The firemouth cichlid is a beautiful and vibrant freshwater fish that brings a special splash of color to any tank. Seeing them swim around can provide endless entertainment!

Because of their beauty, this species is very popular in the aquarium community. We personally know over 30 owners ourselves (and we’re not that social).

If you’re one of the many aquarists who is considering purchasing this fish, there are some things you’ll need to know. These fish are not high-maintenance by any means, but they do require some special treatment.

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about firemouth cichlid care. Max size, tank mates, breeding, and diet are just some of the topics we’ll cover!

Species Summary

The beautiful firemouth cichlid (Thorichthys meeki) is a fish native to Central America. They tend to be found in the rivers that run through the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Their usual dwelling place in the wild can extend quite a bit from here as well. They’re regularly found in Belize and Guatemala too.

Author Note: These fish are actually considered to be an invasive species in some parts of the world and are often found in countries far from their natural habitat. This is primarily because they’ve been brought to other countries as part of the aquarium trade and released.

The common name of this fish species is the firemouth cichlid (firemouths for short). This name is representative of their distinctive and vibrant orange-red coloration that can be easily seen on the undersides of their jaw areas.

Territorial behavior will accentuate this noticeable feature. Males will often exert their dominance by flaring and puffing out their gills which exposes their bright red throats. They’ll do this as an intimidation display designed to threaten and chase off any other rival males in search of mates swimming in their territory.

Here’s what it looks like:

Thorichthys meeki doing a territorial display

In the wild firemouth cichlids can be found in warm, slow-moving, and shallow waters. There tends to not be very much visibility in the water due to sediment and debris, but these fish are experts at navigating and finding food. This will come up later when we go into their tank requirements.

One of the reasons why this species is so popular among fishkeepers is the convenience. Caring for them is fairly straightforward and they don’t need a large tank to thrive. When you add the obvious aesthetic benefits, it’s a no-brainer!

Lifespan

The average firemouth cichlid lifespan is around 10 years when given proper care. There have been reported instances where this species has managed to live up to 15 years in captivity, but those are outliers (some care guides have been reporting that as the norm).

Author Note: If you want to get a firemouth that lives as long as possible you should look into who you’re buying your fish from. Their care and breeding practices will have an impact on the health of your fish long before you bring it into your home.

Appearance

The appearance of the firemouth cichlid is what makes them so popular. When you see one in person it’s quite striking!

The notable red coloring can be found on the edges of their scales and contrasts nicely with their normally pearlescent and lustrous turquoise-blue hued body. Like just about any fish species, male and female firemouth cichlids do have a few different appearance characteristics.

Males tend to have a brighter red-orange coloration, and their fin rays are usually somewhat longer than the females are. Alternately, females tend to display a larger and rounder belly than males.

Side profile of a firemouth cichlid swimming near the substrate

One of the defining characteristics of firemouths is a black mark located on the lower portion of the operculum. In addition, some also display lateral darker bars along the sides (the darkness of these bars will vary).

An interesting note on firemouth cichlids is their apparent tendency to be especially adaptive with color variations in their native habitats. The most colorful variations tend to be found northwest of Guatemala, and you’ll often see the best breeders note this in their species profiles.

Firemouth Cichlid Size

The average firemouth cichlid size is around 6 inches for makes and 5 inches for females. These fish have a rather fast growth rate, so it won’t take long for them to reach their max size.

If you want to make sure these fish grow to be as big as possible it’s important to take care very seriously from the minute you get them. This means having the ideal habitat all laid out and ready to go on day one!

Care Guidelines

Firemouth cichlid care should be pretty manageable for anyone who has taken the time to educate themselves on the care requirements of this species. They aren’t a fish you can care for in your sleep, but they definitely shouldn’t be rated as difficult either.

One of the most important things to look out for when it comes to firemouth cichlid care is the water conditions. The quality of the water and parameters in their tank are very important to this fish, and even though we wouldn’t consider them to be overly sensitive you’ll want to take this aspect seriously.

Tank Size

The recommended tank size for firemouth cichlids is a minimum of 30 gallons. These aren’t nano fish, so they need a little bit of room to swim. However, 30 gallons is still very manageable no matter how much space you have available in your home.

Author Note: If you want to keep more than two in the same tank you’ll need to increase the tank size. An additional 5-10 gallons for each new fish is a safe rule to follow.

Water Parameters

Like a lot of tropical species, these fish require a good amount of attention to the water parameters in their tank.

Since their natural habitat is the warmer waters typically found in rivers and streams in areas of Central America and Mexico regions, try to replicate indoor tank aquarium water conditions in a similar fashion.

  • Water temperature: 75°F to 86°F
  • pH levels: Somewhere between 6.5 and 8.0
  • Water hardness: 8-15 dGH

Even though firemouth cichlids are deemed freshwater fish, this fish is able to withstand mild to moderate brackish water conditions with water salinity concentrations of approximately 10 percent or less than average seawater tanks contain (we don’t recommend this if you can avoid it though).

Lastly, let’s talk about filtration.

A good water filtration system for your aquarium is essential for the health and well-being of these fish. This will help avoid the buildup of nitrogen compounds that are especially harmful to tropical fish like firemouths.

If you want to make sure you’re getting accurate readings on the parameters and levels in your aquarium, invest in a good water test kit. They don’t cost much and will go a long way in making sure you’re accurately informed on the state of your tank.

What To Put In Their Tank

Firemouth cichlids are not schooling fish and prefer to establish their own territory instead. This means it’s especially important that you provide them with places to hide and call their own (this will come into play if you consider breeding them later on as well).

Plants, rocks, and driftwood are all welcome additions to their habitat. These will add some variety and supply plenty of options these fish to hide.

When it comes to the substrate you’ll want to go soft and sandy. This will prevent your firemouth cichlids from getting scratched when they dig around in the substrate.

Potential Diseases

Typical of the majority of freshwater fish, firemouth cichlids tend to be more prone to common fish infections than anything rare. These infections can be bacterial, fungal or parasitic.

As always, owners should watch out for Ich, a common fish affliction. This is characterized by the development of whitish opaque spots on their body that usually present on the fins and gills first.

If your firemouth cichlid develops Ich, slowly increase the tank water temperature up to 86°F and see if that helps. If you don’t notice a significant improvement in a day or two you’ll want to consider one of the common medications that are made specifically to deal with Ich.

Author Note: The most effective way to prevent your fish from getting sick is by taking great care of them in the first place. Subpar water, a poor diet, and a stressful environment are all quick ways to increase the possibility of disease in your aquarium.

Do things the right way early on, so you don’t have to worry about treating illnesses later.

Food & Diet

Just like their relatives, firemouth cichlids are a big fan of eating. It’s uncommon to see them turn down any sort of food which means it’s your job as an owner to make sure they have a healthy and measured intake of food.

In the wild, they’ll get most of their nutrition from various forms of crustaceans and nibble on the occasional plant for fun.

In captivity, their diet will obviously differ, but it’s not difficult to manage. These fish do fine with any high-quality flake or pellet foods as the foundation of their diet.

Adding in some protein-rich snacks like brine shrimp or bloodworms is a great way to provide some additional enrichment and nutrition to their diet as well. Some owners like feeding them various forms of vegetables as well, but that can be a bit hit or miss (make sure to remove whatever they don’t eat after feeding time).

Author Note: Because these fish are the opposite of picky when it comes to eating, it’s your job to prevent overfeeding. A two a day feeding schedule is common, and don’t give them more than they can eat in a couple of minutes.

Behavior & Temperament

Firemouths are affable fish that are normally pretty peaceful if they have adequate swimming space and a healthy environment. As long as they deem their environment to be satisfactory, they’ll rarely cause trouble in the tank.

However, if these conditions aren’t met then they can be prone to aggression. Too many fish crammed together is always a recipe for feisty behavior, and this species is no different.

A swimming firemouth cichlid

Breeding is also a time when tensions are at an all-time high. The males will be especially aggressive during this period of time since they’re trying to find a mate and keep others at bay. This is something you’ll have to navigate if you attempt to breed them.

In terms of general activity, firemouth cichlids are a pretty active fish that prefers to swim near the middle of the aquarium. You will see them regularly visit the substrate to check things out or root around as well (classic cichlid).

Firemouth Cichlid Tank Mates

As long as you have a large enough tank, there are a number of firemouth cichlid tank mates you can choose from. These fish don’t want to start trouble with other species as long as they aren’t provoked.

This means similarly sized fish that aren’t aggressive is the way to go.

Tank mates that are too small might get picked on, and ones that are too big might stress out your firemouth. This will cause them to live in a constant state of stress even if the larger fish doesn’t mean any harm.

Here are some of our favorite firemouth cichlid tank mates:

This list should get you started, but there are plenty of other tank mate options on the table. As long as you stick with the recommended guidelines you’ll be fine!

Author Note: Due to their crustacean-eating tendencies in the wild you’ll want to avoid adding any snails and shrimp to their tanks. This means popular varieties like the assassin snail, nerite snail, and cherry shrimp are all out of the question.

Firemouths With African Cichlids

If you’re one of the many people wondering if you can pair a firemouth cichlid with an African cichlid, the answer is no. Some owners have pulled it off, but we’ve heard far more bad stories than good ones.

Better to play it safe and keep them apart.

Firemouth Cichlid Breeding

Breeding firemouth cichlids is relatively simple once you know the formula.

The most important thing is to start with a parental pair. You can either buy them this way or get a batch of fish and let them pick their soulmate.

Making sure there are some flat surfaces in the tank for them to lay their eggs is a must if you want them to breed. Rocks are a common choice for this.

From there you should tweak the water parameters a bit to increase the chances of success. Some owners don’t do this and still breed successfully, but we’re including this here so you have the info at your disposal if you need to give them an extra nudge.

For the most part, you’ll be aiming for the middle of the road when it comes to parameters. A pH level of 7 to 7.2 and a 75°F to 80°F water temp is a good place to start.

Once the mating process has occurred the female will lay a few hundred eggs on one of the flat surfaces you’ve made available to her. The male will then take over as the primary protector of the eggs.

The fry should be fed high-quality food like microworms or brine shrimp and should be swimming in a few days.           

Is It Time To Get One For Yourself?

Now that you know everything that goes into firemouth cichlid care, it’s time to decide if this is the species for you.

We’re a big fan of this fish and don’t see that changing anytime soon. We find ourselves recommending them to other owners all the time!

If you have questions or suggestions on ways we can improve this guide we’d love to hear from you. We want to do these fish justice and accurately represent them to the best of our abilities, so feedback is always welcome.

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