Checkerboard Cichlids 101: Care, Tank Size, Diet, Tank Mates & More

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For many Cichlid enthusiasts, checkerboard cichlids are a unique and big-personality fish to have. Due to their small size and attractive appearance, these fish have a lot to like!

However, this dwarf cichlid fish is rarely seen in the aquarium hobby, so not many fish keepers know much of what these fish need to stay healthy and thrive.

If you’re one of the many aquarists who are thinking about adding a checkerboard cichlid to your freshwater tank, then read on. 

This guide will go over everything you need to know about checkerboard cichlid. We’ve included species profile, care guide, tank mates, diet, and more!


Species Profile

First things first, the checkerboard or chessboard cichlid is a group of species that come from two genera: Dicrossus and Crenicara are not a single species. They get the common name from an obvious checkerboard pattern.

Formerly, many Dicrossus species were included in the genus Crenicara, but more recent taxonomic work has resulted in their reclassification. Both genera are small cichlid fishes, often known as checkerboard dwarf cichlids or chessboard dwarf cichlids.

The Dicrossus genus is a group of five recognized species. The most commonly seen species in the aquarium trade are D. filamentosus (Lyretail checkerboard cichlid) and Spadetail Checkerboard Cichlid (D. maculatus). 

The Crenicara genus currently includes two recognized species: C. latruncularium and C. punctulatum. The latter is occasionally seen in the aquarium trade.

The Lyretail Checkerboard Cichlid (Dicrossus filamentosus) was previously described as Crenicara filamentosa, which is native to the upper Rio Negro and Orinoco river basins in Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil, where they inhabit acidic, blackwater small and shallow rainforest streams.

Two geographical variations of Dicrossus filamentosus (Lyretail Checkerboard Cichlid) are currently recognized: one from the upper Rio Orinoco, and another lives in Rio Negro. These two varieties can be distinguished as follow: 

Among the members of the Rio Negro population, males develop a narrow area of wedged spots in the deep fork of their lyre-shaped tail, and females tend to have vivid red coloration on the ventral fins after their first spawning event. While males from the Rio Orinoco river have a relatively wide range of spots on the caudal peduncle, females will never develop red ventral fins. In short, the Rio Negro variation is more attractive!


Lyretail Checkerboard Cichlid
Lyretail Checkerboard Cichlid (Photo: Paul Adonis)

As you may expect from their name, these dwarf cichlids have a checkerboard or chessboard-like pattern on their bodies. This pattern is made up of two rows of square black spots that are arranged in a checkerboard fashion, running along the length of their flanks below the dorsal fin.

Interestingly, the checkerboard pattern may change based on the mood of the fish – the lower row of speckles often expand into a separate line that runs along the base of the tail, while the row below the dorsal fin can disappear.

Checkerboard cichlids have a slender and elongated body that is copper-colored. They also have a pointed head with a blunt snout, and their mouths are slightly small.


The expected life span for these checkerboard cichlids is between 3 and 5 years. As always, there are no guarantees. Proper care will go a long way towards ensuring your checkerboard cichlid lives a long, happy life.


The average total length of the checkerboard cichlid can vary a bit depending on the species. The following table shows the most common checkerboard cichlid species and their average adult size:

SpeciesMax Length
Lyretail Checkerboard Cichlid (D. filamentosus)1.6 inches (3.8 cm)
Spadetail Checkerboard Cichlid (D. maculatus)2.4 inches (6.0 cm)
Checkerboard cichlid (C. punctulatum)4.0 inches (10.0 cm)

Care & Tank Setup

Checkerboard cichlid care should be moderately easy as long as you provide them with the proper environment. One of the most important things to remember when caring for checkerboard cichlids is that they come from very soft, warm water in the wild.

In addition, these small and shy fish prefer to live in schools and larger groups, so it is important to keep at least 8 individuals of the same species (and preferably more) for them to feel comfortable and thrive in their home aquarium.

These fish are sensitive to fluctuations in water parameters, making them a good choice for advanced aquarists who have practiced keeping cichlids with delicate water needs.

Checkerboard Cichlid Tank Size

Depending on the species, checkerboard cichlids typically only reach 1.6 to 4 inches (4–10 cm) in length. These dwarf cichlids don’t get very large at all when fully grown.

Because these fish are on the smaller side, some aquarists believe that checkerboard cichlids can be kept in small tanks. However, we recommend a minimum tank size of 30 gallons for a decent-sized group.

Some breeders have even seen success with a pair in a 15-gallon tank (24″ x 12″ x 12″), though this is not recommended.

Checkerboard cichlids spend most of their time “hugging” amongst live plants and scattered leaves on the bottom of the tank; an aquarium with a large footprint is ideal.

Water Parameters

Neglecting water conditions and not paying attention to fluctuations in water parameters will stress your fish and weaken their immune systems, making them susceptible to diseases and even death.

As we briefly mentioned earlier, checkerboard cichlids come from acidic and warm water in the wild. A good rule of thumb is to try and replicate these water conditions as closely as possible in the home aquarium.

Here are the general water parameters that checkerboard cichlids prefer:

  • pH level: 4.0 to 6.5
  • Temperature: 79° to 82°F (26° to 28°C )
  • Water hardness: 0 to 5 dGH

To keep the pH slightly lower and stimulate breeding, you can add Indian almond leaves to the tank. Not only will this help lower the pH, but the tannins released from these leaves will also give the aquarium a natural and more aesthetic look. Moreover, the checkerboard cichlid is a timid fish, so having these leaves in the tank will provide them with plenty of hiding spots.

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  • Natural and pesticide free; grows healthy biofilm for dwarf shrimp to eat, which encourages breeding
  • Provides food for the tiny shrimp offspring that can be difficult to feed traditional food
  • Leeches healthy tannins into water, can cause slight but healthy discoloration if used excessively

In order to maintain consistency in these water parameters, we recommend performing regular water tests. This will help you monitor the water conditions and make necessary adjustments (e.g., adding an aquarium buffer) before things get out of hand.

Substrate & Plants

Lyretail Checkerboard Cichlid females
Photo: Paul Adonis

This small fish will appreciate a dark, sandy substrate in the aquarium, which will help them feel more secure and relaxed. When it comes to a dark environment, dim lighting, floating plants, and a black aquarium background are recommended, allowing the fish to display their beautiful colors.

Driftwood, branches, and a few rocks are also nice additions and will provide the weaker or dominated individuals shelters, as well as give the aquarium a more natural look.

As for plants, checkerboard cichlids are not planting eaters, but they do like to nibble on soft leaves. We recommend adding tough, broad-leaved plants as these are less likely to be eaten.

Here are a few plant species that will do well in an aquarium with checkerboard cichlids:

  • Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana) – put on the driftwood
  • Java fern (Microsorim pteropus)
  • Myrio Green (Myriophyllum pinnatum)
  • Balansae plant (Cryptocoryne balansae)
  • Cryptocoryne wendtii

Filtration should be efficient, but the water current should not be too strong to avoid stressing the checkerboard cichlid. Once again, they live in slow-moving waters in the wild, so a gentle water flow is best.

Food & Diet

Checkerboard cichlids aren’t picky when it comes to diet. They are omnivores with a good appetite. 

High-quality cichlid pellets can be used as the staple diet, but they will also require regular feedings of live or frozen foods, especially if you want to bring them to breeding conditions. Blood worms, mosquito larvae, and brine shrimp are good options as they are packed with nutrients that these fish need.

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Quality and variety are key! To ensure a well-rounded diet, we recommend giving them a mix of pellets, live foods, and frozen foods.

Checkerboard cichlids Tank Mates

Since checkerboard cichlids come from different regions in South America, they can be found living with a variety of other fish species in the wild.

In general, checkerboard cichlids are relatively peaceful fish but can be aggressive and territorial during spawning. These dwarf cichlids are an excellent candidate for the planted aquarium or botanical-style blackwater aquariums. Ensure there is a fair amount of open space.

Some checkerboard cichlid compatible tank mates include:

Checkerboard Cichlids Breeding

Checkerboard Cichlids Reproduction isn’t too difficult. However, they do require some specific tank conditions and care.

It’s best to have a large group of 8 individuals or more; let them grow up to obtain a mated pair naturally. A big tank is also necessary since males are very territorial during spawning, and females are also very protective of their fry. 

Males Vs. Females

No matter what checkerboard cichlid species you want to breed, sexing these dwarf cichlids is more difficult than most. It’s virtually impossible to tell males from females when they are young. The only way to know is to wait until they are sexually mature and ready to breed.

The males are slightly larger and more than colorful females. Mature male D. filamentosus (Lyretail checkerboard cichlid) develop a lyrate caudal fin with filaments. Adult male D. maculatus (Spadetail Checkerboard Cichlid) have a bright blue sheen on the head and gill covers.

Breeding Guide

Once you’ve chosen your breeding pair, it’s time to set up the breeding tank. The water should be soft (4-8 dGH), acidic (pH 6.5-7.0), and warm (raise it to 82°F ).

The pair will follow a spectacular courtship ritual – the female stands on their head in front of the male and lead him to a pre-dug spawning site (usually an Indian almond leaf) where she releases up to 120 eggs, and the male will fertilize them.

The female will stay around to look after them while the male guard the perimeter. You will notice both fish will lose their checkerboard pattern and display a sold black lateral line. The female will become aggressive and can attack the male if he comes too close to the eggs.

The eggs will be hatched within 48-72 hours. In the meantime, the female will move the young to under the leaf for several days. After a while, she will remove them to a different location in the substrate. The process will repeat somewhere 5 to 7 days until the fry has consumed the yolk sac.

At first, they will only eat infusoria, while you can start giving them baby brine shrimp once they are large enough.

Wrapping Up

Checkerboard cichlids are beautiful dwarf fish that make a great addition to planted aquariums or blackwater community tanks. These fish are relatively easy to care for as long as you provide them with the right tank conditions and diet.

Checkerboard cichlids are also not too difficult to breed in captivity. However, having a large tank and a good breeding pair is important.

Have you ever kept checkerboard cichlids? Do you have any tips to share with us? Let us know in the comments below.

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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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