Discus, Discus, Discus

Discus, Discus, Discus


By Michael Baumann

I am writing this as I have been involved with Discus for more than 15 years now and have encountered many of the problems that plague them. When I first started with the beautiful Discus many a pet shop had told me that they were very hard to keep and if you looked at them funny they would get sick and die. I had been breeding many types of Cichlids and a few tetras along with a few gold fish for fifteen years prior to starting the new challenge with the Discus fish. I thought that if these fish are very hard to keep and breed, well, I would give it a go, I like a good challenge.

In my fish room I was still breeding Angels and some Cory and Bristle nose catfish. I had purchased nine young discuses from a shop I knew well and was supplying him with fish on aweekly basis. I had set up a large tank for the newly acquired discus; I didn't have to worry about the temperature as a gas heater heated my shed to 32c all year round. I nursed little discus from half-grown to adults and only losing one fish; it was a mishap as it jumped out of the tank at night and was dry as a bone when I found it. There had been some commotion in the tank for a few days and it looked like two of the discus were keeping the others at one end of the tank, I think that was why the one fish had jumped out. Keeping an eye on the two fish, so I could distinguish them from the rest and remove them to a breeding tank. I had all the breeding tanks set up for some time, they consisted of a two foot by eighteen high and eighteen wide with only one sponge filter and a terra-cotta pot as a spawning substrate and bare bottom. Removing these two fish from the rest and within a few days of them settling down, they were looking at the terra-cotta pot and were intense in cleaning it. The pH of the water was 7.6 and the hardness around 7, which was not really the conditions for the discus, as discus breed better at a pH of 6.5 to 7 and the hardness 4 to 6.

I didn't like adding chemicals into my water so I let them go to see what would happen. A week later the fish spawned a fairly large batch of eggs, not counting them I would say around 300. Two and a half days later and most of the eggs had turned fungus, I could see twenty odd black wrigglers. At least I had a pair and the male was fertile. The fish would have been twelve to fourteen months old and I was very exited that I have bred these fish. The next day the parents ate the young, what a disappointment. Well it was their first batch of young and they were still young themselves. Maybe the next time I will have more luck. Still being green around the gills with these fish I read and listened to anything that was going round about the Discus fish. Many a book has been written about the discus fish, however they were all from countries far away, not one book I found was written for Australian waters and conditions.

So it was hard and the only way to find out about these fish was by trial and error, let me tell you there was a lot of errors along the way. The next spawn was only six days later, however they only lasted one day and they had eaten them. It wasn't until the seventh spawn that they actually had seven young and were swimming on the parents. The fry were fourteen days old when I took them from the parents; they were eating newly hatched brine shrimp. I could see the fish had a defect on their top fin, it was like some of the dorsal fin was bitten off. I later found that the fish were deformed, first I thought it was the parents that had a defect and threw bad young. Spawn after spawn they were raising the young not many as more of the eggs were infertile or went fungus. I tried putting more wheat germ in the beef heart to help the fertility of the male, this didn't work, so I tried playing round with the water chemistry. First the pH was reduced to 6.5 with the hardness dropped to 4 the first spawn in these conditions were amazing only ten to fifteen infertile eggs that went fungus. The fish had fry swarming over them like ants, it was a sight to see, and I was ecstatic.

Now they had a very large spawn I didn't really know if the wheat germ was that made the fish more fertile or if it was the water conditions. Ninety nine percent were good young fry, hardly any deformities. Taking the young off the parents again at fourteen days and cleaning out the breeding tank, replacing the water straight out of the tap. The water that came out of the tap was very hard, as high as 8 and the pH 7.6 to 7.8; I didn't change it when the discus spawned once more. Nearly all eggs were fungus on the day they were to hatch; only a few were fertile. So this proved to me that the water chemistry was very important to the hatching of the discus eggs.

Reading a book is a useful tool in learning and most of the time it is a guide and a place to start. One of the books I was reading had a little on water chemistry, saying that if the water is too hard and the pH is high, there is a greater chance that eggs laid in this type of water would produce very few fertile eggs. Due to the hardness of the water the eggs harden up on the outer layer which makes it more difficult for the sperm to penetrate the egg. The short dorsal fins can be due to water perimeters and or lack of oxygen in the water.

My hometown in Australia is Adelaide South Australia, in the southern part called Hackham, right on the foothills. The water is very hard and pH very high at times. The water quality is great if you want to breed African Cichlids as they thrive in this type of water, however with South American Fish it is a different story. These fish live in neutral to acid water. With any aquarium fish we keep in our tanks and would like to have a go at breeding them, you must first find out where they come from and what their water type is, to have any success. Knowing where and how your fish lives in the wild is the first lesson in success in keeping it alive in the small ecosystem we call a fish tank.

Back to my discus, from then on I knew that I would have to try and keep my water neutral to acid and the hardness to around 4 to 6. It wasn't long and another two fish had paired off, these were also placed into a breeding tank next to the first pair. Then another pair which left only two left and I was hoping they would be male and female, however it turned out these two that were left were females, still three pairs out of eight fish was great. Acquiring a few more discuses to match the two females and maybe a chance to have more pairs. In all I was to have eight breeding pairs of good quality discus in my shed along with twelve pairs of Angels mostly Black veil tails and the catfish.

My shed was producing some nice young discus and many angels, at one time my shed was full of young discus and angels nearing sellable size when I was heart broken, discus and angels started dying. As many as a dozen a day of the discus and forty or more angels, I was devastated, not knowing what to do I rang a vet. Having to pay a call out fee of $75 and for the drugs and injections another $100. The drugs didn't work and I lost nearly 500 discus and over 1,000 young angels. This was a lesson I learned the hard way. I was lucky I didn't lose all my breeders only one of the large discus died. It was a long and painful while until I had young fry swimming on the parents again.

This time I would observe my fish every time I entered the shed, this way if you can get it before it gets out of hand, it is easier to cure the fish. The cause of the deaths is known as angels or discus disease. It hits the fish within 24 hours, they look like they have fin and tail rot at first then go black and their body looks as if it is peeling. Not a pretty sight, then they die all in a matter of three days or sooner. Discus disease is a virus and it is not curable. All you can do is keep your fish healthy enough to fight it off; it is like a cold to us humans, not curable. At the time of this fate with my discus and angels there was not much written on the disease and no known miracle cure. So there was much to learn of this disease, no other fish in my shed was affected just the discus and angels. A few years went by and I encountered the dreaded disease three more times and still losing many fish from it. In one book it had an article on discus disease and it interested me very much, a drug has been used and worked with good results.

The drug was Metronidazole it can be purchased from a vet or by a doctor as a tablet called Flagyl. To get results you still have to hit the disease as soon as it strikes, the dose is very high up to 2,000 mlg to 100 litres of water. This drug has nil side effects and has many other uses for discus. With my shed starting to make a come back from all the loses and heartbreak, a 150 small discus from two pairs were growing steadily to sellable size. These young fish had reached close to 5cm when I thought I had the terrible disease again, some of the young were very dark and not eating and I was losing one or two a day. They didn't have ragged fins or tail just black in colour. I had found out later why these small fish were dying, it was not the discus disease, they were plagued with gill flukes. A worm like parasite that attacks the young fry's gills making them starve for oxygen and slowly die.

I have tried many drugs to rid them of gill flukes. One drug I use in food and in the tank is called Praziquantel, this drug is found in a dog wormer called Droncit. It works well on nearly all worms. The only one I found it didn't work on was the hair like worm they call camallanus worm which infests live bearers mainly. They are introduced into ponds by bird droppings from birds that are infected by them. These little worms can be seen hanging out of the fish's anus, a reddish thread like worm. I have tried Formalin baths and many more; all work however they never rid the fish entirely of the flukes. A fish can put up with the flukes but when a fishes amune system breaks down the fluke take over. Recently I tried a new drug that you can buy from good aquarium stores called Fluke tabs. You administer one tab to 50 ltrs of aquarium water and after 48 hours change 30% of the water. It is recommended to retreat a week later. I have found that this drug has saved more of my fish than all the other drugs and the fish look 100% within 24 hours.

Discus seem to suffer hardest out of all the fish I have bred, the young when infected with fluke seem to give up very easily. They just go in the corner of the tank, go dark and die. Even with daily water changes and good water quality I still encountered the fluke problems. There was another scare when I was losing small angels first, then young discus. I treated the problem for discus disease then fluke. None of the cures worked, fish were dying off a couple a day, it was unusual that none of the young discus were dark. Angels and discus would come up to feed and within half an hour one or two more fish would be dead, with no physical signs. I had to call the vet in again, which was a waste of time, he had no solution or cure.

I ran a few water tests, the findings were amazing, pH good, as for the young I like to grow them in a pH of 7.2, nil ammonia, nil nitrite and nitrate. The water was very good in that department; I rang the water board to see if they were doing anything different to the water. This was a lucky break as I solved the problem, they told me they had to treat the water with high doses of copper to keep the Blue-green algae at bay. Copper at high doses is very toxic to fish; it can be used at around .33 ppm. I use it sometimes when feeding brine shrimp to the young, as on a few occasions the tanks were infected by a parasite called Hydra. Hydra is the same family as the sea anemone; it has long tentacles and lives on live food. It sticks to the glass and looks like a carpet when it is thick, it will sting very small fry and paralyse and eat them. The brine shrimp are very small and are easy pray for the Hydra as the brine shrimp go close to the glass the Hydra grab them. The Hydra changes to an orange colour when they have been feeding on brine shrimp. This is when I hit the tank with copper, to mix a solution of 4grams of blue copper crystals to 2 litres of water, shake well then add 1ml to 5 litres of water. I have done this many times with the fish still in the tank, within a couple of minutes the Hydra shrivel up and die. I leave it in the tank for half an hour then wipe the glass and change two thirds of the water with aged water that is stored in drums in my shed This way it is the same temp as the water in the tanks.

Discus back then were very expensive and hard to breed as little was known about them. All the people who dedicated themselves to the discus and found new cures andbreeding techniques kept it a secret and wouldn't share it with anyone. This was in the late 80's, now I live in a town called Townsville, it is over 3,000 kilometres away from where I used to live and is in Queensland on the coast. The water here is perfect for discus and tetras, the pH is neutral and the hardness doesn't even register on the gauge, it is around 1.8 to 2 which is maybe a little too soft. Being this soft made it hard to stabilise, as there was no carbonate hardness to buffer the water. When I first moved here in 1995 we had water restrictions until January 1997, when we encountered a down pour of 29 inches of rain in one day and 8 to 10 inches the next day. This solved our water shortage, as all the dams were topped and overflowing. I heard on the radio there was enough water for three years in the dams, even if we didn't get rain in that time.

This rain is the cause of the very soft water, it was like acid rain, and many people were losing fish because of the softness of the water. It would be 7 to 7.2 in the pH coming out of the tap and the next day the readings from the tanks would be pH of 6 or less. Very bad for people who kept African Cichlids? In my fish room I had changed all my tanks to trickle systems, 18 tanks for the discus breeders were all hooked up to one trickle system. This worked well, however, when water changes were made the system still went acid overnight. Taking some of the medium out of the trickle filter and replacing it with coral rubble did the trick; this stabilised the water to the pH of 7. As I live in a tropical climate heaters are still needed in the discus tanks to maintain the temp to 29c or 31c for the young. With the water quality being perfect for the discus I had no trouble in breeding them here and found the pairs that bred fish with short dorsal fins in Adelaide South Australia didn't produce any here, they were all perfect.

When I arrived here in Townsville there were 6 to 8 shops and only one shop did I find discus fish, however they were very dark and in a tank with fish that should not have been with them plus no heater. The shop was air-conditioned and the tanks were on 24c, too cold for the discus. It was the same here, every shop told the same story, sorry mate discus are to hard to keep and to expensive, this was told to many other people who were interested in them. The problem is the owners of the shops had no idea what they were talking about and knew very little of all the fish they sold. I think it is wrong that people can open an aquarium shop with no knowledge of what they sell. Let alone tell people what to treat their fish with when they are sick. It was my ploy to change the way of thinking, educate the shop owners that discus were as easy to keep as any other fish, so long as they kept the fish in water conditions the fish were used to.

It was a long and hard battle but it paid off in the long run. Now there are many people enjoying their discus in Townsville today. I have convinced the shop owners to come over and have a look at my set up as well as to see the fish with young on their bodies. They were amazed to see how large the discus will grow and the colour in the full-grown fish. When I first moved to Townsville I bred Angels, catfish, Siamese Fighters and of course the Discus. I stopped breeding the fighters and angels to concentrate on some of my favourite Tetras along with a couple of varieties of Danios and white clouds. The discus was still my main concern, however it wasn't long before I stopped breeding the tetras. The wife and I started up a fish tank Rental and maintenance service and doing tetras took up a lot of time, it was fun but time consuming. Now I have a couple of ponds inside with live bearers and mystery snails to stock the rental tanks. Hoping to have 30 breeding pairs of discus this year as some of the young I kept for this season are starting to pair off. I have also acquired some new blood; these are the new Sunrise and Fuji Discus.

The young I have are Red Turquoise, Blue Turquoise, Seven Colour Blues, Marlboro Reds, Powder Blues, Red Pearls and a couple of nice Scribbles. When I acquired the Sunrise Discus Last Christmas I had noticed the fish had been colour fed, after a few weeks they started to go back to a pale orange, much like the Red Dragon or Pigeon Blood, however with no markings on the body. I have tried to find out what they use and it was a very hard to find out, they would always say ''you could try " and that was enough for me, I have tried almost everything. It has only been a couple of months since I found a place where I could obtain this colour enhancer and I wasn't going to let it pass. The price nearly made me pass out though. These Sunrise discus look fantastic colour fed, instead of a pale orange I have mine looking as red as a tomato. They look that bright people think they are marine fish and I tell you they look great in our upper class rental tanks.

One thing I didn't mention is that I did encounter discus disease a few times here in Townsville and found a wonder drug, it works much faster than Metronidazole, in fact the discus that you catch early with the disease are cured within 24 hours after you administer the drug. Pig and chook farmers mainly use this wonder drug, it's used for respiratory problems in these animals. The drug is called LINCO-SPECTIN it comes in powder or liquid form, to use this drug place 1ml to every 100litres of aquarium water or for the powder 1grm per 100 litres of water. I have used double this strength but use it with caution the right dose is enough to cure your discus. With all fish that are kept in small ecosystems such as fish tanks you must do regular water changes at least once a week, 20% is enough to keep the nitrates down and keep the nasties out. If you have good water quality (this doesn't mean the water looks clear and I can see the fish) good nutritional food and the temp. is right, the fish will stay healthy.

For all newcomer's to the discus scene a good starting point is a three to four foot tank, heater, good filter (canister or trickle) no under gravel filters, a few nice plants and a dark substrate of 3mm in size. Set your heater to 31c, and start the tank running, once the tank is working and you have the temperature right the next step is to acquire the fish. This would be one of the most difficult, if you do not know what to look for in discus. If you read up on your favourite fish then there will be an understanding on what to look for and in quality. I will go through a few steps so it will be easier to find the right fish. To purchase fish from a pet shop or an aquarium shop you must try to find the age of the fish you are to purchase. As it is no good buying a fish that is the size of a fifty-cent piece and it is 6 months old, as this fish is stunted. If the pet shop owners can not tell you the age you can roughly guess the age or see if it is the right size for its age.

Most of the discus have a black bar that runs through the eye, from the top of the head down to the bottom, if you can fit the eye 7 times on the black bar the fish is growing at the right pace. Never buy a fish that is very oval in shape, it could be stunted or has been under nourished, not fed enough. Or maybe has had a bad case of intestinal parasites. Fish that stay hidden, in the back of the tank, or are very dark in colour. The discus have 7 black bars that run horizontal and will go dark black when stressed or frightened, make sure that if you intend on breeding these fish the black bars should not be broken or one bar running into another bar. These are not a good breeding specimen, however they can turn out to be beautifully coloured and shaped fish for display only. If you are not sure with the shop owners advice, don't buy the fish there and then take your time and watch the fish, even if it is over a couple of days, watch when they feed the fish and how the fish respond to the feed. Make sure the fish rush to the food when it is given and not stay hidden. If all is to your liking and the colour strain is what you want then make arrangements to buy the fish.

These fish are a schooling fish and when they are young the more you have in the tank the better. If you have a 3 to 4 foot tank I would recommend that you start with 9 to 15 young fish of 5 to 6cm in size or if your budget is a good, buy 6 fish 9 to 10 cm. The best way to raise your fish would be to not have hiding places in your tank. Feed the young 5cm fish as often as you can, only small portions at a time and make sure they eat it within 10 mins, if not scoop out the rest with a fine net or siphon it out. Make the feeds to what they can eat in 10 mins. I feed mine every two hours through the day right up to 8pm at night, this is around 7 to 9 feeds a day. Do regular water changes daily 20% or two 20 litre buckets out of the three and four-foot tanks. This will keep your tank from pollution and clean your fish out every time the water is changed, by doing the water changes daily the fish get cleaned out and want to eat more and the more you can feed them the larger they grow.

NOTE: it is better doing daily changes than to take out 50% out each week, the large change will or can shock your fish to much and if it is winter the water that is replaced will be to cold and can upset your fish. If you are a very busy person try and do a water change at least twice a week. The best way to buy young fish is direct from a breeder, this way you can study the parents and you will know the age of the young. You might pay a little more if you want them for breeding stock but you will have good quality fish. There is a saying you only get what you pay for. Knowing a breeder and his stock you will get to know what fish are of better quality; they will be at a higher price. The breeder will have the run of the mill cheap ones as well. Usually these cheaper ones go to the shops or wholesalers. Young fish are very plain looking and don't show many colours, so it is hard to say what it is going to look like when it matures. That is why it is hard when you buy fish from the pet shops.

They can tell you it is going to be a cobalt blue as that is what they bought it as and months later you find out it is only a blue turquoise. If you don't have the time to raise young fish to adult size you can buy semi adults at a much higher price and you can see what colour they are as at 6 months of age they are starting to colour. Good discuses don't come cheap when they are out of the juvenile stage, which is why it is better to buy young fish at a much cheaper price. Adult fish cost around $100.00 plus and the young fish from the same strain cost $20.00 it is better to buy 5 young fish and grow them to at least half grown, then pick the ones you want to keep and sell the rest. This way you will get the fish you want and make some of the money back on the ones you sell, plus if you lose one fish in the process you still have the rest to grow out.

However if you only buy one adult and for some reason the fish jumps out of the tank or becomes sick and dies you have lost your money and fish, only to start over once more. Young fish are more delicate than adults are and you must ensure they always have good food, water conditions are right and the temp. is set right. This way your fish will grow into adults with little to no problems at all.

Young discus seem to suffer badly from one parasite and that is gill flukes, even if you are very particular with the care of your discus they can still get or have gill fluke. Keep a close eye on the fish on daily bases and if you notice the fish are off their food and going darker than normal, check water first (pH, ammonia etc.) then temp. If all is ok then, more than likely the fish have a gill fluke infestation and need to be treated. I have found that a drug you can buy from the pet stores called FLUKETABS works very well and a second treatment is advisable a week later. There are other drugs that also work but can be more toxic to the young fish. For me I would use fluketabs first.

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