Pelvicachromis is a genus of small-sized (usually less than 3 1/2″) brightly colored cichlids from central West Africa where a series of rivers run off the low-lying coastal plains. They are popular aquarium fish that are generally undemanding, not overly aggressive, and not too difficult to spawn. There are 8 recognized species but the best known is Pelvicachromis pulcher, commonly called the krib or kribensis which has been a popular pet store staple for decades. This is our guide to the genus.
- What Makes A Pelvicachromis
- History of the Genus Pelvicachromis
- Native Distribution of Pelvicachromis
- Pelvicachromis Species
- Pelvicachromis Natural Habitats
- Pelvicachromis Aquarium Care
What Makes A Pelvicachromis
As with all fish, the characteristics that define the genus are technical measurements such as scale counts, fin rays, bone structure, and other features. I’m not going to explain the scientific differences here many of which are best understood by ichthyologists. If you’re interested in those details you’ll find links below to the papers describing most of the species in the genus.
Here are some general characteristics of the genus.
- They exhibit strong sexual dimorphism with differences in size, body shape, finnage, and coloration.
- Male Pelvicachromis reach a total length of less than 4 inches with females being 1/2 – 1 inch shorter in length.
- Males typically have more colorful markings in their caudal fins. Colorful stripes and spots are common and, in some cases, these color patterns can be used for species identification.
- Females have pelvic fins that are squared off and often described as “rudder-shaped” or “club-like”. These distinctive fins are a sure indicator of sex as males have long pointed pelvic fins.
- Females of all species exhibit very round abdomens which are usually brightly colored in shades ranging from pink to red to violet and even blue.
- Female Pelvicachromis typically exhibit an iridescent band of color (often silver) in their dorsal fin.
- Pelvicachromis are cave spawners that form strong pair bonds which can last through multiple breeding cycles.
History of the Genus Pelvicachromis
The first described species in the genus, Pelvicachromis pulcher, was described in 1901 by the Belgian-British zoologist George Boulenger. The first use of the name Pelvicachromis came in 1968 when the Belgian ichthyologist Dirk Thys van den Audenaerde revised the genus Pelmatochromis and created Pelvicachromis as a subgenus. In 1974, Ethelwynne Trewavas from the British Museum of Natural History elevated Pelvicachromis from subgenus to genus.
Whie the number and assignment of species varied, few changes to the genus were made until 2016 when three species, P. humilis, P. rubrilabiatus, and P. signatus were removed and placed in the newly erected genus. Wallaceochromis These species had always been noted for being significantly different than the other members of the genus and it was assumed they would be removed from the genus. Today, there don’t seem to be any obviously misplaced species that seem likely for assignment to a new genus. There may be some further revision of the species as it’s possible that P. kribensis could be divided with the creation of a new species. Genetic testing has provided a lot of insights into relationships in the genus and with more and more genetic testing, may spur future classification changes.
Native Distribution of Pelvicachromis
The geography of central west Africa is defined by low coastal plains that run inland from the ocean for 50 – 150 miles before climbing into the higher ground to the north or east. All along this coast rivers originate in the highlands and quickly grow as they head toward the South Atlantic Ocean. There are quite a few of these rivers and Pelvicachromis are found in almost all of them. From Guinea to Gabon a succession of species inhabit these coastal rivers.
These coastal river systems lie close together and were likely connected together at some point in the past. Today they are separated at their mouths by salt water and it appears that Pelvicachromis don’t tolerate salinity making the ocean a total barrier to mixing.
Over the years the genus has gotten larger as new species have been described and smaller as species are removed from the genus. As of 2022, there are 8 described Pelvicachromis species that I’m listing here according to their geographical distribution from western/northernmost to southernmost.
Pelvicachromis roloffi – Found in Guinea, Sierra Leone & Liberia, Pelvicachromis roloffi is geographically separated from the rest of the genus as it is is found further to the north and west than any other Pelvicachromis. It’s found in multiple rivers across its range and there are some named regional variants in the aquarium hobby. These are usually called P. roloffi “a location name in quotes”.
Pelvicachromis taeniatus – The large coastal rivers of Benin and Nigeria are home to this beautiful species. It was once thought that P. kribensis and P. taeniatus were the same species but in 2014 a revision of the Pelvicachromis taeniatus group separated the two species. If you read any of the printed books about West African Dwarf Cichlids, most of the photos of named varieties of P. taeniatus are actually P. kribensis. Paper revising Paper revising Pelvicachromis taeniatus
Pelvicachromis sacrimontis – Found in Nigeria, P. sacrimontis has been kept by aquarists for many years who believed it to be a variant of the common krib (P. pulcher) It was (and still is) most commonly sold as the “Giant Krib”. As this name suggests, they grow larger than most Pelvicachromis and there are several color forms of this attractive fish. In the North American aquarium trade, these fish are usually called P. taeniatus Nigerian Red (or blue or yellow depending on the color form.) Paper describing Pelvicachromis sacrimontis
Pelvicachromis silviae – This Nigerian species was only described in 2013 but it’s been popular in the aquarium hobby for many years where it was known as P. sp. affin. subocellatus. While it bears a resemblance to P. subocellatus, the two species are found very far apart geographically. Paper describing P. silvae
Pelvicachromis pulcher – Found in the coastal rivers of Nigeria and western Cameroon, P. pulcher is the best-known and most popular species in the genus. In fact, commonly called the kribensis or krib, it is one of the most popular of all aquarium fish. The common name comes from it being misidentified as Pelvicachromis kribensis when introduced to the hobby and was a pet store staple under that name for many years. Today, we know it is P. pulcher and the true P. kribensis is a different species. This beautiful species has several color varients.
Pelvicachromis drachenfelsi – With the publication of the Revision of the Pelvicachromis taeniatus group, the authors also described the new species Pelvicachromis drachenfelsi which, until its elevation to species, was considered to be a form of P. taeniatus known to aquarists as P. taeniatus “Wouri”. Although it was placed in taeniatus, it was always recognized for having distinct coloration and characteristics. Found in Cameroon in the waters of the Wouri River, the species has been in the hobby since soon after its discovery in 1984. Paper describing Pelvicachromis drachenfelsi
Pelvicachromis kribensis – For many years this species from Cameroon was considered to be the same species as P. taeniatus. When the Revision of the Pelvicachromis taeniatus group was published the authors separated the two species. The fish found in Nigeria and Benin were determined to be P. taeniatus while those from Cameroon were placed into P. kribensis. Different forms of P. kribensis are found in each of the large coastal rivers in Cameroon and most often the species is offered for sale with the variety name included.
Pelvicachromis subocellatus – Found in Gabon and the western edge of the Republic of the Congo, P. subocellatus is the southernmost species of the genus. A very attractive species, the females are noted for their dramatic colors. When in spawning condition she sports a bright red belly surrounded by an almost black body. While it’s never been a common species, they are often available from specialty dealers.
Pelvicachromis Natural Habitats
The different species of Pelvicachromis inhabit a wide range of water types. They are found in ponds, lakes, brooks, streams, and large and small rivers. Some are found only in still water while others thrive in fast currents. Consequently, there is no single habitat preference for the genus. However, they all originate in waters that are very soft, often measuring less than 1 dGH. Generally, they are found in acidic water with pH values from 4.5 – 6.0 although some species have been found at 7.0. Water temperatures are typically 75°F – 82°F.
When found in still water, the substrate is usually sand or mud and they are commonly associated with submerged vegetation. They are often found in open areas next to clumps of plants where they take cover when threatened. Submerged vegetation is also reported in some of the moderate current river areas where the substrate is often coarse gravel. Lushly overgrown banks are a common feature and emersed vegetation hangs over the water in many places. Terrestrial vegetation that falls into the water provides cover and additional nutrients.
Pelvicachromis are omnivores and will eat many types of foodstuffs. Stomach analysis shows a high proportion of vegetable material along with a few invertebrates. Small pieces of sand and rock are not uncommon and decomposing organic matter (detritus) is the most common food. In the aquarium, it’s important to include vegetable based foods in their diet.
Pelvicachromis Aquarium Care
Although they come from a wide variety of natural habitats, aquarists have learned their preferences through many years of successfully keeping and breeding Pelvicachromis in home aquaria. Generally speaking, aquarium care is the same for all species in the genus. They are all cave spawners that form pairs for breeding. These pairings may last on a long-term basis.
Setting up a Pelvicachromis Aquarium
The best habitat for Pelvicachromis is a mixed layout that combines open areas with cover areas. Sand makes the best substrate as the fish love to dig through it but fine gravel is also acceptable. Rockwork, driftwood, or thickets of plants can all be used to create a complex habitat. Pelvicachromis are cave spawners so be sure to incorporate several caves into the layout. The best caves have a small opening that’s barely large enough to allow the female to get through. They really prefer dark secluded spots for spawning. Often the female will move the substrate to completely block the entrance to the cave, sealing herself in. Don’t worry, this is normal and she won’t starve or suffer.
In the wild Pelvicachromis are often associated with vegetation. Thickets of submerged plants and overgrown shorelines are common and the fish are most comfortable with plants in their environment. In the aquarium, live plants help to stabilize water chemistry, their leaves are covered with a microbial film that fry can feed on, as plants break down they may be consumed, and plants provide great cover and security. I especially like to have a layer of floating plants covering the surface to help cut down on light intensity. Pelvicachromis often come from dark habitats. Overhanging vegetation deeply shades the water, Floating plants may cover the surface of ponds, and some waters are stained dark with tannins which cut light penetration. Placing Pelvicachromis in a brightly lighted aquarium is not advised. There is much more about live plants in our Guide to Live Plants in Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums.
While there are some variations between species, generally Pelvicachromis are found in very soft, acid-to-neutral water. Soft water is a constant between the species and it’s best to provide them with soft water in your aquarium. While they might survive in harder water, they probably won’t thrive. It’s possible that you will only achieve spawning success in very soft water.
pH levels in the wild are often reported as being very acidic, often pH 4.5 – 5.5. However, there are reports of collecting multiple species in Cameroon where the pH was usually around 7.0 and even as high as 7.5. In the aquarium, they have proven to be quite tolerant of pH as long as the water is soft (0 – 5 dGH). They don’t do well in hard water. For a home aquarium, a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 should be perfect. They are also tolerant of a range of temperatures so shoot for 76°F to 80°F.
All Pelvicachromis species come from waters that are close to the equator so they typically experience an equal balance of 12 hours of light and 12 of darkness. I generally use a balance of 10 light hours and 14 dark hours in my tanks. Try to avoid bright tanks as they don’t appreciate being in bright surroundings. Their native habitats are often shaded by emersed vegetation overhead and the water itself may be stained dark with tannins. Generally, all Pelvicachromis prefer subdued lighting. Bright lights can be used if most of the brightness is absorbed by floating or rooted plants and the fish are in darker surroundings. They will definitely show their best colors in subdued light.
It’s rare to have problems feeding Pelvicachromis as they will usually eat almost any food offered. They are omnivores but their natural diets are mostly small pieces of vegetation and detritus with only a small number of tiny creatures. In the aquarium, they love high-protein foods but that type of diet is far from their natural nutrition and they require roughage in their diet to stay healthy. Since they prefer to feed from the bottom, I use sinking pellets and wafers as opposed to flake foods. There are many high-quality prepared sinking foods that are suitable for use. I generally use rotate brands of balanced pellets for daily feeding and supplement that with a piece of algae wafer every other day or so.
I don’t usually recommend feeding frozen foods to Pelvicachromis. The fish love them and will eagerly eat them when offered. However, I think they are best for carnivorous fish and aren’t good for a regular diet for omnivores. If you are feeding frozen food regularly be sure to have as many or more feedings of vegetable-based foods. As a supplement, frozen foods are probably not a problem but I’d avoid a steady diet of them.
For much the same reason, I don’t recommend feeding a lot of live foods as they are usually too high in protein and often fat as well. As a treat they are great and I don’t hesitate to offer an occasional feeding but, except for baby brine shrimp, I avoid them in any sort of regular diet. The exception to this is with fry and babies where I feed a lot of newly hatched brine shrimp.
It’s usually best to keep sexually mature adults in pairs or groups. Try to avoid keeping a few, 3 – 5, which often results in aggression. A pair in its own tank is best, especially for breeding. In a large enough group ( 6- 10 or more) they will usually get along fairly well. However, if a pair decides to breed it can get rough. as they try to keep the group away from their territory. These spawnings usually fail but can disrupt group dynamics.
The best way to obtain a pair is to raise a group and let them pair naturally. However, most hobbyists aren’t able to do this and will just get a male and a female for a “forced pairing”. Since the sexes are so different in appearance you should always be able to get a fish of each sex just put them together into a properly prepared tank and wait to see what happens.
Pelvicachromis tend to be less aggressive than many cichlids and when there is aggression, it’s usually more vicious toward others of the same sex. Pelvicachromis females select the male they want to mate with and the aggression that is common in many species is usually not as much of a problem. However, these are cichlids and each fish has a unique personality so make sure the tank has several good dense hiding areas. While a forced pair will usually find a balance and get along, this will slowly change as the female begins to ripen eggs in preparation for spawning. At this point the couple will become much more comfortable with each other and will show behavior that demonstrates their pair bond. After spawning, many pairs will remain peacefully mated until they are separated.
Selecting the proper tankmates can make a real difference in how your fish will behave. Often, having other fish in the tank will encourage a male and female to bond. This is especially true if it’s another fish of the same species. Three of a Pelvicachromis species in a tank is a sure recipe for trouble as the third fish becomes a constant target. Always try to avoid three. Pelvicachromis are not especially aggressive but other cichlid species may not be tolerated. Of course, all fish are individuals and sometimes you can find a combination that works.
Various catfish, barbs, mormyrids, and other fishes are found in their native waters and make good tankmates. I like using the smaller barbs and most barbs will be fine tankmates so pick the ones you like best. They will occupy the mid and upper water levels and add color and movement to the tank. If you are interested in a biotope tank you’ll have to know the specific species you are keeping to find out which other fishes it shares the river with. Each of the coastal rivers has a slightly different fish assemblage.
There are a lot of combinations of tankmates if you are just keeping a community tank. Livebearers, gouramis, tetras, killifish, and rainbows are possibilities. Remember that Pelvicachromis spend their time near the bottom and are much more likely to have conflicts with other bottom-oriented fish. This especially becomes an issue if they spawn.
It’s often said that dwarf cichlids need “dither” or target fish to breed successfully. Although this is more commonly applied to Apistogrammas, it’s often said about Pelvicachromis as well. Dither fish are intended to become targets for any aggression that the cichlids may display. They are also great targets after the free swimming fry have emerged and they keep the parents attentive. However, they are not necessary. I usually try to set up my spawning pairs in a tank with no other fish. I find this gives me the fewest problems and the greatest success.
Pelvicachromis are biparental cave-spawning fish that form male/female pairs who work together throughout the breeding cycle from site preparation to raising the fry. Females typically tend the eggs and larval fry while hidden away in a cave. The male patrols a larger perimeter outside the cave to protect the spawning site. When the fry become free-swimming, the parents will usually participate equally in caring for the fry.
Generally, spawning success begins by introducing a pair into a properly prepared aquarium and giving them time to acclimate to each other. Feed them well and provide frequent water changes and they will eventually initiate spawning behavior. While some fish seem to spawn in short order, others may take a long time.
Once they are free swimming, raising Pelvicachromis fry is usually pretty straightforward. The pair will escort the school of fry around the tank as they search for food. The fry constantly graze on the substrate, plant leaves, and any hard features in the tank, eating small bits of micro-food. Newly hatched brine shrimp and micro worms are great foods. As they grow you should introduce prepared foods.
You must make sure that the food you offer is small enough for them to eat. Finely ground flake food is often a good choice. You can soak it to make a suspension that you can feed near the fry. There are many suggestions as to the best way to feed. I just use a length of airline hose with a 10″ – 12″ piece of rigid tubing on one end. I suck a little of the food suspension into the rigid tube and put it near the fry and gently blow the food to them. Beware that you don’t overfeed them. While it might seem like a lot of fish in the school, they are tiny and can’t hold much It’s pretty easy to raise them on a diet of high-quality prepared foods.
The parents will usually care for the fry for a month or more until they gradually lose interest. It’s often possible to raise the fry with the adults without any conflicts until the pair is ready to spawn again. In a heavily planted aquarium, it’s possible to raise several spawns in the same tank. However, it’s rare to ever have more than one spawning pair.
Where to buy Pelvicachromis
Pelvicachromis are among the more common dwarf cichlids. The krib is a pet store staple and is usually widely available. The more unusual species are available on a fairly regular basis from specialty fish sellers. Some species are scarcer than others but most of the described species become available at some point. However. it may take a year or more to find the fish you want and they might not be available for long so get them when you can. For detailed information about where to buy Pelvicachromis including contact information be sure to read our Guide to Buying 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.
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