American Cichlids – Discus (Symphysodon)

Updated on November 20, 2020 by

Majestic fish, native to the Amazon river basin in South America they stand out in every aquarium due to their distinctive shape, behavior, bright colors and patterns.

Often labeled as the king of the freshwater aquarium, they are one of the most beautiful species out there. Discus fish demand extensive care with very soft, warm, acidic water, and those parameters have to remain stable.

Quick stats – Discus

OriginSouth America
Max size10” / 25 cm
AquariumMin 50 gallon / 180 liters
Water79-86° F / 26-30° C

KH 1-4, pH 5.8-7.0

Care levelModerate
ColorsRed, gold, cobalt, orange

Discus description

Often regarded as the king of the tropical freshwater aquarium, Discus are endowed with majestic coloration and personality and they are a great beauty to any aquarium. They are named after their disk-like shape, with some variation being triangular and some being rounder. Discus are peaceful species, but larger than most tropical fish.

Belonging to the family of New World Cichlids or American Cichlids, the Discus is a hardy fish overall, and this enables them to live in various types of water, making them suitable for beginner and experienced fish keepers.

However, proper care should be provided to give these beauties the right environment in your aquarium. These species are peaceful and they avoid conflicts through escape and intimidation. They are schooling fish that love to swim around in groups.

They have a small and round dorsal fins and their body can grow up to 20.32-25.4 cm long. They are popular for their aesthetic colors, amazing shapes, size, and peculiar characteristics. As popular species, Discus are available in plenty of aquatic and pet shops and will cost about $40 per fish.

In the wild, Discus can live up to 10 years, but with proper care, they can live up to 15 years in our well cared for aquarium. Usually, the eating habits, shapes, sizes, and living conditions of the Discus fish are the same, but depending on their patterns and various colors, the Discus fish are categorized into different varieties. A few of them are as follows:

Heckel Discus:

Named after its founder, John Heckel, these species are dark-stripped and multi-colored but are mainly found in blue and red varieties. These species are remarkable for having nine dark or black vertical bars on their body, with three of these bars being really intense.

Green Discus:

Just as the name implies, these breeds exist in exquisite green coloration. Often found in both dark and light-shaded green coloration with bright red spots and black stripes running through their entire body and eyes that are blood-red in color.

Turquoise Discus:

This breed owes its name to the turquoise shade on the fins of the fish. Their body is usually white with red or blue patterns. However, this breed is of two varieties – red and blue breed.

Spotted Discus:

Due to the leopard spot(often read and orange spot) pattern on the body of this breed, they are also known as Leopard discus. They are a product of a cross between Green and Turquoise Discus.

Albino Discus:

Lacking melanin in its body, this breed is often found in orange body coloration, white fins, and red with reddish-white eye color.

Blue Diamond Discus:

When kept in a tank, the water shines likes like a diamond because it possesses a shining color. The body has a shinning cobalt blue coloration and their fry are in transparent shades. However, the fins are shinier than its body.

Other types include the Golden-Yellow Discus, Pigeon Blood Discus, Red Discus, White Discus among many others owing to their names to their various exquisite coloration.

Discus in the natural habitat

Discus was first found by Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod in 1933 among the deep rivers and floodplains of the Amazon. They are found in crevices and breaks in the water flow, such as small inlets or among fallen trees, where their wide body is protected from the current.

These species are found in areas with thick vegetation and heavy shades. This hides them away from predators and gives them a good spot to prey on smaller species. A soft-sediment makes the substrate of these lovely species.

In recent years, Discus can also be found in Asian countries, where they are also known as ‘Pompadour Fish’.

Discus in the ideal aquarium

Symphysodon Discus

As a social fish, the ideal aquarium of the lovely Discus should be spacious, requiring a slow-moving well filtered 50 gallons tank to house a school group of 4-5. The temperature should be between 82-88°F (27-31 °C), slightly acidic having a pH range of 6-7, and a water hardness of 1-4 dkH.

Since Discus prefer high and stable water temperatures, an aquarium heater should be provided. The water parameters stability is crucial for the Discus, and that can be easily achieved using one of the best canister filters for the aquarium.

However, a larger tank will be more comfortable for these species. If more species are to be added, an extra 7 gallon of water should be provided for each Discus. Driftwoods, ornaments, or spray bars can be used to break the water flow to a slow or weak flow.

The tank can be decorated with floating plants such as the Amazon sword plants or Dwarf Hairgrass. This provides them with shelter and also provides oxygen to the fish. A well-oxygenated water should be provided, so most likely an aquarium air pump should be used next to the tank.

A soft sediment substrate can be used to provide the comfort of their natural habitat.

Moderate lighting will be just perfect for the Discus fish aquarium.

As peaceful and shy species, suitable tankmates are peaceful and shy species alike. These include the Gouramis, Pencil fish, Sterbai Cory Catfish, Bolivian Rams, Marbled or Neon Hatchet fish, Ember, and Neon Tetras.

Aggressive fishes such as Sharks, Oscars, and Arowanas should be greatly avoided in the tank of the Discus, as they can fight, harm, and even eat up the Discus.  Angelfish should be also avoided as they often bully the Discus fish and out-compete them for food. Fin nippers like the Tiger Barbs should be greatly avoided as they would harass these lovely species causing nip damage.

However, the best suitable tankmates for the Discus are naturally more Discus fish, even of different varieties as they can coexist together irrespective of their varieties. A school of 5 Discus is recommended, but more Discus will look better.

Proper hygiene is always paramount for the health and survival of a fish. The tank should be cleaned regularly whilst changing about 25% (or more) of the water every week.

Discus feeding

Like most carnivores, Discus thrives on meaty foods, but some vegetable components should also be part of their diet. In the wild, they feed on green plants such as algae, so you will most likely witness such behavior in the aquarium as well, and that’s perfectly normal.

Their nutrients can be supplemented with adequate flaked meals such as spirulina and tropical fish flakes. Shrimp, mosquito larvae, beef heart, bloodworm crustaceans, copepods, and Amphipods are favorite meaty foods for the Discus. Next to live foods, but also the one enlisted here, we’ve observed one of the best food for Discus, but also for Angelfish to be: Hikari Vibra Bites Tropical Fish Food.

Vegetable crumbs, fresh plant leaves, and algae makes up the favorite vegetable part of their meal. Pellets and dry foods can also be fed to them.

Discus should be fed 3-4 times a day with just as much as they can finish in a few minutes and every leftover food should be cleaned from the fish tank as soon as they are done feeding.

Discus breeding

Symphysodon Discus

Breeding Discus Fish can be very difficult but rewarding too. The advice of an experienced or expert aquarist is needed to breed the Discus. A breeding tank should be provided for the breeding pair of Discus Fish.

Before breeding would take place, the tank requirements aforementioned above must be optimally maintained. Next to the normal, optimal water parameters ensured for Discus, to make sure the fry will survive and make it to Discus adults, using RO (reverse osmosis) water is a must. For that you can take a look at our best RO/DI water filtration systems.

A spawning cone should be used, which provides a good surface for the Discus pair to lay their eggs. After spawning, the female can be removed if the right parental instincts are not there and she eats the fry. The Discus male, however, should be allowed to take care of the fry.

The fry are hatched from the eggs three days after consuming the mucus produced by their parents. The fry are free swimmers and begin to swim as soon as they are hatched. Discus fry should be fed with baby worms, little snails, vegetables, and dried pellets until they are mature enough to feed on heavier foods.

As soon as they are mature, they can now be reintroduced into the larger tanks where they are allowed to explore a whole new world.

To conclude

Symphysodon Discus
Symphysodon Discus
Symphysodon Discus
Symphysodon Discus

Although Discus are challenging, they are not as daunting as they seem, and the joy gained from their beautiful appearance makes them more than worth it.

Discus can’t be paired with aggressive fish, and some fish try to eat the Discus’ mucus coat which wounds them.

Discus is overall omnivorous although they love meaty foods.

Discus fry hatch 3 days after consuming the mucus produced by their parents. Discus are very peaceful and also avoids conflicts through escape and intimidation. In the wild, they can live up to 10 years but if the fish keeper takes proper care of the fish then Discus can live up to 15 years.

Discus FAQs

What is the lifespan of a Discus fish?

In captivity, Discus can live up to 10-15 years if properly taken care of.

What is the fish family that Discus belong to?

Discus fish belong to the fish family of Cichlidae – or American Cichlids.

Is Discus fish carnivorous or omnivorous?

Discus fish are carnivores by nature, but in captivity, they are normally raised as omnivores.
It is a great practice to vary the Discus diet a great deal, alternating live and frozen food, to ensure a diet rich in vitamins and proteins with low fats.