Have you ever heard of the festivum cichlid? Also known as ‘flag cichlids’, festivums were once more popular than they are today.
Although less colorful and flashy than some other cichlids, these sociable fish are more peaceful than many of their feisty relatives and can be kept in groups in large community tanks.
Some of the traditional information about festivums is now outdated, including the idea that the festivum is a single species. In this guide, I’ll be clearing up the confusion, as well as offering some top tips for keeping these festive fish in fine fettle!
Festivum Cichlid at a Glance
|Festivum Cichlid Info|
|Other Common Names||Festive Cichlid, Flag Cichlid, Festive Acara|
|Scientific Names (including all 6 species)||Mesonauta festivus, Mesonauta insignis Mesonauta guyanae, Mesonauta mirificus, Mesonauta acora, Mesonauta egregius, Acara festiva, Cichlasoma festiva, Cichlasoma festivum, Cichlasoma insigne, Cichlasoma insignis, Heros festivus, Heros insignis|
|Distribution||Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Paraguay, Guyana, Venezuela, and Peru.|
|Maximum Size||Average 5-6 inches in aquariums|
|Tank Size||55 gallons+|
|Water Parameters||pH: 5.5-7.5 / dGH: 2-20|
|Temperament||Mostly peaceful, becoming more aggressive when breeding|
|Lighting||Medium to Subdued|
|Feeding||Omnivore. Cichlid pellets, meaty foods, plant-based foods|
Species Background and Genetics
The interesting thing about the festivum or ‘flag cichlid’ is that these common names are now known to describe not one species of fish, but several!
Festivums were more popular in the early days of cichlid keeping and were all thought to be a single species: Mesonauta festivus. That all changed in the 1990s when scientific reviews revealed the genus consists of not one, but six distinct species!
It turns out that the other species in the genus like M. guyanae, M. insignis, and M. mirificus are also regularly found in the aquarium trade, with some experts considering Mesonauta insignis appearing more commonly in fish tanks than the Mesonauta festivus.
The reason for this confusion is that all of these ‘festive cichlids’ look similar, and have similar behavior and care requirements. Even specialist taxonomists can find it difficult to distinguish species by appearance, and the different species can also sometimes hybridize with each other in captivity.
The festivum cichlid family is widespread throughout much of Northern South America.
Found in Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, they typically inhabit heavily vegetated rivers and oxbow lakes with soft substrates and submerged pieces of wood and twisted roots, providing cover. The tannin-stained water that they live in is sometimes known as ‘black water’.
In their natural habitat, festivums often swim in groups or loose schools. Check out this fascinating video clip of them living alongside angelfish in the wild!
Size and Appearance
The appearance of festivum cichlids varies between different species as well as individuals of the same species depending on their age, health, and breeding condition.
Most festivums have a thick black stripe that runs from the rear tip of their dorsal fin to their gills or nose, although this can appear faint or barely visible in some individuals. Others have faint vertical black bars, similar to those seen in green severums.
Their main body color is silver, but some individuals (especially males of M.insignis) also have a golden to reddish underside. Red eyes and slight bluish gill patches are other attractive features that may be sought after by breeders.
Festivums or flag cichlids also possess very elongated pelvic fins that they use as feelers. Their compressed body shape and long feelers make them superficially reminiscent of a gourami.
Male festivums are usually about one inch larger than females. In the wild, festivum males can exceed 8 inches in length, but in an aquarium, 4-6 inches is more normal.
See the ‘Sexual dimorphism’ for notes on differences between male and female fish.
Festivum Cichlid Tank Setup
Festivums are social fish that should never be kept alone.
Plants and Decor
Because they come from heavily vegetated habitats, festivums will appreciate plenty of live plants in their fish tank. These fish occasionally dig in the substrate and will sometimes nibble at aquarium plants, but robust plant species will live alongside them perfectly well once established.
As with an angelfish tank, pieces of driftwood and bogwood look especially attractive, and some large caves can provide useful hiding places.
The native habitat of festivums is known as ‘black water’ because the water is stained a dark amber color from the presence of dissolved tannins. Tannins are leached into the water from materials such as driftwood, fallen tree leaves, and peat which make the water softer and more acidic.
By adding Indian almond leaves, aquarium-safe peat, or untreated hardwood such as beech and oak to the tank, tannins are released into the water. Imbuing it with an amber hue, tannins adjust the water chemistry in favor of ‘black water fish’ like festivums.
Expert’s tip!: If you do wish to create a black water aquarium, you’ll need to remove your carbon filter, to prevent it from removing the tannins from the water.
Festivums come from rivers with a soft sandy or silty substrate. While providing them with a soft bottom will make it easier for them to dig occasionally, sand substrates are not without their problems.
Because aquarium gravel provides a better substrate for plant growth, is easier to clean, and doesn’t get stuck in filters, I’d advise gravel substrate over sand for beginner fish keepers.
Because the dark waters and overhanging trees of their native habitat allow less light to penetrate the water, festivums are adapted to fairly subdued lighting conditions.
The ideal balance is to provide enough lighting to stimulate sufficient plant growth yet not overwhelm your fish.
An elegant solution is to incorporate Floating plants like Amazon frogbit and water sprite that create a dappled shading effect underneath.
Festivum cichlids are tropical fish that tolerate a wide range of water temperatures in the wild. They remain sensitive, however, to sudden changes in water temperature, so acclimatizing them properly in a new tank and avoiding temperature fluctuations is essential to avoid thermal shock.
Provide them with a reliable aquarium heater and set the thermostat to between 76-82°F. This temperature range makes them compatible with most South American cichlids.
Festivums typically inhabit soft, acidic water in the wild. In captivity, they’ll accept a pH of between 5.5-7.5, and dGH up to 20 degrees.
If you have hard alkaline tap water, your water chemistry may be better suited to keeping Central American or African cichlids rather than South American species.
Clean water with a high oxygen content is one of the most essential aspects for keeping festivums happy and healthy, so an efficient aquarium filter is essential.
Because they come from slow-moving rivers, festivum cichlids can get stressed by a strong filter output. To reduce the water current without compromising the filter’s efficiency, I recommend using an aquarium spray bar, or lily pipe.
Temperament and Tank Mates
Are Festivums Aggressive?
Compared to other cichlids, festivums can be considered fairly peaceful fish. Some people have compared them to a moderately assertive angelfish or severum cichlid in terms of temperament.
They won’t normally bully or attack other medium-sized fish when they’re not breeding, although they have been known to eat small tetras such as neon tetra and rummy noses.
When breeding, however, festivums become significantly more territorial fish. Because they’ll defend their eggs and fry diligently, it’s best not to keep a breeding pair with vulnerable bottom dwellers like Corydoras catfish.
Compatible Tank Mates
Now we know that small tetras and cories are not the best tank mates for festivums, so which fish make better choices?
Medium-sized robust freshwater fish like barbs, freshwater sharks, gouramis, larger rasboras, giant danios, and rainbow fish would all make excellent companions.
Larger tetras like black skirt tetra and Congo tetra can also serve as ‘dither fish’, bearing the brunt of any aggressive outbursts without being harmed.
More experienced aquarists sometimes also keep festivums alongside other peaceful cichlids such as angelfish, severums, rainbow cichlids, blue acaras, and keyhole cichlids. Just be warned that if any of these cichlids begin to breed, they’ll become more aggressive, and territorial disputes could break out in the tank.
As for an algae eater, consider a tough but peaceful species like a bristlenose pleco. Festivums will eat aquarium shrimp, and may also sometimes prey on snails.
Care and Breeding
Festivum cichlids are omnivorous fish that are unfussy in their eating habits and do best when given a balanced, varied diet.
While dried fish foods such as flake foods and cichlid pellets provide a good staple, these should always be supplemented with high-protein fresh and frozen foods such as bloodworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, and mosquito larvae.
Helpings of vegetable foods like blanched spinach, dandelion leaves, nori flakes, or spirulina wafers will also be appreciated and may help to prevent your cichlid from eating your aquatic plants!
As usual, feed your fish twice a day, with no more than they can eat in 2 minutes. Overfeeding is one of the most common causes of water quality issues which these fish are especially sensitive to.
Health and Disease
Festivum cichlids demand excellent tank conditions and may develop health problems and diseases if water quality deteriorates or they become stressed.
Ich, velvet, and flukes are all common parasitic diseases that can lie dormant in an aquarium for years until a weakened fish or very poor water conditions offer them a chance to strike.
Similarly, bacterial and fungal infections like columnaris and water molds only tend to affect fish that are already in a vulnerable state.
Keeping festivum cichlids in pairs or groups with plenty of hiding places in a clean tank is therefore the best defense against stress and potential infections.
As mentioned earlier, male festivums are usually about an inch bigger than females. They also have more pointed dorsal and anal fins and in some species, a brighter golden to reddish underside.
Breeding festivums is not as easy as with many other cichlids:
- Condition the pair by feeding them rich live foods such as black worms. Raising the water temperature and making the water more soft and acidic may also help to induce spawning.
- Festivums are substrate spawners that prefer to lay their eggs on a flat surface. A smooth, flat rock such as a piece of slate placed on the bottom of the tank is ideal.
- Between 200-1000 eggs are laid. They hatch within 48 hours and fry become free swimming in a further 2-3 days.
- Festivums typically make good parents who protect their eggs and fry vigilantly. Only if they’re very stressed or inexperienced are they likely to eat their offspring.
- Raise festivum fry on baby brine shrimp, microworms, and crushed flake food.
Some top tips for keeping your festivum cichlids in tip-top condition!
- Install a good filter and clean it every 2-3 weeks.
- Vacuum your substrate and make partial water changes of 20-35% every 1-2 weeks with treated water of matching temperature.
- Get yourself a reliable heater and thermometer. Make daily checks to ensure the temperature is within the ideal range for all of your fish.
- Observe your fish closely every day to ensure they are in good health and interacting peacefully with each other.
- Test your aquarium’s water at least once a month or any time your fish seem unwell.
As with other medium-sized cichlids, festivums can live for a long time when kept in good condition.
7-10 years would be a fairly typical lifespan in captivity, but experienced aquarists could also aim to exceed this.
Festivums aren’t as popular as many other cichlids, so you may not see them in your local pet store. Larger aquarium stores and online retailers are more likely to stock them.
If you’re buying your fish from a store, only choose active individuals, with bright colors, shiny eyes, and healthy-looking fins. If you’re buying online, always check reviews to ensure the site’s integrity.
Expect to pay between $5-30 for festivums in 2023, depending on size and quality.
Festivums are fairly peaceful and moderately easy to keep cichlids that do well in pairs and schools.
Often compared to angelfish, they make a reasonable choice for beginner cichlid keepers, or those looking for a less common, sociable cichlid that can be kept in groups.