Nanochromis transvestitus

Male and female pair of Nanochromis transvestitus

Nanochromis transvestitus is a challenging dwarf cichlid from West Africa that is recommended only for experienced dwarf cichlid keepers. They are colorful with attractive markings and males and females have very different coloration. They exhibit interesting behaviors but can be quite aggressive. They can be very demanding of their water conditions and generally need very soft and acidic water.

Nanochromis transvestitus General Information

Nanochromis transvestitus is a delightful dwarf cichlid from West Africa. They are among the smaller of the West African dwarf cichlids and their striking colors are memorable. The female is the most colorful of the pair with her posterior dorsal, caudal, and anal fins black in color and marked with bright white vertical stripes. These striped fins surround a dark gray to nearly black body split into thirds by a large brilliant violet to red colored belly in the middle.

Unfortunately, keeping this fish can be very demanding and should only be attempted by advanced aquarists. The challenges in keeping this species come from both its water demands and its aggressive behavior. Although at a maximum length of 2 1/2 inches N. transvestitus is one of the smaller dwarf cichlids, they can pack a lot of personality into a small package.

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First discovered in Lake Mai-ndombe in 1973, N. transvestitus has been a favorite for specialized hobbyists since the mid-1980s. In its 1984 scientific description, the authors noted that many cichlid males are more colorful than females. However, Nanochromis transvestitus is the opposite as females are much more colorful than males. In recognition of this reversed coloration, the authors provided the name transvestitus. This came from combining two Latin words, trans meaning cross, and vestitus meaning clothed, making this the cross-clothed cichlid

Nanochromis transvestitus Varieties

There are no varieties of Nanochromis transvestitus and there are no similar species that it can be confused with. Their distinctive markings are unique in West African dwarf cichlids.

Pair of Nanochromis transvestitus male has wide open mouth
This mated pair of N. transvestitus formed a strong pair bond. In my experience, this may be an exception as many pairs split up after spawning.

Nanochromis transvestitus in the wild

It seems that the only place N. transvestitus is found is in Lake Mai-ndombe and the surrounding region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lake Mai-ndombe is also known as Lake Leopold II or Lake Inongor. At its southern end, the lake drains into the River Fimi which connects to the Kasai River, a major tributary to the Zaire River. Lake Mai-ndombe is a black-water lake, with water the color of dark tea. At the collection site, the water measured pH of 4.0 – 4.5, hardness of 1-2 dGH, and a temperature between 80°F and 82°F.

N. transvestitus is said to live near the edge of the lake at a depth of 3 ft or so. They are bottom-dwelling fish that live in the sticks, leaves, and other vegetation that covers the sandy bottom. The darkly stained water provides protection from predators above. The shorelines are densely vegetated with a lot of terrestrial plant material ending up in the water.

Nanochromis transvestitus young female with light pink belly
This young female N. transvestitus just has a light pink belly. As she matures the pink spot will get much more colorful and vibrant. The diagnostic white stripes on the tail begin to show on fish as young as four months.

Nanochromis transvestitus in the aquarium

Nanochromis transvestitus offer a real challenge for keeping in an aquarium. They require water that is very soft and acidic. Their native waters have almost no hardness and pH readings between 4.0 and 4.5. These values are difficult to provide in the home aquarium. Fish kept in water that is harder and/or less acidic may survive and seem to do fine but soft and acid is required for long-term care and breeding.

In addition to their water requirements, Nanochromis transvestitus often present behavior problems. Dominant males are extremely aggressive and will viciously attack other males and non-receptive females. Pair bonds can dissolve quickly and it is not uncommon to have a normally agreeable pair suddenly at war. That said, keeping them in pairs is probably the best choice unless you are housing them in a really large aquarium (6 ft or longer) with lots of cover and hiding places.

If you are keeping them as a pair, no matter what size aquarium they are in, you must provide multiple densely protected hiding areas where the female can hide from the male without being found. If you do this, they will usually get along as spawning time approaches and may turn into a very compatible pair. However, always be aware that a male can go rogue at any time.

I’ve been successful in keeping them in large groups of 20 or more together in rather bare tanks without much cover. In this situation, aggression is constantly distributed amongst the entire group and individual fish can escape notice in the crowd. This might work on a short-term basis but is not a healthy environment for long-term care. The constant aggression in the tank results in constant stress on the fish. One result of this is a tank crowded this way will rarely produce spawning pairs.

The Nanochromis transvestitus habitat

Creating a suitable habitat is not too difficult. As already mentioned you need to make sure it is a very complex habitat with lots of hiding places. There need to be numerous “sight breaks” that interrupt the view of a dominant fish keeping it from seeing large expanses of the tank. They are cave spawners so be sure to incorporate a few caves into your design. Live plants are a great benefit both for aquascaping and for water quality If you are interested in aquatic plants be sure to check out Guide to Live Plants in Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums.

Sand or fine gravel is best for the substrate. They do like to dig some and the finer-grained substrate is best. A mixture of small clearings or open areas combined with multiple thick hiding areas works well. Feeding is usually pretty easy. They take most prepared foods and love frozen foods. Of course, live foods are eagerly eaten and are very helpful if you are trying to condition them for spawning.

Nanochromis transvestitus pair with female entering a breedingcave
This female has selected her breeding cave and is in the process of endlessly cleaning it to her satisfaction. This pre-spawn process can go on for days before the spawn takes place. This pair is close to spawning and the male stays nearby as the female checks out the cave.

Tankmates for Nanochromis transvestitus

It’s possible to keep N. transvestitus in a community aquarium but you must be careful with the species you select to house with them. N. transvestitus require very soft acidic water at a fairly warm temperature of 80°F – 82°F so any tankmates must be tolerant of these water conditions. N. transvestitus are closely associated with the bottom of the tank and will stay near the bottom most of the time. Consequently, they will do best with fish that prefer the mid to upper water levels.

Cichlids – I don’t recommend keeping them with other cichlids. However, I’ve kept them with several different Apistogramma species for short periods of time without too much trouble. Of course, this requires a very densely structured habitat. It may be possible to keep them with other cichlid species but I haven’t tried it and don’t recommend it. The water conditions that N. transvestitus need are very close to the water requirements of discus. While I’ve never heard of it attempted, they just might work together.

Barbs and tetras are usually good choices. They inhabit the upper levels in the tank and are generally ignored by the cichlids. Although tetras are from South America and not West Africa, they still are a good option. Be sure to check the species of any barbs or tetras you plan to use as some may not tolerate the water conditions in your aquarium.

Catfish – I avoid catfish in my West African dwarf cichlid tanks and suggest you do the same. They mostly inhabit the floor of the tank, the same space the Nanochromis want as their own. I’d avoid all Corydoras catfish, all predatory cats, and any that grow to large sizes. You may be able to keep Otocinclus or small bristlenose plecos.

Others – Generally, Nanochromis transvestitus keepers are specialized hobbyists and are not typically building a community around them so there’s not much info on tankmates. Keeping in mind their requirements, you can probably try a number of other tankmates. Just be prepared to address any difficulties that might arise.

Breeding Nanochromis transvestitus

Nanochromis transvestitus are monogamous bi-parental spawners and breeding them is generally a challenge. You need to meet their environmental demands and you need to develop a compatible pair. While the marked sexual dimorphism they exhibit makes it easy to make sure you have fish of both sexes, that alone may not make a compatible pair. Here are a couple of ways to establish a pair for breeding.

Establishing a pair

Getting a pair from a group –It’s best if you can start with a small group of fish of mixed sexes. 6 – 8 young fish of mixed sexes make an excellent start. Put them into a densely planted tank with many caves. Feed them well, provide regular water changes and you’ll likely find a pair beginning to form. At this point, remove the other transvestitus from the tank. You should plan to leave the pair you want to breed in the tank because moving them may shatter their pair bond.

Forced pairing – If you are unable to allow a pair to form naturally in a group, you will need to select a single male and single female and place them in a tank together. This “forced pairing” gives the fish no mate choice but can lead to breeding success. Sometimes the fish will take to each other right away and will remain compatible in the tank. However, it’s most common that the pair will not get along and may aggressively chase throughout the tank. Usually, the male is the aggressor but sometimes the role is reversed. In a tank without adequate cover, this chasing can be ceaseless ultimately leading to death.

The most important factor in a forced pairing is to make sure there are plenty of hiding and escape places for the bullied fish to take refuge in. This doesn’t mean a few decorations a couple of plants and a couple of caves. This means thick dense cover where she/he can find a way to be totally unseen. If you need additional cover, yarn spawning mops are easy to make and can be added to any tank, While not particularly attractive they are very effective at providing hiding cover. Often these mops can be removed once a pair has grown to accept each other.

If you create a habitat where she/he can find quiet refuge while still getting plenty of food you are on the road to success. It may take some time, but with good conditions, the female will begin to ripen eggs and will get spawning urges. At this time she will begin to seek out contact with the male. Over a period of time their relationship changes, they will acclimate to each other and will usually become a mated pair after they spawn. This is not always true so always make sure you have dense escape areas in case things turn ugly.

Preparations for spawning

N. transvestitus are very demanding for successful spawning. You’ll need water with almost no hardness and a pH of 5.0 or lower. If you can’t meet these conditions the fish might spawn but it is very unlikely that the eggs will hatch.

The spawning habitat is no different than the regular habitat. Provide a complex environment with lots of hiding places and places where the line-of-sight is broken. Include several caves of different sizes. Caves with small openings are favored when the female seeks out a secretive place to lay her eggs. Use sand or fine-grained gravel for the substrate, keep the temp at 80° – 82°F, provide plenty of high-quality food, and conduct regular water changes. If you do all this, in time the pair is certain to spawn.

Female N. transvestitus get a very swollen abdomen as the eggs they hold begin to mature and this swelling is often the first sign that spawning time is approaching. The female will get noticeably fatter and her red belly color will intensify. She will also begin to display more often to the male. She will bend her body into an S or U shape and will shimmy in front of the male. This is fascinating to watch as the courtship plays out.

The female will have selected her breeding cave and will frequently swim in and out, spending time inside the cave each time she enters. As spawning nears, she will develop a small but obvious ovipositor that protrudes slightly from her lower belly. She increasingly works to lure the male toward the cave and, when she determines the time is right, she begins to lay her eggs. She turns upside down to glide across the ceiling of the cave laying row after row until she has deposited 30 – 60 eggs. The male periodically enters the cave to roll sideways while he emits his milt and completes fertilization. Sometimes the male won’t even enter the cave and does his part from the outside.

Nanochromis transvestitus pair in pre-spawning condition
This pair is very close to spawning. The female is shown in a bent body shape that is accompanied by shimmying movements to attract the male’s attention. This shows off her bold red belly indicating that she is ready to spawn. The tip of her ovipositor can be seen beginning to emerge just to the rear of the bottom of her abdomen.

Raising Nanochromis transvestitus fry

The female Nanochromis transvestitus typically stays in or near the cave to protect the eggs while the male patrols a larger perimeter keeping all fish at bay. After 3-5 days, the eggs hatch and become larval fry that will take another week or so to develop into free-swimming fry. Often the female will move the larval fry to different locations as they slowly absorb their egg sac. The female typically tends to egg and larval fry care but once they start to swim the male often takes a direct care role and the parents switch off attending to the fry.

Young fry will take baby brine shrimp or micro worms immediately. I especially like to feed micro worms for the first few days. I’ve never tried raising fry on only prepared foods so I have no advice. The fry grow fairly quickly with lots of live food and plenty of water changes. As the fry grow, you should introduce prepared foods into their diet but be very careful not to overfeed. I try to have snails in my rearing tanks to help with uneaten food.

Under good conditions, the fry will grow quite quickly. At 2 -3 months they will be large enough to tell the sex of each fish as they develop the distinctive caudal (tail) fin patterns that are easy to pick out. By this time, you’ll need to move the juveniles into a tank of their own. Don’t be surprised if only a small percentage of the spawn survive to this stage. Catching them can be difficult but if you move them to their own tank they’ll begin to show signs of establishing new pairs at about 6 – 8 months. Young pairs will spawn for the first time at about a year of age.

Buying Nanochromis transvestitus

Nanochromis transvestitus is not a common species in the hobby. However, they do appear on availability lists from time to time. Your best option is to check with the suppliers and web communities in our Guide to Purchasing Dwarf Cichlids. It’s really unlikely you will ever find them in a local fish store but they are worth seeking out.


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 – 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.