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Apistogramma, or Apistos, are often considered to be a good starter dwarf cichlid for those who want to observe fascinating breeding behaviors.

While it’s true that these small and colorful freshwater fish often don’t require large aquariums with expensive filtration systems and heaters, not every Apistogramma is as easy to breed and care for.

If you are a first-time Apistogramma owner and want your new setup to be an instant success, below we have compiled a list of species that are the best Apistogramma for beginners.

Factors in Choosing Apistogramma Fish for Beginners

A. borelli male

New owners tend to look for a fish species with the most appealing physical characteristics. These attractive Apistogramma may be acceptable choices for beginners, but some Apistos are poor choices due to their water conditions requirements, living space needs, or temperament. A beginner Apistogramma fish should have these qualities:

Hardy and Easy to Care For

Many species of Apistogramma fish are native to blackwater streams and tributaries of the Amazon River.

These natural environments are characterized by very soft and acidic water from fallen leaves, decaying wood, and other organic matter, with a pH of 5.0 to 6.5 and no detectable hardness (conductivity less than 50).

For blackwater species like A. elizabethae, A. gibbiceps, A. paucisquamis, A. mendezi, A. diplotaenia, etc., the care requirements can be very challenging for beginners. They are also known to be difficult to reproduce consistently even under ideal water conditions.

Tank-raised Specimens

Tank-raised Apistogramma individuals are greatly preferred over wild-caught ones for two main reasons. They are fairly easy to find and acclimate much more easily to home aquariums, making them better choices for beginners who do not want to bother with specialized water conditions. Additionally, being tank-raised, they are accustomed to eating prepared foods.

Popular Apistogramma species, such as A. borelli, A agassiziiA. macmasteri, and A. cacatuoides, are widely available in certain pet store chains and online retailers. As a bonus, their cheap price tags make them even more attractive for those on a budget.

Peaceful Temperament

For some species, it is necessary to house them in harems with one male to two or three females because they employ strictly polygamous and monogamous mating strategies. During spawning, males can become extremely aggressive and choosy towards females.

On the other hand, beginner-friendly Apistogramma species are usually opportunistic polygamy and monogamy, which means that a male will mate with multiple females as the opportunity arises, resulting in higher reproductive success. In most cases, they can be housed with other different Apistogramma species.

 Apistogramma Species Mating Systems and aggression level

It’s worth noting that although strictly monogamous males can be very picky about their mates, once they have paired up, their peaceful nature makes them good choices for small community tanks.

The best Apistogramma for beginners that fit the bill of being peaceful include members from the regani, steindachneri, and macmasteri groups. These fish are not only good-natured but also among some of the most stunning Apistos that are easy to breed.

5 Recommended Beginner Apistogramma Dwarf Cichlids

As one of the largest groups of cichlids available in the aquarium trade, it can be intimidating to know which fish to pick for the first time.

To help you quickly populate your aquarium with Apistogramma species, here are five of the easiest Apistos to get you started.

#1 Apistogramma borellii (Umbrella Cichlid)

Apistogramma borellii Opal

The Apistogramma borellii, also known as the Umbrella cichlid, is one of the most popular and arguably the #1 easiest Apistogramma that do well in a beginning fish tank.

These 2-inch dwarf cichlids are especially robust. Tank-raised specimens can handle a wide range of pH from 5.0 to 8.0. Because of their small size, they can be kept in a 15-gallon aquarium.

Speaking of the colors and markings, they come in several domestic color morphs with a lot of red, blue, and yellow. Vibrant blue coloration and red caudal fins make these fish a colorful addition to a community freshwater aquarium.

This species is quite easy to breed in captivity, even by accident. Plus, A. borellii complexes belong to the regani Group, the members tend to be opportunistically monogamous during breeding seasons. Therefore, they are quite peaceful and less territorial.

#2 Apistogramma macmasteri (Red Shoulder Dwarf Cichlid)

Apistogramma macmasteri

One of the factors that impact how to choose a beginner Apistogramma fish is “how hard it is to keep them?” The Apistogramma macmasteri, also known as Red Shoulder Dwarf Cichlid, stands out in this regard.

These dwarf cichlids come from the macmasteri Group, and the dominant male displays opportunistic polygamy. As mentioned earlier, given a chance, the male will breed with multiple females instead of spending much time guarding and defending its territory.

It is an incredibly beautiful fish, known for its bright red shoulder patches, which can be quite prominent in males. When mating, brooding females can be differentiated primarily by their shimmering yellow coloration.

At almost 3 inches (7.6 cm) long, these easy-to-care-for fish are not too picky about water parameters. As with A. borellii, they can adapt well to a variety of water environments. However, they are more prone to several diseases at lower water temperatures, where A. borellii can still thrive.

#3 Apistogramma viejita


Did you know that virtually all the fish sold as “Apistogramma viejita” are actually either A. macmasteri or a hybrid resulting from selective breeding between A. macmasteri and A. viejita, or other undescribed species within the macmasteri Group?

Despite this, those domestic strains are still a good choice for beginners who want to enjoy the beauty of Apistogramma without too much hassle. 

Just like A. macmasteri, A. viejita has the ability to live in various water conditions. However, the water should be acidic (pH <7) and moderately soft (dH <10º), and they are susceptible to bacterial infections in harder, more alkaline waters.

#4 Apistogramma sp. ‘rotpunkt’

Many experienced Apistogramma keepers agree that this undescribed species is undoubtedly a beginner dwarf cichlid to keep because of its striking golden-yellow hue, small size, and simple maintenance. During spawning, their coloration becomes even more stunning and vibrant.

This 2 inches (5 cm) Apistogramma is a lesser-known fish to find in the hobby. Thanks to its small size, it can be kept in pairs in 10-gallon tanks or larger.

This species is very robust and is easy to breed. The water requirements for spawning are not crucial. Plus, they have a great appetite and show an interest in almost all kinds of food. Frozen, dried, or live foods are all welcomed by them!

#5 Apistogramma steindachneri

Apistogramma steindachneri
Photo: Gert Blank

The beautiful A. steindachneri is the largest of all Apistos, growing up to 4 inches (10 cm) in length. It is also a prolific breeder, capable of laying up to 250 eggs in a single spawn. You might be surprised to find that it can even tolerate alkaline conditions.

The bad news is that you won’t find this fish in the hobby due to the more lucrative market for newly discovered species. If you’re lucky enough to acquire this uncommon species, take advantage of the opportunity.


Is Apistogramma trifasciata beginner friendly?

Apistogramma trifasciata, also known as the “Three-Striped Apisto,” is a typical strictly polygamous species that must be kept in trios in tanks larger than 20 (Long). Males are extremely aggressive towards females who are not willing to breed, making them not a good candidates for novice Apistogramma owners.

Is Apistogramma cacatuoides beginner friendly?

Although A. cacatuoides doesn’t really need soft and acidic water to reproduce successfully, it’s a large, strictly polygamous species that requires a large tank and is known for its aggressive and territorial behavior. For more info, read the full Apistogramma cacatuoides care article.


Hopefully, this article has given you a better idea of which Apistogramma species is best for beginners. Whether you decide to set up a breeding project or a display community aquarium, A. borellii is the one you can be proud to have in your aquarium.

If you are new to the dwarf cichlid hobby and want to learn more great tips and tricks, check out our Apistogramma section to get started.

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Ivan Yeoh
Ivan Yeoh

I’ve been working with fish for the past 12 years, and I can honestly say that it has never been a dull day. In my time, I’ve worked at the largest fish farm in Singapore – so you could say I know a thing or two about keeping things running smoothly in watery environments.

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