Mauricio de la Maza Benignos, 1999
Cichlid Room Companion

Where the Huasteca Meets Totonacapan, Uncovering the "missed out" Herichthys

By , 2005. image

Classification: Distribution and exploration, Central and North America.

" A survey for the Turquoise Herichthys forms of Rio Pantepec and Cazones river systems in Eastern Mexico "

Valle del Pantepec
Where the Huasteca meets Totonacapan is a land of exuberant flora, majestic landscapes and outstanding beauty: The Upper Pantepec River Valley Photo by Manuel Salazar González.

North of the Tecolutla River, along the Gulf of México and all the way to the Soto La Marina River, enclaved between the Sierra Madre ridge and the Atlantic Ocean, two regions of exuberant flora, majestic landscapes and outstanding beauty exist.

The Totonacapan (land of Totonacos) and the Huastecas (Land of Huaxtecos) are regions located in present-days states of Mid-North Veracruz and North-Eastern Puebla in the first case; and Northern Veracruz, the northern tip of Puebla, eastern Hidalgo, large portions of South-Eastern San Luis Potosí and southern Tamaulipas in the second. Both are the territories of two ancient and proud nations which excelled in their scientific knowledge in astronomy; their architecture exhibited in the form of superb pyramids; and their artistic expressions in the form of dances, rituals and crafts that persist amongst its people today. Both territories are also home to the Herichthys clade of Cichlids -except for H. cyanoguttatus and H. minckleyi which inhabit north of the Huasteca Tamaulipeca-.

It is accepted that the limit between the Totonacapan and the Huastecas is the stretch of land that lies between the Tuxpan River and the Cazones River. A transition area where the affluents and streams that feed them have flown down the mountains for ages in every direction, separate, entangling like serpents, but without ever exchanging waters. Just like its human inhabitants of five different ethnic groups -Totonacas, Huaxtecos, Nahuatls, Tepehuas and Otomites- who share this transition zone, but maintain their own traditions, customs and languages separate from each other.

The Physiography

Going from the North-East, the Huasteca begins at the mouth of the Soto La Marina basin where H. carpintis teporatus inhabits. As one moves south along the Coastal plains of the Tampico Embayment (CPTE), a couple of smaller basins including the Tigre River drain directly to the sea. Here the first member of the Labridens complex appears in the form of H. pantostictus, living sympatrically with H. carpintis (both riverine morphs).

Moving a few kilometers south along the coast, one reaches the Coastal lagoons of Tampico which include the Carpintero (type locality of H. carpintis), Altamira, Chairel and others. These lagoons represent the last section of the enormous Pánuco Basin, which is the second largest river system in the Atlantic slope of México, and which rich ichthyofauna -including H. labridens, H. bartoni, H. steindachneri and H. tamasopoensis in the upper reaches and H. carpintis carpintis and H. pantostictus in the lower reaches- has been subject of ample studies.

In the eastern-most portion of the Pánuco River, a few km inland, before emptying its waters to the Gulf of México, and at the coordinates (22 14' 42.76" N, 97 49'0375" W) is the mouth of the brackish (16.5 - 30 PPT of salt) "Canal del Norte" that connects the Pánuco River System with the Tamiahua Lagoon system.

Further south, the Ultrahaline (>30PPT of salt) "Canal del Sur" begins at the "Boca de Corazones" and connects the Tamiahua lagoon with the Tampamachoco lagoon at the foot of the Tantima Ridge. There, the northern slopes of the Tantima drain directly to the Tamiahua system, and the southern slopes to the Tuxpam/Tampamachoco/Pantepec River system, which is also the "Southern door" to the Huastecas.

Finally, 24 km further south, along the coast, moving through an alternation of hills and swamps one reaches the Cazones River system, which is separated from the Nautla River system by the Papantla Ridge, and is the "Northern door" to the Totonacapan.

The Expedition

Herichthys sp 'Pantepec'
Freshly collected Herichthys sp "Pantepec" from Santa Cruz, Rio Pantepec drainage Photo by Manuel Salazar González.

On the 19 of August 2005 my friend Melo Salazar and I decided to "flip the coin", and embarked ourselves on an expedition along the CPTE, across four Mexican states to the city of Alamo, and West, up the mountains to the remote and some times inaccessible municipalities of Francisco Z Mena, Pantepec and Venustiano Carranza in the Northern Ridge of Puebla. It is here where the major affluents of the Cazones and the Tuxpan river systems are born.

Knowing that we were in the last days of the Canícula -a short and hot dry-period-break within the rainy season- we had to move fast, survey and sample the area if we wished not to be stuck for weeks up there, watching the rain pour like buckets, the ditches become rivers that block any land access to the region, and to return with our hands empty due to the impossibility to collect under such conditions.

Following a last watch of the weather forecast, and a phone call to one of the local crew members -a former employee and a friend of mine- that would meet us there, we figured that we had only two or three days to sample and leave before the cycle of tropical storms returned, displacing the fragile high pressure system that circled above our target. Our objectives were:

  1. To determine the southern-most distribution limit of Herichthys carpintis carpintis.
  2. To collect, "pickle", and bring back a representative sample of the Upper Pantepec Herichthys (UPH) locally known as mojarra azul criolla (blue criolle cichlid) from different points of its distribution range for further studies.
  3. To find the habitat and determine the status of the Lower Pantepec Herichthys (LPH) that was collected in the city of Alamo in 1986 by Willem Heijns and Don Danko (Danko, 2001).
  4. To determine the status in the wild of Herichthys sp. cazones (turquoise), not seen in the wild for years, and to collect some live specimens for reproduction in a captive breeding program.

So, by 8:30 A.M. Melo and I were already on the road.

The Tamiahuan Herichthys carpintis

Estero Cucharas
Estero Cucharas, affluent of the Tamiahua lagoon and home to the southernmost members of Herichthys carpintis carpintis. Photo by Manuel Salazar González.

Few and rather inaccurate reports exist of the cichlids that inhabit the Tamiahua and Pueblo Viejo lagoon systems of Northern Veracruz. Most consist of old misidentifications that mention the occasional presence of H. cyanoguttatus. While such presence would be a direct defiance to scientific logic, in accordance to the knowledge and data that we have today, it could be reasonably inferred from such reports that a Herichthys type of cichlid inhabits the systems, and our first educated guess pointed towards Herichthys carpintis.

A close analysis of a paper by Ayales-Castañares, et al. 1980 shows that the whole northern portion of the Tamiahua lagoon -north of the "Isla del Idolo" (Idol island) - is a polyhaline area that ranges in salinity from 16.5 to 30 PPT. The southern range, on the other hand, shows an ultrahaline area that exceeds 30 PPT-which is already sea water-.

This means that, throughout the rainy season, when salinity levels reach their lower limits, the portion of the lagoon north of Idol Island is hospitable to cichlids. While their ability to reproduce under such conditions is highly questionable, their ability to transit through the lagoon from the Pánuco system and occupy some of the independent and fresh water estuaries where they can complete their life-cycle is not.

The above reasoning took us to the "estero cucharas", our first stop, and a major tributary of the lagoon. The estuary runs under the national highway between the towns of Ozuluama and Naranjos (21 29' 45.15 N, 97 48' 24.86 W) and is born in the northern slopes of the Sierra Tantima. Here, a couple of good casts with the net solved -at least partially- the mystery, bringing out a pair of fully grown over 25 cms TL. lacustrine Herichthys carpintis carpintis, very similar in terms of shape to the ones that may be found in the surroundings of the city of Tampico.

If Herichthys pantostictus inhabit such places as well is a question that will require further investigation. The answer depends on that particular species tolerance to brackish conditions, but, to this point, and according to our observations it is apparently absent in such range.

The Pantepec Herichthys

The second stop (The Potrero del Llano River)

Rio Potrero de llano
Potrero del Llano River, habitat of the Upper Pantepec Hericthys. Photo by Manuel Salazar González.

As we moved along from 12 meters over sea level (m.o.s.l.) to past 150 m.o.s.l. and across the town of Cerro Azul, we began a descent down the southern slope of the Sierra Tantima.

The Tuxpan/Tampamachoco lagoon is and has been an isolated body, separated by natural barriers that prevent the freshwater flow, and cichlids from the Pánuco and Cazones systems and vice-versa probably since the last Pleistocene glacial episode. In their western portion, the Pánuco and the Tuxpan (Pantepec) systems are separated by a Tertiary mountain range and in their eastern portion by over 20 km of sea water with salinity levels above 30 and up to 36 PPT.

It was the above reasoning that has leaded me to believe, contrary to some reports, that the cichlids inhabiting that basin are a separate undescribed species, at least from a History-Based-Phylogenetic-Species-Concept perspective.

At 6:00 P.M. we arrived to Río Potrero del Llano (Pantepec system), a small river that meets the Pantepec river down from the city of Alamo. At that point we descended down a dirt road, passed underneath the bridge, and parked the car north of the road. As we descended to the clear, fast-flowing river bank, we began to see, in some of the calmer sections, some colourful mollies along with some rather small cichlids. At that point, Melo called to my attention a pair of cichlids in breeding coloration caring for their fry.

As we advanced, we noticed more pairs here and there. How small were they!!!!! Cichlids were breeding at a TL of less than 5 cm and larger cichlids were simply not present!!! At that point we began our collecting efforts. An hour later we had collected enough specimens of the UPH of a light-lime-green coloration and the two characteristic markings on the cheeks. Oreochromis sp. was collected by the dozens, but there were no signs of the LPH.

At around 8:00 P.M. we left for our next destination, the Meza (plateau) de Metlaltoyuca, a tropical version of an old-wild-west Town, and an ancient Aztec tribute collecting point which sits off the beaten track, away from the main roads, and at over an hour off-road drive up and down the Sierra Madre. Here we established our camping site in a rustic but comfortable plate roofed house.

The crocodiles' pond

Crocrodyles pond
Some members of the oak forest community in Metlaltoyuca’s plateau. From top-left to right: Tropical tree-frog (Hyla sp.), Theraphosid red-abdomen-tarantula Brachypelma vagans spp. metlaltoyuca, Epiphyte Orchid, From bottom-left to right, epiphyte Tillandsia, crocodiles’ pond, the invading tilapia Oreochromis sp. Photo by Manuel Salazar González.

The next day, Melo and I left early in the morning to the next collection site: a couple of medium sized spring-fed ponds situated at 314 m altitude in the middle of an oak (Quercus oleoides) forest. Epiphytes strive here in the form of Bromeliads, Orchids and Pitayas. Spanish Moss hang from the trees, and if one looks carefully, a tree frog, a red tarantula or a snake may catch the eye while the Laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans) loudly announces the imminent rains.

In the background of the tea colored, acidic-water tropical lake (which is rather unusual in México), one may see the delicate wake that some creature leaves behind. Observing carefully, one figures the shape of the crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) sliding swiftly over the perfectly flat water surface, and immediately understands the reason why white heron feathers are floating all over the place. The water parameters were: pH 6.2, hardness 75 ppm; Nitrates 0 ppm, visibility less than 25 cm and temperature 26 C, at 7:30 am.

While Melo kept an eye on our large toothed companions, I casted the net for a while, collecting the necessary specimens amongst the greatly outnumbering Tilapias and the always present Astyanax mexicanus that came out by the dozens on just about every cast. The UPH here is scarce. The population here is of an outstanding blue/green coloration.

Crocrodyles pond
The “blue mojarra” Herichthys sp. "Pantepec" (UPH), inhabitant of the Crocodile´s pond in Metlaltoyuca´s plateau. Photo by Manuel Salazar González.

Santa Cruz

Our next collection site (3:00 pm) was Hacienda Santa Cruz, which is crossed and flooded every five or six years by the Pantepec River. As we descended 200 meters into the river valley, and into an ecosystem dominated by pasture fields bordered with cedar trees, Ceiba trees (Ceiba petandra) and Palo de Rosa (Ottoschulzia rhodoxylon) amongst others, we noticed how the river was already grown and turbid, carrying logs and mud from the mountains.

Given the circumstances, Melo and I decided to collect in a small lake which is connected to the main river. Here, in the middle of the rain we collected some additional specimens, similar to, but larger than those collected in the crocodiles' pools. The blue mojarra was also scarce here. Orechromis sp. here too dominates in a proportion of 30 or 40 to 1.

The Turquoise Herichthys

Cattle pool
Cattle puddle, sadly, one of the last refugees where the formerly abundant Herichthys sp. "Turquoise" desperately holds to life. Photo by Manuel Salazar González.

The next day Melo and I left early in the morning for the neighboring Upper Cazones River. We climbed the Sierra Madre through coffee plantations of the Pantepec municipality, entered the Venustiano Carranza municipality and descended down a steep slope that leads to the community of Tumbadero Escobal and to the Upper Cazones (San Marcos in this point) River.

There we tried to collect some specimens of the Turquoise Herichthys. Every cast pulled out the apparently introduced Thorichthys maculipinnis, the introduced Tilapias (Oreochromis sp.), Gobiomorus dormitor, Poeciliopsis gracilis, Poecilia mexicana limantouri, and a whole range of interesting crustaceans, but not a single turquoise Herichthys.

Herichthys sp. "Turquoise" is so rare that it is simply not known to the generations under 20 years old

Soon we discovered that Herichthys sp. "Turquoise" is so rare that it is simply not known to the generations under 20 years old. An old fisher-man informed us that it had been years since he had caught his last "Guapota", which quality as a pan fish exceeded by far the mud-tasting Tilapias. The above coincided with my previous experiences in the river. I had also not seen the fish in years!!!! At that point Melo and I concluded that the Turquoise Herichthys was gone from the river, and that if we wished to collect some specimens, we had to look for it somewhere else in the lakes and affluents more isolated from the people.

In the town we managed to obtain permission from some of the foremen who were in charge of ranches containing cattle pools, lakes and streams. With a couple of them we covered the whole area, bringing out Tilapias and Thorichthys by the hundreds, but no "Turquoise". On our way out, I noticed a small cattle pool of a diameter not larger than 30 meters in the middle of a pasture. We decided to make a last effort and to survey the puddle. After 20 or 30 casts that brought out Tilapias and Thorichthys, I began to pack my gear. Then, Melo somehow convinced me to throw a last cast. I did, and there it was, four fully grown Tilapias and a turquoise Herichthys!

We fished the puddle for another two hours capturing 10 skinny, heavily parasited and rather old Herichthys, and a mud box turtle! We then left for our camp site with our valued load.

That night, the tropical storms finally arrived. It rained all night! Early in the morning we packed our gear, bagged the fish and left in the middle of the storms for Monterrey.


Based on our observations:

  1. Herichthys carpintis carpintis is found in the fresh water estuaries of the Tamiahua Lagoon system. Its southern distribution is limited in the east by the ultrahaline southern portion of the lagoon which begins at the "boca de Corazones" -where the lagoon connects to the sea-, surrounds Idol Island, and extends south for over 20 kilometers through the "Canal del Sur"; and in the West, by the Tertiary Tantima Mountain Range.
  2. The Pantepec river system has at least one species of cichlid of the gender Herichthys. The above, at least from a History-Based-Phylogenetic-Species-Concept perspective. The "mojarra azul" (blue cichlid) of the Upper Pantepec River, in its green/blue form, is found, and dominates the upper reaches of the Pantepec river system.
  3. Another cichlid that was collected by Willem Heijns and Don Danko in 1986 in the city of Alamo may live -or may have lived- sympatrically with the Upper Pantepec Herichthys (UPH) in some areas of the Pantepec river system. Whether both cichlids are the same species or morphs of a unique one will require further investigation and research.
  4. Herichthys sp. "Turquoise" of the Cazones river basin is yet another separate species. It is highly threatened and possibly extinct in most of its original range, except for a few ponds and estuaries where it may have been isolated from human abuse, and competition from the exotic Tilapias and the introduced Thorichthys maculipinnis.

All of the above mentioned populations seem to be threatened or endangered. Ignorance and abuse seems to be the main factors triggering such situation. Fishermen seem to abuse Herichthys' excelling parental behavior which makes them an easy target for their home-made spears, and the introduced Oreochromis sp. seems to be taking advantage of the situation. Could this be the reason why only very small breeding pairs of the UPH, which are not attractive to humans for food, seem to be reproducing?

The place where Huasteca meets Totonacapan is an area full of surprises and wonders that urgently needs our attention, our understanding and our help


  • Ayala-Castanares, A. & L.R. Segura, 1980, Foraminíferos recientes de la Laguna de Tamiahua, Veracruz, México, Anales del Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
  • Artigas Azas, J.M., 2006, The Cichlid Room Companion, Cichlid Forum, Taxonomy, Herichthys ID (Pantepec and Poza Rica),
  • Danko, Don, Collecting, Maintaining and Spawning the Turquoise Herichthys, Buntbarsche Bulletin, No. 125, 130 (April 2001), pp. 1-8.
  • De La Maza, Mauricio, 2005, Adaptive radiation of the Herichthys clade in Northeastern México, Heroine Cichlids of Central America, Michi Tobler,


de la Maza Benignos, Mauricio. (Aug 28, 2005). "Where the Huasteca Meets Totonacapan, Uncovering the "missed out" Herichthys". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Dec 01, 2023, from: