Keeping and Breeding Thorichthys meeki

Keeping and Breeding Thorichthys meeki

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Thorichthys meeki have been for a while a popular aquarium fish. They are commonly found in LFSs, usually imported from various fish farms around the world. Thorichtys meeki is a beautiful fish; its intense colouration decorated by fluorescent  light blue speckles is quite toned down in farm raised individuals. Our own colony came from friends who bred their own fish; we got 6 fish from two different breeders.  It is important to start with a colony of 6 or 8 fish to ensure that there will be at least one pair amongst them.  Starting with two sexually mature conspecifics, male and female, does not guarantee they will pair off or spawn. The fish were placed in a 850 lit tank to grow out. At the time they were the only midwater fish in the tank, sharing it with a pair of L260s (Pseudacanthicus spinosus), a colony of L66 (Hypancistrus sp.) and a pair of Ancistrus tamboensis.

The firemouths ignored the catfish and vice versa. We were initially a bit worried as the flow of the tank was rather high - well over 8 times per hour. Despite the fact that in the wild the firemouths live in slow moving waters the high flow rate did not seem to bother them in any way: they kept swimming midwater amongst the pieces of the Sumatran wood.


A little while later we added a pair of Paratheraps fenestratus in the tank. The fenestratus were considerably larger than the firemouths but again there was no interaction between them. The firemouths were quite content swimming aroung, usually as a group and occasionally engaging in intraspecific displays and threats to jaw lock, which however never materialized.


The fish were fed daily a mixture of dry foods mainly consisting of Ocean Nutrition Marine Formula 1 (small), Blue Line Basic Grade 122 and Dr Basleer Tropic (large) pellets. They had access to fresh vegetables placed in the tank for their tankmates, though we have never seen them showing a preference for these. Their preferred food was - and still is - bloodworm. Frozen food was provided twice weekly during the growing up period.


The firemouths were growing slowly but steadily. We kept them in a tank with low lighting (1W / 6 lit), decorated with bogwood, mopani, slate and stones. The fish are substrate spawners so the substrate of the tank is neutral coloured quartz (aquarium sand). The water temperature ranges from 26oC to 29oC depending on the season in the year. The pH is 7.6 with the addition of bicarbonate of soda, though on occasions it has dropped to 5.6 (when we are trying to get the catfish to spawn) without a problem for the firemouths.The GH ranges between 3-5 while the KH is 3. Nitrates are negligible due to the large water changes (we change 80% of the water weekly using continuous flow).

Though they ignored their tank mates the fish had some interaction with us which was rather strange. More specifically Chief, the dominant male, befriended George. Once George approached the tank (usually holding his camera), Chief would emerge from wherever she was hiding and pose for him. 


Once the fish hit the 10cm TL we were able to distinguish the males from the females. The males started developing a nuptial hump as opposed to the females, whose head remained nicely sloped. (1) At this point we considered our fish to be sexually mature and placed plenty of additional stones in the tank so they could chose appropriate spawning locations.


Shortly after we noticed that a couple of males were hovering near some of the stones. Yet there was no pairing off activity. Imagine our surprise when, a couple of months later, we realized that our colony had grown: four new - and considerably smaller individuals - were in the tank. All four of them were following a particular female, which led us to assume she was their mother.

We were deeply perplexed. A spawn is not something we usually miss. Yet this incident was repeated again about 3 months later. It appeared that a pair was laying eggs somewhere in the tank. Close observation bore results: the pair was spawning behind a partition hiding the pump outlets from view. Under the circumstances it was impossible to take photos.

To encourage the fish to lay eggs in the open we removed the pair of P. fenestratus. Shortly after another pair laid eggs, this time using the handle of a clay pot as a spawning site. Again, taking photos of the eggs was impossible. Both parents guarded the eggs sitting low over them. The survival rate was as poor as the previous times. It appeared something was not right in the tank.


The pair using the handle of the clay pot as a spawning site appropriated their location. That meant that the pair spawning behind the partition would have done the same. It was clear that our only chance of getting some photos of the eggs was to wait until a third pair got formed. We did not have a third mature male so we decided to acquire and introduce a new one. However on our return from our LFS we had also with us a beautiful colony of 18 young Etroplus canarensis which, for lack of any other appropriate space, we placed with the firemouths.

This time the firemouths reacted. Though the canarensis are mainly herbivores the firemouths did not take well to the introduction of the smaller cichlids in their tank.They started displaying immediately. The canarensis ignored them and started grazing. Soon after peace came to the tank. Though they never displayed or actively chased the firemouths the canarensis soon got the upper hand, possibly due to their superiority in numbers. Spawning activity ceased.


We waited for a while but it was clear that the firemouths would not breed as long as the canarensis were sharing their tank. So we removed the canarensis. (2) Further to this we lowered the flow rate to approximately half of what it was, namely around 4 times per hour. Immediately the firemouths started coming out of their hiding places and spawning activity resumed. The new male, who was the largest male in the tank, took possession of the spawning site at the front, near the glass.  Interestingly enough all three pairs had chosen their spawning sites to be where the water flow was at its minimum.  The choice of the new male also meant that two of the pairs were separated by the partition while the third pair was spawning very closely near by. Reports from observing this fish in the wild indicate that this is very much how they spawn in their natural habitat. The big question is whether they would manifest the same behaviour in the tank. Well, they did.

This time we were lucky enough to be able to observe the pairing off. The male selected the site and a couple of females started visiting him quite regularly.  The male observed the females as they fought between them for him. The winner got both the male and the site. By that time the male's base colour had darkened considerably. The pair was easily distinguishable from all the other fish as their colouration was quite intense. They remained together at all times and they started immediately preparing the site for spawning. On the whole the male performed all the cleaning activities (he cleaned the surface of the stone and the area nearby removing snails and debris) while the female dug the pit behind the stone and defended the spawning site. 


The preparation of the site lasted for about a week. During this time the pair managed to get a female L66, who lives behind their stone, to change location. This was quite surprising given that this fish is not aggressive at all. Though it often displays it very rarely attacks; if seriously challenged it prefers to flee. Once the site was ready the pair laid  about 300 eggs in the usual cichlid fashion: the mother was laying while the father was subsequently passing over the eggs to fertilize them.  The pair took turns to guard the eggs and we noticed the mother actively taking part in fending off intruders, mainly the females who spawn nearby.


Approximately forty eight hours later the mother carried the wrigglers in the pit at the back of the stone. It was a well chosen location; as she was guarding its entrance with her body it was impossible for any other fish, including the Loricariids, to approach. The father kept swimming near by, usually just over her.


The fry became free swiming 36 hours later. We started feeding a mixture of Sera plancton tablets, Blue Line artemia grains and mushed frozen daphnia. However it was quite difficult to feed in such a big tank. In addition there was always the danger that the father would attack the fry and the mother in an attempt to spawn again. We therefore removed as many of the fry as we could to a separate tank to grow out.


The fry tank was serviced by an air filter and had the same water parameters as the tank of the parents. The fry are quite easy to grow and will grow well on meaty foods.  They started colouring up when they were about 3 months old though they did not acquire the full colouration till much later.

Following spawning the pairs stay together by their site.  One of the partners guards the site while the other goes to eat and they subsequently change turns. We have never seen the sites unguarded for more than 10-20 minutes at a time. The pairs are strictly monogamous while partners remain tank mates.



(1) One of the ways of sexing these fish is said to be the length and shape of the dorsal and ventral fins. Males are supposed to have longer fins with extensions at their ends. The dorsal fin of females is supposed to be shorter and more rounded. This is not always the case. In the photos above one of the males has a pointed elongated fin while the other does not. 

(2) The firemouths are well known for hybridizing with other members of the thorichthys family. We are not aware of them hybridizing with other, similarly sized cichlids, so we made sure the tank mates of our colony were not sexually mature to avoid possible hybridization.


Photos by the authors.


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