Blood Parrots (sometimes called Jellybean or Bubblegum Cichlids) and Flowerhorns (also called Luohan cichlids) are both hybrids rather than naturally occurring fish. Blood Parrot cichlids appeared during the 1980s, and Flowerhorns during the 1990s. Both became instant hits, particularly in Asia, where both fish became wildly popular, with good quality specimens commanding high prices.
These fish have sharply polarised the hobby. Many fishkeepers dislike them immensely purely on philosophical grounds: they don't like hybrids. But there are ethical reasons why Blood Parrots and Flowerhorn cichlids may be worrying.
Blood Parrots, being severely deformed, are seen as being crippled and disease-prone. The deformed spine and spine bladder makes Blood Parrots more prone to swimming disorders, and the beak-like mouth cannot chew food properly. A variety called the Heart Parrot Cichlid lacks a tail fin, and can barely swim at all. One British fishkeeping magazine revealed that some Blood Parrots have their tails cut off specifically to produce this heart shape, though how common this practise is remains unclear.
Both Blood Parrots and Flowerhorns have been tattooed. Contrary to what some retailers suggest, this is neither painless nor safe. Needles inject dye into the muscle, not the skin, and there are high levels of infection and mortality after the process. Tattooed Blood Parrots are often sold as Jellybean cichlids, and include all ones with colours other than orange, including the yellow, purple, red, green and blue Parrot or Jellybean cichlids.
Despite these issues, Blood Parrots and Flowerhorn cichlids remain quite popular, if perhaps less so than they once were. In this article we'll review what you'll need to buy and do to keep them successfully.
Blood Parrots are unmistakeable, looking rather like fancy goldfish in shape but with spiny, cichlid-like fins. They are some shade of orange in colour: from pale whitish-orange through a lemony yellow to a deep carrot orange. Blood Parrots in any colour other than orange have been dyed and should not be purchased. Blood Parrots get to about 20 cm/8 inches in length when mature.
Flowerhorn cichlids when young are easily confused with the very similar cichlid Cichlasoma trimaculatum. Adults are highly variable, and numerous varieties are known. They typically have big, laterally compressed body, at least partly red in colour around the head and throat, and with a series of roughly circular blue-black spots along the midline of the flank. Mature males sometimes, but not always, develop large nuchal humps between the snout and the front of the dorsal fin. Some varieties of Flowerhorn have been further crossed with Texas cichlids (Herichthys spp.) and "low quality" offspring from such parents may be all but indistinguishable from Texas cichlids. Flowerhorn cichlids get to at least 30 cm/12 inches in length when mature.
Blood Parrot cichlids are fairly large fish and need to be kept in a reasonably spacious aquarium. A pair might be maintained in a system 180-litres (47.5-gallons) in size. A group of five specimens would need a bigger tank, around 285 litres (75 gallons) being recommended.
Flowerhorn cichlids are very large fish, and need a very big tank; 285 litres (75 gallons) is the absolute minimum for a single mature specimen.
Like all Central American cichlids, Blood Parrots and Flowerhorn cichlids want hard, alkaline water. Aim for pH 7 to 8, 10-20 degrees dH, and a carbonate hardness of at least 5 degrees KH.
One way to ensure good water chemistry is to add a Rift Valley cichlid mineral salt mix, though a 50% dose should be adequate unless your water is very soft. Per 5 US gallons (20 litres) add the following amounts of each ingredient: one-half level teaspoon baking soda; one-half level tablespoon Epsom salt; and one-half level teaspoon marine salt mix (Reef Crystals, Instant Ocean, etc.). Stir these into each bucket of water before adding to the aquarium. Provided you do regular water changes, the minerals added this way should raise the pH and provide sufficient buffering to prevent the pH dropping between water changes.
Blood Parrots and Flowerhorn cichlids are tropical fish and cannot be kept in coldwater (unheated) tanks. The minimum temperature for successful maintenance is 25 degrees C (77 degrees F). The temperature can be raised a bit to encourage spawning, but keeping the tank warmer than 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) for long periods will cause stress.
Blood Parrots generally do not damage glass aquarium heaters, though it is a good idea to place a plastic heater guard around the heater just in case. Flowerhorn cichlids are very likely to dislodge or break a heater when they are digging, so the heater should be placed outside the tank. Options include putting a glass heater inside a sump; using an inline heater connected to the canister filter hoses (e.g., Hydor ETH); or using a filter with a built-in heater to warm the water (e.g., Eheim Thermofilter).
Both Blood Parrots and Flowerhorn cichlids need excellent water quality. Ammonia must be 0 mg/l and nitrite must be 0 mg/l at all times. Nitrate should be as low as possible, ideally below 20 mg/l. What these numbers mean is that filtration should be generous and water changes frequent.
Blood Parrot cichlids cannot swim well, so turbulent water flow must be avoided. An external canister filter with a spray bar to break up the current is ideal. Aim for a water turnover rate of 4-6 times the volume of the tank in turnover per hour. In other words, for a 55-gallon tank, look for a filter rated at 220-330 gallons/hour. Most canister filters have taps that allow turnover to be adjusted up or down as required: experiment with these to get the optimal water flow. Other options include large hang-on-the-back filters, big internal canister filters, and undergravel filters with two uplifts, one at each end of the tank.
Flowerhorn cichlids are very big and very messy, and large external canister filters or hang-on-the-back filters will provide the easiest way to ensure good water quality. Aim for turnover rates of not less than 6 times the volume of the tank per hour.
Both Blood Parrots and Flowerhorn cichlids were bred from omnivorous species that fed on a wide variety of foods. Their wild ancestors would be eating algae, decaying plant material, insect larvae, worms, snails, crayfish and occasionally small fish. In captivity they will eat most foods, but the ideal diet would be a good quality cichlid pellet (e.g., Hikari Cichlid Gold), softened vegetable matter (e.g., cooked peas), and wet-frozen invertebrates (e.g., bloodworms, mosquito larvae, tubifex worms). Vegetable foods are particularly important for avoiding constipation and bloating.
Live food isn't necessary and in particular goldfish and minnows must not be used. These are not only unhealthy (containing high levels of fat and thiaminase) but are also very likely to introduce parasites. If you want to offer live foods as a treat, choose things like river shrimps, brine shrimps and earthworms.
Contrary to what some retailers suggest, there are no foods, repeat NO FOODS, that make the hump on a Flowerhorn grow bigger or faster. A healthy male Flowerhorn will grow its hump at a rate determined by its genes.
Blood Parrot cichlids are reasonably healthy fish, but their deformed spine and swim bladder makes them particular prone to swimming problems.
Constipation is the most common reason that swimming problems begin. Early signs of constipation include lethargy, disinterest in food, abdominal swelling, and unnaturally long faecal strings hanging from the anus. To avoid constipation, Blood Parrots should be regularly fed green foods, particularly cooked or tinned peas. Live and wet-frozen foods with a lot of indigestible material (typically chitin) are also helpful; of these, brine shrimps and daphnia are the most easily obtained.
By contrast, freeze-dried foods are very likely to cause constipation if used as the only foods. Flake, pellets, and freeze-dried shrimps and worms should be used in moderation or not at all.
Like other big cichlids, Flowerhorn cichlids are prone to Hexamita infections. This protozoan lives in the gut of cichlids and ordinarily does no harm, but when the fish is stressed, Hexamita infections can cause major problems. Without treatment, infected fish will die.
At least two stress factors have been identified: poor water quality and poor diet. Besides zero levels of ammonia and nitrite, nitrate levels must be kept as low as possible. When cichlids are continually exposed to nitrate levels above 20 mg/l they seem to develop Hexamita infections with alarming regularity. Whether it's the nitrate that causes the problem or something else to do with old, dirty water isn't clear, but regular water changes are the key to avoiding Hexamita infections.
In terms of diet, Hexamita appears to be most common when fish are given a vitamin-poor diet. Fresh green foods are particularly important, and Flowerhorn cichlids should be offered cooked or tinned peas, cooked spinach, or some other soft green food at least once a week.
Like Blood Parrots, Flowerhorn cichlids may also become constipated if given just freeze-dried foods.
Social behaviour and tankmates
Blood Parrots are territorial but their limited mobility means they cannot swim away from trouble easily. Their deformed mouths mean they cannot fight particularly well either. If combined with more aggressive cichlids of similar size, Blood Parrots invariably come off worse. They should not be kept alongside other cichlids. They are best kept singly, in matched pairs, or in groups of five or more specimens. Potential tankmates should be robust enough to avoid trouble, but not aggressive or nippy themselves. Plecs make good catfish for the bottom of the tank, while Platies and Swordtails appreciate similar water conditions and tend to be left alone.
Flowerhorn cichlids are much more aggressive than Blood Parrots and cannot usually be kept with other fish. They are best kept singly or in matched pairs.
Blood Parrots are difficult to sex. The only reliable external details are the shapes of the genital papillae. Males will have a longer, narrow papilla than females, which have a shorter, rounder papilla. As with most other cichlids, the papilla on the male will be visible a day or two before spawning, whereas that on the female will be visible only a few hours before spawning. Otherwise, Blood Parrots cannot be sexed except by watching them spawn.
Flowerhorn cichlids cannot be sexed when young. Males should develop larger nuchal humps than females, but some males have small humps not much different to those seen on the females. Moreover, only a big, mature male will have this feature, and a cichlid will need to be a couple of years old for its nuchal hump to be fully developed. As with Blood Parrots, the only reliable ways to sex Flowerhorn cichlids is to either watch them spawn or to examine the genital papillae.
Blood Parrot cichlids are generally infertile, though sometimes pairs breed successfully under aquarium conditions. Spawning is much like any other Central American cichlid, pairs cleaning a flat surface such as a rock, and then spawning on it. Both sexes help to guard the eggs and fry. Once the fry hatch and it will be a few days, up to 5 days, before they use up their remaining yolk supply and starting moving about looking for food. At that point they can be reared on brine shrimp nauplii and egg-layer fish food.
Flowerhorn cichlids are usually fertile and spawn
readily, but the quality of the fry produced per batch tends to be very
poor. In other regards, breeding Flowerhorns is similar to breeding its
ancestors, such as Amphilophus citrinellus and