Red Terror Cichlid: The Ultimate Guide

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If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a Red Terror Cichlid, you MUST read this entire guide before adding it to your tank.

These large, beautiful fish can be an excellent addition to your community tank but there are some important considerations before you plop them in your tank and risk introducing a menace into your peaceful aquarium.

There’s a lot to learn about the Red Terror Cichlid, so let’s get started with the basics.

What Are Red Terror Cichlids?

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The Red Terror is also known as the Harlequin and the True Red Terror. Their scientific name as of 2021 is Mesoheros festae.

In nature, they live in South America, specifically towards the south and western sides of the continent, near Ecuador and Peru, although they have been reported as an invasive species as far away as Singapore and Thailand.

They like shallow water, feeding alongside fast-moving river banks, under fallen logs, and in small caves.

Turns out, they get the name True Red Terror because of their red and black pattern as well as their terrorizing reputations. “True” comes from the fact that they are often confused with a similar fish.

Latin Names (Cichlasoma Festae Is Wrong!)

We discovered that this species has been reclassified several times, which is why you will see the scientific name for True Red Terrors listed as heros, cichlasoma festae, ex cichlasoma festae, or amphilophus.

Nevertheless, mesoheros festae is the official name in 2021.

Mistaken Identity

Not only that but there is an imposter fish that has a similar appearance, known as the False Red Terror or Mayan cichlid (mayaheros urophtalmus).

What’s The Difference?

In case you might be asking yourself what the difference is between these two similar fish, there are two main ways to tell them apart.

The first two vertical stripes down the front of the True Red Terrors body (the bars closest to their face), will connect and make a “Y” shape. The False Red Terror has stripes that do not intersect.

In addition, the false eyespot on the True Red Terror is off-center on their back fin and higher up, while the False Red Terror’s false eye is center.

Male vs. Female

But wait, let me talk about the appearance of males and females of the species.

You may be surprised to find out that they are actually very different!

Well, at least eventually. A young male and female appear almost identical, which is why it’s not worth buying a sexed male or female until they are older.

Young males and females are grey and have dark vertical stripes. As they grow and age, their sexual dimorphism becomes more pronounced.

You see, the female will develop a yellow/orange body color under their black stripes. Their fins turn bright red/orange and they develop lar bright turquoise spots.

On the other hand, the male develops a greener body and is less orange as they age.

The male will remain drabber but the female’s orange colors become brighter over time, especially when they are mating.

And that’s just one side of the story. This fish will grow large. Very large, especially the males.

The male True Red Terror fish can grow up to 20 inches long! The female is not as large but can also grow up to 12 inches.

That said, they typically do grow that large in captivity.

Oh, and in captivity, they can live for up to 15 years or more!


But wait, let me tell you something before you buy a breeding pair of Red Terror Cichlids.

It turns out that these are aggressive fish, one of the most aggressive large cichlids that you can put in your tank.

They are so aggressive that they will kill their tankmates, even if those fish are also large and aggressive.

Couple that with the large size they grow to and they end up being a very finicky fish to fit into your tank.

If you are still interested in getting the large and aggressive true red terror fish for your tank, read on for all of the specifications you will need before adding them.

How To Care For Red Terror Cichlids

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Because these fish grow to such large sizes, you will need an equally large tank of water for them to live in.

It is not recommended that you have one of these fish unless you have at least a 180-gallon size tank, if not larger to accommodate them and their large tankmates. No small tanks!

You should also have a water tank that is more long and shallow rather than tall and deep in size to mimic their natural environment.

It’s true that you can keep red Terrors cichlids in a smaller-size tank when younger, but you will need to upgrade to a larger one after a year to give them more space.

Keep in mind that the more fish you have will affect how much space you have left in your aquarium for your aggressive red Terror cichlid to live. You may need even a larger tank!


The Red Terror cichlid is easy to care for but needs consistency and water management for them to live and thrive.

They are large and dirty fish, so pick up a well-matured filtration system to maintain water balance.

They do not have picky light requirements, as they are typically in shady areas in the wild.

Nevertheless, you need strong blowers in your aquarium to mimic the river water environment that the male or female fish are used to from Ecuador and Peru.


If you provide an adequately sized aquarium and enough light, then maintaining the water should be easy.

Water Quick Guide:

  • Temperature – 22–30 °C (72–86 °F)
  • pH – 6.5-7.56
  • Water hardness – 4-18 dGH
  • Ammonia – 0ppm
  • Nitrite – 0ppm
  • Nitrate – <30ppm
  • KH – 2-10

Providing proper water is one good way to care for your fish.


When it comes to decorating your tank, you should keep their natural, riverbank habitat in mind.

Add many long branches and logs in the area at the top of the tank to provide a dark, shady area for the Red Terror cichlid to find and hunt small crabs and fish.


Place lots of rocks and crags towards the bottom so that these fish can nestle among them and mimick their natural behavior.

The best part is, if you do decide to propagate them, they use these cracks and small holes as a place to lay their eggs.


As we said, these are very large and messy fish.

Because of this, do not add too much substrate to the bottom of the tank. Too much allows detritus and other waste to accumulate at the bottom of the tank.

The substrate does not need to be complicated, a simple mix of sand, gravel, and rocks will do.

In our experience, do not add more than one-quarter of an inch of substrate to your aquarium. This makes cleaning up easier and less wasteful.


Oh, and while plants look nice, these cichlids eat plants. It’s better to have fake plants or avoid them altogether.


Feeding your Red Terror cichlid good food is as easy as feeding any other type of cichlid a healthy diet. There are many types of foods available.

Purchasing high-quality cichlid food is a sufficient staple diet for the red terror cichlid.

Or purchase frozen food for their diet if you really like to spoil your cichlid.

We recommend that you feed them one time daily to protect the water quality.

Oh, also, feeding these fish enough food to eat steadily for five minutes is the perfect amount to ensure they are getting adequate nutrition without affecting water quality.

These fish are omnivores and search rocks for crustaceans, worms, and bugs to eat.

Therefore, adding ghost shrimp, feeder fish, or bugs to the water can enrich their diets.

And the best part is that can be interesting to watch them behave more like they would in a natural river or river-like environment hunting for food!


By now, you should know that the Red Terror cichlid is aggressive.

This is an aggressive fish that, if not paired with the appropriate tank mates, could destroy the entire habitat you have worked so hard to build.

On the other hand, they typically do best in an aquarium with other species.

It is true that they can be kept alone in the right situations, but it’s best if you keep them in communities.

It is very important to be picky about the types of fish that you keep in your Red Terror tank.

These fish eat any other fish that can fit in their mouth. When they are full-grown, this means any fish smaller than 6 in.

They are one highly competitive fish, so select other fish that can stand up to a fight but that are less likely to trigger your red terror cichlid.

We have found that keeping these fish around other fish that are similar in size or larger, but differently shaped, can help mitigate the amount of aggression in your tank.

To put it simply,  the red terror should be kept with fish like the following:

  • Oscars
  • Flowerhorns
  • Green Terror
  • Sailfin or common pleco
  • Managuense cichlid
  • Arowana
  • Jaguar cichlid

It can be difficult to predict each individual fish in the tank will respond to a new member in their community, especially when that new member is the aggressive red terror cichlid.

Select companion fish from the list above to reduce the risk of violence in your aquarium, but make sure they have enough space.

Living With Other Red Terror Cichlids

It is also possible to keep the Red Terror cichlid in pairs or in threes. Do not have more than three, and even having two may introduce problems.

If you are interested in having one breeding pair of true red terrors, read on for some helpful insight.

Propagating True Red Terror Cichlids

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Now: You are seriously considering breeding Red Terror cichlids, so keep the following facts in mind.

First of all, these fish become sexually mature once they are about 3 to 4 inches in length and their color starts to show, usually within the first year.

The best way is to start with a group of youngsters and let them choose their own pairs.

During the courtship and mating phase of their life cycle, these fish become extremely aggressive.

We really cannot stress just how aggressive that they are when they mate.

Either remove the pair from the tank or remove the other community fish from the tank.

If you do not, your fish will likely kill or harass the other fish to the point that it may kill them.

Once you have a breeding pair, provide them with a place to lay their eggs. The female decides where to lay them.

The male defends the hole during this time, but males and females share much of the responsibility of raising their fry.

Luckily, if you set up the tank as we previously described, there should be lots of cracks and holes for her to lay her eggs in to keep them safe. The search for the perfect nursery should be easy.

It should just be a matter of time before your breeding pair begin to lay their eggs.

Encouraging Breeding

However, if they do not, you can encourage breeding by increasing the temperature and reducing the water hardness. A warmer temperature increases the likelihood of copulation.

If your male and female successfully copulate, the female lays 100-1,000 eggs in her nest. The males and females guard the nest during the four-day incubation.

Fry Care

Once the eggs are about 4 days old, notice the small fry start swimming around the outside of the nursery.

Once you do, you should wait 3 days then move them to a nursery tank.

Thankfully, feeding them a diet of newly hatched brine shrimp and high-quality nursery food is all you need.

In Conclusion

The large, beautiful, aggressive, aptly-named Red Terror Cichlid will make an excellent addition to your community tank, so long as you have enough space and take the proper precautions outlined above.

If you’re able to provide them with what they need, the True Red Terror will surely become an aquarium favorite in your tank.

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