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Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)


Red Terror Cichlid Mesoheros festae

Is the Red Terror Cichlid suitable for a community aquarium?

The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) should ABSOLUTELY NOT be considered to be a community fish. It is a very big fish and is, like many Cichlids, very territorial. The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) may grow up to 20 inches and has big jaws, so can eat fish of up to 6 inches in length. It is exceptionally territorial when spawning and, unless the breeding pair is alone, they are likely to do some real damage.

What is the history of Cichlids?

Cichlids are a very ancient and extensive classification of fishes dating back millions of years before, for example, dinosaurs. Cichlids probably originated around 550 million years ago (give or take a month or two 😀) and there are somewhere in the region of 2,000 to 3,000 different species, of which around 1,700 have been classified (at the time of writing).

Cichlids can make excellent community fish but you should take care because not all Cichlids are good community fish and may devastate an established aquarium, treating their tankmates as food, so before choosing a Cichlid, please ensure that you know whether or not your choice will be appropriate to your needs.

What are the key facts about the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

CategoryKey Facts
Common name(s)Red Terror Cichlid
Scientific nameMesoheros festae
FamilyCichlidae
Originate fromRío Esmeraldas river in Ecuador to Río Tumbes river basin in Peru in western South America
Care requiredEasy to care for and very beautiful
TemperamentCan be extremely aggressive and territorial
Colour & FormDeep-bodied fish with very elegant finnage
Lifespan10 to 15 years
Adult sizeUp to 20 inches (male) and 12 inches (female)
DietOmnivorous – eats Daphnia, Bloodworm, Tubifex worms, flakes and pellet food in the aquarium.
Aquarium size84 inches in length or greater
Compatible withBest kept in a single-species aquarium (or by a specialist aquarist)
Avoid keeping withThis is a dominant species. Don’t keep it unless you are sure that you know how to take care of it.
BreedingEasy if you put the fish in the right environment.
Water temp76 – 83 Fahrenheit
Water pH6.0 to 8.0
Water hardness (dGH or dH)8 to 15 dGH

From where does the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) originate?

Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) originates in the Río Esmeraldas river in Ecuador to Río Tumbes river basin in Peru in western South America. It has been introduced elsewhere but, as always, I advise against introducing non-native species into local waters, as to do so can destabilize that established, natural habitat.

The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) is usually found in nature in moderate to strong flowing waters, so this is best reproduced in your aquarium.

What are the basic characteristics of the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

  • The lifespan of Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) is around ten to fifteen years but this can vary enormously depending on tank conditions and general health.
  • Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) prefers fairly neutral water, with a pH of 6.0 to 8.0 and a temperature range between 76 and 83 degrees Fahrenheit and from 8 to 15 dGH. All of that said, captive-bred specimens have, over many generations, become more accustomed to your local water conditions so these technical details are a guide and not a rule. That said, Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) will thrive well in mature water and may suffer if water conditions are not maintained.
  • Regular water changes are recommended, changing around half of the water a couple of times a week. This makes sense when you consider that in nature, Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) inhabits moderate to strong currents so the water is constantly changing.
  • Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) will grow up to around 20 inches in length (males) and up to 12 inches in length (females).
  • The female is stronger and more colorful than the male, despite being smaller.
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  • Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) will generally dwell near the bottom of the water column and will enjoy a fine substrate, as it is something of a “sifter” when feeding in that it will take in a mouthful of the substrate and sift out any food, expelling the remaining substrate. The term for this is, “geophagous,” which translates (from its Greek origin) to “earth-eater”.
  • Being that the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) enjoys digging up the substrate, there is little point in aquascaping by planting in the substrate. Your time will be better-served attaching any sturdy plants to submerged, dense wood or to solid rocks and adding floating plants such as Java Moss and Cabomba.
  • Include smooth rocks and/or slate on the aquarium floor, as the female will lay her eggs on this type of surface.

What is the physical appearance of Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) has a relatively deep, body in profile and is also quite broad when viewed from above or from the front. The body of the adult male has a bronze color with iridescent blue highlights on the scales and on the lower jaw whilst the body of the adult female has a blue/black color with iridescent blue highlights on the scales and on the lower jaw. At breeding times, the coloring of the male may become much more vivid.

A few more characteristics may be described as follows:

  • In young fish, it is difficult to distinguish between the sexes until they are around four inches in length so if you are purchasing young fish then buy half-a-dozen and you should have a mix of the sexes. 
  • The male has a turquoise, greenish body. It has orange fins and the rays of the fins (dorsal, anal and caudal) have blue spots on and around them.
  • The female is a flame red/orange with black, vertical stripes on the body and in the front two-thirds of the dorsal fin.
  • With the exception of the ventral fins, which are a charcoal /blue color, the predominant color of the fins of the female is the same flame orange/red as the body color.
  • Both males and females have a false eyespot at the rear of the caudal peduncle and this spot is always located above the line of the spine.
  • The dorsal and anal fins are elongated in the male, in particular.
  • The fins of the male tend to be similar in color to the body color.
  • It is, without question, notable that the female is by far the most striking of the pair (even though it is much smaller)

The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) is a medium-large-sized Cichlid. It has an extended dorsal fin. The fins of the male can tend to be longer than those of the female. It is advised not to include this species other species unless you have a very large aquarium and its tankmates are of similar size. Be aware that at breeding times, Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) is extremely territorial (in any tank) so should be transferred to a breeding tank. In my opinion, it would be better to keep Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) in a single-species aquarium because, unlike its natural habitat of a river, other species cannot get far enough away so may well be in danger.

What is the living environment for Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

  • Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) is another “star-of-the-show” species so a single-species tank is beneficial. 
  • As a dominant species, it is advised not to keep other species with the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae). The general rule is only to keep other species that are too big to become meals but unless you are a specialist, I would advise against keeping this species with anything else.
  • The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) loves shade will appreciate floating leaves and pretty well any broadleaf will assist the condition of the tank, as not only do such leaves provide shade but also, as they decompose, they provide infusoria for any fry in the tank. This also helps adults to determine that breeding conditions are good because they will appreciate the fact that there is a ready source of food for newly-hatched fry.
  • Note that the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) will generally mate for life (or, at some point, kill their partner, which, I suppose, amounts to the same thing) and they will make good parents for the brood that they are rearing – the female will tend to care for the brood whilst the male will protect the territory.
  • It is recommended that Red Terror Cichlids are kept as a small shoal until two of them form a breeding pair, after which, the remainder should be moved to a different tank. The male, in particular, is very territorial but setting up the tank so that sightlines are broken up will mitigate the risks of territorial behavior in general. 
  • When purchasing Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) it is generally recommended to buy around six fish. It may be impossible to sex the fish when purchasing them as immature specimens but, in due course, they will find their own mate and are, from that point, both monogamous and biparental.
  • Having a clear, broad area of a fine substrate will protect the elegant finnage of your Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae).
  • Your tank should include rocks (and/or slate) with a smooth surface on which the female will lay her eggs. Since the eggs are adhesive, large, smooth rocks, or, perhaps, some slate on the floor of the tank will be ideal for the laying of eggs. The female Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) may even lay her eggs on the glass on the bottom of the aquarium.
  • Overall, the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) is the most attractive and most elegant addition to your aquarium.

What is the diet of Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) is primarily omnivorous and has a preference for live food, feeding on a range of invertebrates in nature. In the aquarium a diet of live or frozen Artemia, Bloodworm and Daphnia are recommended and Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)  will readily eat pelleted food and flake food. That said, they prefer to stay close to the bottom of the water column and sift through the substrate for their food. For this reason, a fine substrate is recommended. You could also make a “cake” of crushed vegetables and fruit in natural gelatin, as this is a reputed favorite of the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae). Large Cichlid pellets are also a favorite.

What are the sexual differences in Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

It is extremely easy to distinguish the sex of the adult Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) because the adult male will be significantly larger but far less vivid in color. The female is, to say the least, visually stunning with very vibrant colors, especially at breeding times. The male will develop the “nuchal” hump on his head at breeding times. In nature, this hump of fatty tissue will disappear after mating but tends to become a permanent feature in the aquarium.

The rear of the male’s dorsal and anal fins is more extended than that of the female. The female has a visible ovipositor (egg duct) just in front of the anal fin at breeding times.

Sexual maturity will occur when the young adults are between three and five inches in length, so they still have plenty of growing to do after they are sexually mature.

Female-Red-Terror-Cichlid-Mesoheros-festae
Female Red-Terror Cichlid – Mesoheros festae

What is a good aquarium size for Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

It is generally advised that the minimum tank size for an adult pair of the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) should be one of at least 84 inches in length or more due to the size of the adults, particularly the male. This is especially true if you intend to keep other, similar-sized species with them but please be aware of the extremely territorial behavior at breeding times.

In a huge community tank, including some floating Java Moss and other floating plants, together with large rock formations will give other fish and any fry a safe haven from larger or more vigorous species and it certainly helps to break up the sightlines in the aquarium.

There is a predominance of so-called “Nano tanks” available but, being old-fashioned, I prefer my fishes to live in an environment which, at least, attempts to mimic nature, rather than living in what I would liken to a piscine prison cell. Please don’t keep any Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) in anything other than a very large tank.

Useful videos about the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)

Identification of the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)

Closeup video of the Male Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)

General care video of Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) 

Spawning video of Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) 

Are you keeping tropical fish as a hobbyist or as a breeder?

This is a question too often ignored in my humble opinion. If you are a breeder (either commercially or as a hobbyist who gives away young fish to other hobbyists) then you will need the resources to move fish into breeding tanks in order to maximize the yield of fry that will grow up either for sale or to give them away.

If you are keeping fish for the joy of observing them in something resembling a natural habitat then you may feel that it is appropriate to allow nature to take its course and, as and when different species breed, then many of the eggs (and surviving fry) will be eaten either by their parents or by other fish in your aquarium. This is the natural order of things because this is what will happen in nature. The fittest may well survive to reach adulthood.

If the species is large and/or if the species has a large number of young during a spawning then you need to have a well-established plan as to how you intend to manage what could be several hundred young fish at every spawning. Even your local pet store may not have the capacity to take them off your hands, even if they wanted to. This aspect of keeping fish is the most often overlooked but should be high on the agenda of all responsible aquarists.

Ultimately, the choice is yours to make.

How do you breed the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

In total, the female Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) could lay up to several hundred eggs during a single spawning but can lay as many as 100 to 1000 eggs. 

The eggs will hatch in around three to four days and the fry will become free-swimming after around nine days.

It is generally true that the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) make really good parents and will not prey on their own young. In general, the male will protect the territory whilst the female will tend to care for the eggs and fry but these roles are interchangeable.

The female Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) will generally lay her eggs in a line along a slate, rock, sometimes on a broad leaf or on the glass at the bottom of the aquarium. The male will then swim over that line of eggs and fertilize them. This process will then be repeated until the female has laid all of her eggs and the male has fertilized then and the result will be several rows of fertilized eggs.

The eggs will be moved into a pre-prepared pit by the parents.

Once the spawning is completed and until the fry become free-swimming, provided that the parents remain with the brood, they will protect the eggs with some zeal.

The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) takes responsibility for post-spawning care and may become extremely aggressive if it feels that the brood is threatened. For this reason, if possible, a breeding or single-species tank is recommended. In a community tank, other species will be driven out of the breeding pair’s territory by the male.

The young fish should be removed to a separate tank about two to three weeks after they become free-swimming.

In a well-planted aquarium with floating Java Moss, the Cichlid will often spawn in the community tank and at least some of the fittest fry will survive to adulthood by hiding in the Java Moss.

In a breeding tank, it is always a good idea to include a few aquatic shrimp, as they will consume any unfertilized or dead eggs but won’t tend to predate on viable eggs.

How to set up a breeding tank for Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)

You should prepare a tank of around 110 gallons in size with mature, soft, flowing water. The water should have a low level of light and broad-leaved plants together with some well-cleaned slate (or other smooth rock) on the floor of the tank upon which the female will lay her adhesive eggs. It is recommended that the substrate consists of a fine substrate (sand) without sharp edges. The Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) may also lay eggs on broad leaves or in rows in the substrate or even on the glass bottom of the tank.

Cichlids prefer to spawn where the water is flowing so a decent pump is required to synthesize that flow.

Feed up your Cichlids on bloodworm, which will sink to the bottom and burrow into the substrate. Your Cichlid will love rooting out the bloodworm and it can help to trigger spawning.

You may also wish to introduce baby brine shrimp, mosquito larvae or tubifex worms as an inducement to reproduction and live food will be very much appreciated. This will also tend to divert the attention of the Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) from preying on their own eggs and fry though cannibalism is certainly not characteristic of Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae).

Reduce the water movement by turning down the pump once the eggs are laid – only regular aeration is now required. Keep the lights off (or very low) and the tank dark (of fairly dark)  because eggs and fry can be particularly sensitive to the light.

The eggs will hatch typically in three to four days depending on tank temperature and conditions and the fry will become free-swimming after around nine days. 

Keep the tank more-or-less unlit for the first week or so then gradually increase the lighting. Bear in mind that the eggs and fry of a fish as small as the Cichlid will be tiny indeed so you may need to use a magnifier “app” on your smartphone or a macro lens to see anything at all. A collection of eggs is generally easy to spot, as they look like a collection of tiny pearls.

The newly hatched fry will feed firstly on their yolk sac and remain static but, once free-swimming, can be fed infusoria and will also thrive on egg yolk during the first two to four weeks. 

Once the fry are free-swimming and their yolk sacs are depleted, then add baby brine shrimp and/or white worms. Once the fry are sufficient in size not to be treated as a snack then they can be introduced into the community tank. Before moving the adolescent fish into the community tank ensure that you have balanced the water temperatures to mitigate the risk of White Spot or other diseases being triggered.

The young fish should be left in the care of the parents for around two to three weeks before removing them and distributing them based on your pre-planned solution. Remember that you may have up to 1000 young fish to distribute. It is not the best idea to breed fish simply because you can, you need to have in place the logistics to distribute young fishes to genuine distributors.

Unless you are breeding commercially, you may wish to consider moving the fry into the community tank sooner rather than later. It may seem harsh but the adult fish in the tank will deal with any fry that are unlikely to survive to adulthood in the wild and you are synthesizing, to the best of your ability, a wild environment. The fittest fry will probably survive whilst the rest will be dealt with by the community.

Is there a special diet for breeding Red Terror Cichlid (Mesoheros festae)?

Adult Cichlids don’t need any particular inducement to breed. That said, it has been suggested that adding tubifex, bloodworm or mosquito larva may encourage them, presumably because the addition of a new food may “fool” the fish into thinking that it is breeding time. From my own experience, I would always recommend keeping all of your fish in the best possible condition at all times, as this is good for the wellbeing of your fish.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Mike Wheeler

I started keeping freshwater tropical fish in 1972 and it has been something of a passion ever since. In this website, my aim is to build up an everyman's guide to help the everyday aquarist get the best from this inspiring and entertaining hobby.

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