Redhead Cichlid (Vieja melanurus): Ultimate Care Guide

The Redhead Cichlid (Vieja melanurus) is large Central American Cichlid that displays a lot of color. Coloration reaches its peak at maturity, with males growing larger and often developing nuchal humps. They are often the focal point of an aquarium.

Easy to care for and one of the least aggressive of the Central American species, the Redhead cichlid still needs some planning to reward hobbyists with the best experience. Let’s explore some of the facts you’ll need to consider when working with this wonderful cichlid!

How to Care for Redhead Cichlids

Robust and simple to feed, Redhead cichlids are easy to care for and easy to keep alive. Get the best results from this species by taking extra care planning your tank setup and feeding regimen. You want your Redheads to thrive, not just survive!


The ideal temperature range for Redhead cichlids is 25 – 28 °C (77 – 82.4°F). It is best to invest in a temperature controller and not rely solely on the thermostat in your aquarium heater. Redhead cichlids can live 10 to 15 years. That is a big time investment and you’ll want to make sure a heater problem doesn’t kill your fish!

Redhead Cichlid (Vieja melanurus)
Redhead Cichlid (Vieja melanurus)

Water pH

Redhead cichlids prefer water pH that is neutral to slightly alkaline, between 7 – 8.1. Know that as your fish grows, higher nitrate concentrations—and thus lower pH– will become more of a problem. You will need discipline with water changes to keep your pH in line. Also consider integrating plants to maintain lower nitrate concentrations. Aragonite sand or crushed coral substrate will also raise pH and are a popular choice in cichlid aquariums. Note that they can raise the alkalinity beyond with other species prefer. Using either of these as substrates will limit tank mate and plant choices.

Redhead Cichlid Size

Redhead cichlid males can reach sizes of 12 to 14 1/2 inches (about 30 – 37 cm) in an aquarium. The female are slightly smaller. Take this into account when planning your aquarium size and setup. Redhead cichlids are usually around 2 inches long when purchased. They will reach maturity in around 3 years so plan ahead. You may be surprised how big that “little fish” can become!

Redhead Cichlid Tank Size

Redhead cichlids can become quite large. Plan for a tank of at least 80 gallons, preferably 120 gallons or larger. Tank space is important for Redheads as they can be territorial. If you decide to include tank mates it is important to plan for enough space.

Redhead Cichlid Lifespan

A normal Redhead cichlid lifespan is 10 years but they can live up to 15. Peak coloration doesn’t appear until maturity, which is about 3 years. For greatest longevity make sure your fish’s water is filtered and kept near the ideal values.

Food & Diet

Cichlid pellets should be the basis for your Redhead’s diet. For best health and coloration, consider supplementing with frozen and live meaty foods. Cichlids are opportunistic feeders. There are a range of frozen food products available. Frozen brine shrimp and bloodworms are popular choices. Proper feeding will increase growth, well-being and coloration!

In the wild, Redhead cichlids are primarily herbivorous. Cichlid pellet food contains an appropriate amount of plant material to give your fish a balanced diet and should be their primary food source. Reserve live food as an occasional treat. Cichlids can become accustomed to live food. Don’t overdo live feeding or they will have less appetite for pellets.

Redhead Cichlid Tank Setup

Redhead cichlids are territorial. Make sure their tanks have caves and enough hiding places. Aragonite sand or finely crushed coral will buffer alkalinity and give your fish material to dig through—and Redhead cichlids love to dig. Remember that aragonite sand and crushed coral will effect your pH levels. Planning to have cichlids only? Then this slightly alkaline environment should be fine. However, if you are planning on other species as tank mates make sure they will tolerate the slightly elevated pH levels.

Filtration is incredibly important. Due to the Redhead cichlid’s large size and messy habits your tank water will require more filtration than with other species. Invest in a high quality canister filter, or two smaller canister filters for redundancy.

Want plants in your Redhead cichlid’s environment? You’ll want to plan ahead. Cichlids will eat many plants and have a tendency to rearrange things in their tanks. Finding the best choices can be challenging. Redhead cichlids stay in the mid to lower areas of tanks so floating plants are one good choice. Your Redheads will likely eat roots that grow deep enough into the tank but will mostly leave floating plants alone. If you decide on rooted plants, allow enough thickness of substrate to allow for deep root burial. Some rocks or pieces of tile around the base of plants will discourage your Redheads from pulling the entire plant out.

Substrate choice can effect plant selection. Plants can lower the acidity of your tank, but so can choosing substrates like aragonite or crushed coral. In fact, these substrate choices can raise the alkalinity of your tank so much that many aquarium plants won’t thrive. One solution is choosing plants that can tolerate higher pH levels like Vallisneria, Anubias or Java Moss. Or, forgo an alkaline buffering substrate for pH neutral aquarium sand. In this case your choices expand to include plants like Cryptocoryne, Echinodorus and Crinum.

Always cycle a new aquarium! To cycle, set up your aquarium and add a few smaller fish. To prepare for Redheads these should probably be Rainbow cichlids. Let the tank run with these fish for 6 to 8 weeks while doing regular water changes and tests. This allows time for the natural biological processes of the tank to start. During the cycle period, water quality and parameters can spike, putting fish in jeopardy before everything reaches equilibrium. Make sure your ammonia and nitrate levels have dropped to trace levels. If this hasn’t happened after 8 weeks, talk to a professional before adding your Redheads.

Redhead Cichlid Breeding

Redhead cichlids can be difficult to breed. For best breeding results get multiple juvenile fish and notice which pair best as they mature. Separate these pairs for breeding.

Keep your breeding pairs in tanks separately from other fish. Redhead cichlids are territorial by nature. This tendency is increased when spawning. You include one or more flat rocks they can use as bases for eggs. The pair will clean their chosen surface. The female lays from 800 to 1200 eggs and the male passes over then to fertilize. The eggs will hatch in 3 to 4 days. 3 days after this the fry are swimming free. When the fry grow to about 1 inch long they can be transferred into a separate tank.

Redhead Cichlid Male or Female

When mature, male Redhead cichlids can be recognized by their stronger coloration, larger size and prominent nuchal humps. Before maturity sexing Redheads can be difficult, specially if looking at only one specimen. In groups of young Redheads you can sometimes pick out the sloping forehead signaling a male.

Redhead Cichlid Disease

Redhead cichlids are subject to many of the same diseases as other freshwater fish, including hole-in-the-head disease and fin-rot. Proper feeding with enough filtration and regular water changes will help your Redheads stay healthy.

Redhead Cichlid Tank Mates

Redhead cichlids can be difficult to pair with tank mates. Redheads can be territorial even among their own species. Some other cichlids to try would be Rainbows, Jack Dempseys or Convicts. Some non-cichlid mates could be Tiger and Rosy barbs. Tank mate selection for Redheads is hit-or-miss. Expect some setbacks if you decide to experiment.

Where can I find Redhead Cichlid for sale?

If you can’t find a local supplier for Redhead cichlids there are multiple sources on the Internet and Ebay. Often you will see Redhead cichlids (Vieja melanurus) marketed as synspilum. This is due to an out of date classification of the species. Sometimes synspilum is used for marketing purposes when referring to Vieja melanurus. Expect to pay between $10-$20 US plus shipping.