Why Do My African Cichlids Lock Jaws?

Red and Blue Zebra Cichlids fight for dominance in a lip lock
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Why Do My African Cichlids Lock Jaws?


African cichlids are incredibly popular fish among aquarium hobbyists due to their often beautiful coloration and interesting behaviors. While many cichlids display interesting behaviors, one of the most curious is when two cichlids will lock jaws, usually for a few seconds before releasing. While it may look like they are fighting, this behavior is actually a form of communication and typically happens between two fish of the same species. So, why do African cichlids lock jaws?

A Sign of Aggression or Dominance

The most common reason that African cichlids lock jaws is to display aggression or dominance. This behavior is most often seen between two males of the same species, as they are competing for territory or mates. When two males lock jaws, one of them will typically give in and move away, thus establishing the dominance of the other. This is why it is important to ensure that you have a healthy ratio of males to females in your tank – too many males can lead to frequent aggression and fighting.

A Sign of Courtship

In some cases, jaw locking can also be a sign of courtship. When two fish of the same species are interested in mating, they may perform a courtship ritual that includes swimming together, with one fish following the other. In some cases, this can lead to the two fish locking jaws. This behavior is usually not aggressive, but rather is a sign of the two fish forming a bond. While jaw locking may be a sign of courtship, it is important to remember that it is also a sign of aggression and should be monitored closely.

A Sign of Stress

Jaw locking can also be a sign of stress in African cichlids. This behavior is usually seen when two fish of the same species are placed in a tank that is too small or when the water conditions are not ideal. In these cases, the fish are likely feeling stressed and may resort to jaw locking in an attempt to establish dominance. If the tank is overcrowded or the water conditions are poor, it is important to address these issues as soon as possible to prevent further aggression between the fish.


Jaw locking is a common behavior among African cichlids, and can be a sign of aggression, dominance, courtship, or stress. To prevent aggression between your cichlids, it is important to ensure that the tank is not overcrowded and the water conditions are optimal. Likewise, be sure to keep an eye on your fish to make sure that any jaw locking behavior is not a sign of stress or aggression.

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