Pike Cichlids

Pike Cichlids

Pike cichlids are a fascinating group of vigorous, predatory South American cichlids belonging to the genus Crenicichla. A majority of the species is found in the Amazon region where they inhabit rivers, streams, lakes and pools, but you can find pike cichlids over most of the South American continent. To the south, their realm proceeds down along the coast to Rio Negro in the central regions of Argentina, just north of Patagonia. To the north, their habitat includes Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and the island of Trinidad. Pike cichlids are however not found west of the Andes. 

Most pike cichlids are warm water fishes that require high temperatures in the aquarium, but there are a few notable exceptions to this rule. The Argentinean Crenicichla lacustris and the Uruguayan Crenicichla scotti are for instance found in colder environments and will appreciate lower temperatures in the aquarium. It is therefore important to study the species you are interested in before you bring it home; do not assume that all pike cichlids have the same preferences.


When you look at a pike cichlid, you can clearly see that this is a capable predator. A majority of the species sports an elongated body that ends in a broad, protrusible mouth. This body shape can be observed regardless of whether you are looking at a huge 24 inch specimen or one of the petite dwarf species that grow no bigger than 3-4 inches. Species that grow to be roughly 6-10 inches as adults are considered medium-sized pike cichlids.  

Hunting technique

The most commonly observed hunting technique among pike cichlids is to lurk behind a rock or sunken tree branches until an unsuspecting prey ventures close enough. The pike will then carry out a rapid, forceful chase to seize its prey. If you keep your pike cichlids in a large enough aquarium and feed them live food you will be able to enjoy this dynamic natural behavior. Pike cichlids will naturally appreciate rocks, driftwood etcetera in the aquarium to hide among.

A majority of the pike cichlid species feed primarily on fish, but a number of species have developed in other directions. The Brazilian pike cichlids named Crenicichla compressiceps and Crenicichla cyclostoma have for instance specialized in catching insects.

Keeping Pike Cichlids in aquariums

Many aquarists believe that pike cichlids are super-aggressive death machines that can only be housed alone and that will viciously attack each other as well as any other fish regardless of size and temperament. It is true that pike cichlids are highly skilled predators that will feed on a wide assortment of prey, and it is also true that they can be really aggressive in captivity, but if you are willing to learn more about pike cichlids before you get them you will see that there are many ways for the aquarist to handle this potential aggressiveness and set up a well functioning pike cichlid aquarium where the amount of aggression is kept at a bare minimum.

Many cichlids are renowned for being keen on redecorating their home; frequently ruining planted plants in the process. Pike cichlids are however equipped with a jaw structure that makes moving, pulling and tugging difficult for them, and they will therefore usually leave the aquarium decoration alone. They can still dig up the occasional plant, but compared to for instance the Central American Cichlasoma cichlids, they are on friendly terms with the plant life in the aquarium. If problems still occur, switch from planted plants to species that can be anchored on drift wood and rocks or left floating.

Aquarium size

The recommended aquarium size will depend on which pike cichlid species you chose and how many specimens you wish to keep together. Their size if your fish and the presence of any tank mates will naturally also effect how small the aquarium can be.

If your aquarium is no bigger than 30 gallons, it is advisable to choose small and comparatively peaceful species such as Crenicichla notophthalmus, Crenicichla regani or Crenicichla urosema. More aggressive dwarf species, e.g. Crenicichla compressiceps, should not be kept in aquariums smaller than 55 gallons due to their temperament. Keep in mind that small aquariums are harder to maintain than big aquariums, especially when feeding live and frozen foods. Using bigger aquariums than the bare minimum will help you keep the water quality up.

Instead of aggressive dwarf species, a 55 gallon aquarium can be used to house mid-sized and comparatively peaceful species such as Crenicichla britskii, Crenicichla geayi and Crenicichla cf. menesezi. If your aquarium is even bigger, you can have your pick among most pike cichlids, except for really big ones such as Crenicichla johanna, Crenicichla lugubris and the huge Crenicichla sp. Xingu I (commonly known as Orange pike cichlids), which can only be housed in 125 gallon aquariums or bigger.  

If you are in the process of choosing between two aquariums of different size for your pike cichlids, always go for the bigger one. In a large and roomy aquarium, pike cichlids will exhibit a much broader repertoire of natural behaviors. 

Water quality

Dwarf cichlids should only be kept by aquarists capable of keeping the water quality up in the aquarium, since they are very sensitive to poor water quality and will die of you allow the water quality to drop. The same is true for the big, small-scaled species of the Lugubris-group. The native environment for dwarf pikes and Lugubris species are the black waters of the Amazon where the amounts of pollution and bacteria are very low. Such conditions, including the correct water hardiness and pH-value, must be mimicked in the aquarium. Even a small increase in the levels of organic waste in the aquarium can lead to hole-in-the-head disease in big pike cichlids, while the less resilient dwarf species simply die. Powerful filtration must be combined with large and frequent water changes if you want to house these species, and this is something that you have to devote yourself to year round, not simply when you have the time.

If you want a hardier type of pike cichlid, you can for instance select one of the medium sized cichlids of the Saxatilis-group. These cichlids are known to adapt to most types of tap water as long as you use normal water treatment stay clear of the extremes. Saxatilis cichlids can even breed in captivity without much coaxing.
Always research the species you are interested in order to find out which environment they hail from and which water parameters they require. Generally speaking, black water species need really soft water where the pH-value is kept between 5 and 6. This is especially important if you want to breed pike cichlids from this environment. 


If your pike cichlids are wild caught, they may refuse to eat prepared food and you must be prepared to provide them with live, or at least frozen, meaty foods. Wild caught pike cichlids can be trained to accept cichlid pellets, but it will require patients and persistence. Juveniles are usually much easier to convert than adult specimens. Captive bred pike cichlids have normally been trained to accept cichlid pellets from a young age and are therefore easier to feed than wild caught specimens. Even if you obtain pike cichlids that accept cichlid pellets, it is however a good idea to provide them with a varied diet where pellets are combined with live and frozen foods. You can for instance give your pike cichlids crustaceans, live earthworms and live fish. Your pike cichlids will be much happier in the aquarium if they are allowed to carry out their normal feeding behaviors, and risk of nutritional deficiency will also be reduced. Keeping pike cichlids on a diet consisting of nothing but cichlid pellets have been linked to hole-in-the-head disease, but more research is necessary before we can know for sure if this link is valid or if it is a mere coincidence.

Handling aggression

There are several things that you can do in order to reduce the risk of violence in the aquarium when keeping pike cichlids. To being with, pike cichlids should naturally never be combined with small fish species or small crustaceans since they will be considered food. The pike cichlid is after all a predatory fish.

The pike cichlid can be really aggressive toward members of the same species, but the amount of violence can be reduced by choosing specimens of roughly the same size. If you want to house pike cichlids with other species, ideally pick species with different shapes and colors to make it clear for the pike cichlids that these fishes belong to a completely different group of fish and that there is no need to fight them.

Adding PVC tubes to the aquarium set up is a splendid way of reducing aggression in a pike cichlid aquarium since it makes it possible for each fish to retreat and stay away from the others instead of violently trying to take over the entire aquarium. There should be at least one tube for each fish and the tube must be wide enough to comfortably house the fish. Adding more tubes than fish is definitely recommended since this will prevent fighting over the tubes themselves. If you find PVC tubes unsightly, you can try to obtain hollow pieces of driftwood instead or decorate the PVC tubes using pebbles.   

Breeding Pike Cichlids

If you have never bred any pike cichlids before, one of the Saxatilis species is a good choice since they are not that tricky to breed in captivity. These fishes are also known as Spangled Pikes; a group of sturdy species very popular among aquarists since they are less fuzzy than the sensitive dwarf cichlids and not as space consuming as the biggest species.

Saxatilis cichlids are cave spawners and you should therefore provide them with a suitable cave in the aquarium if you want them to breed. The female will deposit adhese eggs inside the cave and they will stick to the cave wall where they are easy to safe-guard. The female will care for the eggs will the male fends of intruders. You should therefore let the parents stay with their offspring; they are devoted parents and will not eat eggs or fry. They will even keep other adult fish at bay. Saxatilis eggs normally hatch within 4 days and the fry will be free swimming within another 4 days. The exact time will depend on water temperature. Newly hatched brine shrimp is a suitable first food for the fry and you can then gradually increase the size of the brine shrimp as the fry grow bigger. Large fry will readily devour small fry, so if you want a high survival rate the fry must be segregated by size. If you do not segregate the fry, it will eventually lead to a much biased sex ratio.

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