Flame Tetra (Von Rio Tetra)

Flame tetra in tank

Moto "Club4AG" Miwa / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The flame tetra or Von Rio tetra is one of the most entrancingly beautiful of all aquarium fish, especially when it is in its full breeding colors. At one time, almost no community aquarium was complete without this fish. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was among the best sellers of all characins. One reason for its overwhelming popularity was the ability to survive in a wide temperature range. Before the days of affordable heating for the home aquarium, this went a long way towards making it the first choice as a first fish.

Breed Overview

Common Names: Flame tetra, Von Rio tetra, fire tetra, red tetra

Scientific Name: Hyphessobrycon flammeus

Adult Size: 1.6 inches (4 centimeters)

Life Expectancy: 3 to 5 years


Family Characidae
Origin South America, Brazil, coastal rivers
Social Peaceful
Tank Level All areas
Minimum Tank Size 10 gallon
Diet Omnivore
Breeding Egg-layer
Care Easy
pH 5.5 to 7.5
Hardness 3 to 15 dGH
Temperature 72 to 82 F (22 to 27 C)

Origin and Distribution

They are found in South America in coastal rivers in eastern Brazil and around Rio de Janeiro in the Guanabara bay region, Paraiba do Sul, and Guandu River basins as well as Sao Paulo in the upper Tiete River basin. These tetras prefer slow-flowing creeks, river tributaries, and backwaters. Flame tetras were first imported to Europe in 1920 and the U.S. soon afterward. 

For some reason, this seemingly eternal community aquarium favorite waned in popularity over the last three decades and was almost rare at the turn of the millennium. Its popularity today is again growing, and the Von Rio tetra can now be found in most tropical fish retailers.

Colors and Markings

This fish's body is elongated, slightly compressed, about 1.5 inches long and shiny gray in color. Its sides are bronze to red, and its back is brilliant red as are the majority of its fins. The anal fin has a black leading edge and tip.


It is extremely peaceful in nature. Flame tetras are happiest in schools of six or more. Other potential tankmates for flame tetras are most livebearers, danios, rasboras, other tetras, and peaceful bottom dwellers.

Habitat and Care

One reason flame tetras were popular was its ability to survive in temperatures as low as 64 F and as high as 85 F, preferring temperatures of around 72 F. Also, this fish accepts very low light situations, and actually, dim lighting will develop this fish's best coloring. 

Flame tetras prefer some plant cover and darker gravel. To get the best out of this fish, set up a biotype tank. For the substrate, use river sand with some driftwood and twisted roots. Add some dried leaves to the sand, which will stain the water a light brown, and replace the leaves every few weeks.


Another amazing attribute of this fish is its ability to eat almost anything and survive. Since they are omnivorous, the flame tetra will generally eat all kinds of living, fresh, and flake foods. Feed brine shrimp (either live or frozen) or blood worms as a treat. Feed this fish several times a day and only feed what this fish can consume in three minutes or less.

Sexual Differences

The two sexes are much alike, both in color and shape. The male has a tiny hook on his anal fin, which can catch on a fine mesh net. If this happens, great care must be taken not to break the hook off in the net. This hook is used in breeding.

The male is smaller and its anal fin is distinctly edged with black. Its body is somewhat pudgy, tapering to the tail, which expands into a considerable caudal fin. The colors, in prime conditions, are pearly lilac on the forward belly with yellow glints in an indistinct horizontal line to the tail. The lower abdomen and the anal, dorsal, and caudal fins, rather than being exactly flame-colored, are suffused with flame, On each side of the forward part of the body are two dark spots, one behind the other, that look like smudges.

Many observe a point in the anal fin of the female, but this is not definitive or consistent from fish to fish. Further, there is a broad, black border to the anal fin of the male, this border is either completely absent in the female or simply narrower and lighter in tone. The female's belly region is thicker and rounder, which makes them deeper in the body than the slimmer males. At breeding time, the females will be very plump with eggs. The contrast between males and females is even clearer when the male turns almost totally bright flame red.


Another prime reason for this fish's popularity was its ease of breeding. It breeds in a small tank, it has no particular need for fresh water, spawns up to 500 eggs, and the young are quite hardy.

When breeding tetras, great care must be taken to find specimens which are the reddest in appearance with good body shape. Due to its recent resurgence in popularity, many of these fish make it to market that are dull and misshapen. A wise breeder would avoid those fish.

This fish is usually so easy to breed that it is the recommended fish breed for beginners who are spawning egg-layers for the first time. The breeding tank can be a 10-gallon tank planted with thickets of small-leaved plants, if possible, Java moss. The temperature should be brought up to around 80 F before introducing the well-conditioned female which has been kept in isolation from the male and fed live food for a week.

Introduce the female in the afternoon, followed by the male about one hour before dark. Breeding will probably take place soon after dawn the next morning. The hook in the anal fin of the male is used to hold the female close to inseminate the eggs as the female deposits them on a fine leafed plant. If the male fish is lacking this hook, the fertility rate of the eggs might be low. After laying anywhere between 150 and 500 eggs, the parents will rest briefly but then may want to feed on the eggs. It is important to remove the breeding pair immediately after spawning. Eggs hatch in 24 to 48 hours. The fry hangs on plants and on the glass of the tank for about two days. They are free-swimming by the third day.

The fry should be fed infusoria the first week, and then baby brine shrimp and commercial baby powdered food. They are very hardy in the third week, though they tend to stay toward the bottom of the tank and will devour almost anything. At the age of about 4 months, they begin to look like their parents and are nearly half-grown. At 6 months they can be introduced into a community aquarium as a new shoal of fish.

Similar Pet Fish

If the flame tetra appeals to you and you are interested in similar fish, you may also consider danios, rasboras, other tetra breeds for your home aquarium.