My cichlid’s color is changing. Why?

Astatotilapia burtoni. Colorful dominant male cichlid (top), subordinate male (bottom). Image from the University of Texas at Austin College of Natural Sciences.

Does your favorite cichlid seem to look different than it did yesterday or last week? Is the fish’s color brighter, duller, mottled?

Many fish, cichlids included, often display color changes and color fading. These may be short term as induced by environmental stressors, mating, and other stimuli. On the other hand, some changes may be longer term, ontogenetic changes that are typical of the species. Most factors affecting color changes are within your control but not all of them.

Rather than be concerned about the fact that color changes are occurring with your fish, you should be more cognizant of why they are occurring.

Which factors influencing color change are under your control? Since you determine which fish inhabit a tank, you control who the occupants are. Gender ratios, species mix, aggression, and other such variables do affect cichlid colors. Yes, social status is a variable that influences coloration. For example, having multiple males in a single tank may cause all but the dominant male to have faded hues.

You also control the water, the water temperature, the substrate, and the food. All of that matters. You can directly affect coloration by the quality of both the water and the food that you provide. Good, clean water reduces stress compared to poor water conditions. Stressed fish often have faded colors or even display mottled coloration. High quality food is also important and should be suitable for the type of fish (herbivore, carnivore, etc.). In fact, some commercially available fish foods contain color enhancing or promoting ingredients such as carotenoids (e.g., astaxanthin). All of the aforementioned variables are within your control and can affect rapid color changes, some more rapid than others.

There are also developmental (ontogentic) changes that affect coloration. Not all species retain the same coloration from birth through adulthood. These changes can be either subtle or dramatic. For example, some species may be one color through sub-adulthood and transform to a different color when they reach the adult stage. This is common in peacock species (Aulonocara) and other utaka genera. On the other hand, many species of mbuna males typically retain bright colors from youth, while many females never gain much color at all and usually retain a dull grey or tan-color from birth. In contrast, Pseudotropheus lombardoi fry are typically blue in color, but adult males will be yellow. Much of this is expressed via sexual dimorphism, but that’s a topic for another post.

How do you know what you are seeing and why? Knowledge and experience. If you are noticing color changes in all your fish species, the probability is higher that the cause is something you control. Only by understanding the variables that affect color changes can you understand what you are witnessing and whether you should change something that you control.

Note: The photo at the top is from a nice article on the influence of genetics on social behavior in chichlids by Hans Hofmann, professor in the Department of  Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. A couple of years ago, I reached out to Dr. Hofmann for an interview. He agreed, and we exchanged a few e-mails, but his busy schedule prevented him from completing the interview. I plan to reach out to him again soon.

UPDATE: Not long after I completed this post, Dr. Hofmann and I were able to reconnect. See my interview with him posted on August 7.

18 thoughts on “My cichlid’s color is changing. Why?”

    • Hi Ivan, thanks for visiting the blog and thanks for the note. There are lots of potential reasons your Frontosa is pale but without knowing the specifics of your tank (e.g., tank size, tank mates, water parameters, age of the Frontosa), it’s almost impossible to know why.

      If you’re on Facebook and haven’t already, I suggest you join/post on the group Cichlid Keepers. I don’t keep Frontosa, but if I knew more about the tank it is in, I might be able to help. Nonetheless, there are lots of experienced Frontosa keepers out there and many on Cichlid Keepers.

      Reply
    • Hi Paula. Thanks for reading the blog and thanks for the comment. It’s almost impossible to answer your question without knowing what species of fish you are talking about and more details about where it resides, its tankmates, your water parameters, etc. Sorry, but I need more information before I can help you.

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    • Mine did the same thing . It was blue and black and I’ve had him for a week he turned blue and yellow

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  1. I have two species of cichlids a black striped one and a pale white one i put two of each in my tank the biggest one changes colors over night from pale white and back too striped

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    • Hi Joseph. Thanks for the comment and for reading. There are lots of variables that affect color changes in cichlids. It’s not uncommon.

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  2. I have 5 african cichlids in a 30 gallon tank. 2 filters, plenty of air movement too. My one cichlid used to be blue and black but over the course of the last I’d say about 2 months he’s gotten more and more pale in color. I noticed his gills are a little red too however he is acting normal. My other cichlids are totally fine and they have been. My ammonia and nitrite are at zero. Nitrate is at 5ppm. At first I thought he might be sick but no other fish seem to be affected. Any ideas as to what it might be?

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    • Hi Kayleen. Thanks for the note. I’m going to move our conversation to e-mail. There are too many unknowns in your comment for me to even take a wild guess about the problem.

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  3. I have this small 4-5cm blue cichlid. I stare it down when i put my face up in the tank and it does the same. its faded black stripes get really, really dark. its amazing. but should I be concerned?

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    • Hey Len. Thanks for reaching out. Color changes like you describe happen all the time with many species. No need to be concerned.

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  4. Hi , I have two blue kenyi cichlid with faint black stripes. I have noticed that their black stripes become more dark when they are resting in the sand or not moving but it becomes light when they are swimming around , all these changes happens within minutes .

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    • Hi Monisha. Thank you for reading and thanks for the e-mail.

      Do you know the sex and age of your kenyi? What size tank and are their other occupants? Adult males will be a yellow color. Females and immature males will but blue and have the black stripes. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason why the colors change so quickly. Are the two fish near each other when they’re resting on the substrate? It could be two immature males and, because they’re near each other, they’re displaying dominance coloration in an attempt to intimidate each other. However, a coloration change for this reason would normally be accompanied by some expressive behavior (e.g, circling each other, shaking, lip-locking). Alternatively, you could have a female and an immature male, so you could be witnessing some courtship color changes. What color is your substrate? If the substrate is dark, it could also be that they’re both trying to “blend in” while they’re resting. It’s just really hard to say in this case without more to go on.

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  5. Hello, I have a German Blue Ram that has very little color, had it only a couple of weeks, seems healthy with good appetite and active. Water is in good condition, testing it daily with a 25% water change, temperature 83 F degrees, and have a bubbler. It is the only cichlid (about 1 1/2″) in a 15 gallon tank along with a couple Blue Wag Platies and a neon tetra, 2 corys. Will it get more colorful as time goes by? It doesn’t appear to be stressed out.

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    • Hi Deborah. Thank you for the note and thanks for reading the blog. Your water temperature is good. What is the pH and do you know the hardness of your water? Blue Rams are New World species and thus prefer a little softer water than most African cichlids. It also could be that it just hasn’t gotten used to your presence. Sometimes colorful cichlids will become less colorful when stressed or agitated, and either of those can come simply from someone’s presence. See if you can catch your Ram with the tank light on and when you’re located such that it can’t see you. Then take notice if it colors up any when you’re out of view.

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      • Hello Scott, thank you for your reply and information.
        The hardness is 150 ppm and the pH is about 7.4 -7.6, maybe that is too high?

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        • I would say your water is fine. Assuming also the tank has been cycled (water has 0 ammonia, 0 nitrite, and low nitrate), I would rule the water out UNLESS that ram was wild caught (maybe listed as F0 where you bought it). If it was wild caught, your water could easily the culprit. I would rule out the other tank inhabitants as stressors. Does the tank have a substrate and, if so, what is it? Some cichlids are sensitive to substrate types/colors, and thus won’t display their best colors even if they’re tank bred fish. For example, a dark substrate (e.g., black sand) might work for some cichlids, but others won’t “color up” near as much with black sand as they would a lighter color sand. Same goes for gravel. Absent any external factors, the ram could also be sick. Sick cichlids, in most cases, will exhibit behavioral changes that you would recognize, but it sounds like the ram is acting normally.

          Reply

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