Freshwater Fish

Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys meeki): Aquarium Care Guide

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

Due to its beauty, this species is very popular in the aquarium community. We personally know more than 30 owners (and we are not that sociable).

If you are one of the many aquarists considering purchasing this fish, there are a few things you need to know. These fish are not high maintenance by any means, but they do require special treatment.

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

Species Summary

The beautiful firemouth cichlid (Thorichthys meeki) is a fish native to Central America. They are usually found in the rivers that run through the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Your usual place of residence in the wild can also extend quite a bit from here. They are also regularly found in Belize and Guatemala.

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

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

Territorial behavior will accentuate this remarkable characteristic. Males will often exert their dominance by flaring and puffing out their gills, which exposes their bright red throats. They will do this as an intimidation display designed to threaten and drive off any other rival males looking for mates swimming in their territory.

This is what it looks like:

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

One of the reasons this species is so popular with fish keepers is convenience. Caring for them is fairly straightforward and they do not need a large tank to thrive. When you add the obvious aesthetic benefits, there’s no need to think twice!

Life expectancy

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

Author’s Note: If you want to get a firemouth that lives as long as possible, you need to research who you’re buying your fish from. Your care and husbandry practices will impact the health of your fish long before you bring them home.


The appearance of firemouth cichlids is what makes them so popular. When you see one in person it is quite amazing!

The remarkable red coloration can be found on the edges of its scales and contrasts nicely with its turquoise blue body, usually pearly and shiny. Like almost any species of fish, male and female firemouth cichlids have some different appearance characteristics.

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

One of the defining characteristics of fire hydrants is a black mark located on the underside of the operculum. Additionally, some also display darker sidebars along the sides (the darkness of these bars will vary).

An interesting note about firemouth cichlids is their apparent tendency to adapt especially to color variations in their native habitats. The most colorful variations tend to be found in northwestern Guatemala, and you’ll often see top breeders note this in their species profiles.

firemouth cichlid size

The average size of firemouth cichlids is around 6 inches for the markings and 5 inches for the females. These fish have a fairly rapid growth rate, so it won’t take long for them to reach their full size.

If you want to ensure that these fish grow as large as possible, it is important that you take care of them very seriously from the moment you get them. This means having the ideal habitat all designed and ready to go from day one!

care guidelines

Caring for firemouth cichlids should be fairly manageable for anyone who has taken the time to educate themselves on the care requirements of this species. They’re not a fish you can take care of while you sleep, but they definitely shouldn’t be rated as difficult either.

One of the most important things to consider when it comes to firemouth cichlid care is water conditions. The water quality and parameters in your tank are very important to this fish, and while we wouldn’t consider them too 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 are not nanofish, so they need a bit of room to swim. However, 30 gallons is still very manageable no matter how much space you have available in your home.

Author’s Note: If you want to keep more than two in the same tank, you will need to increase the tank size. A safe rule of thumb to follow is an additional 5-10 gallons for each new fish.

water parameters

Like many tropical species, these fish require close attention to the parameters of the water in your tank.

Since its natural habitat is the warmer waters typically found in rivers and streams in the Central American and Mexican regions, try to replicate indoor tank aquarium water conditions in a similar way.

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

Although firemouth cichlids are considered freshwater fish, this fish is capable of withstanding mild to moderate brackish water conditions with water salinity concentrations of approximately 10 percent or less than average tank holdings of seawater (although we do not recommend this if you can avoid it).

Finally, 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 prevent the buildup of nitrogen compounds that are especially harmful to tropical fish like fire hydrants.

If you want to make sure you get accurate readings of parameters and levels in your aquarium, invest in a good water testing kit. They don’t cost much and will go a long way in making sure you are accurately informed about the status of your tank.

What to put in your tank

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

Plants, rocks, and driftwood are welcome additions to your habitat. These will add some variety and provide plenty of options for these fish to hide.

When it comes to the substrate, you want it to be soft and sandy. This will prevent firemouth cichlids from scratching themselves when they burrow into the substrate.

potential diseases

Typical of most 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 beware of Ich, a common fish condition. This is characterized by the development of whitish opaque spots on its body that usually appear first on the fins and gills.

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 within a day or two, you’ll want to consider one of the common medications that are made specifically to treat Ich.

Author’s Note: The most effective way to prevent your fish from getting sick is to take good care of them in the first place. Poor water, poor diet, and a stressful environment are quick ways to increase the chance of disease in your aquarium.

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

Food & Diet

Like their relatives, firemouth cichlids are big fans of eating. It is rare to see them refuse any type of food, which means it is your job as the owner to ensure they have a healthy and measured food intake.

In the wild, they will obtain most of their nutrition from various forms of crustaceans and will nibble on the occasional plant for amusement.

In captivity their diet will obviously be different, but it is not difficult to manage. These fish do well with any high-quality flake or pellet food as the basis of their diet.

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

Author’s Note: Because these fish are the opposite of picky eaters, it’s their job to avoid 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 and temperament

Firemouths are mild-mannered fish that are normally quite peaceful given adequate swimming space and a healthy environment. As long as they find their environment satisfactory, they will rarely cause problems in the tank.

However, if these conditions are not met, they can be prone to aggression. Too many fish crowded together is always a recipe for aggressive behavior, and this species is no different.

Playback is also a time when tensions are at their highest. The males will be especially aggressive during this time period as they are trying to find a mate and keep the others at bay. This is something you will have to navigate if you try to breed them.

In terms of general activity, firemouth cichlids are fairly active fish that prefer to swim near the center of the tank. You will see them regularly visiting the substrate to check on things or to poke around as well (classic cichlid).

Firemouth Cichlid Tank Mates

As long as you have a large enough tank, there are several firemouth cichlid tank mates you can choose from. These fish do not want to cause problems with other species, as long as they are not provoked.

This means that fish of a similar size that are not aggressive are the way to go.

Tankmates that are too small can be bugged, and ones that are too big can stress your mouth. This will cause them to live in a constant state of stress even if the bigger fish means no harm.

Here are some of our favorite firemouth cichlid tankmates:

  • Tetra Nose Rummy
  • prickly nose pleco
  • pleco clown
  • pictus catfish
  • cory catfish
  • Kuhli Loach
  • Smooth cichlids of similar size (like the peacock)
  • Rainbow Fish
  • sword tails
  • platens

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

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

Firemouths with African Cichlids

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

It’s best 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 couple. You can buy them this way or get a batch of fish and let them choose their soul mate.

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

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

For the most part, it will aim for the middle of the road when it comes to parameters. A pH level of 7 to 7.2 and a water temperature of 75°F to 80°F is a good starting point.

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

The fry should be fed high-quality food, such as microworms or brine shrimp, and should be swimming within a few days.

Is it time to get one for yourself?

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

We are a huge fan of this fish and we don’t see that changing any time soon. We find ourselves recommending them to other owners all the time!

If you have questions or suggestions on how 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 ability, so feedback is always welcome.

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