Spotted Demonfish, Satanoperca daemon

Spotted Demonfish, Satanoperca daemon

The Spotted Demonfish (Satanoperca daemon) is difficult to keep and even harder to breed. It is also quite tricky to come by since it is not commonly offered by aquarium shops or fish auctions.

The Spotted Demonfish is a South American cichlid belonging to a group of fish commonly referred to as “earth-eaters”. It is a member of the genus Satanoperca, which currently includes seven different species. Satanoperca jurupari, Satanoperca leucosticte, Satanoperca mapiritensis and Satanoperca pappaterra are considered medium hard to keep and are also easier to obtain than the three other species. They are commonly referred to as the Juruparoids. Satanoperca acuticeps, Satanoperca deamon and Satanoperca lilith form the so called “spotted demonfish group” and are considered really hard to care for in captivity. They should only be kept by experienced and devoted aquarists who are willing to spend a lot of time and effort on fulfilling their requirements.


When Satanoperca deamon enters the hobby, it is often in shipments containing the more commonly kept Satanoperca jurupari. Distinguishing the two species from each other when they arrive is certainly not difficult, since the black blotch of Satanoperca jurupari is limited to the upper half of the caudal peduncle. If you see a fish where the blotch proceeds onto the fin, you are looking at a Satanoperca deamon. In Satanoperca deamon the blotch is also ringed with a bluish-white collar. In addition to this, Satanoperca deamon has two black blotches on its flank, right below the lateral line. The common name of the fish, Spotted Demonfish, is actually derived from these two blotches.

Housing Spotted Demonfish

Since the Spotted Demonfish is an earth-eater, it will spend most of its time near the substrate. The bottom size of the aquarium is therefore much more important than its volume. If you want to keep several adults together the aquarium should be at least 4 feet long, since adult specimens can reach a length of 10 inches in captivity.

Try to mimic the natural habitat of the Spotted Demonfish when you arrange the aquarium. This species is usually collected from Colombian blackwater habitats where it inhabits wooded shorelines with sandy bottoms. They will appreciate driftwood and floating plants in the aquarium, and will spend more time out in the open if you provide areas of surface cover. Spotted Demonfish has been found among leaf litter in the wild, and may therefore appreciate leaves in the aquarium. Leaves can also be used to help keep the pH-value down.  

The Spotted Demonfish feeds by continuously shifting sand in search for tiny animals, hence the name “earth-eater”. It is very important that your fish is given opportunity to carry out this behavior in the aquarium. Instead of ordinary gravel or aquarium sand, purchase the really fine grade sand used for pressurized sand filters and provide your fish with at least 2 inches of this. Fin grade sand is also necessary for breeding Spotted Demonfish (you can read more about this farther down in this article).


As mentioned above, Spotted Demonfish specimens available for aquarists have usually been collected in Colombian blackwater biotopes and will therefore appreciate such water conditions in the aquarium. Blackwater habitats have acidic and really soft water, i.e. a pH-value in the 3.5-5.3 range and water hardiness below 1 dH. Blackwater habitats are “black” due to the high amount of dissolved tannins which turns the water in to a deep, tea-colored shade. There are several ways of making tap water soft, you can for instance use rain water, RO water (reverse osmosis), filter the water through peat moss, or purchase pH-lowering chemicals from the aquarium store. Tannic and humic acids can be derived from peat moss, oak leaves or bog wood. Tannic and humic acids are also commercially available in aquarium stores.  

In addition to keeping the water “black”, acidic and soft, you must also keep the levels of organic waste down to a minimum. All Satanoperca cichlids are highly sensitive to nitrogenous waste and the Spotted Demonfish is even more sensitive than its close relatives. If you do not keep the water quality up, your Spotted Demonfish can easily develop bloat.

The recommended water temperature is 84-88 degrees F. 

Tank mates

If you keep Spotted Demonfish in a species aquarium, it can increase their aggressiveness towards each other somewhat, but it rarely turns into serious fighting or harassment. Keeping Spotted Demonfish by them selves is therefore quite common, since it makes it easier to keep the water quality at supreme levels. The Spotted Demonfish is a docile cichlid, but it is not really shy, especially not in a well decorated aquarium. If you have kept Satanoperca jurupari or Satanoperca leucosticta before, you may be surprised by the boldness of the Spotted Demonfish. Dither fish is therefore not required when keeping Spotted Demonfish.

If you want to combine your Spotted Demonfish with other species, these species must naturally appreciate blackwater conditions. The Spotted Demonfish does not seem to care much about other fish and can be kept with most heterospecifics, including small South American blackwater cichlids. You should however keep their earth-eating in mind when you select tank mates and avoid species that will try to occupy the bottom of the aquarium. The Spotted Demonfish can also develop nutritional deficiencies if kept in an aquarium with fast, competitive species that will grab all the food before the earth-eater has a chance to find it. Large, fast-swimming Charcoids can for instance cause a problem. A safer choice is Pterophyllum cichlids since they will not out-compete the Spotted Demonfish for food, nor occupy the substrate.  


The Spotted Demonfish is easy to feed in the aquarium as long as you do not force it to compete for food with faster species. Small juveniles can be feed flake food, while large adults need something more substantial, e.g. sinking pellets and food sticks. Freeze dried foods will also be highly appreciated.

Breeding Spotted Demonfish

Breeding Spotted Demonfish is really difficult and as far as I know, it has only been achieved a few times since this species was introduced to the hobby. It is considered a challenged even for experienced aquarists who are used to keeping earth-eaters. 

Sexing Spotted Demonfish is hard, but in healthy and well-fed adults the female will normally be a bit plumper than the male. If you notice a fish engaged in pit digging it is most likely a female, and females are also known to actively court the males. Pit digging and courting can naturally only be observed during the breeding period. During this period, the male will devote most of his energy towards guarding the area in which the female is digging pits.

Even when kept in aquariums where males are present, females can form what seems to be a couple. This will naturally not result in any fry.     

Courtship and spawning site preparation  
As mentioned above, the female will dig pits and court the male, while the male becomes more aggressive than normally and vigorously defends the pit area. As long as the other fish in the aquarium is smart enough to stay away from the pit area, violence can be limited to a few torn fins. You might have to place food in several different parts of the aquarium to make sure that all fish is able to reach it. You may also want to ponder the idea of moving the non-breeding fish to a separate aquarium to prevent them from eating eggs and fry if the couple spawns.

The female is normally the one to induce courting, but it will eventually turn into reciprocal lateral displays and mouth-tugging. Head twitching and branchiostegal flaring is also common.

The Spotted Demonfish is known to engage in vigorous digging and a large number of pits will be produced throughout the aquarium. Do not be surprised if the fish digs its way down to the aquarium glass. Digging can proceed for many days and can suddenly stop without any subsequent spawning.  

During the actual spawning, the female will deposit a small number of eggs inside a pit and the male will swim in to fertilize them. The female will then deposit a new clutch of eggs; the male will fertilize them too, and this behavior will be repeated all over again until all eggs have been laid and fertilized. The entire process can take over an hour. Females have been seen depositing 15-20 eggs per pass until nearly 200 eggs were deposited in a circular plaque, but since there exists so few reports of Spotted Demonfish breeding in aquariums it is impossible to tell whether these figures are normal or not. The eggs are oval, roughly 1 mm in diameter, adhesive, and of a pale grey color. 

Egg and fry care
The members of the genus Satanoperca are primitive mouth-brooders, but the female Spotted Demonfish will not pick up the eggs after spawning. A few hours after being deposited, the eggs will instead be buried until 1-2 inches of sand. This type of behavior has not been observed in any other Satanoperca cichlid.

When the eggs have been covered, the female will stay near to protect them. She will also use her pectoral fin to fan fresh water over them while leaning on the side. The male will focus on guarding the territory and chase away any intruders. The eggs will stay covered for several days before tiny wrigglers can be seen being moved by the parents to another pit. The wrigglers will then be covered again. Several days later, the fry will have grown large enough to be free swimming. They can however still burry themselves in the sand if frightened.

Spotted Demonfish fry are even more vulnerable to poor water conditions than their sensitive parents and the water quality must therefore be kept at supreme levels if you want them to survive. When you start feeding them, extremely frequent water changes must be carried out. Small and frequent changes are believed to be better than large ones, since large water changes may shock the fry and prove detrimental to them.

The mouth-brooding technique seems to have been greatly modified by the Spotted Demonfish. It is also possible that the fish acts differently in captivity where there are no other fish around than what they would do in the wild.

Raising fry without the parents
In the few reports that exist regarding Spotted Demonfish breeding it is quite common for the parents to abandon their offspring a few days after burying he eggs in the sand. In order to get fry, aquarists have therefore tried to incubate the eggs in a separate aquarium and raise the fry without the parents. This is difficult, but not impossible. Keeping the water quality up and making sure that the water is well oxygenated (since the mother will not fan fresh water over the eggs) is extremely important.

Fry food

Newly hatched brine shrimp is a good first food for Spotted Demonfish fry.

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