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African Cichlid Recommendations for 20 Gallon


New Member
Hello all. I've newly joined the forum in pursuit of help from experienced cichlid keepers. I've been keeping fish for over a decade (community tropicals, bettas, and koi), and am now interested in giving cichlids a try.

Specifically, I'm looking for recommendations for small species of African cichlids who are suitable for a beginner. Here are some of the main concerns and what I have to work with:
  • Need to be suited to a 20 gallon tall.
  • Tap water parameters: GH: 150, KH: 180, pH: 7.6
  • Tap water also has nitrates in it, 10ppm
  • Need a species that can be kept from breeding in the tank, or where I can keep a single sex.
  • Fine with a single-species tank, or with a cichlid who can be kept in the right community setup.
The last thing I want is to deal with overpopulation or fish who simply aren't happy. As for what I like in a fish species:
  • Colors on the cooler end of the spectrum (blues, purples, burgundies) or have some iridescence to them.
  • I really like Pelvicachromis pulcher, and can get them locally, but I've seen conflicting information on their required tank size and just how prolific they are as breeders.
  • I like the look of peacock cichlids, and can get some locally. Would any of these species be suited to my setup?
  • Shell dwellers have been recommended, though they're hard for me to get hold of, and I'm not sure what species I should research.
  • I've also been told to look into Pseudotropheus Saulosi. These are fish that I can get locally, and I really like the look of them. Any tips?
Lastly, I definitely welcome recommendations for tank setup since I have the opportunity to start fresh.
  • I'm looking to replace my old filter with either a canister filter or an Aquaclear 30.
  • Quiet filter operation and ease of filter maintenance are a must.
  • Tips on substrate? I know sand is recommended for a lot of the species I've looked at, and this would be my first time working with it.
If you got through all of that, you are awesome. :) Thank you in advance for tips and recommendations.

lock jaw

CCA Members
A 20 gallon tank is too small to house African cichlids, they would need a minimum of 55 gallons. You might want to try German blue rams or Bolivian rams. You can raise African cichlid fry in your 20 gallon tank but you would have to move them to something bigger after a few months.
I kept Yellow Labs and Pseudotropeus Acei in a 30 long for 2 years. I had a ton of hiding places built, and filtration was enough for a 100 gallon tank, with weekly water changes.


CCA Members
I think a pair of kribs would be fine in a 20, and if you add in some dithers or a small species of catfish I don't think you would have to worry too much about overpopulation. I have a pair of Pelvicachromis kribensis in a 20 long and besides the time I pulled fry to rear I didn't have any grow to adulthood.


I have to disagree with lockjaw. I think a 20 gal is big enough for a pair of Kribs, or a pair of Tanganyika she’ll dwellers like brevis, or even buffalohead (although I like them in a longer tank like a 33 so as to make a more natural riverine setup). All of these are African cichlids. The comment bigger is better is usually true, but a pair of shell dwellers would be lost in a 55, and saying a pair of kribs can’t be done in a 20 just means one does not really understand how to maintain an aquarium. Yes, I understand a bigger tank allows for for mistakes, as bigger tanks tend to be more stable and forgiving, but really, a pair of kribs do not “need” a 55. If you like kribs, do some reading (homework) on their care, and give it a go.

Jim Anderson

CCA Members
Either Krib's, Ram's, shell dwellers, Buffalo heads and Neolamprologus all would be fine in a 20g tall, I would avoid the larger African cichlids though. If you go with Krib's or Rams you could get a small school tetra's or barbs that would add fish to the upper part of the "tall" tank. The PH of 7.6 might be a little tougher on the Krib's, Rams and tetra's- just my thoughts.


CCA Members
Either Krib's, Ram's, shell dwellers, Buffalo heads and Neolamprologus all would be fine in a 20g tall, I would avoid the larger African cichlids though. If you go with Krib's or Rams you could get a small school tetra's or barbs that would add fish to the upper part of the "tall" tank. The PH of 7.6 might be a little tougher on the Krib's, Rams and tetra's- just my thoughts.
Rams are South American and won't handle the pH or Nitrates well at all.

Kribs are definitely prolific breeders. You might be able to reduce their output by housing them with a very sturdy and determined pleco (like one of the smaller growing panaque types), but I've seen them pick eyes off of a tank full of cory cats defending their nest (not my tank - it was at Rick's Fish). Kribs will spawn in everything and they are super hardy. You can also fail to provide them with obvious spawning sites (they like caves, especially long tubes), which will make it harder for them to build a nest at all.

chriscoli chriscoli would probably have some good advice on some of the smaller types. There are a lot of cool smaller fish coming out of West Africa right now. You should check out www.aquaticclarity.com to get an idea of what's available. GWAPA is actually doing a holiday party group buy with them (going on now) but you have to be a paid member to participate.

I also recommend Rachel O'Leary's book on nano tanks. It has information on a wide variety of nano fish (including some African cichlids) that should work for you. You might even find that you want to consider something with lots of color and cichlid-like behavior, like Badis or Dario.


Kribs are definitely prolific breeders.
Yeah, kind of like saying convicts will produce some fry!
But what about keeping a trio of three females? They have attractive colors, and even if two of them lay eggs, they won't hatch.
( I currently have two female Red Eagle Discus that lay eggs -both of them-every ten days, wish they would hatch!-btw the two ladies paired off in a 120 that had a proven male snakeskin-but they preferred their own "partnership".
And in my book, you want a pair of KRIBS that won't breed like rabbits--pay $75 for a rare species of Pelvicachromis plus $45 in shipping with the intent to sell all the babies to club members and they probably will be more shy about breeding you out of the house!


Peacock cichlids are definitely out, except possibly a single fish, 20 gals is too small for a group or pair, both in terms of size and managing aggression-- don't let if fool you when some articles say they're peaceful-- most are not at all and need steps to manage aggression, some species less so but individuals are unpredictable (I bred them for years, several species), they're generally milder than mbuna, but that's only relative. P. salosi-- aggressive, candidate as a single fish, otherwise they need a large enough community of mbuna of similar aggression, possible to do in a 20 gal if you create a mini reef, but not the easiest thing to accomplish.

Shell dwellers are a possibility, some more suitable than others, these are generally in the Lamprologus and Neolamprologus families. Each are fairly diverse families, varying in size, color, and temperament. Tanganyikan goby cichlids are an entertaining option. There are other, even rarer, Tanganyikan possibilities, names of which escape me at the moment.

A Malawi cichlid that could work would be Otopharynx lithobates, Zimbawe Rock. (Z Rock lithobates) I bred them for years. They generally top out at 5.5 inches, are generally much more mellow than peacock cichlids, (they're a hap, not a peacock) and full color males are beautiful. One would work as a centerpiece fish (with some colorful raspboras, for example) or could likely work with a few small Tanganyikans-- speaking of which, a small group of Paracypricrhomis are a possibility.
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CCA Members
Little late to the party but will add my 2 cents. I have a 40 long that I've been trying to keep as an all male cichlid tank. But I can relate to a 20 gal, I try to keep 10-12 fish that start in the 2 inch range to purposely overcrowd to spread aggression and over filter, The biggest problem I have is they grow. When they get to be over 4 inches they are starting to color up nicely but are too big for the tank. I have been able to sell them off and start over with smaller versions. I'm ok with that; you may not want the hastle. There are enough species that start to color up early to have a decent show tank. Also I'm finding some do not color up as well without a female in the tank.

My tank has become a Jurassic Park in the last couple of months as apparently either my "male" Yellow Lab or Clown Lab is not male. Today I dropped off the remaining offspring I could catch before my meet time with Freekgecko for his cat rescue donation tank, I have two left to catch. Aside from the obvious they look a lot like my yellow tail Acei so they are not hard to look at..

I loved the challenge of those who said I was nuts to try this to begin with. I'm learning a lot as I go,

I also have a 55 gal community tank with a lot of plants. I have kept both German Blue Rams and Bolivian Butterfly Rams in it over the years. I keep/kept them with Cardinal Tetra's, Beckford pencil fish, Pleco's, and white tetra's(including the Glo-fish versions my wife likes) You could do well with 1 male and 2-3 females in a 20 with some dither fish to keep the tank interesting. Note South American Rams do not need caves. They breed on flat surfaces.

Bottom line you have come to the right place for information. The folks here know from first hand experience. Far better than googling for help.