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Cichlid Origins

Blake B

Posted on May 07 2019

As we know from the theory of evolution, all creatures are a result of the endless quest of life to adapt to different environments. Cichlids are certainly no exception, and to understand why these particular fish have taken on so many fascinating colors, shapes, and behavioral patterns, it can be interesting to take a look at their origins. What environments did they adapt to, to become so unique?

Today, we’ll take a brief look at African cichlid’s origins, and the evolutionary factors which have led to their many interesting traits.

A Tale of Three Lakes

As you may already know, African cichlid origins are primarily from just three lakes, Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria, although there are other varieties from other parts of the world. These lakes, also known as the Rift Valley Lakes, are fascinating in themselves, being some of the largest, oldest, and deepest lakes on planet Earth. They are very rocky, and therefore alkaline “hard-water” lakes, with high mineral content, which is why adding minerals to your cichlids’ aquarium water is so important.

If one takes a look at the landscape of the lakes, some aspects of cichlid requirements and behaviors begin to make more sense. Perhaps most obvious is why cichlids prefer to dwell between rocks, in small caves and crevices. From there, it’s not hard to see why they would also be particularly territorial, since a landscape of rocks is much more easily parceled out into little “turfs” than would be simpler, open-water environs.


Perhaps one of the reasons we like African Cichlids so much is that they engage in various mating behaviors, including monogamy, which are not only interesting but also somewhat relatable, as compared to most other fish. These, again, can be attributed to a large extent to the rocky environment of the African Great Rift Lakes of their origin.

As cichlids divide up the rocky terrain into various territories, the motivation for doing so has a lot to do with reproduction, as does so much of biology and animal behavior. With crevices and rocks acting much like houses and yards do for humans, this naturally provides a situation in which monogamous or polygamous arrangements can thrive, usually with a single male per territory. So, African cichlids are much less “random” in their mating behaviors than many fish.

This also is the explanation for much of the interesting “volcano” building behaviors of males, who create small volcano-like mounds which serve as a sort of nest for breeding purposes.


Another characteristic quality of cichlids is their well-known aggressiveness, and this is also due largely to their environment and mating requirements. Territorial behavior itself implies aggression, for a territory doesn’t exist without being defended. Thus, because of this, they have evolved to have varying levels of aggression, which gives them even more personality.

Some Things Are Still a Mystery

Some things are mysteries to biologists and zoologists, and one example is what exactly causes the variety of colors and patterns that cichlids have developed. Although there are theories, it isn’t obvious why these particular features, usually in males, would increase reproductive appeal, but nevertheless, their capacity for attracting mates is certainly the reason they have become so prominent. Like the birds of paradise or many other types of creature, males impress females with their colors and showy behaviors.

Perhaps we’re overthinking this question, and fish and other animals simply have more of an appreciation for aesthetics and novelty than we expect. Given that fish have displayed a variety of complex behaviors previously thought to be limited to “higher orders” of animals, they may simply be more conscious and intelligent than we assume them to be.

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