The Flag Cichlid or Festivum is a “merry” and very distinguished long-time aquarium pet!

The Flag Cichlid Mesonauta festivus,also commonly known as the Festivum Cichlid, Barred Cichlid, or Festive Cichlid, is a beautiful and interesting cichlid.Not only its common names, but its scientific name as well describe it as a striking and attractive fish. The genus termMesonautameans “middle sailor”, “distinguished, and “remarkable” while the species termfestivusmeans “merry” or “handsome.”One of the longest held aquarium fish, it has been a perennial favorite in the hobby for over 100 years. It was first introduced into the hobby in about 1908 and first bred in captivity in West Germany at the Weinhausen Aquarium of Brunswick in 1911.

The most distinguishing characteristic of this cichlid is a black stripe running from its mouth across the top of its back. There are at least 6 or more color varieties and patternings to choose from, but they all have this distinguishing black mark. The variations found in this fish stem from the locations where the parent species were originally captured.

The Flag Cichlid is actually a very social cichlid and preferes to be kept in groups. They can be kept in a community aquarium with a variety of other fish, even many smaller fish. Though they make an interesting and welcome addition to a tank with Angelfish, they are not so good with some small colorful fish such as Neon Tetras as these are a favorite snack. In the wild they have some very interesting and unique behaviors such as resting on their sides or jumping up out of the water when feeling threatened rather than swimming quickly to the bottom, as most cichlids do.

They are generally easy to care for as long as water conditions are kept up with regular water changes. They are a timid cichlid and need to be able to hide, whether in rock caves or within a tangled bunch of bog wood or tall, leafy plants. They do not dig up plants and hardy species such as Sagittarius and Vallisneria will work well, as do plastic plants. Though, depending on their personality they may or may not eat the live plants. It’s best to have plants that reach to the top of the water, but still leave some open areas for swimming. Be sure to have a lid on the aquarium because of their tendency to jump up when frightened.

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

Flag Cichlid Breed

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A tour through the breeding and growing cycle of a Flag Cichlid

Neat video showcasing the hatching of Flag Cichlid fry and following their development from fry to adult. Lots of great views of the fish as they progress and a helpful overlay informing the viewer of which phase the fish are in now.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Genus: Mesonauta
  • Species: festivus
Flag Cichlid – Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner
  • Size of fish – inches: 7.9 inches (19.99 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gal (151 L)
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8&deg C)
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Flag Cichlid Mesonauta festivus was described by Heckel in 1840. They are a very common cichlid from South America, found in the Paraguay River drainage in Paraguay and Brazil. They are also found in the Amazon River basin in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and Jamari. The species is not listed on the IUCN Red List. Other common names they are known by include Festivum Cichlid, Barred Cichlid, Festive Cichlid, and Bandeiro.

The Mesonauta genus is known today to be very complex. It has been found that it comprises not one, but a group of species, with at least five now described. The actual species that makes up the captive bred Flag Cichlid is no longer definite. Many of these fish available today are captive bred in Florida and Asia and display signs of inbreeding such as stunted fins.

In the wild they inhabit white, clear, and blackwaters in lakes, rivers, and streams where the water is slow moving and there is vegetation for hiding. They eat a variety of benthic weeds and algae along with benthic crustaceans, insects, annelids (worms), and plankton. These main foods are in the form of “aufwuchs” or organisms that live on rocks.

  • Scientific Name: Mesonauta festivus
  • Social Grouping: Groups
  • IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed


The body of the Flag Cichlid is an angular oval shape and is strongly compressed laterally with pointed anal and dorsal fins. These are good sized fish that can grow to a length of 8″ (20 cm) in captivity, though they are only about 6″ (15 cm) in the wild. They have a life span of 7 – 10 years.

The most distinguishing characteristic of these fish is a black band that runs from the mouth, through the eye at an angle upward to the top of the very back of the dorsal fin. There are at least 6 or more color varieties and patterning stemming from different locations, all of which include this black strip. They can be yellow above that line and white/silver below. Another variety is brown on top white/silver on the bottom and the fins are striped in light yellow and brown. Still another variety has 7 irregular brown vertical bars that run the entire length of the body ending in an “8th” bar as a spot on the caudal fin.

  • Size of fish – inches: 7.9 inches (19.99 cm) – The Festivum Cichlid grows to a length of about 5.91″ (15 cm) in the wild, though can reach up to about 7.87″ (20 cm) in captivity.
  • Lifespan: 10 years

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Flag Cichlid is a great choice for the beginner aquarist due to their easy maintenance and mostly peaceful demeanor. They can do well in a community tank with a wide variety of tankmates, including fish of a similar size and temperment and even some smaller fish as well. They can tolerate a wide variety of tank conditions and are a hardy and low maintenance pet.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner

Foods and Feeding

As anomnivore, the wildFlag Cichlid enoyed a wide variety of foods including weeds, algae, insect larvae, and various types of meaty foods.In the aquarium they enjoy a similarly wide variety of foods such as fresh or frozen brine shrimp, blood worms, and pellet and flake foods. Be sure to occasionally include some vegetable based foods like spirulina flakes, blanched spinach, cucumber, or even oatmeal. Feed 2 to 5 small pinches of food a day. Feed in smaller amounts several times a day instead of a large quantity once a day. This will keep the water quality higher over a longer time. All fish benefit from vitamins and supplements added to their foods.


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

Aquarium Care

TheFlag Cichlids are fairly easy to care for provided their water is kept clean. Aquariums are closed systems and regardless on size all need some maintenance. With home aquariums the nitrate and phosphates build up over time and the water hardness increases due to evaporation. Because these fish are sensitive to pollutants and pH instabilty it is important that at least 15-25% of the tank water should be replaced bi-weekly,and weeklyif the tank is densely stocked. When doing the weekly water changes always use a gravel cleaner to make sure all of the decomposing organic matter that has built up is removed. Make sure to condition replacement water properly and try to match its temperature to that of the water in the tank.

Use an algae magnet ot scraper to keep viewing panes clear. The Flag Cichlid will feed on algae on other surfaces.

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly

Aquarium Setup

A minimum 40 gallon aquarium is suggested. They are fine with low to moderate water movement, but need good aeration along with good efficient filtration. Provide a fine gravel substrate with rocks and pieces of driftwood. They need to be able to hide, so a tank that is tall with plants reaching to the surface is ideal. Also a tangled bunch of bog wood is appreciated.

They do not dig up plants and hardy species such as Sagittarius and Vallisneria will work well, as do plastic plants. Depending on their personality they may or may not eat the live plants. Offering spirulina and other vegetable foods will help them to ignore any plants you may have in your tank. Have the plants reach to the top of the water, but still leave some open areas for swimming. Be sure to have a lid on the aquarium because of their tendency to jump up when frightened.

Flag Cichlids are sensitive to high nitrate levels, so it is best to keep them below 10. They will prefer an aquarium with a hardness of 2-18° dGH, a pH of 5.5-7.2, and a temperature of 72-82° F (25-34° C). Performing weekly or bi-weekly water changes of 15-25% will help ensure the health of your fish.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gal (151 L)
  • Substrate Type: Sand
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: – 77 – 82.4° F (25 – 28° C
  • Range ph: 5.5-7.2
  • Hardness Range: 2 – 18 dGH
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: All

Social Behaviors

The Flag Cichlid is a peaceful community fish and can be kept with many other fish, even smaller fish. That being said, some specific fish, such as Neon Tetras, will be eaten by the Flag Cichlid and should not be kept in the same aquarium. Flag Cichlids can be kept in pairs or groups, but do not do as well singly. They are generally peaceful towards other Flag Cichlids and they will tolerate those of a different genus. Agressive fish, however, are a threat to Flag Cichlids and should not be kept in the same tank.

Their closest native inhabitants are the AngelfishPterophyllum scalare. They can be kept with these cichlids along with the mouthbrooding Acaras (Bujurquina species), Severums, and the Pearl Cichlid as well as other Eartheaters (Geophagus species). They can also be housed with larger gourami species, medium to large barbs, and some catfish species such as the pimelodid catfish, tropical loricariids, and larger callichyids.

  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive – They are aggressive towards some smaller fish and will defend their fry.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes
    • Peaceful fish (): Monitor – Normally very peaceful to like sized tankmates.
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Monitor
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive
    • Plants: Threat

Sex: Sexual differences

These fish can be very difficult to distinguish between the sexes. As adults the males may be larger than the females. They may also have a little more elongated snout, more pointed dorsal and anal fins, and larger pectoral fins. They pair up when they are about a year old.

Breeding / Reproduction

Flag Cichlids will pair up and form a strong, monogamous bond early in their lives. In order to spawn, the female will lay approximately 100 eggs (between 200 to 500 eggs have been observed in the wild)on carefully cleaned leaves or flat rocks, and the male will fertilize them by releasing a cloud of sperm over them. Note that in the wild some species heavily prefer to lay their eggs on a submersed sugarcane stem. If you find your pair are reluctant to breed, you might try finding a similar looking structure and adding it to your tank, perhaps increasing their comfort level enough to prompt them to spawn.

Once the fry have hatched, they will be attach to the structure upon which they were laid by gland secretions. Both the male and the female parent will patrol the area for the next 5 days until the fry are free swimming and mobile. Once the fry are moving around on their own, the parents will use their peduncle ocellus to signal the fry and cause them to school and orient them in the water.

These fish are tricky to sex so it is easiest to simply have 6 or so in a tank and let them pair off themselves. They are somewhat more difficult than other cichlids to breed in captivity. The breeding water should be slightly acidic with a pH of 6.5, soft at 5° dGH, and have temperatures between 77 – 82.4° F (25 – 28° C).

Using a solid surface to spawn on is helpful. Eggs will be laid, but convincing the parents to care for the eggs is another issue. Having non-aggressive tank mates will help. A species specific tank with a few dither fish that are not much larger or meaner, and are smart enough to stay away from the parents and young, would be ideal. Some say dither fish encourage the parents to care for the young. Feed the babies newly hatched brine shrimp for the first week or two. Juveniles love fruit flies according to one aquarist.

See more about cichlid breeding in: Breeding Freshwater Fish: Cichlids.

  • Ease of Breeding: Moderate

Fish Diseases

These fish are susceptible to typical fish ailments, especially if their water is stale and of poor quality and oxygenation. One such common problem is Ich. Ich can be treated by elevating the temperature of the tank up to 86° F (30° C) for 3 days.If this rememdy fails, there are quite a few medicines available for sale at pet stores and online. Keep in mind that anything which you introduce into your aquarium can be a potential source of parasites or disease. Not only other fish but plants, substrate, and decorations can harbor bacteria. Take great care and make sure to properly clean or quarantine anything that you add to an established tank so as not to upset the balance.

A good thing aboutFlag Cichlidsis that due to their resilience, an outbreak of disease can often be limited to just one or a few fish if you deal with it at an early stage. When keeping sensitive fish, it is common for all fishes to be infected even before the first warning signs can be noticed. The best way to proactively prevent disease is to give yourFlag Cichlidsthe proper environment and provide them a well balanced diet. The closer to their natural habitat the less stress the fish will have, making them happy and healthy.

As with most fish the Flag Cichlids 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.


The Flag Cichlid or Festivum is readily available online and is usually available in fish stores. They are moderately priced.