Jewel Cichlids

Scarlet coloured, and moderate in size and temperament, the Jewel cichlids of the genus Hemichromis make perennial aquarium favourites. They’re cheap, easy to feed, easy to keep and easy to breed, and their all-round hardiness means that they’ve made their way into all types of tropical aquariums over the years. 

But what do we really know about them? Most Hemichromis top out at about four inches total length, and are red, with blue spots, yet the type species, Hemichromis fasciatus reaches 10 inches in length, is olive coloured with five large black blotches and looks more like a Jaguar cichlid than a small, round Jewel. 

Jewel cichlids prefer soft water, yet H.frempongi lives in some of the hardest water there is, while H.guttatus lives everywhere from acidic blackwaters to brackish lagoons. It’s their hardiness which has aided their aquarium survival but the eclectic mixture of fish they’re often mixed with – from neon tetras to Oscars, has earned them an unjust reputation for aggression.   

Feelers out – what’s about?

Fishbase recognises 11 species of Hemichromis although about 20 are mentioned in total, with around 10 ‘new’ species awaiting description or needing to be slotted into the 11 already described species. In the hobby, we know Hemichromis bimaculatus, paynei, guttatus, lifalili, cristatus and stellifer quite well, although what we think of as the most common – bimaculatus – may not be in the hobby at all! Paynei probably isn’t either, and nearly every bright red species with blue spots we know of as H.lifalili is probably guttatus

Species recognition is really difficult and what makes it worse is that there may also be hybrids, with one of the most frequently available species, the very blue H. sp. ‘neon’ coming to us from south-east Asian fish farms, being of unknown origin. A new fish on the block is the small and beautiful Hemichromis sp.’Moanda’.

PFK’s Nathan Hill had some a while back, and we would probably agree that they were some of the most beautiful and peaceful Jewels he had ever kept. To me they looked like H.cristatus, others have them and say they are H.lifalili while some pictures of them on the net have characteristics more like that of H.stellifer. I pride myself on my cichlid ID skills but if I spy a Jewel cichlid, try putting a moniker on it and get it wrong, I won’t be losing any sleep over it. Indeed it’s half the fun of keeping them. 

The cool school

It’s the uncertainty of species and the thrill of the chase in finding new ones which provide the pull for cichlidophiles. Jewel cichlids reside in almost every aquatic store in the UK, yet every so often you can give one a double-take, or a pair in unusual breeding colouration and maybe, just maybe, you’ll have found something different. H.stellifer used to be a rare fish, yet search them out now and you’ll find them. I even found H.cerasogaster in the early naughties and H.letourneauxi and H.exul have come into the hobby via German specialist wholesalers. 

The very different looking H.elongatus is available wild-caught, but if you want to show off to your cichlid keeping mates you’ll have a breeding pair of the hard water H.frempongi.

Then there are the real exotics like the undescribed H sp.Guinea 1 and H.sp. Guinea 2. The so-called Dark Continent may well be hiding more gems from the genus Hemichromis, and as beautiful, if not more beautiful than those we currently keep.

Aquarium keeping

Before housing them you must first split Hemichromis into its two very different groups – the large, aggressive, predatory Five spotted cichlids, H.fasciatus, elongatus and frempongi, which will need a five by two by two foot tank, and the smaller, more colourful and better-behaved guttatus, lifalili and stellifer. The smaller species can be housed in aquariums upwards of three feet in length. Put them in a tank of four feet and over and they’ll even breed and protect fry while still tolerating their tank mates. 

Furnish any Jewel cichlid tanks with robust plants, rocks and wood, with good quality water and no fish small enough to swallow and they will be incredibly easy to keep and reward you with superb colour. A settled Jewel (with the exception of the orange coloured cerasogaster,) should turn scarlet in colour and those blue spots, correctly known as iridophores, should really shine. Jewels cichlids are probably the reddest naturally occurring cichlid species there is and with fishkeeping being such a visual hobby, colour is a really big draw.

Filtration can vary from internal to external power filters with either soft or hard water suiting, and neither condition dissuading breeding. Eggs are laid out in the open and protected by both parents. Eggs vary in number depending on species, adult size and maturity, though usually number in the hundreds, and parents are guaranteed to offer first cichlid keepers that magical brood care and herding of fry around the aquarium, which also makes for magical photo opportunities.

Fry will graze algae and detritus for microscopic foods so if your Jewels spawn, let the substrate and other surfaces fur-up and supplement with powdered flake and newly hatched brine shrimp. I’ve witnessed my male Hemichromis give themselves up to their cloud of fry and become grazing bars, the fry glancing mucus off their bodies like discus do. 

Don’t overproduce! 

So with your appetite well and truly whetted for some of the original African cichlids do take some advice on their breeding. Jewel cichlids reproduce easily and prolifically, I’m guessing to combat heavy predation pressures in the wild. In the aquarium your dead rare pair of sp.”Moanda” at say £10 each will delight when they first spawn and you’ll be counting the £ signs all the way back to the aquatic store to trade them in, but don’t get your hopes up. 

Of the fifty or so fish the store had in, some twenty or so pairs may have formed, been sold off and spawned, each raising say 300 fry. In just one spawning your Moanda and their siblings may have caused a Moadan glut in your part of the country, devaluing themselves, and that’s just the first spawning! Either resist the temptation to keep a pair or leave the juveniles with the parents, which will slow down the breeding cycle.


The Five spotted jewels will need large tankmates, with Synodontis catfish or armoured South American catfish fitting the bill perfectly. The standard-sized jewels will mix with any medium-sized tropical fish species like Black widow tetras, Rosy barbs, gouramis, and rainbowfish but avoid, small delicate species like Guppies, Neon tetras or Siamese fighters as they may be eaten or killed. The biotope creators however will relish the challenge of recreating their chosen Jewel cichlid species’ natural home. 

Set up a Nigerian biotope and Elephantnoses, Kribs, African red eye tetras and African longfin tetras are the order of the day, along with some Crinum and Bolbitis plants for good measure. African Barbus fit in here too. Or what about a Congolese biotope with Anubias, Distichodus, Phenacogrammus and other riverine African cichlids like Steatocranus? Now we’re talking…  

Getting started

You’ll need a mature aquarium of six weeks old and older to add your Jewel cichlids. Put some other, non-aggressive fish in first as add the Jewels first and it will just become a breeding tank and other newer additions may not be taken to so kindly. Watch the Jewels in the store tank before you buy. You want active, colourful fish with all their fins in tact and plump, round bellies.

I don’t recommend keeping them with lake Malawi cichlids for lots of different reasons including diet and breeding behaviour so I wouldn’t want to see my prospective purchases for sale in the same tank. Observe the size and shape of the individuals within the group. males should be larger, longer bodied and with larger fins. Females, short in the body, smaller, slightly smaller head and oblong-shaped in the belly when full with eggs. 

If wanting to obtain a pair the best bet is to buy four or five, opting for two which look the most different from the others to hedge your bets. Don’t buy from “mixed jewel cichlid” batches and you could be buying fish from four or five species or even crosses.

If you can buy them small, at say 5cm or less, this is best as you can place them with large congo tetras and medium-sized Synodontis and for a few months they won’t be thinking about getting too territorial or breeding too soon, but if you’re unlucky and offer perfect conditions to a mature pair they spawn within days.

If you have two pairs expect them to separate into two halves of the same tank with lots of flaring, sparing and occasional jaw locking by the males. This is when medium-sized tetras or barbs come in handy as they then act as dither fish, being active and catching the male’s gaze, yet not getting too close as to be bitten and also giving the female a rest from the sexually charged male. 

In the wild, adult pairs of Hemichromis elongatus are known to take up territories as large as 20×5 metres, but plant and decorate heavily and your smaller domestic Jewels should be happy inside of 18×18”.  

Picture credit By Ventus55 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Jeremy Gay

Author of three fishkeeping books and lifelong fishkeeper. Experience includes editor of Practical Fishkeeping magazine, editor of Pet Product Marketing magazine, multi award- winning livestock manager and aquatic store manager.