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Masked Dwarf Cichlid – Apistogramma personata

Is the Masked Dwarf Cichlid suitable for a community aquarium?

The Masked Dwarf Cichlid should be considered to be a good choice for a community fish. It will fit well into a community tank provided that such a community tank is a blackwater environment, as it prefers very soft, acidic water with a pH as low as 4.0 up to around 5.5. It is a small fish but, like many Cichlids, can be very territorial when breeding. The Masked Dwarf Cichlid may grow up to around 2 inches or more (male) and around 1.5 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

CategoryKey Facts
Common name(s)Apistogramma piauiensis
Scientific nameApistogramma piauiensis
Originate fromParnaíba River basin, Brazil, in South America
Care requiredEasy to care for and very beautiful
TemperamentRelatively placid dwarf Cichlid
Colour & FormTorpedo-shaped body with very elegant finnage
LifespanUp to 5 years
Adult size2.5 inches – male – 1.75 inches – female
DietCarnivorous – eats Daphnia, Bloodworm, Tubifex worms, flake 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, or slightly acidic soft water
Avoid keeping withLarge and/or aggressive species in too small an aquarium. Also avoid keeping with other species of Apistogramma
BreedingEasy if you put the fish in the right environment.
Water temp68 – 84 Fahrenheit
Water pH4.5 to 6.0
Water hardness (dGH or dH)2 to 10 dGH

From where does the Masked Dwarf Cichlid originate?

Masked Dwarf Cichlid is found in the Río Inirida caño near El Remanso, Colombia/Brazil and the Uaupés River basin, part of the Amazon River basin in South America. It has probably been introduced elsewhere and has been captive-bred but, as always, I advise against introducing non-native species into local waters, as to do so can destabilize that established, natural habitat.

Aquarists will, almost invariably only be able to obtain captive-bred specimens, that have been selectively bred and are significantly more colorful than their wild ancestors.

Masked Dwarf Cichlid is usually found in nature in narrow, well-shaded, slow-flowing, acidic, 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

  • The average lifespan of Masked Dwarf Cichlid is up five years but this can vary depending on tank conditions and general health.
  • Masked Dwarf Cichlid prefers mildly acidic water, with a pH of 4.0 to 5.5 and a temperature range between 72 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit and from 1 to 4 dGH. All of that said, captive-bred specimens will become more accustomed to your local water conditions so these technical details are a guide and not a rule.
  • It is unlikely that you will come across wild specimens (unless you go to Brazil or Colombia and catch them) but if you do then they are unlikely to be a good community fish and will certainly be less colorful than selectively-bred, captive specimens, whereas captive-bred specimens have, over the generations, become much more acclimated to community-living.
  • 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 it is very close to the required chemistry and temperature of the aquarium in which it will be added.
  • Masked Dwarf Cichlid will grow up to around 2 inches in length (males) and up to 1.5 inches in length (females).
  • Males will establish their own territory and will tend aggressively to drive away other males but will be comfortable with females in their defined territory so they can certainly be considered to be harem breeders.
  • Different Apistogramma species should not be kept together unless you have a very large aquarium with well-broken sightlines.
  • If spawning, the female will drive away everything, including her mate, from the vicinity of the eggs and fry so, for the sake of community inhabitants, ensure that the aquarium is large enough to permit other inhabitants sufficient room not to be constantly harassed by a breeding female guarding her eggs and/or fry.
  • One possible solution to the protective nature of the spawning female in a community tank is to create spawning areas close to the ends of the aquarium (lengthways) so that the rest of the community will learn to avoid that area when the female is spawning.
  • A 36-inch tank will accommodate a breeding pair as part of a wider community but a larger tank is recommended if you plan to have more than one breeding pair (unless, for example) you have one male and more than one female and their spawning caves are well distanced.
  • The female is smaller and less distinctly colored than the male (unless spawning) and her finnage is far less elaborate than that of her mate.
  • Masked Dwarf Cichlid will generally dwell near the bottom of the water column and will prefer a fine, sandy 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”.
  • The Masked Dwarf Cichlid loves lots of leaf litter and will usually be found amongst a mass of leaves. Failing that, unless defending territory, the Masked Dwarf Cichlid will gravitate towards overhanging rocks.
  • In nature, the Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 little fish.
  • It is a matter of personal choice as to whether you provide a “natural-looking” environment or whether you add things like terracotta pots – the fish will not mind, either way. You are maintaining the environment so the decision is yours to make.
  • A “blackwater” environment is the natural habitat of the Masked Dwarf Cichlid so including decomposing, dried Indian Almond, Beech, Ketapang and Oak leaves and/or plenty of sunken driftwood will help to produce the tannins required to reproduce that habitat as well as a rich source of infusoria, loved by fry.
  • As with other dwarf cichlids, the Masked Dwarf Cichlid prefers subdued lighting but captive-bred specimens are much more used to aquarium lighting.

What is the physical appearance of the Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

The Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 comes in a variety of colors. The one shown in the featured image, above, is mainly bronze but can be slate grey or silver in color. The body coloring is darker on the upper body and paler below the spine.

  • The head of the adult male has lips that are somewhat thickened and match the coloring of the body.
  • The head back to the eyes reflects the body color above the jawline and a metallic blue below the jawline.
  • Beneath the eye, there is a dark stripe running downward and backward to the base of the gill plate.
  • The dorsal fin is very reminiscent of the plumage of a bird in that, towards the upper tips, the rays are quite distinct and give a very serrated appearance. Overall, the fin tends to be dark brown in color, especially along the rays and a paler brown in between the rays. The dorsal fin is almost the height of the body and is distinctly elongated and pointed at the rear.
  • The anal fin is also elongated and pointed and has a leading edge that reflects the body color but is otherwise brown, matching the dorsal fin. Along the length of the rear of the anal fin you will see alternating patches of dark brown and paler brown patches running along the rays, particularly toward the trailing edge.
  • The pectoral fins are clear (hyaline)
  • The ventral fins are mainly clear (hyaline) but may have a dark brown leading edge or a leading edge matching the darker upper body color. This may be determined by the origin of the fish an.or by its overall condition.
  • To the rear of the dorsal fin, at the start of the caudal peduncle there is a very distinctive, dark, false eyespot. There is also a dark area where the caudal peduncle ends, running into the part of the caudal fin closest to the body.
  • The caudal fin is almost lyretail in that its upper and lower edges extend somewhat to a point. The upper part of the caudal fin (around one third of the depth of the fin, is highlighted by having dark brown rays with almost clear (hyaline) tissue between the rays. The lower two thirds of the fin is somewhat lace-like in the it has around eight rows of dark brown patches on the rays separated by almost clear (hyaline) tissue in between and is very similar to the trailing third of the anal fin.

The coloring of the female tends to be different in color from the male, especially when in her breeding colors when she develops much more vivid yellow coloring. 

  • Outside spawning her underlying body color is silver/gray but, as with the male, this can vary somewhat.
  • She has a black, diagonal, backward-facing flash below her eye, common amongst female apistos.
  • Along the spinal line and starting roughly under the leading edge of the dorsal fin is a broken line of black patches that extends to the caudal peduncle.
  • The leading three rays of the dorsal fin are black-tipped – the first two being entirely black whilst the third is black at the upper half. The remainder of the dorsal fin tends to be yellow and the trailing edge is pointed, similar but much less grandiose than that of the male.
  • The pectoral fins tend to be clear (hyaline).
  • The ventral fins have black leading edges giving way to yellow tips and trailing edges.
  • The anal fin tends to be yellow and has a pointed tip.
  • The caudal fin is almost entirely yellow. It has the same black, vertically oriented oval shape at the root, again probably presenting a false eyespot.
  • As with many other apistos, the body color becomes a very vivid yellow during spawning.

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 fin coloring of the female is paler than the male but becomes much more vivid during spawning.
  • The dorsal fin of the male is relatively tall, being around the height of the body and he will display this to great effect either to threaten another male or to impress a female Each ray of the dorsal fin is quite distinctive, resembling, as it does, the plumage of a bird. The rear of the dorsal fin is significantly extended and pointed.
  • During spawning, the body color of the female becomes a very bright yellow (as seen in the video below) and the black markings become very distinct indeed.

The Masked Dwarf Cichlid is generally felt to be an excellent community fish but those who keep them suggest that if they are kept as a small shoal, they are really quite gregarious unless competing for a mate or guarding young. This is not uncommon amongst small, captive-bred community fishes. Masked Dwarf Cichlid can be very territorial when they are spawning so it may be advised to move the spawning pair out of the community tank as they can become very aggressive. Additionally, if in a dedicated breeding tank, then when the eggs are fertilized, remove the male because the female will keep driving him away.

What is the living environment for Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

  • The Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid prefers soft, acidic water and decomposing, dried Indian Almond, Beech, Ketapang and Oak leaves and/or driftwood will help to produce the tannins required to reproduce that habitat as well as a rich source of infusoria, loved by fry.
  • Masked Dwarf Cichlid make good parents for the brood that they are rearing – the female will tend to care for the brood and will even tend to drive away the male.
  • It is recommended that Masked Dwarf Cichlid is kept as a small shoal. 
  • Each male will create his own territory and will drive away other males but will accept females.
  • 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid it is generally recommended to buy around six fish (or more). It may be impossible to sex the fish when purchasing them as immature specimens. The Masked Dwarf Cichlid is not really biparental – the female will guard the eggs or brood and will even drive away the male.
  • The female will guard the territory around her breeding area most zealously.
  • Overall, the Masked Dwarf Cichlid is the most attractive and most elegant addition to your aquarium.

What is the diet of Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

The Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid (and many other species). Cichlid pellets are also a favorite.

What are the sexual differences in Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

It is relatively easy to distinguish the sex of the adult Masked Dwarf Cichlid because the adult male will be significantly larger and differently colored than the female and also has much more 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 those of the female less extended. The female is much smaller than the male and, at breeding times, has a much more colorful body than when she is not breeding.

Sexual maturity will occur at around 6 to 8 months.

What is a good aquarium size for Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

It is generally advised that the minimum tank size for a school of around six adult Masked Dwarf Cichlid should be one of around 36 inches in length or more despite the small size of the adults, particularly the female. 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 and also bear in mind that different Apistogramma species don’t tend to make good tankmates.

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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid 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 so long as you remove the male once the eggs have been fertilized.

Useful videos about the Masked Dwarf Cichlid

General behavior video of Masked Dwarf Cichlid

Spawning video of Masked Dwarf Cichlid

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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

In total, the female Masked Dwarf Cichlid could lay up to 70 eggs in a single spawning but, being a relatively recently catalogued species, more data is required to offer a more definitive estimate.

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

It is advised that the female may become very aggressive so it may be wise to remove the male 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.

It is generally true that the female Masked Dwarf Cichlid makes a really good parent and will not prey on her own young but it is not unknown for the female, if stressed, to eat her eggs, particularly if this is her first batch of eggs.

The female Masked Dwarf Cichlid will generally lay her eggs on the roof of a cave or in a crevice between rocks. The male will then swim under 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 – including her mate.

The male may service several females, like a harem.

After several weeks (in the region of four to eight weeks), the female will drive away her brood, though the male may permit them to remain in his territory unless he feels that males within that brood pose a threat to his dominance.

An adult pair may spawn again around one to two months 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid

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. 

Masked Dwarf Cichlid prefers to spawn in the substrate.

Feed up your Cichlids on baby 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid from preying on their own eggs and fry though cannibalism is certainly not characteristic of Masked Dwarf Cichlid.

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 (or fairly dark)  because eggs and fry can be particularly sensitive to the light.

The eggs will hatch typically in around two to three 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 70 young fish (per female) to distribute every month or two 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 Masked Dwarf Cichlid?

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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