Don Danko,
Cichlid Room Companion

Collecting in México

By , 1997. image

Classification: Distribution and exploration, North America.

'Cichlasoma' istlanum Figure 1: 'Cichlasoma' istlanum breeding pair in aquarium guarding for spawn. Fish and Photo by Don Danko.

The ultimate experience in the aquarium hobby always seemed to me to be going on a collecting trip. While thinking of past vacations in winter 1986, it occurred to me that, with the exception of one trip to Europe, my vacations were very run-of-the-mill. At that time, I thought something different would be more in order and that it was time for my first collecting experience. As a result, I started planning a trip to México; a country loaded with cichlids that hold my interest. A quick call to my good friend, Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, decided the matter - we would go collecting in April (1987). This time was selected as it was the dry season and the rivers would be lower and easier in which to collect. A good friend of mine in the Cleveland area, Steve Zarzeczny, also planned to go with us. We set our sights on four main areas: Lake Tequesquitengo, Vera Cruz, Tampico and several locations in the Rio Pánuco system. This full agenda later turned out to be quite ambitious, however, we were able to stay on schedule with a lot of effort and not much sleep.

Herichthys cyanoguttatus Figure 2: Herichthys cyanoguttatus from Lake Tequesquitengo, Morelos. Photo by Don Danko.
Rio Amacuzac Figure 3: Rio Amacuzac near Tehuixtla, Morelos, México, in 1987, This river was a former habitat of 'Cichlasoma' istlanum, now this river has been colonized by introduced Archocentrus nigrofasciatus. Photo by Don Danko.


Upon arrival in México City, we decided to do some sightseeing for the balance of the day and then begin our collecting experience the following morning. An enjoyable dinner and a trip to the pyramids were the highlights of our first day. On the following day, we drove south of México City to Lake Tequesquitengo where we hoped to find Nandopsis istlanus. A photograph of a pair of this fantastic fish is shown in Fig. 1. Also expected was Herichthys cyanoguttatus. The istlanus were naturally occurring, however, the latter species is thought to have been introduced into the lake. The lake is a beautiful resort area which is known for water skiing and many attractive cottages adorn the perimeter of the lake. Here we fished with hook and line for the fishes we desired, as the use of nets is not permitted. Our first catch was a 3" cyanoguttatus (Fig. 2). We later caught several more, however, no istlanus could be taken. In their place, we unfortunately caught many Sarotherodon aureus that also inhabit the lake. The water of Tequesquitengo was semi-clear and bluish with unusual water measurements of pH 8.2, GH 110°, KH 6° and a temperature of 26°C (79°F). The incredibly high hardness is reportedly driven by a mineral called tequesquite that is found in the area. For a thorough description and history of the lake, see Rolón (1983).

As no istlanus could be taken in Tequesquitengo, we decided to fish in the rivers in the area. At Tehuixtla, southwest of the lake, we fished the Rio Amacuzac (Fig. 3), a tributary of the Rio Balsas. While snorkeling, we were able to observe istlanus in its natural habitat. The river was clear, about 100 feet (30 m) wide and about 4 feet deep (1.2 m). Submerged logs were prevalent in the moderately flowing river, as well as many weed beds anchored in the sandy bottom. It was among this cover that we observed a female tending her 3/4 inch fry , and an occasional adult could be seen passing quickly through the river. Due to the high degree of cover, and the relative scarceness of the istlanus, no adults could be collected for photographic purposes. We were able, however, to take some fry, but these did not survive the ten-day trip. Found in association with istlanus were the ever-present Astyanax mexicanus and Poecilia sp. The water measurements of the Rio Amacuzac, in contrast to Tequesquitengo, were much more typical of the other areas in which we fished: 27°C (c. 81°F), pH 6.9, GH 65°, KH 11°.


On the following day, we began our long trip to Veracruz. At dusk, we finally arrived at our destination and managed to locate a river just outside of the city. This river, the Rio Cotaxla or Jamapa, was about 100 feet wide (30 m.) and 2-3 feet deep (0.6 - 0.9 m). The bottom was muddy and somewhat sandy and only semi-clear. Water readings were 23°C (c. 73°F), pH 7.2, GH 8.5°and KH 6°. Several casts of the net did not produce any cichlids and we decided that it would be better to come back in the morning when visibility would be significantly improved. That morning proved to be much more productive. We were able to collect seven adults and twenty fry of the beautiful Thorichthys species, Thorichthys maculipinnis. The adults ranged from 3 - 4 inches in total length (76 - 103 mm), with the males spectacularly painted with a deep red belly. In some individuals, this color covered half of the body! (Fig. 4) Why the local people called this fish "mojarra negra," or the black cichlid, is beyond me. All of the collected specimens survived the trip very nicely and adapted to captivity quite nicely.

Dos Rios Figure 5: Dos Rios near jalapa, home of Thorichthys maculipinnis and Parateraphs fenestratusPhoto by Don Danko.

After collecting the maculipinnis, we looked for additional places in which to fish. We located a small tributary of the Cotaxla which was about 15 feet wide (4.5 m) and 3 feet deep (0.91 m). The water was very muddy and water hyacinths abounded. In the slow moving water, we found a most unexpected old friend, Archocentrus octofasciatus. This cichlid, the Jack Dempsey, was especially interesting to me, as it was the first cichlid I spawned while still in grade school. The wild specimens were much less colorful than the tank raised strains in the hobby, but I'll bet they're every bit as tough. Also found in the small stream were green mollies of some sort, pimelodid catfishes, spindly freshwater shrimp and, of course, Sarotherodon aureus. The water measurements for this stream were pH 7.3, GH 10° and KH 9.5°.

Thorichthys maculipinnis Figure 4: Thorichthys maculipinnis from Rio Cotaxtla (Jamapa). Photo by Don Danko.
Parateraphs fenestratus Figure 6: Parateraphs fenestratus from Dos Rios, east of Jalapa, Veracruz, México. Photo by Don Danko.

Being on a tight schedule, we were unable to collect to the south of Veracruz, where several other species reportedly can be found. As a result, we headed northward toward our next planned stop, Tampico. As the coastal rivers were quite large and difficult to collect, we decided to take an inland route hoping to find some smaller streams along the way. This route brought us back to hilly terrain and to the city of Jalapa. Here we found a very beautiful river consisting of several crystal clear pools cascading down from the hills (Fig. 5). The bottom was rocky and appeared to be formed from a lava flow. Some of the pools had extensive weed beds where T. maculipinnis pairs could be seen tending their fry. Also found with the Thorichthys species was the Paratheraps species, fenestratus. At the time, we weren't certain which species we had caught, however, subsequent discussions with Dr. Miller of the University of Michigan indicated fenestratus was the correct name for this fish. This fish was high bodied, much the same a Paratheraps synspilus and Vieja maculicauda. Large individuals could be observed hiding in the shadows of the deep pool in which we fished and snorkeled. Juan Miguel managed to surprise one of the adults by capturing it in his casting net, thus permitting us to take some nice photographs (Fig. 6). Also found in the pools were bushels of Astyanax fasciatus and tons of mollies. The water properties were the following: temp. 21°C, pH 8.1°, GH 21° and KH 10°. By far, this river was the most beautiful of the stops we had visited to this point, but there were several other locations even more impressive.

The weather encountered in our eastward jaunt from México City to Veracruz was exceptional, however, at Jalapa, it had taken a turn for the worse. Continuous rain, temperatures in the 40's and low 50's (°F) and treacherous curves were par for the course until we would reach Tampico. Needless to say, this is just what I needed while trying to kick a severe cold and flu combination that I brought from Cleveland. On top of the adverse conditions, we were unable to catch a single cichlid in the several rivers encountered along the way. The reason being that, although we took the route which was more inland, the rivers were too large and too fast in which to collect.

The Lagoons Of Tampico

At Tampico, the weather had finally broken. We promptly decided to look for the three lagoons discussed in an article by Taylor and Miller: Laguna de Altamira, Laguna de la Puerta and Laguna del Chairel. These lagoons were reportedly the habitats of Herichthys pantostictus which we highly desired.

Herichthys carpintis Figure 7: One of the large Herichthys carpintis taken at Laguna de Altamira, Támpico, México Photo by Don Danko.
Laguna de la Puerta Figure 8: Laguna de la Puerta showing the weed beds where young Herichthys carpintis and Herichthys pantostictus can be collected. Photo Don Danko.
Herichthys pantosfictus male Figure 9: Male of the species, Herichthys pantostictus. Photo by Don Danko.
Herichthys pantosfictus female Figure 10: Female of the species, Herichthys pantosfictus. Photo by Don Danko.
Rio Florido Figure 11: The Rio Florido, Tampaón, Pánuco, México, at the Taninul spring. Photo by Don Danko.
Herichthys labridens 'blue' Figure 12: Male Herichthys sp. "blue" labridens from Rio Tampaón, Taninul spring. Photo by Don Danko.
Herichthys labridens 'blue' Figure 13: Example of Herichthys sp. labridens 'yellow riverine' collected in the Rio Verde at Pinihuán. Photo Don Danko.
Herichthys pantosfictus female Figure 15: Female of the species, Herichthys sp. "tamul". Fish by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, Photo by Don Danko.
Herichthys steindachneri Figure 16: Herichthys steindachneri adult fish from Rio Tamasopo, Gallinas, Pánuco, in México. Photo by Don Danko.
Herichthys tamasopoensis Figure 17: A breeding pair of Herichthys tamasopoensis, in Rio Tamasopo, Gallinas, Pánuco system; México. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.
Medialuna channel Figure 18: Medialuna spring man made draining channel. Photo by Don Danko.
Herichthys labridens Figure 19: Herichthys labridens from laguna de Media Luna, Rio Verde, México. Photo by Don Danko.
Herichthys bartoni Figure 20: Female of the species Herichthys bartoni found in Laguna de Media Luna and associated springs in the Rio Verde valley. Photo by Don Danko.

Upon arrival at the first lagoon, Laguna de Chairel, we fished with a casting net, however, no cichlids could be taken. It is likely that both Herichthys pantostictus and Herichthys carpintis occur here, but, perhaps due to the presence of a swimming and boating club, they may be scarce or in the less populated areas of the lagoon. After a reasonable amount of time, we decided to proceed to one of the other lagoons in search of pantostictus. The next lagoon encountered was one named Laguna de Altamira. This lagoon was quite large with wide beds of water hyacinths along the entire perimeter. Also present were a Vallisneria sp., a type of foxtail, and water lilies. The water was semi-clear and shallow with a depth of about one meter. The temperature was 23°C, with a pH of 6.9, a GH of 25 and a KH of 8.5. Fishing here was much more productive than the first lagoon. As several casts produced only one carpintis, we decided to surround the water hyacinths with a 30 foot by 7 foot seine (9 x 2.1 m). This attempt proved very successful with a netful of a dozen jumbo Herichthys carpintis being caught (Fig. 7). These fish were incredibly beautiful with a suffusion of large iridescent blue spangles. The fish themselves were 8 inches (200 mm) mor more in length with very deep bodies in the range of 5 to 6 inches (154 - 175 mm) in height. Although a couple of Saratherodon sp. were taken, no pantostictus could be found. After photographing our catch, we decided to proceed to the last lagoon, Laguna de la Puerta.

At Laguna de la Puerta (Fig. 8), we observed some small fish jumping out of the water as we waded through the weed beds. At first I thought them to be sick and ignored them. As more and more were noted, however, we decided to catch some with a hand net to see what they were. Much to our pleasure and dismay, they turned out to be small but healthy Herichthys carpintis and Herichthys pantostictus. The preferred collecting method turned out to be wading through the weed beds with a hand net catching them as they skidded along the surface.

After having caught a sufficient number of fry, we decided to try the seine for some larger specimens to photograph. After several passes with the net, we produced a possible breeding pair (Figures 9 & 10) which we were able to photograph and take back to Juan Miguel's fish room. The pair was 3.5 to 4 inches (89 to 103 mm) in total length, with most of the juveniles being in the 1.25 inch (32 mm) range.

The temperature of Laguna de la Puerta was 25° C with a pH of 8.1, a GH of 23 and a KH of 6. Vallisneria beds were prominent here in the murky to muddy water.

After fishing the lagoons of Tampico, the balance of the trip was spent in the Rio Pánuco system. It was interesting to witness the great size of the mouth of the Pánuco at Tampico-perhaps a half mile wide as the rivers we fished inland were quite small in comparison.


The first stop in the Pánuco was at Ciudad Valles, a nice city along the way back to San Luis Potosí, the home of Juan Miguel. We fished in the Taninul Spring, the start of the Rio Florido (Fig. 11), 15 kilometers from Ciudad Valles. Here the water emanated from a cave in the side of the hills. Just outside of the cave opening, a beautiful pool existed with crystal clear, almost bluish water. This fantastic spot was perfect for snorkeling and observing the two cichlids which inhabit the river. These were Herichthys carpintis and a H. labridens sp. type fish which will be referred to as "blue labridens" The labridens type was quite large up to 8 to 10 inches (206 - 254 mm) in total length. The coloration tended to be greenish with black and white patches. The actual breeding coloration is a distinct pattern of black and white. The fish was deep bodied with a steep forehead (Fig. 12). The Rio Florido runs through a jungle region, called the Huasteca, which is rich in parrots, butterflies and vegetation. There were also the largest, most menacing looking wasps that I've ever seen. Luckily, all the bright red-orange cruisers did was hover over the water. The water here was warm, 27° C, with a pH of 7.1, a GH of 40 and a KH of 10. In addition to the cichlids, a beautiful, small swordtail, Xiphophorus nigrensis, was found. This attractive fish was blue with a short black and orange sword. None were brought back, however, I'll return to the area in the future, I'll be certain to bring back a dozen or so.

Rio verde

The next stop in the Pánuco was a river called the Rio Pinihuan, however, it is actually the Rio Verde. We fished a calm area of the river just above a long series of rapids and falls which carved a deep ravine through the terrain. The river was fairly clear with a sandy to muddy bottom. At the collecting point, the river was about 30 feet wide (9.1 m). Water measurements were 23.5° C, pH 7.6, GH 68 and KH 6. Collecting with a casting net was productive as we were able to catch a colorful variety of Herichthys carpintis and another labridens type fish. The labridens type fish was significantly smaller than the Ciudad Valles type, 6 inches (152 mm) maximum, with a rich jade green color and more streamlined shape. We have referred to this fish as "riverine yellow labridens" (Fig. 13). Males have a slight nuchal hump which the other species do not exhibit. I, unfortunately, did not bring back any of the Herichthys carpintis from this locality as I already had some from Tampico. This was a mistake as this variety was quite beautiful and somewhat different in shape.

Rio Gallinas

For the next collecting spot, we returned eastward to the Rio Agua Buena at Tamasopo. This portion of the Pánuco system was the home of three cichlid species, Herichthys steindachneri, Herichthys tamasopoensis type and yet another labridens type, referred herein as "tamul or white labridens." (Fig. 13) In addition to the rich cichlid fauna, several beautiful waterfalls aesthetically highlighed the area (Fig 14).

Herichthys steindachneri is a large piscivorous cichlid with a jaw structure reminiscent of the bay snook, Petenia splendida (Fig. 16). we were just able to collect one bout 10 inches (254 mm) individual. Luckily, however, Juan Miguel was able to capture some fry in a subsequent visit and he sent me home from my recent trip with some 1/2" fry. These are currently growing quite well and have achieved a size of 3".

Several specimens of the Herichthys tamasopoensis were taken. This species (Fig. 17), has a sub-terminal mouth apparently evolved to allow grazing on the algae which covers the large boulders on the river bottom. This feeding pattern was observed while snorkling in another part of the river. Large schools of this species could be seen grazing on the rocks in much the same manner as the Malawian mbuna. This behavior continues to be exhibited in the aquarium with teeth marks observed on all the algae covered surfaces.

The third cichlid species of the Tamasopo area was the "Tamul labridens." This fish is quite streamlined with a checkerboard black and yellow-white pattern (Fig. 15). In the aquarium, mine have achieved a size 4 to 5" (103 - 154 mm) at an age of over a year, however, the full adult size is larger, around 12 inches (300 mm). No humps have developed and the color pattern and shape are distinctly different from those of any of the other labridens types collected in the other parts of the Pánuco system that we visited.

Rio Verde valley

The last spot to be fished was Laguna de Media Luna, the Half Moon Lake. This beautiful lake, in the basin of the Rio Verde, is home to several endemic species of aquatic animals and fish, including Herichthys bartoni and the true Herichthys labridens. The lake is spring fed and crystal clear. The lake proper and outflowing canals have a fine gravel substrate similar in appearance to dolomite (Fig. 18). A plant similar in appearance to the water lily (ninphaea sp.) is very plentiful throughout and submerged plants adorn the sides of the lake and the base of each of the natural canals. After snorkeling and observing countless pairs of the two endemic cichlids, we collected several young of each type with our casting nets.

Herichthys bartoni was very plentiful throughout the lagoon and in both the natural and manmade canals. The non-breeding coloration consists of gray to yellow background with random black blotches in the midsection of the fish. The breeding dress is radically different with both the males and the females sporting a rich velvet black color below the lateral line and a snow white color above (Fig. 20). It is very common to see pairs with males in the 6 to 8" (154 - 106 mm) range with females of less than half that size. Breeding occurs in deep tunnels which are dug into the sides of the natural canals.

Herichthys labridens is most similar to the Rio Verde fish, however, it is a rich yellow color with a blue gill area as opposed to the rich jade green color of the riverine fish. It also appears to be more deep-bodies. When breeding, the pairs take on a fantastic canary yellow which is unrivaled in the neotropical cichlid world (Fig. 19).

In addition to the two endemic species, the contaminant, Sarotherodeon aureus, and Herichthys carpintis coexist. Sarotherodon aureus was supposedly introduced to enhance the food fish population. H. carpintis reportedly gained access through the manmade irrigation canals from the Rio Verde. Prior to the existence of these canals, it was supposedly not found in the lagoon. Both of these species appear somewhat sickly and weak in comparison to the two endemic species, perhaps an indication of an unnatural habitat.

The water measurements of Laguna de Media Luna at the time of our visit were: temperature 30° C, pH 7.8, 55 GH and 12 KH.

This concludes the overview of the collecting trip taken by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas and myself in April of 1987.

Tamasopo waterfalls Figure 14: One of the magnificent waterfalls at the Rio Agua Buena, Tamasopo, México. Photo by Don Danko.

(This article was originally published in "Buntbarsche Bulletin" 125 and 130 (April 1988 & February 1989) pp. 2-7 and 2-9 respectively, the journal of the American Cichlid Association, please consult the ACA home page for information about membership. It is here reproduced with the permission of author Don Danko).


Danko, Don. (Dec 21, 1997). "Collecting in México". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Apr 17, 2024, from: