Festivum Cichlid (Flag Cichlid) Care: Diet, Tank Mates & Breeding

Flag Cichlid

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Festivum cichlids or Flag Cichlids are attractive fish that sport a handsome look. Due to their distinctive appearance and intriguing and unique behaviors, these fish are very popular among Cichlid lovers.

Not only do they look amazing, but Festivum cichlids are also relatively peaceful fish, making them an interesting and welcome addition to a South American community tank.

Like most South American Cichlids, these fish are adaptable, can thrive in various water conditions, and are usually pretty darn easy to care for.

However, no matter what “hardy” or “easy to care for” fish is, every pet deserves our attention and husbandry. So, if you’re thinking about adding a Flag Cichlid to your tank, there are a few things you should know about their care requirements first.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about Festivum cichlid care, from their diet and habitat needs to their breeding behaviors. By the end, you’ll be an informed owner.

Species Profile

The Flag cichlid (Mesonauta festivus) was previously described as Heros festivus and Cichlasoma festivum for a long time, attributed to the common name “festivum.” Being one of the world’s oldest living aquarium fish, this cichlid has been a favorite of aquarists for more than 100 years.

It’s a member of the family Cichlidae and widespread throughout northern South America and can be found in numerous river basins in Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

The genus Mesonauta currently has six described species, all of which have traditionally been referred to as M. festivus. More than one species may be imported under the same common name.

The Mesonauta species look very similar, making identification difficult for the average aquarist, but they can be distinguished by their geographic origins and, more importantly, by the number of brown vertical bars on the body.

In the wild, they spend most of their time close to the surface in sluggish waters with dense overhanging vegetation and often swim alongside Angelfish.

Scientific Name:Mesonauta festivus
Common Name:Flag Cichlid, Festivum Cichlid, Festive Cichlid, Barred Cichlid
Care Level:Beginner
IUCN Red List:
Origin:South American
Lifespan:7 to 10 years
Max Size:Males: 6 – 8 inches (15 – 20 cm)
Females: 4 – 6 inches (10- 15 cm)
Temperature:72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8° C)
PH:6.0 – 8.0
Water hardness:0 to 5 KH
Minimum Tank Size:40 gallons (48″ x 12″ x 16″)


Flag Cichlid

Interestingly, the species term festivus from a Latin adjective meaning “merry” or “handsome.” Just as its name suggests, the appearance of the festivum cichlid is what makes it stand out among other cichlids.

It has an elongated and oval-shaped body accompanied by 7-9 vertical bars on each side. The most defining characteristic of these fish is a black mid-lateral band (or flag) that starts from the mouth, runs through the eye at an angle upward, and extends back to the tip of the dorsal fin.

Several color varieties are available in the aquarium trade, but they all have the same black band on the body. Some sport yellow color above the band while having a white(silver) tint below. You can also find many specimens that take on a dark shade of brown above this band and have a paler coloration below, but their fins are often accented in bright yellow and brown.

Since this fish has been introduced to the trade for a long time, hybrid breeding has created many color patterns and morphs in Flag cichlids. One of the most popular varieties is the Blushing festivum, which has a pinkish hue on its cheeks.

Besides their deep bodies, Flag cichlids have a pointed head that looks more pronounced among the young. They also develop pointed dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins, which often reach the tail in adult specimens. Like bettas, mature Festivum cichlids also have hunched backs.

Males Vs. Females

It’s difficult to tell a female festivum cichlid from a male, as both sexes look very similar. Adult males are usually larger than females and have more extended dorsal and anal fins and larger pectoral fins. Moreover, males may develop a longer snout.

The effective way to sex Festivum cichlid is by looking for their genital papillae, a small, fleshy protrusion located below the anal fin. When they are ready to breed, like Angelfish and Discus, males have longer and pointed genital papillae, whereas females have shorter and blunter ones.

Festivum Cichlid Size & Growth Rate

adult festivum cichlid

Festivum Cichlids are medium-sized fish that can grow up to 5.9 inches (15cm) in the wild. However, in captivity, most of the full-grown males ended up 6 – 8 inches (15 – 20 cm) long, and females always topped out between 4 – 6 inches (10- 15 cm).

As for their growth rate, These fish have a rather fast growth rate, and they can reach their full size within 1 to 1.5 years if provided with the proper care and diet.


The average Festivum cichlid lifespan is between seven and ten years in captivity.

Like any other cichlids, these fish will react negatively to poor water conditions and diet. So, if you want your fish to live a long and happy life, providing top-notch care is essential.

Social Behaviors & Temperament

The Flag Cichlid (Mesonauta festivus) is a very social fish and does best when kept in a loose school. They are relatively peaceful cichlids and get along well with other tankmates of a similar size.

While they can be timid at first, these fish quickly get used to their surroundings and become quite active and playful fish. You’ll often see them chasing each other or playing.

Tank Setup

Festivum cichlids are originally from South America. They inhabit slow-moving rivers with dense vegetation and low water flows in the wild. It’s best to mimic their natural habitat as much as possible in the home aquarium.

Their care is quite easy, as they are fairly hardy and adaptable concerning a wide range of pH and hardness.

Even still, there are some guidelines you should follow for the optimal care of your festivum cichlids:

Tank Size

The minimum tank size for a single adult Festivum cichlid is 40 gallons (48″ x 12″ x 16″), but that’s not recommended in our opinion.

Since it’s a social species requiring company of its own kind, and can also grow fast to a fairly large size, a better option would be a 55-gallon (48″ x 13″ x 21″) tank for a bonded pair.

If you plan to keep a pair with other mild-mannered cichlids, then you should increase the size of your aquarium accordingly.

Water Parameters

Due to their wide distribution in various ranges of temperatures, Festivum cichlids can adapt to a broad range of water conditions. 

Still, it’s best to stick closer to the water parameters of their natural habitat by following:

  • Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8° C)
  • pH level: 6.0 – 8.0
  • Water hardness: 0 – 5 dGH

These fish eat a lot – anything that falls in the tank, so a good filter is a must to keep the water quality high. Make sure to perform weekly or bi-weekly water changes for the sake of your fish and the entire aquarium’s health. Poor water quality is the #1 killer of aquarium fish.

Decorations & Plants

As we mentioned before, festivum cichlids come from areas with lots of overhanging vegetation, so you’ll want to provide them with the same in their tank.

A group of live plants that reach to the water surface would be the best option, such as Sagittarius and Vallisneria. You can also use artificial plants if you want, as long as they don’t have any sharp edges that could injure your fish. They are now known to dig up plants, but some may eat the live plants, depending on the individual.

As for other decorations in the tank, flag cichlids prefer a sandy or fine gravel substrate with plenty of hiding spots. So, include a tangled bunch of bogwood, driftwood branches, and caves for your fish to explore and feel secure in.

Food & Diet

In the wild, these fish are mostly omnivores. Their diet is made up of various forms of plant matter and crustaceans, including fruit, nuts, algae, worms, insects, mosquito larvae, and other zoobenthos.

Feeding festivum in the home aquarium is very easy; they are not fussy eaters and will accept most foods. Sticking with a base diet of quality flake food or pellet is best. Here, I recommended New Life Spectrum pellets as they are made with high-quality natural ingredients and do not contain any fillers.

This should be supplemented with live foods such as bloodworm, brine shrimp, and some vegetable matter.

Establishing a regular feeding schedule will also help keep your festivum cichlids healthy and reduce aggression levels in the tank. The standard morning and evening feeding should be fine. 

Just make sure not to overfeed them as this can lead to health problems and dirty water.

Festivum Cichlid Tank Mates

Festivum Cichlid and Angelfish

Finding possible Festivum Cichlid tank mates all comes down to two key factors – temperament and compatibility. 

As we mentioned earlier, these fish are generally peaceful by nature but can become aggressive when spawning or if they feel threatened in any way. So, it’s best to pair them with similar-sized fish with a peaceful temperament in a heavily planted tank.

Remember that fish too small might be seen as food, and fish too large might intimidate them.

Possible tank mates for Festivum cichlids include:

Author note: It’s best not to mix different varieties to avoid accidental hybridization.

Festivum Cichlid Breeding

Breeding Festivum Cichlid can be difficult and require a great deal of experience and patience.

But they will form a strong, monogamous pair bond in the home aquarium if given the proper conditions.

Of course, the most important prerequisite for breeding festivum cichlids is obtaining a breeding pair. Either buy a mated pair or allow a group of juveniles to grow up together and choose their own mates. 

It’s worth noting that the most common species sold under the name flag cichlid in LFS is actually the M. insignis.

Set up a separate breeding tank with soft, slightly acidic water. Make sure there are some flat rocks as their breeding site.

To induce the breeding process, raise the water temperature to the high end of the preferred range. This mimics the breeding season in their habitat and will trigger spawning. Don’t forget to feed them live foods to help condition them for breeding.

In the wild, they like to lay eggs on a submerged sugarcane stem. If your fish don’t have access to one, a smooth, flat rock will suffice. The female will lay up to 100 eggs on the flat stones, where the male will then fertilize. 

The parents will then defend the eggs until they hatch in 3-4 days. They may eat fry when stressed. Therefore, it’s best to place the breeding tank in a quiet area of the house to minimize stress and increase the chances of survival.

After about a week, the fry will be free-swimming and can be fed live foods such as baby brine shrimp and daphnia. As they grow, you can start to introduce them to flake food and pellets.

Putting It All Together

Festivums are definitely the most underrated South American cichlids around. They are one of my all-time favorites.

These fish are readily available online and in most fish stores. They’re relatively easy to care for and make a great addition. Just remember, the most commonly sold species under the name “flag cichlid” is actually the M. insignis.

I hope this guide has inspired you to give them a try in your aquarium. If you have suggestions on ways to improve this guide, please let me know in the comments below. We would love to hear from you.

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Jeff Colt

Jeff Colt

Hello, I'm Jeff- an aquarium enthusiast with over 25 years of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish, including koi, goldfish bettas, cichlids and more! For me: Aquariums are like jello - there's always room for more!

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