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Diva Discus: Glitz, Glam
and Lots of Demands

Diva Discus: Glitz, Glam and Lots of Demands

by Alesia Benedict

Mention Discus fish around hobbyists, and you'll typically hear two responses: Either the hobbyist will utter a wistful sigh, and exclaim, "Discus? Oh yes, someday I'd love to try and keep those fish," or, you'll hear the other response:  "Discus? Horrid fish!  I tried keeping them years ago and lost every single one of them!" 

I'm fortunate, in that I get to utter a not-too-frequently heard response:  "Discus? Yes, I keep them."  

Lots of people refer to discus as the "King of the Aquarium," but since I'm a woman, I figured "Queen of the Aquarium" is more fitting! Plus, to be honest, I think all discus have what I call a "diva attitude." If  you think of how the term "diva" is used with celebrities and/or folks in showbiz, you think of someone who is flashy, quirky, commands a lot of attention, and without a doubt, has a list of demands and conditions that need to be met in order for them to be happy.  Yup, that's Discus fish all right!

I'm a bit unusual in the hobby in that Discus fish were the very first fish I kept. I got into the hobby "by accident" (don't we all?!) and had intended to start with Angelfish. But when I went to the aquarium store to purchase a 29 gallon tank and look at some Angels, I happen to see a show tank of Discus fish. "WHAT ARE THOSE?!" I screeched, my eyes as big as saucers, totally mesmerized by the magnificent colored, round shaped fish seeming to float across the tank. "Discus," replied the store owner. I kept walking towards the tank, completely drawn to them the way a flower seeks the sun.  By the time I was actually standing in front of the tank, I was totally hooked. "Salt water, right?" I cringed. "Nope, they're fresh water" he replied. So much for the 29 gallon tank -- I came home with a 90 gallon one!

In the fishkeeping world, you can find a great deal of information about Discus fish. Many, many books have been written and published about these beauties, and there are thousands of articles in magazines and on the Internet. Truly a plethora of data out there. So why am I writing yet another article?  Well, for one thing, I think a lot of the information out there is no longer valid. There have been a ton of advances in the world of fish keeping, thanks to improved technology, and also a ton of advances in discus fish themselves. What do I mean by that? Well, a lot of the information still being espoused was accurate when discus were all wild caught. The wild caught Discus were indeed light sensitive because their native water was tea- colored. Wild discus also had to be kept in very low pH water. That was because they CAME from very low level pH waters from the rivers and streams of the Amazon.

However, today's  tank-bred fish have come along way. Discus fish are now being kept in planted tanks, with 3 watts of light per gallon being shined into the tank 12 hours a day. These tank-bred/raised fish have never seen tea-colored water, and the closest they've come to South America is about as close as we've come to the moon! As for low pH, again, tank bred/raised fish are not kept in 5.5 water, they are kept in anything from 6.5 to 8.0 water! It's the same as our own, human ancestors. They pranced around outside in freezing cold temperatures with nothing but some animal fur on them, and they survived.  Take the today's man and/or woman and pluck them from their 72 degree comfy living room, toss them outside in the sleet and the snow with just some bear skin to keep warm, and I bet they come down with frostbite quicker than you can say, "What do you mean I don't have to feed my discus beef heart any longer?"  The point is, things change. Sometimes people's thoughts about them don't.

You might ask what other outdated notions are still prevailing about Discus fish. Plenty!  How about the one about how they have to be kept in bare-bottom tanks?  True, most dedicated discus breeders keep their discus in bare-bottom tanks, and there are good reasons for them to do so.  For one, breeders want to get the fry as big as possible in the quickest amount of time possible, so they can be offered for sale. That equates to LOTS of feedings, which equates to LOTS of mess, which equated to LOTS of water changes. It is, of course, much easier to vacuum out leftover food from a bare bottom tank. So for the commercial breeder, it certainly makes sense to have things bare.

However, what about in YOUR home? What if YOU, Mr. or Ms. Average Fish keeper want to set up a tank of Discus in your living room.  Does it make sense for you to have a bare bottom tank? Not unless you like that sterile look.  There isn't the NEED to house them in a bare-bottom tank, because I doubt you'll be starting off with fry, which means you won't be feeding them 5-7 times a day, which means  you won't have to be doing water changes every single day. If you aren't concerned with getting them as big as possible as quickly as possible -- either for commercial reasons, or because you want to show the fish -- then it's okay to have gravel in the tank, plants, heck even one of those treasure chest air things that release bubbles, if that's your thing (but I have to say "UGH" here!). None of those things will bother the Discus. Hence, it is not MANDATORY to have Discus in bare-bottom tanks.  It's just an idea that made sense when Discus were wild caught, that just keeps getting kicked around.

One of the notions that some people fiercely defend is that Discus have to be the only fish in the tank -- i.e., they should not have any tank mates. Now, I'm not saying discus make good COMMUNITY tank fish- they absolutely do NOT. They don't compete well with more aggressive eaters, who will scarf down the food before slow-eating, grazing Discus fish even realize it. Granted, there aren't too many fish I would suggest keeping with discus (no Angels or big Plecos for sure!), but I actually think it best to keep some types of fish in with the Discus. I think it beneficial to have some Cory catfish in the tank, because they will devour any left over food the Discus miss. I also like to have an Ancistrus catfish and/or a Whiptail Catfish, and I'll explain why when I talk about discus fish's diet.  Probably one of the most common fish to be kept with Discus are Cardinal Tetras, and with good reason. I think a school of Tetras serves as dither fish to the discus, and whenever I do a water change, as soon as my huge schools of Cardinals and Rummynose Tetras start swimming in formation, all the Discus come out from behind the plants.

What about breeding these fish? Do you need to have a very low pH then? I will say that if you have a very high pH, it is common that the eggs won't develop. When my Discus bred, they did so in water that was 7.2 I had toyed with the idea of lowering the pH, but I had heard a talk given at a cichlid convention by a known Discus breeder, and he said that if Angelfish could breed in the water, so could Discus.  At the time, I had Angels breeding out the ying yang, so I pulled out some pairs of discus and set up some breeding tanks. While there were problems at the beginning -- nothing to do with the pH, the fish were young, and eating their eggs -- in time, I had success (fixed the problem by leaving on a night light so the fish were not startled by the light suddenly coming on).

When it comes to the diet of Discus fish, again and again and again you hear about beef heart! How did this all start?  Any research I've conducted has beef heart being the #1 choice because it was cheap. There is no doubt that Discus need a good supply of protein, and it is true that beef heart does supply this, and, is much safer than Tubifex worms. Another alternative to Tubifex worms are commercially grown black worms. And, like all things in the hobby, commercial food has come a long way. There was a time when Discus breeders would never feed their fish flake or pellets, but this is no longer the case. Frozen foods, too, are readily available for your fish. While protein is needed as a stable in these fishes' diets, I would not recommend feeding them SOLELY protein.  They too need a variety of foodstuffs in order to keep healthy. What I feed my Discus and what they eat are actually two different things.

Let me explain. I have a great source for black worms, and I use them as a regular part of my Discus' diet. I rinse my worms every day and are kept refrigerated, and I don't buy them in great quantities at once so that I have fresh worms on a regular basis. I also use worm cones, because with them, there is a much greater change of the worms getting eaten without them ever making it to the bottom of the tank. The Discus are also highly attentive to the cones, and if I open the tank's canopy, they will immediately start pecking at the cones! I also have a Discus pellet that I feed them regularly, and I am grateful they eat it. Interestingly enough, going back to the aforementioned catfishes, I feed them algae wafers and Spirulina wafers, and I have witnessed my Discus eating the bits that these catfish create in the way they devour the wafers. Hence, because Discus are indeed "grazers," I make sure never to feed my fish too close to when the lights go off.  I like to give them AT LEAST 90 minutes of grazing time before they are in darkness.

As I said earlier, a lot of the things you read about Discus are outdated, as they were written at a time when discus REALLY WERE highly delicate fish. I don't see them as delicate fish, but they are divas, remember ... that's why I never ask, "Are Discus right for you?" I always instead ask, "Are you right for Discus?"  I phrase it exactly like that because there are some things you just can't get around if you are going to keep this fish. Some people are willing to put in the time, and others aren't. If you are "forgetful" about water changes (3x a week or more for these fish), or don't want to keep the water temperature 82 - 85 degrees because you want to grow a certain plant in the tank, or don't have the time to do frequent filter cleanings (you can't have gunky sponges and expect your fish to be healthy), or are tempted to add in other fish because you just HAVE to have them, then you are not right for Discus The bottom line is, with just a bit of neglect, they will get sick and die. Period. There is not a lot of "wiggle room" in your maintenance of this fish. Either you do it right and consistent, and they'll live 8+ years or more -- or you fail to meet their needs, and they might not last 8 days.

What about the tank itself? Well, in this case, size DOES matter. The tank that will house discus needs careful consideration.   While adult fish will need about 10-15 gallons per fish, young Discus sort of school, staying together a great deal of the time. Young Discus do best when slightly overcrowded in a tank. Also, make sure you also select filters and equipment that are easy to maintain. Even with canister filters, you're going to have to clean them much more often than the manual or store owner recommends.

Whatever equipment you decide to use, keep it clean -- and NO CARBON!  Also, no sharp edges in the tank (check that driftwood!). Discus do glide gracefully like hot air balloons through the water -- until they get startled. Then the dart around like crazy! You don't want your fish to be darting into a pointy piece of driftwood. Speaking about them getting startled -- yes, they will be skittish at the beginning. But healthy fish will indeed outgrow that. Mine race to the front of the glass like big piggies and will eat from my hand.  How did I do that?  I never tiptoed around them. Right away, I got them used to my hands (and a Python nozzle) being in the water. I put the tanks in high traffic areas. And, to make them feel secure, I used plants. Plants -- real or plastic -- will go a long way for keeping them calm. Young fish especially feel more secure when they have things to hide behind. Believe it or not, if they KNOW they can hide, they are less likely to do so!

For me, there is little that can compare to these "underwater butterflies." Their beauty, majestic movements, rounded bodies, fascinating breeding/parenting, etc., ranks them #1 in my book. And while they are "divas" and do have requirements that MUST be met, they are not all that difficult once those requirements have been met. Personally, I think they are far easier to keep then some of their tank mates -- the Cardinal Tetra, for example, which will be the subject of my article in the next issue of Conscientious Aquarist. 


WWM on Discus

Related Articles: Plants and Discus: What They Need to Thrive by Alesia Benedict, Plants and Discus: What They Need to Thrive by Alesia Benedict, Discus, Juraparoids, Neotropical Cichlids, African Cichlids, Dwarf South American Cichlids, Asian Cichlids, Cichlid Fishes in General

Related FAQs: Discus, Discus Identification, Discus Selection, Discus Compatibility, Discus Behavior, Discus Systems, Discus Feeding, Discus Disease, Discus Reproduction, Cichlids of the World, Cichlid Systems, Cichlid Identification, Cichlid Behavior, Cichlid Compatibility, Cichlid Selection, Cichlid Feeding, Cichlid DiseaseCichlid Reproduction,

A Brown Discus


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