Can Cichlids Really Breed With Sunfish?

When different kinds of fish are put together in one tank, the question remains whether they will cross the lines and produce hybrids.

Sunfish can hardly stay with Cichlids in one tank much less breed with them. The main reason why they can’t cross-breed is that they belong to different families: Centrarchidae for native Sunfish and Cichlidae for Cichlids.

We mentioned before that cross-breeding fish only happens with closely related species, meaning  they should belong to the same family. Check out our posts, “Can A Molly And A Goldfish Mate?” and “Can A Molly And A Swordtail Breed?” as examples.

Rather than cross-breeding, interbreeding happens with Sunfish within its family. Bluegills and Largemouth Sunfish have interbred before because they are often found in the same habitat. Female Green Sunfish and male Bluegills are also known for producing hybrids. Their offspring, which are hybrids, are not sterile. But as a consequence, they often have weaker abilities to spawn than purebreds.

The same is true for Cichlids. Take the Blood Parrot— which is believed to be a hybrid produced by crossing the Severum and the Midas— for example. The Flowerhorn is also a cross, believed to be spawned by an Amphilophus trimaculatus and the Paratherap. Blood Parrots have hardly viable milt, but females are known to lay eggs. Flowerhorns are sterile and have no recorded successful spawning.

Bottom line, Centrarchids can only breed with other Centrarchids, and Cichlids can only breed with fellow Cichlids.

But even if they can’t cross-breed, Sunfish and Cichlids have lots of similarities. The next logical question would be if they can at least be kept together. Let’s get to know the native Sunfish more.

What Are Sunfish?

Before Cichlids burst into the aquarium scene, Sunfish were more commonly caught in nearby waters and kept as pets in the Americas.

The Freshwater Sunfish (Family Centrarchidae) is made up of over 30 varieties that include Pumpkinseeds, Bluegills, Pygmies, Longears, Black-Banded Sunfish, Redears, Crappies, and Largemouth Bass.

You might’ve seen and heard of these as they are the native species found in ponds, rivers, lakes, and marshes near you. All of these colorful fish acclimate well to aquarium life and have a fun, curious personality everyone can enjoy.

The Pumpkinseed, in particular, is native to Southeast US and Canada. It can reach about 9 inches average in length at maturity. It is best kept in pairs to encourage breeding. Pumpkinseeds are the most common Sunfish variety in the aquarium hobby for their unique coloration and large size. Next to them are the equally brightly colored Longears.

It’s not hard to appreciate these breathtaking beauties, but it’s probably the fact that they are common in native soil that makes many people choose other species over them. Exoticism indeed makes for popular fish.

How Are Sunfish And Cichlids Similar?

But Sunfish deserve attention in the hobby, too. In fact, they have many similarities with Cichlids.

Similarity #1: Size

One key to compatibility in semi-aggressive or aggressive fish is that they have to be the same size to have a peaceful (though never totally) balance in the tank.

Can Cichlids Really Breed with Sunfish
Can Cichlids Really Breed with Sunfish

There are Sunfish that only reach a maximum of 5 inches in length (the Green Sunfish, Bluespotted Sunfish), there are those that reach 9 inches (Pumpkinseeds, Bluegills, and Longears), and there are monster Sunfish that can grow as long as 16 inches or more (Redears, Largemouth Bass). Pygmy Sunfish are tiny at a maximum of 1 inch in length. Some argue, though, that Pygmies are not true Sunfish.

Similarity #2: Diet

All Sunfish are carnivorous, eating smaller fish, crustaceans, and worms in the wild. If kept captive, some of them can adapt to eating pellets, flakes, and frozen food. They can be fed brine shrimp, Mysis shrimp, krill, and Minnows.

Centrarchids’ appetites are insatiable, however, so expect them to be messy. You would need a strong filtration system in their setup.

Similarity #3: Behavior

Just like Cichlids, native Sunfish can be kept together until their juvenile stage. As they mature, they become more territorial and aggressive, establishing a hierarchy if kept within a community.

One of the most aggressive Sunfish in the aquarium hobby is the Longear.

There are also Sunfish that are more even-tempered such as the shy Bluespotted Sunfish, Blackbanded Sunfish, or the Banded Sunfish. These 3 never grow more than 5 or 6 inches. The Warmouth Sunfish grows up to 14 inches in length and will not attack anything it cannot eat.

Similarity #4: Tank setup

Sunfish and Cichlids both require lots of space where they can claim their own territories. Larger fish in groups should be kept in no less than a 125-gallon. If you mix aggressive fish, there should be lots of hiding places plus decor and plants that break the line of sight of bullies in the tank.

Smaller fish can stay in a 55-gallon.

Can Sunfish Be Kept With Cichlids?

With all these similarities, these 2 species in theory should make for good tank mates.

However, the biggest hindrance to keeping native Sunfish and Cichlids together are different water requirements. Sunfish like cooler waters that fall within room temperature (60 to 70 deg F), while Cichlids like warmer waters of 78 to 80 deg F.

Acidity and hardness are not of consequence as both species fall within the same range. But since both species get more aggressive as the temperature rises, expect a lot of brawls if you insist on putting them in the same tank.

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any successful tanks that mix both breeds. We have seen some, but not without its problems. Therefore, we don’t encourage keeping native Sunfish with Cichlids, especially the more aggressive ones.

The best way to keep Sunfish remains to be keeping them in their own species-only tank.

Monster fish, like the Mud Sunfish that grows up to 2 feet long, should be kept in ponds instead. They’re very hard to come by, though.

Although Centrarchids prefer planted tanks for their habitat, they will uproot these and stir up the substrate as most Cichlids do. Therefore, stick with floating plants that give your tank a natural look similar to that of the natural habitat of the Sunfish.

Warning: Although not an endangered species by far, some states don’t allow natives to be kept in captivity (such as Massachusetts). We suggest you try and contact your local Fish and Games office or ask your local pet store about the laws about keeping local fish as pets in your area.

If you are interested in learning more about your fish behavior, check out the links below:


Even with so many similarities in behavior, size, and tank requirements, Sunfish and Cichlids are not compatible tank mates simply because they don’t belong to the same family and require different water temperatures.

But with some Cichlid keepers trying to add a Sunfish or two into their tank, we strongly advise having a backup tank in case the situation turns awry. For the sake of the fish, it would expand your knowledge if you try. Just don’t do it because it’s the trend.

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