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Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid – Apistogramma norberti


Is the Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid suitable for a community aquarium?

The Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid 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 fish but, like many Cichlids, can be very territorial when breeding. The Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid may grow up to around 2.5 inches or more (male) and around 1.75 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

CategoryKey Facts
Common name(s)Apistogramma piauiensis
Scientific nameApistogramma piauiensis
FamilyCichlidae
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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid originate?

Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid was first discovered in a brook in the Río Tahuayo basin, but has also been found in the Río Tamshiyacu drainage, both minor tributaries draining into the Amazon in the Loreto region of northeastern Peru 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.

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.

Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid is usually found in nature in narrow, well-shaded, 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

  • The average lifespan of Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid is up to five to six years but this can vary depending on tank conditions and general health.
  • Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid prefers fairly acidic water, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 and a temperature range between 73 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit and from 1 to 4 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, Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid is a relatively recent discovery (at the time of writing).
  • It is unlikely that you will come across wild specimens (unless you go to Peru 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 of the aquarium in which it will be added.
  • Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid will grow up to around 2.5 inches in length (males) and up to 1.75 inches in length (females).
  • Males will establish their own territory and will tend 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 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.
  • 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). The featured image, above, shows the male in the foreground and a female behind.
  • Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid 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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid prefers subdued lighting but captive-bred specimens are much more used to aquarium lighting.

What is the physical appearance of the Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

The Norbert’s 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 has an underlying metallic-silver color across its entire body with each scale delineated clearly. The head of the adult male has lips that are somewhat thickened and are orange in color and the area below the eyes and onto the gill plates may reflect a similar orange hue. Behind the eye, is a distinctive, broad, blue-black line running along the spine to the caudal peduncle and bleeding into the root of the caudal fin. Under and along the bottom of the dorsal fin is a second blue-black line, more broken than the line along the dorsal line. There are distinct orange/yellow areas behind the gill plates and also in the caudal fin, towards the root. 

The coloring of the female tends to be very similar in color to the male, especially when in her breeding colors when she develops much more vivid coloring. She also has a blue-black slash leading backward and downward from the eyes to the gill plates and a faint, black stripe along the spinal line.

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 head of the male is rather thick-lipped and orange in color from the lips back to the area under the eye.
  • The dorsal fin of the male is relatively tall, being around half the height of the body and he will display this to great effect either to threaten another male or to impress a female. Just over half of the dorsal fin continues the metallic silver color. Each ray of the dorsal fin is quite distinctive, resembling, as it does, the plumage of a bird. Above the metallic gold elements of the dorsal fin, the top half is clear (hyaline) but the tips of each element of the fin are orange. The rear of the dorsal fin is significantly extended.
  • The pectoral fins are clear (hyaline) in the male.
  • The ventral fins are extended backward and are more-or-less clear (hyaline).
  • The anal fin of the male is also extended backward to a point and is typically a pale orange in color with a leading edge that is grey.
  • The caudal fin of the male is pale orange towards the caudal peduncle but gradually fades out to clear (hyaline).
  • The dorsal fin of the female is similar to that of the male. The fin is not as tall and is not as extended to the rear. The tips of the dorsal fin are also orange but are generally paler than her male counterpart.
  • The pectoral fins are clear (hyaline).
  • The ventral fins are extended backward and have an orange leading edge and then tend towards clear (hyaline).
  • The anal fin of the female is also extended backward to a point and is typically orange throughout.
  • The caudal fin tends to be an orange color towards the caudal peduncle but this gradually changes to clear (hyaline) towards the trailing edge.
  • The female tends to have much less distinctive coloring when she is not spawning, being that she is, at these times, quite pale, but her coloring comes into its full, vivid glory during spawning times.

The Norbert’s 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. This is not uncommon amongst small, captive-bred community fishes. Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid can be territorial when they are spawning it may be advised to move the spawning pair out of the community tank as they can become very territorial. 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

  • The Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid prefers soft, slightly 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.
  • Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid are 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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid is not really biparental – the female will guard the eggs or brood and will even drive away the male.
  • The female is a rock and substrate-brooder so set up your tank so that there are areas protected by surrounding rocks and/or roots or broad leaves in which she can lay her eggs. 
  • The female will guard the territory around her breeding area most zealously.
  • Overall, the Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid is the most attractive and most elegant addition to your aquarium.

What is the diet of Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

The Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid (and many other species). Cichlid pellets are also a favorite.

What are the sexual differences in Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

It is relatively easy to distinguish the sex of the adult Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid because the adult male will be significantly larger and differently colored than the female and also has slightly more elaborate finnage than the female (unless the female is spawning). 

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 8 months.

What is a good aquarium size for Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

It is generally advised that the minimum tank size for a school of around six adult Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid should be one of around 24 inches in length or more due to 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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid

General behavior video of Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid?

In total, the female Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid could lay up to 200 eggs in a single spawning. 

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 Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid will generally lay her eggs on the roof of a cave. 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 Norbert’s 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. 

Norbert’s 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 Norbert’s Dwarf Cichlid from preying on their own eggs and fry though cannibalism is certainly not characteristic of Norbert’s 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 200 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 Norbert’s 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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