Heckel Discus

Red Discus, Pompadour Fish, Pineapple Discus

Family: Cichlidae Heckel Discus, Symphysodon discus, Red Discus, Pompadour FishSymphysodon discusPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Ken Childs
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The Heckel Discus is the most distinctive and easily recognized of the discus cichlids!

The Heckel Discus Symphysodon discus, also known as the Pompadour Fish and the Pineapple Fish, is an elegant, graceful cichlid. They were the first discus to be discovered and can be readily distinguished from other discus types by their three bold vertical bars. One bar runs through the eye and another through the caudal fin, but the most prominent bar runs down the center of the body. Other discus also have bars in their natural forms, but only the Heckel Discus displays a broad dark central bar.

In addition to the normal form, there are beautiful red colored specimens that are called Red Discus, Red Heckel Discus, Blue Heckel Discus, or Blue Head Discus. In this red form they are considered to be one of the most beautiful of all naturally occurring discus.

These fish have been identified since the mid part of the 19th century, making them one of the oldest residents of the aquairum hobby. The Heckel Discus was described in 1840 by Dr. Johann Jacob Heckel, and named for him. Altogether there are three acknowledged Discus species, including another longtime favorite the Green Discus Symphysodon aequifasciatus. Both of these species are found in the central and lower Amazon regions. There is also a third species, the Blue Discus or Brown Discus Symphysodon haraldi, that is recognized but awaiting further work to determine its identification and validation.

The Heckel Discus is a more delicate species than the other two and are the least popular due to their difficult care. They are also more difficult to breed, and so most of the available fish are generally wild caught.. Males breed more easily than females however, so they have been bred with other species to create a variety of hybrids. 

Heckel Discus are peaceful, shy cichlids. They do best in pairs or groups of pairs and should not be kept singly. This species comes from slightly warmer water than the other discus, though like the others they prefer a lightly planted aquarium with subdued lighting. Provide a soft substrate with some roots or rocks.

Discus can be rewarding to keep for experienced aquarists that are observant and diligent in providing care. The most commonly available discus are the tank bred varieties of Green Discus S. aequifasciatus. The tank bred specimens are much hardier than wild caught specimens and so require a bit less care. But many experienced aquarists considered the Heckel Discus to be more difficult to care for than even wild caught S. aequifasciatus. Because of this, it is recommended that they only be kept by experienced aquarists. 

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care

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Geographic Distribution
Symphysodon discus
Data provided by FishBase.org
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Symphysodon
  • Species: discus
Wild Caught Heckel Discus and Green Discus

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A large group of beautiful Heckel and Green Discus!

The video showcases a large group of Heckel and Green Discus swimming, feeding, and interacting with each other. You can differentiate the two types of fish by looking for the bold and pronounced 1st, 5th, and 9th vertical bars that only show up on the Heckel Discus. Lots of great views of quite a few fish!

Heckel Discus - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Size of fish - inches: 8.0 inches (20.32 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L)
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult
  • Temperature: 82.0 to 90.0° F (27.8 to 32.2° C)
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Heckel Discus Symphysodon discus was described in 1840 by Dr. Johann Jacob Heckel. They are native to South America, originating from Brazil in the Rio Negro, Rio Trombetas north of the Amazon, and from the Rio Abacaxis south of the Amazon. This species is not listed on the IUCN Red List. Other common names they are known by are Pompadour Fish, Pineapple Discus, Red Discus, Red Heckel Discus, Blue Heckel Discus, and Blue Head Discus.

They inhabit places where the water is quiet and heavily planted. They live in the still or slow moving waters along the banks where they hide among tangled roots and branches. They feed on insect larvae, insects, and planktonic invertebrates.

  • Scientific Name: Symphysodon discus
  • Social Grouping: Groups
  • IUCN Red List: NE - Not Evaluated or not listed

Description

Discus are relatively large disc shaped cichlids. They can get up to about about 8 inches (20 cm) in length and are the most laterally compressed (flattened) of all the cichlids. The Heckel Discus have an almost circular body accented with nine vertical stripes. The Heckel Discus are distinguished from other discus by their  wide black 1st, 5th, and 9th bars, called the "Heckel bars", that run through the eye, the center of the body, and the base of the tail. Juveniles have a body coloration that is a dull brown.

There are two popular varieties of Heckel Discus:

  • Red Discus
    The Red Discus has a reddish brown background, faint blue horizontal stripes, and red edges on the fins. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful discus. This color form is also called Red Heckel Discus, Blue Heckel Discus, and Blue Head Discus.

  • Pineapple Discus
    The Pineapple Discus is from the Rio Abacaxis south of the Amazon and presents faded pastel colors. It gets its name from 'Abacaxis' which is Portuguese for 'pineapple'.
  • Size of fish - inches: 8.0 inches (20.32 cm)
  • Lifespan: 10 years

Fish Keeping Difficulty

As with the other discus, the Heckel Discus is a demanding and extremely difficult fish to keep and should only be kept by experienced aquarists. One of the most difficult aspects of keeping discus fish is the process of acclimating them to their new tank, especially if the particular fish is either a juvenile or an older adult. Because of this difficulty, most aquarists prefer to purchase and transer medium sized and aged discus, as they are hardier and more likely to survive the process.  Keep in mind these fish become fairly large (about 8 inches or 20 cm in length) and with adult fish being difficult to move. make sure once they reach around 3 inches or so that they are in a forever type tank and will not need to be transferred to a new tank.

When purchasing a Discus make sure to inspect the fish very well for signs of disease as they are very prone to ich and other stress related diseases that can be transfered into their new home and have a negative reaction on its other tankmates.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced

Foods and Feeding

Since they are carnivorous, discus will generally eat all kinds of live food and need to be offered a variety. Other good foods include frozen brine shrimp, bloodworms, and some will enjoy whiteworms. Tank bred discus are also usually willing to accept food in a flake or pelleted form. In addition, some discus will even enjoy eating a small amount of vegetable based foods such as spirulina, lettuce, or blanched cucumber. Give these foods a try and if you find that your discus likes them, be sure to supplement their diet with them on occasion. You will see many references online which recommend feeding your discus beef hearts; however, you should be careful to not overfeed on warm-blooded animal meat. Beef heart and poultry products can be wonderful supplements to your fishes' diet, but they contain certain fats and types of proteins that can cause blockages in their digestive system. So although they can be good foods for a treat, do not routinely feed them. 

  • Diet Type: Carnivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Most of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day

Aquarium Care

Discus cichlids are sensitive to water conditions and will require a strict water change regiment of at least 25% every week. Because these fish are so sensitive to sudden changes in water condition and temperature, you should make sure any water you are putting into the tank is the same temperature and condition as the water already in the tank.  Make sure when doing water changes to carefully vacuum the substrate throughly. Before vacuuming use a sponge or algae magnet to clean viewing panes and vacuum the displaced algae once it has settled on the tank bottom. Take great care when cleaning the tank to not cause excessive or unwarranted stress to your fish as they are prone to stress related diseases.

  • Water Changes: Weekly - Weekly water changes are very important with this fish!

Aquarium Setup

A minimum 50 gallon aquarium is okay for a single fish, though a much larger tank would be needed if keeping more. Because these fish are as tall as they are long, taller show type tanks work best. They need good water movement along with strong and efficient filtration. An aquarium best suited to discus has slightly soft and acidic water and is a bit warmer than what is required for many tropical fish. Heckel Discus come from even slightly warmer water than the other discus. These fish are more susceptible to disease in lower temperatures.

Discus cichlids have a timid nature and dislike moving shadows, excessive vibrations, and overly boisterous tank mates. It is best to keep their aquarium out of areas that have high traffic, lights being turned on and off, or rooms that are noisy. They are also very shy and more active at night.

A planted aquarium with an open area for swimming suits them well, but the plants need to be varieties that can tolerate warmer temperatures of 82° F and up. Some good plants selections are rosette plants like the Dwarf Lily Bulbs, Anubias Nana, MicroSword Grass, Jungle and Corkscrew Vallisneria, Water Onions, Ozelot Swords, Rangeri Swords, and Didplis Diandra; also, some of the aquatic stem plants like Rotala Indica; and some of the fern and moss type plants like the Java Fern and Subulata.

When you first introduce these fish to your aquarium avoid placing them in bright lighting, especially without a place to retreat to. They may initially prefer subdued lighting because of their shyness, but once they become comfortable normal aquarium lighting works fine.

Discus can be rewarding to keep for experienced aquarists that are observant and diligent in providing care. They are slow feeders so care needs to be taken to make sure they get plenty of food if they have more rambunctious tankmates.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L) - 50 gallon tank is good for one fish, but you will need much more if you have more than one or are keeping with tank mates. Make sure the tank is not only long enough but also high enough as this fish gets very tall.
  • Substrate Type: Sand/Gravel Mix
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate - normal lighting
  • Temperature: 82.0 to 90.0° F (27.8 to 32.2° C)
  • Breeding Temperature: - 82 - 88° F (27.7 - 31° C)
  • Range ph: 5.5-6.5
  • Hardness Range: 0 - 3 dGH
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: All

Social Behaviors

Unlike many others in the cichlid family, discus are peaceful, highly social and will prefer to be kept in large schools of 6 or more individuals. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that such a large group will need to be kept in a very large aquarium. They are not predatory and they do not burrow in the substrate. Several discus can be kept together and they can be kept with some of the more peaceful tropical fish. They are slow feeders, and need companions with a similar temperament.

Examples of good community companions would be a pair of dwarf cichlids or some clown loaches. Also a school consisting of 15 - 20 individuals of a single species of tetra works well. Good selections include Characin species like the Cardinal Tetra, Neon Tetra, Rummynose Tetra, Glowlight Tetra, Emperor Tetra, or Congo Tetra. It is suggested that you avoid Angelfishes and Corydoras Catfish, as these fish are prone to carrying internal parasites that can infect the discus.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species - conspecifics: Yes - Prefers 6 or more!
    • Peaceful fish (): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Slow Swimmers & Eaters (): Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: May be aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sex: Sexual differences

Although it is hard to distinguish the sex, during breeding season the male will have a more pointed papillae while the female's is rounded. Males may be larger and some males have a more pointed dorsal fin and thicker lips.

Breeding / Reproduction

The Heckel Discus are also more difficult to breed than other discus species. The males, however, are easier to breed than the females so they have been bred with the other discus species. Discus form nuclear families but will readily cross-breed with other discus. They are egg layers and will attach their eggs to plants, driftwood, rocks, and ornamentation in the aquarium.

Though spawning and rearing of fry can be successful in harder water, for fertilization and egg development they require a total hardness no higher than 6° dGH. Water conditions for breeding should be slightly acidic, soft and warm. Have a pH of about 5.5 - 6°, hardness at about 3-10° dGH and temperatures between 82 - 88° F (27.7 - 31° C). The female will lay between 200 - 400 which will hatch in about 60 hours. Fry consume a special mucus on the skin of the parents for the first 5 or 6 days. See more about cichlid breeding in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Moderate

Fish Diseases

Discus are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. They tend to be susceptible to illness when stressed, usually caused by not providing ample hiding places or during transfer from one tank to another. One common problem is Ich. It can be treated with the elevation of the tank temperature to 86° F (30° C) for 3 days. If that does not cure the Ich, then the fish needs to be treated with copper (remove any water conditioners). Several copper based fish medications are available for Ich. Copper use must be kept within the proper levels, so be sure to follow the manufacturers suggestions. A copper test also can be used to keep the proper levels. You can also combine increasing the temperature with an Ich medication treatment. Intestinal disease can be treated with metronidazol.

As with most fish, Heckel Discus are prone to skin flukes and other parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), fungal infections, and bacterial infections. It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about freshwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.

Anything which is introduced into your tank has a potential of introducing bacteria, parasites, or chemicals that can be harmful to your discus. When introducing new fish make sure to first do a good visual observation of the fish and others in the tank they are coming from. Then quarantine the new fish to be sure to not pass anything to your tank. The same principle holds for plants and plastic decorations which you are introducing to your tank. Be sure to clean and/or quarantine anything being put in your tank.

Availability

The Heckel Discus are hard to come by with most available specimens being wild caught. You can sometimes obtain them from specialty dealers or online. Wild caught Heckel Discus are expensive, well over $100.00 USD.

References

Author: Clarice Brough CFS, Jeremy Roche
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