Red Terror Cichlid Care 101: Size, Tank Mates, Food & More

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Introducing a red terror cichlid can wreak havoc in an otherwise peaceful tank.

As the name suggests, this fiercely territorial and aggressive breed is known to be an invasive fish that will attack its tankmates and proceed to eat them for lunch. But despite their villainous reputation, red terror cichlids are popular pets that bring life and color to an aquarium.

Indeed, this exotic breed can be a beautiful addition to your household. What’s more, these fish have a fascinating personality and a long past that spans millions of years. But first, let’s get into the basics.

Species Profile

Also known as Guayas Cichlid (Mesoheros festae), red terror cichlids are tropical fish native to Ecuador and Peru in South America. Here, they are found in a wide range of habitats, from small to medium rivers and streams, but prefer to live in slower, heavily vegetated areas close to the margins. Besides, this fish has been introduced to Singapore as an aquaculture species.

The new genus Mesoheros is a small group of neotropical cichlids that only includes four recognized species belonging to the tribe Heroini. Since the Tribe Heroini has a long taxonomic history, M. festae has been re-classified several times and has had many different names.

“True red terrors” (Mesoheros festae) can be easily confused with “false red terrors” (Mayaheros urophthalmus) – the Mayan Cichlids, since they look quite similar, especially when young.

However, they are two different species occupying different geographical locations, with Guayas Cichlid (Mesoheros festae) being found in Ecuador and Peru and Mayan Cichlid (Mayaheros urophthalmus) from Mexico to Nicaragua. As a result, it’s important to tell them apart to avoid potential problems because they have different care requirements.

Author note: Likewise, Mayan Cichlids have also been reclassified all over the place. They were described in the same genera for a long time.

Scientific Name:Amphilophus festae, Cichlasoma festae, Herichthys festae, Heros festae, Mesoheros festae, Nandopsis festae
Common Name:Guayas Cichlid, Harlequin Cichlid, Red Terror
Tank Level: Bottom, mid-dweller
Care Level:Advanced
Origin:Ecuador and Peru
Lifespan:15 years
Max Size:Male: 20 inches (50.8 cm), Female: 12 inches (30.5 cm)
Temperature:77 to 84°F (25 to 29°C)
PH:6.0 to 8.0
Water hardness:4 to 18 dGH
Tank Size:Single: 100g, A pair: 180g

How Long Do Red Terror Cichlids Live?

Red terror cichlids have a long lifespan and can live up to 15 years under optimal conditions in captivity. Even in the wild, these fish seem to do well and can live up to 12 years. 

As always, their lifespan can shift significantly based on the quality of care they receive. If you want your red terror cichlid to live a long and happy life, it’s important to provide them with a well-balanced diet and a suitable environment.


Male Red Terror (Photo: Kooky Cichlids)

These are among the most colorful South American Cichlids you can get. The body of a red terror cichlid is robust and stocky, with well-developed spines in its dorsal and anal fins. As their name would suggest, young and females have a vibrant red coloration base with dark vertical bars.

Young red terror cichlids are virtually identical in appearance, regardless of gender.

Male Vs. Female

Female Red Terror (Photo: Kooky Cichlids)

Once the male red terrors reach about 4 inches in size, the black vertical bars on their bodies will start to fade and be replaced by bright orange to a yellow hue accented with shiny blue spangles. They also develop these blue spangles on their caudal, anal, pelvic, and dorsal fins, and their dorsal and pelvic fins will remain red.

The coloration of adult female red terror cichlids will remain largely the same as their juvenile colors of red and black bars, although their bodies tend to be a little orange to bright red. The front portion of their dorsal fin and the pelvic fins will turn black, and the blue spangling are often absent. Females also tend to be smaller than their male counterparts, topping out at about 12 inches (30.5 cm).

“True” Vs. “False” Red Terrors

The easiest way to distinguish the “true red terror“(M. festae) and “false red terror” (M. urophthalmus) is by looking at their second vertical bars. On M. festae, the second vertical bar will form a “Y” shape on the upper portion of the fish’s body, while on M. urophthalmus, all bars will run straight down and never intersect.

Max Size and Growth Rate

It is a very large South American cichlid. Full-grown males are far larger than the females and may grow up to 20 inches (50.8 cm), and females may peak at a max size of 12 inches (30.5 cm) in the wild.

In captivity, the male red terror cichlids rarely get much larger than 15 inches (38 cm), and females max out at about 9 inches (22.9 cm).

Typically, larger cichlids tend to grow a bit faster during their first year. Red terrors are no different and will grow faster under optimal conditions.

From my experience, the male red terrors can gain about 7 to 9 inches (17.8 – 22.9 cm) in their first year and females 4 to 6 inches (10.2 – 15.2 cm) and then start to slow down dramatically after that – only an inch per year. It takes about 3 years for these fish to reach their full size, but they are sexually mature for over a year. 

Red Terror Cichlid Care

Tank size

Considering how red terrors grow to adult sizes, the recommended tank size for a pair would be about 180 gallons (72″ x 24″ x 25″). A larger 125-gallon (72″ x 18″ x 21″) tank will provide ample space for a single specimen.

Water Parameters

In the wild, these freshwater fish are found in clear and warm waters. That said, fishkeepers must ensure that the water parameters in the aquarium mimic the conditions of its native tropics. 

These fish are hardy and adaptable, so you have a bit of wiggle room when it comes to water parameters. However, for optimal growth and coloration, aim to keep the following: 

  • Temperature: 77 to 84°F (25 to 29°C)
  • pH: 6.0 to 8.0
  • Hardness: 4 to 18 dGH

Given their large sizes, red terrors prove to be messy pets that create waste rapidly. Needless to say, you must add a strong filtration system, coupling it with regular water changes. It is crucial that you check the water parameters frequently, as a rise in ammonia or nitrite can be lethal to your fish. On the other hand, frequent water changes can aid good growth rates.

Setting Up the Rest of Their Tank

Female red terror cichlids will require a smooth rock or slate, where they can lay eggs. A mix of sand and small rounded gravel can be used as the substrate.

These fish need a lot of room to roam, so make sure you have a lot of swimming area. As for decorations, you can use driftwood or large rocks to create shelters, but these should be securely affixed as red terrors are notorious diggers, and they will re-decorate around.

Live plants are unnecessary as they might be uprooted, shredded, or even eaten as these fish dig into the substrate frequently.

Additionally, ensure the aquarium has a tight-fitting lid because these fish are excellent jumpers.

Food & Diet

Red terror cichlids are omnivorous. They will eat just about anything. In the wild, their diet consists of fry of other fish, benthic organisms such as small shrimps, as well as fruits and seeds.

To ensure proper growth in captivity, provide them with a mix of live foods and pellets/flakes. The dry foods should be high in protein, while the live or frozen foods can be things like brine shrimp, daphnia, mealworms, or earthworms.

Be sure to provide vegetable matter such as green peas, blanched spinach, or lettuce to keep the diet varied to prevent some fish do become picky eaters.

If you already have a picky Festae, I suggest you hold back live foods until they accept pellets and get used to them. No worries, these fish can go a couple of weeks without food. It’s always best to get them what they need rather than feed something they like but lack the essentials. 

Red Terror Cichlid Tank Mates

Red Terrors are known for their aggressiveness. They are fiercely territorial and are very rude toward all tankmates, even a bonded pair.

Due to their aggressive nature and potential size, it’s best kept alone or in a pair. Sometimes, you have to separate an amorous male from a female to avoid aggression. Keep a close eye and have a tank divider ready.

If you do decide to add other fish as tank mates in a large aquarium, only house with robust fish that can match their aggression and size since red terrors might take a liking to snacks that fit in their mouth, this can mean 6″ fish. Also, be prepared to move their tankmates to a new tank for their own safety. 

Red Terror Cichlids spend most of their time in the middle and lower regions of the aquarium, but they may swim in all areas of the tank. They are known to be very aggressive, so use caution when housing with other fish.

Here are some possible tank mates for Red Terror Cichlids in a large tank:

If you are adamant about keeping Red Terrors in community tanks that are as small as 150g or so, a female might work. Furthermore, growing these fish up together in a group can decrease their aggression as adults.


Breeding Red Terror Cichlids is not difficult as long as you obtain a compatible pair. Simply placing a male and female together will not work as the weaker fish might be killed.

It’s far better to purchase 6-8 juveniles and grow them up together. This way, you will have a higher chance of getting a compatible pair naturally.

As we mentioned earlier, male red terrors fully mature at around 7-8 inches (18 – 20 cm) and females approximately 5-6 inches (13 – 15 cm) over a year old.

Depending on your tank size and setup, you can either introduce the pair into a separate tank or remove other fish from the tank. Even so, you may have pairing problems with the couple – if the female is not ready to breed or not receptive, the male will become very aggressive toward her and may end up killing her. So always be prepared to isolate the male with a tank divider.

Red Terror cichlids are cave brooders. When ready to spawn, the pair will select a spawning site and clean a flat surface to lay their eggs, generally a piece of slate or in a cave. Meanwhile, you will see a number of pits in the substrate.

The female will lay up to 3000 large eggs. Once the eggs are fertilized, she will stay close by to protect them. These eggs will hatch within 3 – 4 days and then will be moved to the spawning pits.

The fry will be free-swimming after about 5 – 6 days when their yolk sacs are consumed, and they can be fed baby brine shrimp at this time. 

Although parents will still guard the fry, it’s a good idea to separate the male from the female by using the tank divider because the male becomes extremely aggressive. He might even attack your hands when you do regular maintenance. There is another benefit to this – the male may attempt to spawn again immediately, but the female may not be ready.


Notorious for their aggression and well-loved for their colors, red terror cichlids are a unique and relatively low-maintenance breed as long as you can manage their hostility. They don’t get along with most cichlids, including their own, and may even bite the hand that feeds them. 

But don’t worry. All you need to do is refer to this beginner’s guide to red terror cichlids, and taking care of one won’t seem so terrifying anymore. 

Good luck!

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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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