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The Fascinating World of Cichlid Mate Selection

Blake B

Posted on December 04 2018

Who’s it going to be? That’s the central question that has driven so much of evolution in the animal kingdom, particularly some of it’s most peculiar and colorful pathways. While it may often seem mysterious to us why exactly a certain color of tailfeather makes a certain male bird more attractive than others, we certainly don’t mind admiring the vibrant results, and the same is true of African cichlids. Much of the beautiful color and interesting behaviors which have emerged in the cichlid family are due primarily to the desire to attract a mate, and understanding how and why these patterns developed can sometimes be as mysterious and interesting as the traits themselves.


As best we can decipher, since its exceedingly difficult to get a clear answer from the cichlids themselves, there are several categorical factors which influence mate selection. These are physical traits, often those which are most visible, behavioral tendencies, such as indicators of parenting skills or courtship performances, and the actual physical geography or “real estate” which they control. Presumably, all of these factors come into play in the careful analysis and comparison cichlids make when choosing a mate.


The name of the game, when it comes to sexual selection, is competition. The many lengths to which biology is driven by evolution to be alluring when potential mates are plentiful is wholly driven by the requirement to pass on one’s genes. In this case, the obstacle is not the environment and one’s ability to adapt to it, but the selectiveness of potential mates, and the abundance of competition for them; and compete, they do, with wild colors, patterns, territorial competitiveness, and sometimes even combat to the death.

Wherefore Art Thou Stripes, Romeo?

The physical traits which cichlids have developed to be attractive are numerous; in fact, virtually all of the unique and interesting aesthetic aspects of cichlids are wholly or partly influenced by this. Why are colorful, striped, spotted, iridescent, or frilly fish so much more sexy to other fish? The reality might actually be that these traits simply make them more noticeable, particularly through the unique lens of cichlid vision.


Another obvious factor is size, and male size actually plays a fairly significant role for cichlids and other fish, because it's very common for males to be the primary caretakers of the eggs and the fry. Therefore, it makes sense that to ward off potential predators, large males would be advantageous, and large females are also, simply for the fact that they can carry more eggs, and therefore are more likely to spread their genes far and wide.

For You, I’d Build a Volcano

One particularly interest aspect of African Cichlid mating behaviors is the tendency of the males of some species to engage in what is called bower building. Bowers are little mounds of sand with a pit in the middle, much like a volcano, which for whatever reason is extremely attractive to females. Luckily, the size or shape of the bower does not seem to matter tremendously, but simply the ability to make one is the prime prerequisite...for further consideration, of course.


Other courting behaviors are also relevant, such as circling. Why is circle-swimming considered attractive? We don’t know for certain, but perhaps it's simply an indication of stamina. Vigorousness of any mating behavior also seems to be a primary factor, with the lukewarm and lazy coming in last. This could also be a sign of stamina, as well as bio-chemistry. Or, perhaps the cichlid ladies simply enjoy feeling wanted, until the day we develop the ability to read cichlid minds, we’ll never truly know.

Breeding in Captivity

While the breeding behaviors of African cichlids in the wild can be fascinating, it’s important to remember that if you plan to breed cichlids yourself, you’ll need to do much careful research before putting them in the aquarium together and pronouncing them man and wife. There are many factors to take into consideration, ranging from the water qualities that are optimal for breeding, to aquarium landscape, and the peculiarities of the breed. This is especially true with the more aggressive species, so don’t be so anxious to make sparks fly that you don’t do your homework, and end up with an injured cichlid, or worse! That being said, breeding African cichlids can be a very fun and rewarding hobby, and I wish you the best of luck.

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