Keeping and Breeding the ex-Cichlasoma festae

Keeping and Breeding the ex-Cichlasoma festae

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Keeping and Breeding the ex-Cichlasoma festae
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The ex-Cichlasoma festae (or Red terror as it is widely known) is not a fish for every hobbyist. It is one of the best choices for those who want an extremely intelligent, extremely large, extremely colourful and extremely assertive fish. Everything comes in extremes when you refer to the C. festae. Intelligent? Yes, it is. It may not show the kind of pet-like interaction a Parachromis dovii or managuensis will have with its keeper but it is keen to know where you are, what you do and what every other tank mate is up to. Large? It is one of the largest cichlids you can get. The male will grow up to 50 cm in length if kept in appropriate quarters while the female will reach the 30 cm mark. As the fish is rather deep bodied this means a very large fish. Colourful? ex-Cichlasoma festae has the most stunning red colours you will ever see in a tank. If this is what you are looking for just search for a displaying female. Jet black bars on an intense red background with a few fluorescent blue spots and a face which will show the richest red hues imaginable. The male has a bluish-green tinge with orange fins and fluorescent blue spots on the tail. Together, they are a pair worth a dedicated 1000 L tank. Assertive? The ex-C. festae give a new meaning to this term. Practically they breath fire in a very quiet yet undisputed way and – believe it or not the female is by far the most assertive of the pair. When fully grown she will only give way to her partner, nobody else. Even then she makes it clear this is a concession. Observing the dynamics of the relationship of the pair is sheer pleasure. The fish 'talk' with their expressions, their body language and their positioning in the tank. They are simply magnificent; observing and enjoying them is a great part of what fish keeping is all about, to us.


Over the years we have brought up a considerable number of ex-C. festae. This allowed us to observe the behaviour of different individuals and pairs. Our first colony consisted, initially, of ten F1 juveniles acquired in France several years ago. The fish were brought up in Athens. Once they paired off we kept one pair and donated the rest to friends who were after them.  The second colony consisted of four wild caught individuals; we kept and grew them in Manchester and, again, once paired off, we donated the bigger pair and kept the younger one. We have kept the fish in different tanks with a variety of tank mates, which allowed us to observe closely their interaction with each other as well as with the other fish. Most importantly we were able to observe the conditions under which each pair deemed it safe to spawn.

The fish are easy to grow. They do well in a variety of environments. We have kept them in tanks with low and moderately high KH (3-12) and GH (3-12). The pH ranged from neutral (7-7.2 - 8) while the tank temperatures were in the 25oC - 31oC range. They will eat just about everything offered. Though primarily predators feeding on crustaceans, molluscs and small fish they need some vegetable matter in their diets. The stomach analysis of  wild caught individuals indicates that in the wild plants are a part of their diet. The fish are not fast growers at the early stages of their life however this changes as they become one year old. At 5 months an average ex-Cichlasoma festae is about 5-6 cm TL; when they reach the 12 months mark the fish measures easily 12-14 cm. This, combined with extremely high intraspecific aggression, calls for an appropriately sized tank furnished with lots of wood and rock so that young individuals can establish territories.


Dealing with large and aggressive fish can become an issue if not well planned from the start. Most keepers, quite rightly, like to provide their fish with the opportunity to lead a 'natural' life; this includes keeping them in pairs. Here is where the planning becomes necessary. To ensure that the keeper will end up with at least one viable pair the initial colony of fish must consist of anything up to 8 - 10 individuals, if these are too young to be sexed, or else about 4 - 6 individuals (equal males and females) if the fish are sexable at the time of acquisition. If the fish are too young to be sexed it is likely that

  • some losses will occur as the fish grow up due to the aforementioned intraspecific aggression,
  • the split of sexes in the colony will be unequal and therefore the chances of a compatible pair forming will be limited,
  • the keeper may end up with 2-3 individuals of the same sex or with two incompatible individuals one of whom, given the temperament of this fish, will kill the other in due course. Finding a partner for a fully grown fish can subsequently be extremely difficult.

If the fish are sexable at the time of acquisition the main risk is that the female may not accept the male. She may either challenge and kill him or else refuse to spawn with him.

On the other hand the main issue with getting initially more than what is finally needed is to find homes for the surplus individuals once a compatible pair is formed. ex-Cichlasoma festae is certainly a splendid fish; it is also an assertive fish which requires a lot of space once fully grown. This means that it is not an easy fish to home. Add to this that in order to be homed successfully this fish needs to either be kept on its own (in a dedicated tank or in a community tank hosting other similarly large or aggressive fish) or be accepted by a single individual kept by another fish keeper. This is not unlikely but it requires that the two fish are compatible in size, ages and character.

Our own way of dealing with the issues above was to start with more fish than what we planned to keep. We are lucky enough to have some large tanks which could house adult single festae should the need arise and we earmarked some of these in case we were unable to home our spare fish. As it happened we ended up with four compatible breeding pairs, which we managed to home when they were between 20 and 25 cm TL. Informing friends and fellow hobbyists early that pairs were to become available was important; it allowed people who were interested in the fish to make the necessary arrangements for getting the fish in due course.

ex-Cichlasoma festae are sexable when they are about 8 - 10 cm TL. The males have distinctive bright  blue-green spots on their tails. From the age of 5 months onwards these spots are clearly visible on the tails of juveniles. We are not certain that some of them do not lose the spots later, which would indicate these are the females. After the third year of their lives adult males also develop a nuptial hump.

In contrast to other large fishes showing high levels of intraspecific aggression the female ex C. festae is far more aggressive than the male and will always challenge a newcomer before accepting him as a mate. This challenge should not be underestimated. The female will try to kill the male and will only accept him if he is determined and strong enough to deflect her. Females attack using a variety of tactics including stalking, food exclusion, direct confrontation (jaw locking) and so on. We have seen this happening time and time again. One of our females, named Fatsoula for her misleading sweet face, is right challenger. On one occasion we introduced in her tank a male of similar size and age as her potential partner. Both fish were about 14 cm long; they were in in a 2.5 meter long, 1000 L tank with much larger tank mates and lots of hiding places. Fatsoula presented herself to the male immediately after he joined the tank and sized him up for about 5 minutes. She then started following him all over the tank. She chased him relentlessly for two days, jaw locking with him, not allowing him to eat, sleep or relax. We removed the male to give him some space to recover but it was too late; he was totally shaken. Though he did not have any visible signs of serious damage the fish refused to eat, was absolutely terrified and hiding all day long and  he eventually passed away.  It is important to note that this was not a chance male; he was the Alpha male of his brood and he was himself responsible for killing a number of his siblings while they were growing up.


Over the years we have observed a number of females behaving in this or similar ways. You get to know that if, during the introduction, the male tries to ignore the female and accepts her stalking him the inevitable will happen. When a male is introduced to a tank with a female the only way to decide who has the upper hand is jaw locking. This is not the usual quick lock often seen between competing males; it lasts for a while. It appears that the two fish test each other's strength. The male's willingness to meet the female's challenge head on, coupled with his strength to withstand her, seems to be the decisive factor in the female accepting him as her partner. It is therefore advisable when introducing males to females to make sure the male is considerably larger than the female, otherwise there is a risk of losing the male in the process. Once a pair is formed the fish are will remain together until death, or aquarist, do them part. On the odd occasion we had to separate one of our pairs for short periods of time we did notice that the partner remaining in the tank was clearly aware of the absence of their partner and was actively looking for him / her.

The only other way of getting a compatible pair is to start with a colony of young fish and let the dominant fish (male and female) kill all or most of the others and eventually spawn.

The behaviour of ex-C. festae in the tank is a delight to observe. Reports about this fish usually refer to it as aggressive. We  beg to differ. The fish, when not dealing with conspecifics, is primarily assertive rather than aggressive. The ex-C. festae demands to be taken seriously but will not look for trouble. It will not harass or attempt to kill other fish just for the sake of it. It often chooses to be quite accommodating but it makes it clear for all to see that this is a choice. It will not engage in mindless aggression or simply boisterous behaviour. (1) The ex-C. festae combines a fiery temperament with intelligence. It will fight to the end when there is a reason for it. Reasons primarily include being in danger of being killed, fending off annoying tank mates who insist on harassing them, marking a spawning site and keeping it clear from intruders and defending a brood. Below are some examples of what we mean.


For a while we have kept one of our male L25s, Tamerlan, with our colony of P. maculatus. Tamerlan, measuring 30 cm SL at the time, soon explained to the maculatus that he was the master of the tank. On a couple of occasions when the maculatus (3 years old, measuring 20 cm TL at the time) tried to get to the food before him he landed in their midst and fanned them off with his tail to all directions in the tank. This must have been rather painful, due to the spikes on the L25's tail; it was also quite effective. For days later the maculatus were swiming around with scales missing, scars on their flanks and perplexed expressions on their faces. Since then they left Tamerlan alone, respecting his right to eat first, rest undisturbed and have his own space in the tank under a massive piece of wood. It was further understood that Tamerlan was not best pleased when tankmates visited his territory.

Fatsoula, our resolute female ex-C. festae, joined this tank when she was around 10 cm long. One of the male P. maculatus took exception to her and decided to start harassing her. Fatsoula was aware of him; you could literally see her keeping an eye on him at all times. She avoided confrontation but did not give way either, something which threw the maculatus off. He could not quite understand why she would not run to hide when he was approaching while her body language (body tensing up and taking an S shape while keeping him within sight) stopped him dead on his tracks on occasions. Fatsoula soon noticed that the maculatus avoided Tamerlan and his area so she befriended the L25. She would rest over his bogwood and followed him to the food. As a result the maculatus considered her untouchable and left her alone. It was, thus, due to her initiative that fights were avoided.


A couple of months later the same male maculatus who was harassing her when she joined the tank decided to spawn. As it happened Fatsoula was swimming close to his chosen spawning site, so he chased her off. The female ex- C. festae allowed him to chase her for a bit; when she was about half a meter away from the spawning site she stood still mid water, turned towards him and got into attack mode. The message was clear: she was off his site but she was not prepared to move half an inch further. She did not attack but was ready to confront the male should he attack first. The male P. maculatus froze for a bit; after a moment's hesitation he turned around and went back to his spawning site. Since that day he never chased her off during all the time they were tank mates.


This is typical ex-C. festae behaviour. The fish will not provoke a fight or engage in one if they can avoid it. However, they will make it crystal clear that there are limits and that if anybody challenges them over and above these limits there will be trouble. Trouble means death.

We have observed similarly interesting behaviour during the co-habitation of Fatsoula with our 35 cm long male Crenicichla Tapajos II, named Captain Haros due to his behaviour and temperament (Haros in Greek means Death). When he was about 10 cm TL Captain Haros was placed, along with 5 other conspecifics, in a 1300 lit tank to grow out. The tank was inhabited by other young predators at the time. Captain Haros teamed up with a female and together they started killing every other fish in the tank, including their conspecifics. We removed the survivors and left them alone in the tank, thinking they wanted to spawn. The male, deprived of potential victims, turned against his female, whom we managed to save the last minute. The only fish that Captain Haros has not managed to touch in any way is Fatsoula. Their subsequent cohabitation allowed us to observe the difference between the strategies of the two fish and clarifies the massive difference between assertion, manifested by the ex-C. festae and aggression, manifested by the pike cichlid. While the pike cichlid (male and  by far the larger of the two fish) manifests sheer hot headed aggression and wants to kill the ex-Cichlasoma festae just for the sake of it the ex-C. festae (female and smaller than the pike cichlid) thinks, plans her actions and has, essentially, the upper hand in the tank. Here is what happens.

The tank is split in two territories, each having a cave and lots of hiding places made from wood and stones. The territories are each a meter long and they are clearly separated by an open space in the middle. Given the size of the two inhabitants there is no reason to fight. Yet the pike cichlid is constantly trying to harass - and eventually kill - the ex C. festae.  He starts by going to her territory. At this stage the ex-C. festae will simply position herself under a piece of wood and watch her opponent. When he comes quite close to her cave she will emerge and swim close to the substrate in such a way as to force the pike cichlid to hide under a particular piece of wood. She will then block the entrance with her body (facing inside the cave), forcing the pike cichlid to exit from the other side where the  opening is way too narrow for him to get out comfortably. The result is a panicky pike cichlid who quickly moves over to his own territory and disappears in his cave. The ex-C. festae will chase him until she reaches the open space in the tank, then return to her territory.

We have seen this repeated time after time; the pike cichlid does not seem to learn his lesson. When he is being particularly obstinate the ex-C. festae will chase him over to his side of the tank and occasionally proceed to besiege him while he is in his cave. This seems to put an end to hostilities for a while. We tend to believe that the dynamics would be different if a male ex-C. festae was also present in the tank or if our female had the same or similar size with the pike cichlid. In either of these cases there may has been a direct confrontation. As things stand the female festae is way smaller than the pike cichlid so she is clearly trying to avoid a direct confrontation. The important thing however is the strategies of these fish when dealing with tank mates. The pike cichlid is simply aggressive without an obvious reason. It just seems like he wants the tank to himself - just for the sake of it. The ex -C. festae has never shown this type of unjustified aggression. On the whole ex - C. festae will defend their territory and their fry (as all cichlids do) but they will never get out of their way just to look for trouble.

Size-wise you should expect a well fed ex- C. festae male kept in a large tank to reach the size of 12-14 cm when it is one year old and about 20-22 cm TL by the time it is two years old. By the end of its third year the fish will measure about 30 cm TL. The female will be about 30% smaller at this point in time.