Practical Information About Keeping, Breeding and Buying Dwarf Cichlids

Fish Profiles & Photos
South American  
    sp. "Abacaxis"
    sp. "Putumayo"
    sp. "Steel Blue"

West African 

  Please help!
Your contribution of any amount will help support the site.

Understanding Apistogramma

       The fish of the Genus Apistogramma are beautiful tropical fish that are highly prized by many hobbyists. There are as many as 250 identified Apistogramma species, types or forms and more are discovered every year. There is a lot of diversity between Apistogramma species but all share a few common characteristics, chief among these is their small adult size. In the aquarium, the largest Apistogrammas might reach 3 1/2 inches in length (or slightly larger depending on the species). However, it is very rare to find an Apistogramma in the wild that approachs that length. With few if any exceptions, Apistogramma males are larger than females and often the difference can be dramatic.
Apistogramma cacatoides pair
    This Apistogramma cacatuoides pair shows the obvious size and coloration differences between the male (above) and female fish. 

     In most Apistogramma species, there is also a significant coloration difference between males and females. Apistogramma males are more colorful and, in many species, they have elaborate or extended fins. Many popular Apistogrammas have extended dorsal fins arching high above their bodies. Some have high sail like dorsals. Others have one or two elongated spines at the front of the fin and many have an even edge.

Apistogramma xingu female in brood dressA. xingu female in normal coloration    This female Apistogramma xingu is shown in her brilliant yellow and black brood care colors (above) and her drab, non-aggressive, non-breeding colors (below). Most female Apistogramma exhibit a similar change of colors, however, in some species the change is not so dramatic.
    The tail, or caudal fin, also shows great variation. From round to spade shaped to various forms of lyretail, Apistogrammas can be found with a great variety of caudal shapes and colors. Another finage feature that many males exhibit are long flowing ventral fins. These fins which are attached on the lower front part of the body, and in some species they will grow to great lengths. These dramatic colors and elaborate fins make properly housed Apistogrammas among the most attractive freshwater fish.
A. atahualpa pair
    Apistogramma atahualpa pair, male above, note the single spot on the side of the female. The variation in black markings can be very different between species.

       Female Apistogramma are generally a gray to brown color when not in breeding colors. During breeding and brood care they will become a shade of yellow. This color varies greatly between species. Some are a brilliant lemon yellow while others are a much more subtle, almost pastel yellow color. This color difference can be very dramatic in some species of Apistogramma. Generally the female will be drab colored when she is in a non aggressive and non breeding condition. However, colorless females seem to be a target for aggression and unless in a group they often suffer and have to hide. After some time she will begin to ripen eggs in preparation of spawning. After egg laying female Apistogrammas will develop the yellow coloration that contrasts with the black markings that they exhibit. Female Apistogramma can use their colors and patterns to signal to their fry, something that is very interesting to observe.


About A Numbers

With the 2005 publication of South American Dwarf Cichlids, a group of highly respected German aquarists introduced a number system for identifying the Apistogrammas. They had access to photos of virtually every form of Apistogramma ever imported into Germany and the Germans have always been the first and often only people to get new Apistos. This wealth of photos lead them to issue numbers from A1 to A243 with each identifying a unique species form or variety of Apistogramma. This book is a fantastic resource but I personally can't imagine that the use of A numbers will ever appeal to any but a small handful of individuals.

    One problem is that few hobbyists ever have an opportunity to buy the rare and uncommon Apistogramma species that pose the greatest identification difficulties. This is just one of a number of problems I have with the concept of A numbers. Probably my biggest complaint is that the system leaves no room for the logical addition of new species. Leaving aside the problem of who gets to assign new A numbers, the entire system is built on a numbering system that leads logically from one group of species to the next most closely related group. Thus, you can tell the relative placement of a fish just by its number. Unfortunately, any new numbers will be completely out of sequence and the concept on which the system is based will be compromised.

    Despite my reservations I have chosen to indicate the A numbers of all apistos that I feature on the site.
Most Apistogramma species will exhibit dark or black markings on their bodies in some conditions. Many have the ability to exhibit or suppress their dark markings and use these often dramatic color changes to communicate with other fish. Female apistos in particular are experts at color change. With careful observation a hobbyist can learn to recognize what some of the color patterns and behaviors mean.

A. agassizii    Apistogrammas are found only in South America but their range covers a vast area, which includes many types of habitats and environments. Visit our South American page for more information about these habitats. The vast spaces and incredible diversity of habitat has lead to the development of a large number of available forms and  makes identifying Apistogrammas an often daunting task. I am not an expert on Apistogramma identification and I do not intend this site to be a primary identification resource as this information is available elsewhere. However, I would like to offer a little background into the different Apistogramma groups.

    All Apistogramma share the common characteristics that define them as a genus. However, there is great variation in body shape finage, coloration and markings. Apistogramma species are usually arranged into groups that share common characteristics to aid in identification. These groups are explained fully in a number of excellent texts (see our Book Reviews) but briefly I will provide an incomplete overview here.

    First, a brief discussion of the terms that I will use. The broadest classification within the genus is the lineage. The most recent work indicates that there are a total of four Apistogramma lineages within which all species are found.** Within these lineages there are about 25 groups of species. Some of these groups hold just a single species while others have many. In fact, some groups are so species rich that they are further broken into complexes of species within the group. Here I will only talk about groups and complexes and will not include them all.

    For years Apistogramma keepers have grouped like species together into functional groups. This has been an elastic process with disagreements about placements and methods but general acceptance of groupings. In recent years genetic studies of Apistogramma species relationships have confirmed some of the long held groupings and instituted uncertainty about some others. However, as it is unlikely that we will ever achieve a universally accepted standard, here are the major groups as I understand them.

        Note: text colors alternate to indicate related groups or complexes.
Apistogramma macmastericlick photo to enlarge
    Apistogramma macmasteri is the type of a complex of large robust species.

    Lineage 1 (regani)

                   A. rotpunkt group
                       A. macmasteri complex
                       A. hongsloi complex
                   A. Borellii
A. eunotus complex
                       A. regani complex
                       A. catei complex

                       A. resticulosa complex
                       A. xingu complex
                       A. commbrae

    Lineage 2 (pertensis)

Apistogramma iniridaeclick photo to enlarge
    Apistogramma iniridae are typical of the slender bodied fish that make up the iniridae and pertensis groups
                    A. iniridae group
                    A. pertensis group
                    A. steindachneri

    Lineage 3 (cacatuoides)
                    A. nijesseni group
                    A. atahualpa

                    A. cacatuoides group
                    A trifasciata group

    Lineage 4 (agassizii)**

Apistogramma cacatuoides maleclick photo to enlarge
    The Apistogramma cacatuoides group appears to be genetically very closely linked to the trifasciata group
                    A. gibbiceps group
                    A. bitaeniata group
                        A. agassizii complex
                        A. pulchra complex

    Lineage 5 (diplotaenia)
                    A. diplotaenia
**I probably have you confused by now as I stated that the most current work recognizes four Apistogramma lineages and I have five listed. While I have no reason to dispute the genetic work that combines the Apistogramma cacatuoides and Apistogramma agassizii lineages into one, I believe that the obvious differences are so great between these stout (cacatuoides) and slender
(agassizii) bodied species that I am putting them into separate lineages. I suppose that I shouldn't do this but it is how I think of them and I doubt that what I write here will influence anyone who studies Apistogramma seriously as I am the first to admit that taxonomy and species identification are not my strength.

      For detailed information about all of the Apistogrammas I suggest you acquire one or more of the books that are discussed in our book reviews.
These books are great references and I believe that you will gain far more from any of these books than you will get from other sources.
    If you want to learn more about Apistogrammas I suggest you read a series of articles by Mike Wise that have been published on the Web. Mike is an international expert on Apistogramma identification and has devoted himself to better understanding the evolution, distribution and classification of Apistos and he has shared his knowledge through these papers:
Copyright This website and all contents and design, including images, are protected under U.S. Copyright 2006 by Montana Exotic Tropicals. All rights reserved worldwide. is for your personal and noncommercial use. No one may modify, copy, distribute, transmit, display, or publish any materials contained in dwarf without prior written permission. dwarf is a registered service mark and may not be used without permission. - Your source for practical information about keeping, breeding and buying Apistogrammas and other dwarf cichlids