Apistogramma borellii

Photo of male Apistogramma borellii in a planted aquarium

 Apistogramma borellii (A102/103/104) are beautiful South American dwarf cichlids from waters south of the Amazon basin. They have been in the hobby for nearly a hundred years and are great aquarium fish. They are relatively peaceful, stay small at about 2 inches, and are not too demanding of water conditions.

Apistogramma borellii in brief

Photo of Apistogramma borellii "Opal" male
This male Apistogramma borellii “Opal” shows the red gill cover spots that the strain is known for.

Apistogramma borellii is a true dwarf species with males rarely exceeding 2 – 2 1/4 inches and females a little over half that size. They are generally peaceful and not too demanding of water conditions. A. borellii are great for a community or species tank and are often kept in smaller-sized tanks. They originate from waters that are more temperate than most Apistos and can live in cooler water.

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A. borellii is a polychromatic species, which means they are found in a variety of different color patterns. In some cases, a single collection location will produce several distinct color variants.  In the wild, there are many forms some of which are particularly colorful. Some individual males with vivid red streaking on their faces are truly spectacular.  

At times these colorful races have been assigned trade names, including the commonly used Apistogramma sp. “Opal”.  This has not helped with the confusion surrounding the name of this species which, for many years, was commonly known in the hobby under the wrong name (keep reading below). In recent years, the undescribed Apistogramma sp. “Steel Blue” has been widely distributed under the name Apistogramma borellii. However, sp. “Steel Blue” are easily identified as different from borellii.

A. borellii in the wild

photo of male Apistogramma borellii on displayA
This Apistogramma borellii male is in an aggressive display. Note the long flowing pectoral fins on this male and the others pictured. In some borellii, the fin tips will actually extend beyond the back of the tail.

Apistogramma borellii have a large range that includes a variety of water types. They are found in the entire middle and upper Rio Paraguay system in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina.  These areas are far south of most regions where Apistos are found. Consequently, A. borellii are exposed to cooler water temperatures than most Apistos.  In fact, A. borellii have been found thriving in waters with temperatures as low as 54°F (12°C).

As noted above, A. borellii are found in a number of color varieties in the wild. This seems to be from natural variation in the species. Captive breeding shows that fish of different coloration can come from the same parents. Dr. Uwe Römer writes that in wild imports, all of the males have metallic blue colors while 30% – 40% additionally have extensive yellow and 10% have red face markings.

A. borellii are found in a large variety of habitats and water conditions. They come from streams, small and large rivers, lakes, and lagoons where They typically live near the margins where they find lots of cover for protection. They’re found in waters with pH values that range from about 5.0 to 8.0 and hardness from 0 to 15 dGH. It’s no wonder they seem to adapt to most aquarium conditions.

Apistogramma borellii in neutral coloration
photo of Apistogramma borellii female in yellow brood care coloration

These photos show the dramatic difference between a female in neutral coloration (left) and one in her bright yellow brood care colors (right).

Apistogramma borellii Aquarium Care

I’ve always found Apistogramma borellii to be an easy Apistos to keep and breed. It tolerates most water conditions quite well but thrives in soft to very soft conditions.  A. borellii can be kept at cooler temperatures than many Apistos and should thrive at temperatures between 72 and 78 degrees. They do well in water that is soft or (not too) hard.

A. borellii prefer a fine sand substrate but can be raised using gravel or even a bare bottom. They are smaller and more peaceful than most Apistos but they can still be aggressive. A complex habitat with multiple caves and out-of-sight coves is helpful. They are usually easy to feed and will take all live and frozen foods. They usually accept flakes and pellets.

Generally speaking, Apistogramma borellii are great dwarf cichlids. They are wonderful in a community tank and are usually rather peaceful. A tank with a half dozen or more colorful males will provide hours of visual enjoyment. Be aware though, that if you want this type of multiple-male display you must make sure that the tank is large enough and there is enough cover so that weaker fish can always escape. Also, this usually works best if you have at least a half dozen males so the aggression is spread throughout the tank. Here is much more detailed information about Apistogramma Aquarium Care.

Breeding A. borellii

Spawning A. borellii is usually no different than most other Apistos. Give them a tank with good complex habitat and a few caves, feed them well, and give them plenty of water changes and they will do the rest. A. borellii usually do best in pairs so there is no need for a larger group. For spawning, the female will select a secluded site, usually a cave. She will lure the male to the cave with dramatic postures and displays prior to egg-laying. When spawning begins the female carefully lays row after row of eggs which the male occasionally fertilizes.

After spawning, the female assumes care of the eggs and will usually spend most of her time with them. They prefer caves with tight openings so you might not see her at all for a while. After 2-4 days (temperature-dependent) the eggs will hatch and the female will move the “wrigglers” to a preselected spot – usually in the cave. After another week or so the fry will be free-swimming and ready to begin eating. You should have anticipated this so that you have appropriate fry food on hand. Newly hatched brine shrimp and micro worms are two good choices.

A. borellii fry have a reputation for being slow growers. I’ve found that with good food, lots of water changes, and temps around 78 they grow pretty well. As with any Apisto, skewed sex ratios often occur.

Personally, I’ve found it difficult to maintain the incredible metallic colors exhibited by wild-caught fish in my tank-raised specimens.  The wild fish maintain their colors for life but their offspring never seem to match the intense color of the parents. I’ve tried introducing wild genes every few generations but that has produced limited success.  I suspect that my aquariums lack some important factor or factors (food or environmental) crucial to maintaining the most vivid colors.

History of Apistogramma borellii in the aquarium hobby

Apistogramma borellii has been in the hobby for more than 100 years. It was first described as A. borellii by Regan in 1906 but was subsequently misidentified as A. ritensis, A. rondoni, A reitzigi, and finally, in 1938, as A. aequipinnus. By the late 1930s, scientists and hobbyists agreed that the correct name was A. reitzigi and the fish was universally accepted as such. Most books and magazines published before the mid-1980s used this name.

These two male Apistogramma borellii were tank mates for several years.  Although they sparred with each other for hours on end they never engaged in serious fights and neither fish ever damaged the other in any way.

To further complicate matters, in 1961 Apistogramma cacatuoides was mistakenly introduced in the hobby as A. borellii.  This created a situation where A. borellii was known by the wrong name and the wrong fish was given the borellii name. This situation lasted until 1983 when Dr. Sven Kullander reexamined the original material and was able to sort out and properly identify these fish.

The first records of A. borellii in the aquarium are from Germany in the late 1930s. Since then the species has been a popular tropical fish that has sold under numerous popular names including the Umbrella dwarf cichlid, Yellow dwarf cichlid, A. sp. “Paraguay II, Borellii’s dwarf cichlid, and Rietzinger’s dwarf cichlid. It remains a favorite species of hobbyists today.

Buying Apistogramma borellii

A. borellii is one of the more common species in the hobby. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to easily find them. Check with your local independent pet store to see if they can order them for you. Your best bet is to look for one of the reliable breeders/sellers who will ship fish right to your door while guaranteeing live delivery. There are specific recommendations in our Guide to Buying Apistogrammas.

Learn More

Essential Articles About Apistogrammas
The Genus Apistogramma
Apistogramma Aquarium Care
Breeding Apistogrammas
Understanding Apistogramma Classification and Identification
Live Plants in the Apistogramma Aquarium
How and Where to Buy Apistogrammas and Other Dwarf Cichlids


Most of the information I provide on this website comes from books and websites. While I don’t provide specific citations, these are the sources for most of my information.
South American Books:
Mergus Cichlid Atlas Volume 1 & Volume 2 by Dr. Uwe Römer
South American Dwarf Cichlids by Rainer Stawikowski, I. Koslowski and V. Bohnet
Die Buntbarsche Amerikas Band 2 Apistogramma & Co. by Ingo Koslowski, Translation by Mike Wise
South American Dwarf Cichlids by Hans J. Mayland & Dieter Bork
American Cichlids I – Dwarf Cichlids by Horst Linke & Dr. Wolfgang Staeck
West African Books:
The Cichlid Fishes of Western Africa by Anton Lamboj
African Cichlids I – Cichlids From West Africa by Horst Linke & Dr. Wolfgang Staeck
Apisto sites – the home page of Tom C – Global authority for identification and classification of apistogrammas
Apistogramma.com – An excellent international forum with expert members who gladly share their knowledge.
Much more information is available in our complete exploration of dwarf cichlid information resources.