Discus – an introduction

Image Introduction text from Bleher’s Discus Volume 1

“Brown Scalare”, “Blue Scalare”, “The Aristocrat of the Aquarium”, “The Crested Cichlid”, “Pompadour Fish”, “King of Fishes”, “King of the Amazon”, “King of the Aquarium” and many more such names have been given to this, probably the most highly priced tropical freshwater fish of all time.

There is no other fish on Earth about which so much has been written and published, or which has so often been filmed, painted, or photographed, as the discus. A quite inconceivable flood of quarterly so-called “Discus Newsletters”, “Discus Newspapers”, and “Discus Journals”, plus half-yearly volumes, often in book form, and  annuals in more than ten languages.


A good dozen new discus books appear every year. New videos and CDs – and now DVDs as well – are practically part  of  the daily round. Even the television has jumped on the bandwagon. In 1964, during my ichthyological studies and work at  Gulf Fish Farm in Florida, I was invited to appear on one of the first professional aquarium fish and Discus TV shows. In 1978 I was offered the first major German production on the “King of the Amazon”. “Expeditionsziel Aquarienfische” (“Expedition Aquarium Fishes”) with the “King” as star, was translated into more than 10 languages and distributed worldwide. But that was just the beginning. Subsequently Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Brazilians, and many others produced and distributed discus TV films. During the last 30 years I have been invited to discus symposia in five continents – and I am asked to lecture on discus more than on any other fish, even though I have been deeply involved with all fresh- and brackish-water fishes for as long as I can remember. Innumerable magazine articles on discus have been published, in more than 40 languages. In Korea, not only were my discus lectures televised, but a so-called “Royal Green Discus”, discovered by me, appeared, along with my humble self, on the front page of the most popular daily paper – in colour (see page 19). Then the Saint Petersburg TV channel recorded an interview with me on collecting discus and other aquarium fishes, and this was broadcast all over the former Soviet Union over Christmas 1990.

There are by now more clubs and associations for discus than for any other group of fishes. And if you log on to the Internet then at the time of writing you will find more than 11,2000,000 websites under “Discus” – each with at least 10 web pages.  

So what does the discus have going for it that has enabled it to “oust” old friends such as the Nishikigoi (known to us as the Koi or coloured carp), highly prized for almost 200 years?!  Not only in its homeland of Japan, but also in other Asian countries. And how come the discus has moved up to first place in  just a few years in China, with its carp culture dating back for more than 2000 years? It has also supplanted the guppy, the “millions fish”, popular for around a century. Indeed, it has even pushed the previous “King of Aquarium Fishes”, the angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), down to second or third place in just a few decades. Without question the discus is today number one on the desirability scale (not, of course, in terms of numbers actually sold, where the cardinal tetra, guppies, and other livebearers are generally in front).

The discus was crowned the new “King” at the latest shortly after the Second World War, when my mother organised the first aquarium exhibition in the ruins of Frankfurt Zoo; and by the time it was finally bred successfully, and imported in large numbers towards the mid 1960s, it was so popular that I and my former import and export company put four different colour varieties on public display for the first time in Wiesbaden in 1968. Numerous further, albeit smaller, exhibitions followed. Often at clubs, during the “green week” in Berlin, and at the Interzoo, in the U.S.A., and in Canada.

I myself was responsible for bringing about the first international discus exhibition. This was in 1986 in Japan, where in the course of two days some 44,000 people marvelled at the more than 400 discus aquaria, filled mainly with fishes I had collected and those Dr. Schmidt-Focke had bred. This was followed in 1989 by the first Aquarama in Singapore (for which I was asked to arrange the judging, ie to invite suitable judges; likewise for the two following  Aquaramas in 1991 and 1993), and today almost every country in Asia stages an annual exhibition, including judging of the exhibits. Since 1996 what is now the world’s largest discus championships have been held in Germany every two years (again one of my suggestions, which the energetic Herr Nobert Zajac enthusiastically turned into reality), and there are one or two exhibitions each year in neighbouring countries, as well as in the U.S.A. and elsewhere.

Now it is none too easy to provide concrete reasons for this almost incredible mania for discus. But the unusual form of the fish is undoubtedly at its root. Discus, as almost everyone knows, is the word (of Greek/Latin origin) for a “throwing disc” such as was already in use in the athletic games of ancient Greece. And because the fish is likewise flat and normally round, the Mannheim naturalist Johann Jakob Heckel, working on its description at the Vienna Museum in 1840, was reminded of a disc (Subdisciformis. “Die Gestalt ist beinahe scheibenförmig,…”). He thus gave the new species the name discus and placed it in a new monotypic genus, Symphysodon. No other fish, whether in fresh or salt water, has this sort of disc shape.

Secondly, “His Majesty” the discus fascinated fish enthusiasts right from the start with the way that it moved. Virtually no other aquarium inhabitant is as elegant and graceful. Then there were its brilliant colours, immediately catching the eye, of course, because of the large lateral surface. Even so, Man has not been satisfied with the splendid natural colours and has for years been breeding an ever-increasing spectrum of colour strains, today barely surpassed by that of the coloured carp! The popularity of the discus has increased even more because of these extreme colour varieties, especially in Asia, although these extreme colour forms are not to the   liking of everyone…

In addition right at the beginning it was the high price that made the discus so desirable, but then the discus increasingly “gained ground” as its compatibility with other fishes became evident. And the “aristocrat” truly behaved with nobility. It could easily be kept with other fishes, and would do no harm to any tankmate. Aquarists had found a peaceful and extraordinary cichlid.   

Of course there was yet another decisive   factor: biology. For the first time we had an aquarium fish – a cichlid – which not only practiced brood care but also produced a special skin secretion that provided food for its fry to thrive and grow.  

Today the “King of the Amazon” is known in the furthest corners of the globe, whether it be in Bhutan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia or the Cape Verde Islands. There have been times when fish have changed hands for $10,000 or more. Some people have even sold their house to buy a particular discus – losing wife and children in the process. Nowadays, however, discus, including unusual cultivated forms, can be obtained a lot more cheaply, and it is not always necessary to lose one’s house (wives are still, perhaps, another matter!).

Many citizens of our planet regard the discus as a status symbol. Although in the pre-war years and for some time thereafter the “Browns” were the only discus known – everywhere erroneously labelled as Symphysodon discus – during the 1950s they were the most sought-after of all fishes. Anyone who actually owned a “King” could easily obtain thousands of dollars for it! The discus was in such demand that my mother disregarded the dangers involved and in 1953 started making two-year expeditions “in search of the  discus”.

When, during the 1960s, I was able to bring the first “Royal Blue” individuals back to Germany from the Manacapuru region (see page 19), these were immediately an international hit although the retail price was still about a thousand marks (US$ 500). Later, during the 1970s, the most sought-after discus was the true  “Rio Içá” (see page 19) – I was able to bring back only a single genuine Red specimen, which Dr. Eduard Schmidt-Focke was the first to breed. I compared this with the “dream machine” of every man, the Testa Rossa Ferrari. It was one of the most sought-after forms of all  (just like Enzo Ferrari’s masterpiece of the time). There were no “Red” discus then (and very few of the “Reds” from Modena). But it was also the decade when the solid-coloured cultivated forms became popular.


By the 1980s the “Cobalt Blue” discus had been produced from the “solids”, and was the “latest rage”, the new status symbol. Even so,  at this time the “Green” discus with all-over lentil-sized red dots, brought home by me from the Coari region, were leading their first fry in Dr. Schmidt-Focke’s tanks. These went first of all, via my company Aquarium Rio, to Hong Kong, and this was  the start of a triumphal progress without equal in the history of discus. Today the “Red-Spotted” is the winner in its class, and the Grand Champion, at almost every championships.

The beginning of the 1990s saw the start of the Asian invasion, firstly with the “Pigeon Blood” discus, followed by cultivated forms such as the “Ghost”, “Snake-skin”, and “Red-White”. The discus colour spectrum now knew no bounds.

Today there is no longer any “discus status symbol” in the true sense, although a few snow-white individuals with red spots have arrived on the scene. Fortunately people are by and large turning their backs on the unnatural forms. A new status symbol has been bred in Asia. They have their new “fish god”. At the time of writing the so-called “Flower-Horn cichlid”, a hybrid between two Central American cichlids, rules the scene. But for how long? (Hopefully for a long time, as the unnatural cultivated discus forms almost all originate from the area.) Among discus cognoscenti it is still the “Red-Spotted” or the “Red-Spotted Green” that holds  sway, as well as selected strains of wild-caught varieties.

Fishes from the natural habitat – ie wild-caught – are nowadays available in much smaller numbers than in the past. Less than one per cent of the discus sold worldwide now originate from the Amazonas. It is no longer worthwhile for the caboclo – and even less for the indians – to continue collecting discus (see Chapter 5: collecting). Transportation costs have risen enormously and it takes thousands of litres of diesel or gasoline to bring back often only a few specimens.  In addition, the customer may want only selected specimens; if you are lucky maybe one in 500 wild fish, if that. Then there are the unpredictable weather conditions – which have changed in the Amazonas, just as elsewhere. As has always been the case, forecasts are unreliable. In two out of three  cases you arrive at some far-flung collecting site only to find that the water level is far too high – even though it is supposedly the dry season – and the whole journey has been “money down the drain”. Another point, which few people realise: for about nine months each year discus cannot be found, let alone captured. Hence the caboclo can feed his family by collecting discus for only three months of the year.

But captive breeding has largely compensated for the shortage, and today no fewer than 1.5 million discus are bred every month world-wide. In southern China alone the figure is more than 500,000 per month.

Without doubt Heckel can never have dreamt, back then in Vienna, what a brouhaha the name he invented – and, of course, Natterer’s original discovery – would cause, or that the discus would rise to the status of best-known and most sought-after of all aquarium fishes. Or that over the course of the years hundreds of colour forms would be discovered in the wild; discoveries in which I have played no small part over the past 40 years. Or that so many of the best scientists would end up throwing in the towel as regards what constitutes a good species  (see Chapter 2: comments on taxonomy).  

Nowadays the discus adorns telephone directories, telephone cards (left), CDs, cups, mugs, and plates, watches, stamps, and calendars. There are key-rings, brooches, bracelets, and necklaces with the “King” in tin-plate, bronze, silver, gold, and even platinum. Wood carvings and paintings – which now fetch astronomical prices; and the discus can be seen on thousands of T-shirts. You can even have a discus tattoo (page 18). I doubt if any shark, or even a whale, can hold a candle to it. Not to mention the panda. There is, by the way, even a “Panda” discus – a cultivated form produced by my friend, the well-known breeder Jack Wattley.


The discus cult knows no bounds, and this fish will undoubtedly always be number one as long as there are aquarists and fish enthusiasts. But you can only truly appreciate the fascination of this elegant – truly majestic – fish if you have observed it in the wild. I first had the opportunity to do so as a child, and the thrill will never pall. It is something undescribable, but I will nevertheless make the attempt in this book, using numerous reminiscences and detailed descriptions of natural biotopes (and the paintings on the endpapers). I have also endeavoured to convey this to the public using authentic biotope aquaria at exhibitions over the past few years (see also Chapter 9, wild  discus vs. captive-bred varieties). As Dr. Eduard Schmidt-Focke said back in 1956, “Symphysodon discus unites all the qualities desirable in an aquarium fish in a rare harmony of form and colour”. Then there is the introduction to a later article, “Diskusfieber” (discus fever) (also the title used subsequently by my late friend Hans J. Mayland, the well-known author, for a book of the same name, possibly one of the most-sold discus books of all time), which really says it all: “Incredible that this is no fantastic figment of some aquarist’s fertile imagination, but an actual reality”. Eduard was quoting the words of the publisher of an aquarium magazine of the time. It was spring 1960, and they were standing in front of a display tank in the Rainbow Aquarium establishment in Chicago, which contained two displaying majestic green discus males, totally unaffected by the crowd around their new home, the noise, or the hundreds of flashes from the press photographers. They faced one another, their gills and undersides yellow. A delicate green shimmered on their backs and flanks, broken only by black-brown vertical bars; red-brown lentil-sized spots adorned the anal fin in the one, tiny stripes of the same colour in the other. Apart from the pectorals and the tail, the fins were all edged with red…

I am also reminded of the words of the famous ethnologist, Harald Schultz, who collected discus during the 1950s and early 1960s, and his “flowery” description of the “Blue” discus:  “The body is a symphony of green, green-yellow, yellow, orange, red, blue, and brown.” Or, before Schultz, the words of Dr. W. Ladiges: “The neon tetra is merely a starlet compared to the discus, which is an aristocrat.”

The discus is one of the most beautiful and interesting creatures that the Amazon region – by no means poor in unusual life forms – has brought forth. It is and will remain the “King of the Amazon”, or, better still, the “King of Aquarium Fishes”. And it can be found imortalised on paintings world-wide (like this one, with the city of Barcelos and cardinals), on T-shirts, machtboxes, stamps, mugs, keyrings, Bohemian glas sculptures, or covering the state of Texas. The “King” graced even the cover of the first T.F.H.-magazine (but as Pterophyllum discus)

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