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Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid – Apistogramma cacatuoides


Is the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid suitable for a community aquarium?

The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) should most certainly be considered to be a good choice for a community fish. It will fit in well into a community tank. It is a small, shy fish but, like many Cichlids, can be very territorial when breeding. The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) may grow up to around 3 inches or more (male) and around 2 inches (female) and is mainly carnivorous. It is too small significantly 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

CategoryKey Facts
Common name(s)Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)
Scientific nameApistogramma cacatuoides
Originate fromAmazon River basin, in tributaries of the Amazon, Solimões and Ucayali and rivers from the Pachitea River to Tabatinga in Peru and Colombia in South America
Care requiredEasy to care for and very beautiful
TemperamentRelatively placid harem fish
Colour & FormTorpedo-shaped body with very elegant finnage
LifespanUp to 5 years
Adult size3 inches – Male – 2 inches – Female
DietCarnivorous – eats Daphnia, Bloodworm, Tubifex worms and pellet food in the aquarium.
Aquarium size36 inches in length or greater
Compatible withMost other Tetras, Barbs, 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. Avoid fin-nippers
BreedingEasy if you put the fish in the right environment.
Water temp75 – 81 Fahrenheit
Water pH605 to 8.0
Water hardness (dGH or dH)2 to 10 dGH

From where does the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) originate?

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is found in the Amazon River basin, in tributaries of the Amazon, Solimões and Ucayali and rivers from the Pachitea River to Tabatinga in Peru and Colombia in South America. 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is usually found in nature in narrow, slow-flowing, blackwater streams and creeks with plenty of sunken leaf-litter, roots and caves and the amount of water flow will determine how this species will breed.

What are the basic characteristics of the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

  • The average lifespan of Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is up to five years but this can vary depending on tank conditions and general health.
  • Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) prefers fairly acidic to almost neutral water, with a pH of 6.5 to 8.0 and a temperature range between 75 and 81 degrees Fahrenheit and from 1 to 10 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, Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 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. Bear in mind that the natural habitat of the species is narrow streams. Water changes are beneficial because they reduce or remove any toxins from the existing water.
  • The “new” water needs to be matured so that is is very close to the required chemistry of the aquarium in which it will be added.
  • Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) will grow up to around 3.0 inches in length (males) and up to 2 inches in length (females).
  • Generally, only one male will develop the very ornate finnage seen in the image above. Other males will more resemble females but will try to mate with females if they can get away with it. If the “alpha” male dies then one of the other males will then develop the plumage of the “alpha” male.
  • The female is less colorful than the male and tends closely to resemble the Yellow Dwarf Cichlid. The featured image, above, shows the male of the species.
  • Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) will, if threatened, hide in small crevices or may burrow into the substrate unless it is threatened by a fish of similar size. That said, Cichlids are generally both bold and territorial so the threat would need to be significant.
  • Although the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 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 and sunken almond leaves and other leaf litter to provide shade will create an ideal living environment for this timid little fish.
  • Including smooth rocks, caves, crevices and/or slate on the aquarium floor will encourage the female to lay her eggs.
  • A “blackwater” environment is the natural habitat of the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) so including decomposing Indian almond leaves and/or driftwood will help to produce the tannins required to reproduce that habitat.
  • As with other dwarf cichlids, the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) prefers subdued lighting.

What is the physical appearance of the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) has a torpedo-shaped 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 silver-grey color with a horizontal grey – black stripe running along the line of the spine from behind the eye to the point above the start of the anal fin. The head, and as far back as the gill plates, is dullish grey in color and the lips are somewhat thickened. 

The coloring of the female tends to brighter than that of the male, being a pale yellow in color but becomes a much more vivid yellow at spawning times. She has a distinct grey/black stripe running from behind the eye to the end of the caudal peduncle and into the root of the caudal fin. It would be easy to assume that the two fish are different species because they look so different.

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, body and fins of the female is a pale yellow in color (much more vivid during spawning) but there is usually a black “flash”, angled back towards the ventral fins, under the eyes.
  • The head of the male is rather thick-lipped and a dull grey in color. His black “flash” under the eye is much less distinct than his female counterpart.
  • The remainder of the body of the male is silver with a distinct grey-black line running from behind the eye to a point on the spinal line above the start of the anal fin.
  • He has a couple of zig-zag, grey/black horizontal lines beneath that spinal line and between that spinal line and the dorsal fin, there are other areas of grey both in the male and female.
  • The fins of females are, essentially golden yellow.
  • The dorsal fin of the female is serrated due to it having extended rays. The leading edge of the female’s dorsal fin is black and the rest is golden yellow. 
  • The male’s dorsal fin is much more exaggerated and elongated and much more elongated and pointed at the rear. Each ray seems distinct, rather like the plumage of a bird, with a black leading edge and a golden orange/yellow behind, often bordered with black.
  • The pectoral fins of the male and female are generally clear (hyaline). 
  • The ventral fins of the female have a distinct, black leading edge and are a golden yellow behind.
  • The anal fin of the female is the same as the yellow body-color, as is the caudal fin, which has a darker, upper leading-edge.
  • The ventral, anal and caudal fins of the male are, like the dorsal fin, somewhat exaggerated and elongated to the rear and equally lavishly colored. 
  • The caudal fin of males is a lyretail, with extended upper and lower leading edges.

The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is a dwarf 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. Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

  • The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is a great little community fish so it 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 or with known fin-nippers.
  • The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 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.
  • It is safe to say that the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is a “blackwater” species, preferring, as it does, soft, acidic water but it can (unlike most dwarf cichlids) tolerate slightly alkaline water.
  • Note that the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is a harem species where one male will have several female mates. 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlids are kept as a small shoal. The “alpha” 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. The other males will not develop the elaborate finnage of the “alpha” male and will resemble more the female
  • If the tank is large enough (36 inches or larger) and has well-broken sightlines then it is usually safe for a breeding pair to remain in the community unless your intention is to breed the species for distribution.
  • When purchasing Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) it is generally recommended to buy around six fish. It may be impossible to sex the fish when purchasing them as immature specimens. The Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is and biparental – the female will guard the eggs or brood and the male will provide overwatch.
  • The female is a cave-brooder to set up your tank so that there are caves in which she can lay her salmon-colored eggs. 
  • Since the male Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is a harem breeder, more than one female may require breeding caves at the same time so bear this in mind when establishing your aquarium.
  • The female will guard a territory with a radius of around 12 inches (i.e. 24 inches in diameter all around) so whilst a 36 inch tank may suffice for one pair, adding a second female may require a larger aquarium.
  • Overall, the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is a most attractive and most elegant addition to your aquarium.

What is the diet of Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) is primarily carnivorous 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)  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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (and many other species). Cichlid pellets are also a favorite.

What are the sexual differences in Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

It is relatively easy to distinguish the sex of the adult Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) because the adult male will be significantly larger and has much more colorful and elaborate finnage than the female. 

The rear of the male’s dorsal and anal fins are more extended than that of the female and are also pointed (extended) at the rear tips whilst that of the female is more rounded. The female is much smaller than the male and, at breeding times, has a much more colorful body.

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) – Female

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

What is a good aquarium size for Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

It is generally advised that the minimum tank size for a school of around six adult Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 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.

Floating and sunken leaves help to create the tannin levels, as does sunken driftwood.

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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) in a nano tank – it is unnatural. The only exception is if you intend to breed a pair of them in isolation and for this a 10-gallon tank, properly prepared will suffice.

Useful videos about the Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)

General behavior video of Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 

Spawning video of Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) 

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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

In total, the female Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) could lay up to 80 eggs in a single spawning. 

The eggs will hatch in around three to four days and the fry will become free-swimming after around five days more. 

It is advised that the male may become very aggressive so it may be wise to remove him after spawning. The female will take good care of the eggs and the fry.

When the eggs are laid and fertilized, the female will guard them zealously. If a spawning cave is used then the eggs will not need to be moved, as the female (in general) will tend to the eggs.

It is generally true that the female Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) makes a really good parent and will not prey on her own young.

The female Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) will generally lay her eggs in a cave or, sometimes under sunken leaves. 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 them.

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

Warmer water and/or more acidic water (lower pH) generally tend to produce a higher percentage of males.

An adult pair may spawn again around one month later but remember that the male may breed with two or more females so you will need to factor this into your planning and logistics, as you may have many hundreds of young fish.

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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)

You should prepare a tank of around 20-gallons in size with mature, soft, tannin-rich water with motion produced by an air-powered filter. The water should have a low level of light and broad-leaved plants as well as sunken driftwood together caves on the floor of the tank in which the female will lay her salmon-colored eggs. It is recommended that the substrate (if any) consists of a fine substrate (sand) without sharp edges. 

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) prefer to spawn in a cave so a spawning cave is recommended.

Feed up your Cichlids on brine shrimp and 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides) from preying on their own eggs and fry though cannibalism is certainly not characteristic of Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides).

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 three to four days depending on tank temperature and conditions and the fry will become free-swimming after five 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 80 young fish (per female) to distribute every month from a breeding harem. 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 Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid (Apistogramma cacatuoides)?

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.

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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