BackgroundMelanic patterns such as horizontal stripes, vertical bars and spots are common among teleost fishes and often serve roles in camouflage or mimicry. Extensive research in the zebrafish model has shown that the development of horizontal stripes depends on complex cellular interactions between melanophores, xanthophores and iridophores. Little is known about the development of horizontal stripes in other teleosts, and even less is known about bar or spot development. Here, we compare chromatophore composition and development of stripes, bars and spots in two cichlid species of sand-dwellers from Lake Malawi—Copadichromis azureus and Dimidiochromis compressiceps.Results(1) In D. compressiceps, stripes are made of dense melanophores underlaid by xanthophores and overlaid by iridophores. Melanophores and xanthophores are either loose or absent in interstripes, and iridophores are dense. In C. azureus, spots and bars are composed of a chromatophore arrangement similar to that of stripes but are separated by interbars where density of melanophores and xanthophores is only slightly lower than in stripes and iridophore density appears slightly greater. (2) Stripe, bar and spot chromatophores appear in the skin at metamorphosis. Stripe melanophores directly differentiate along horizontal myosepta into the adult pattern. In contrast, bar number and position are dynamic throughout development. As body length increases, new bars appear between old ones or by splitting of old ones through new melanophore appearance, not migration. Xanthophore and iridophore distributions follow melanophore patterns. (3) Metamorphic pigmentation arises in cichlids in a fashion similar to that described in zebrafish: melanophore progenitors derived from the medial route of neural crest migration migrate from the vicinity of the neural tube to the skin during metamorphosis.ConclusionThe three pigment cell types forming stripes, bars and spots arise in the skin at metamorphosis. Stripes develop by differentiation of melanophores along horizontal myosepta, while bars do not develop along patent anatomical boundaries and increase in number in relation with body size. We propose that metamorphic melanophore differentiation and migratory arrest upon arrival to the skin lead to stripe formation, while bar formation must be supported by extensive migration of undifferentiated melanophores in the skin.