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African Butterfly Cichlid – Anomalochromis thomasi


African Butterfly Cichlid - Anomalochromis thomasi

Is the African Butterfly Cichlid suitable for a community aquarium?

The African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) should most certainly be considered to be a community fish. It is ideal for inexperienced aquarists and will fit in well to a community tank. It is a small, shy fish but, like many Cichlids, can be very territorial when breeding. The African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) may grow up to around 3.5 inches and is omnivorous. It is unlikely to uproot plants, so a well-planted aquarium will be ideal.

What is the history of Cichlids?

Cichlids are a very ancient and extensive classification of fishes dating back millions of years before, for example, dinosaurs. Cichlids probably originated around 550 million years ago (give or take a month or two 😀) and there are somewhere in the region of 2,000 to 3,000 different species, of which around 1,700 have been classified (at the time of writing).

Cichlids can make excellent community fish but you should take care because not all Cichlids are good community fish and may devastate an established aquarium, treating their tankmates as food, so before choosing a Cichlid, please ensure that you know whether or not your choice will be appropriate to your needs.

What are the key facts about the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

CategoryKey Facts
Common name(s)African Butterfly Cichlid
Scientific nameAnomalochromis thomasi
FamilyCichlidae
Originate fromGuinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa
Care requiredEasy to care for and very beautiful
TemperamentRelatively placid shoaling fish
Colour & FormTorpedo-shaped body with very elegant finnage
LifespanUp to 5 years
Adult size3.5 inches – Male larger than female
DietOmnivorous – eats Daphnia, Bloodworm, Tubifex worms, flake and pellet food in the aquarium.
Aquarium size36 inches in length or greater
Compatible withMost other Danios, Guppies and other livebearers, dwarf cichlids, smaller Gouramis, catfish and loaches that live in fairly neutral, soft water
Avoid keeping withLarge and/or aggressive species in too small an aquarium
BreedingEasy if you put the fish in the right environment.
Water temp75 – 84 Fahrenheit
Water pH5.5 to 7.5
Water hardness (dGH or dH)1 to 18 dGH

From where does the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) originate?

African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) originates from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. It has been introduced elsewhere but, as always, I advise against introducing non-native species into local waters, as to do so can destabilize that established, natural habitat.

The African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) is usually found in nature in moderate to strong flowing waters, so this is best reproduced in your aquarium.

What are the basic characteristics of the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

  • The lifespan of African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) is around three to five years but this can vary depending on tank conditions and general health.
  • African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) prefers fairly neutral water, with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5 and a temperature range between 75 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit and from 1 to 18 dGH. All of that said, captive-bred specimens have, over many generations, become more accustomed to your local water conditions so these technical details are a guide and not a rule. That said, African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) will thrive well in mature, soft, tannin-rich water and may suffer if water conditions are not maintained.
  • Regular water changes are recommended, changing around half of the water each week. 
  • African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) will grow up to around 3.5 inches in length (males) and up to 3 inches in length (females).
  • The female is more colorful than the male, despite being smaller.
  • African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) will generally dwell near the bottom of the water column and will enjoy a fine substrate, as it is something of a “sifter” when feeding in that it will take in a mouthful of the substrate and sift out any food, expelling the remaining substrate. The term for this is, “geophagous,” which translates (from its Greek origin) to “earth-eater”.
  • In nature, the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) will, if threatened, burrow down to 12 inches in the mud of its natural habitat
  • Although the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) enjoys sifting the substrate, there is no problem with aquascaping by planting in the substrate, provided that the plants are appropriately weighted. Including dense wood and smooth rocks or slate and adding floating plants such as Java Moss and Cabomba as well as floating almond leaves to provide shade will create an ideal living environment for this timid little fish.
  • Including smooth rocks and/or slate on the aquarium floor will encourage the female to lay her eggs.

What is the physical appearance of the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

The African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) has a relatively slim, body in profile and is also quite slim when viewed from above or from the front. The body of the adult male has a pale bronze color with iridescent blue/silver highlights on the scales and under the eye. The coloring of the female tends to be better defined than that of the male.

A few more characteristics may be described as follows:

  • In young fish, it is difficult to distinguish between the sexes, so if you are purchasing young fish then buy half-a-dozen and you should have a mix of the sexes. 
  • The head is fairly unremarkable, being a silver-grey in color but there is usually a silver “flash” under the eyes.
  • The gill plates are an iridescent silver with overtones of gold and russet, depending on the lighting.
  • There are eight distinct rows of tiny pearl-like dots running horizontally along the body of the fish from the gill plates to the end of the caudal peduncle.
  • Both males and females have two false eyespots; on in the middle of the body and the other at the rear of the caudal peduncle and this spot is always located on the line of the spine.
  • The dorsal and anal fins are elongated and more pointed at the rear in the male. You may also notice a russet-colored tip on the rays on these fins. The rays tend to have a silver tint to them and between the rays, the fins are clear (hyaline).
  • The pectoral and ventral fins are generally clear (hyaline).
  • The caudal fin has silvery rays and is clear (hyaline) between the rays.
  • You will notice, if you look closely, that the tiny pearls along the body sit over the top of the two false eyes.

The African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) is a small-sized Cichlid. It is generally felt to be very timid but those who keep them suggest that if they are kept as a small shoal, they are really quite gregarious. This is not uncommon amongst small, community fishes. African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)can be territorial when they are spawning but not so aggressive as to make it essential to move them out of the community tank; they merely protect the area where they lay their eggs and tend to their fry.

What is the living environment for African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

  • African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) is a great little community fish so can be kept with other relatively placid species, avoiding the more aggressive species.
  • Don’t keep them with larger species that may wish to treat them as food.
  • The African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) loves shade will appreciate floating leaves and pretty well any broadleaf will assist the condition of the tank, as not only do such leaves provide shade but also, as they decompose, they provide infusoria for any fry in the tank. This also helps adults to determine that breeding conditions are good because they will appreciate the fact that there is a ready source of food for newly-hatched fry.
  • Note that the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) will generally mate for life (or, at some point, kill their partner, which, I suppose, amounts to the same thing) and they will make good parents for the brood that they are rearing – the female will tend to care for the brood whilst the male will protect the territory.
  • It is recommended that African Butterfly Cichlids are kept as a small shoal until two of them form a breeding pair, after which, the remainder could be moved to a different tank. The male, in particular, is territorial during spawning but setting up the tank so that sightlines are broken up will mitigate the risks of territorial behavior in general. 
  • When purchasing African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) it is generally recommended to buy around six fish. It may be impossible to sex the fish when purchasing them as immature specimens but, in due course, they will find their own mate and are, from that point, both monogamous and biparental.
  • Having a clear, broad area of a fine substrate will be ideal for your African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) because, in nature, they tend to burrow if they feel threatened.
  • Your tank should include rocks (and/or slate) with a smooth surface on which the female will lay her eggs. Since the eggs are adhesive, large, smooth rocks, or, perhaps, some slate on the floor of the tank will be ideal for the laying of eggs. The female African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) may even lay her eggs on the glass on the bottom of the aquarium.
  • Overall, the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) is the most attractive and most elegant addition to your aquarium.

What is the diet of African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) is primarily omnivorous and has a preference for live food, feeding on a range of invertebrates in nature. In the aquarium a diet of live or frozen Artemia, Bloodworm and Daphnia are recommended and African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)  will readily eat pelleted food and flake food. That said, they prefer to stay close to the bottom of the water column and sift through the substrate for their food. For this reason, a fine substrate is recommended. You could also make a “cake” of crushed vegetables and fruit in natural gelatin, as this is a reputed favorite of the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi – and many other species). Cichlid pellets are also a favorite.

What are the sexual differences in African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

It is relatively easy to distinguish the sex of the adult African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) because the adult male will be slightly larger and less colorful than the female. 

The rear of the male’s dorsal and anal fins is more extended than that of the female and is also pointer at the rear tip whilst that of the female is more rounded. The female has a visible ovipositor (egg duct) just in front of the anal fin at breeding times.

Sexual maturity will occur when the young adults are between three inches in length, so they are more-or-less full-grown when they become sexually mature.

What is a good aquarium size for African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

It is generally advised that the minimum tank size for a school of around six adult African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) should be one of around 36 inches in length or more due to the size of the adults, particularly the male. This is especially true if you intend to keep other, similar-sized species with them but please be aware of the territorial behavior at breeding times.

In a community tank, including some floating Java Moss and other floating plants, together with large rock formations will give other fish and any fry a safe haven from larger or more vigorous species and it certainly helps to break up the sightlines in the aquarium.

There is a predominance of so-called “Nano tanks” available but, being old-fashioned, I prefer my fishes to live in an environment which, at least, attempts to mimic nature, rather than living in what I would liken to a piscine prison cell. Please don’t keep any African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) in a nano tank – it is unnatural.

Useful videos about the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)

General care video of African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) 

Spawning video of African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) 

Are you keeping tropical fish as a hobbyist or as a breeder?

This is a question too often ignored in my humble opinion. If you are a breeder (either commercially or as a hobbyist who gives away young fish to other hobbyists) then you will need the resources to move fish into breeding tanks in order to maximize the yield of fry that will grow up either for sale or to give them away.

If you are keeping fish for the joy of observing them in something resembling a natural habitat then you may feel that it is appropriate to allow nature to take its course and, as and when different species breed, then many of the eggs (and surviving fry) will be eaten either by their parents or by other fish in your aquarium. This is the natural order of things because this is what will happen in nature. The fittest may well survive to reach adulthood.

If the species is large and/or if the species has a large number of young during a spawning then you need to have a well-established plan as to how you intend to manage what could be several hundred young fish at every spawning. Even your local pet store may not have the capacity to take them off your hands, even if they wanted to. This aspect of keeping fish is the most often overlooked but should be high on the agenda of all responsible aquarists.

Ultimately, the choice is yours to make.

How do you breed the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

In total, the female African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) could lay up to several hundred eggs during a single spawning but can lay as many as 500 eggs. 

The eggs will hatch in around two days and the fry will become free-swimming after around three days more. When the eggs are laid and fertilized, the parent will move them to a preprepared pit in the substrate until they hatch.

It is generally true that the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) make really good parents and will not prey on their own young. In general, the male will protect the territory whilst the female will tend to care for the eggs and fry.

The female African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) will generally lay her eggs in a line along a slate, rock, sometimes on a broad leaf or on the glass at the bottom of the aquarium. The male will then swim over that line of eggs and fertilize them. This process will then be repeated until the female has laid all of her eggs and the male has fertilized then and the result will be several rows of fertilized eggs.

The eggs will be moved into a pre-prepared pit by the parents.

Once the spawning is completed and until the fry become free-swimming, provided that the parents remain with the brood, they will protect the eggs with some zeal, warning off other fishes that get too close.

The adult pair may spawn again around one month later.

In a well-planted aquarium with floating Java Moss, the Cichlid will often spawn in the community tank and at least some of the fittest fry will survive to adulthood by hiding in the Java Moss.

In a breeding tank, it is always a good idea to include a few aquatic shrimp, as they will consume any unfertilized or dead eggs but won’t tend to predate on viable eggs.

How to set up a breeding tank for African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)

You should prepare a tank of around 24 inches in size with mature, soft, flowing water. The water should have a low level of light and broad-leaved plants together with some well-cleaned slate (or other smooth rock) on the floor of the tank upon which the female will lay her adhesive eggs. It is recommended that the substrate consists of a fine substrate (sand) without sharp edges. The African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) may also lay eggs on broad leaves or in rows in the substrate or even on the glass bottom of the tank.

Cichlids prefer to spawn where the water is flowing so a decent pump is required to synthesize that flow.

Feed up your Cichlids on bloodworm, which will sink to the bottom and burrow into the substrate. Your Cichlid will love rooting out the bloodworm and it can help to trigger spawning.

You may also wish to introduce baby brine shrimp, mosquito larvae or tubifex worms as an inducement to reproduction and live food will be very much appreciated. This will also tend to divert the attention of the African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi) from preying on their own eggs and fry though cannibalism is certainly not characteristic of African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi).

Reduce the water movement by turning down the pump once the eggs are laid – only regular aeration is now required. Keep the lights off (or very low) and the tank dark (of fairly dark)  because eggs and fry can be particularly sensitive to the light.

The eggs will hatch typically in two days depending on tank temperature and conditions and the fry will become free-swimming after three days more. 

Keep the tank more-or-less unlit for the first week or so then gradually increase the lighting. Bear in mind that the eggs and fry of a fish as small as the Cichlid will be tiny indeed so you may need to use a magnifier “app” on your smartphone or a macro lens to see anything at all. A collection of eggs is generally easy to spot, as they look like a collection of tiny pearls.

The newly hatched fry will feed firstly on their yolk sac (for around 24 hours) and remain static but, once free-swimming, can be fed infusoria and will also thrive on egg yolk during the first two to four weeks. 

Once the fry are free-swimming and their yolk sacs are depleted, then add baby brine shrimp and/or white worms. Once the fry are sufficient in size not to be treated as a snack then they can be introduced into the community tank. Before moving the adolescent fish into the community tank ensure that you have balanced the water temperatures to mitigate the risk of White Spot or other diseases being triggered.

The young fish should be left in the care of the parents for around two to three weeks before removing them and distributing them based on your pre-planned solution. Remember that you may have up to 500 young fish to distribute every month from a breeding pair. It is not the best idea to breed fish simply because you can, you need to have in place the logistics to distribute young fishes to genuine distributors.

Unless you are breeding commercially, you may wish to consider moving the fry into the community tank sooner rather than later or simply not put the adults in a dedicated breeding tank. It may seem harsh but the adult fish in the tank will deal with any fry that are unlikely to survive to adulthood in the wild and you are synthesizing, to the best of your ability, a wild environment. The fittest fry will probably survive whilst the rest will be dealt with by the community.

Is there a special diet for breeding African Butterfly Cichlid (Anomalochromis thomasi)?

Adult Cichlids don’t need any particular inducement to breed. That said, it has been suggested that adding tubifex, bloodworm or mosquito larva may encourage them, presumably because the addition of a new food may “fool” the fish into thinking that it is breeding time. From my own experience, I would always recommend keeping all of your fish in the best possible condition at all times, as this is good for the wellbeing of your fish.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Mike Wheeler

I started keeping freshwater tropical fish in 1972 and it has been something of a passion ever since. In this website, my aim is to build up an everyman's guide to help the everyday aquarist get the best from this inspiring and entertaining hobby.

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