Apistogramma Agassizii: The Undemanding Apisto

Reading Time: 8 minutes
apistogramma agassizii

Apistogramma agassizii, or the Agassizi’s Dwarf Cichlid, is arguably one of the most popular species of the Apistogramma genus. Steindancher first discovered agassizii in 1875. While there isn’t much information about his encounter, we do know agassizii have captured the hearts of many cichlid lovers. Their bright colors, fascinating behavior, and manageable size make them an excellent option for smaller tanks.

The apisto genus boasts a wide array of colors and shapes, but there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to their size. Apistogrammas come from a group of cichlids known as “dwarf cichlids.” This means, unlike more widely spread cichlids like oscars and angelfish, they stay petite – usually under 3″ (7 cm.)

If you’re new to apistos, the agassizii is undoubtedly one worth considering! Years of captive breeding means they don’t need the super-soft, highly acidic water like their wild relatives. (Some wild specimens getting as low as 4.0.)

Similarly, many captive-bred individuals will take to pellet foods. Though they may need some training and patience to get them to eat it. If you’re just starting out, buying captive-bred will significantly increase your odds of success with this little gem.

With that said, calling agassizzi an undemanding apisto is a relative statement. No apisto is as easy as angelfish, kribs, white clouds or any other beginner fish. But they’re certainly not as sensitive (or possibly as interesting!) as A. ‘black chin’s.

Disclosure: we’re reader-supported! So if you buy a product I recommend, I might make some coffee money at no cost to you.

Table of contents

Agassizii species card

A. Agassizii FAQ

Agassizii Classification

IUCN Status: Not listed

Class: Actinopterygii are ray-finned fishes, which is a subcategory of boney fishes. These fish are characterized by the bony structures that support their webbed fins. This group makes up nearly half of all living vertebrates.

Order: Cichliformes is a subseries of Ovalentaria, an order united by the presence of demersal eggs that are attached to a substrate. Cichliformes include two families; cichlids (a successful family that encompasses over 1,600 described species and an estimated 3,000 total) and Pholidichthys (a family that hosts two species.)

Family: Cichlidae is one of the largest vertebrate families hosting more popular aquarium species than any other family. They all display some form of parental care towards their eggs and fry.

Genus: Apistogramma, a genus part of Geophagini and its closest relatives are Apistogrammoides and Taeniacara. There are currently 93 recognized members of the apistogramma genus. 

Scientific name: Apistogramma agassizii

What Does Apistogramma Agassizii Mean?

The etymology of Apistogramma is unclear. There’s some speculation that apisto- comes from the Greek word apistos, meaning untrustworthy and gramma means letter. But, most agree, that Apistogramma translates to uncertain line – referring to the black lateral line on their side that has a tendency to fade and deepen.

Agassizii comes from one of several naturalists named Agassizi. Which one this fish is named after is unclear, as is how or why the second ‘i’ was added. Though the second ‘i’ likely had pseudo-Latin roots. Some do spell the name without the second ‘i,’ but it’s incorrect. It does, however, explain the species’ common name – Agassizi’s dwarf cichlid (note the lack of the second ‘i.’)

Find Other Fish

Looking for something specific? You can discover other fish with similar characteristics! They open in a new tab so you can keep reading too!

Distribution & Natural Habitat

Agassizii inhabit a wide variety of water conditions in the wild, making them an adaptable little fish in the home aquarium. In the wild, agassizii inhabit South America, ranging from the Amazon River Basin in Peru, to the Capim River Basin in Brazil.

If you’re looking for some specifics, the inhabit much of the Amazon basin. They range from its upper section in the Río Ucayali, Peru, and into Brazil with the Capim River, a tributary of the Rio Guamá which flows into the Rio Pará at the city of Belém in the Amazon delta region.

apistogramma agassizii natural habitat

Don’t worry; we’re back to normal English now. The important part is most of these waters are slow-moving or stagnant blackwater tributaries and pools. Often they’re filled with leaf litter, fallen branches, and have loads of nooks and crannies for these fish to hide and spawn in. Although, some collection areas have been documented in whitewater (clear, faster-moving water with little debris.)

The coloration of wild species varies drastically based on the collection site of the fish. Even captive bred fish will vary greatly depending on where their ancestors came from. Few strains are bred in captivity that you couldn’t find in the wild. Fire red, double red, super fire red, tefe, and tefe blue are a few examples. Most of these strains breed true, meaning that the fry have similar coloring to the parents.

rio ucayali

But in the hybrid strains (such as the “tefe”s) reintroducing A. tefe at some point in the line will likely be needed to retain their coloring through future generations.

This is enough to make most newcomer’s heads spin. The important part is they like slow-moving dark water with plenty of hiding places. As far as color, I’ll cover some of the most common varieties in a minute.

Aquarium Care

Difficulty: Intermediate
Size: 3″ for males 2″ for females (5 & 3 cm)
Lifespan: 8+ years
Tank Size: 10 gallons (40 liters)
Diet: Carnivore – mostly live & frozen
Temperature: 72 – 85F (22 – 29C)

pH: 4.0 – 6.5
0 – 10 dKH
Temperament: Shy
Breeding: Easy
Swimming: Mid to bottom
Availability: Common online, uncommon in most stores

Okay, now we got most of the science out of the way. So how do you take care of agassizii in an aquarium? They’re not fussy about water chemistry, anything soft (dKH of 0 – 10,) and acidic with a pH of 4.0 – 6.5 will be fine for most captive-bred fish. They enjoy temperatures in the range of 72 – 85F (22 – 29C) and plenty of leaf litter, seed pods, driftwood, and other nooks and crannies to explore in.

Plants don’t usually grow well in blackwater habitats, but if you can get some to grow, they would undoubtedly be appreciated. If you go with floating plants, you’ll likely never see your fish in their full coloration without much light reaching the bottom of the tank.

While we’re on the topic, though, you may rarely see your apistos at all. I had a pair of agassizii once that I put in the tank one day and didn’t see for more than a few minutes a day. That is until they had fry almost eight months later. Dither fish can help this skittish issue some. But don’t expect them to be front and center at all times (although I heard that about german blue rams and always saw them.) I suppose it could be, to some extent, how they were brought up.

Apistos are highly intolerant of bad water quality, so large (25%+) weekly water changes will be needed. They also don’t do well in oxygen-poor water, so you’ll need a sponge filter and plants will help if you can get them to grow.

Apistos, like most Geophagini, do best when they have a sand substrate to sift through. The sand will also allow you to see their natural sand-picking (not so much sifting) behavior as well as watch their adorable excavation antics.

Feeding A. Agassizii

Most agassizii do best with live or frozen foods, although I’ve heard of success with gels like Repashy. They love blackworms, tubifex, daphnia, brine shrimp, scuds, white worms, bloodworms, and mosquito larvae.

You may be able to get your agassizii to take pellets if they’ve been captive-bred, but I wouldn’t count on it. You can certainly try, but expect to clean up a lot of uneaten food and offer a lot of patience.

Common Agassizii Diseases

Agassizziis aren’t usually as susceptible to your common freshwater fish diseases (though, like all fish, they can get any of them.) However, it’s worth noting that if you want to keep this fish, you may want to stock up on your meds.

Ich (White Spot Disease)

ich fish disease

Ich is caused by a parasite that, to many, looks like tiny white pimples across the fish. It can attach to the mouth, fins, body, and gills. You can usually see fish scraping themselves against objects (likely because parasites are itchy!) before white spots even appear.


  • White spots
  • Scratching
  • Redness or bloody streaks


  • Ichthyophthirius multifilis (parasite)

Fungal Infection

fungal infection

Fungal infections are a tricky bunch – not only do they have a huge family that presents a wide variety of species and symptoms – but some bacterial infections look strikingly similar to a fungus. 

If you’re not sure if you’re dealing with a fungus or a bacterial infection, I find it helpful to treat with Ich X and Erythromycin (provided it’s 100% erythromycin) at the same time to be sure I’m treating for both.


  • Cottony growths on body, fins, eyes, and/or gills


  • Prior untreated injury
  • Stress
  • Water quality-related issues
  • Prior untreated infection (bacterial, parasitic, etc.)



Tapeworms are small rice-like worms that can drop out of your fish’s anus with or without passing poop with it. Due to the small size of the segments these worms break into, it can be incredibly hard to diagnose in fish.


  • Sunken stomach
  • Inability to grow
  • Generally not thriving


  • Infected by another fish

Skin & Gill Flukes

skin and gill fluke

Skin and gill flukes are worm-like parasites that embed into your fish. Since they’re so small, they’re almost invisible to the naked eye and incredibly difficult to diagnose. 

Before you freak out, flukes are present in almost every tank and are harmless under normal conditions.


  • Excess mucus on skin
  • Redness in gills and on skin
  • Itchiness
  • Scratching
  • Labored breathing (if in gills)


  • Generally, stress
  • Previous illness
  • Overcrowding
  • Wrong water parameters


costia disease

Although it’s more common in cold-water fish, any fish can get it so long as the temperature range is low enough. It’s a parasite that, unlike ich, is difficult to detect in the beginning stages. Once in it’s advanced stages (which make takes months to present themselves) you’ll likely be able to detect it but, at this point, you have to respond quickly as it’s already been taking a toll for quite some time.


  • Grey or white patches on the skin
  • Itchiness
  • Scratching


  • Ichthyobodo (protozoan parasite.)

Bacterial Infection

bacterial infection

Bacterial infection is a broad term, the bacteria family can cause a wide range of symptoms and come from varying causes. Generally, you can treat them with a broad spectrum antibacterial regardless of the particular bacteria at hand. It’s diagnosing that’s usually the hard part.

Making matters even more difficult, fish can have an internal or external bacterial infection.


  • Red streaks
  • Red ulcers
  • Fuzzy growths
  • Pop eye
  • Bloating


  •  Poor water quality
  • Food that’s gone bad
  • Keeping fish in inappropriate water parameters
  • Stress

Agassizii Tank Mates

Like many cichlids, A. agassizii aren’t naturally social creatures; they’re more social for the sake of reproduction than companionship. As a blanket statement, all apisto species are compatible with dither and target fish. What target or dither fish you chose is up to you, your setup, goals, and available space.

Here are some of the most commonly kept dither species for A. agassizii:

Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon innesi)

neon tetra

Neon tetras are shoaling fish from the Amazons that are best kept in groups of six or more to be happy. They’re not usually nippy and are active and outgoing if housed properly. They prefer blackwater setups but will do fine in a range of parameters. It’s worth noting that commonly available stock isn’t as healthy or hardy as it used to be even ten years ago.

pH: 4.0 – 7.5
dKH: 1 – 12
Temp: 70 – 83F (21 – 28C)

Size: 1.5″ (4 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful shoaling fish
Swimming: Mid to top

Black Neon Tetra (Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi)

black neon tetra

Not to be confused with the black tetra (or “black skirt” tetras) or neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi,) the black neon tetra is a separate species. They do best in groups of eight or more – but more is always better when it comes to shoaling fish. They have the peaceful demeanor of the neon tetra without all the health issues. 

pH: 5.5 – 7.5
dKH: 4 – 9
Temp: 73 – 81F (23 – 27C)

Size: 1.5″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful shoaling fish
Swimming: Mid to top

Pencilfish (Nannostomus sp.)

beckfords pencilfish

Pencilfish is a genus containing 19 currently recognized species. Some popular options are diptails, Beckford’s, and coral. Although it’s a large genus, the care is similar for all of them and you should aim for a shoal of at least six. 

Research into a specific species and their requirements is strongly recommended. 

pH: 5.0 – 7.0
dKH: 4 – 12
Temp: 74 – 82F (23 – 27C)

Size: 2″ (5 cm) species dependent
Temperament: Peaceful
Swimming: Mid to top

leopard spotted danio

Leopard Danio (Brachydanio froskei)

Leopard danios have amazing color and, if you look hard enough, you may even be able to find some dazzling color morphs of this fish as well! They do best in groups of six or more and zip around the tank quite a bit, so ensure you have swimming space for a shoal of this size. 

pH: 6.0 – 8.0
dKH: 2 – 20
Temp: 64 -75F (17 – 23C)

Size: 2.4″ (6 cm)
Temperament: Active
Swimming: Mid to top

Zebra “Danio” (Brachydanio rerio)

zebra danio

Zebra danios belong to the minnow family. They’re fast, outgoing, peaceful, and need room to swim with their shoal (6 or more being ideal.) They can handle a range of temperatures and water conditions – from stagnant to faster-flow, making them a versatile community fish.

pH: 6.0 – 8.0
dKH: 5 – 20
Temp: 65 – 77 F (18 – 25 C)

Size: 1.5 – 2″ (4 – 5 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful and active
Swimming: Top to midwater shoaling

Norman’s Lampeye Killifish (Poropanchax normani)

Lampeye killifish

Norami killis, or Norman’s lampeye killifish, are non anual killifish (meaning they won’t die in a year) from Central and West Africa. It’s best to get these guys in schools of nine or more to see them at their best. Their blue “eye” nearly glows in the dark and is spectacular to see in person!

pH: 6.0 – 7.0
dKH: 4 – 15
Temp: 73° – 78° F (23° – 26° C)

Size: 1.6″ (4 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful, generally active
Swimming: Mid to top

Clown Killi (Epiplatys annulatus)

clown killis

Clown killis, also called rocket killis, are a beautifully colored little fish that come from slow-moving waterways in southern Guinea. They’re usually quite outgoing, but make sure you buy at least eight of them so they can display their social behavior. 10 is even better.

pH: 4.0 – 7.0
dKH: 1 – 8
Temp: 68 – 79F (20 – 26C)

Size: 1.3″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Usually peaceful and active
Swimming: Mid to top

Breeding Agassizii

They’re harem breeders, meaning there is one male that protects and mates with multiple females that are within his territory. Most agassizii prefer small harems ranging from 4 – 7 females (if you have space.) A 50-gallon low boy is probably a safe (enough) bet for two males to share a tank, but this isn’t a guarantee that it will work as all fish are different.

If you want to keep just a breeding pair, ample space, target fish, and some experience will be helpful. Many experienced breeders breed apistos in 10-gallon tanks. But these breeders usually have automatic water change systems that change 10% or more of the water daily, and they have experience with this species, so they know when to intervene.

Watching their breeding behavior is fascinating. When the female is ready to spawn, she’ll signal to the male by turning a lemon yellow color and displaying her stomach. At this point, they’ll seek out a cave or small cave-like structure (terracotta pots with holes drilled in them or seed pods are popular.) You want to ensure the hole is large enough for the female to enter but small enough to cover with your thumb.

The male will usually guide the female to the cave he’s selected for her and coax her to enter. Once inside, she’ll lay her eggs on the roof, and he’ll release his sperm and waft it inside with his tail. The eggs will hatch in 3 – 5 days depending on the temperature. Fry will be free-swimming in another 3 – 5 days. Once the fry are free-swimming, mom will guide them around the tank to forage for food, though they likely won’t venture far from their shelter for at least a week.

You can feed them microworms, vinegar eels, and baby brine shrimp. They will likely find infusoria for their first few days – especially if you have plants like java moss in your tank. Most breeders report that the mothers seem to know where the microscopic food is, perhaps instinctively. The more probable theory is that they learned this skill from their mothers when they were fry.

Since they’re harem breeders, the male’s job amounts to brute force and fertilization (not unlike a like a male lion.) The female will vigorously guard the fry against the male. She will often bully him to the point of death if he has nowhere to escape to where she can’t spot him. Occasionally, the male will “snap” and retaliate against the female and kill her in the process. For this reason, unless you have a large enough tank, the male should be removed once they’re done spawning.

Around two weeks after the eggs hatch, the female will be ready to spawn again, and both parents will often bully the fry in an attempt to clear out their territory. If not taken out at this point, it’s highly likely they will be killed or eaten by the parents before they spawn again.

Color Variants

Like we talked about briefly above (I’ll fill you in if you skipped down,) the color can vary widely depending on the collection location of the species. There is also a handful of color morphs that (as far as we know) you can’t get in wild-caught apistos. It’s worth noting that many Apistogramma are mislabeled and many color variants are hybrids.

Nevertheless, for ease of compiling the information, I’ll only cover a handful of colors below:

apistogramma agassizii super red

Super Red

There’s – like most things apisto – some confusion as to what counts as “super red.” More recently, a new fish has hit the scene that is almost all dark orange called a “super red” or “super fire red,” but as far as I know – the one pictured is the original “fire red.”

Apistogramma agassizii tefe


Oh, boy. So this pictured specimen is one of, maybe five or more, variants that fall under the bucket of sp. agassizii “tefe.” Tefe is the locale where they’re collected. Don’t confuse with sp. tefe – which is a whole other Apistogramma.

apistogramma agassizii blue


Sometimes referred to as “Tefe blue,” or “Rio Tefe Blue” or some other variant. Don’t confuse these guys with Apistogramma Tefe, which is a different species (and usually color) than Apistogramma agassizii “tefe.”

apistogramma agassizii fire red

Fire Red

This color is probably the most popular color you’ll find in fish stores – if you’re lucky enough to find one that caries apistogrammas at all!

apistogramma agassizii fire gold

Fire Gold

This is a relatively new color variant that has very little information on how it came about, although, I’d bet it was created using fire reds.

apistogramma agassizii red back


Also called “tefe redback,” this fish is often missold as hybrids or in place of a true sp. tefe. Usually, the specimens for sale are tank bred, so it’s hard to tell.

Further Reading & Resources

Animal World – Apistogramma Agassizii

Seriously Fish – Apistogramma Agassizii

FishBase.org – Apistogramma Agassizii

TFH Magazine – Apistogramma Agassizii

Leave a Reply