Anyone who knows me should know by now that I'm a sunfish keeper, in total I have 16 individuals representing a total of nine species or subspecies, but I'm also a cichlid keeper. At the moment I keep six species but I have experience with over a dozen. When people ask me about sunfish care or behavior I always compare them to cichlids (and vise-versa when I talk with fishermen), in nature they occupy similar niches and thus are very much alike in terms of behavior and care requirements. Water parameters, diet etc. are all very similar, specifically with those of New World cichlids. Still though; they are two very different families with their own evolutionary history. This article is an attempt to outline some of these differences. Keep in mind that these observations are based solely on my experience with these two families.
Cichlids are a family of freshwater fish known scientifically as Cichlidae within the order known as Perciformes. In total there are roughly 1,300 species, probably much more. They are native to Central and South America, Africa and Madagascar and Asia. Cichlids belong to the sub-order Labroidei along with wrasses (Labridae), damselfish (Pomacentridae), and surfperches (Embiotocidae) all being marine fishes except for the Cichlidae. These fishes are all linked by a fused pharyngeal bone structure. But what makes the cichlids unique from the rest of their relatives are a number of key anatomical characteristics.
A single nostril on each side of the face.
Divided lateral line
A uniquely shaped Otolith (A calcified structure in the inner ear used for balancing)
Lack of a bony shelf below the eye orbit.
Intestine that leave the stomach on the left side as opposed to the right as it does in other members of the Labroidei sub-order.
Scientifically known as Centrarchidae; sunfishes, like cichlids are Perciformes. They belong to the Percoidei sub-order along with over 50 other families. These sub-orders are divided into three superfamilies. The superfamily that sunfish belong to (also called Percoidei) includes groupers (Serranidae), perches (Perchidae) and temperate basses (Moronidae) among many others. In total there are about 30 species of sunfishes and all are native only to North America, mostly the eastern portion. Anatomically sunfish are unique in having at least three anal spines and a small hidden pseudobranch (first gill arch). While cichlids have a diversity of body shapes sunfishes are for the most part laterally compressed with those in the genus Micropterus (black basses) being the exception. The black basses are best compared to the peacock basses of the genus Cichla.
One trait characteristic of all cichlids is their display of parental care for their young. To the best of my knowledge all species do this. In some cases it is just one of the sexes and in others both. In some species entire colonies care for the offspring of a single pair forming a nuclear family as in Neolamprologus brichardi from Lake Tanganyika in Africa.
Since cichlids as a family are so diverse it should go without saying that so are their methods for reproduction. But when it comes to comparing cichlids to sunfish it is the nest builders with whom we will focus. Sunfishes, like some cichlids dig pits but this is where the similarity ends. While cichlids use their mouths to dig sunfishes use their bodies, undulating vertically until they've fanned out a depression in the substrate. Also in sunfishes it is only the male who builds the nest while in cichlids it can be either sex or both. Since it is only the male who builds the nest it makes sense that he is the only one to actually care for the eggs and fry. The only exception to the sunfish parental care rule is the Sacramento perch, which displays no parental care or even nest building for that matter. Cichlid reproduction is much more diverse and complicated. With sunfishes their breeding triggers and behaviors are all very similar to each other, granted there are a few unique species that differ from the norm but as a whole sunfishes seem to play by their own set of rules more so than cichlids. With cichlids it seems you never know. Take convicts for example. Both parents may care for the young or one parent may assume responsibility and chase off the other parent. This isn't so with sunfishes. With them it is fairly routine. Males make a depression; females visit and spawn and male cares for eggs and fry.
It has been my experience so far that sunfishes are in general more aggressive than cichlids. Let me correct that, female sunfishes are actually quite placid. It's the males who can be downright nasty. The reason is simply, territory. While the females and juveniles aren't all that aggressive once a male hits breeding age you're pretty much guaranteed to have a hell raiser on your hands. About the only thing a sunfish needs to get in the mood is a long photoperiod as they would experience in the summer months in the wild. If you keep your fish in your home with a constant warm temperate and lights on hours after dark it's like summer all year long. The males will dig their depression and seldom move far from it except to chase tank mates away. Typically this is all they do, chase fish out of their territory. Sadly their territory often includes the entire tank and so they can chase and nip at a fish all day long. Even females aren't safe as they'll be abused if they aren't ready to spawn and beaten up afterwards as well. In spawning situations females will have to be removed from the setup after the deed is done or you risk having the male kill her. Even tank mates aren't safe as any tank mate is a potential egg-eater. In my experience sunfishes actually tolerate other sunfishes better than other species, unlike cichlids who often fight amongst their own and ignore other species. This probably has something to do with the fact that sunfishes often spawn in large aggregations very close to other sunfishes while cichlid pairs often only have each other for company. In this respect they are similar to African cichlids as it is often better to slightly overstock sunfishes then under stock them. But like I said before, female sunfishes aren't nearly as aggressive. I have never had aggression problems with a female. I'm not saying its impossible to house sunfishes with other species, just make sure you have a large tank if you're going to do it.
Cichlids are well documented for their displays of intelligence and personally, being among some of the best species to keep for owner-pet interaction. It may come as a surprise to the reader that in my experience sunfish greatly surpass cichlids in this characteristic. I have had freshly caught sunfishes eating pellets on day one and begging within a week, on the flipside I have had cichlids who would never beg and would hide constantly. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be much that'll keep a sunfish down. Tank swapping, tank mate additions, decor re-arrangement; things that would make a cichlid hide for days don't seem to phase sunfishes. Sunfishes are IME more outgoing, adaptable and feisty.
So how about keeping the two together? Just like a cichlid-cichlid combo its hit or miss. Sunfish males are just as aggressive as some of the more aggressive cichlids such as Red Devils. Sunfish females are very docile and I have had luck keeping them with docile cichlid species such as my severum. Though in the wild they are competitors in the aquarium they seem to have an understanding of each other that often works out well. Given their similar dietary and water requirements they often do make good tank mates. It is interesting to note that in the wild the two naturally don't mix. Their ranges don't overlap. Cichlids stop heading north where sunfishes stop heading south, just something to think about.
As I sit here typing this up I'm at a loss to come up with more differences between these two groups. Despite being only distantly related the two families really are quite similar. Overall sunfishes are a bit more predictable. You can keep a couple sunfish species and have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the family in general. This is not the case with cichlids but you also have to consider that cichlids far outnumber sunfishes in their diversity. With that said I do encourage anyone with an interest in cichlids to try our native versions of them, like I said before their care requirements are basically the same as those of any New World cichlid. If you're cichlid fan looking for a bit of familiarity with the added twist of something unique and new I suggest you give sunfishes a try.
All photographs taken by Sandtiger.