Rusty Cichlid Care (Iodotropheus sprengerae)

Common Name(s)Rusty Cichlid
Scientific NameIodotropheus sprengerae
OriginLake Malawi, East Africa
Temperature78-80°F (24-26°C)
Size3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm)
Minimum Tank Size55 gallons
Food & DietOmnivorous diet
Lifespan5 years
Water pH7.8-8.2
Tank MatesAulonocara, Protomelas, and Copadichromis species.
BreedingMaternal mouthbrooder
DiseasePotential tank mates include peaceful Aulonocara, Protomelas, and Copadichromis species.
Rusty Cichlid
Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus sprengerae)

Rusty Cichlid (Iodotropheus Sprengerae) is a African Cichlid species that is native to the Chinyamwezi regions of Lake Malawi in East Africa. As the name suggests, the female Rusty Cichlid have beautiful rust colored body. The male Rusty Cichlid has a rust colored body as well, but is has more of a purple hue on the mid-section of the body.

As a mbuna, they do show some territorial behavior. However, compared to many other mbuna cichlids, Rusty Cichlid are much less aggressive. While fish of the same species can display different social behavior, choosing tank mates for Rusty Cichlids is easier compared to other mbuna cichlids.

Considering their size of only 3-4 inches, they are great for medium-sized aquariums as well.

Their less-aggressive nature and small size makes them great for ideal fish for fishkeepers that are new to keeping mbuna cichlids.

Rusty Cichlid was identified with the persistent efforts of Kappy Sprenger, an aquarist from Los Gatos, California. In honor of her work, the fish was named after her as Iodotropheus Sprengerae.

Rusty Cichlid Care

Much like any other fish that you place in your tank, certain conditions must be met to make sure your Rusty Cichlid thrives. The best water to use for this fish will be hard water at about 200 parts per million with a PH of somewhere around 7.8-8.2. Ideal temperatures that will make your fish a happy fellow is between 78-80°F (24-26°C).

Although not overly territorial, these types of fish still can grow to decent sizes of 4 inches. What this entails is that the Rusty Cichlid will need a tank that accommodates it well. The best tank to use for this situation is a freshwater aquarium of at least 80 liters or more. Having an adequate aquarium will allow this fish to thrive and when healthy can live for five years. 

Despite being a small fish, the Rusty Cichlid consumes a wide variety of foods. Being an omnivore it can eat both meat, insects and plant matter. Excellent choices are Bloodworms, larvae from mosquitos, pellets, brine shrimp, and vegetable matter (cucumber, spinach, and lettuce). 

Rusty Cichlid Tank Setup

As with any other fish it is imperative to create an environment most similar to its natural habitat. What this means is that knowledge of its original environment and neighbors it lived with will make your tank a merrier one. Coming from Lake Malawi, it is important to match its environment to that.

The perfect tank for this fish will be one that has vegetation. Plants such as Christmas Moss, Anubias and or Java will suffice. Besides having the plants mentioned before, it would be wise to invest in sand and some pebbles as it loves to dig to create its own habitats. Since it is the most peaceful cichlid it can easily be picked on by others. Adding items such as clay pots, grottoes, snags, and hardy plants will not only make your fish happy but give some personality to your tank.

Rusty Cichlid Tank Mates

Since it is one of the least aggressive fish it can easily be outcompeted by bigger more dominant ones. The selection of fish you add with your Rusty Cichlid is just as important as having the right PH and temperature settings. Fish that complement it well and are actually native to Lake Malawi such as the Peacock, Firemouth, and Electric Blue Ram variations.

Other species that can be paired with the Rusty Cichlid include the Aulonocara, Protomelas or Copadichromis species. If you prefer you can also add the Tanganyikan species as well. Despite having fish that are compatible to the Rusty Cichlid, you also have to keep in mind of sex ratio as well. Make sure your tank is only ⅓ male with the rest being females.

Are Rusty Cichlids compatible with the Yellow Lab?

Yellow Lab cichlids (Labidochromis caeruleus) are an excellent fit as they are not very territorial and can live well around any type of cichlids. Just like the Rusty Cichlids make sure that they are not paired with overly aggressive fish.

Rusty Cichlid Breeding

From a distance it is difficult to tell apart male and female Rusty Cichlids until you are much closer. As mentioned before females and juveniles are a rusty color while the males are larger and more colorful with more eggs in their anal fin. Reason for having eggs in it’s anal fin is to attract the females who despite being drawn to the colorful, shimmering movements of the male, are really drawn to the eggs which they believed to have missed.

Being a mouth brooding species the females will hold on to eggs deposited by the male in their mouths which is called a fry. A typical broad will be between 15-20 eggs with the young fish being released after about three week.

Raising a Rusty Cichlid fry is not hard as the fry will stay in their mother’s mouth until they are able to reach adulthood. For the first week, the fry will live off their eggs sack until they are able to consume actual food like flakes and pellets. It is pertinent however to make sure that the female cichlid is separated from the males after every birth of the batch as mating does take a toll.

Rusty Cichlid Disease

Rusty Cichlid is susceptible to various disease that are common to Cichlids and other freshwater fish. While they can be hardy fish, it is important to understand the common diseases and illness that can threaten the health of these fish, especially in an aquarium setting.

Swim Bladder Disease

This disease affects the bladder of your cichlid and makes it hard for it to stay submerged. The causes of this usually are physical injury to the fish or certain types of ailments like cancer or tuberculosis. Another cause of Swim Bladder Disease is diet related. Cichlids should be given a high fiber diet like peas and spinach to relieve constipation, which can cause this disease.

Malawi Bloat

Common among African Cichlids, this ailment is essentially bloating of the stomach which causes rapid breathing, loss of appetite and feces discoloration. Left untreated it can become fatal within three days. The cause of this is generally unknown but it is purported to originate from lack of tank quality. This can be done by making several changes to your aquarium such as removing the carbon from your fish tank filter.


Not just a disease regulated to humans, TB can also be fatal to your Cichlids. Symptoms of this disease include loss of appetite, blotches on skin, and frayed fins. Behavioral changes can also take place as fish will appear lifeless and lethargic. If you suspect that one of your fish has been contaminated, swift action must take place. You must remove all fish to a seperate hospital tank and treat the tank with melafix. Make sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect the tank before bringing the fish back.

Cotton Wool Disease

Cotton Wool Disease is a disease that causes fuzzy growth on the fish’s fins and body. This is due to a fungus that is naturally found in your aquarium. The fungus only becomes a problem when the tank water quality drops. Prior injury to the fish and stress can also be leading culprits to this disease. A remedy for this would be a salt bath or antifungal medication.


Hexamita, or Hole In The Head Syndrome is another disease that is associated with cichlids. It is easily recognized as a depression in the head that leads to easy recognizable behaviors such as depression, loss of appetite and weight loss. Hexamita is believed to be caused by a parasite but this is heavily debated. Other theories include poor tank quality or mineral imbalance.

White Spot

Not to be confused with Cotton Wool Disease, white spot- ich is a disease that is caused by the parasite, “Ichthyophthirus Multifiliis”. Signs of this sickness will include labored breathing, clamped fins, lethargy and rubbing against the tank. This disease is more like an infection and is highly contagious. Make sure to use salt baths, potassium pomergrante, increasing the temperature, and acriflavine

Gill Flukes

Last but not least is a disease that can be deadly for your fish. This one is called Gill Flukes. Gill Flukes actually is a parasite that goes into the gills of your fish making it hard to breathe. You can tell if your fish has this if it is at the surface of the water or if it is rubbing its gills on the tank window. A simple solution to this will be to add aquarium salt of one tablespoon each day along with a slight increase in tank temperature.

Where to find Rusty Cichlids for sale?

Rusty Cichlid is available from both online retailers and some local fish stores.

In most cases, it is easier to source them online. However, it can be difficult to identify the quality of the specimen when they are sold online. Therefore, be sure to purchase them from a reputable online retailer.

When purchasing fish from a local fish store, the health of the fish can be observed carefully before purchasing it. However, it can be a challenge to find the fish, since not all stores will have them.

Rusty Cichlid cost approximately $8-20 USD. If you are purchasing the fish online, expect to pay an additional fee for shipment of live fish.

Once the fish is purchased, be sure to take good care of it. Slowly acclimate the fish before adding it into the aquarium. Be sure to observe the fish carefully until the fish is well-established to its new environment.

There should be no issues with acclimating to an aquarium since most Rusty Cichlid in the hobby is captive bred. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Rusty Cichlids are considered a ‘Near Threatened’ species.