Apistogramma cacatuoides, the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid

Male Apistogramma cacatuoides Double Red

Apistogramma cacatuoides (A201 – A203), often called the “Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid” is the most popular and widely available Apistogramma species. They are generally hardy and usually easy to keep and breed. Not only are they considered a beginner’s Apisto they are also spectacularly beautiful. Like most dwarf cichlids, the male and female are markedly different in appearance.

Introduction to Apistogramma cacatuoides

Apistogramma cacatuoides are South American dwarf cichlids that come from the Amazon River and its tributaries. They’ve been in the aquarium hobby for many years and are usually the most recognizable Apisto. They are especially noted for the long extensions on the first few rays of their dorsal fin. Today, we know of many other apistos that have a similar “war bonnet” but at the time cacatuoides were considered to be special. The name “Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid” comes from a comparison of their dorsal fin to the crest of a Cockatoo.

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Apistogramma cacatuoides are widespread in the wild and they appear to be a “super species”. This means that there are multiple very similar species that we call cacatuoides. The species all look very similar but genetic testing shows they are distinct species. It’s even possible that each river has its own species. However, in the aquarium, almost all the fish available are tank-raised species that have a mix of genes in them. It’s perfectly acceptable to continue to call them cacatuoides.

Apistogramma cacatuoides males reach about three inches in total length and are very colorful. They usually sport a high dorsal fin with several very extended rays on the front of the fin. Males also exhibit a strongly lyrate tail and extended ventral fins. Females are much smaller than males, reaching a maximum size of less than 2 inches. Females are generally a brownish to dusky yellow color but can be a vibrant yellow during times of brood care.

In the wild cacatuoides are not long-lived fish. However, in an aquarium, they can easily live to be 4 years old or even older. Good food, water, and habitat will really extend their life.

Apistogramma cacatuoides double red male
A young male Apistogramma cacatuoides “Double Red”. “Double Red” fish exhibit strongly colored ocelli in both the caudal fin (tail) and the dorsal fin. “Triple Red” fish express the ocelli in the anal fin as well. This fish does have a very small spot in the anal fin but not enough that I’d call it a triple red.

Apistogramma cacatuoides Aquarium Care

Although the Apistogrammas have a reputation for being hard to keep, cacatuoides are considered to be relatively easy to keep and breed. Of course, any fish at any time can be impossible so if you have problems with them don’t feel bad. Most hobbyists find them to be good community fish, adding color and interesting behaviors to the tank. For breeding, they may require more effort from you.

Apistogramma cacatuoides, especially the tank-raised strains, normally tolerate a wide range of water conditions. For general maintenance and breeding water of moderate hardness and neutral pH is perfectly acceptable. In the wild, cacatuoides are also found in a wide range of temperatures. In the aquarium, you should have good success keeping them anywhere between 74° and 80°F. If you are spawning them, research has shown that you should get the most balanced sex ratios if you keep the newly hatched fry at 78° for the first three months. While this might be mostly true, I often get unbalanced sex ratios anyway.

Apistogramma cacatuoides can be kept on almost any type of substrate from bare glass to deep gravel but they really prefer a layer of sand. Swimming pool filter sand works great and is sold at many home centers. A complex habitat with decor that breaks up the tank bottom into sections is best. If possible make sure to have areas where fish can be unseen by other fish. It really cuts aggression if they can escape the line of sight of the more dominant fish.

Feeding is no different than other dwarf cichlids. They will eat most prepared foods but strongly prefer frozen and live foods. I feed a mix of small sinking pellets, live baby brine shrimp, and a variety of frozen foods. They love having a sand substrate and will spend hours picking up mouthfuls and sifting them out removing tiny bits of food.

If you want to learn more, detailed information about all aspects of aquarium care is found in our Guide to Dwarf Cichlid Aquarium Care.

Breeding Apistogramma cacatuoides

Apistogramma cacatuoides are typical cave-spawning Apistos. The female cares for the eggs and fry while the male either ignores them or joins in with care. After laying the eggs, they stay attached to the cave for 3-4 days before the eggs hatch and the larval fry fall to the bottom. In many cases, the female removes the fry from the egg and spits them to the bottom where she keeps all the fry in a group by picking them up and spitting them on the pile. After another 5-7 days the fry will begin to briefly swim up from the bottom and within a few hours, all will be swimming.

Apistogramma cacatuoides "Orange Flash" pair in process of egg laying
This pair of A. cacatuoides is in the act of spawning. The female turns upside down to lay her eggs on the ceiling of the cave. The male waits attentively and periodically enters the cave and rolls sideways while emitting his sperm.

Once the fry are free-swimming they begin to eat and you should have food ready for them. They are tiny and their food needs to be also. Live baby brine shrimp is the best food but micro worms, vinegar eels, and other small live foods are eagerly eaten. The fry are also able to eat microscopic foods from the biofilm that covers everything in the tank. Live plants provide great grazing for fry. After a couple of days, the natural micro foods won’t be enough and you will have to find some food for the fry. Very finely ground flake food can work but it’s difficult to get the food to the fry without overfeeding.

This is just a tiny amount of info about breeding. If you are interested you will find much more detailed information in the guide to Breeding Apistogrammas and Other Dwarf Cichlids

Pair, Trio or Group?

In the wild cacatuoides practice “harem polygamy” where a single dominant male sets up a large territory within which he spawns with several females. The male will patrol the larger territory while each female cares for her fry in a smaller area. Many people believe they should be kept this way in the home aquarium. However, you need a large tank to have this work effectively.

A trio is effectively a small harem and it’s possible to have a tank with two breeding females and a single male. Again, you need enough floor space in your tank to make this work. Often it ends up with one female becoming the target for repeated attacks. There is no formula you can follow that will guarantee success.

A. cacatuoides generally do great as pairs. The male and female will develop a complicated relationship where they chase, fight, and dominate each other. Sometimes the male is most aggressive and sometimes the female and sometimes they just ignore each other. There is no predicting and you just have to watch and learn. I usually keep my spawning fish in pairs.

I’ve been keeping cacatuoides continuously since 1985 and in that time I’ve kept them in many different circumstances. I’ve had excellent success keeping them in pairs, trios, and groups.

Apistogramma cacatuoides triple red mated pair
Triple red A. cacatuoides pair

Apistogramma Cacatuoides in the wild

Apistogramma cacatuoides are widely distributed in the Upper Amazon Basin. They are found in streams, lagoons, lakes, and ponds. They are found in both whitewater and clearwater environments but don’t appear to thrive in blackwater conditions. Being adaptated to a broad range of natural water parameters makes them generally easier to keep in an aquarium than many other species.

For years, both the hobby and scientific communities thought that we were confident in the identification of A. cacatuoides. However, new research, including genetic testing, indicates that there may be many different species of cacatuoides in the wild. Apistos don’t migrate or move much so once they are established in a stream they tend to stay there without exposure to fish from other drainages. Over many generations of isolation, they will evolve into their own species. This is what is happening with cacatuoides (and a number of other Apistogramma species. Unfortunately, these different species all look the same (which is why we’ve always considered them one species!).

So, what’s a hobbyist to do? Unless you have wild fish with a verifiable collection location, don’t worry about mixing them up. Just enjoy them as cacatuoides. Whether they are wild or one of the popular aquarium color forms just call them cacatuoides and you will be in good shape. However, if you do have fish from a known location consider maintaining them as a pure strain. It’s likely that there will always be people interested in pure strain fish.

History of A. cacatuoides as an aquarium fish

Apistogramma cacatuoides were first introduced to the hobby in 1950 under the name Apistogramma U2. They were scientifically described in 1951 but, for many years, there was confusion surrounding the identification of all Apistos. They were often misidentified as Apistogramma borellii and went by this misnomer until the 1980s. Since then they have been properly identified but you might find some references listing this fish spelled as Apistogramma cacatoides.

Apistogramma cacatuoides quickly became a favorite of many hobbyists and today they are probably the most popular Apisto. Many breeders attempt to enhance the colors of their cacatuoides through selective breeding and, through many generations, several varieties have been developed.

Varieties of Apistogramma cacatuoides

Wild Color Forms

Most wild A. cacatuoides males are similar in color and have few red markings in their fins. However, they often feature interesting body colors ranging from yellow to blue. Individual wild males will show one or more small spots of red in their caudal (tail). Many experienced Apisto keepers prefer the subtler colors of wild cacatuoides to the more colorful varieties but most hobbyists want highly colored fish.

Double, Triple, or Quad Red

The most common color form is double or triple red and its variants. Double red cacatuoides have black and colored patterns on their dorsal (top) fin and their caudal fin (tail). Triple reds will also have colorful anal fins (bottom rear). “Quad Red” or “Super Red” fish will have red markings on all of their fins.

The size and shape of the red markings vary considerably from fish to fish and strain to strain. Some fish will have many small spots while others have large blotches. Some will have narrow black outlines while others will have thick black areas. Some have tails that are completely filled with color while in others the natural clear shows through in places. In addition, the red color of the fish can vary dramatically from strain to strain. Some fish are very red while others are more orange than red There are many different variations in this most common variety.

Orange Flash

Apistogramma cacatuoides orange flash male
A. cacatuoides “Orange Flash” male. This domestic strain is especially colorful. This male has an unusually tall dorsal fin.

The Orange Flash variety first appeared in the mid-1990s when the US received a few small imports from Germany. These fish are notable for the solid orange colors on their fins. The shade of orange can vary from almost yellow to vibrant bright orange. When they were first offered they were called “German Red” but there were a couple of published photos and one called them “Red Flash” and the other called them “Gold-Orange”. After becoming established in the hobby they became “Orange Flash” and they are now known by that name.

I received a pair of these in 1995 from an early import to the US and succeeded in breeding them. Unfortunately, none of the males produced showed any orange. I then bred the original male to one of his daughters and still failed to get colorful fish. Finally, I was able to do a grandfather/granddaughter cross and achieved colorful males. From there it was only a couple of generations until I had the orange colors that we see now.


The White-Gold variety has never been widely available in the hobby but there are hobbyists who consider them to be the most attractive. White-Gold cacatuoides have bodies that range from white to yellow/gold color. Their dorsal, caudal on anal fins will have markings similar to those of a double red. They can be very striking fish and their white bodies might make you think they are albinos. However, they have normal black-colored eyes and are not albino.

Unfortunately, this color strain is genetically weak. When you cross two White-Gold fish it’s usually difficult to get any fry and those that survive often show deformities. The best White-Gold fish come from crossing with another strain, usually double or triple red. The offspring from this cross will not be White-Gold but they will produce some when crossed with each other. Needless to say, these fish are uncommon.

Where to Buy Apistogramma cacatuoides

A. cacatuoides are generally more available than other Apistogrammas. However, that doesn’t mean you should expect to find them at your local shop unless you are fortunate enough to live near a store that stocks dwarf cichlids. (Time to go on a tangent – If you do happen to find a shop that sells dwarf cichlids on a regular basis please patronize them! Very few shops stock dwarfs and we need to support all that do.)

Many pet stores can special order Apistos. If you have a trusted shop ask if they can order them but realize that you are obligated to take the fish that arrive, even if they are not what you expect. The shop can only order what the distributor says they have and this can be incorrect. This is not to say that you can’t get great fish this way just that there is a risk.

I believe the best way to buy Apistogramma cacatuoides is to order them from a breeder or specialty dealer. There are a number of breeders and fish traders who have great reputations and provide high-quality fish. We have a lot more information at Where To Buy Apistogrammas.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I buy Apistogramma cacatuoides?

The best way to buy quality Apistogramma is to contact a breeder or specialty dealer. A trusted independent pet store may be able to special order them. Here is information about Buying Apistogrammas.

What is the difference between double red and triple red?

Double Red cacatuoides show colorful markings in the caudal and dorsal fins. Triple reds have markings in their caudal, dorsal, and anal fins while quad red and super red have colors in all their fins.

Are Apistogramma cacatuoides hard to keep?

Cacatuoides are considered to be one of the easiest Apistogrammas to keep in an aquarium. They can be kept in many community aquariums but for breeding, they require more attention.

What fish can I keep with Apistogramma cacatuoides?

In a community tank you can kleep a wide variety of tetras, catfish, barbs, and many others. However, in a breeding tank you should limit to pencilfish or Otocinclus catfish. Here is complete information about Suitable Apistogramma Tankmates

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.