Plain Goby Cichlid

Goby Cichlid

Family: Cichlidae Plain Goby Cichlid, Spathodus marlieriSpathodus marlieriPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Frank Schneidewind

The Plain Goby Cichlid is the largest of all goby species from Lake Tanganyika!

The Plain Goby Cichlid Spathodus marlieri is the largest, and also the most tolerant of the Lake Tanganyika gobies. While the females are smaller at 2.5” (6.4 cm), the males will reach up to 4 inches (10.2 cm) in length. This species is commonly called "plain," but perhaps that's because it is not quite as brilliantly adorned as the other gobies. Yet this fish it actually very pretty. It has a body colored in dark brown splotches and is topped with electric sky blue dots on the front half.

This cichlid is fascinating in both appearance and in personality. They will spend much of its time swimming over the bottom searching for food, but will also use their rigid pectoral fins to 'perch' on the substrate. Their color patterning is designed to help camouflage them in nature. In the aquarium this patterning and their and swimming style gives their keepers the impression that they are playing 'hide and seek.'. Their larger size also makes them more visible than their smaller cousins.

Plain Goby Cichlids are an intriguing choice for the cichlid enthusiast who has limited space and cannot provide a large aquarium. As long as their needs are met, aquarists with some experience will find they are easy to moderate to care for. Provide stacked rocks with lots of caves and crevices for hiding and flat stones in the front for perching. Some natural sunlight will help algae growth on the stones, which the gobies relish. An extra enjoyment for these fish is adding a wave-making box, similar to those used in aquariums, which will simulate the water surge of their natural environment.

These cichlids can be kept alone or in pairs but are generally not tolerant of their own species or other Goby Cichlids. In fact they are said to be the most aggressive of the Tanganyikan Gobies. They primarily inhabit the bottom of the tank so can be housed with some other mid-water cichlids. Avoid other cichlids that are too large or boisterous, like the Mbuna from Lake Malawi. Good tankmates are species that inhabit the upper and middle areas of the aquarium rather than the lower substrate areas of these fish.

About the Lake Tanganyika Goby Cichlids

The Goby cichlids from Lake Tanganyika are an intriguing and attractive group of fish.
Goby Cichlids are members of the Eretmodini tribe belonging to the Pseudocrenilabrinae subfamily under the Cichlidae family. Currently there are five recognized species of Eretmodines placed in three genera: Plain Goby Cichlid Spathodus marlieri, Blue Goby Cichlid Spathodus erythrodon, Spotfin Goby Cichlid Tanganicodus irsacae, the Tanganykan Goby Cichlid Eretmodus cyanostictus which has two variants, the other being Eretmodus cyanostictus (north), and Eretmodus marksmithi which is a very recent discovery, described by Burgess in 2012.

These fish are unique in the natural environment where they are found and in body shape.
Scientists speculate that their body shape is most likely an adaptation to their environment. They are small fish, give or take around 3" in length. They live close to the shore in shallow waters, usually less than 3 feet (1 m) and never more than 10 feet (3 m). The sandy substrate is strewn with rocks and pebbles. These are fast moving waters subject to 'surge', where the shoreline is continuously washed with wind driven waves.

This 'surge zone' habitat creates some unique situations for Goby cichlids.
  • The shallow waters get good sunlight penetration and have relatively clear visibility, but the Goby cichlids are difficult to see. Their interesting color patterns that can readily be seen in the aquarium create a camouflage in the wild.
  • The rocky rubble substrate has plenty of healthy algae growth which houses small crustaceans and insect larvae. This provides a diverse diet for this bottom dwelling cichlid.
  • There are few aquatic predators in such shallow water, but these areas are preyed upon by birds. The Goby cichlids forage the substrate with their snout like mouths while with their eyes, mounted high on the head, and their heavily spined dorsal fin help them evade airborne predators.  
Body Shape:
The rugged water movement of the 'surge zone' requires special adaptations so that these shallow dwelling fish do not get picked up and dashed into the rocks.
  • Their swim bladder is greatly reduced giving them little buoyancy. This keeps them close to the bottom and makes for a rather comical hopping motion when they swim.
  • Their pelvic fins are positioned downward and have stiff heavy spines. Perching on their pelvic fins helps them cling to the substrate and maintain their position in the fast moving waters.

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Spathodus
  • Species: marlieri
Plain Goby Cichlid - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Size of fish - inches: 4.0 inches (10.16 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gal (114 L)
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 81.0° F (23.9 to 27.2° C)
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Plain Goby Cichlid Spathodus marlieri was described by Poll in 1950. These fish are endemic to the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, Africa. This species is listed on the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species as Least Concern (LC) as they are widespread along their range in the northern parts of lake. Although they are at risk due to increased siltation, it is not significant enough to consider them threatened.

They prefer the top part of the water column, not often venturing below 6.5 feet (2 m). They inhabit the rubble or pebble edges of the shoreline, called the 'surge zone.' This area is continually washed by waves that are driven by the wind. This water has a pH of over 9 due to the releases of oxygen at the shore called “faunal exhaust.”

In the wild they are found alone or in pairs. Their routine is different from their cousin the Blue Goby Cichlid Spathodus erythrodon, who 'hops' from place to place. Rather, they will swim long distances along the substrate looking for food. They feed by picking algae and micro-organisms living in the algae from the rocks.

  • Scientific Name: Spathodus marlieri
  • Social Grouping: Pairs - They usually occur in pairs or singly.
  • IUCN Red List: LC - Least Concern


The Plain Goby Cichlid is a small, moderately elongated fish, but they are the largest of the Tanganyikan Gobies. The females are smaller at 2.5” (6.4 cm), but the males will reach up to 4 inches (10.2 cm) in length. Their average life span of the Tanganyikan Gobies is said to be approximately 3-5 years, though like other African Cichlids they may live longer when well maintained and provided proper diet and care.

The body of this fish has darker brown splotches with electric sky blue dots on the front half of the body. The back half is a lighter plain color and the belly is lighter still. The dorsal, tail, and anal fins are a very light blue tipped in a muted gold and lined in brown.

They have a uniquely shaped mouth with their top lip almost looking like an “overbite”. Their eyes are located toward the top of their head. These cichlids have one row of teeth on each side of their jaw that are long and curved with tips that are blunt, used for eating algae off of rocks. All cichlids share a common feature that some saltwater fish such as wrasses and parrotfish have and that is a well-developed pharyngeal set of teeth that are in the throat, along with their regular teeth.

With the name goby, one would rightly picture a hopping motion that these fish use due to the absence of a swim bladder. Their pectoral fins are heavy, sharp and located lower than other cichlids. They use these fins in an almost "foot" like application by pointing them straight down and digging into the rock or rubble to keep from being thrown around by waves.

Cichlids have spiny rays in the back parts of the anal, dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins to help discourage predators. The front part of these fins are soft and perfect for precise positions and effortless movements in the water as opposed to fast swimming. Cichlids have one nostril on each side while other fish have 2 sets. To sense “smells” in the water, they suck water in and expel the water right back out after being “sampled” for a short or longer time, depending on how much the cichlid needs to “smell” the water. This feature is also shared by saltwater damselfish and cichlids are thought to be closely related.

  • Size of fish - inches: 4.0 inches (10.16 cm) - Females grow to 2.5” (6.4 cm), but males will reach up to 4 inches (10.2 cm) in length.
  • Lifespan: 3 years - The lifespan of Lake Tanganyikan Gobies is said to be 3 - 5 years, but as with other African cichlids, they may live longer with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Plain Goby Cichlids are suggested for the intermediate aquarists due to their sensitivity and specific requirements. They are easy to moderate to care for, but they are aggressive and they require top-notch water conditions. Diligent attention must be given to their requirements of diet and habitat. The aquarists must also be willing to do frequent water changes and provide appropriate tank mates.

The Lake Tanganyikan Goby species are rather expensive fish that have rather specific, though uncomplicated needs. They are fine in an aquarium of 30 gallons or more and can be kept in a cichlid community. But their tank needs to have good filtration with highly oxygenated water, and their diet must consist of a variety of quality foods.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate - These fish must have appropriate tankmates and require attention to diet and tank care.

Foods and Feeding

The Plain Goby Cichlid is an omnivore. In the wild they pick algae and microorganisms from the rock biocover. In the aquarium they can be fed nutritious live foods, tablets, and some will accept frozen or flake. Flakes are often accepted by captive bred fish though captive caught fish are less enthusiastic. A varied died is important however, as a diet consisting of just flakes has been said to contribute to bloat.

Provide a diet of high quality spirulina or vegetables such as blanched chopped peas, broccoli or lettuce. Also feed crustaceans, Cyclops, brine shrimp, glassworms, or other special foods for Lake Tanganyika cichlids. On rare occasions you can feed bloodworms, but high protein foods such as shellfish, meat (especially animal meat) and other worms should be avoided. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods. Feed smaller amounts of 2 to 5 small pinches of food several times a day instead of a large quantity once a day.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet - Avoid high protein foods such as shellfish, animal meat, and worms.
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day - Generally feed 2-3 small feedings a day rather than a single large feeding for better water quality.

Aquarium Care

The Plain Goby Cichlid needs diligent maintenance for good water quality. Regular partial water changes are very important and removing any uneaten foods will help prevent disease. Do water changes of 10% to 15% a week, or more frequent changes depending on the nitrite/ammonia levels and stocking numbers.

The Lake Tanganyika cichlids cannot handle large water changes very well unless the new water chemistry closely matches the water they are in. If a large water change is needed, changing 15% every couple of days should bring water back to normal. This inability to tolerate large water changes is due to Lake Tanganyika being very deep and the water tends to stay stable.

  • Water Changes: Weekly - Water changes of 10% to 15% a week are recommended.

Aquarium Setup

The Plain Goby Cichlids will swim mostly on the bottom and occasionally in the middle areas of the tank. Though they are a smaller cichlid they are shy and need a minimum 30 gallon aquarium. A tank that is 4 foot long, 75 gallon or more, is better for long term maintenance and if you wish to keep a cichlid community. They need good water movement along with very strong and efficient filtration. Extra aeration is suggested for the aquarium to provide optimal oxygen levels. Lake Tanganyika is a very oxygen rich lake, and in nature these cichlids occur in the "surge" zones near the shore where the water is always high in oxygen.

With a fine sand substrate, undergravel filtration is very difficult to implement. An external canister filter or hang on tank filter can be used as long as the flow rate is higher than required for your particular tank because of the oxygenation that is required. Make sure the intakes are well above the sand and have a protective cover to prevent sand from entering the filter, or the impeller will wear out quickly.

For Lake Tanganyika cichlids the water needs to be well buffered and maintained with small, regular water changes. They do fine in either freshwater or brackish freshwater. The surge zone areas of Lake Tanganyika have a pH of over 9. This is due to the releases of oxygen at the shore called 'faunal exhaust'. Keep an eye on pH parameters for the Goby Cichlids. A higher pH means that ammonia is more lethal, so water changes are a must for these fish. In addition keep an eye on total hardness and carbonate hardness. Avoid overfeeding and overstocking.

The best set up is a system of caves that reach almost to the water surface, formed by rocks or flowerpots. Though they primarily inhabit the bottom parts of the tank, this provides a higher refuge for the female when the male gets aggressive. Laying stones at the bottom and front of the tank for perching and growing the algae the gobies relish is also suggested. Positioning the tank near natural sunlight will encourage growing this beneficial algae.

A sandy substrate is needed as it is thought to aid in the Goby cichlid’s digestion. It is helpful to use sand that is designed for marine aquariums which will help keep the pH high. Salt is sometimes used as a buffering agent to increase the water's carbonate hardness. An alternative buffering approach is to use a chemical filtration method, where the water passes through layers of crushed coral or coral sand.

Although rift lake cichlids need hard alkaline water they are not found in brackish waters. This cichlid has some salt tolerance so can be kept in slightly brackish water conditions. However it not suited to a full brackish water tank. Salinity must be less than about 10% of a normal saltwater tank, a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.

For freshwater an optional practice is to add 1 heaping teaspoon of salt per 11 gallons of water. This is considered to be a simple and natural remedy for wounds, minor fungal infections and film over the eyes of fish in transit. Tanganyika cichlids also need iodine for the thyroid to function properly to regulate growth and development, and which can be achieved by adding iodized table salt to the water. Be very careful to not add too much salt as this may cause bloat. Using a marine salt (used for salt water fish) will add some trace elements.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gal (114 L) - The minimum size for a pair of these cichlids is 30 gallons but a 4 foot long, 75+ gallon tank will be needed to keep a cichlid community.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Substrate Type: Sand
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate - normal lighting - Normal lighting is okay, but stronger lighting will help with algae growth.
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 81.0° F (23.9 to 27.2° C)
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.6
  • Hardness Range: 10 - 20 dGH
  • Brackish: Sometimes - Can tolerate a low salinity, but must be less than 10% of a normal saltwater tank, a specific gravity of less than 1.0002.
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: Bottom - These fish will swim in the bottom and occasionally middle areas of the aquarium

Social Behaviors

The Plain Goby Cichlid is a community cichlid that can be kept with smaller mid-water swimming cichlids. They can be kept alone or in pairs, but are generally not tolerant of their own species when not paired up. In the wild they are the more tolerant of other goby species, but in the aquarium it is a gamble. In fact, this species has a reputation as one of the most abrasive gobies in the aquarium with an overall bad attitude towards conspecifics. They do best in a species specific tank if you want to see much of them or breed them.

They can be kept with some other cichlids, but will feel threatened and hide if the other fish swim in the lower regions or compete for the same foods. They will stay hidden in the rockwork but won't get hurt. Housing with mid-water fish gives them more “room” and allows them to come out of hiding. Avoid other cichlids that are too large or boisterous, like the Mbuna from Lake Malawi. Good tankmates are species that inhabit the upper and middle areas of the aquarium rather than the lower substrate areas of these fish.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive - Is generally compatible with mid-water cichlids of similar size but not with the same species.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species - conspecifics: Sometimes - Mostly intolerant of their own species, but can be kept as a pair.
    • Peaceful fish (): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Slow Swimmers & Eaters (): Monitor
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe - not aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sex: Sexual differences

Males and females have an almost identical appearance, but when adults, the males are larger and develop a more pronounced hump on the forehead.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Plain Goby Cichlid has been bred in captivity. These are the only gobies in the cichlidae family that are not biparental mouthbrooders. This may be because they are the largest of the gobies, allowing the female to carry the eggs full term. Only the female cares for the young from beginning to end. A strong bond between the male and female is established by buying around 6 juvenile Goby Cichlids and waiting for them to pair. Once they pair, remove the other fish. Just buying a male and female that are not paired will end in the female being harassed to death.

The female will clear a flat spot in the tank and display to attract the male. She will lay only 1 or 2 eggs and then immediately pick them up in her mouth. The male then swims over and the female nuzzles his vent until he releases sperm, which she takes into her mouth to fertilize the eggs. She will do this over and over until 10 to 30 orange/yellow eggs are produced. The number is dependant on her age and nutritional levels.

The female carries the eggs through hatching and the full development of the fry. The female releases the fry at night, only letting out a few at a time in different areas. The female waits until they find a hiding place but if a fry does not seek shelter, the female pulls it back into her mouth before she moves on.

Provide small shells and piles of small stones for the fry to hide in after they are released. Be sure to cover intakes with screen. If there is a need to remove the 10 mm (.3”) long fry, wait until the female is done releasing the fry so as not to disturb her.

Feed the fry Artemia nauplii and powdered spirulina flake, and within a few weeks they will graze on algae. They double their size in 6 weeks. In 4 to 5 months, they will reach .9” to 1.1” (2.5 - 3 cm) and are sexually mature between the 10th and 14th month after the female releases them. In the case of a male being too aggressive toward the female, she can be separated from the male. See more information on breeding cichlids in Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

The Goby Cichlids are relatively hardy as long as diligent attention is paid to maintaining their environment and diet. These fish are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and has low oxygenation. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Water changes, not overfeeding or overcrowding, and observation along with feeding your fish the proper foods (thawing frozen food and adding vitamins) will keep them in optimum health. For freshwater an optional practice is to add 1 heaping teaspoon of salt per 11 gallons of water. This is considered to be a simple and natural remedy for wounds, minor fungal infections and film over the eyes of fish in transit.

One common problem is Ich. It can be treated with the elevation of the tank temperature to 86° F (30° C) for 3 days. If that does not cure the Ich, then the fish needs to be treated with copper (remove any water conditioners). Several copper based fish medications are available for Ich. Copper use must be kept within the proper levels, so be sure to follow the manufacturers suggestions. You can also combine increasing the temperature with an Ich medication treatment. A copper test also can be used to keep the proper levels.

As with most fish they are susceptible to skin flukes and other parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), fungal infections, and bacterial infections. It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.


The Plain Goby Cichlid is quite rare online or in fish stores. You may be able to special order, but these cichlids are relatively costly and price varies depending on age and size.


Author: Clarice Brough CFS, Carrie McBirney
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