, and possibly the more important is aggression. We will concentrate on aggressive species here, and mostly on the comparism of mbuna and medium sized Central american cichlids.
All these fish are obviously agressive to a greater or lesser degree ( I have seen yellow labs kept in communities and don't really think it's a big disaster). But the agression is different. Mbuna are generally found in greater numbers in a rocky landscape. Males are quite attached to a particular rock, and defend it as best they can, but if someone bigger shifts them, so be it. They jsut move on and try to mate with every passing female elsewhere. The violence between fish is generally slight, niggling violence that is continual. In a tank this becomes an issue as there is not so many places to run to, so successful keeping tends to be based round controlled overstocking in a biggish tank, and just keeping a few doesn't really help out.
On the other hand central cichlids tends to be bigger l, bulkier and are attached to a specific territorial marker, especially when paired. They then like to defend this against other fish, but are more determined than mbuna NOT to move. There violence is less frequent but more violent. Thus keeping the two together will work for a while, but eventually a CA cichlid will form a territory, get the hump with all these niggly little cichlids and kill a few with little warning, whereas in a properly stocked mbuna tank will continually be full of split fins and trivial scrapping.
It's like keeping a serial killer in a room full of skinheads. All violent in different ways. Obviously the big predators like dovii or managuense are quite unsuitable to be kept with most anything, and the big omnivores like red devils can be pretty brutal to territorial rivals too.

Obviously other fish are similar , though many of the West African and almost all medium to large SA cichlids will be similar to the CA fish. Also S America has numerous shoaling cichlids (angels, discus, festivum), and the dwarfs that in the wild live a short lifetime in a heavily predated enviroment. I have generally though found medium SA cichlids like geophagines, Acarichthys to be quite peaceful, and the pikes I have seen have been quite content to either eat something or ignore it. I can only imagine big Cichla and big (>12 inches) are very predatory.
There are also different behavioural patterns in the African rift lakes. Larger haps, and fronts do not do well with mbuna as they're not especially aggressive until they eat the mbuna. Tropheus are similar to mbuna, goby cichlids, sardine cichlids and shell dwellers do what the name suggests... Fairy cichlids are very similar to CA cichlids in many ways behaviourally, malawi peacocks are weedy versions of the big haps - semi schooling, generally non territorial.

Hopefully this explains a few things. No rules are golden, and you do meet peoply who've cons , kribs and jewels in with Africans and are doing well for years at a time. But nonetheless, you don't read about the time it doesn't work, and it's easier to be safe than sorry.

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Large Fish
May 16, 2004
Florissant, MO
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Great job!
Another problem is communication. A cichlid uses color to communicate. What means one thing to new world cichlids can signal the opposite to Africans. A submissive new world cichlid has dimmer colors, as an example. Imagine what is going through its head when it, as the dominant fish, encounters a fish that never gets dull enough to signal the end of aggression!

Nov 30, 2004
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Wow. This covers almost every reason. I have one that may not be as obvious. Diet. While I'm not an expert, I think many of the SA are either omnivor or just plain preditor fish. Many of the African fish are vegitarians. However, they will eat about anything you feed them. Most of the fish I keep should only eat algea. They will eat shrimp pellets, but can get bloat and die from eating them.


Small Fish
May 4, 2006
nice info

Nice info on the differences, too bad my lfs didn't have any idea about any of that when I got my first four SA Cichlids at 9:00 pm. It would be nice if they promoted forums to new fish buyers.


Elite Fish
Nov 1, 2005
Jacksonville, FL
BRANDX said:
Nice info on the differences, too bad my lfs didn't have any idea about any of that when I got my first four SA Cichlids at 9:00 pm. It would be nice if they promoted forums to new fish buyers.
The sad truth is that most LFS do not like internet forums..Think about how much $ they loose because of us.

I agree this thread should be stickied

Emmm Edit..It is stickied. Next time I'll check before opening my yap. :D


Medium Fish
Aug 29, 2006
L.A. Cali
also just wanted to add, most african cichlids will chase eachother in circles untill one breaks away, essentially giving up. while most SA & CA will do more of a lip locking or head to head battle. two quite different ways of showing dominance in the tank and they can become very confused when both methods are used in the same tank. it will lead to more aggression due to unclear dominance issues.

Apr 7, 2007
I couldn't have said it any better than what you said Wayne. Great job on the post. And yes I agree it should become a Stickie....Thanks for all the great info. We have all Lake Malawian cichlids...except for the 2 pinks and the usd cat*DRUMMER*


Superstar Fish
Apr 30, 2006
I'm an african nut. I love all of them and don't have any reason to buy a SA or CA. I try to make my tanks as natural as possible. and this forum explains one reason why I don't mix. pluss my verry trustworthy lfs told me it can work in some instances but be better off not mixing them. stickie would be a good idea. lots of great info. good job


Small Fish
Jan 12, 2008
snort.. lfs - Petland has the worse 'experts' you can find anywhere. Shoot, they had a special on danio's - 44 cent a piece. Said my O's wouldn't be able to catch 'em they be so fast. Trouble with an O is they be smart. Slow, but smart. Fetched one danio up against the corner and snap, it was a light snack. Whole lot of 4 got eaten inside o 30 min. They worked it out between themselves the best way of catching the rest. Took turns chasing 'em whilst the other 2 laid in hiding and snap! snap! a quick gulp and they each had one. Tails sticking out their mouths. Yep, I reckon I'll stay away from such experts in the future.



Large Fish
Jul 7, 2007
Incidentally when most people talk about 'africans' they mean mbuna, rock dwelling cichlids from lake Malawi..... wrong....any way nice article.. one thing you forgot to mention is there are soft water and hard water SA's hard water species will do fine with african if you do your research. i have many
Tanganikiya's that "need ph of 8.3" and do fine in 7.6 i picked up 4 Lamprologus compressicep 4 different colors ,arm and leg for the black suggested 8.3 to 8.7 they now live in 7.6... i wouldnt have any more SA's if they were given to me. disease is the main reasion...