Fish Care GuideFreshwater Fish

Red Terror Cichlid Care Guide

Fish Profile

Species Overview

Popular Names: Harlequin Cichlid

Taxonomic Name: Mesoheros Festae

Adult Size: Up to 18 inches

Life Expectancy: 12 to 15 Years


Family: Cichlidae

Origin: Ecuador

Social: Aggressive and boisterous

Tank Level: Mid-dweller

Diet: Omnivorous

Breeding: Egg layer

Care: Easy

pH:  7.4 to 7.9

Temperature: 78 – 82 °F

Water Hardness: Up to 9 dGH

The Red Terror Cichlid is an aggressive fish that requires high maintenance and care which beginner aquarists might find burdensome. Managing an aquarium might not always be easy, especially when you are dealing with an aggressive fish. The hardest part of it is choosing the ideal tank mates for the fish.

When all tank conditions are properly maintained, the Cichlid has a longer lifespan unlike other types of fish. So, what does an aquarium hobbyist need to know to reap this advantage? It goes way deeper than maintaining the right water pH and hardness.

Let’s delve deeper into the care guide of the Red Terror Cichlids and the ideal tank mates that would make your hobby worthwhile and interesting.

Origin And Appearance

The Red Terror Cichlid originates from the Cichlidae family and is also known as the true red terror. It is native to South America where it inhabits the river and other water body masses.

Mainly, it occupies the Guayas River in Ecuador and Rio Tumbes in Peru. It can also be found in Singapore where it lives as an exotic species. It is very common in the wild habitat where it can live for about 20 years.

Going by their name, the Cichlids are red in color. However, they can be orange or green with a combination of a black stripe that runs down their body length. Dark colors are evident in the top parts of the anal and dorsal fins.

In females, a vertical black stripe can be seen with blue spots which makes them more attractive. In the case of the males, most are turquoise green bodies with blue and orange stripes on the tail.

In normal breeding conditions, females are brighter in color than males while in males the colors may fade as they mature. When the male fish is about 3 years a nuchal hump grows on their forehead which makes them distinguishable from the female ones.

While in captivity the female ones grow to about 13 inches whereas the male ones can grow up to 18 inches in length. The colors in the male ones start to fade once they reach three to four inches.

When buying them from the fish pet store you should be very alert so that you don’t confuse them with the Mayan cichlid. The easiest way to differentiate the two is by the two vertical lines that are evident on the head. Mainly in the true Red Terror, they will form a V shape well in the latter it doesn’t happen.


As its name suggests, it has been named terror because of its aggressive nature. Therefore it’s critical to research its ideal tank mates before buying or introducing it into your aquarium tank. It might not accommodate other types of fish, especially the timid ones.

The Cichlids will either eat the small fish or bully them since they are known to eat anything that comes across their mouths. They are also known for locking jaws with other fish.

In addition, it is a highly territorial fish that will protect its territory no matter what. Therefore, there is a need to give it ample space to swim around the tank. The best way to stop the aggressive nature of this fish is to keep it together with other assertive fish or those of its own species.

When the fish is hungry it might bang the tank to show that it needs something. It is also intelligent to recognize its own species and when its environment is invaded it will do anything to bite the tank.

This shows that the types of fish that are shy might be scared away and might not be comfortable in the same tank. In addition, when the fish is being fed, it will fully open its mouth to gobble the food. In such a case the shy fish might end up staying hungry.

The cichlids are usually more active during the day compared to nighttime. During the mating season, the female Terrors become more aggressive and dangerous to other tank mates. The females are more aggressive than the males and in most cases, they are the ones to look for a mate by observing the strength of the male.

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In instances where the female has been kept together with a less strong male, she might end up killing him. Therefore, when the male and the female are not compatible it’s good to replace the male with another one, lest it will be killed.

The best way to reduce their aggressive behavior is by providing them with an area where they can claim their territory. In instances where some fish feel threatened, they can escape away. You can do this while choosing compatible couples that will live in harmony.

Another way you can solve the problem is by grouping the red terror fish with other varieties of cichlids that are threatening and large. Look for fish that are not so similar to the red terror so that you can differentiate.

If the red terror fish does not view the other ones as competition, they will live together without fighting. Nonetheless, the bottom line is to give the fish enough space for swimming and choosing the ideal mates.

Tank Requirements

The cichlids’ natural habitat is fast-flowing rivers with abundant food sources.  They also love the shade and their habitats have low-hanging branches that create a cover. Nonetheless, they can adapt to constantly changing water parameters.

When bred in captivity, the water parameters should be consistent with a biological filter system. They will need a lot of space to ensure a harmonious union.

The secret to having a good aquarium tank is to mimic the natural habitat of this fish. However, there are certain parameters that should be met. For instance, the temperature should be about 77-84 degrees Fahrenheit and a pH of 6-8. Water hardness from 4-18dH will be a good combination.

You need to set a good filtration system because this fish produces a lot of waste which has ammonia and nitrates. You can do a partial change of water every week but mainly once a month should work out so that you can remove the organic wastes.

It’s imperative to note that dirty water can bring about most fish diseases. A clean will make them healthy and allow them to be active all through.

This fish is very intelligent and will do anything to make its environment conducive. If it is not comfortable with the tank it will rearrange it to suit its taste. For instance, it prefers shallow substrate from fine sand and gravel.

You can provide some spaces for hiding such as rocky caves. Moreover, some plants can also be added into the tank but be sure to put those that may not be uprooted since the fish can dig up plants with shallow roots.

In addition, you need to put smooth rocks or sleep for the female cichlids to lay their eggs. This will provide them with a safer ground where they can do their reproduction.

In case you choose to breed other fish in the tank you will need to raise the temperature of the water and check the water frequently to obtain optimum conditions.


If you do not clean the tank often, the cichlids may become vulnerable to diseases. They may develop internal parasites which will affect their behavior and may not develop an interest in feeding or swimming. This is why you need to keep a very strong filtration system in the tank. 

Poor diet and poor quality water may result in bacterial infections which can stress the fish. The immune system of the fish may be compromised when an infection sets in.

These infections can be noticed through changes in behavior or changing physical appearance. For instance, you may notice swollen abdomen, enlarged eyes, or ulcers on the gills.


When in the wild environment or habitat the Red Terror will eat insects and other small crustaceans. They can also feed on fish fry which they may come across on the riverbanks.

In captivity, it’s imperative to feed the fish with a protein-rich diet.  Crickets, earthworms, and mealworms are some of the nutritious food that you can feed the fish. Protein-rich foods can be complemented with plant matter since the fish is omnivorous.

You can also feed the fish with high-quality pellets frozen foods and the other mealworms that you can buy from a fish pet store. All the while in the world that the fish can hunt having these additions to the tank will stimulate the hunting instincts of the fish.

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You should be cautious about the types of feeds that you add to the tank. This means that the food added should be eaten promptly to avoid a lot of organic matter as waste in the tank.

Avoid leftover food since it will build up as algae and may bring infection to the fish. As earlier said, ensure that the tank is clean at all times.

While it is essential to avoid leftovers it is also important to ensure that the fish have enough food for the day. Normally, feeding them twice a day (in the morning and in the evening) will be enough. In a particular feeling put little by little amounts for 5 minutes.

This feeding program can work well for juvenile fish and those that are mating. Once the fish are big enough you can switch to feeding them once a day.

However, the best thing to do is to ensure that they have enough food so that they don’t become aggressive toward each other.


As mentioned earlier, the fish will form couples through the preference of the female fish.

When the male and female are compatible they can maintain this relationship for a long time. Therefore successful breeding will be influenced by the compatibility of the two before the famous starts spawning.

You can trigger the spawning process by providing favorable water conditions such as warm temperatures ranging from 26 to 28 degrees Celsius.

You can also maintain a pH of 7 and bring the water hardness to 10 dH. Renewing the water in the tank every other week will also provide optimum conditions for spawning.

The colors of the males will start to fade when they are ready for breeding that is and they are about 3 to 4 inches. In preparation for the spawning, the male will clean the soft stones for the female to lay eggs. She will lay about 100-1000 eggs.

This number will be influenced by the condition of the tank. So, the most favorable the tank conditions are, the more eggs the female will lay. The period of laying eggs will be about 3 to 4 days.

It will take about 4 days for the fry to hatch. During this time, the male and the female will create small holes in the substrate which will be used to protect the fry until they can feed or move on their own.

While the time that the parent cichlids will protect the young ones can vary, it will mainly take up to two weeks.

The young ones will feed from the slime produced from the moisture glands of the male and the female parents. If you need more protection for the fry you can take it to another breeding tank and maintain the same water parameters for another 3 weeks or two.

You can move the juveniles from the parent tank using a wide hose. This will ensure that most of the young ones survive, which is a great way of maintaining your aquarium tank.

At this point, brine shrimp will be the ideal food for young fish. You can gradually increase the size of the food as the fry increase in size.

The juveniles are grey in color with lateral stripes but will change to a brighter orange-red color as they grow.

As time goes by, start sorting the juveniles according to size to ensure that you feed them properly. After 2 months you can now introduce the fish to a normal aquarium tank.

Tank Mates

The cichlid is known to prefer its own species as tank mates. Nonetheless, this does not limit other community fish from being kept in the tank.

The best thing to do for introducing tank mates is to ensure that you reduce the aggressiveness of this fish so that other fish can find a comfortable environment.

You need to be cautious enough when introducing other kinds lest you might lose them. Doing some research about the other types of fish can pay you a great deal and prevent you from making grievous mistakes.

However, it is better if you could look for fish that are shaped inversely also swim differently.

Whereas this might be viewed as a nonfactor, it can help in avoiding competition. the terrors will not view the other tank mates as a threat to their territory.

Here are some of the most compatible tank mates for the terror cichlids.

1. Green Terror Cichlid

Just like the Red Terror, the Green Terror Cichlid is also a vibrant fish that can make a great addition to your aquarium.

The fish is aggressive and needs ample space for swimming especially if they are to be kept together with the red terror.

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Because of its aggressiveness, it has the capacity to stay together with a red terror and will not be intimidated.

2. Oscar Fish

Oscars are medium and large-sized fish that can fend for themselves and protect their territory. Most of the Oscar species can be kept together with the red terror and will not be intimidated.

It is also an intelligent fish that was meant to act whenever its environment is invaded or compromised. As a result, the Oscars may coexist alongside red terrors without sacrificing one of the species.

3. Jaguar Cichlids

Jaguar cichlids are a great tank mate for red terrors because they have similar temperaments. They will be aggressive towards each other, but the Jaguar cichlid will win out in the end.

This is due to their size and strength. For greater compatibility, you should choose the ones that are similar in size and keep them in a spacious tank.

4. Plecostomus

I know you are wondering if plecos can live in the same tank with terrors since they are known to be peaceful fish. While this can be a bit of a gamble, it has been seen to work out quite well for many aquarists.

Plecos are big fish, whose size can scare away the red terrors. The terrors might be afraid to start any fights with them because they are not sure they will defeat them because of their big size.

Therefore, even though the plecos cannot pick a fight their size their size helps them a great deal.

Should You Keep The Red Terrors?

Going by its temperament, it’s evident that the Red Terror is not an ordinary fish that should be kept by first-timers.

This is because it requires a lot of care and maintenance, and more so, understanding its behavior towards other fish of the same or different kind.

With this experience an aquarist can be able to choose or couple up a male and a female for the continuity of the aquarium.

Nonetheless, the cichlid is a vibrant addition to your aquarium. Experienced aquarists should have fun keeping them as they observe the fish dig through their substrate or defend their territory.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Big Does A Red Terror Get?

The red terror is a very aggressive fish and can grow to a length of up to 18 inches. This makes it a good choice for experienced aquarists, who are able to provide them with the proper care. The males are usually larger than the females.

Can A Jaguar Cichlid Live With A Red Terror?

Yes, they can but the biggest problem you would have is getting the two to get along. If you want to try it out, be sure to choose a tank that is large enough for both of them.

The red terror needs more space so you will need a bigger aquarium than what the jaguar cichlid needs.

Do Oscars And Red Terrors Get Along?

Yes, Oscars and red terrors can get along in the same tank. However, it’s important to remember that these fish have very aggressive temperaments, so you should always keep them in a large tank.

Oscars can still be aggressive and territorial when they feel threatened. In a smaller tank, this behavior can cause problems for the other fish, including red terrors and other Oscars.

How Long Do Red Cichlids Live?

The lifespan of a Red Terror can vary greatly depending on the environment, but 15-20 years is fairly typical. Many people keep their Red cichlids for decades without any issues.

These fish can be a bit tricky to care for, but with the right set-up, you’ll have a happy and healthy Red Terror. However, the lifespan can be minimized if water or tank conditions are not well maintained.

Bottom Line

The Red Terror Cichlid is a beautiful species given its colors and behavior. We generally recommend keeping red terrors with larger aggressive fish as they are naturally aggressive toward smaller fish.

The red terror will appreciate being able to occasionally hunt for food without fear of retribution from the other inhabitants in the tank.

If you want to add more than one red terror to your tank, be sure to have plenty of swimming space for them.

Beginner aquarists might not want to start with this fish because of the high care and maintenance needed. A single mistake can be costly for your aquarium, therefore, it is essential to do a lot of research before introducing these bullies to your aquarium.

If you are an aquarium hobbyist, keeping this fish could be a great way to challenge yourself. Start with even two and enjoy the journey of gaining more experience in managing one of the most aggressive fish!


Passionate fishkeeper. Nature lover. Creative thinker. Music junkie. Adventurer.

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