Last updated: 2012-11-04 — Created: 2010-09-08
Breeding fertile blood parrots has been a (lofty) goal of mine since I started keeping cichlids. Since male blood parrots are generally sterile and unable to reproduce, this post will attempt to shed some light on the formula used to create everyone’s favourite man-made Frankenstein-fishie. While the exact process used to create these freaks of nature is safely locked away somewhere in the heads of the breeders of Taiwan, we can attempt to piece together some of the puzzle and how they are able to keep us in good supply of these happy-looking fish.
Important note: Many blood parrots have been the victims of dyeing, as discussed in this write-up on Fish Channel. It is really important for those considering buying blood parrots to know that, regardless of the colour of the fish in the pet store (be that black, white, orange, yellow, blue, purple or pink), dyed and tattooed fish will lose their artificial colour as they age, and adult blood parrots will reach the same natural shade of orange whether dyed initially or not. So, why are customers dying to buy dyed fish? Good question!
The orange hue of the fish depicted in this post is the natural colour that all blood parrots turn as they age. I’ve made every effort to avoid dyed fish in procuring the female blood parrots used in this experiment. In addition to learning how these fish were created, my primary motivation is to be able to provide a source of guaranteed dye-free parrots to other local hobbyists.
Scouring the Internet for information, and reading a lot about genetics has given me a good understanding of what is involved. blood parrots are the result of three things:
- cross-breeding of two or more species
- selective breeding (for the specific shape)
- genetic mutation (for the curvy spine)
Most sites suggest a number of potential species, however most are just synonyms for the same fish and are reduced to the following candidates:
- midas (Amphilophus citrinellus)
- red devil (Amphilophus labiatus)
- severum (Heros efasciatus)
- redhead (Vieja synspilum)
- firemouth (Thorichthys meeki)
Because of the very bold patterning and colour variety found on the redhead, I find it hard to imagine it being part of the mix, however, after thumbing through a book at my local pet shop stating that it’s now “known” that the blood parrot is a mix of the midas and the redhead, I’m having to rethink this position. (I’ll try to reference this book on my next visit.) The article referenced below also shows these two fishes as the ancestors, but I was always dismissive of this fact because the article is so badly written/translated and seems be telling two stories in parallel, one about attempted cross-breeding techniques and pairings and one about the development and classification of King Kong parrots. With the comments given by Daniel below, a more conclusive explanation has been provided, however. His statements confirm that the cross used was indeed midas x redhead and that the severum is not at all involved in the cross, but only crops up because of a hybrid that was created and given a name that translates into English as severum, but is not actually the species H. efasciatus we know in the hobby. While the redhead is indeed a component of blood parrots, as well as some flowerhorn varieties, I believe the firemouth only got on the list because of either confusion (stemming from the fact that an alternate name of the redhead is the firehead) or because of its role in attempted cross-breeds.
Unfortunately the red devil and midas cichlids are two of the most confused cichlids available on the market today. They are cousins, do cross-breed very readily and look almost identical to the untrained eye. Something gets lost in translation, as “red devil” seems to be an umbrella term for both species in some languages. Some people refuse to distinguish, where others claim they’re the same fish. I’ve bought a red devil labelled as a midas and a midas labelled as a red devil, so it’s a bit of a challenge to find a pure-bred specimen of either. An article (written 30 years ago!) referenced below does a fantastic job of clarifying. The primary differences lie in the body shape (red devils are long and torpedo like, while midases are rounder and more hulking specimens) and the shape of the mouth (red devils have a V-shaped mouth with a blip at the tip of the top lip, while midases have a U-shaped snout and a flatter face).
Regardless, it’s safe to say that the blood parrot is the result of some combination of red devil and/or midas crossed with a redhead.
FYI, the gold severum is the result of a recessive-gene mutation – a gold severum is to a green severum what a pink convict is to a black convict. Two problems spring to mind immediately. First, The red devil/midas is an extremely aggressive fish (especially the males) and generally will rip to shreds anything that moves (including its keeper…OUCH!) Second, the severum is very choosy about its mate, so you often have to raise a bunch of them and let them pair off themselves to find a compatible match. So, how do we get a violent fish to mate with a fish that may or may not be able to hold its own? Good question! It could be that you have to take all males from one species and all females from another and let them sort it out. This would likely involve redhead males and midas females, avoiding the nastiness of the male midas. Alternatively, a tank divided by egg grating could be used to house a single red devil/midas female on one side and a number of redhead males on the other, counting on the possibility that at least one of them will sense when the female has laid her eggs and fertilise them in time. The third option would be to strip the parent fish (which may or may not make use of injected hormones) for manual, external fertilisation and then incubate the eggs in a tumbler or other such apparatus. Regardless, it’s likely a painstaking procedure. So when you’ve gone through all this and are lucky enough to be able to cross-breed these two species, you’ll definitely end up with blood parrots, right? Wrong! There are two more factors involved…
2. selective breeding
If you are fortunate enough to get a red devil to mate with a redhead and end up with fry, the hybridisation process generally makes for some funky-looking fry. Each gene involved from either parent will be expressed in the offspring in an uncontrolled manner, and the models that have been developed to predict how offspring will appear no longer apply. Some fry may be long and torpedo-shaped, while some may be rounder. Some may have a very pronounced hook-shaped snout, while others have a straight, sloping forehead. All of them may look the same, but then certain mutations may come about that result in a couple of random freaks in the bunch. There is no way to know except to do the cross and see.
My thinking is that the original breeders of the blood parrot simply “played” until they got the general shape they were trying to “create”. This may have involved multiple generations of cross-breeding, back-crossing and selective breeding from choice offspring. The prime specimens of each generation would be selected for continued breeding, while the rest would be discarded, sold-off as hybrids (clearly marked, of course) or used to feed larger fish.
3. genetic mutation
The last factor involved in the creation of blood parrots is genetic mutation, specifically the abnormal curved spine shape that gives them that fat, round body. Other factors, such as the smiling mouth, hooked nose, orange colouration, etc. I believe to be attributed to the other two factors discussed above.
There are two genes know to exist that cause fish to have a misshapen body – wavy and fused. These genes exist at different loci and are therefore inherited independently of each other – a fish may possess one or the other or both. These genes are both recessive, meaning a copy of the gene must be inherited from each parent in order for any given offspring to display the trait. A pair of wavy genes will produce a fish that has a curved spine that usually arches upwards, while a pair of fused genes will cause a spine that is shorter and compressed. Examples of these mutations can be seen in a lot of pet stores among such novelty fish as: balloon rams, balloon mollies, balloon platies, balloon/jellybean convicts, et cetera. The blood parrot has at least the wavy gene and perhaps the fused one as well. It is thought that these mutations have a negative impact on a fish’s ability to reproduce, through either increased physical awkwardness or reduced strength of a male’s sperm and their inability to penetrate the eggs and/or make the journey through the water successfully.
Now, the exact order in which these steps were taken in order to produce what we now know and love as the blood parrot is unknown, but armed with this information, I figure someone might have a better chance at success. If you try it and it works, I would love to hear your results!
So, the question now becomes, how does one get these wavy and fused genetic mutations into the fry of blood parrots if blood parrots cannot reproduce themselves? Having learnt all of the information above, I figured it was better not to reinvent the wheel…err…fish and try a different approach.
Some facts I’ve discovered in reading, experimenting and talking to other aquarists:
- Male blood parrots are sterile, or at least mostly so.
- Female blood parrots frequently lay eggs, but then eat them up when they don’t get fertilised and hatch.
- A male red devil/midas will likely bully a female blood parrot to death.
- A blood parrot will readily cross-breed with a midas, severum, convict (still unproven) or red devil.
Through conditioning a pair in a tank divided by egg grating (the grids used to cover fluorescent ceiling lights in office buildings and such – check your building supply store, near the Plexiglas, about $13 Canadian for a 2′ x 6′ sheet), I was able to encourage a spawn between a male red devil and a female blood parrot.
Here they are (ignore the random convict in the middle there) at 38 days old! From the looks of things, all of them are really long and torpedo-shaped like a red devil and look very little like a blood parrot.
However, there are a few (literally three from the whole batch) that are displaying a slightly-rounder body shape, which have been separated as potential parents of the next generation. One such specimen is shown here at 15 weeks old. Selective breeding? Check!
Now, if you understand genetics/heredity, you’ll know that because blood parrots display a gene/genes we know to be recessive, they all have to carry two copies of the gene(s) and will pass one copy on to each and every one of their offspring. I’ve chosen the symbol “wf” to indicate this/these recessive gene(s), but what I really mean is “the mutated shape of the blood parrot”. This could actually be the wavy gene or the fused gene or both or something else altogether. It is unimportant to know for sure for the purposes of this experiment, except to know whether the genes are inherited and displayed or not.
Because the blood parrot mother carried two copies of the wf gene, and since none of the offspring fathered by a red devil show any sort of weird spine shape, it’s safe to say that the father red devil did not carry the genes for these mutations and did not pass them on to any of the fry, giving us fry that all carry one copy of the wf gene.
This can be depicted as follows:
Genes: wf = the wavy and/or fused genes ++ = the normal wild-type genes Fish: (wf/wf) = A blood parrot-like fish (++/wf) = A devil parrot fish (carries the wavy and/or fused genes) (++/++) = A red devil-like fish NOTE: I've include the word "like" here because with any hybrid cross, the offspring will not be pure-bred and should not be called as such. So, if the original parent fish (P0) are a red devil father (++/++) and a blood parrot mother (wf/wf), their F1 children will be... x | ++ | ++ | ---+-------+-------+ wf | ++/wf | ++/wf | ---+-------+-------+ wf | ++/wf | ++/wf | ---+-------+-------+ = 100% devil parrots (look like red devils)
Since recessive genes must be inherited from both parents in order to be displayed in the offspring, none of these fry will look anything like a blood parrot.
Soooooo…now we have a whole bunch of fry that carry the genes, but don’t display them. If we select one of these devil parrot fry that is a male and mate it to a blood parrot female that has two copies of the genes we want expressed, what will result is a F2 generation (grandchildren of the original fish) that will come out 50% like a blood parrot and 50% like a devil parrot. Alternatively, if the males and females of the devil parrot fry are mated to each other, the recessive genes will be displayed in 25% of the offspring, while the other 75% will look like the devil parrot fry.
If we mate the F1 fry (++/wf) to each other, we will likely get an F2 generation that looks like this... x | ++ | wf | ---+-------+-------+ ++ | ++/++ | ++/wf | ---+-------+-------+ wf | ++/wf | wf/wf | ---+-------+-------+ = 25% red devil-like fish = 50% devil parrots (look like red devils) = 25% blood parrot-like fish Alternatively, mating an F1 devil parrot male (++/wf) to a (preferably unrelated) blood parrot female (wf/wf), will produce an F2 that is... x | ++ | wf | ---+-------+-------+ wf | ++/wf | wf/wf | ---+-------+-------+ wf | ++/wf | wf/wf | ---+-------+-------+ = 50% devil parrots (look like red devils) = 50% blood parrot-like fish
And there you have a potential recipe for breeding blood parrots. Good luck! Alternatively, a midas, severum or convict are rumoured be able to father fry with a blood parrot female.
Red Devil x Blood Parrot Cross
November 29th, 2010 – Two of the larger “standard” devil parrots at 26 weeks old. These two were grown out in much less crowded tanks, so they are a lot bigger than their siblings. The fish on the left will likely end up a deep red-orange colour, while the fish on the right was one of the first to lose its stripes, looks to be showing some white spots and will likely end up a pale yellow-orange colour.
November 29th, 2010 – “Select” devil parrots at 26 weeks old. Notice how the colour change is not consistent; some fish turn a lot sooner than their siblings. Fifteen of these “select” fry have been separated as potential parents for the next generation. Some are more rounded than others, but I’m hoping to find at least one nicely-shaped male in the lot.
December 18th & 27th, 2010 – Photos of the largest “standard” DP (shown Nov 29, left) as he starts to lose his black stripes and transitions to his final orange colour.
December 13th, 2011 – Here are all of the devil parrots at 18 months old. Interesting to note the wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes. The two red devil-like males (far left, rear centre) show a paler orange colour (like their father), while the rounder ones are more orange (like mom). One has yet to fully colour still and two show some intense white patching around the forehead area.
I’ve earmarked five of the devil parrots as “most likely to be male” and will attempt to pair them with the blood parrot females in the coming weeks.
November 4th, 2013 – Below are a number of recent photos of the surviving devil parrots. They’re just shy of 3.5 years old now and show an enormous range of traits — size, colour, and shape all vary wildly from fish to fish. Keep in mind that these fish are all siblings and have been raised together for the most part. I think these results provide a pretty strong case for why one should most definitely NOT hybridise fish. The unpredictable results and predominantly downright ugly specimens are just not worth the chance that you may get lucky and produce something amazing. Hybrids are generally a genetic soup of mediocrity that pale in comparison to their parent species, so I implore you, DO NOT CROSS-BREED FISH! Check out this post for a look at some truly ugly specimens adding further weight to the case for no hybrids. If you’re still tempted, some questions to ask yourself: Am I willing to euthanise unwanted hybrids or keep them for their entire lifespan? If I choose to pass them on to others, can I guarantee that not a single person who ever receives my hybrids will breed them, intentionally or inadvertently, polluting the pure-strain gene pool? Can I guarantee that everyone selling each and every one of my fish or its offspring in the future will know that they are hybrids and will know to label them properly as such? If you can answer yes to ALL of the above, have at’r. Otherwise, please think twice about what you’re doing.
DP01. (X) This one is labelled “devil parrot #2” in the above photos. This is by far the largest and healthiest of the batch and very clearly male. It has a slightly rounder shape and a more intense red colour, but for the most part resembles its red devil father.
DP02. (X) This one is labelled “devil parrot #1” in the above photos. Initially, it looked to be the best of the bunch, but has grown to be anything but — stumpy fins, odd shape, disproportionate, blotchy colour. Ugly.
DP05. Very red eyes on this one. Female.
Devil Parrot x Blood Parrot Spawning Attempts
January 3rd, 2011 – I’ve segregated these two – the largest round-bodied devil parrot male and the most shapely blood parrot female – as a first attempt in finding a fertile/compatible pair.
[ — updates to follow as more progress is made! — ]
Below are some photos showing some some female blood parrots. Notice the ovipositor to the right of the anal pore in each photo. On females, the ovipositor will appear as a larger bulge next to the anal pore, while on males, the anal and genital openings will be about the same size.
- History of the Red Parrot
- FAQ on Parrot Cichlids at Practical Fishkeeping
- The Amphilophus labiatus Species Complex
- Genetics & Fish Breeding, Purdom, Colin E., 1992
- Something to consider: Environmentally-triggered Myelomeningocele?
- X-ray image of a blood parrot from Aqualand
As an ethically-minded pet owner, I do my very best to avoid species that have been mutilated, dyed or surgically altered. Please, please, please, if you see a blood parrot that is anything but a natural looking orange colour (or a dark striped colour if juvenile), avoid buying it. These artificially-tinted fish have been painfully stripped of their slime coating and dipped in coloured dye to give them their funky appearance. Even worse are the “tattooed” variety that display hearts and flowers and other such patterns on their sides. Chances are that these colours will eventually fade to the natural bright orange, so their purchase is not only unethical, but a waste of money over their unaltered counterparts, as their appearance is not permanent!