Flowerhorns, alias Nightmares
by Madhu Soodhanan
of Tamil Nadu, India
Enhancing the beauty of natural specimens, innovation to improve nature, developing
beautiful and exotic breeds and strains - these are the words one may hear from a hybrid
breeder or a hybrid loving hobbyist. But the truth is that hybridisation is nothing more
than HUMAN AGGRESSION TO THE NATURAL WORLD. Many of us know of a lot of hybrids, with so
called blood parrots and flowerhorns leading the list. In this article I would like to
focus on the flowerhorn cichlid.
A demon fish created in Malaysia around 1996-1997 (which may possibly acquire legs and
come out of the water one day!), this fish has made a storm in the hobby mostly in Asian
countries, and is now spreading to the western world. The marketing and hence the demand
for this fish has grown exponentially. Many breeders, distributors and LFS owners today
have these creatures as their primary selling product.
The myth is that the nuchal hump of the flowerhorn resembles the Chinese God of Longevity.
It is believed that the black markings on the fish bring luck and prosperity to the owner
in accordance to feng-shui.
Generally, Chinese believe in mythical creatures like dragons. In recent times arowanas
(belonging to the group Osteoglossidae and otherwise called bonytongues) were
believed to bring prosperity as they resembled the mythical dragon. Similarly, the myth of
the flowerhorn is that the Chinese God of Prosperity had a hump in his neck and so does
the flower horn. It is believed that as the nuchal hump grows so does the bank balance,
prosperity and longevity of the owner.
So far, the exact origin of the fish is unknown except by the ones who created it. But
many researchers and experts believe that six cichlasoma-like cichlids were involved in
assembling this fish. Cichlasoma trimaculatum (trimac cichlid), Cichlasoma
festae (red terror), jingang blood parrot, Amphilophus citrinellum (midas
cichlid), Amphilophus labiatum (red devil) and Vieja synspila (redheaded
cichlid) are believed to be its parents. There are so many strains and breeds of
flowerhorns today that it is nearly impossible even for an expert to identify what species
were involved to create such a hybrid. Some flowerhorns are even dyed, and/or hormone
EXPONENTIAL GROWTH OF PROFITS for breeders, distributors and LFS owners. A single specimen
flowerhorn has reached a price of US$319,790. From this price tag the purpose is quite
obvious. No one will be able to sell a trimac, a midas, a red terror or a redheaded
cichlid for more than say US$100 or $200. Big gains in the short term is the only purpose
behind the creation of this so-called exotic fish. Even today the demand for flowerhorns
is high, and a colourful flowerhorn with a big hump will sell for nothing less than $500.
So why are people crazy about this fish?
The answer lies in one coincidal incident. A person is said to have won a million dollars
in a lottery by bidding the number corresponding to the bands in a flowerhorn. This news
spread like a fire-storm all over far-east Asia and a lot of people hoped to become
millionaires just by owning a fish.
Another reason for the craze for this fish is its beauty. Many flowerhorn breeders
claim this to be the most beautiful fish.
It is also very easy to care for. I have seen one housed in a 20 gallon long tank with
no problem. The fish grew to a size of around 10" with a big head, even in such a
Flowerhorns are most popular amongst amateur hobbyists who seek only colour, beauty and
luck in a fish. They are the ones who really don't understand the very ethics of the
hobby, or that fishes are more than mere colourful swimming objects.
Catastrophe in the hobby
1. The biggest threat of flowerhorns to the fish-keeping hobby is that it has become very
difficult to identify a pure species from a hybrid. Often a dull-coloured flowerhorn is
sold as a trimac and a red flowerhorn is sold as a redheaded cichlid. Many LFS sell
flowerhorns in sizes of about 1½". At this size some flowerhorns resemble convicts
or orange chromides. One hobbyist in my locality mistook this fish for a convict and
dropped it into his Central American tank. When this demon fish grew it terminated its
tank mates and by the time he realised that it was a flowerhorn it was too late to save
2. The high demand for more strains has led breeders to some cruel practices:
- Round bellied flowerhorns are much sought after, and the spines of these fish are
purposely bent using some technology.
- Rich coloured flowerhorns are sought after, and these fishes are dyed.
- A nuchal hump is sought after, and these fishes are constantly stressed by a mirror,
very strong lighting and fluorescent gravel.
3. Aquariums are highly constrained environments. So the probability of a hybrid like
this one mating with a pure species is very high. If breeding of these toy-fishes
continues at such a high rate, then one day we may not see any pure species in the hobby.
4. Since it is a hybrid its characteristics are undeterminable. No one is sure of what
these creatures are capable. To my knowledge a flowerhorn is tough enough to take over an
oscar and most cichlasomines such as Texas, redheaded cichlids and severums. Also if one
goes for tankmates for this fish, the tankmates and hence the hobbyist will be sitting on
a ticking time-bomb.
5. Today flowerhorns have found a way to be true breeders, unlike blood parrots. People
are breeding different flowerhorns together. For example, let us take FH1 as a flowerhorn
developed by crossing a trimac and a red terror, and another flowerhorn FH2 is developed
by crossing a trimac with a redheaded cichlid. If FH1 and FH2 breed, the resulting one
will be a new kind. A demon giving birth to a demon of a new kind. Just imagine how awful
the future of the hobby would be.
6. Flowerhorns attain sexual maturity at around 4" and from then on they will lay
around 200 eggs every six months. If the production rate rockets up and fills aquariums,
where will the pure species go? Then one day Local Fish Stores will become Local
Flowerhorn Stores. In many Asian countries this has already happened.
Nightmare to Nature
The biggest threat that these monstrous creatures possess is to the natural world. This
fish is believed to be a feng-shui fish. A bigger hump and good colouration is believed to
bring good luck, so obviously the vice-versa is believed. When a flowerhorn loses its hump
and/or its colour it is thought to bring bad luck. Thus, many owners just throw
flowerhorns into nearby water bodies, and these 'Franken-fishes' (as Dr. Ron Coleman calls
them) take over the entire eco-system of that particular watershed. Most flowerhorns are
brought up by being fed live fish. When a 10" fish raised on such a diet is
introduced into a watershed the result is obvious.
Here is a case study:
There is a small pond called Ammapet pond in my locality (in the state of Tamil Nadu,
India) with an area of around 4 sq. kms. Many barbs, mosquito fish, a few Asian native
cichlids such as Etroplus maculatus (orange chromide) and Etroplus suratensis,
and a rich vegetation of hydra and other water weeds used to call that lake home. Some
flowerhorns were released into the pond by a few hobbyists. These flowerhorns grew to
around 12" in the wild and bred there. The smaller species including orange chromides
were taken as lunch. Green chromides were bullied and massacred by these aggressive
creatures. There were no fish to feed on the vegetation and the water level depleted.
There were no mosquito fish to feed on mosquito eggs and the pond became a breeding spot
for mosquitoes. The entire ecological balance of the pond was ruined by just a handful of
Stories similar to this have become very common in Malaysia. Almost all watersheds in
Malaysia have been infested by this fish, although no instances of this fish entering
Malaysian rain forests have been reported yet. But in future if these devils find a way
into the forests then highly endangered species like the Asian arowanas (Scleropages
formosus) already in CITES Appendix I, and other native fishes will vanish.
Aquariums should be considered to be miniature versions of natural habitats. Even though
we are not able to establish perfect ecosystems in our aquariums, we can try to provide
environments as close as possible to natural habitats to enjoy their beauty.
- If you buy a flowerhorn for the nuchal hump, take a look at the frontosa (Cyphotilapia
frontosa) a Tanganyikan cichlid. When left in small groups in a big enough tank the
dominant male develops a hump which no flowerhorn will produce.
- If colour is what you seek in a fish, then take a look at the redheaded cichlid (Cichlasoma
synspilum). It's got all the colours of the rainbow.
- If you desire black markings, a trimac (Cichlasoma trimaculatum) has a distinct
- If you are looking for pearls, consider the Texas cichlid (Cichlasoma cyanoguttatum).
If there are natural specimens that have all the traits one expects in terms of sheer
beauty then why go for the man-made stuff? There are 1500+ known species of cichlids in
the wild and hundreds with striking beauty and amazing personalities available to the
hobby. This availability is rich enough to fit anyone's need. Let us respect Mother
Nature. Doing something awful is not difficult but the consequences would have to be
faced. As far as we know only one planet holds the key to create, support and cycle a
phenomenon called Life. Let us not cheapen it or take it for granted.
So STOP BUYING HYBRIDS, and if you ever come across one never hesitate to kill it. Even
if your conscience doesn't allow you to kill it NEVER THROW IT INTO ANY WATERSHED. We as a
species have the power to conserve nature's creations but do not have the right to
redesign them. So say no to hybrids, hormone induced fishes and genetically redesigned
species. Remember, when the buying stops, the production will too.
See also: The Trouble with Hybrids, by Andrew Boyd
Inbreeding Tropical Fish. Good or Bad? by Bill Forrest