he Art of Firemouth Cichlid Keeping: Advanced Techniques

The firemouth cichlid, also known by its scientific name Thorichthys meeki, is a popular freshwater fish species in the cichlid family. It is native to Central America, particularly Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. The firemouth cichlid gets its name from the bright red coloration on its throat and lower jaw, which can be displayed during courtship or territorial displays. Firemouth care popular among hobbyists due to their attractive appearance, interesting behavior, and relatively easy care requirements.

Inhabitance in the wild

Firemouth cichlid (lat. Thorichthys meeki) is a tank fish of Cichlidae family, which is a diverse and large family of freshwater fish. Cichlids are known for their vibrant colors, interesting behaviors, and wide distribution across various regions of the world, including Africa, Central and South America, and parts of Asia.

The family Cichlidae is further divided into several subfamilies, tribes, and genera, with each having its own unique characteristics and species. The firemouth cichlid specifically belongs to the subfamily Cichlasomatinae, which includes a variety of cichlid species found primarily in Central America.

Other popular cichlid species that belong to the same subfamily as the firemouth cichlid include the convict cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata), Jack Dempsey (Rocio octofasciata), and Green Terror (Andinoacara rivulatus). These cichlids share certain behavioral and physical traits, such as parental care, territoriality, and interesting color patterns.

This species was named after American ichthyologist Seth Eugene Meek. Firemouth cichlid was fist described in 1918 by Walter Brind. The fish inhabits in Central America: Mexico, Guatemala, Salvatore, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa-Rica and Panama.

This cichlid habitat is in bottom and middle water layers of slow flowing waters, ponds with sandy or muddy bottom. The fish tries to stay close to thickly planted areas where it feeds on plant and animal food at the edge of these areas.

In its natural habitat, the firemouth cichlid inhabits slow-moving or still waters with dense vegetation, rocky areas, and submerged roots or branches. It is commonly found in areas with muddy or sandy substrates. The cichlid’s natural range includes both clear and turbid waters, and it can adapt to different water conditions within its native region.

These cichlids are often encountered near the shorelines, particularly in areas where there is vegetation cover or rocky structures that provide shelter and protection. They are known to establish territories and defend their chosen areas from intruders.

The water parameters in their natural habitat can vary, but firemouth cichlids generally inhabit waters with temperatures ranging from 75-82°F (24-28°C). The pH level in their native waters can be slightly acidic to neutral, typically ranging from 6.5 to 7.5.


Firemouth cichlids have an elongated body with a slightly laterally compressed shape. They have a typical cichlid body structure with a rounded head and a single dorsal fin. Their eyes are relatively large and contribute to their overall facial appearance. They have a dark and striking appearance, which is characteristic of many cichlid species.

Body main color is light-gray or olive-gray with some blueish tint, while adult body color becomes completely violet. Depending on a fish state and its environment conditions firemouth cichlid may have some wide dark transverse stripes and/or a lateral stripe and a black spot in the middle of its body. However, the most distinctive feature is the bright red or orange coloration on the underside of their throat and lower jaw, which gives them their name “Firemouth.” Abdomen, neck and opercles are red or orange-red; male have more intense coloring. Their opercles have a black spot on them, their iris is blueish, unpaired fins are pinkish with blue sparkles.

The upper edge of the dorsal is red and both dorsal and anal fin are rather pointed. Cichlid coloring becomes brighter when the fish is excited or during its spawning period.

How big does a firemouth cichlid get?

In tanks firemouth cichlid max size is about 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) while in the wild it is a bit smaller. However, it’s important to note that individual fish can vary in size, and some individuals may grow slightly larger or smaller than the average. Males of the species tend to be larger than females.

How fast do firemouth cichlids grow?

The growth rate of firemouth cichlids (Thorichthys meeki) can vary depending on several factors, including genetics, diet, water conditions, and overall care. Generally, firemouth cCichlids have a moderate growth rate compared to some other cichlid species.

On average, firemouth cichlids can reach a size of 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) within the first few months of their lives. During the first year, they can grow to around 3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm) in length. After that, the growth rate may slow down, and they can reach their adult size of 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) over the course of a couple of years.

How long do firemouth cichlids live?

Firemouth cichlids have an average lifespan of around 8-10 years in captivity. However, with proper care, some individuals can live even longer, potentially reaching up to 12 years or more.

Scientific NameThorichthys meeki
Common NameFiremouth Cichlid, firemouth fish, red belly cichlid
OriginCentral America (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala)
SizeUp to 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) in captivity
Lifespan8-10 years (can vary with proper care)
Body ShapeElongated body with a rounded head
ColorationBeige or light gray with dark vertical bands
Unique FeatureBright red or orange coloration on throat and lower jaw
TemperamentCan be somewhat aggressive, especially during breeding
Tank SizeMinimum of 30 gallons (113 liters)
Water Temperature75-82°F (24-28°C)
pH Level6.5-7.5
DietOmnivorous, eats flakes or pellets with occasional live/frozen foods
BreedingMonogamous, pair-bonding, parental care
Compatible Tank MatesOther robust Central American cichlids (e.g., Convict Cichlids, Severum Cichlids)
Preferred HabitatSlow-moving or still waters with vegetation and rocky areas

Care and keeping in a tank

Tank size

Firemouth cichlidis known as one of the most peaceful species, so it is good to keep a couple or a group of them in a tank, although some species may appear to be rather aggressive.

For a 30-gallon (113-liter) aquarium, a single pair of firemouth cichlids can be kept comfortably. The pair will establish their territory and breed within the tank. It’s important to provide adequate hiding spots and visual barriers to create separate territories if keeping multiple pairs or groups.

If you have a larger tank, such as a 55-gallon (208-liter) or 75-gallon (283-liter) tank, you can consider keeping multiple pairs or a small group of firemouth Cichlids. However, it’s essential to closely monitor their behavior and ensure there is enough space and hiding spots to minimize aggression and potential conflicts.

Water parameters

Though firemouth cichlids is not very demanding as for the tank water chemical characteristics (water hardness and pH level), still according to experienced aquarists practice there are lots of cases of the fish early death in tanks and there is high mortality rate when imported fish is put in quarantine.

The recommended water parameters:

  • Temperature: Firemouth cichlids thrive in water temperatures ranging from 75-82°F (24-28°C). It’s best to maintain the temperature within this range to ensure their comfort and overall health.
  • pH Level: Firemouth cichlids prefer slightly acidic to neutral water conditions. The recommended pH range for them is typically between 6.5 and 7.5. Keeping the pH stable within this range is important to support their overall well-being.
  • Hardness: Firemouth cichlids can tolerate a moderate level of water hardness. Aim for a general hardness (GH) level between 8 and 12 dGH (143 to 214 ppm) and a carbonate hardness (KH) level between 6 and 12 dKH (107 to 214 ppm).
  • Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate: It’s crucial to keep ammonia and nitrite levels at zero or as close to zero as possible. These compounds are toxic to fish. Regular water testing and proper filtration are essential to maintain a healthy nitrogen cycle in the aquarium. Nitrate levels should be kept below 40 ppm, ideally below 20 ppm, through regular water changes.
  • Filtration and Water Changes: Firemouth cichlids benefit from a good filtration system that provides mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration. Adequate filtration helps maintain water quality and clarity. Additionally, regular water changes of around 20-30% every 1-2 weeks are recommended to remove accumulated pollutants and maintain optimal water conditions.

Tank decor

When it comes to decorating the aquarium for firemouth cichlids (Thorichthys meeki), it’s important to create an environment that mimics their natural habitat while also providing suitable hiding spots and territorial boundaries.

At that you have to take into account that this species has strict requirements as for the tank water purity, therefore the fact that there is a good external filter and high number of live plants in the tank doesn’t exclude the necessity of regular tank water renew (at least once a week). Tank plants should be large-leaved and put into pots surrounded with stones.

Firemouth Ccichlids appreciate the presence of rocks and caves in their tank. Use stacked rocks to create caves and crevices where the cichlids can establish territories and find hiding spots. Make sure the rocks are stable and securely positioned to prevent them from toppling over.

Adding driftwood or root structures can provide additional hiding places and create a more natural environment. Cichlids may also graze on the biofilm that forms on the wood surface.

Creating visual barriers with the help of decorations can help establish separate territories within the tank. You can use rocks, driftwood, or tall plants to create divisions and break the line of sight between different areas.


Despite what is written about this fish in reference books, firemouth cichlid isn’t a big “digger” – the fish digs tank bottom rather moderately, especially if there is a big clay pot or some other shelter cichlid can use when spawning. In general the fish behavior can be rather different and it depends both on the environment conditions and on each species preferences. Some aquarists describe large cichlid as an active diurnal fish, others, in contrast, note that their pets tend to spend the majority of time in their shelters.

When it comes to the substrate, there are a few options you can consider. Here are some popular choices:

  1. Fine Sand: Firemouth cichlids naturally inhabit areas with sandy substrates in their native habitat. Using fine sand in your aquarium can replicate their natural environment and provide a suitable substrate for them to sift through and dig. Make sure the sand is aquarium-safe and free from any sharp or abrasive particles.
  2. Smooth Gravel: Another option is using smooth gravel as the substrate. Choose gravel with rounded edges to prevent any potential injury to the fish. The gravel should be small enough to allow the cichlids to sift through it comfortably. A layer of gravel can also help with biological filtration by providing a surface for beneficial bacteria to colonize.

Tank mates

Another significant point that isn’t usually considered is that firemouth cichlid has rather low ability to handle stress. Surrounded by other large and aggressive species they doesn’t feel safe or confident, so the firemouth cichlid may easily die because of some harmless disease just due to the stress.

Male suffer the most from larger and stronger tank mates harassment, while female in this situation demonstrates a rather interesting ability to find protectors among other fish species in a tank.

Surprisingly, but in the context of all above mentioned, firemouth cichlid can be characterized as “a cichlid that wasn’t meant to be kept in a tank with other cichlid species”.

So, we can advise to take some active schooling fish. Some larger tetra species can be compatible with firemouth cichlids: serpae tetra, glowlight tetra, rummy nose tetra, as well as pictus catfish as tank mates. Also, due to the obvious reasons, it better to avoid slow-moving and especially long-finned fishes as tank mates.

How many firemouth cichlid should be kept together?

When keeping firemouth cichlids together, it is generally recommended to maintain them in pairs or small groups. This helps mimic their natural social behavior and can reduce aggression and territorial disputes.

It isn’t a schooling fish as we usually mean by this term. In the natural biotope adult firemouth cichlid male live separately, each on it’s own territory which they ward rather eagerly, they scare off other rivals by flaring out their gills. However, the same way they attract female swimming by to spawn with them. Female and juveniles stick together.

The majority of time they spend in still water near the shore under the cover of shore plants and snags. Cichlids form couples only for the spawning period and to look after their offspring. In a tank behaves the same, however you have to consider the tank capacity. In large tanks one may keep 2-3 couples and some species without a couple.

It’s interesting to observe how two couples that have just had their spawning gather and divide their juveniles without trying to define which of them is whose. In group there’s no school hierarchy as, for example, discuses or uaru groups have. It’s better if group consists of species of different age and stem. This allows first – decrease rivalry among cichlids, second – avoid inbreeding.

In tank of a medium capacity the life space is enough only for one male. If there is a rival male in the tank the fight is inevitable, during which one of the fish may even be killed. However, 2 or 3 females may successfully share the tank life space, while the male fish will spawn with each of them in turns.

Though, again, it’s not a classical type of harem which, for instance, some dwarf cichlid species have. As for completely small tanks – there may live only one cichlid or one couple. Large tanks are also preferable because they have more stable biological balance and the fish feels more safe and comfortable. And, as you may remember, firemouth cichlid has strong requirements for both.

Can firemouth cichlids live with african cichlids?

It is generally not recommended to keep firemouth cichlids with African cichlids. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Different Water Requirements: African cichlids, particularly those from Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria, have specific water parameter requirements, including higher pH and hardness levels compared to Firemouth Cichlids. Mixing these different water requirements can cause stress and health issues for both species.
  2. Aggression and Territoriality: African cichlids, especially the more aggressive species, are known for their territorial behavior. Mixing them with firemouth cichlids, which can also be territorial, can lead to increased aggression and territorial disputes. This can result in fin nipping, stress, and potential harm to both species.
  3. Diet Differences: Firemouth cichlids have a more omnivorous diet, while some African cichlids have specific dietary requirements or specialized feeding behaviors. It can be challenging to provide a suitable diet that meets the needs of both species.

If you do decide to keep them together, it’s crucial to choose compatible species within the African cichlid group that have similar temperaments and water requirements. However, even with careful selection, the risk of aggression and compatibility issues remains high.


Firemouth cichlids are omnivorous and have a varied diet in the wild. To ensure their optimal health and nutrition in captivity, it’s important to provide them with a balanced diet.

In a tank the fish eagerly feeds on blood worm, tubifex, white worms, brine shrimp. Offer them occasional treats such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, daphnia, or mosquito larvae. You can also provide small live or frozen insects, like blackworms or small crickets. Frozen feed is also good for diet – brine shrimp, cyclops and artificial feed – tablets and flakes. A staple diet for firemouth cichlids can consist of high-quality commercial pellets or flakes specifically formulated for cichlids. Choose pellets that contain a good balance of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

Gender differences: male vs female

There are several physical and behavioral differences between male and female firemouth cichlids that can help in distinguishing between the sexes. Here are some common characteristics:

  1. Size: Males are generally larger than females. Adult males can grow up to 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) in length, while females typically reach a size of 4-5 inches (10-12 cm). The size difference becomes more apparent as they mature.
  2. Body Shape: Male tend to have a more elongated and streamlined body shape compared to females, especially during breeding periods. Females often have a slightly rounder and bulkier body shape.
  3. Coloration: One of the most noticeable differences is in coloration. During breeding or display, males develop vibrant colors and patterns. They have a bright red or orange coloration on their throat and lower jaw, which can intensify during courtship or when they are defending their territory. Females, on the other hand, generally have less intense coloration, with a more subdued appearance.
  4. Fin Shape and Extension: Males typically have longer and more pointed dorsal and anal fins compared to females. These fins may also have extensions or filaments, especially during breeding, which are absent in females.
  5. Behavioral Differences: Males are generally more territorial and aggressive, especially when establishing their territories or defending their mates and eggs. Females tend to be less aggressive but can still display protective behavior when it comes to guarding their eggs or fry.


Firemouth cichlids becomes mature at the age of 8-12 month. In case if there is a group of them, the couple leaves the group and stays separate.

As for this cichlids kept in a tank show more loyalty and affection to each other, than those who inhabit in the wild, where they get together just for spawning.

Although in a tank one firemouth cichlid male also my spawn with several female in turns. If the couple is formed forcibly, usually it leads to the point when cichlids in this couple eat their eggs and fight constantly.

In the wild spawns on the open bottom substrate, however in a tank it prefers to lay its eggs in some shelter (if there’s one).

At that sometimes there are some females which are “crazy about security” and they lay eggs in such a hidden place, where the male, which is larger, can’t even get into to fertilize eggs.

This fact should also be taken into account, if you want the firemouth cichlid to spawn successfully. The clutch is warded by the both parents. There are about 100-400 eggs in it.

The incubation period is about 3-6 days and 4-5 days later the juveniles start to swim. If firemouth cichlid spawns in a community tank, you should remove the clutch into a separate volume or wash the juveniles with a hose directly into the juveniles tank just right after they start to swim, since their parents usually appear to be not capable to protect them from other tank inhabitants.

Sadly, all the breeding process here turns out to be not very interesting for those aquarists who’d like to watch cichlid showing its parental instinct and looking after their offspring.

If you put a couple ready to spawn into a separate tank, it gets even worse. At least this was my experience: after their environment conditions changed the fish got stressed and stopped eating.

The firemouth cichlid male got used to the new tank faster and started beating the female to force her to lay eggs. As a result, I had to get them back into the community tank and to cure the female injuries.

Firemouth cichlid has rather small juveniles, even smaller than convict cichlid has. Juveniles should first be fed with: brine shrimp nauplii, ciclopuls or some specially manufactured powders and suspensions.

Some aquarists, who tried to feed the firemouth cichlid juveniles with powdered flakes, failed and all the juveniles died. In general mortality rate of juveniles can be rather high and it strongly depends on the feed quality and the tank hydrochemistry.

In fact, provided with sufficient eagerness T. meeki keeping and breeding in a tank isn’t that complicated, which still makes this fish one of the very popular cichlids.