Most Cichlids are known for being bullies, but the Discus is actually a peaceful species. They are one of the most friendly Cichlids around. This Amazonian beauty demands attention with their bright neon colors. They are one of the most spectacular fish you can own and are commonly called the King of the Aquarium!
Unfortunately, it is not an easy fish to keep. Keeping this fish is very hard and requires a lot of time, money, and equipment. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the Discus fish…
Table of Contents
What is a Discus Fish?
The are actually 3 different species of Discus fish in the Symphysodon genus:
- Symphysodon discus: The Red or Heckel Discus is the most common species to find in aquariums. Despite their name they can also come in white, yellow, blue, orange, and gold. This species has extremely deep and striking colors. Common varieties include: Leopard, Carnation, and Blood Pigeon.
- Symphysodon aequifasciatus: The Blue or Brown Discus is the most recently discovered species. It comes in shades of blue, orange, yellow, white, and green. It can be bred in any of the common patterns along with Tiger and Banded.
- Symphysodon tarzoo: The Green Discus is a more uncommon species and usually comes in green or yellow with black bands.
S. discus is the most popular in home aquariums and will be the focus of this article. However, all three have similar care requirements.
Discus are not suitable for beginners. They need very specific tank conditions and is highly sensitive to the quality of its environment. It will need a water temperature of at least 80°F, fully de-chlorinated water, a basic pH, and a tank large enough for a school of at least 5. Discus are nearly circular in shape and can grow up to 10 inches long.
This round body shape is unique to the Symphysodon genus and is not found in any other Cichlid species. This is why they are given the nickname the King of the Aquarium. You should plan to spend at least $50 on a Discus. If you buy a school then you can expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $250.
- Experience Required: 2-3 years minimum.
- Nicknames: King of the Aquarium.
- Color Forms: Red (most popular).
- Size: 8-10 inches.
- Tank Size: Minimum 70+ gallon.
- Tank Temperature: 83-88°F.
Discus are named after their round and flat body which looks like a throwing disc. Their body is not completely round though as this would be impractical for swimming. It is wide with curved slopes slightly at the head and tail. This shape contributes to slower, steadier movement than fish with more streamlined bodies.
The tail is very short and ends in a fan shaped caudal fin. Discus have curved dorsal and anal fins to match their round body shape and run parallel to one-another along the dorsal and ventral sides. There is a pair of tiny pectoral fins tucked against the body near the gills. Below these is a pair of thin triangular pelvic fins. The wide fan shaped caudal fin makes for a total of 7 fins on their body.
Discus have a small head that is shaped like a diamond and ends in a pointed snout with large lips. Once fully grown they can reach anywhere from 8 to 10 inches.
One of the main reasons to own a Discus is their many beautiful colors. Solid colors and base colors include: red, white, orange, yellow, blue, green, and brown. A mild patterned fish is mostly solid colored but may have a light dusting of spots or very light bands. Patterns can include spots, stripes, bands, or speckles. You may find up to 4 different colors and 3 different patterns on a single fish!
The colors extend to the Discus’s fins as well. In some cases the fins have a different color or pattern than the rest of the body. Many varieties feature a neon blue or green border around the fins. There are many different names for the patterns and color varieties. For example, a Pigeon Blood pattern includes a red color over a white or blue base color.
Habitat and Setting Up a Discus Tank
Discus live in the swamps and lowlands of the Amazon River basin. You will find different species in different areas of the river. S. discus occurs in the lower Rio Negro and upper Trombetas, S. aequifasciatus lives in the eastern Amazon, and S. tarzoo inhabits the western Amazon. All species can be found in floodplains and other areas where the water level is high in some parts of the year and low in others. This blackwater is colored with tannins from leaves and plant material.
To keep Discus fish in an aquarium you will need at least a 70 gallon tank. This will be suitable for a school of 5. For a larger group of Discus you will need a 100 gallon aquarium. The general rule is to allow 15 gallons for each Discus in the school.
The temperature must be kept between 83-88°F, with a pH of 6.5-7.0. You can use leaf litter to add a tea colored tinge to the water if needed. The water must be fully dechlorinated and cycled, leaving it at a hardness between 2 and 8 dGH.
Substrate is not necessary but if you do want to add something then use soft sand. The best filter to use is a canister filter. It should generate a light current which can be buffered by placing driftwood around the tank. A light intensity of about 3 watts per gallon will bring out your Discus’ best colors. In the wild it has adapted to more dimly lit areas of the river.
Discus love driftwood, roots, logs, and other natural wood structures. You can place a few smooth rocks around the tank but make sure you do not use anything with rough or sharp edges. Cichlids are not usually very nice to plants but the Discus is an exception. You should choose thick or leafy plants that will replicate a swamp. The best plants for this setup include Anubias, Brazilian Pennyworts, Amazon Swords, and Bucephalandra. Anacharis and Pennywort can also be floated along the surface.
Discus Cichlid Care
The Discus is for experienced keepers only. Unfortunately it can get very sick when something is wrong. It is also quite difficult to acclimate them to a new tank. To keep Discus fish healthy you should change up to 50 percent of the water on a weekly basis. You must also clean the glass, vacuum the substrate, and remove any rotten wood or decayed plants. The water must be checked regularly for ammonia, nitrates, and other waste products. Even small amounts can make your fish very ill.
Discus are particularly susceptible to Dactylogyrus, or gill flukes. This parasite infects the gills of freshwater fish. A sick Discus will isolate itself from the rest of its school, so this will be your first clue that something is wrong. The parasite causes mucus to ooze from the gills and the skin around the gills will get darker.
While the infection can be fatal if left untreated, it is easily treated by antiparasitic medications and formalin.
Feeding and Diet
The Discus is an omnivore but in the wild they mostly eat greens. You will see Discus snacking on algae, moss, and fallen leaves. It will also occasionally eat small invertebrates such as insects, shrimp, and worms.
Their diet will change with the seasons as more food is available during the flood season. In an aquarium most of their diet should be made up of Cichlid flakes with a high veggie content. You can supplement this with algae wafers and spirulina tablets. You can also give Discus pellets made from dried algae. There are many different foods that you can feed Discus, including:
- Cichlid flakes
- Algae flakes
- Algae pellets
- Insect larvae
- Brine shrimp
- Feeder shrimp
- Beef heart
Your fish will happily indulge in the filamentous or particulate algae that grows in your tank. When you trim your plants you can place the cut leaves and stems in the tank for your fish to snack on. Feeding a school of Discus Fish can be tricky as those at the top of the pecking order will dominate mealtimes and leave very little for the others.
You can solve this problem by feeding the fish in your community at different times. Discus will need to be fed twice every day and you should give enough food for everyone in the school to eat in under 5 minutes.
Most Cichlids are well known for being aggressive and territorial. The Discus is the exception and is actually shy and gentle. They will not go looking for a fight with your other fish and will flee if one happens to break out. For the most part they will stick with their own kind and ignore the other fish in the tank. Conflict will only break out within their school.
You will most often spot Discus swimming with their school at the middle levels of the tank. Although they are very docile they do have a pecking order and will fight to maintain it. If you catch your Discus locking lips they are not showing affection, but fighting. On average a healthy Discus Fish will live for about 10 years.
If you are looking for the perfect community Cichlid then you are in luck. The Discus is docile enough to get along with all kinds of community fish. Unfortunately this docile nature means they can be quite anxious around large or boisterous fish. Small fish are a great place to start.
Discus can be housed safely with many different kinds of Tetras, including: Red Phantoms, Emperors, and Cardinals. Sterba’s Cory is one of the best bottom dwellers for this tank, but other Cory Catfish will work just as well. The Bristlenose Pleco is also an excellent choice.
If you want to add a few Danios, try a group of Zebrafish or a few Giant Danios. For an excellent color complement consider the lovely Rainbowfish. Peaceful Cichlids such as Angelfish, Rams, and Dwarf Cichlids are safe to include.
Of course you can also keep them with other Discus. It can be fun to keep a large group of Discus Fish of different colors. The colors and patterns will blend together and make your tank look like a work of art. They will be happy in a group of 5 or more. All of the fish in a school should have grown up together. Never try to add an outsider to your current group.
You should keep away any aggressive Cichlids such as Oscars, Jack Dempseys, or Green Terrors. Larger Plecos should also be avoided as they have a tendency to suck on the Discus’ scales. You should also keep away boisterous fish like Paradise Gouramis, fin nipping Barbs, or Arowanas.
Breeding Discus is both rewarding and profitable, but it is also extremely challenging. Most first time breeders will buy a breeding pair that is ready to go. Otherwise, you will need to wait for the pairing to occur naturally.
You should only select the healthiest looking Discus for breeding. Focus on those with the brightest colors, the roundest shape, and the shiniest scales. The breeding tank should be at least 55 gallons and have a water temperature of exactly 84°F and a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. You can purchase breeding cones for the fish to lay their eggs on, or use logs or roots.
A pair in breeding condition must be fed 3 times a day on bloodworms, microworms, and brine shrimp. When the Discus couple is ready to pair they will swim beside one another. When she is ready to lay her eggs the female Discus will develop a breeding tube between her anal and caudal fin. The male Discus will clear out plants to prepare a nest. A female can lay up to 400 tiny white eggs and these will turn red once the male fertilizes them.
The parents will want to remain close by the nest to tend to the eggs. In 4 days the eggs will hatch and they will rely on their parents for food for about a week. Once they are weaned you can feed them infusoria and rotifers. In about 2 weeks the Discus fry will be able to graduate to larval brine shrimp. By the time they are a month old they will be able to eat what their parents eat.
You can place your new Discus in the main tank once they reach about 5 inches in length. They will be ready to breed on their own when they turn 4 months old.
History and First Sighting
Symphysodon discus was discovered by Johann Jacob Heckel in 1840. In his honor it is also known as the Heckel Discus. In 1903 S. tarzoo was discovered by J. Pellegrin. The third species, S. aequifasciatus, was found in 1960. All three Discus species come from the Cichlidae family.
At the beginning of its captive history only wealthy people could afford to keep the Discus fish. Because of this it gained notoriety in Europe and Asia through the 1930s. As others became increasingly charmed by the Discus Fish, it was exported to other parts of the world. The first color variety (turquoise blue) was bred in 1969 and since then hundreds of other color varieties have appeared on the market.
While the Discus is still quite expensive it is no longer restricted to wealthy fish keepers. It is now one of the most popular fish in the Cichlidae family!
Facts about Discus Fish
|Other Common Names:||King of the Aquarium|
|Scientific Name:||Symphysodon spp|
|Color:||Red (most popular)|
|Minimum Tank Size:||70 gallons|
|Tank Mate Compatibility:||Peaceful community fish|
The Discus Fish is a fine addition to any aquarium. It adds a spot of brilliant color to a large setup and is one of the few Cichlids that can easily fit into a community. Keeping Discus can be an enjoyable experience but it is also quite expensive and time consuming. It needs a powerful heater and filter, clear water, and very stable water parameters.
You do not need too many decorations and plants to furnish its setup. However, you will need to invest in a lot of equipment to keep the tank running and looking its best. Caring for this Amazonian beauty is hard work but it is extremely rewarding and worth it in the end. What is the most beautiful Discus fish that you have seen? Let us know in the comments section below…