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Fish That Breathes Fire! Well, Not Really – Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys meeki) – Complete Species Guide

Hailing from Central America, these beauties are a staple in the aquarium trade. They have been known and loved by aquarists for many years. Well, it makes sense. Take a look at them, they might not be mind-bogglingly bright, but they are nicely colored.

Firemouth Cichlid

With that is the ease of keeping them! They are some of the best for beginners, and countless people have said how easy it is to keep the fish in a tank.

Of course, if you’ve read the title of this post, you know what we’re talking about. That’s right, Firemouth Cichlids.

If you’re thinking of having a Firemouth cichlid, (or a few) as a pet. Or, you’re looking for more information, and you’re curious, you’ve come to the right place! We have everything on the Firemouth right here, so read on.

Table Of Contents:

Firemouth Cichlid (Tank Boss)


Basic Facts

Name: Firemouth Cichlid

Scientific Name: Thorichthys meeki

Group: Freshwater Fish

Size Of The Fish: Medium-Large

Temperament: Semi-Aggresive/Territorial

Aquarium Size Required: Large

Where It Swims: Bottom-Middle

Care Difficulty Rating: Easy-Medium

Good Paired With: Cat Fish, Tetra Species, Other Firemouths

Origins

The Firemouth Cichlid, (Thorichthys meeki) is a tropical fish that comes from the family Cichlidae. It was first discovered in 1919, by a man named Walter Brind.

The scientific name of the Firemouth comes from the American ichthyologist Seth Eugene Meek. (Ichthyologist means someone who studies fish.) It was named in his honor.

The common name, Firemouth Cichlid, comes from two factors. One, the almost fiery red that is around their gills and mouths. Two, the display males put on during the breeding season. To look impressive, they flare out their gills, and it seems as if their mouth is on fire.

Their natural habitat is Central America. They inhabit the countries of Mexico, (the Yucatan Peninsula,) El Salvador, and Honduras. Firemouths also inhabit Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica. Although that is their natural habitat, they have been introduced by humans into many places. Hawaii, the US mainland, Colombia, and even Singapore!

They choose to live in ponds, rivers that don’t have fast currents, and canals with sandy and muddy bottoms. Within these areas, they live most of their lives in the middle and bottom of the water body.

Firemouth Cichlids taken by @tf_tropical_fish on Instagram
Firemouth Cichlids thanks to @tf_tropical_fish on Instagram

Appearance

While Firemouth Cichlids aren’t some of the most vividly colored fish out there, they still have a unique coloration. It makes them highly sought after. Many aquarists say that they are magnificent fish, and a pleasure to keep.

Like many types of Cichlid species, they are sexually dimorphic. However, unlike some species, (say, Peacock Cichlids), the differences aren’t extreme. Unfortunately, because of this, it can be quite challenging to tell the sex of your fish.

Here, we’ve listed as many pointers as we could find to help you out.

(A Note: Don’t bother trying to figure out the sex our your firemouths when they are young. Juveniles, whether they are male or female, are almost impossible to tell apart. When they mature, it will become easier.)

Markings and Colors: As with many other Cichlids, the males are much brighter than the females and juveniles. They gain their coloring when they reach maturity. It becomes much more noticeable during the breeding season.

All Firemouths have orangish-red or red markings on their neck, abdomen and gill covers (opercles). However, the males’ markings are always brighter. (Many people say that males have more reddy colors, and females have more orange, but it can vary.)

Size and Shape: When it comes to shape, the differences between forms are quite subtle, but they are there. The males tend to be larger than females and have dorsal and anal fins that are more sharply pointed. The females also are plumper and fuller looking.

Behavior: In general, the males are more aggressive than the females. Though, sometimes a female can be quite protective of her eggs.

You may have heard that Firemouths flare their gills. This is true, and it can help to determine the sex of the individual. All year round, males flare their gills when they want to intimidate or are aggressive, females don’t usually.

Yet, in the breeding season, both sexes flare their gills to show how impressive they are.

(Even if after you’ve followed all the pointers listed above, and you still can’t tell, ask your local vet or expert. That should clear up the problem.)

On color, (for the juveniles) they have a light-gray to olive gray for most of their body, with a blueish tint. When they reach maturity, their skin becomes almost entirely violet. On their neck, abdomen and gill covers (opercles), they have orangish-red or red.

Firemouths have another marking that depends on the fish and environmental conditions. It’s the appearance of stripes and spots. Sometimes, they have broad, dark-colored lines that extend along the body. They might also have a black spot in the middle or a horizontal stripe.

Their opercles have one black spot on them, and most of the fins are light pink, with blueish flecks. About the eyes, they are usually a blue color, with black pupils.

In captivity, they grow larger than in the wild, the largest size for males being 6″ (15cm). Females are smaller. Sometimes, they live for about eight years. Usually, their lifespan is usually between 10-15 years.

Firemouth Cichlids Fish taken by @christhefisherman on Instagram
Firemouth Cichlids Fish thanks to @christhefisherman on Instagram

Breeding

With Firemouth Cichlids, it’s natural that one of their primary goals in life is to reproduce. Like most, but not all fish, they lay eggs. Also, like Peacock and other cichlids, they are mouth breeders. Here is a description of how they breed.

In the wild, the breeding season centers around changes in the water temperature. When it becomes hotter in the warmer months, the water starts to change, become warmer. This fuels the beginning of the breeding.

There are changes in the behavior of both sexes, but the males are more noticeable. Their colors become more vibrant, and they get more patterns than they usually have. They also become much more aggressive. Because of this, they will fight with the other males in the tank to impress the females.

Over a few days, they will usually pick their mates, which they stay with for the rest of their life. Once all the matching has been decided, breeding follows soon after.

The female becomes fertile and begins looking for a place to put her eggs. It’s usually safe and secure, Firemouths lay their eggs on flat pieces of rock often. Once she is ready, she will begin laying the eggs, long rows of them. The male will follow behind, fertilizing all the eggs as he goes.

Firemouth Cichlid Thorichthys meeki

It continues until the last egg has been laid, and they’ve all been fertilized.

Then there is the question of the egg count. As with many fish, the number varies depending on how mature the female is, and the individual fish. However, the usual clutch size for a Firemouth is up to several hundred eggs.

Something that is unusual about the Firemout Cichlids, is it’s the female that does most of the egg looking after. She stays and tends to the eggs, while the male is on guard, protecting the territory. The eggs hatch after 3-4 days. After that, they begin caring for the fry.

Once the fry have hatched from their eggs, the parents move them to another location and stay there for a few days before the babies can swim. About a week after they hatch, they can swim.

The parents will continue to care for the fry, making sure they are fed, safe and protected. They do this for around six weeks, (quite a long time for fish) until the babies can take care of themselves. After this, the parents and fry leave each other and go their separate ways.

A Firemouth Cichlid Fish taken by @tf_tropical_fish on Instagram
A Firemouth Cichlid Fish thanks to @tf_tropical_fish on Instagram

As we have mentioned earlier, Firemouth Cichlids are some of the easiest of Cichlids to keep. Fortunately for fish enthusiasts, they are relatively easy to breed, too. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with their breeding processes, producing them should be a piece of cake.

Here, we’ve listed pointers, tips, and tricks to make the breeding process easy for the fish, (and you)!

When you want them to start breeding, it’s best to raise the temperature of the tank over the course of two days or so. The best temperature would be 82°F (28°C).

When they have paired off, or they are too aggressive to their tank mates. There’s an essential thing you need to do to make sure there aren’t too many problems. You should separate the couples from the other fish with a divider. Or put them in a separate breeding tank if you have one.

To prepare the tank for breeding, you should have appropriate places for them to have a spot to put their eggs. Suggested materials would be PVC pipes, upside-down flowerpots, and flat rocks.

When the fry have hatched, check up on them occasionally for the first week or so, but they don’t need feeding yet. After the 7th or 8th day, they gain the ability to swim, and this is when you should start feeding them.

They grow quite fast, so make sure you have enough room in the tank to accommodate them.

Recommended foods for the first three weeks are brine shrimp, crushed flake food, micro worms and other foods designed for fry. When they reach three weeks of age, you can introduce dried fish food. Also, when they mature, you can feed them whatever you feed your other Firemouths.

When you have the fry, it’s essential to change 10% of the water every day with aged water.

(A word of warning, sometimes, first-time parents have been known to eat their hatched young. Please don’t panic if this happens. It’s unfortunate, but they get the hang of parenting and stop eating the fry after the second or third time.)

Looking After Firemouth Cichlids

Despite its aggressiveness and unpredictable behavior towards other species. It’s a easy species to look after. In fact, the low level of maintenance required, and lack of particular water conditions make it a recommended fish for first-timers.

Firemouth Cichlids are part of a genus called cichlasoma, (which has now been divided into several genera). They are some of the most peaceful of that group. It’s best to keep them in a group of their species, or a couple if you know their sex.

(For more on how to keep Firemouths, and what species would make ideal tankmates. See the Suitable Tank Mates section.)

They are relatively large fish, and they tend to be aggressive, so they need lots of space. Fifty gallons (189 L) is a good starting point and makes for a perfect size for a couple. If you are thinking about keeping a group, 100 gallons is excellent, (if you can manage it).

Remember, they need lots of space, especially if housed with other species. Keep this in mind when choosing the size of your tank.

The layout of your tank must reflect the needs of the fish. There’s no point spending hours on beautifying your aquarium only to find the fish don’t do well in it! Here are a few tips and tricks.

Putting live plants in there is a good idea, as it can give fish some privacy, and something to hide behind. They should have large leaves. To stop them floating around, planted in pots, covered with stones.

If you can, secure them down, as Firemouth Cichlids have a habit of digging down into the substrate. That will stop them disturbing and moving the plants.

(However, in saying this, there is something to note. Despite what you may have heard about them digging furiously, this habit is quite moderate. They don’t spend their whole days digging.)

Another idea is putting rocks that jut in and out and arranging them in a way to make lots of nooks, crannies, and caves. These will be a place they can seek refuge, and hide away if they need to.

Doing this a good idea. Many fish-keepers say their Firemouths quite active, always doing something. Though, this depends on the fish, as some say their fish like to hide away most of the time. Regardless of this, all Firemouths Cichlids are diurnal, which means they are active during the day.

Group Of Firemouth Cichlids taken by @johancistrusGroup Of Firemouth Cichlids taken by @johancistrus
Group Of Firemouth Cichlids taken by @johancistrus

Conditions Of The Tank

Firemouth Cichlids live in many different countries and habitats across Central America. Over time, they have become some of the more adaptable fish. These fish are quite easy to look after, as they don’t need a complicated set-up.

Here are a few pointers, then we’ll list the recommended Temperature and PH And Hardness.

There’s something that is very important when it comes to keeping Firemouth Cichlids. Keeping the tank water clean and pure. You should filter it often, say, at least once a week.

Filtering it often keeps nitrite and ammonia out of the water. It’s is crucial to keep your fish healthy. With nitrate, however, it’s okay to have some in the water, but nothing over 20mg a liter. This is because fish are susceptible to harmful nitrogen compounds.

Having live plants in the aquarium and a good external filter helps maintain the water purity. Cichlids can be sensitive to changes in the pH, and pollutants. So it’s essential that you change 15-20% of the water weekly. It becomes even more critical when you have much fish in the aquarium.

Also, when you replace the water, you need to make sure you clean up all the decomposing organic matter. An excellent way to do this is with a gravel cleaner. If you make sure you keep this up, you can avoid most problems that arise with tanks that contain tropical fish.

It may come as a surprise, but the cause of most problems is because: you guessed it, decomposing organic matter!

When you clean the tank, you should remove most of the algae growth from the glass panes. However, leave a substantial amount of growth. You may not like it, but alga is an excellent source of food for the Firemouth.

Temperature

They are a tropical fish, and the waters they live in, in the wild can be slightly cool to warm. But, in the home aquarium, it is best to keep your fish happy with a stable temperature.

75–86 °F (23–30 °C) is the recommended temperature range.

However, out of that, the best temperature for the fish would be between 76-78 °F (24-26 °C).

PH And Hardness

As we mentioned earlier, they are fairly low maintenance but require immaculate tank water. Here are the recommended levels for the pH and hardness.

pH Range: 6.5 – 8.0

Hardness Range: 8-15 dGH

Firemouth Cichlid taken by @christhefisherman on Instagram
Firemouth Cichlid Thanks to @christhefisherman on Instagram

Suitable Tank Mates

Now, as beautiful as Firemouths are, they are well-known for having an aggressive and tough temperament! Now, this isn’t in extremes, as much as Convict Cichlids, but they are still aggressive. They are quite territorial and will go lengths to protect what they believe is theirs.

Because of this, careful planning must go in if you wish to have a harmonious tank.

In general, having lots of tank mates for Firemouth Cichlids is not the way to go, for the reasons mentioned above. If they weren’t enough, they get very defensive during the breeding season. In some cases, they have been known to eat tinier fish! However, please, don’t panic.

Despite everything mentioned above, if you plan carefully, you can avoid most of these problems.

Step one would be having a big tank. Never have an aquarium that is ten gallons or less, it could be very problematic. 55 gallons would cut most problems. Anything bigger than that would effectively solve the problems.

Step two is to choose the right tank mates! Here are some recommended species.

Other Firemouth Cichlids are a good bet, as they are usually pretty comfortable with their species. However, if you are going to have more than one, make sure you get a group.

A definite no-no is having two males together, as it will not go down well. Two females aren’t such a good idea either. It’s best to have a mix of both sexes.

Gouramis and Mollies are a species that are a good idea to keep with them. Many species of Gouramis (except of course Siamese Fighting Fish,) are generally not aggressive. Mollies are excellent too. They are some of the most serene fish around, and will not cause any problems for Firemouth.

Make sure the Gouramis and Mollies you are planning on keeping are as big or larger than the Firemouth Cichlids. This will minimize most conflict.

Other ideas for potential tank mates would be Catfish and the Tetra group of fish.

All in all, you can keep Firemouths with other species, you have to be careful about which ones you choose. However, if you decide to keep them by themselves, that’s an excellent idea too.

Two Firemouth taken by @kevinmeeki on Instagram
Two Firemouth thanks to @kevinmeeki on Instagram

Feeding

In the wild, Firemouths, like other Cichlids, have a varied diet. They are primarily carnivorous, but the truth is they are omnivores. Despite this, their diet consists mostly of meat. They feed upon all sorts of things, such as larvae, invertebrates, small fish, and worms. They also eat some algae.

When feeding them in the home aquarium, there are a few things your food must be. It must be high in protein, you must give them a varied diet, and you mustn’t overfeed them! Overfeeding can make them very sick, and it could even be fatal.

Another thing to remember is newly-bought fish are often timid and shy. They aren’t familiar with their new surroundings. At first, they may refuse to be fed, but if you feed them then leave, they might eat. (The timidness can last up to several months, so you have to be patient.)

Here are a few foods you should consider feeding your Firemouths.

Bloodworms and white worms are a good option for fulfilling the meaty need. As are brine shrimp and tubifex worms. (However, brine shrimp and blood worms are quite meaty. So, should only be given occasionally. Consider them as a treat food.)

Frozen Feed is good for Firemouth Cichlids too. Examples would include artificial food such as flakes and tablets, Cyclops and frozen brine shrimp.

Other Options To Consider

Vegetables are good too. Great options are spinach, blanched and finely chopped, and pieces of cucumber.

Leaving some of the growth of algae on your tank is a good idea, as they like to eat that in the wild. So, it would make sense if it’s a supplemental food in the aquarium for your Firemouth.

Conclusion

So, that’s it then. We spent hours, scouring the internet. We also researched everything there is to know about Firemouth Cichlids. They are some of the most popular cichlids in the aquarium trade, as they should. They’re an appealing fish, low-maintenance and perfect for a beginner just starting out.

Do you have a Firemouth cichlid, or are planning on getting one? We’d love to hear about it.

(If you’re looking for other types of popular cichlids, and ones that will brighten up your aquarium, Peacock, and Convict Cichlids are a good bet. 🙂 )

If you found this helpful, then excellent! You can help other people find this resource by sharing it on social media, and telling your friends. If you have any tips, recommendations or suggestions that somehow weren’t mentioned in this list, please, by all means, share them in the comments. Thank you for reading.

2 thoughts on “Fish That Breathes Fire! Well, Not Really – Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys meeki) – Complete Species Guide”

  1. I had an electric blue acara with a firemouth. It bothered the small one but not the bigger one. That’s ok isn’t it?

    • Hi Gary!
      Thanks for getting in touch.
      Blue Acara are part of the same family, cichlids, and they also grow to be larger than firemouth cichlids.
      Since firemouth cichlids get along better with fish that are also cichlid, you’ve chosen an ideal tank mate.
      When firemouths are growing up, they can be a bit antsy around bigger tank mates.
      However, give them some time, and the smaller firemouth should grow out of its tendency to do that.
      Good luck with your tank!
      Cheers Jim

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