Figure 1. Mayan cichlid, 'Cichlasoma' urophthalmus, from an unnamed aguada, near to Celestún, Yucatán. Photo by Juan M. Gómez.
* Laboratorio de Necton. El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Unidad Chetumal. Zona Industrial No. 2, Carr. Chetumal-Bacalar. Apdo. Postal 424, C.P. 77000, Chetumal, Quintana Roo, México
One of the most ubiquitous fishes in Yucatan continental waters is the Mayan cichlid, 'Cichlasoma' urophthalmus (Fig. 1). This species, endemic to the Usumacinta Province, is known with several local names (mojarra castarrica, mojarra rayada, mojarra latinoamericana and mojarra del sureste). Its range cover from Coatzacoalcos river (México) to Prinzapolka river (Nicaragua), along the Atlantic slope of Central America (Espinosa-Pérez et al., 1993). Mayan cichlid's main morphological features are a conspicuous ocellated blotch at caudal base (from which the specific epithet is derived) and seven dark bands (of variable width) across the body. Due to its abundance, this fish supports a small-scale fishery in Yucatan and has been extensively studied for aquaculture purposes (for a review, see Martínez-Palacios & Ross, 1994). The aim of this contribution is to present some relevant features of this fascinating cichlid fish.
The Mayan cichlid was first described by Günther (1862) as Heros urophthalmus, based on material from Lake Petén (Guatemala). Regan (1905), in his review of Central American cichlids, placed it in a new genus (Parapetenia). Later, Parapetenia was relegated as a section of Cichlasoma (Regan, 1906-1908).
Kullander (1983) restricted Cichlasoma to type species (C. bimaculatum) and other 11 species, and Central American cichlids were left without formal generic status. To avoid this situation, previous generic names were proposed. Heros is now restricted to H. severus and some related forms (Kullander, 1997). Parapetenia is a genus name not available, since its type species is the same for Nandopsis (Kullander, 1983). Although the latter has chronological priority and is valid, it has been restricted to the Greater Antilles (Miller, 1996). Herichthys was also proposed (Burgess and Walls, 1993), but it has been currently assigned to H. cyanoguttatus and other forms, distributed from the north of Veracruz to the southern portion of Texas (Miller, 1996). At present times, the generic position of Mayan cichlid (and other species, like 'Cichlasoma' salvini) remains unsolved.
Regarding to the correct taxonomic status of Mayan cichlid, a further complication arises: the presence of wide variation in morphological traits, along the species' range. In a series of papers, Hubbs (1935, 1936 & 1938) described eleven subspecies, most of them endemic to Yucatan Peninsula (Fig. 2). Although the validity of these forms has been questioned (Alfaro-Bates, 1989), geographic variation in morphology certainly exists (Shingler, 1997; Barrientos-Medina, 1999).
Figure 2. 'Cichlasoma' urophthalmus cienagae, from Progreso, Yucatán. Photo by Juan M. Gómez.
Selected Topics on Biology and Ecology
Mayan cichlid is, by far, an euritopic species: rivers, lakes, lagoons, brackish waters (coastal lagoons, cienegas), karstic features (cenotes, aguadas, caves), environments with marked marine influence (petenes, mangroves and seagrass beds) are common biotopes of this fish. Moreover, is able to colonize and grow in sascaberas, flooded quarries located in several parts of Yucatan, e.g. in the vicinity of Merida City (Fig. 3) or in Xcalak, a small town near Chetumal Bay. A high plasticity in physiological traits could explain this wide ecological tolerance (Chávez-Sánchez et al., 2000).
According to its food habits, the species has been considered as omnivorous, with some carnivore tendencies (Caso-Chávez et al., 1986; Martínez-Palacios & Ross, 1988). Major food items are: organic matter, crustaceans, plant material, shrimps, amphipods, mollusks, isopods, polychaetes, eggs of several invertebrates and rests of fishes.
Although sexual dimorphism is no evident, there are some differences between sexes: males are, seemingly, slenderer and larger than females (Martínez-Palacios & Ross, 1992; Faunce et al., 2000). Reproduction takes place between March and October, covering dry and rainy seasons (Caso-Chávez et al., 1986). Apparently, this activity is regulated by temperature and wind patterns; there is parental care (substrate-breeder), and the size of fry is relatively low. Young fishes (at hatching time) have 6 mm of standard length (SL) and present a strong geotactic behavior (Martínez-Palacios et al., 1994). Fishes ranging between 70 and 130 mm SL, have already completed their first spring and they are active, in reproductive sense (Martínez-Palacios & Ross, 1992).
The Mayan cichlid is a transient or definitive host of many parasites: flatworms (Monogenea), thorny-headed worms (Acanthocephala), tapeworms (Cestoda), roundworms (Nematoda) and particularly flukes, Digenea (Vidal-Martínez et al., 2000). Hence, this cichlid has been used as model in the study of the colonization and evolution processes of its helminth fauna.
Nowadays, there are some introduced populations of the Mayan cichlid in Oaxaca (México) and southeastern Florida. In Oaxaca, it has been recorded in Temazcal dam and Papaloapan river basin (Martínez-Ramírez, 1999). In Florida, the species occupy a variety of habitats within the Everglades (Faunce et al., 2002). Fishes from Florida have different growth patterns, in comparison with those from Celestún lagoon population, in México. The impact of these introduced specimens in native fish communities is not well understood yet.
Figure 3. Sascabera near Central de Abastos, Mérida, Yucatán. Photo by Juan M. Gómez.
The Mayan cichlid was listed by ichthyologists (Williams et al., 1989) and the Mexican government (NOM-ECOL-059-1994) as endangered, due to the restricted range and low densities of certain subspecies, in particular, 'Cichlasoma' urophthalmus ericymba. However, in the recent and revised version of the Mexican norm (NOM-ECOL-059-2001), the Mayan cichlid was set-off, because it has a wide range and high abundance.
Due to the existence of populations with unique morphological features, which inhabit fragile ecosystems such as cenotes and caves, some conservation effort for protecting them should be addressed (Barrientos-Medina, 1999). Despite of their taxonomic status, their recognition as evolutionary significant units would be a first step in this sense. However, currently there are no data available (on genetics or phylogeny) supporting this point of view. Within the nominal subspecies of Yucatan, 'C.' u. ericymba (from Sambulá cave) and 'C.' u. conchitae (from Conchita cenote), both located in Merida City, could be the most threatened forms.
These two forms, since the end of the 30's (Hubbs, 1936 & 1938), have not been registered again. The type locality of 'C.' u. ericymba still exists (Fig. 4), in apparent good conditions. However, in a recent visit, I could not see cichlids there. On the other hand, the catfish (Rhamdia guatemalensis) still lives there. Cenote Conchita, another type locality, has probably disappeared, causing the extinction 'C.' u. conchitae. The conservation status of other subspecies is unknown; explicit studies have not been made yet.
Currently, I am in the final stages of an extensive study of the geographic variation (on the basis of morphological features) of the Mayan cichlid. This work, which has the goal to clarify the taxonomic status of this species, is based on the revision of type material, complemented with the analysis of specimens from several localities located along the species' range (from Veracruz to the Atlantic slope of Honduras).
As partial results, one of the nominal subspecies ('C.' u. mayorum), from Chichén-Itzá has been recognized as valid species (Barrientos-Medina & Schmitter-Soto, 2002). With certain probability, the Mayan cichlid could be a species' complex, instead a single (polytypic) species. Species within the complex might also present ecological differences and the euritopic label of the Mayan cichlid could disappear. Other considerations about evolutive, conservation and management issues of the Mayan cichlid may come up after the completion of the study.
Figure 4. External view of Sambulá cave, Mérida, Yucatán. Photo by Margarita Ventura.
This article is part of the M.Sc. author's thesis at ECOSUR, supported by CONACyT (grant number, 162829). Silvia López-Adrián, Jorge Navarro-Alberto and Juan J. Schmitter-Soto revised an earlier version, making helpful comments to improve it. The project "Ficoflora de la zona urbana y conurbada de Yucatán", supported by the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán (PRIORI-FMVZ 02-014), provide facilities to visit the Sambulá cave. Juan M. Gómez-González and Margarita Ventura are kindly thanked for the photographs.
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© Copyright 2003 Roberto Carlos Barrientos Medina, all rights reserved
Barrientos Medina, Roberto Carlos. (March 08, 2003). "The Mayan cichlid, 'Cichlasoma' urophthalmus: An Overview". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on June 13, 2021, from: https://cichlidae.com/article.php?id=181.