Parrotfish: Good or Bad for the Hobby?
Author: Joshua Wiegert
There is perhaps no fish more controversial than the parrotfish. Some call these hybrid cichlids deformed mutants, while others love them for their comical looks and easygoing habits.
Parrots Under the Sea
One of the most eye-catching freshwater fish in most aquarium stores is the parrotfish. This bright fish seems to glow with an incredibly deep red color, though individuals that range from orange to nearly purple do appear. It has a large body and a basically round shape, making it unmistakable. Some have even described it as a Valentine’s heart with fins. The somewhat misshapen mouth adds an almost comical nature to the fish.
There are few fish, though, that trigger such a wave of controversy as the parrotfish, particularly among cichlid enthusiasts. The parrot is believed to be a hybrid of two cichlids, supposedly created under artificial conditions. When they originally surfaced on the market in the 1980s, the parentage was purported to be that of a severus cichlid (Heros severus) and a red devil cichlid (presumably Amphilophus labiatus). At the time, both of these fish were classified in the genus Cichlasoma, and though the idea raised eyebrows, I don't think we realized just how unlikely a mating would be between them. It was as improbable as Steve Urkel and Madonna getting together.
What Is a Parrotfish?
Other possible parentages have been suggested, including the other red devil (A. citrinellus), the redhead cichlid (Paratheraps synspilum), and even the convict cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata). At one point or another, it seems as though virtually every cichlid has been suggested as a possible parent to the parrot, and I have even seen it suggested that the parrot is a cross between a cichlid and a goldfish! It may also be that the parrot is its own parent, that parrots have been crossed back to one or more other parents to produce hybrids (e.g., a red devil x severus mated to a red devil). Of course, it’s also possible that more than two species have contributed to the makeup of the parrot, and as I'll discuss, I don't believe the makeup is static.
Personally, I have a completely off-the-wall theory. Especially with the rash of other balloon-body fishes appearing on the market (i.e., balloon-body rams, gouramis, rainbowfish, etc.), I believe that the entire hybrid prospect is just clever marketing to disguise the fishes’ true origins, and that they are nothing but severely mutated, balloon-body forms of a single species, most likely Amphilophus citrinellus.
Recently, individuals known as “jelly bean” parrots that are colored blue, green, purple, or other bright colors have begun to appear. These fish t have been soaked in a dye and are artificially colored. Fortunately, unlike tattooing (more on this later), this doesn’t appear to do any long-term harm to the fish, and the dye eventually fades. What the aquarist is left with is a pale fish with dark stripes.
A. citrinellus has multiple color forms, including a bright-red form that is similar in color to the purple parrots, and a pale, striped fish similar to the un-dyed jelly beans. This, as well as the overall shape of the fish, leads me to believe the parrot is nothing but a balloon-body red devil. However, this is mere speculation. It's also been suggested that these individuals are a result of crossing the regular parrot to a convict cichlid. Unless someone wants to run the DNA on these fish, I don't think we'll ever conclusively know their parentage.
About the Parrots
Whatever the actual case, the fish is definitely not naturally shaped. The large, round body is an unnatural mutation, whether produced by hybridizing or not. They have large eyes like a cartoon character. Additionally, the mouth of the parrot is unable to completely close and is often tilted upward, giving the fish a permanent smile. When the parrot first appeared on the market, the mouth mutation was a lot more severe than it is today, and many fish had truncated gill covers. This made for a fish that was almost non-functional—it was prone to infections around the gills and had a lot of trouble feeding. Swimming problems also occurred.
Parrots on the market today have a more functional mouth, have a more complete operculum, and can swim more or less normally (in fact, better than many fancy goldfish). Whether this is a result of crossing to less mutated individuals or including other species in the hybrid genetic mix, the fish is much more functional, though it remains a cute balloon.
The Tattooing Fad
Oftentimes, the fish seems to glow with a bright, deep red in the aquarium store. These fish are often labeled as “purple parrots.” I've never seen one of these in an aquarium; they seem to settle down to a different shade of orange red. I strongly suspect that these fish are either soaked in dye or treated with hormones to enhance the color, both of which are frequently done to other species of fish arriving from the Far East. While the color won't be as vibrant, the fish is still very eye-catching. Tattooing parrots and other fishes is another fad that has become very popular. Shapes, bars, patterns, dots, and even lipstick are tattooed onto the fish. It is not at all confined to the parrot, and tattooed gouramis, goldfish, oscars, and many other fish are often seen. This is a similar process to the injection that is used to make neon glassfish and neon glass cats. Like that process, it is far from humane, far from sterile, and undoubtedly results in a lot of dead fishes. The arguments against injection (and dyeing) are best saved for another article.
Caring for Parrotfish
Despite the controversy surrounding the parrot, it remains an incredibly popular aquarium fish. The parrot is remarkably insensitive to water chemistry. I have seen the fish maintained in hard, alkaline water as easily as in soft, acidic water, and it seems to have little preference one way or the other. While they certainly will do far better in clean water, they seem to handle high nitrate without much complaint.
Parrots are very hardy as well. They seldom seem to contract any infections or even ich. The most I've ever had to treat one for was a fungal infection on the site of a wound, and quite simply, I cut off the fungus and allowed it to heal on its own.
Like most cichlids, they are also very intelligent and curious fish. They'll come to the side of the tank and soon learn to recognize their owners (or at least whoever feeds them). They will also interact with other fish in the tank, and each other, and can display interesting behavior.
While the red devil has been suggested in their genetic history, they do not display the aggression typical of this species. Parrots are actually quite peaceful, though individuals may spar a bit with each other. They mix quite well with large gouramis, some barbs, tetras, and the like. Many types of less-aggressive cichlids, such as firemouths (Thorichthys meeki and relatives), many acaras, and eartheaters, also mix very well with them. Care should be taken when placing them with smaller fish. Big fish eat little fish, end of story. While the parrot is not exactly the most adept hunter, it can be quite persistent, and in the confines of the aquarium smaller fish may vanish. I've seen them seemingly team up with one another to corral prey.
When choosing tankmates, one of the bigger risks is that the parrots won't get enough to eat. They're slower fish, and their mouths are misshapen. As a result, they cannot compete with fast-moving fish for food, and they cannot handle a diet of flakes. Flakes should never be a staple of any fish over 3 to 4 inches anyhow. A quality, sinking pellet food should be offered to them, and the aquarist must ensure that the parrots are actually eating. If kept with giant danios, rainbowfish, tinfoil barbs, or similar fast fish, by the time the plodding parrot realizes there's food in the tank, it is all gone. Pellets offered must be soft enough for the parrot to crush; they don't have fully functional mouths like other cichlids, and standard cichlid pellets are often unmanageable. There are a number of pellets marketed just for parrots, or simply choose one that's not quite so crunchy.
One of the unfortunate aspects of parrot keeping is that they do like to dig, like most cichlids. Expect to find your gravel in mounds and plastic plants uprooted—it’s part of the joy of cichlid keeping. Rocks and other similar decorations should be securely placed in the aquarium; the fish may undermine them, and you do not want them to tip into the glass. When choosing plastic plants, choose those with solid bases to prevent them from floating. Driftwood, rocks, and more artificial types of decorations (shipwrecks, castles) better suit the parrot. They will benefit from places to hide and feel secure.
Most importantly, when considering a tank for the parrot, keep in mind the maximum size of these fish. They get big, seriously big. I have a good friend who has a trio of parrots that are approximately 15 years old. They're every bit of a foot long. Most parrots I see do not quite reach this mark but push 8 to 10 inches. Plan accordingly and keep them in a large tank.
For most of the history of the parrot cichlid, they were reported as completely sterile. Occasionally, someone would report their parrots laid eggs, which is especially curious to me. Typically, cichlids with long, pointy fins are males, while females have shorter, rounded fins. Males also show more vibrant colors. Virtually all parrots I see have the long, pointy fins and bright color, leading me to believe they are all male. I've suspected this was part of the marketing aspect: tampering with cichlid sex ratios to produce more males is pretty easy and common. Yet, sterile spawns containing eggs have been quite common, and—no matter what mutations and hybridization you pack into a fish—males don't lay eggs.
Recently, the sterility issue has changed. While I haven't yet seen a documented case, or personally viewed one, several Internet sites contain reports of successful spawns of parrots producing fry. While just speculation, I wonder if the sterility of the fish has begun to break down as some of the severe mutations (i.e., the non-functional mouth and gill covers) have been reduced. Whatever the case, there are enough reports of successful parrot spawnings out there that I no longer believe them to be completely sterile.
Their spawning behavior is like that of most cichlids, whether your pair is fertile or not. The pair will find a clean rock or similar structure and clean it off, often while excavating around it. They will also dig down to the bottom glass and spawn there. Eggs will be laid, and the area around the nest will be fiercely guarded. Parrots will chase off anyone who comes too close. After a few days, the eggs will likely become covered with fungus, and the parents will either eat them or abandon them. Should they hatch, the parents will guard the fry until they reach about an inch in length, at which point they'll be on their own.
Form Your Own Opinion
Many years ago, when I first saw parrots and learned about their unnatural origins, I was horrified. I was an outspoken critic of the parrot cichlid and hated them without ever knowing them. Since then, I've placed many parrot cichlids into tanks located in hospitals, daycares, schools, nursing homes, and the like. There is no other fish that gets the level of positive attention these fish do—everyone is drawn to their bright color, their personality, and their outright cute shape. They're large, incredibly hardy, superbly colored, and not particularly aggressive, filling a niche among freshwater fish that is unmatched.
As people become enamored with the parrot, they often ask “How can I keep one?” and soon join the ranks of aquarists. Many eventually move onto all sorts of aquarium keeping. At the end of the day, that's the important thing: They get people interested in the aquarium. Give the parrot a chance; you won't regret it.