There are two basic types of cichlid breeding systems: mouth-brooding and substrate spawning. Typically, mouth-brooders do not form pair bonds while substrate spawners usually do. This page concerns breeding mouth-brooders.
Most East African lake cichlids are maternal mouth-brooders. Dominant males establish small breeding territories and females enter the territory to spawn. The female lays eggs which are fertilized by the male. The female picks up the eggs and keeps them in her buccal cavity (mouth). She leaves the male and incubates the eggs until they hatch and carries the fry until they are ready to be own their own. Typically, this process takes about three weeks. While the fry may continue to seek refuge in the mother’s mouth for a day or two, they are essentially on their own after being released.
This breeding behavior can cause problems in captivity. Males often think females in their territories are there to breed. If the females are already carrying eggs or aren’t ready to breed and can’t flee the males, they can be injured or even killed. It’s important to use large aquaria and provide lots of hiding places for the females. Some aquarists remove carrying females and let them incubate away from the males. Others even strip the eggs from carrying females and artificially incubate them. We don’t recommend this later practice, so it won’t be described here.
In our breeding system we house up to 6 males and 40-60 females in 300 gallon vats with much cover for the females. Having multiple males allows the males to take out some aggression on each other so the females have some respite. Having many more females than males also reduces the attention each female gets from the males. We allow the females to carry eggs and fry to release. The fry are provided with netting cages with mesh too small for the adults so they have sufficient cover.
The aquarist can approximate our method by stocking one male and 4-6 females in an adequately sized tank full of rocky nooks and crevices for the females and fry. Properly fed fish will not cannibalize fry that have adequate hiding places.
Females will spawn approximately every 6 weeks if well fed. Most females will eat while incubating, but all usually lose weight during that time. It is important to feed a variety of high quality and palatable foods to keep your breeders in condition.