Otopharynx heterodon

Otopharynx heterodon is a colorful cichlid from Lake Malawi, known for its calm temperament and preference for sediment-rich and rocky habitats. Males are strikingly blue with dark bands, while females are silver with black spots. They can grow up to 15 cm in aquariums and have a lifespan of 7 to 9 years with good care. They mainly live in the deeper regions of Lake Malawi.

Otopharynx heterodon

Otopharynx heterodon was first described in 1935 by Ethelwynn Trewavas.

The genus name Otopharynx comes from Greek, where “otos” means “ear” and “pharynx” means “throat”. This refers to the involvement of the prootic bone in the articulation of the upper pharyngeal jaw (throat jaw) in some specimens of O. auromarginatus (the prootic bone is a piece of bone that usually contains the balance organ near the ear). The species name also comes from Greek, where “heteros” means “different” and “odon” means “tooth”. This refers to the variety of shapes of the outer teeth in the jaws, which can be bicuspid, tricuspid, or simple in larger specimens.

There are two known synonyms: Haplochromis heterodon and Cyrtocara heterodon.


Otopharynx heterodon has a tall body. The fins are well-developed, with the dorsal fin extending to the tail fin. The pectoral fins are relatively large, and the pelvic fins are long and pointed.

Adult males are usually blue with vertical dark bands across the body. They can also have yellow hues on the belly area. Females are silver-colored with three black spots on the flanks.

In the wild, males grow to about 13 centimeters, but in aquariums, they can grow up to 15 centimeters. The females stay a bit smaller, reaching about 12 centimeters.

Behavior and Temperament

Otopharynx heterodon is a pretty calm species that is best kept with one male and several females in a spacious aquarium with hiding spots. They are rarely territorial and usually show peaceful behavior.

Life expectancy

With good care, Otopharynx heterodon can live between 7 and 9 years.


Otopharynx heterodon is only found in Lake Malawi in East Africa. They live in the deeper regions along the rocky coasts and in the transition zones from rocks to sand. The habitat mainly consists of sediment-rich substrates and rocky areas.


In the aquarium, Otopharynx heterodon is an easy eater that accepts various types of food. The diet in the aquarium can consist of pellets or flakes. You can also feed them frozen food like brine shrimp, mysis, and shrimp mix.

The Aquarium

For a harem of Otopharynx heterodon, you need at least an aquarium that is 150 centimeters wide, but preferably even wider.

Use sand as the substrate, as this mimics the natural habitat of Otopharynx heterodon. Provide plenty of rocks and stones to create hiding spots and territories. This helps reduce stress and gives the females the opportunity to escape the attention of the male.

Otopharynx heterodon can coexist well with other peaceful cichlids from Lake Malawi, such as Aulonocara and Mylochromis. It is important to keep them with non-aggressive species to avoid stress and territorial conflicts.

Although plants are not essential, sturdy plants like Anubias and Java fern can be added. These plants are resistant to the digging activities of cichlids.

Breeding aquarium and conditioning

Otopharynx heterodon can be bred in both a regular aquarium and a special breeding aquarium. Generally, Malawi cichlids do not need to be specially conditioned. Breeding in an aquarium without other species ensures that the egg-laying process can proceed undisturbed. If you use a special breeding aquarium, maintain a ratio of one male to two or three females.

The Spawn

During spawning, the colors of Otopharynx heterodon become more intense. The males display a bright blue color with dark vertical stripes, while the females retain a silver color with three black spots on their flanks.

When a male notices that a female is ready to lay eggs, he searches for a spawning site. Usually, this is a spot in the sand. He tries to lure the female by showing his best colors and spreading his fins wide. With trembling movements, he swims in front of her and leads her along.

While circling each other, the female lays eggs in the sand. She turns around and takes the eggs into her mouth. The male circles with her and fertilizes the eggs. They are mouthbrooders, with the female incubating the eggs in her mouth.

A female can lay about 20 to 60 eggs per breeding cycle. The eggs are relatively small and have a light yellow to white color.

Raising the fry

The eggs in the mouth of the Otopharynx heterodon female hatch after three to four days. They continue to grow in the female’s mouth. Feeding on the yolk sac. After 20 to 21 days, the female releases the fry. From this moment, they have to fend for themselves.

In an aquarium with adult Malawi cichlids, the fry make a tasty snack. If you want to keep more fry, you can catch the female after 18 days and place her in a breeding aquarium. Set up this aquarium with some sand on the bottom and a hiding spot for the female. When she releases the fry, you have enough time to return the female to the main aquarium. For the first few hours, she will not eat the fry.

You can feed the young Otopharynx heterodon with finely crushed flake food and brine shrimp. As they grow larger, they will eat regular food.


Otopharynx heterodon is a beautiful species that is best kept with other peaceful Malawi Cichlids. Do not keep them together with overly busy or dominant species!



John de Lange

Copyright images

Mark Thomas – Marks Fiskenarie


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