Firemouth cichlid care & buyers guide

Firemouth Cichlid: Diet | Size | Lifespan | Cost | Care Guide

The Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys meeki) is one of the most vibrant and colorful of all Cichlids. Its splashes of color, stripes and luminescent fins are adorable but their fire red gills and body are the attraction of this fish.

I got my first Firemouth cichlids over 20 years ago now which turned out to be a breeding pair. The Female grew to 5 inches in length and the male grew to an impressive 7″. When the pair started to mate the fiery red color on his underbelly looked incredible.

Firemouth cichlids are comfortable in a fish tank with slightly larger sociable community fish. As long as they don’t feel intimidated they’ll be fine with most freshwater fish of similar size and nature. They will only become aggressive if other fish come within their space or young. Then you will see their gills open and their fiery red colors come out in full force to try and warn off other fish. However, if this goes unheeded then they can and will show their aggression in defence of their home or young.

Along the way, I purchased some more Firemouth cichlids and introduced them to the same aquarium. This was not a total success!

Firemouth Cichlids will pair up quickly and it’s usually the female that takes charge of the situation and authority and relationships are formed. Unwanted males will be cast aside and they will live in peace and harmony in their selected pairs.

How can you tell the difference between male and female Firemouth Cichlids? Well, let’s answer this and many more questions in this comprehensive Firemouth Cichlid Care Guide revealing more about this exotic Central American Cichlid.

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Species Profile and Data

Common NameFiremouth Cichlid
Scientific NameThorichthys meeki
Family Cichlidae
Care level easy-moderate
TemperamentSemi-Aggressive
DietOmnivore
Ideal FoodsCichlid pellets, Flakes and live foods
Water Conditions72-81° F, KH 4-10, pH 6.0-7.5
Tank size50 Gallons+
Max Size 7-8"
Aquarium DecorWell planted, rocks,caves and driftwood
Jumpers?Only when first introduced to the aquarium or if being bullied by larger fish
BreedingEasy, mouthbrooders
Cost$7+

Firemouth cichlid

Origin and Habitat

The Firemouth cichlid was first observed and described by Walter Brind in 1918. Its scientific name is Thorichthys meeki. The fish was named after an ichthyologist from America named Seth Eugene Meek.

This colorful fish is native to Central America and can be found in rivers, canals, ditches, lagoons, and rocky ponds across Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama.

This fish enjoys living in the bottom and mid-depth water layers and prefers slow-flowing waters.

INTERESTING FACT: Firemouth Cichlids feature in many TOP 5 Central American Cichlid lists

While keeping my Firemouth cichlids you can’t help but notice that they thoroughly enjoy burrowing and moving substrate around. Therefore, the tank should have a suitable substrate and plenty of rocks and caves to hide in and hopefully breed in.

In the wild, these fish enjoy swimming through thickly planted areas which are rich in animal and vegetation. To provide ample swimming and hiding areas for my Firemouth cichlids, I grew various hardy plants like Amazon Swords and Cryptocoryne in the tank. I also ensured that their root surfaces were aptly protected with some driftwood and rocks. That’s because this fish enjoys burrowing quite a lot and often damage the root system of your live plants.

The one place they loved more than any other in my aquarium was their home, a little upturned ceramic plant pot which was their little getaway and a place for them to lay their eggs when breeding.

Colors and Appearance

From the first time I saw the Firemouth cichlid, I was mesmerized by its beauty especially when they become wary of others and flair out their gills and show of their amazing colors.

This fish has a turquoise body that is pearlescent in appearance. The scales have a red color along the edges. Furthermore, its throat and midsection can be light brown or fiery red in color depending on its mood.

INTERESTING FACT: First discovered in 1919, by a man named Walter Brind.

You’ll also see that there are a series of black, vertical bands which start behind the eye and extend to the caudal fin. It also has beautiful, star-like turquoise spots on its membranes. I also noticed that the dorsal fin has a red edge while the other fins have a black edge. The male fish have more vibrant colors than females. This made it easier to identify them and is helpful when trying to obtain a breeding pair. The vibrant colors on the males got even brighter during the mating season or when threatened.  ***

Wild Caught v Captive Breed

After keeping Firemouth cichlids for a few years, I owned both wild caught and captive bred species. There is a marked difference in behavior between the ones that were caught in the wild and the ones that were captive raised.

Wild caught adult male Firemouth cichlids prefer a solitary lifestyle with each male living in its own territory. Whenever other males or predators approach their territory, this cichlid flares out its gills and inflate their throat sac so as to scare away the intruder. This behavior is also repeated to entice females for spawning purposes.

Wild caught Firemouth cichlids stay together within an aquarium space and often ostracize captive Firemouths from their group. Captive-raised Firemouth cichlids seemed to mix with everything and also seemed to want to group up with the wild species, but they were having none of that!

INTERESTING FACT: The biggest Cichlid from central America is the fish-eating cichlid Parachromis dovii which can grow upto 28″ and weigh 6.8 kg (about 15 lb)

It has a low ability to survive stressful conditions. If the captive-raised cichlids find themselves surrounded by aggressive and large cichlid species, they don’t feel safe. This leads to low confidence which prompts harassment from the larger and stronger tank mates. If the captive-raised Firemouth cichlid is not separated quickly from the aggressor, it can die within days. Captive-raised females have a unique behavior of searching for and finding protectors in the tank. These protectors can be large male cichlids or other fish species, not just Firemouth males.

Captive bred fish are easier to acclimatize into a new aquarium and accept food from day one. They also seemed to not get as angry or stressed and the wild caught fish. 

Wild caught Firemouth Cichlids don’t always travel well and often come into the country stressed, sick and carrying diseases. It is critical that you inspect the fish closely before purchasing and make sure you seem them feeding and look for signs of stress and disease. 

Water Conditions

These fish are very hardy and will adapt to living in most water conditions providing the water is clean at all times. It can have a maximum of 20mg/l of nitrate. However, there should be no nitrite or ammonia in the water if possible. These nitrogen compounds can harm Firemouth cichlids if left untreated for long periods.

Caring for these cichlids couldn’t be any easier really. Water temperatures around 75-83F and low Nitrates and ph levels of around 6.0-7.5 will provide the most suitable water conditions for these fish. However, I have seen these fish in much higher pH levels without issues once they acclimatized. If you are looking to breed your Firemouth Cichlids then try raising the water temperature just a bit and this normally encourages them to start mating. 

INTERESTING FACT: Central American cichlids are found in brackish water environments, and a few are even found in the sea.

Regular water changes are a must for these fish. They are big diggers and love to move substrate around which will release dirt and mess into the aquarium water which will need to be removed quickly to prevent issues.

As a responsible fish owner, we have a duty of care and must provide the best water conditions for all our fish. We recommend at least 25% of the water needs to be replaced every two weeks to replace essential minerals found in clean water. If you’re new to the hobby and would like more information on how and when to perform partial water changes then pop over to our article all about this topic which goes into more detail. 

Aquarium Needs

The Firemouth cichlid will need a spacious tank of around 50 Gallons to truly thrive. Once they grow to their full adult size you will need to think about increasing their living space. Large-leaved plants are ideal decoration with some driftwood, soft-edged rocks and caves to hide and play in. These fish enjoy swimming in open water and hiding from time to time.

The substrate needs to be soft or smaller gravel as they love to dig and filter the gravel through their gills. Moreover, the tank needs to have rocks and large decorative props such as clay pots that are securely placed in the aquarium. As these fish dig around and move the gravel they can unwillingly disturb the rocks which can do one of two things. Hurt the fish or damage your aquarium. Neither of which you want to happen, so use a water safe silicone glue to stick them firmly into place.

INTERESTING FACT: Cichlids are earth moving fish and love nothing better than to rearrange you aquarium. However, they don’t appreciate brightly coloured gravels.

Flat or smooth rocks are also a good idea, this is because the female Firemouth cichlid prefers to lay its eggs in secluded, hidden locations. As I mentioned before I used an upturned plant pot for them to breed in. Many aquarists do this as the smooth surface is perfect for egg laying.

As you place live plants in the tank, protect their roots with planting material or pots. Otherwise, this fish will burrow and damage them like they did to my first batch of plants I placed in the aquarium. A costly mistake and one that I tried not to repeat.

You can have bright lights on in the aquarium to help your plants grow. The Firemouth cichlid doesn’t mind it and the bright light brings out the fish’s color in an even more vibrant way. However, in their natural habitat, the areas in which they inhabit are heavily planted and darker waters due to the vegetation. So if you want to create a natural looking aquarium you will need lower lighting and plenty of rocks and plants.

Feeding Habits

The Firemouth Cichlid is a carnivorous fish. I feed mine a variety of protein-rich food. Wild cichlids feed on larvae and worms and this can be a good option in the home aquarium. Finely chopped worms from the garden are fine just ensure you wash them first.

Live food is essential as they offer protein and nutrients into their diet that they need to thrive. However, don’t give them too much protein as this can cause digestive issues. The Firemouth Cichlid is comfortable feeding on flakes and tablets and will make a good job of finishing off the leftover food that falls to the gravel bed. They are like vacuum cleaners of the fish tank world.

I feed my Firemouth cichlids  2 times a day. The portions should be small. Also, try to feed them different types of food in the morning and the evening. This keeps their appetite levels high and keeps their diet varied and nutritious.

Cichlid pellets are a really good option. They have all the goodness they need, they don’t break up too quickly and are easy to portion out so you don’t overfeed them. 

a pair of firemouth cichlids

Sexing & Breeding

The male Firemouth cichlid has a larger, more colorful body than the females and their fins are also more pointy. While both the male and females have elongated dorsal and anal fins, the males have longer ones but this isn’t always the case so don’t rely on this to sex them.

INTERESTING FACT: Cichlids are able to cross-breed (hybrid speciation), which is where two different species will mate. This is much more common in captivity because females are surrounded by fewer males.

When the fins are fully open, the adult male’s genital papilla is easily observable. Hence, it is easier to identify the sex of this fish. I was able to define the sex of my Firemouth cichlids after they had attained the age of 3 months and above. That’s because the males at this age had already become larger than the females.

Beginner’s Guide To The Different Types Of Fish Food
(This article may help you select a suitable food for your Firemouth Cichlid)

The Firemouth cichlids mature enough to breed at the age of between 8 and 12 months. If you keep a few of these fish living in the same tank, the breeding couple separates itself from the group. Furthermore, I noted that tank-living Firemouth cichlids were more prone to showing loyalty and affection towards each other. That’s because the wild ones only get together for spawning purposes. Paired fish will form a lovely family bond and live together in peace within their designated area of the aquarium. Usually only venturing out to feed but never straying too far from their home. 

The female Firemouth cichlid normally lays its eggs in a sheltered area of the tank on a carefully cleaned and smooth area. Mine always laid their eggs inside the ceramic plant pot even though they have various other rocks to choose from.

Here, the male can then proceed to fertilize the eggs. Each clutch can have between 100 and 400 eggs. The eggs are incubated for 3 to 6 days. After hatching, the juvenile cichlids take 3 to 4 days before they will start to swim and move away from the parents. At first, the fry will stay close to the prepared breeding area or gravel pit the parent often make to protect the fry. When the fry starts to swim away from the birth area the parents will collect the fry in their mouth and bring them back until they reach a certain age where they then let them swim off without interference. 

Feed the fry on newly hatched brine shrimp and then work up to finely crushed flake foods. The fry are not that hard to feed and the survival rate is normally very good. My pair could breed on average 5-6 time a year but even managed 8 times one year. 

To be certain of your fry surviving I removed the young fry after 4-5 days. The parents hated this and became super aggressive even trying to bite my net but it’s the only way to guarantee their survival. 

Tank Mates

Firemouth Cichlids are one of the most peaceful cichlids you can buy. Yes, when they want to be aggressive like when they’re breeding they can show their aggression but most of the time they are fine with most fish. 

You’ll be fine with anything South American and medium-sized freshwater fish. I have included below a suitable selection of fish that will be fine with these fish.

  • Larger Angelfish
  • Rainbow Fish
  • Convict Cichlids
  • Plecostomus
  • Rainbow Sharks
  • Tinfoil Bards
  • Larger Catfish ( Not Corydoras)
  • Glowfish
  • Tetras
  • Severums

These Cichlids are the ideal fish in a community aquarium with tank mates of a similar size or peaceful fish.  They are peaceful fish except when spawning and will only show aggression if they feel threatened or attacked. Male are often attacked by large more aggressive fish and will need to defend themselves whereas the females will seek protection from other fish.

Ensure you don’t add larger more aggressive fish to the aquarium as  Firemouths often don’t come out on top from fights with larger fish. 

Severums (Heros severus) or Blue Acaras (Aequidens pulcher) make great tank mates if you want to keep your aquarium to a species-specific aquarium. Firemouth Cichlids like schooling fish and larger more robust livebearing fish like swordtails as they encourage the Firemouths to venture further out into the open waters.

Avoid slow-moving fish, very small fish should also be avoided. 

Conclusion

The Firemouth Cichlid is a great fish to keep as a pet and will fit in with most freshwater home aquariums as long as they are larger ones.

It is a low maintenance fish that is hardy and co-exists quite well with other fish. This cichlid spawns many times a year. Therefore, your school of Firemouth cichlids is bound to grow dramatically and at a fast rate as long as the water is top quality. In addition to that, they aggressively protect their young so you can look forward to a vibrant family of fish in no time at all.

Regarded as one of the most interesting and easy going tropical fish, the Firemouth cichlid is an ideal first fish if you’re new to the fish keeping hobby. You will need to make many fish keeping mistakes to harm these hardy fish.

Without a doubt, we would highly recommend these fish for anyone looking for a larger community fish with personality and charm that also looks amazing. 

If you’re looking for more freshwater fish species to buy then have a read of our article entitled 15 Best Freshwater Aquarium Fish For Beginners.

Good luck and we hope you become one of the lucky people who get to own and keep a Firemouth Cichlid.