Severum cichlids are among my favorite species of tropical fish. Big and beautiful, with bags of personality, these glorious fish are also relatively peaceful for a large cichlid.
But severums also demand exceptionally high water quality, high water temperatures, and soft, acidic water to thrive. Feeding them plenty of vegetable matter is also key for their long-term well-being.
Let’s take a closer look at how to care for these magnificent fish!
Severum Cichlid at a Glance
|Severum Cichlid Info
|Heros efasciatus (often mislabelled as Heros Severus)
|Severum Cichlid, Banded Cichlid, Rainbow Severum Cichlid
|Brazil, Peru (South America)
|Omnivore but mostly plant matter
|7 to 10 years+
|Usually peaceful fish
|Minimum Tank Size
|75 gallons for a single fish, 100 gallons for a pair
|Water Temperature Range
|77 F° to 84 F°
|4 to 10 dH
|6.0 to 7.0
|Difficulty to Breed
|Other medium-large peaceful species
The Different Types of Severum Cichlid
Frustratingly, there’s a huge amount of confusion about the different species, varieties, and origins of severums – even among scientists!
I’ve dug deep into my research to provide the most up-to-date information on this misunderstood family:
Since 2015, there are 5 known species in the Severum tribe – the ‘Heros’ genus:
- Heros efasciatus Heckel, 1840
- Heros liberifer Staeck 2015
- Heros notatus Jardine, 1843
- Heros severus Heckel, 1840
- Heros spurius Heckel, 1840
All five of them may have been kept in captivity, but the standard type that you’ll see in aquarium stores is Heros efasciatus. In the wild, these fish are green (i.e. green severums), but through selective breeding, various color morphs have been created.
These include forms such as ‘gold severums,’ ‘red-spot severums,’ ‘blue severums,’ ‘rainbow severums,’ and ‘red shoulder severums.’
Although these forms are often mislabeled as ‘Heros Severus,’ most experts now agree that they all derive from Heros efasciatus.
For those interested in learning more, a detailed article in the Cichlid News January 2016 issue written by Wayne Leibel explains the recent history of the genus.
Origin and Background
Severums have been around in the aquarium hobby since the early 1900s when they were introduced to the USA and Germany. In the last couple of decades, they’ve been becoming increasingly popular.
As we’ve discussed, almost all severums in the aquarium trade are thought to originate from ‘Heros efasciatus’ – the green severum that is widespread throughout the main Amazon channel, Rio Solimoes, and also the Rio Xingu rivers.
There’s a lot of conflicting information about the green severum’s natural habitats. While some sources suggest they come from deep, calm waters without plants, other scientific papers report they inhabit shallow flood plains with abundant vegetation!
It’s possible that these adaptable fish use a variety of habitats, depending on the season and the food sources available. What’s clear is that all habitats referenced are warm, calm, and slow-moving, with typically soft, acidic, tannin-stained water (black water).
While some green severum stocks are caught from wild populations, most aquarium specimens, including all gold and red severum varieties are bred in captivity.
Size and Appearance
Severums are a large aquarium fish species. In the wild, green severums can reach 12” long, but in captivity, 6-8 inches in length is more common.
Their deep, compressed bodies give this cichlid a beautifully round shape, which has led to some people referring to them as the ‘poor man’s discus’.
This name is grossly unjust in my opinion – severums are incredibly beautiful fish in their own right! They’re much less expensive and easier to keep than discus, but I’d argue these are plus points rather than minuses.
Severum Cichlid Care Guide
When it comes to tank size for severums, the basic principle is this – the larger the better! These big fish will really appreciate any extra room you can give them.
A single severum with a few peaceful, medium-sized tank mates needs a tank of at least 4 feet long and 75 gallons in volume. A pair of severums will need at least a 100-gallon tank to prevent bickering.
A small community of 6 severums or so would need at least a 200-gallon aquarium, and bigger is better!
Because they grow quite quickly, it’s best to place them in a full-size tank from the beginning rather than increasing their tank size as they grow older.
According to various reports, it seems that severums inhabit a wide range of habitats within the South American rivers they come from.
Many aquarists have had great success keeping these fish in an Amazonian-themed aquarium with abundant live plants, rocky caves, and pieces of driftwood, and these setups are certainly extremely attractive!
However, there are some potential problems with keeping severums in planted tanks.
Keeping Severum Cichlids in Planted Tanks
The problem with keeping severums in planted aquariums is that they’re fairly herbivorous and will sometimes enjoy eating aquarium plants!
I kept my gold severum in a tank with Java fern for years without problems, and others have reported that Crinum calami stratum will never get eaten. Fast-growing floating plants like Amazon frogbit may also escape their appetite.
Tying these tough plants to driftwood and rocks can help prevent them from being uprooted. But soft-leaved plants like Amazon sword and Anacharis could easily get ripped apart, and there are even stories of severums eating Anubias!
Firstly, a lot depends on the character of your particular severum. While some fish keepers have had trouble growing any plants in their severum tank, others have had little trouble.
Secondly, your success also depends on the health and abundance of your plants. If you place a severum in a tank where the plants are already established and growing fast, your severum is less likely to do significant damage or completely destroy any one plant.
Keeping Severums Without Live Plants
I’d always urge you to try to grow at least a few tough plants with your severum. It’ll make the tank more beautiful, give your severum something to lightly snack on, and will also improve water quality when managed well.
If you’re not having much luck keeping severums with live plants, you could use synthetic plants instead, and add pieces of attractive driftwood to decorate the tank.
Some fish keepers advise using a sand substrate for severums so that they can dig and make pits as they would in the wild.
On the other hand, gravel is easier to clean and is a much better substrate for plants to grow. In my experience, severums are also large enough to dig gravel without trouble.
Severum cichlids are tropical fish that prefer higher water temperatures than some other species. According to Neale Monks, they often suffer from being kept in water that’s too cool in home aquariums.
While they can tolerate temperatures slightly above or below their ideal range, the optimum daily water temperature is between 77-82°F. Higher temperatures can be used to induce spawning.
As with other fish, severums are sensitive to sudden changes in water temperature, so acclimatizing them properly in a new tank and avoiding large temperature fluctuations is essential to avoid thermal shock.
Severums are soft water fish that will accept a pH range between 5.5 – 7.5, but between 6.0 – 7.0 is ideal.
Ideally, water hardness should be kept below 10dGH, and below 5dGH for breeding.
If you’re having trouble keeping your aquarium water soft and acidic, consider adding tannin-containing materials such as hardwood driftwood and Indian almond leaves to the aquarium. Alternatively, add a bag of aquarium-safe peat to the filter outlet.
As these materials release tannins into the water, the water will become softer, more acidic, and take on an attractive amber hue. Some people refer to this as a ‘black water aquarium’.
Severums prefer more subdued lighting than many other fish. Once again, the staining effect of tannins in the water can help to subdue the lighting.
Another approach is to choose dimmer bulbs or add floating plants like Amazon frogbit and water sprite (Ceratopteris cornuta) to create a dappled shading effect.
Severums are highly sensitive to water quality and demand clean water conditions to remain happy and healthy. An efficient aquarium filter, therefore, is one of the most important investments for their well-being.
The most powerful Hang-on-back filters and internal power filters are okay for 75-gallon tanks, but canister filters are recommended for tanks larger than this.
It’s important to note that because they come from slow-moving rivers, severums can get stressed by a strong filter flow rate. You can reduce the water current without compromising its cleaning efficiency by installing an aquarium spray bar, or lily pipe.
Severum cichlids are primarily herbivorous fish but enjoy some healthy, protein-rich supplements in their diet, too!
While captive-bred fish are unfussy in their eating habits and will accept almost any type of tropical fish food, the ‘green severums’ that sometimes come from wild stocks can be pickier and take time to adjust to dried foods. It’s useful, therefore, to find out where your fish originally came from.
For captive-bred fish, commercial foods like flake foods are accepted, but high-quality cichlid pellets are the best staple.
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Dried fish foods, however, should always be supplemented with fresh and frozen meaty foods such as bloodworms, earthworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, Mysis shrimp, chopped prawns, or white mosquito larvae, once per week or so. Beef hearts and liver aren’t recommended for severums since they’ll have trouble digesting them properly.
Severums are especially fond of vegetable supplements and mine would go crazy for cooked peas and algae wafers! Peas should only be fed about twice a week, though. The rest of the time, feed green vegetables like dandelion leaves, blanched nettles, organic spinach or lettuce, nori flakes, and spirulina sinking wafers. Regular feeding of vegetable matter may also help to reduce them from eating aquarium 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 and health problems in aquarium fish.
One of the most attractive attributes of keeping severums is their remarkably peaceful nature.
While other cichlids like Oscars, Jack Demseys, and Firemouth Cichlids are notorious for being aggressive fish, severums are typically gentle giants who won’t fight with each other or other fish excessively.
Severums are, however, large freshwater fish, and as such might simply see very small fish as food items. Nano fish such as ember tetra, neon tetra, small rasboras, and guppies are best avoided. Likewise, severums should never be kept with shrimp, and may even sometimes eat snails.
The only time that severums typically become more boisterous is when they’re breeding. During courtship, the male severum may chase the female, and other fish will also be chased away when they spawn. A dedicated large breeding tank, then, is the best way to retain a peaceful environment if you intend to breed these fish.
Severums are fairly sensitive, nervous fish that can easily be scared or spooked. Try to move slowly around the tank to avoid distressing them and provide a secure tank lid/tank hood to prevent them from jumping out!
Severums are also an intelligent species that will come to recognize their owners as they approach the tank. Becoming familiar with your severum’s unique behavior and bonding with your fish can be extremely rewarding for the sensitive fish keeper.
Should You Keep Severum Cichlids Alone, in Pairs, or in a Group?
I’m not usually a fan of keeping cichlids alone, but severums give the impression of being quite content on their own. Because of their size, most people will either keep them alone or in a pair.
If you have an extremely large, 200-gallon aquarium, you could keep a group of 6 or so severum, but as they pair off and begin to breed, tensions and bickering may break out between different members of the group.
Compatible Tank Mates
While some aquarists prefer to keep severums in a species-only tank without other tank mates, they can also be kept in a community tank with other relatively peaceful, medium-large fish.
I used to keep my gold severum with silver dollars, clown loaches, bronze cory catfish, plecos, and convict cichlids. When the convict cichlids were breeding, they would sometimes lunge at the severum, causing stress. But severums are so big that they’re rarely bullied by other fish.
Some aquarists have kept severums with angelfish, but you need a large enough tank to do this successfully. Both of these large species need plenty of free swimming space in the middle water layers, and a lack of space could easily lead to stress and conflicts.
Other potential tank mates include relatively peaceful cichlids like blue acara, kribensis, keyhole cichlids, rainbow cichlids, ram cichlids, etc.
Avoid super aggressive tank mates like Oscars, Jack Demsey cichlids, and Jewel cichlids. As mentioned earlier, small schooling fish and shrimp are also best avoided as they’re likely to get eaten by your severum!
Health and Disease
Severum cichlids are extremely sensitive to poor water quality and can easily develop lateral line disease (aka. Hole in the head disease, HLLE) if their water is too high in nitrates and phosphates.
Ich (aka. white spot disease), velvet, and flukes are all common parasitic diseases that can lie dormant in an aquarium for years until a weakened or damaged fish or poor water quality offers 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 or living in poor water conditions.
It’s essential, then, to avoid overstocking the tank. Install an efficient filter, and establish excellent tank maintenance by vacuuming the substrate and making partial water changes regularly to keep water quality high.
Severums begin to reach sexual maturity when they’re around 7-12 months old and about 4-5 inches long (although in some instances males don’t learn how to fertilize eggs until around 18 months of age.)
If you want to breed severums, you’ll need to be able to discriminate their sex:
Mature male severums are typically larger than female severums with more pointed dorsal and anal fins, markings on their gill covers, and a nuchal hump on their forehead. They also tend to be slightly more aggressive.
How To Breed Severums
- Like angelfish, severums breed best when they’re allowed to select their own partners from a group. If you’re serious about breeding, get a group of 6-8 juvenile fish and wait 6-8 months for them to pair off.
- Select your favorite pair for breeding and either sell the others or move them to another tank.
- Create the ideal breeding conditions for breeding severums by increasing the water temperature to between 82-86°F with a hardness of less than 5 dGH and a pH of 6-6.5. Creating ‘black water’ by adding tannins can help. Provide flat rocks or slates at the bottom of the tank for them to spawn onto.
- Before spawning, the male becomes more colorful and may become aggressive towards the female. If she decides to spawn, she’ll lay 200-1000 eggs on the flat rock which are then fertilized by the male.
- The parents will then protect their eggs and may become aggressive towards any other fish in the tank. The eggs hatch in 48-72 hours and the fry takes around one week to become free swimming.
- Live baby brine shrimp are said to be the very best food for hatchlings, but frozen baby brine shrimp and microworms are also acceptable. Dried foods like crushed-up flake foods are a last resort but might suffice if you have nothing else.
- Parents will continue to guard their fry for up to 6 weeks, ushering them around the tank, and making gravel pits where they can hide.
Most sources report that severums only live for around 5 years in captivity. Personally, I think we should be aiming for at least 7 years for a large cichlid that can live for more than a decade when cared for properly.
For a cichlid to reach its maximum lifespan, its diet, water quality, and quality of care must be of the highest order.
Below are some top tips for keeping your severums in tip-top condition:
- Feed severums a diverse, balanced diet that includes regular additions of plant matter and live or frozen foods. Meals that are high in carotenoids can improve golden colors.
- Install an efficient filter and clean it regularly.
- Vacuum your substrate and make partial water changes of 15-35% 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.
Severum Cichlid Buying Guide
Severums are becoming ever more popular and breeding programs are producing increasingly diverse strains. Rainbow severums, red-spotted severums, and red-spot turquoise severums are just a few of the varieties on the market in 2023.
Because they’re intelligent fish that can live for over 10 years, only buy a severum if you have the necessary experience, equipment, and commitment to providing them with a good, long-term home.
Only buy fish from a reputable dealer, and choose active specimens displaying bright colors, bright eyes, and healthy-looking fins. Be careful to avoid individuals with spinal deformities.
Also, ask your dealer where your fish were sourced from. As mentioned earlier, green severums sometimes come from the wild and are less hardy fish than those raised in captivity.
Expect to pay anywhere from $10-$50 for severums in 2023.
Severums are extremely beautiful, intelligent, and relatively peaceful cichlids. However, they also demand excellent water quality, and at 8 inches long, severums are one of the larger cichlids. This means they should never be kept with small fish, and demand a large aquarium of at least 75 gallons to remain happy and healthy.
To ensure proper care, severums are only recommended for intermediate and advanced fish keepers.