Apistogramma macmasteri

Photo of red shouldered male Apistogramma macmasteri

Apistogramma macmasteri (A120 – A121) is a robust dwarf cichlid that has been kept by aquarists for many years. They are among the more commonly available Apistos and a number of color strains have been developed through selective breeding. They do well in most water conditions and are usually good in a community aquarium or in a species tank.

Apistogramma macmasteri General Information

Apistogramma macmasteri is a robust dwarf cichlid and full-grown males can reach nearly 4 inches in length. Females are correspondingly large at up to 2 1/2 inches. Mature females can be larger than adult males of some Apisto species. They are generally easy to maintain and can be the star of a community aquarium.

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photo of male Apistogramma macmasteri with red tail and high serrated dorsal fin
This wild male Apistogramma macmasteri has a red caudal fin (tail). In most wild fish the red is concentrated along the margins of the caudal. This fish also shows red colors on its shoulders. Breeders have developed varieties where the red colors are very intense and cover large areas. Also, note the high and serrated dorsal fin. These dorsal fin spikes are used to identify the species

A. macmasteri can be distinguished by its deep-chested robust body. The dorsal fin is tall and segmented with dorsal lappets that extend high on males. Most A. macmasteri can be identified by the red colors in the caudal fin (tail). In wild males, these colors are often subdued and may be present only as streaks of red on the margins of the fin. The caudal is squared off and usually develops distinct tips on the top and bottom of the tail.

Photo of female Apistogramma macmasteri in yellow brood colors
This is a typical wild female A. macmasteri. She is especially attractive with the red streaks on the top and bottom of her caudal fin (tail).

Apistogramma macmasteri was described by Dr. Sven Kullander in 1979 from fish that were collected in the Columbian state of Meta. The species was named for Mark Macmaster – a well-known dwarf cichlid enthusiast who brought attention to the species in the early 1970s. A. macmasteri are the type species for the macmasteri Group, Complex, and Subcomplex of Apistogrammas. The macmasteri subcomplex is large with 20 or more named varieties within the subcomplex. Much work needs to be conducted in the field and in the lab before we better understand the relationship between all these forms. For a much more thorough discussion read our guide to Apistogramma Classification and Naming.

Apistogramma macmasteri Varieties

In addition to the variability in wild fish, A. macmasteri has been bred by aquarists to develop a number of vividly colored varieties. It’s possible that these strains were developed by mixing more than one species to achieve the desired results. Most of the variation is in the intensity of red colors in the different forms. Selective breeding has led to fish that are covered with vivid red scales across much of their body. These colorful varieties are often sold as A. macmasteri “Super Red” or, “Red Shoulder” or, “Red Mask” or other names. Understand that there are no standards for naming varieties of these fish and any name can be applied. The fish you will receive under any given trade name can vary a lot.

In addition to the red forms, several gold forms of A. macmasteri have been developed. The most common has several names including A. macmasteri “Gold”, “Gold Red Shoulder”, and “Platinum Red Shoulder”. These are striking fish with an almost white body except for bright red shoulder, head, and tail areas.

A. macmasteri or A. viejita?

There is no doubt that many A. macmasteri are sold to aquarists as Apistogramma viejita (A 123). This persistent misidentification has been going on for years and shows no sign of vanishing. The fish that are widely available and sold as A. viejita are almost always aquarium strains of A. macmasteri or a related hybrid. Some specialists speculate that Apistogramma macmasteri has been interbred with the true Apistogramma viejita to help create very colorful aquarium strains.

For many years the true A. viejita had never been kept in the hobby. However, in late 2014 wild fish were exported to the UK, Germany, and Norway. By late 2015 it was reported that many hobbyists had succeeded in breeding and distributing the fish. While they have been available in the USA sporadically since then, they aren’t common and I don’t know of any breeder offering them on a regular basis.

It’s really pretty easy to tell the two species apart. A. viejita males have a broad red band along the top of the dorsal fin. This band is usually missing in A. macmasteri although a few may have a thinner and fainter reddish band. A. macmasteri haves a squared-off caudal that often has elongated tips while viejita has an oval-shaped caudal. Finally, A. macmasteri is a deeper-bodied and blockier-shaped fish.

Unfortunately, many macmasteri are being sold every day as A. viejita. True A. viejita are very rare and it’s almost impossible to ever find them in a pet store. If you are purchasing A. viejita you should expect to receive A. macmasteri unless you are dealing with a very specialized seller who can attest to the fish.

Apistogramma macmasteri in the wild

A. macmasteri comes from the Llanos which is a vast savanna-like region in northern South America that spans over 200,000 sq miles across parts of Columbia and Venezuela. Römer writes the species is found in northern Columbia east of the Andes and adjacent areas of Venezuela in the drainage of the upper Rio Orinoco. Additional field collections are needed to fully understand the range of the species.

photo of a wild A. macmasteri male
This male A. macmasteri has concentrated bands of red on the outer edges of his caudal fin which is typical of many wild-caught fish.

They are found in soft acidic waters often stained dark by tannins. Collectors have documented pH values of 5.5 – 6.0 in the wild. They appear to be strongly associated with complex habitats. Leaf litter and overhanging grasses are preferred habitats. Linke and Staeck report finding them in very shallow water, sometimes less than an inch in depth. In these very shallow waters, they documented large numbers of sub-adults living together.

Records of the first imports of the species are lost but it was likely introduced into the hobby in the 1960s but never became widely available until the 1980s. Since then they have been regularly available but usually as tank-raised fish. Today, tank-raised A. macmasteri are one of the most commonly available species

Apistogramma macmasteri in the aquarium

Both wild and aquarium-bred Apistogramma macmasteri make excellent aquarium residents provided you satisfy their needs. They are a large species and appreciate a suitably sized aquarium. They prefer sand as a substrate but will do well if kept on small gravel, pebbles, or even a bare bottom. They can be aggressive so lots of cover is recommended. Live plants, driftwood, rocks, caves, and appropriately selected leaves can all be used to create a good habitat.

They will accept all live and frozen foods and will usually do fine on high-quality flakes or pellets. Clean water, ideally soft and slightly acidic, is important, and frequent water changes make a big difference. Temperatures between 76° and 80° are ideal. Give them good food, good water, and a good habitat and they are likely to pair up and spawn. We have detailed information in the article Apistogramma Aquarium Care.

A. macmasteri are generally larger than most Apistos. A large male makes an impressive sight in any aquarium. Many owners comment on how attentive they become to their owners. Many people liken them to a responsive pet and give them names. Most likely the fish are just associating people with food but there are more comments about A. macmasteri doing this than other species.

Breeding Apistogramma macmasteri

photo of Apistogramma macmasteri female tending her eggs in a cave

As with most Apistos, if you supply a good environment with good food and water the fish will usually do the rest. The female will select a dark sheltered place, usually a cave, as a spawning location. She will lure the male to the site and the spawn will take place. The female carefully lays row after row of eggs while the male frequently rolls sideways to fertilize them. After spawning is completed the female typically takes over and tends the eggs and larval fry until they become free-swimming. At this point, the female may allow the male to participate in fry care.

I’ve seen A. macmasteri form very strong pair bonds that last through multiple spawnings. However, I’ve also seen lots of pairs with very shaky relationships. In fact, on one occasion I had a male attack a female tending fry before they became free-swimming. After dispatching the female, he took over the larval fry and became an excellent and attentive parent, raising nearly 50 fry until I separated them. The same male later proved to be an excellent pair-bonded father with a different female. This is just another example of how each fish is different and there are no definites in Apisto keeping.

Buying Apistogramma macmasteri

Apistogramma macmasteri have become widely available from both European imports and domestic breeders and there are often several varieties available from wholesalers. Many high-quality fish shops will stock them and stores can often special order them if you ask. A. macmasteri are also widely available to order from hobby breeders and internet fish sellers. Here is more information and a list of trusted sellers How and Where to buy Apistogrammas.

Wild A. macmasteri don’t seem to be offered very often but they are occasionally available from South American exporters on a seasonal basis. The wild fish are often juveniles and actual fish that arrive can be any of a number of macmasteri-type species including A. sp. rotpunkt and A. alacrina as well as A. macmasteri. Each of these other species are excellent dwarfs in their own right but be aware that if you order wild A. macmasteri you make actually receive a similar species.

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.