Another South American Beauty

We have always had a fondness for South American cichlid species. Not the big bruisers that require a tank of their own and could be made into a tasty fish fry, but smaller somewhat meeker species. Over the last few years we have purchased several varieties of South American’s including Herichthys ellioti, Geophagus steindachneri “Red Hump”, and several varieties of the dwarf cichlids. All have pleasing temperaments and for the most part can be kept together in community tanks without too much difficulty (unlike our experience with African Cichlids). We came across an attractive but unusual fish at one of the club’s auctions that immediately intrigued us. The fish’s Latin name was unfamiliar but it definitely had a South American look to it. Consequently, we bought it at some ridiculous price. As the fish was given that terrible label of “cichlid” nobody wanted it. You can get some great deals on wonderful fish when phobias exist around certain types of fishes!

When we got our new found prize home we set him up in a 80-liter well-planted tank that contained some baby swordtails, a few juvenile bronze Corydoras, and a juvenile male Geophagus steindachneri “Red Hump” that had escaped the auction sale bag. For several weeks we wondered if our new acquisition would survive, as he remained listless and pale, and would not eat even when offered really tempting goodies such as frozen brine shrimp and bloodworms. Expecting the worst, we soon stopped worrying about him. Sometimes the shock of transport will seriously affect a fish to the point that they do not recover. Only time tells.

Luckily for us he recovered and soon began showing his true splendor. Some research identified him as Acarichthys heckelii, Heckel’s thread-finned acara. This fish is gorgeous and photos of it do not do it justice. The body is high-backed tapering to the tail. The dorsal fin is fullest at its caudal end and has several elongated rays that extend beyond the caudal fin. These are called the threads and are a predominant red color. The upper and lower caudal fin rays are also elongated but not to as great an extent as the dorsal threads. The anal and ventral fins are also elongated. The body and caudal fin have several lateral rows of small iridescent blue spots. This spangling extends into the dorsal, ventral and anal fins as well. The anterior portions of the ventral fins are outlined in brilliant blue. The body color is beige to brown with a large black lateral spot and a prominent black eye band extending below the eye to the chin. Above the upper lip is a thin black line that resembles a moustache. In the correct lighting the body and fins will be suffused with lavender, blue and golden yellow. This is a truly breath taking specimen.

A. heckelii inhabits slow-moving to stagnant waters found in smaller tributaries, streams, pools, oxbow lakes and marshes. Its territory includes The Guianas, Surinam, Peru, and the Brazilian Amazon and its tributaries. The species is basically isomorphic, but Baensch states that at spawning time the females will look slightly fuller; otherwise sexing is very difficult to impossible. The spawning behavior of this cichlid is unusual and quite interesting. Females excavate a series of tunnels in soft mud which eventually lead to a larger “nuptial chamber”. This hollowed-out chamber is where the actual spawning will occur. When the chamber has been constructed to the female’s satisfaction, she will start to actively court males who swim into her territory. The courtship ritual at times can be quite intense. When the female has made her choice amongst the males, the successful pair will retreat to the nuptial chamber and lay up to 1000 eggs that they attach to the walls and ceiling of the chamber. The white eggs are clustered in groups of five to six with spaces left between clusters. The female remains inside the chamber to fan the eggs while the male guards the territory around the chamber. The eggs will hatch in approximately three days and become free-swimming after another three. By this time the fry are approximately four millimeters long and start to utilize the tunnel system as the focal point when foraging for food. If threatened, the parents and the fry can retreat into the safety of the tunnels.

To duplicate this situation in the home aquarium overturned clay pots or PVC tubing can be used. Sand or very fine-gravel bottoms work best. Well-planted tanks, especially around pots and tubes, can provide a suitable environment that will induce a pair to spawn.

This is an easy cichlid to care for. References state that A. heckelii is a territorial and somewhat predatory fish though our experience has been to the contrary. The baby swordtails were never harassed nor did their numbers decrease. A temporary relocation into another tank resulted in fin damage to the heckelii which necessitated another relocation to a community tank with schools of small fishes: Rasbora heteromorpha, praecox rainbows, and rummy-nosed tetras. There have not been any problems with this combination.

A wide variety of water conditions are tolerated. Ours is kept in kept in aged tap water with pH >7.5, hardness >300 PPM, and water temperature at 24C to 26C. These fish are omnivorous and will eat anything. Ours get a basic flake diet with occasional treats of Spirulina flake, frozen brine shrimp and freeze-dried Tubifex. We’ve rarely seen a fish accept flake food with so much enthusiasm. A nice change from some of the more finicky South Americans we have kept.

As the May jar show will feature South American cichlids, we thought this would be a timely article though Heckel (as ours is called) will not be present as he is still recovering from fin damage. South American cichlids are generally much more peaceful and easier to keep than their African cousins. So the next time you see a South American cichlid offered for sale at an auction, do not hesitate to bid as you may just purchase a jewel like Heckel’s thread-finned acara!


Baensch, H.A. & Riehl, R. (1993). Aquarium Atlas 2. Tetra Press.

Leibel, W. (1993). A Fishkeepers Guide to South American Cichlids. Tetra Press

Linke, H. & Staeck, W. (1994). Dwarf Cichlids, Tetra Press.