Wayne Leibel, 2003
Cichlid Room Companion

Real Parrot Cichlid, Hoplarchus psittacus Kaup 1860, The

By , 1997. image

Classification: Species overview, South America.

(This article was originally published in Cichlid News Magazine; october 1994; Aquatic Promotions Vol. 3 No. 4. pp. 19-23. It is here reproduced with the permission of author Wayne S. Leibel).
Hoplarchus psittacus. Photo by Wayne S. Leibel

A recent phone conversation provided the impetus for writing this article. I was happily peddling captively-spawned, tank-raised Hoplarchus psittacus to a dealer as trade-bait. I was quite proud of having finally spawned this rare and beautiful blackwater cichlid and thought he'd jump at the chance to have some for sale in his shop. The pause on the other end of the line was deafening. "You mean that pretty orange-red thing, the Bloody Parrot?" he inquired. "No, the REAL Parrot Cichlid, the turquoise-green one," I snapped. Pregnant pause. "No, thank you" came his icy reply. I was crushed! The fish was quite rare, and a successful spawning rarer still. At that instant I decided that the aquarium hobby (with a 50% turnover annually) needed a re-introduction to this magnificent cichlid.

Hoplarchus psittacus, formerly Cichlasoma psitticum (Kullander, 1983), is a beautiful iridescent-green fish with bright red eyes coveted by advanced New World cichlid hobbyists. Fishermen of Manaus (Brazil) refer to the species as papagai (Portuguese for "parrot") due to its striking coloration. The specific nomen "psittacus" reflects this common usage; parrots are members of the family Psitticidae. Parrot Cichlids are apparently rare in the wild and are imported only infrequently, usually as contaminants with Chocolate Cichlids (Hypselecara temporalis and H. coryphaenoides) from Colombia and Brazil; they are sometimes sold as "Green Chocolates" though Kullander (1986) claims that, despite superficial similarities, they are not closely related to members of the genus Hypselecara. The Parrot Cichlid inhabits flooded brush and forest regions (varzea) usually in blackwater (e.g., Rio Negro) or adjoining habitats. My specimens are from Colombia and are bright iridescent green. The most colorful individuals that I've ever seen (with bright scarlet breasts and throats) hailed from Brazil. Regrettably, I couldn't afford them at the time (graduate school), but as is often the case with wild fish, the red didn't hold in captivity. My fish show only a hint of the breast-throat flush. I have also seen Parrot Cichlids of unknown provenance that were simply khaki-drab brown, particularly as large, older specimens. Like Uaru amphiacanthoides, the Parrot Cichlid undergoes a colorational metamorphosis as it matures. Juveniles have a unique "camouflage" pattern of green splotches alternating with light-colored bands, which gradually (at 3-4") changes over to a solid iridescent green. Nevertheless, when frightened or when spawning, adults exhibit the characteristic juvenile pattern. There is no apparent sexual dimorphism, although my male is larger and has a slightly more robust, rounded profile than the female.

Parrot Cichlids have proven very difficult to spawn in captivity. I personally know of only five other aquarists in the U.S. who have done so successfully over the past 15 years [Tom DePiro; Milo Manden; Delores Schehr; Clarence Ludlow; and, according to Loiselle (1980), Bill and Shirley Fogler]. Juveniles, presumably tank-raised, have been offered on occasion by European exporters, and I have heard stories recently of a spawning pair in one of the major public aquariums whose excess offspring have been offered regularly through a mail-order fish dealer (Anchor Bay). Gerritson (1992) reports on another recent spawning in England. One of the challenges with breeding this species is that they are big fish, growing to 14-18" in total length in the aquarium; at that size, they can become quite incompatible (with each other and anything else in the tank) unless housed in huge accommodations. Another problem is that, as a blackwater species, they inhabit waters that are very soft, very acid, and stained by the presence of tannic and humic acids from decaying leaves and wood. They also seem to prefer high temperatures (84-90° F) and very clean water. Obviously not a beginner's fish...

About five years ago, at one of the American Cichlid Association's annual conventions, I obtained a dozen 1" H. psittacus fry from my friend, Delores Schehr of Wet Thumb Aquatics, New Baltimore, Michigan. This was a fish that I had coveted for many years, so was extremely pleased when Delores agreed to share her holdings. I hand (carried them on the plane home) you should have seen the security guard's face when I told him "No X-rays, please!" I didn't want to risk any possibility of sterilization, since spawning them was my ultimate goal. Both the guards and other commuters were quite amused when I produced the plastic bag from my luggage and passed it gingerly around the X-ray viewing machine.

Housing the fry initially in a 30-gal tank, I immediately began pampering them. They responded by growing steadily on a diet of pelleted and frozen foods; as they got larger and larger, they were transferred to increasingly more spacious living quarters. At one point, I hit a "rough spot" along the path of life and let my attention to the tank slip; I promptly lost about two-thirds of these very sensitive fish to "neotropical bloat" (a.k.a. "dropsy"). The remaining four were placed in a 150-gal tank with some geophagine cichlids and again pampered for another year. As they grew, it became clear that I had at least one female. Some minor league courtship ensued, but no signs of spawning, even after three years!

About this time I was preparing to go on a yearlong sabbatical from my regular college appointment, so I sold off some of the more common species (that could easily be replaced) among my holdings and placed the rare, more exotic stuff with competent friends. My two remaining Parrot Cichlids (presumably a pair) went to Nini Schulz of Little Ferry, New Jersey, another one of those "incredible" aquarists who can spawn anything. She was delighted to board them for the year since she too had lusted after this species for a long time. I hoped that she might even spawn them and anticipated offering her some of the fry as payment for her graciousness and skill. Wishful thinking... for starters, the once compatible pair "scaled" each other and thereafter were kept in a 6' 125-gal tank separated by an "egg- crate" (plastic light diffuser panel) divider. Nini tried to simulate their blackwater habitat with nearly pure water prepared with an ion-exhange system. She got eggs several times (the female laying near the divider and the male acting as though he was fertilizing them) but no hatching. Was the "pair" infertile, two females, or just too young?

Hoplarchus psittacus adult male An Adult male Hoplarchus psittacus. Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.
Hoplarchus psittacus pair courting During courtship, pairs often undergo bouts of jaw-locking. Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.
Hoplarchus psittacus with spawn Pairs typically select semi-vertical surfaces for egg-deposition. Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.

I picked the pair up (now four years old) in late autumn and returned them to Pennsylvania and a divided 80-gal tank. They hated being back. They hid constantly in their respective flower-pots and refused to eat... anything! They got thinner and thinner and so did I (the only positive aspect of this ordeal), worrying about losing them. Hoping they might respond to yet another change of venue, I called my good friend John O'Malley and asked him if he could house them "for awhile." When he gave in and accepted, the fish traveled back to Jersey where they lived for the next nine months in separate but adjacent 50-gal tanks. John was able to jumpstart their appetites with live feeder fish and finally had them back on freeze-dried krill after several months. I don't know what Nini spoiled them with, but they had never seen live food in my house! By mid-summer, John had moved them to a new 125-gal home. The new tank had an industrial-strength trickle filter and was filled with RO (reverse osmosis) prepared water. The pair again was kept divided (after an aborted attempt to force co-habitation led again to mutual scaling); they were now five years old.

Toward the end of August (1993) John phoned to request that I "get these @#*$%& fish out of here!" as they were simply taking up too much space and food. I was then in the process of constructing a new basement fishroom and promised to have a space for them in three weeks. The very next week he called to inform me that they had spawned! There were some forty striped youngsters bouncing back and forth between the partitions. Now John decided he wasn't in such a hurry to get rid of these "squatters." I assured him I would be ready to pick them up as scheduled! Spawning conditions were 6.5 pH and ca. 25 ppm dissolved solids; I figured that I'd need an RO system to spawn them myself, as my tap water clocks in at 7.2 pH with moderate hardness.

I was wrong. Within two weeks of their relocation to my tank (and again separated by egg-crate), the pair spawned about 300 eggs, only 40 of which actually hatched. Apparently my water chemistry was adequate. Four weeks later, they spawned again. This time I was present and able to referee the interaction. I hesitantly removed the divider to provide the male with direct access to the eggs. After trashing each other for nearly an hour (their fins literally in shreds), the pair finally spawned (another several hundred eggs) and the male, unimpeded, "fertilized" the spawn. I place fertilized in quotes because again the yield was quite low, only 90 fry. Whether the low fertility is a function of my hard water or the relative "immaturity" of the male is not yet clear. I will be getting an RO system shortly and will be able to test these alternatives. However, it is often the case that male cichlids mature more slowly than females of their species; fertility improves dramatically with age (the "shooting blanks as young bucks" syndrome). I have since had two more spawns (as of January, 1994), but the numbers have not improved. Only time will tell is this is so with my pair of Parrot Cichlids.

The fry seemed to require a day or so on small foods (OSI's APR encapsulated rotifers in my case) and then ate newly-hatched artemia with great gusto. Growth is rapid, reaching 0.5" in two months on a diet of Hikari micro-pellets, Tetra Spirulina flakes, and frozen, chopped bloodworms. Although reasonably good parents, problems developed about two weeks into brood care and the fry had to be removed. At one point, I had done a water change, which prompted the female to freak out and begin devouring the kids! In a second case, I turned off the blower for about 15 minutes to cut in a new bank of tanks and upon restoring air the female once again spooked and began hunting fry. I now routinely remove the young after two weeks. The pair has now quit spawning though I have not changed a thing; I figure that they'll probably remain "off' for a few months before cycling again.

I continue to maintain the pair in a 125-gal tank divided with egg crate. I use a combination of inside and outside power filters, including two Aquaclear 500's loaded with foam blocks and nylon bags with peat. I keep their tank at 86-88° F and provide heavy aeration. I try to do bimonthly (50%) water changes and top off the tank with raw tapwater of the same temperature. I have about 3" of #3 epoxy-coated ("walnut") gravel as substrate and both adults delight in extensive excavation. There are no "decorations" per se other than a flat piece of slate under and spanning the divider and a vertical slate leaning against the back of the tank just next to the divider. All four spawnings have taken place on the tilted piece of slate. In only one case did I remove the divider and allow the pair to interact naturally. The male is quite aggressive and I find it in the best interests of both to keep them separated. Fry are tolerated and move freely between the parental compartments. Under normal circumstances, the pair is not shy, but very responsive, quite like oscars (Astronotus sp.). I find that, as adults, they are very picky, light eaters, surprisingly so for such large fish (male 12"; female 10"). The female prefers large, floating dried krill, which she takes carefully, one-by-one, from the surface. The male prefers Spirulina discs, a new food by Wardley, which sink. I feed 3-4 of each per fish on alternating days and that seems to keep them happy.

I have often thought that part of the difficulty in spawning certain cichlids is the varying ages at which they mature. For instance, the Jurupari Eartheater (Satanoperca leucosticta), judged by many as "challenging," may need 2 1/2 years to reach maturity. The Parrot Cichlid seems to require an even longer period of maturation. When I called Delores Schehr, the "grandmother" of my H. psittacus brood, to compare notes, she recalled that her pair was also about five years old before spawning. In contrast, Gerritson (1992) observed successful spawnings from Colombian H. psittacus that grew from 2" to 9-10" in 18 months. He noted that "quite a few (of the approx. 200 eggs) fungused, probably due to the inexperience of the parents."

In closing, the REAL Parrot Cichlid is a majestic cichlid of breathtaking beauty that I recommend to all advanced New World hobbyists well worth the trouble and expense to acquire and the difficulty and patience necessary to maintain and breed. That other Parrot Cichlid? That lipless mutant (they "ram-jet" feed, for God's sake!) of unknown hybrid origins (severum x red devil?). I say dealers and hobbyists alike should protest the creation of biologically-challenged monsters by avoiding them like the plague. I wish no harm to the poor creatures themselves, they obviously are not at fault. But we as a group should register our displeasure at such obvious attempts to "make a buck at all costs" by boycotting the sale of this fish and be sure to tell our dealers exactly why. Regrettably, the hybrids seem to be popular, particularly as their price declines. Hopefully, their obvious deformities imply sterility and aquarists will not be able to continue to produce them. In the meantime, the Real Thing is available.

Hoplarchus psittacus The "camouflage" pattern typical of juveniles is also exhibited by parental adults. Photo by Wayne S. Leibel.

References Cited

  • Gerritson, 1992. Cichlasoma (Hoplarchus) psitticum (Heckel 1840). FAMA 15(12):8-14.
  • Loiselle, P. V. 1980. The Cichlasoma species of South America: part one. FAMA 3(12):35-45 et seq.

References (2):


Leibel, Wayne. (Oct 06, 1997). "Real Parrot Cichlid, Hoplarchus psittacus Kaup 1860, The". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on May 24, 2024, from: