Apistogramma cacatuoides (aka cockatoo dwarf cichlid) Care & Species Profile

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Apistogramma cacatuoides is more commonly known as the cockatoo dwarf cichlid due to its large, crested dorsal fin. With their unique appearance and clever nature, it’s no wonder these vibrant creatures are some of the most commonly kept Apistogrammas you’ll find in the aquarium trade today.

In this guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know to care for your Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid. Whether you’re just dipping your toe into the fishkeeping hobby or you’re an aquarium veteran, you’re certain to learn something you didn’t know!

Species Summary

Like A. agassizii (Agassizi’s Dwarf Cichlid), Apistogramma cacatuoides can be found across a wide geographical range in the western Amazon drainage basin (between 69°W and 71°W), including:

  • Río Ucayali (Ucayali River), Peru
  • Río Algodón (Algodon river), Peru
  • Solimões River (Rio Solimões), Brazil
  • Manacapuru River (Rio Manacapuru) Brazil
  • Juruá River (Rio Juruá), Brazil and Peru
  • Río Putumayo (Putumayo River), Colombia, Peru, Brazil
  • Río Amazonas (Amazon River), Colombia, Peru, Brazil

As you probably already know, Apistogramma is one of the large genera in the cichlid family, with 93 recognized species and over 400 undescribed species and forms [1], making the identification of individual species quite challenging.

For this reason, Apistogramma researchers and authors have been trying to break the species into easily distinguishable groups for years.

Today, the most widely recognized groups of Apistogramma, according to Koslowski’s book “Die Buntbarsche Südamerikas 02. Apistogramma und Co.” (2002), Stawikowski’s book “DATZ South American Dwarf Cichlids” (2005), and recent genetic analysis [3], consisting of 16 species-groups and 24 species-complexes under four lineages with two sublineages.

A. cacatuoides, as a species group with 8 described species, falls within the Apistogramma trifasciata Sublineage of the Apistogramma trifasciata Lineage.

After first being introduced to the aquarium trade in 1950 under the name Apistogramma U2, these fish then spent several decades being misidentified under another name- Apistogramma borellii– until the mistake was finally corrected sometime in the 1980s.

Due to their wide distribution, these Apistos aren’t as picky as some when it comes to things like temperature and water quality- which is one reason they’re so popular among beginner aquarists!

However, I would advise against keeping domesticated forms of A. cacatuoides, as they tend to have poor genetics that can result in poor health or even early death despite any efforts to prevent them. Instead, A. borellii, A. macmasteri, and A. trifasciata are all excellent choices.

Scientific Name:Apistogramma cacatuoides
Common Name:cockatoo dwarf cichlid
Origin:Peru, Brazil,Colombia
Size:2.5 and 3.5 inches (6.4–8.9 cm)
Lifespan:2 ~ 5 years
pH:6.0 ~ 7.0
Temperature:72 to 84° F (22 to 29° C)
KH: 2 – 15 dGH
Tank Size:20 gallons

Apistogramma cacatuoides Identification

With so many beautiful Apistogramma species to choose from, it’s natural for there to be some confusion among aquarists- thankfully, there are a few easy ways to tell if you’ve got cacatuoides on your hands.

Firstly, the species of Apistogramma trifasciata Lineage usually have, but not always, robust, laterally compressed bodies with moderately deeper caudal peduncles that are serrated along the edge.

All species of the Apistogramma cacatuoides group have a black stripe that runs along the caudal fin and extends into the base until it meets the distinct caudal spot.

Enlarged lips are a characteristic feature among male specimens of A. cacatuoides, regardless of whether they are wild-caught or domestically raised. Males also tend to be highly polygamous, which we will discuss further.

The dorsal fins of male Apistogramma cacatuoides tend to be long and spiky in appearance, reminiscent of a cockatoo’s crest, and the caudal fin is lyre-shaped.

Apistogramma cacatuoides Types (Varieties)

The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid comes in a variety of color morphs, with the exact number being hard to pin down. Below, we’ve written up a handy guide to some of the more common varieties and what makes each one unique and beautiful in its own way.

Apistogramma cacatuoides “Triple Red”

Apistogramma cacatuoides “Triple Red”

With its shimmering purplish base scales and fiery highlights, the male Triple Red has certainly earned its place as one of the most popular types of Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid- and in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful.

The dorsal and caudal fins are large and intricately patterned with orange, red and yellow blending together, broken up by stripes or splotches of a blue-black color. Pectoral and anal fins are also noticeably pronounced and may have a translucent blue sheen to them.

Apistogramma cacatuoides “Super Red”

As with most of the “Red” varieties, the Super Red is most notable for its red or orange fins, reminiscent of a sunset. The Super Red has a tan or yellow body broken up by a dark horizontal stripe running from the eyes all the way to the caudal fin.

The dorsal, anal, and caudal fins are especially large, with an almost spiky appearance. As stated, the fins will usually be red or orange, usually broken up with black, though occasionally light blue is also present.

Apistogramma cacatuoides “Double Red”

Apistogramma cacatuoides “Double Red”

The Double Red variant usually has a silver body with a dark horizontal stripe running down it. The belly color ranges from golden to brown.

All fins are bright red-orange on a field of black. The Double Red is notable for having a higher ratio of orange to black on its fins compared to other red varieties, with the caudal fins, in particular, having an almost sunburst-like quality about them.

Apistogramma cacatuoides “Double Red” vs. “Triple Red”

With all these “Red” variants, it can be easy to get mixed up to the point that even breeders sometimes find themselves confused about whether they have a Double Red or a Triple Red on their hands! Adding to the confusion, you may even find these variants mislabeled as one another.

Thankfully, there’s an easy way to tell the difference between the two. The Double Red will have the red and black pattern on only the dorsal and caudal fins, while the Triple Red displays the pattern on the dorsal, caudal, and anal fins.

Apistogramma cacatuoides “Orange Flash”

Between its cool-kid name and the large fins decked out in the shade I can only describe as “mega orange,” the Orange Flash is one of the most stunningly unique varieties of cacatuoides on the market today.

The bodies of these little guys tend to be a blueish-purple tint or, in some cases, a brighter yellow-tan. As mentioned, the dorsal, anal, and caudal fins all display a brilliant solid orange coloration, while the pectoral and pelvic fins have notes of turquoise.

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid Size

The species of the Apistogramma cacatuoides Group are some of the medium- to large-sized Apistos, growing to between 2.5 and 3.5 inches (6.4–8.9 cm) in size. Males can be slightly larger than females, with more vibrant colors and more extended fins.

For some context: the standard length of a fish is the measurement from the time of the snout to the beginning of the caudal fin. The average standard length for a Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid is around 3 inches (7.5 cm).

Care & Tank Setup

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid

Their natural habitat consists of bodies of slow-moving white or clear freshwater. Some sources claim the wild specimens can also live in blackwater, but as not all sources agree on this, it may be best to take it with a grain of salt.

While setting up your first home aquarium can be a daunting prospect, thankfully, Apistogramma cacatuoides is well-known as a great fish for beginners. While wild-caught specimens may be a bit pickier with regard to decor and water, in general, captive-bred fish are comfortable under various conditions.

Tank Size

A minimum tank size of 20 gallons is usually recommended for a single pair of adult cacatuoides, with larger tanks being required for larger groups. 

Like most dwarf cichlids, A. cacatuoides are bottom dwellers and tend to spend most of their time near the bottom of the tank, so a longer, shallower tank with a large footprint might be preferable to a higher, deeper one.

Water Parameters

As mentioned, these fish aren’t especially picky regarding water quality, being able to survive in a wide range of freshwater environments. However, as with any fish, there are some good general rules of thumb to go by when preparing your aquarium.


As their natural environment consists of shallow, slow-moving water carpeted with decaying leaf matter, cockatoo dwarfs do best when these conditions are mimicked.

This can be achieved fairly easily, as sand and gravel both make excellent choices for the substrate. They will need plenty of hiding places, which can be provided in the form of pipes, ceramic pots, or even hunks of driftwood.

Plants are vital, both for keeping the fish comfortable as well as providing some natural filtration. Below, we’ve listed some easy aquarium plants to keep with your cacatuoides.

  • Elodea
  • Ceratophyllum
  • Hydrocotyle
  • Nymphea
  • Limnobium

Diet & Feeding

While most Apistogramma cichlids are omnivores, their diet in the wild is largely carnivorous and they primarily feed on benthic invertebrates.

Sometimes, you may have feeding problems with wild-caught specimens; some finicky individuals may refuse to feed on anything other than live food at first. This is usually nothing to worry about and can almost always be resolved within a few weeks of captive care. High-quality gel food and patience are usually the best remedies.

Feeding tank-raised fish is a breeze, with most cacatuoides being perfectly fine with a diet of pellets and frozen foods such as baby brine shrimp and insect larvae. 

Social & Tankmates

Apistogramma cacatuoides are larger and highly polygamous, meaning males can be highly aggressive toward females who are not ready to breed.

In the wild, they reproduce in a harem-type way, with a single male congregates with multiple females, known as a “sorority,” so it is recommended to keep a single male with at least four females, depending on the size of your tank.

Domestic strains will have no problem in common community aquariums, but wild forms should be kept alone or with peaceful tankmates. Good companions include pencil fish or small tetras (up to 1.5″) from Hyphessobrycon or Hemigrammus genera. 

A large tank that provides each dwarf cichlid with a territory of about 1 sq. ft./900 sq. cm can house A. cacatuoides alongside other Apisto species that possess different body shapes and fins. I prefer to keep all my species separate, but that’s a personal choice.

While both sexes of Apistogramma cactuoides exhibit territorial behavior, females have much smaller territories- making it much easier to keep a group of females in a single tank, though you will still need to adjust the tank size accordingly.

Gender Differences 

Males are larger, brighter, more colorful, and tend to be more aggressive. It’s important not to keep adult males housed together in all but the very largest of tanks.

Distinguishing the young domestic strains can be tricky until they reach maturity, as females with these forms often display coloration and fin extensions that are indicative of males.

Breeding the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid

If you plan to breed Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (A. cacatuoides ), it is advisable to set up a separate breeding tank to accommodate their aggressive behavior during breeding.

The cockatoo dwarf cichlids are cave spawners, meaning there will need to be at least one cave per female if breeding is desired, though these should be spaced out to give the fish a sense of privacy. Females will lay between 100 to 200 eggs, which should hatch after 3-4 days.

After hatching, the female will guard her young inside the cave for another 4-5 days before taking them out to explore. The female will continue protecting the fry until they are able to swim on their own, and possibly for some time after. 

The young should reach sexual maturity anywhere from 4 to 8 months after hatching, depending on the strain and the level of care they receive, such as water quality, feedings, and tank size.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you can see now why Apistogramma cacatuoides is such a popular choice amongst aquarists. Whether you’re looking to try your hand at breeding for the first time, or simply want a colorful addition to your community tank, these fish make an excellent choice.

From the ease of care to the variety of stunningly gorgeous color morphs available, Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) would make an excellent addition to any home aquarium.

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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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