Cichlid Room Companion


A colorful Jewel from Southern México, 'Cichlasoma' salvini

By , 1998. printer
Juan Miguel Artigas Azas,

Classification: Species overview, Central and North America.

'Cichlasoma' salvini female with her fry 'Cichlasoma' salvini female with fry at Rio Chacamax, Usumacinta, at Nututun, Chiapas, México. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

This beautiful, bashful cichlid inhabits the rivers and lagoons of the Atlantic slope in northern Central America, hiding its beautiful colors from the ever present dangers. "Pico de gallo" (Rooster's peak) is the name given by the fishermen from Veracruz, among some other names by which it is known in other areas.

According to Sterba, in his legendary Encyclopedia of Aquarium Fishes, this cichlid was initially introduced to the German aquarium hobby in 1912 by aquarists visiting México (Loiselle 1983). Many years later, it appeared in aquariums in the United States and it was not until only recently that it has been observed in aquariums in other parts of the world. Despite its beautiful coloration, its popularity as an aquarium fish is adversely affected by its aggressiveness. Nevertheless, the aggression exhibited by this fish is just another interesting feature to knowledgeable cichlid keepers.


It was in 1862 when Albert Günther, the taxonomist-author of more than thirty descriptions of Central American cichlids, published in the Catalogue of fishes in the British Museum the scientific description of this beautiful fish. Günther examined 14 specimens with a type locality of Rio Santa Isabel, in the northern part of Guatemala. The species name was given in honor to the English explorer O. Salvin, who in previous years had formed part of an expedition that retrieved an extensive collection of Central American fauna for the British museum, among which the 'Cichlasoma' salvini types were found.

The "mojarra pico de gallo" was initially placed by Günther in the genus Heros. Later, in 1904, it was another English taxonomist, Tate C. Regan, who placed this fish in the newly created genus Parapetenia (Regan, 1904). Regan relegated the genus Parapetenia as a section or subgenus of Cichlasoma a year afterwards. Parapetenia subsequently proved to be a junior synonym of Nandopsis Gill 1862. The taxonomic status remained unchanged until the genus Cichlasoma collapsed when the Swedish Ichthyologist Sven Kullander (Kullander, 1983) restricted it to some South American species related to the type species Cichlasoma bimaculatum. This has resulted in more than 100 species being left without a proper generic classification since.

It has been suggested that in accordance with the feeding techniques of this fish, it could be considered a member of the genus Nandopsis (Konings, 1989), which goes in accord to Regan's initial placement of the fish in Parapetenia. However, Dr. Robert Rush Miller from the University of Michigan (personal communication, 1993), who is studying the cichlids from the Antilles, has told me that perhaps the Nandopsis genus will be restricted to the Antillean cichlids, including the oldest known extinct representative of Central American cichlids, Cichlasoma woodringi, from the island of Hispaniola.

Given this state of affairs, the "Mojarra pico de gallo" will have to wait for further studies to be carried out for its proper generic placement. In this article, however, and until such studies are carried out, I will adopt Kullander's suggestion (Kullander 1996) to designate previous Cichlasomines (now Heroines) without a genus assigned yet with quotation marks: "Cichlasoma."

In my opinion, the closest relative to 'Cichlasoma' salvini with regard to general morphology, markings and habits is 'Cichlasoma' trimaculatum, which may end up in the genus Amphilophus (Loiselle, 1980). It particularly resembles "C." trimaculatum in the upper Grande river in the Coatzacoalcos system where their ranges get very close. In this area young 'C.' salvini show the three characteristic spots of 'C.' trimaculatum. Here, juveniles of the two species are practically indistinguishable from each other.


'C.' salvini has a wide distribution in the Atlantic drainage rivers in México, Belize, Guatemala, and even into Honduras. The northernmost location where I have found them is the Otapa River in the Mexican state of Veracruz (19° N.L. 96°30' W.L.), and it extends to the rivers south of the Yucatán peninsula in México and Belize. It is also found in rivers flowing into Amatique Bay in the Olancho state in northern Honduras (88° E.L.). However it is absent in the northern part of the Yucatán peninsula.

This jewel inhabits not only rivers but also freshwater lagoons like those in the southern part of the Yucatán peninsula and the lower Usumacinta. It is found only in lowlands no more than 500 meters in altitude.


'C.' salvini is found in jungle or tropical forest areas. Abundant vegetation and enormous trees provide shade at the edges of rivers and lagoons, where the bottom is commonly covered with littered tree branches and leaves. The water is usually of low visibility. In the dry season, however, clear water can be expected with visibility of up to five meters (16 feet). Clear water is found in the headwater of some rivers within the fish's range. On the other hand, the Tabasco lagoons of the lower Grijalva and Usumacinta, where an abundant population of 'C.' salvini is found, are completely murky. It is in these lagoons where one of the most colorful variants is found, a race more beautiful than that we regularly see in aquariums. The aquarium race most likely has its origin in Guatemalan rivers.

'Cichlasoma' salvini habitat in Laguna de las Ilusiones 'Cichlasoma' salvini habitat in Laguna de las Ilusiones, Grijalva; Villahermosa, México. Photos by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

Water chemistry is always on the alkaline side, with pH measurements over 7.5 and values up to 8.0 or more not being unusual. Hardness shows the widest variation, from relatively soft waters (8° DH) to very hard waters (>50° DH). Temperature ranges from around 24°C to 30°C (75°F to 86°F) in some parts of the habitat, with 26°C (75°F) commonly found in the dry season.

The "mojarra pico de gallo" generally inhabits areas of abundant protection and cover, whether aquatic vegetation or driftwood. Juveniles of the species seem to prefer the running water in rocky areas while adult males establish their territories in slow-flowing water under plentiful cover. This is not surprising as the species' striking colors make this fish an easily spotted prey for fish eating birds.

Given the wide distribution of this species, 'C.' salvini shares its habitat with a large number of fish species of several families as well as many cichlids belonging to different genera or 'Cichlasoma' groups (see Table 1). The "mojarra pico de gallo" may be found together with representatives of all the Thorichthys species, several Paratheraps, Paraneetroplus species, Theraps species, Vieja species, Amphilophus species, Archocenthrus species, 'Cichlasoma' species, and the piscivorous Petenia splendida. 'C.' salvini is also sympatric with its seemingly close relative, Nandopsis urophthalmus, and the guapotes of the Parachromis genus, among them P. friedrischstahlii and P. managuense.

General description

'C.' salvini is not a big fish. The maximum size I have seen in adult males is 18 cm (seven inches) with females being no larger than 14 cm (5½ inches). The females' smaller size doesn't make them less beautiful. Quite the contrary, females are more beautifully adorned by Nature. They have the brightest colors in the ventral and dorsal areas, which are decorated with a bright and attractive red color fluctuating in intensity and size depending on the geographical variant. In contrast, the males' belly color normally just show a hint of this beautiful red color. They share with the females a bright yellow base coloration but have beautiful blue highlights on the back above the lateral line and blue streaks on the head. Males from the Candelaria River in México are an exception to this rule and are as beautifully colored as the females, with intense and extended red belly coloration. Females can be easily differentiated from the males on the basis of a blue-edged black blotch on the middle part of the dorsal fin.

Breeding coloration in both males and females show a diminishing of the blue intensity as well as the appearance of black markings from the upper lip to the caudal peduncle along the lateral line and on the dorsal area of the flanks. The yellow base coloration also intensifies during breeding.

Young 'Cichlasoma' salvini just show a very small hint of the beautiful adult coloration, and are easily told apart from other species by a circular black blotch on the middle part of the flanks.


In its natural habitat this omnivorous cichlid feeds mainly on both aquatic organisms and small insects falling into the water. Gut examination of five individuals in northern Guatemala (Rios, Luis Estuadro 1998) shows a good content of vegetable matter in the diet as well.

During the dry season, between December and May, the water in the rivers and lagoons in the habitat of " C." salvini turns clearer and warmer. It is at this time that pairs form and look for a submerged tree or wooden surface, the more entangled the better, where they establish their breeding territory. In spite of their small size, " C." salvini shows an extraordinary aggressiveness and pairs are able to defend a territory larger than two meters (six feet) in diameter, even against larger cichlids. Nevertheless its gorgeous coloration is usually enough warning to dissuade other fish to get close to them.

The pair places and fertilizes the eggs on a vertical wooden surface or in a cavity of a larger trunk. They clean the spawning surface with their mouths. During the 24 hours prior to spawning, their genital tubes extend downwards. After finishing the cleaning process, spawning takes place. Although I have never observed this species actually breeding in the wild, I have observed that many Central American species spawn at dawn.

'Cichlasoma' salvini in Rio Chacamax, Usumacinta 'Cichlasoma' salvini in Rio Chacamax, Usumacinta, at Nututun, Chiapas, México. Photos by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

Under aquarium conditions, the spawning act takes a couple of hours. The female places hundreds of adhesive greenish or yellowish ovoid eggs on the spawning surface. Their size is close to two millimeters in length along the larger axis. Eggs are placed in curved rows slightly separated from each other with each pass of the female yielding about 10 eggs. The male follows closely and covers the eggs in a cloud of sperm. The process repeats until more than 500 eggs are laid.

Once the spawning act has finished, the male retreats and takes on his new role of fiercely defending the territory. The female stays close to the eggs and uses her pectoral fins to bathe the eggs with water. This action I presume keeps the eggs oxygenated. Damaged or unfertilized eggs turn white and are immediately eaten by the female. I assume this is to prevent spreading of the fungal infection to the healthy ones. The female only leaves the eggs for short periods of time to seek for food. During this time the male takes her place. A flank flaring by the pair precedes the shift of responsibility.

A few days later (two days under aquarium conditions at 28°C (82°F), the eggs hatch and the wrigglers, still unable to swim due to a provision of egg yolk accumulated in the belly, are placed by mouth in a small pit or cavity in the trunk. The female, under some circumstances, may move them several times until the wrigglers consume their yolk sack. The fry, after having consumed their heavy load of the yolk, start swimming and looking for food in the form of small edible particles on the sediment. At this stage, the fry show an intense longitudinal black bar across the flanks. I have observed that pairs don't allow the fry to forage far from the entangled spawning area, which is also used as shelter during the night.

At any sight of danger the male faces it. If coping with the threat proves not to be feasible, he abandons the female until the danger is gone. In this respect, my experience is that males 'C.' salvini are much braver than males of many other Central American cichlid species.

The female always remains close to the fry and guides them, together with the male, with spasmodic movements of the body and opening and closing of the fins. With these movements, the parents lead the babies to a less accessible area of the habitat among the tree trunks or vegetation. There, they stay hidden until danger is gone.

Fry care extends for over a month as estimated by the size of the fry observed. At the end of this time, the fry have reached close to two centimeters (¾ inch) in size. Juveniles, which become more sparsely spaced with each passing day and driven by curiosity, eventually stop responding to the parents' calls and start venturing alone throughout the habitat, eventually abandoning their parents. Small juveniles then seek refuge in the shallower areas, normally entangled by driftwood and shaded by overhanging vegetation.

The large number of eggs deposited by the female, intended to keep the population of the cichlid constant, reveal the extent of the danger that the fry and juveniles face during their development. As with other cichlids in the habitat, complete batches are lost as unexpected heavy rains fall during the dry season, producing strong currents that wash the fry away. In these situations, the parents have to arrive at a condition for another spawn, a process that requires an enormous amount of energy.

"C."" salvini fry are, nevertheless, fast growing and it takes less than a couple of years before they are able to contribute their share to the survival of the species. This period could also be shortened under aquarium conditions where food is readily available.

Aquarium keeping

The main consideration to take into account to successfully keep this species in the aquarium is the handling of their aggressiveness. This species shows a special animosity for individuals of their own species. You would hardly be able to keep more than one adult male in a home aquarium. The size of the tank is the main factor minimizing the aggressiveness resulting in the death of the subordinate individuals. My advice is to provide a group of juveniles an aquarium no less than 1.5 meters (60 inches) in length.

There are other factors that help control aggressiveness of the fish. 'C.' salvini shows a great tolerance for fish that are too large to be eaten and ignores them outside breeding time. Having other cichlids, as well as other fast-swimming fishes, in the tank will help to calm aggression. An abundance of hiding places is also helpful. Temperatures below 24°C (75°F), however, should be avoided.

The "mojarra pico de gallo" is easily fed, but you should avoid foods with high fat content that could potentially cause digestive problems. Saltwater fish meat, raw shrimp and other kinds of seafood are excellent to condition the fish and get rapid growth. In addition, avoid over-feeding which creates large, fat and overgrown fish, because this can lead to low reproductive energy.

Given these conditions and with proper maintenance of the nitrogen cycle through partial water changes on a regular basis, it is difficult to keep 'C.' salvini from breeding. When pairs form in aquariums smaller than two meters (six feet) in length, the best thing is to remove any other males of the species. Without doing this, it is almost certain that the dominant male will kill them. A couple or more females can be kept together in the tank as long as it is at least 1.80 m (70 inches) in length and has plenty of cover. Otherwise it is better to remove them.

Most of the time 'C.' salvini doesn't have any problem establishing a breeding territory in aquariums, even in the presence of larger fish. Frequently, pairs will demand at least half the aquarium space and the other inhabitants will quickly learn not to mess with these little devils. If adequate space is not provided, the rest of the aquarium inhabitants will suffer serious injury as a result of aggression and perhaps get killed by the pair.

There isn't any problem for the fry to be left to be raised by their parents. Once they start swimming you have to make the decision whether to leave them with the parents or remove some of the fry to be raised in another aquarium. This operation can be accomplished with the help of a piece of air tubing, which is used for siphoning them out when they are still small enough. It is important to leave some fry with the parents or else the reproductive cycle is broken and the male will want the female to spawn again immediately. Since this is an unlikely possibility, she may succumb to the male's aggression. In this case, as well as when a problem occurs during breeding, quick separation is the best approach.

Fry can be raised on Artemia nauplii, which turns out to be an excellent first food for this kind of fish. It is important to try to keep the little bellies full all of the time, feeding the fry at least twice each day. With this generous feeding regimen and with frequent water changes, in two months post-spawning the babies will have reached two centimeters (¾ inch) in total length.

Breeding pairs living in a community environment form stable relationships. Instability can occur when, for some reason, the spawning cycle is broken which can be driven by sudden changes in temperature, inexperienced breeders or excessive stress. As mentioned above, the pair should be separated when there is inadequate tank space and shelter to allow the female to escape the male's attacks. If the space is available and more than one female is present in the aquarium, the breeding cycle could restart with the alternate female, allowing the former partner to recover.


'C.' salvini is a beautiful cichlid. Its aggressiveness can be easily overcome by understanding its behavior and needs, and providing them with the space they require for their well-being. Following these simple steps, any interested aquarist could, without a doubt, give this species a chance, something they will surely not regret.

'Cichlasoma' salvini juvenile 'Cichlasoma' salvini juvenile in the fast flowing waters of Rio Dos caños, Papaloapan; Veracruz, México. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

References (8):


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (January 22, 1999). "A colorful Jewel from Southern México, 'Cichlasoma' salvini". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on June 25, 2022, from:

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