Lee Newman, 1998
Cichlid Room Companion

Satanoperca cf. leucosticta (Müller and Troschel) A Colombian Speckled-Faced Demonfish

By , 1998. image

Classification: Species overview, South America.

In the aquarium Aquarium picture of Satanoperca leucosticta. Photo by Lee Newman. determiner Lee Newman


The genus Satanoperca (Günther 1862) was resurrected by Kullander in 1986 to hold the long-snouted species previously placed in Geophagus (sensu Gosse 1976). Kullander (1986) also redescribed Satanoperca jurupari using material from throughout the Amazon and Madre de Dios drainages and concluded that despite some "slight color and shape differences", all were S. jurupari, making it one of the most widely distributed South American cichlids. Furthermore, Kullander points out that S. jurupari lack the light spots on the cheek and operculum which he later (Kullander 1989) uses as one of the diagnostic color differences that distinguish S. leucosticta, described from Surinamese material. According to Kullander (1989), S. leucosticta ranges in Guyana and Surinam, in the low lying area north of the Guiana Shield in north-eastern South America.

It is at this point that things get a little more confusing. It turns out , there are significant variations in the colour pattern, particularly with the spots and lines on the muzzle, operculum and cheek, in the S. leucosticta being imported for the hobby.

In my study of Satanoperca over the last decade or so, I have obtained groups of Satanoperca leucosticta from the local wholesaler whose reported origin has been Colombia and Guyana. These fish share a pattern of spots on the cheek and operculum, horizontal, wavy lines over the muzzle and a row or two of bright spots along the insertion of the dorsal fin. They look so similar in fact, I will not house them in the same aquarium for fear of not being able to distinguish the two groups.

I have also had the opportunity to collect a speckled-faced demonfish species (S. leucosticta) from the lower Rio Branco in Brazil. These Brazilian fish sport a series of lines from the eye to the mouth as well as the cheek and operculum spots but lack the row(s) of bright spots along the dorsal insertion. According to Goulding et al. (1988), the headwaters of the Rio Branco meet with streams flowing into the Essequibo-Rupununi rivers of Guyana. This may suggest that the S. leucosticta in the lower Rio Branco were at one time sympatric with the S. leucosticta of Guyana. If that were the case, they have been separated long enough for the color patterns to diverge.

From the aquarium trade, I have had S. leucosticta that sport a pattern of numerous, very small, regularly spaced cheek and operculum spots, lines over the muzzle and a row of bright spots along the dorsal insertion. Unfortunately I have no locality data for this form of Satanoperca leucosticta. Further, in the flooded forest exhibit of the tropical freshwater fish section at the Vancouver Aquarium, there are S. leucosticta with yet another pattern. They have spots all over the head without any muzzle lines and also lack the bright spots along the dorsal insertion.

The interesting point to all this is that not all these speckled-faced demonfish look the same, particularly when the size and pattern of the spots are compared!

In the aquarium Satanoperca leucosticta from Colombia, photographed in the aquarium of Lee Newman. Photo by Lee Newman. determiner Lee Newman


The fish referred to in this article were wild fish from Colombia obtained through a local wholesaler. Unfortunately, this is the extent of the origin information I have as the wholesaler was unable to confirm whether the fish really did come from Colombia or were just exported from there.

Five sub-adult fish were placed in a 200 l. (55 gallons) aquarium (90 X 45 X 50 cm or 36 X 18 X 20 inches) filtered with an AquaClear 300 and a sponge filter. The aquarium had a fine sand substratum approximately 3 cm (1 1/4 inches) deep and several water logged wood sections for cover. The lighting for the aquarium was an overhead room light set on a timer which turned on at 3 pm and off at 10 pm, in addition to some available light from a north facing window.

For the first several weeks the fish proved to be quite shy, so I added a small shoal of silver hatchetfish (Gasteropelecus sternicla) in an effort to make the demonfish feel more at ease. Within several hours of adding the hatchetfish, the S. leucosticta were out in the open sifting. They soon accepted all foods offered: frozen bloodworms, chopped live earthworms, cultured live whiteworms, live adult brine shrimp and soaked cichlid pellets. Intraspecific aggression rarely resulted in more than a chase, lasting several seconds, usually, shortly after feeding as the fish were vigorously sifting for leftovers.

In an effort to maintain good water quality for the S. leucosticta, every week I did a 50% water change and cleaned the filters. The pH was maintained at around 6.5 and the hardness was unaltered at approximately 5 mg/l as CaCO3. The temperature was maintained in the range of 28-30 C. The five fish grew slowly for the next year at which time they were moved to a 360 l. (90 gallons) aquarium set up and maintained in much the same way the 200 l. (55 gallons) aquarium had been. While they were moved up to larger quarters, they also received some additional tankmates; four juvenile S. daemon and two Microgeophagus altispinosa.

In the aquarium Satanoperca leucosticta from Rio Branco in the Amazon river basin, photographed in the aquarium of Lee Newman. Photo by Lee Newman. determiner Lee Newman


The S. leucosticta had been in the 360 l. (90 gallons) aquarium for about four months when I noticed the largest fish (18 cm or 7 inches T.L.), presumably a male, was staying close to another, significantly smaller fish (12 cm or 5 inches T.L.), possibly a female. Two days later, in the afternoon, the pair were observed spawning on the only movable platform available, a small piece of wood. Unfortunately, only minutes after the spawning all the other fish were successful in eating the newly deposited eggs as the pair lacked the aggression required to adequately defend the site. This prompted the removal of the S. daemon and the M. altispinosa to other aquaria in the hopes that if the pair spawned again, they would be able to defend their spawn from the other S. leucosticta.

After several weeks the pair appeared ready to spawn again as they had become more aggressive towards the other fish and were spending more time in the darker back corner of the aquarium. Several water-logged leaves were added to the aquarium in an effort to provide an assortment of movable spawning platforms. A few days later after an extended courtship consisting of lateral displays, branchiostegal ray flaring and leaf dragging the pair spawned on a leaf in typical substratum spawning cichlid fashion. The female started with several "dry runs" over the leaf, before starting to deposit eggs. Then with each pass the female laid 10-20 light brown, ovoid eggs with the male moving in fertilize them every 2nd or 3rd pass by the female. The male also was greatly concerned with territory defense, chasing the other fish whenever they ventured too close to the spawning area.

Spawning lasted for about an hour by which time the female had made a circular plaque containing about 200 eggs. The eggs were adhesive and stayed firmly attached to the leaf despite the occasional leaf relocation by the adults. Soon after spawning had been completed, the leaf was covered with a fine layer of sand, then the female positioned herself over the leaf to begin fanning the eggs. It was predominantly the female that fanned the eggs while the male defended the spawning territory. At feeding times, the female would not leave the egg covered leaf while the male would eat with his usual enthusiasm.

Satanoperca leucosticta is reported to be a delayed mouth-brooder, removing the larvae from the eggs for buccal incubation between 36 and 48 hours post-spawning. These Colombian Satanoperca leucosticta displayed the same reproductive modality. At 36 hours post-spawning, only the egg shells remained on the leaf. The female had regained her mobility, as she was now carrying the larvae in her buccal cavity. There was little visible distention and aside from the "pursed lips", one might find it difficult to identify the holding female. At no time during the next few days was the male observed to be involved with brood care beyond the territory defense role mentioned above. The female showed little interest in food while holding the larvae and only tried to take food during the last couple of days of the buccal incubation period.

On the seventh day of the buccal incubation period, anticipating release on the ninth, the other three fish were removed from the 360 l. (90 gallons) aquarium in an effort to ensure survival of the free-swimming fry. Contrary to most reports explaining that S. leucosticta pairs are often very compatible despite a lack of target fish, this pair proved to be an exception. The male turned very aggressive towards the female, ripping her caudal fin quite badly. Given the unlikelihood of the female releasing fry into such a situation, the male was also removed to other suitable quarters.

On the ninth day post-spawning, the female cautiously released about 200 free-swimming fry. The fry were released only infrequently and for short durations at first. At this point I considered the 360 l. (90 gallons) aquarium with only the one adult fish a tad generous, given the somewhat crowed conditions of the "other suitable quarters!" I have had plenty of experience moving paedeophoretic (fry carrying) "Geophagus" steindachneri females and they are, as Leibel (1990) aptly points out, "industrial strength." Leibel has also warns that moving a paedeophoretic Satanoperca female is often disastrous!

I wanted to move the female S. leucosticta, so I planned the move with the odds of ensuring survival of the fry, in my favor. Since the female had already released apparently healthy, well-developed fry several times on her own, I decided that if the move went badly and the female spit the fry, they would be ready to rear away from the female anyway. The water level was lowered in the 360 l. (90 gallons) aquarium to about 25% to facilitate catching the female in a small bucket placed in the aquarium. As soon as the female entered the bucket, it was lifted out of the aquarium. The female, suddenly realizing her situation, promptly spit out the fry. However, in the 30-40 seconds it took to transport the female to a previously set up 40 l. (10 gallons) "brooding aquarium", she had picked up all the fry she had released in the bucket.

The bucket containing the female was gently placed in the brooding aquarium and tipped, allowing her to swim out into the aquarium. The brooding aquarium was set up using water from the spawning aquarium and also had a substratum of fine sand and a piece of water-logged wood for cover. The female gradually started exploring her new home and within several hours released the fry for the first time in the brooding aquarium. It was at this point I added a small amount of newly hatched brine shrimp in an effort to feed the fry. I had to stay perfectly still in front of the aquarium for the female to release the brood and allow them to feed. The fry accepted the brine shrimp eagerly, although the female would only allow short feeding excursions in the first few days.

The female gradually allowed longer feeding excursions and more frequent releases over the following two weeks. The fry were becoming larger making it more difficult, and slower, for the female to recall the fry and fit them into her mouth! After three weeks, the fry had grown to a size that no longer permitted all to find refuge in the female's mouth and rarely were the fry picked up upon my approach to the aquarium. At this time the female was returned to the 360 l. (90 gallons) aquarium (the other four fish, including the male, had been returned when the female was removed) and the 160 fry transferred to a 160 l (40 gallons) rearing aquarium.

The rearing aquarium was filtered with an AquaClear 200 and a sponge filter. Every week I did a 50% water change and cleaned the filters. As the fry grew (slowly!), they were offered chopped frozen blood worms and flakes. At approximately four months, the larger of the fry were sold to the local wholesaler. Subsequent batches were sold as they attained a sellable size in an effort to keep the rearing densities low, maintaining a good growth rate and acceptable water quality.

Several months after this successful spawning, the same pair were allowed to rear another brood (not every brood was reared...these can be prolific cichlids!). This second successful spawning unfolded as did the first, no male involvement post larval pickup, female was moved to a brooding aquarium where after the nine day buccal incubation interval, 304 fry were released.

In the aquarium Satanoperca leucosticta in the aquarium trade, photographed in the aquarium of Lee Newman. Photo by Lee Newman. determiner Radek Bednarczuk

How many Species of Speckled-Faced Demonfish?

Of the demonfish, S. leucosticta has undoubtedly become the most popular, due in no small part to its general availability, ease of maintenance and interesting reproductive behavior. However, are the various forms of speckled-faced demonfish S. leucosticta or separate species? Could the situation for S. leucosticta be the same as for the Mesonauta complex or perhaps the Geophagus (sensu Kullander) complex where each major drainage has its own species? Do these "geographical variants" all share a common reproductive modality?

For aquarists to be of any assistance to science in answering these and other questions, we, as a group, must provide as much information as possible about the demonfish we are keeping and spawning. Every time one commits an experience to print, information such as the origin of the fish as well as a description of the color pattern, or perhaps a color photograph, may be of assistance in determining the relationships within this S. leucosticta complex of "geographical variants."

Satanoperca leucosticta Brooding female of Satanoperca leucosticta from Colombia. Fish and Photo by Lee Newman.

This article was originally published in "Buntbarsche Bulletin" 183 pp. 1-6, the journal of the American Cichlid Association, please consult the ACA home page for information about membership. It is here reproduced with the permission of author Lee Newman

References (4):


Newman, Lee. (Jan 20, 1998). "Satanoperca cf. leucosticta (Müller and Troschel) A Colombian Speckled-Faced Demonfish". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Sep 23, 2023, from: