Top of the Food Chain
Experiences in Keeping Hoplarchus psittacus
There are many attributes that make Hoplarchus psittacus worthy of special coverage here in this column, such as their
behavior, their dog-like ability to recognize
their owners, their brilliant and variable
coloration, and their size (they grow to
about 18 inches TL). All of these reasons
contribute to the popularity of this New
World species. I have been fortunate over
the years to successfully maintain this truly
jumbo cichlid, and I am happy to be able to
pass along some pointers and tips from my
keeping of this amazing species.
collection area, and their flesh is said to
be very tender and flaky.
photographs by Ed Wong
Distribution and Habitat
Hoplarchus does not have a very
straightforward distribution, but there are
two basic populations from which specimens
entering the aquarium trade are likely to
come: one in the Rio Negro in Brazil, and
the other in the Río Orinoco in Venezuela.
There are many different points along each
system where this species is collected, and
their coloration and patterns are all unique
and highly variable. In my humble opinion,
specimens from the Rio Negro have the
most attractive coloration and pattern. They
typically exhibit brilliant red undersides,
and sometimes this coloration even extends
into the flanks.
Throughout their range, Hoplarchus
inhabit rivers, lakes, lagoons, swamps,
and other bodies of water that are prone
to flooding during the rainy season.
Small specimens are structure-oriented
fish like many other cichlid species, often
found in and around fallen trees and the
like. Their aquarium should reflect this
environment so they feel more at ease.
I would also like to note that they are a
popular food fish with the locals of the
In nature, Hoplarchus psittacus are
generally loners as adults, but pairs can
be witnessed swimming together during
the onset of the breeding season. Once a
spawning site has been selected, they will
guard it aggressively from other fishes until
the brood has been raised and the young
are off on their own. As juveniles, they form
somewhat loose schools and often stay as
such for up to one year. Males grow more
quickly compared to females and break off
from the group at a faster rate.
In aquariums, Hoplarchus tend to be
aggressive toward each other, and sometimes
even toward similar-sized cohabitants.
Usually, however, one specimen will live
peaceably among a community of other
fishes. It is important to understand that this
species can be highly variable with respect
to their actual behavior in aquariums.
Some hobbyists report their fish as being
mild-mannered or gentle giants, while
others indicate violent behavior from their
specimens. Either way, trial and error is
your best friend here, and each specimen—
or even each group of specimens—can
demonstrate unique behavior.
Brian M. Scott graduated from The
Richard Stockton College of New
Jersey with a Bachelor of Science
Degree in biology and a minor in
marine biology. While in college, his
primary focus was in ichthyology,
and he has conducted species
surveys on coral reefs in Florida as
well as the salt marshes of southern
New Jersey. He has authored or
co-authored five books on aquarium
fishes and has published more
than 90 articles on all aspects of
the aquarium hobby in various
popular magazines. Today, Brian
keeps mostly large predatory fishes,
including many species of cichlids,
primarily focusing on Cyphotilapia
of Lake Tanganyika.
Foods and Feeding
For the most part, Hoplarchus is easy to
feed. In the wild, they feed primarily on
various types of aquatic invertebrates such
as insects, worms, and shrimps. In fact,
some speculate that the carotenoids found
in these invertebrates are responsible for
the intense red undersides of the sub-adult
and adult specimens in the Río Negro
variety of H. psittacus.