Frequently asked questions on Parrot cichlids


Parrot cichlids are controversial fish. Matt Clarke takes an open-minded look at them and answers some of the most common questions.

What is their scientific name?

Parrot cichlids don't have a scientific name, as such, as they're not a real species. These fish are a hybrid (a cross between species) first produced by fish suppliers in Taiwan in the late 1980s. The names of hybrids are usually written as the scientific name of each parent separated by an "x". A cross between a goldfish and a carp, for example, would be Carassius auratus x Cyprinus carpio.

What fish were crossed to produce this hybrid?

Nobody knows for sure, but the parent species were definitely Central American cichlids. Various combinations have been suggested from straight crosses between red cichlids such as the Red devil or Midas cichlid with Convicts, Severum or Quetzal cichlids, but it's also possible that these may have been produced by crossing more than two fish together.

It is possible to cross a Severum with a Convict to produce a hybrid fish and then to cross that hybrid with a Red devil, to produce something with a mixture of genes from the three others in its genome. The first Parrots were probably mutants in a batch of fry and may have been selected from to produce the current strains.

Hybridising cichlids is something enthusiasts vehemently protest against. It is not a good idea to try this at home. You can't produce a new species in this way. New species aren't formed by two others crossing together, they usually evolve over thousands or millions of years. Hybrids are largely considered worthless and unsaleable, but the comical appearance of these fish, and some clever marketing, has made these a popular fish with some fishkeepers.

So if I cross my Red devil with my Synspilum the fry will be Parrot cichlids?

That's extremely unlikely. The fry will probably be fairly nondescript hybrids with some of the features of each parent. They almost certainly won't have the parrot-like body shape. This is likely to have been a mutation that cropped up. The mutant fish will have been bred from and their offspring may have eventually been fixed to produce parrot offspring.

Hybrid cichlids are essentially unsaleable. Clever marketing by dealers in the Far East did create a demand for so-called Flowerhorn cichlids (which is essentially what you've created are) but that demand is now a thing of the past. Hybrids have no value, so don't try to cross your fish.

So what is "the" Parrot cichlid?

The "real" Parrot cichlid is a large silvery-green species from the Amazon basin called Hoplarchus psittacus. However, the chances of you buying one of these, or even seeing one for sale, are about as likely as me receiving my annual bonus; pretty slim but not completely implausible. The real Parrot cichlid is pretty rare in the shops (I've only seen a few of them for sale) and you're not going to get the two confused.

Why can't my Parrot shut its mouth?

This is normal among Parrot cichlids. The mouth is deformed to produce the beak-like appearance which gives these fish their common name. Some people believe that the fish are unable to feed, which is not the case. How else would breeders grow them on to a salable size?

Cichlids have a special piece of dental apparatus known as the "pharyngeal mill" in the back of the mouth which allows them to mash up food and eat it. This does not appear to cause them too many problems in the long term.

So why are their heads deformed?

This is most probably a mutation which has been selected-for by the breeder. Some Internet sources have claimed that the shape is produced when rubber bands are tied around the head of the young fish. In a recent paper on man-made fishes, OFI President Svein Fossa said:

"It seems to strange to be true, but I cannot offer evidence to the contrary. The people in the markets that are faced with accusations of what many people regard as cruelty to animals cannot provide evidence against this."

I am told they have deformed swimbladders?

This is quite feasible. X-rays of fancy goldfish with a similar body shape have shown that the swimbladder and other organs are essentially squashed into a smaller cavity. So, you could say this "deforms" the swimbladder, though all of the innards are soft, anyway. This does cause problems in fancy goldfish where swimbladder disorders are rife, however, I haven't heard much of this among Parrot cichlids, though it is theoretically quite possible.

Why do some people hate these fish?

Many fishkeepers are against hybridising fish to produce new ones, and many dislike the way that deformities have been positively selected for in the Parrot cichlid. The fish are quite far-removed from their parent species and rather deformed. They're sometimes dyed too, and some may also be unable to reproduce.

If many people hate these fish, why do shops still stock them?

Shops stock them because people buy them. Retailers want to make money and many of them don't see Parrots as bad enough not to sell. On the other hand, many stores won't stock these, and we run a campaign asking retailers not to stock any that have been dyed. This is, sadly, something that is quite common with Parrot cichlids. We'd certainly advise you to avoid these dyed ones, and the shops that choose to sell them.

Is PFK anti-parrot cichlid?

We're not against parrots per se. However, it is no secret that most of our writers think that these fish are monstrosities, and all of them have very strong views about hybrids and dyeing. There are literally thousands of beautiful natural species on sale and we'd much rather you kept these instead. They'll also breed, too. But, if you do want to keep Parrots, then it's our job to give you the facts you need to make sure they're well looked after.

Are they sterile?

Some have said they are, but I don't believe they are in every case. Parrots often spawn in the aquarium but they don't always produce viable offspring (unlike many other hybrid cichlids, which can breed as readily as the parents). However, quite a few people have reported successful spawnings with some varieties of Parrot cichlid.

How big do they grow?

Given enough space you should be able to get your Parrots up to 15cm/6", sometimes a little more.

How do I replicate their biotope?

Since these aren't found in the wild, it's not possible to create a tank which represents their natural habitat: they don't have one. However, the species which they are probably descended from usually live among rocks on the margins of Central American lakes and rivers.

What sort of water conditions do they need?

The parent species are almost certainly of Central American origin, so they will have probably evolved to live in alkaline water. Unadjusted, hard alkaline water is fine for these fish and they are unfussy and easy to keep in the aquarium.

Are they OK in a community tank?

Some people do try to keep these in a community setting, but this isn't advisable, and you certainly wouldn't get away with any of the suspected parent species in a community tank. Parrots are capable of swallowing smaller tankmates if they can catch them so only mix them alongside medium or large peaceful fish. The best tankmates would be robust barbs, catfishes, loaches and smaller Central American cichlids, such as the Cryptoheros or Thorichthys species.

What should I feed them?

Parrots are easy to keep and take most foods including flakes, pellets and frozen foods, such as bloodworms, brineshrimp and mysis.

Why don't they keep their bright colours?

This might depend on the variety of Parrot cichlid and its colour. Some erythristic (red) forms of Central American cichlid, which these may be descendents of, do change colour naturally as they mature, so this could have been passed on genetically. Some forms of the Red devil and Midas cichlid, for example, have a tendency to become paler with age.

However, perhaps the main reason you'll see a marked colour change in these fish is because they may have been dyed - including most red ones. If you keep the red varities and want to sustain the bright colouration go for a specialist colour food, such as the one from Tetra or Aquarian, and use this as more or less the only food source.

Many of the Parrots on sale here are artificially coloured using special dyes. Practical Fishkeeping has seen photographic evidence which shows the species being injected with coloured dye at multiple sites along the flank. Several injections of coloured dye are made over a period of hours, which produces a diffuse stripe of colour. After a day or so, this colour has spread to produce a fish with a more or less uniform base colour represented by the dye.

We'd recommend avoiding green, blue and bright purple ones. It's extremely unethical to support the trade in dyed fishes. You certainly aren't going to be able to maintain these colours and the fish will quickly fade to a sort of pinky colour. Even if you're not particularly bothered about the ethical issues of artificially colouring a fish, these are a bit of a rip-off, as the colour is ephemeral.

My dealer has some without tails. What are these?

These are called Heart parrots, on account of their heart-shaped body. They completely lack a tail and just have an inward stump at the rear end. Even among open-minded Parrot keepers these are often frowned upon.

According to a recent paper by Svein Fossa, President of the trade body Ornamental Fish International (OFI), these fish are suspected to be produced through the amputation of the tail fin. Practical Fishkeeping has now seen photographic evidence which proves that this species, and some Flowerhorn cichlids are being produced in this manner.

Such acts would be illegal if undertaken in the UK, but oddly it is not illegal for shops to trade in such fish. Please do not support this cruel trade by purchasing such fish.

What about the striped ones?

These turned up on sale at UK stores in 2005. They are available in a number of different colours and are being marketed by unscrupulous wholesalers and retailers as selectively-bred fish, which they aren't. The only in which the fish could have possibly been produced is through the application of a coloured pigment by hand. Other readers have also reported Parrots on sale which have words and smiley faces "painted" upon their flanks.

According to a report we published in the News in early 2006, these fishes are produced using a laser to dye the flanks.

We'd strongly advise you to avoid these, and any shops stocking them, like the plague. We're actively campaigning against the sale of these dyed fish. Indeed, much of the trade involved in the production of various forms of Parrot cichlids is ethically questionable and many prefer not to fund it by purchasing any Parrot cichlids, irrespective of whether they are dyed or not.

Further reading:

Fossa, SA (2004) - Man-made fish: domesticated fishes and their place in the hobby. OFI Journal, Issue 44.

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