The male cockatoo dwarf cichlid reaches a body length of 8 centimetres. The female is considerably smaller, reaching only 5 centimetres. The body shape is long and of middle height and the mouth is rather big with thick lips. The male is more colorful than the female, usually with red/orange dorsal and caudal fins. The leading 3 or 4 hard rays are elongated, and the ventral fins are clear. In color, the female is quite dull but with a clear black line running along her flanks. Her background color is a pale yellow, but this will become vibrant when mating or brood protecting. In addition, she lacks the elongated dorsal rays of the male and her ventral fins show a black leading edge. There are several color forms which naturally occur in the wild; these include blues, yellows and some reds. Because of selective breeding the colors are now much more pronounced. Both sexes have a dark line leading from the eye to the bottom of the gill flap.