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Cichlids: A Knowledge Base .: Species Articles .: Keeping Aulonocara: Peacock Cichlids

Keeping Aulonocara: Peacock Cichlids

by Dogwalker 

Aulonocara, also known as Malawi Peacocks, have been a favorite among African Cichlid keepers for many years. If kept properly, they are relatively peaceful and males develop some of the most beautiful colors to be found among freshwater fish anywhere. In this article, I would like to describe how to properly keep these Cichlids.


One of the first considerations when keeping Aulonocara should be their diet. Their diet should be varied, containing some vegetable matter, but significantly (compared to what you would feed more herbivorous fish, like mbuna) rich in animal protein. Be careful – when I say animal protein, I am referring to protein from aquatic animals (fish, invertebrates, zooplankton, etc.). Meat from warm-blooded animals (e.g. beef heart) is not recommended for African Cichlids. Peacocks have not evolved the ability to digest this meat properly, because there is nothing equivalent to it in their natural environment; therefore, it can cause them serious health problems. If you are using store bought fish foods, check the ingredients and nutritional statistics on the packaging to ensure that the protein content is at least 40% and derived from suitable sources. Tank mates should ideally have similar dietary requirements as your Peacocks. Trying to satisfy different dietary requirements in the same tank without causing problems can be tricky, and puts further constraints on what you can feed your fish.

Water Quality

Another important consideration when keeping Peacocks is the water quality you provide and maintain. The water should be hard and alkaline, similar to the African Rift lakes. The pH can range anywhere from the mid-7.’s to the mid-8.’s, but it should not fluctuate. For instance, a stable 7.5 is better than a pH that quickly swings from 7.8 to 8.4 and back. As with all African Cichlids, the water should be kept well oxygenated and very clean with no measurable ammonia or nitrites, and nitrates not exceeding 40 ppm (less is better). The temperature should ideally be kept in the 76-80 degrees Fahrenheit range. Stability is crucial.

Spatial Existence

The aquarium size required to keep Peacocks at their best health is a topic that deserves more consideration than we can cover adequately in this article. Here are a few basic guidelines when housing Peacocks:

  • A three foot tank minimum for a breeding group of a single species (e.g. one male and three females).

  • A four foot tank minimum for an all-male mix (more on that later).

  • Tanks larger than four feet in length will always allow more flexibility in Peacock selection.

Tank Mates

A question frequently asked is “what can I keep with my Peacocks?” Let’s refine that a bit to “what should I keep with my Peacocks?” In actuality, there are quite a few species of fish that Peacocks can coexist with, but choosing the right combination is important. Careful selection of these fish is essential to the development of superior coloration and successful breeding. For starters, tank mates should have the same diet and water quality requirements as your Peacocks, but there is much more to consider besides these basics.

In order for a male Peacock to color up to his full potential, he needs to be “king of the tank.” This means that no other fish with more aggressive behavior should be kept in the same tank with the male. In general, this eliminates Malawian mbuna, the larger and more aggressive Malawi Haplochromines, and Cichlids from Lake Victoria and the surrounding basins as possible tank mates for Peacocks.

Here are some suggestions of possible tank mates for Aulonocara.

  1. My first suggestion would be the addition of more Peacocks! Of course, this is not simple as it seems; some important details are in order here. If you wish to keep multiple males (more color in your tank), then an all-male Peacock setup is the way to go. In this setup you would select one male from each different Peacock species. When females are present, males may fight, possibly until one or the other dies. This can be true even with males and females of different species; female Peacocks of different species look physically similar, resulting in the possibility of males viewing any female as one of his species. Because of this, if you keep more than one species of male peacock in the same tank with females, it is quite likely the species will cross-breed. It is strongly suggested to avoid stocking selections that make this likely to happen.

On the other hand, if you do want to breed Peacocks, obviously some females are required! In such a mix only Peacocks of the same species should be included, for reasons mentioned above. The tank should consist of one male and at least two, preferably three, females to disperse the male’s attention. A lone female may be harassed excessively, leading to fin damage, stress, and in the worst case, death. Although you are limited to one male within a breeding group, male Peacocks in breeding dress show particularly vibrant coloration!

  1. The smaller, more peaceful Malawi haplochromines can make suitable tank mates. Some examples of these fish are of the genus Lethrinops, Otopharynx (e.g.: lithobates), and some of the smaller, more peaceful Placidochromis (e.g. electra), and Copadichromis (e.g. azureus). Although these and other Hap selections are good choices, there are also many Haps that will grow much too large and boisterous for the Peacocks. For example, Copadichromis borleyi or jacksoni grow too large and aggressive for most Peacocks’ comfort. The same can be said about Placidochromis milomo and Nimbochromis livingstonii. This is why it is important to get the scientific name of the fish (trade names are often unreliable or meaningless) and research that specific species’ potential size, temperament and other requirements when considering a potential tank mate for your Peacocks. Note that many of the Haps that are suitable tank mates temperament-wise also present the risk of cross-breeding, just as if they were another species of Peacock. This is because many females of the smaller Hap species are rather similar in appearance to Peacock females. An all-male peacock setup including some of these hap males (but not females) is always an option to prevent this from occurring.

  2. Some catfish with similar water requirements make good tank mates for Peacocks. Certain Synodontis species from Lake Tanganyika (e.g. multipunctatus and petricola) would fill these requirements.

It is generally not recommended to mix Peacocks with fish from outside of Lake Malawi, but there are a few possible choices beyond the above guidelines that may work due to the particular nature fish species. One example is Altolamprologus calvus and compressiceps from Lake Tanganyika. These Cichlids are physically slow enough not to out-compete the Peacocks for food and tough enough to withstand some abuse from the Peacocks, without usurping the Peacock’s place as the dominant fish. Yet further examples are certain species of Ancistrus that do not grow too large and tolerate Lake Malawi water parameters (e.g. “Bushynose” and “Rubberlip” Plecos). As a general rule, it is strongly recommended to complete some research before attempting any unconfirmed combination. There are many more poor combinations than good ones.

A limited number of Peacock species deserve special mention for being a bit larger and more robust than the rest. These include Aulonocara jacobfreibergi variants as well as Aulonocara sp. “Lwanda.” If kept in a large enough tank, preferably 5-6 feet, these Peacocks can usually stand up to the milder of the Malawi Mbuna and the somewhat larger, medium-aggressive Hap species, such as Copadichromis borleyi. They will breed, show fairly good color, and not put up with too much abuse from such tank mates. Still, they have their limits and should not be housed with overly aggressive tank mates. These Peacocks simply provide a little more flexibility to your stocking options.

It should be mentioned that there is always an element of variability in the form of the individual fish’s character. It is not unheard of for a Peacock of any species to turn out to be a terror to the tank mates it should theoretically get along with. On the other hand, a certain Peacock can prove to be a wimp when it should be the dominating force. One can’t plan for rogue personalities; if it happens, you just have to adjust your tank to it one way or another. Initially, tank mates should be selected on the assumption the fish will more or less be typical of their species in temperament. That is, to assume an Aulonocara baenschi will rise to the occasion and happily coexist with a Melanochromis auratus will always prove to be a disaster.

Stock Quality

All other things being equal, an alpha male Peacock of good stock will trump a subdominant fish, a runt or an otherwise poorly bred fish. Stock quality is very difficult to judge in juvenile Peacocks that are not yet showing color. If buying from a breeder, ask to see the parent stock. Availability can also be an issue. The male Peacocks’ splendid coloration only develops as they mature, and this has the indirect effect of making them somewhat uncommon in the general fish keeping hobby, despite their appeal to African Cichlid keepers. This is in part because many stores will not stock juvenile fish that are not colorful, fearing they will not sell. If you do get hold of some quality juvenile Peacocks, they will become quite rewarding as they transform. If you happen to come across some full grown Peacocks for sale, you can expect them to be offered at premium prices.

Happy Peacock Keeping!

Everything discussed here, including diet, water quality, tank size, tank mates and stock quality, will have a bearing on whether a male Peacock will develop his very best color for you. While it may seem like a lot of complicated compromises are necessary to bring out the best in Aulonocara, the final reward is worth it! If you have done all this right, there should be no reason your Peacock(s) should not develop eye-catching colors and swim about proudly in the open with their beautiful finnage on display. There is also a certain satisfaction in knowing you have provided just the right environment to bring out the beauty in these fish, and that you have selected only suitable tank mates in order to achieve this goal. In a sense, it is a feather in your cap as an aquarist.

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