Apistogramma borellii: #1 Easiest Apisto to Take Care of For Beginners

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Looking to add your first Apistogramma to a new or established freshwater aquarium? Apistogramma borellii is the “easiest” Apisto to start with.

Sometimes known as the Umbrella Cichlid, Apistogramma borellii is a truly fascinating, smaller, more peaceful, and hardy species with a surprisingly storied history.

From decades of misidentification to variants lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’re sure you’ll enjoy reading up on these beautiful fish as much as we did!

Species Summary

First described in 1906 by Regan [1], for decades afterward Apistogramma borellii was commonly misidentified- first as A. ritensis, then as A. rondoni, A reitzigi, and A. aequininnus. In the 1930s, the name A reitzigi became commonly accepted.

To make things even more confusing, the most popular Apistogramma cacatuoides (cockatoo dwarf cichlid) was mistakenly identified as A. borellii in 1961. It was only in 1983 that R. Sven Kullander was able to properly identify A. borellii.

A. borellii’s natural habitat consists of creeks and tributaries of the middle-upper Río Paraguay (Paraguay River) and Rio Paraná basins, ranging throughout southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay. Its range actually extends further south than any other Apistogramma species.

Scientific Name:Apistogramma borellii
Common Name:Umbrella Cichlid
Origin:Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay
Group: Borellii
Max Size:Males: 2.5 inches (6.5 cm); Females: 2 inches (5 cm)
Lifespan:2 ~ 5 years
pH:6.5 – 7.5
Temperature:50 (winter) – 80.6°F (10 -27 °C)
Hardness: Soft
Tank Size:15 gallons

Apistogramma borellii Identification

Apistogramma borellii taxonomy
Reference: Mike Wise

With such a long and storied history of misidentification, you may be wondering about the best way to determine if you have an A. borellii on your hand. Thankfully, despite the variety of color morphs available, some key features can help you know for certain.

To help you tell Apistogramma borellii apart from other Apisto species, several authors and enthusiasts [2] have divided the species-rich genus into related species-complexes and species-groups (or subgenus) within four distinct lineages and two sub-lineages in taxonomy.

A. borellii is a member of the Apistogramma regani Lineage. Most species of this lineage possess a lateral band running down their bodies, with a separate spot in the caudal area. Additionally, these species usually have rounded to slightly squared caudal fins with some vertical flank bars, though some species do have extensions coming off the top and bottom of the caudal fin.

The regani Lineage has been subdivided into three species-groups: A. regani Group, A. alacrina Group, and A. macmasteri Group. The A. regani Group is actually the most widely distributed Apistogramma species in the world. 

The dorsal fins of A. regani Group members tend to be low and even, but they can be distinguished from the other two groups by the absence of a lateral spot on the lateral bar.

Furthermore, the A. regani Group is composed of many species-complexes, including the A. borellii Complex, which comprises A. borellii and its relatives that originated from a common ancestor – a bit confusing, we know. 

The bodies of A. borellii Complex species can be spotted by their tall, sail-shaped dorsal fins and rounded, spade-shaped tail. Their bodies are deep and narrow. Most specimens also have a distinctive zigzag-shaped band running laterally down the back half of their bodies.

As you can see, even amongst as vibrant and expansive a group as Apistogramma, borellii certainly stands out!

Apistogramma borellii Types

Apistogramma borellii “Opal”
Photo: Dornenwolf

While most fish species popular in the aquarium trade come in various colors, you may be surprised to find that wild A. borellii can be just as vibrant. 

Some males in their natural biotope may have vivid red streaks on their heads, and the “Opal” morph is even present in wild fish.

Some captive-bred strains lose their vibrant colors over time- possibly a result of some unknown factors present in their native environments, which is absent in most home aquaria.

Apistogramma borellii “Opal”

Originally, the name ‘Opal’ was used in the 1960s-70s to refer to a domestic strain of A. borellii bred in what was then East Germany.

Unfortunately, over the decades this original Opal strain was lost, though you can still find similar wild populations.

While the fins of an Opal will be the brilliant yellow shade characteristic of the species, the body color varies from a pale purple to a brighter shade of blue. Most Opals will be most vibrant in the face area, mottled with red, yellow, and blue, giving the face an opalescent appearance from which it gets its name.

Apistogramma borellii “Blue”

The Blue variant of Apistogramma borellii is one of the more common ones you will find in the aquarium trade. 

This variant can be easily spotted by the deep, vibrant blue coloration visible on the back and sides of the fish. The dorsal fin may share this color, though it may also be bright yellow. The face and remaining fins tend to be the same brilliant yellow color, sometimes with highlights of blue at the edges.

Apistogramma borellii Blue vs. Opal

While these two variants of Apistogramma borellii may be similar in appearance, there are some easy ways to tell the difference. 

The bodies of Opals tend to be paler in color, though the most obvious sign you have an Opal on your hands will be the face- while Blues tend to have mostly or entirely yellow heads, Opals tend to have a bit more variation in color, with splotches of red and blue mixed with yellow.

Apistogramma borellii Size

Apistogramma borellii care

Compared to other Apistogramma species, borellii is a bit on the small side. Males of the species can reach a maximum standard length- that is, the length of the entire fish excluding the caudal fin- of around 2.5 inches (6.5 cm). Females, meanwhile, are even smaller, reaching a maximum standard length of 2 inches (5 cm).

The total length of these fish is a bit less diminutive, at around 3 inches, thanks largely to its long, delicate fins.

Care and Tank Setup

Breaking into the fishkeeping hobby can be a bit daunting at first- if you take a quick scroll through various communities, you’ll likely discover that a lot more thought goes into fish care than simply filling a tank with water.

Thankfully, Apistogramma borellii has a reputation as a very accessible species of Apistogramma for beginner aquarists. While wild-caught fish may not do well in mixed company, captive-raised borellii are highly recommended for a community tank.

Umbrella Cichlid Tank Size

Due to their small stature, Apistogramma borellii are a bit more forgiving when it comes to tank size than some of their cousins. The minimum tank size for one pair of Apistogramma borellii is 15 US gallons or around 56 liters. If you’re looking to keep more fish, a bigger tank will be necessary.

Water Parameters

Compared to other Apistogramma species, borelliis are the most adaptable regarding water parameters. While wild-caught specimens tend to be a bit more delicate, captive-raised borellii can thrive in a fairly wide range of temperature and pH conditions.

  • Temperature: 50 (winter) – 80.6°F (10 -27 °C)
  • pH: 6.0-7.0 for wild-caught; tank-raised fish have a wider range, anywhere from 5.0-8.0
  • GH: < 4;
  • KH: < 6;

Décor (Plants and Substrate)

Umbrella Cichlids aren’t exposed to too much direct light in their natural habitat, and so mimicking these conditions in the tank is considered the best practice. It’s important to keep the lighting fairly dim and to select plants that can thrive under these conditions.

A dark-colored, sandy substrate is generally recommended, as well as ensuring your borellii has plenty of spots to hide. If you’re not too concerned about aesthetics in your tank, this can be easily accomplished with things like ceramic flower pots and plastic piping.

If you’re hoping to achieve a more natural look, driftwood and rocks also make excellent additions. Another option would be halved coconuts- these can make excellent caves for your fish to hide out in, and it’s possible to further decorate them with moss if you’re looking to add more greenery to your tank without purchasing more plants.

In addition to adding floating plants to diffuse light, the popular and easy-to-grow plants to keep with Apistogramma borellii include the following.

  • Limnobium spp.
  • Salvinia spp.
  • Pistia spp.
  • Hydrocotyle spp.

Diet & Feeding

Apistogramma borellii is a carnivore that primarily eats worms, crustaceans, and insects in nature. 

In the aquarium, feeding your fish live and frozen meaty foods, such as artemia nauplii, daphnia, or small worms, is necessary for optimal health and coloration.

Captive-bred specimens can be trained to take prepared foods such as pellets or flakes, though they should also be given a variety of frozen treats to ensure complete nutrition.

When feeding Apistogramma borellii, it’s important to keep in mind that these fish will benefit from small portions spread throughout the day rather than one larger meal.

Apistogramma borellii Social & Tankmates

Most A. regani-lineage species are non-monogamous (or “casually monogamous”), meaning a non-aggressive male borellii will be happy to form a bond with a female, but this bond is not necessarily permanent or lifelong if an opportunity arises. This is in contrast to strict monogamy, where a pair will remain together for life and defend their bond against potential partners.

Depending on the size of your aquarium, a pair or a trio of Apistogramma borellii can be kept with other Apistogrammas and non-Apistos as tankmates. Different species of Apistogramma may not be ideal as these fish are known to hybridize if given a chance.

Wild-caught specimens may have more trouble, though it’s still important to include ‘dither’ fish. 

In their native creeks and ponds, borellii would often be surrounded by schools of smaller fish, which would scatter whenever danger approached. Without this natural alarm system, it is possible for a fish to become stressed out.

A group of small, peaceful dwarf species like Ember or Cardinal tetras, pencilfish (at least 10) do very well with Apistogramma borellii.

Gender Differences

As previously mentioned, males of the Apistogramma borellii tend to be a bit larger on average than females. Additionally, males are usually much more vibrantly colored, with most female borellii being a bright solid yellow. Male borellii will also have extended fins compared to females.


Breeding borellii is generally considered to be easier than some other species, as the fish are not too finicky. As long as the water is clean and they have adequate space, your Umbrella Cichlids should be good to go.

Umbrella Cichlids are cave spawners, meaning the female will find some sort of cave or alcove in which to deposit her eggs (50-70) on the ceiling. You may need to move the eggs over to a nursery tank at this point, as in some cases, A. borellii parents may eat their young.

After 4 to 5 days, the eggs will hatch into fry, which will remain in the cave for another 5 to 6 days until they are able to swim freely on their own. In a tank with multiple females, females may share parenting duties, resulting in mixed-age family groups.

Eventually, the fry will grow into juvenile fish, at which point care requirements will be the same as for any other borellii.

Final Thoughts

We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to the care and keeping of Apistogramma borellii. 

Whether you’re a longtime aquarist with years of experience under your belt or you’re just getting into the hobby, their vibrant coloration, delicately beautiful fins, and peaceful temperament all come together to make Apistogramma borellii an excellent choice.


  1. Regan, Charles Tate. 1906. “Revision of the South-American cichlid genera Retroculus, Geophagus, Heterogramma, and Biotoecus”. Annals and Magazine of Natural History. [Series 7]17:49-66
  2. A description of Apistogramma species-groups. Mike Wise, October, 2021.
  3. Tempo and rates of diversification in the South American cichlid genus Apistogramma (Teleostei: Perciformes: Cichlidae). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0182618. PMID: 28873089; PMCID: PMC5584756.
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Jeff Colt

Jeff Colt

Hello, I'm Jeff- an aquarium enthusiast with over 25 years of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish, including koi, goldfish bettas, cichlids and more! For me: Aquariums are like jello - there's always room for more!

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