Flame tetra (Hyphessobrycon flammeus also known as the red tetra or Rio tetra) is a bright colored aquarium fish of Characidae family. In pet shops the fish species quite often have pale coloring due to the high level of stress they are exposed to there.
However, when you bring them home and create favorable conditions, their coloring becomes bright again.
Habitat in the wild
Hyphessobrycon: comes from ancient Greek – hyphesson, which means “small sized”. In this case the word is used as a prefix plus the general name Brycon. From Latin Flammeus means «flame color».
The fish inhabits in South Africa: in the South-East of Brazil, in the state of Rio-de-Janeiro and San-Paulo. It dwells in coastal waters with water temperature within the range from 22 to 28 °C (72–82 °F)., pH 5,8—7,8 and water hardness within 5—25 °dH.
Rivers where the fish inhabits flow though one of the most heavily populated and industrialized regions of Brazil, which ecology suffered a lot due to building of barrages and drains, water pollution, presence of introduced species (including over 40 introduced fish species only in Paraíba do Sul) and other forms human-induced degradation.
The latest scientific data obtained from the area around Rio-de-Janeiro dates back to 1992 and since then the presence of this fish species haven’t been registered in the region. Though, it doesn’t mean that the fish is extinct, since 2004 H. flammeus has been included into Brazilian national red list.
The fish prefers small and shallow (less than 50 cm deep) slow flowing and thickly planted tributaries and streams. Hyphessobrycon habitat is usually in clean, transparent or brownish water with sandy bottom.
In the wild this fish is a schooling one, so it lives in small groups. Hyphessobrycon feeds on worms, small insects and crustaceans as well as various plant food.
Hyphessobrycon genus includes over 40 small fish kinds dwelling in Amazon River basin. All representatives of the genus have no scales at the bottom of their caudal fin.
Flame tetra is rather small sized – 2.5 cm (1 in). The fish has body shape is typical for all tetra species – it is tall and flattened from sides with large anal fin extending beyond the fish dorsal fin.
Provided with proper feeding and care females become reproductive at the age of 6-8 months and the males – at the age of 8-12 month, correspondingly.
Flame tetra lifespan is about 4-5 years in a tank.
The prevailing coloring pattern of the fish is brown and olive-green one. The front side of the fish body is silvery, sometimes with yellowish sheen. There are 2-3 vertical dark stripes behind the fish head, they don’t reach the fish back and abdomen.
The fish body from its dorsal to the bottom of the caudal fin is colored in various tints of red (from pale pink to bright red). Other fish fins have the same coloring except the pectoral and fatty ones which are transparent. There is a thin dark stripe on the fins edge, which becomes coal-black during the fish spawning period.
Environment where the fish lives and its current state have high impact on the fish coloring.
Provided with the most favorable conditions with overhead lighting tetras look bright and gorgeous. However, even tiny stress or improper tank conditions lead to the fish coloring change – it fades and looses most of its attractiveness.
Except the decorative value flame tetra is also of some interest in terms of line breeding.
Is one of those few fish kinds that nowadays successfully undergo their coloring enhancement by means of hormone administration.
The suitable substance is given to the fish with food or it is dissolved in the tank water. As a result of such exposure the fish coloring becomes brighter and more saturated. Even the fish juveniles coloring becomes as bright and intense as that of the reproductive fish species.
Along with the visible effect this approach also has some drawbacks. Thus, vital capacity of the fish species which coloring was artificially enhanced decreases and as a result their death rate increases.
Hormones used for artificial coloring enhancement don’t influence the fish reproductive function. Therefore, the breeders stay the same active and the quality of their offspring remains the same as it was before using the substances containing hormones.
Difficulties in keeping
The success of flame tetra in aquarium hobby is due to the fact how easily it adapts to various tank conditions as well as to its relative persistence to diseases. The fish is quite often recommended to beginner aquarists.
As many other fish kinds which in the wild inhabit in untouched, virgin areas, flame tetra can’t stand any accumulation of organic substances in a tank and requires clean tank water. This means that weekly water renews are part of your routine here. Another thing you have to keep in mind is, that you should put tetras only into a tank with a stable biological balance in it.
Keeping in a tank
The fish is rather undemanding. Tank conditions for it are quite simple to create and maintain, since they resemble those at which the fish lives in the wild.
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Tank water temperature should be within the range of 22 to 28 °C (72–82 °F), pH 5,8—7,8 and water hardness from 5 to 25 °dH. Though, during the commercial breeding tetra has adapted to various tank water parameters including hard water.
You should keep flame tetra in a school of at least 7 species, the tank should be not less than 50 liters (13 US gal) large. The larger is the fish school, the more spacious their tank should be.
It is important to keep the tank water clean and fresh. For this purpose you should regularly renew it and install a water filter.
Excessive content of poisonous nitrogen compounds in the tank water caused by large amount of rotting organic substances is fatal for the fish: it becomes anxious, looses appetite, and quite frequently tries to jump out of the tank.
The fish looks especially appealing in tall thickly planted tanks.
When decorating a tank you should foresee some free space for the fish to swim. You can create small glades among the aquarium plants, so it will be seen how the fish school swims through the front glass of the tank.
Males should prevail in such a group, since they are much brighter colored than females.
Use thickly growing aquarium plants as tank decorations. Place them along the tank walls to leave the space for tetra to swim.
It is desirable to put dry leaves on the tank bottom. They will make the tank water light brown and it will look like tetra natural habitat. You should replace the leaves once in two weeks, which can be done together with water renews.
Flame tetra is omnivorous. In the wild it feeds on small spineless species, crustaceans, filamentous algae, organic detritus, etc.
In a tank the fish can live feeding on artificial aquarium fish food, but like most of tank fishes it’d prefer more diversified diet containing live and frozen blood worm, tubifex, daphnia, etc.
The fish should be fed small portions of food several times a day.
Flame tetra is very timid, prone to stress due to close attention and active tank mates. Flame tetra is compatible with small sized and calm fish species. Never keep tetra with large sized fishes.
The fish prefers a company of 6 and more species. In this case it feels safer amd less stressed.
Another thing is, that when the fish lives in a school it’s easier to observe its natural behavior as well as a hierarchy inside the group.
Body of adult males as a rule is less tall than than of the females. The male species are also a bit smaller, but their coloring is brighter and more saturated than that of the female fish.
The fish males are bright and appealing. The red color of their fins smoothly transforms into ruddy one. A black stripe goes along the lower edge of the anal fin of male and it is completely absent on the female species anal fin. Males have black tips of their abdominal fins and transparent caudal ones, while the female fish species have it colored in pink.
From the age of 4 months old females abdomen becomes quite visible, the adult female species have it colored in silvery yellow.
The male species have a tiny hook on their anal and abdominal fins, which the female don’t have, but the bottom of their anal fin is curved, unlike that of the fish males.
Flame tetra females and males should be kept separately for a week before spawning. It can be done by separating the tank into two sections with a net or other kind of separator or you can put the breeders into different tanks. During this period of time you should feed the fish high with live food.
The main condition of successful spawning is to prepare the tank water properly. This is what should be done in advance, at least one week before the spawning starts.
You should mix tap water and distilled or osmotic water in equal proportion; then add peat extract into the mixture (in an amount of 20 drops for each 10 liters of water).
Hardness of spawning water has should be about 4—4,5 dGH and it should be slightly acidic pH 6,0—6,5.
Use glass tanks of at least of 5 liters (1 US gal) capacity as spawning tanks.
Spawning tank should be illuminated with a lamp with energy equivalent to 25 W installed at the distance of 20—30 cm from the tank. Tank water temperature should be maintained at about 25—26°С.
To protect eggs put a separation net or a bush of a small leaved tank plant on the spawning tank bottom.
Instead of live tank plants you can use bathing sponge mesh puff. In 6-12 hours after you put tetra into the spawning tank, the female fish lays up to 500 small sticky eggs.
Once the spawning is over, you should remove the fish from the spawning tank and decrease the water level up to 10 cm; add several drops of methylene blue solution and turn on slight water aeration.
At water temperature about 26°С, in about a day larvae start to hatch from the eggs. The larvae are tiny, but rather active.
At first, they lie on the tank bottom, on the second day they stick to the spawning tank walls; quite often close to the water surface.
On the 4-5th day the larvae turn into juveniles and start to swim. Since then you can start to feed them.
Starter feed can be the following: cyclops nauplii, infusorian, egg yolk. If there is not enough food, the fish juveniles die quickly.
Flame tetra juveniles are demanding in terms of oxygen content. Therefore, additional water aeration is required in case of a tank with small surface area.
Only in a week you can start feeding the fish juveniles with brine shrimp nauplii, cyclops and powdered dry food. Further juveniles feeding is of no trouble.
Juveniles grow very quickly: they become 1 cm long just in 3 weeks. At this age the juveniles go through full metamorphosis and become small copies of the adult fish species.
As the fish juveniles grow you should put them into larger tanks with filtration and aeration. To avoid cannibalism among the juveniles you should sort them according to their size.
Every day you should remove food leftovers and other organic waste from the tank as well as add some fresh water, but not more than 5% of the total water amount.
When the juveniles are 1 month old you can add plant components into their diet. Considering the fact, that tetras are prone to overeating you should limit feeding them with water-swellable food for aquarium fish.
Paul Townsend is a founder and author of Meethepet.com. He’s been fond of aquarium husbandry since his early childhood.
His favorite aquariums are biotopes (Amazon River), Echinodorus and Angelfish. However, through the years he’s had experience of keeping almost all types of freshwater fish and shrimps.