Apistogramma viejita: Identification, Origin, and Helpful Information for Hobbyists

AquariumFishCity.com is supported by our readers. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a commission.

Although this species is a common Apisto seen in pet shops, it rarely is the real Apistogramma viejita. Instead what is labeled as an A. viejita is actually either Apistogramma macmasteri or a hybrid of A. macmasteri with A. viejita, particularly these colorful domestic strains. 

The real Apistogramma viejita is a rare species in the aquarium trade ​but is relished by experienced apisto breeders, partly due to their fairly narrow distribution. 

In this article, we will explore everything you could want to know about Apistogramma viejita, from its origins to its care needs.

Species Summary

Apistogramma viejita male
Photo: Ingo Koslowski 

In the wild, this fish is distributed over a narrow range, which can only be found in a tributary of the Río Yucao along the road between Puerto Gaitán and Puerto López (around 34 miles) in the state of Meta, Colombia. Most captivity-bred strains today are descended from the wild-caught specimens around Puerto Gaitán.

The native habitat of Apistogramma viejita is characterized by slow-moving, shallow, clearwater streams along the shoreline, with plenty of submerged vegetation.

Sometimes also referred to by the species name “Rotsaum,” Apistogramma viejita was first identified in 1979 by Swedish biologist Sven O. Kullander [1]. Kullander is a prolific researcher who has spent decades studying fish, having named over 50 taxa at the time of this writing.

In the specific name, Kullander named the fish after the Spanish word vieja, which means ‘old lady.’ The term vieja is used colloquially to refer to a number of species of cichlids, with viejita as a diminutive often used for small cichlids in Colombia.

Scientific Name:Apistogramma viejita
Common Name:Apistogramma sp. “Rotsaum”
Group: macmasteri
Max Size:Males: 2.4 inches (6 cm); Females: 1.8 inches (4.6 cm)
Lifespan:2 ~ 5 years
pH:5.5 – 6.5
Temperature:73-82° F (23-28 °C)
Hardness: up to 10 degrees
Conductivity:< 50 µS/cm
Tank Size:10 gallons for a pair, 20 gallons for a trio

Apistogramma viejita Identification

Apistogramma viejita phylogeny

Apistogramma viejita is a member of the regani lineage of Apistogramma [2]. This lineage can be differentiated from other lineages by their squircle-shaped caudal spots and the absence of lateral spots in most species.

The regani lineage can be divided into three species groups: regani, alacrina, and macmasteri. A. viejita is classified under the macmasteri group, distinguished by medium-to-large-sized, robust bodies with extended anterior dorsal fin lappets. 

The macmasteri group is further subdivided into the two species-complexes, hongsloi and macmasteri. A. viejita belongs to the macmasteri complex. Members of this species-complex can be identified by the lack of a ventral stripe in brooding females and a zig-zag lateral line. In addition, both the upper and lower of the caudal fin in males are edged in bright red.

Finally, we get to the species itself. Well-conditioned specimen may develop all of the morphological characteristics of its groupings as we listed above, including:

  • A rounded caudal fin without extended filaments
  • A narrow, zig-zag lateral line runs the entire length of the body
  • Extended dorsal fin spines with red tips in males
  • Narrow squircle-shaped caudal spot

Apistogramma viejita Vs. Apistogramma macmasteri

It is an understandable mistake to misidentify Apistogramma viejita for Apistogramma macmasteri, as these fish do look very similar and are in fact members of the same species complex.

The most obvious difference between the two is that A. viejita will have a darker red edge to their dorsal fins. If you still aren’t sure, you can examine the following traits:

Apistogramma viejita Vs. Apistogramma macmasteri

Apistogramma viejita Size 

It is important to note that when discussing fish size, there are two measurements used: standard length (SL) and total length (TL). The standard length refers to the measurement from the tip of the fish’s snout to the end of its caudal peduncle (where the tail fin attaches to the body), while the total length includes the length of the tail fin itself.

Apistogramma viejita is a relatively slender species, with most specimens reaching a standard length of around 2.4 inches (6 cm) in males though some may grow as large as 3.3 inches (8.5 cm). Females, meanwhile, tend to measure a bit smaller, with a reported maximum standard length of only 1.8 inches (4.6 cm). 

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much data available on the average total length of Apistogramma viejita at this time.

Care & Tank Setup

The A. regani lineage species are considered to be relatively unfussy fish, and A. viejita is no exception. It is a less demanding apisto that does not need to exclusively mimic its natural habitat in order to thrive.

However, there are still some important considerations to keep in mind when setting up a tank for these little cichlids.

Tank Size 

Apistogramma viejita can be kept in small tanks, with a minimum size of 10 gallons recommended for a single pair of fish.

If you plan on keeping a group of these fish, a larger tank will be necessary to ensure that there is enough swimming space and territory for each individual, with 20 gallons being the minimum recommended size for a trio.

Water Parameters

While the natural habitat of Apistogramma viejita differs from many of its Apistogramma cousins, thankfully these fish can survive in wider conditions once in captivity. 

They do have a preference for moderately soft, acidic waters, as well as warmer temperatures. If these requirements are not met, the fish can be left vulnerable to bacterial infections. 

It is important to perform regular water changes to maintain good water quality, and a decent filtration system should be used to keep the tank clean and healthy for the fish.

Below, we’ve included a table containing the more specific water requirements for this species.

  • Temperature: 73-82° F (23-28 °C)
  • pH: 5.5 – 6.5
  • Hardness: up to 10 degrees
  • Conductivity: < 50 µS/cm

Décor (Plants and Substrate)

These fish aren’t too picky when it comes to the aspect of décor. They prefer a softer, sandy substrate, and it is important to provide plenty of hiding places and territories for the fish. 

This can be achieved through the use of artificial materials, like ceramic pots or plastic piping. For a more natural-looking setup, rocks, branches, and hunks of driftwood all make excellent choices. 

As with most dwarf cichlids, these fish require caves, with coconut shells being a popular choice for this purpose. 

Some keepers recommend the addition of dried leaf litter, though this may not be necessary, as specimens of A. viejita have been found in clearwater creeks running through savanna as well as forest biomes.

Preferably, the aquarium should be very heavily-planted, as the shorelines these fish inhabit in the wild are chock full of plant life. Live plants not only provide hiding spots for your fish and dim light, they can also help improve the water quality. Below, we’ve listed some popular plants to keep with your Apistogramma viejita.

  • Microsorum spp.
  • Taxiphyllum spp.
  • Ceratopteris spp.

Diet and Feeding

Apistogramma viejita are carnivorous in nature. They will accept frozen and live foods, but their preference is for live foods, especially wild individuals. You can even feed them dry food after a bit of acclimatization.

Frozen foods, including Daphnia, Artemia, and mosquito larvae, are readily accepted. Live foods, such as black mosquito larvae and brine shrimp, should be used when conditioning fish for breeding.

Apistogramma viejita Behavior and Tank Mates

Like most members of the regani lineage, Apistogramma viejita is considered an “opportunistic” polygamy species. It’s a type of mating strategy in which any male, if given a chance, will do its best to mate with multiple female fish.

Consequently, Apistogramma viejita can be kept as a single pair or harem of one male and several females. To get the best out of Apistogramma viejita, a large group of two males and four to six females is the ideal setup.

It is also important to provide plenty of cover and territorial areas for the Apistogramma viejita. This will help prevent aggression and allow each fish their own area of the aquarium.

Apistogramma viejita are fairly robust, peaceful fish that do well in a display community tank. You can house other different Apistos from the regani lineage alongside Apistogramma viejita and other dither fish such as pencilfish (at least 10), otos, smaller tetras, and corys.

While if you plan to breed Apistogramma viejita, it is best to keep them on their own. This is not only due to the risk of cross-breeding but also because of the lower survival rates for the fry.

Gender Differences

Apistogramma viejita female
Photo: Ingo Koslowski

As with many cichlid species, Apistogramma viejita exhibits sexual dimorphism, with males tending to be larger and more brightly colored than females and having extended fins. The body of mature females who are ready to spawn will typically display a bright yellow color that is accented by several striking black dorsal spots, a dorsal spot, and an obvious cheek stripe.


With the rarity of true Apistogramma viejita in the aquarium trade, it’s no wonder many aquarists’ first question upon finding a pair is, “How do I breed more?” Luckily, we’re here to help.

This is one situation where you cannot slack on the water quality- Apistogramma viejita needs conditions very close to those in its natural habitat to breed successfully. This means your pH balance should be at 5.5 or lessthe hardness should be at less than 1° dGH, and the conductivity should be 10µS or less.

The female will lay its eggs (50 – 75) inside the caves you provided and then guard them. Within no more than 3 days, the eggs should hatch. Within a further 4 days, the fry should be able to swim on their own.

Final Thoughts

From their beautiful vibrant coloration to their rarity in the aquarium trade, Apistogramma viejita is certain to be a conversation starter!

By providing them with a comfortable and well-decorated environment and maintaining good water quality, you can enjoy watching these fish thrive in your aquarium.


  1. Species of Apistogramma (Teleostei, Cichlidae) from the Orinoco Drainage Basin, South America, with Descriptions of Four New Species j.1463-6409.1979.tb00620.x
  2. Wise, Mike. 2021. Description, Distribution, and a proposed phylogeny of Apistogramma species-groups.
  3. Baensch, H.A. and R. Riehl, 1985. Aquarien atlas. Band 2. Mergus, Verlag für Natur-und Heimtierkunde GmbH, Melle, Germany. 1216 p.
Was this article helpful?
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!

Leave a Comment