Cichlid Room Companion

Naming Cichlids, It's Latin to Me

By , 1995. image

Classification: Taxonomy and phylogeny.

Julidochromis transcriptus Julidochromis marlieri genus was so named because it reminded the ichthyologist describing the genus of a family of marine fishes. It's species name is a patronym in honor of G. Marlier. Fish and Photo by Peter A. Lewis.

I have kept many different types of cichlids over the 30 years I have been associated with the hobby and more than once over the years I have thanked my Latin master for making me persevere with my studies on what I considered to be a dead language. In my early involvement with the hobby, common names were fine, cichlids such as kribs, rams, brown acaras, angels, humpheads, and oscars were in abundance and well known by all in the hobby. Then came the late 1960s and early 1970s and the explosion of fish being imported from the Rift Valley lakes of Africa, couple this with the exploits of the hobbyists and fish farmers who were visiting Central America only to return with even more species new to the hobby and a whole new vocabulary of common and scientific names hit the hobby and the literature.

Inevitably my fellow hobbyists and I began keeping some of these newer cichlids and, in order to converse intelligently, we had to learn these new names, not common names, for these fish were uncommon, but proverbial tongue twisters that when dropped in casual conversation around the dinner table stopped all conversation. We soon realized that all was not lost, however, and that there was some sense in what we learned was the binomial system of nomenclature (I thought the binomial system only applied to algebraic equations). In fact we began to understand the specific names of the fishes we kept and that the person naming the fish was trying to impart some logic into the name rather than just christen the fish with such an insensible epithet.

Linnaeus Lives On

We can thank a Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), for the foundation of the modem system of classifying life forms binomially, giving each form a genus and species name. His work, published as "Systema Naturae," extended to 12 editions through his lifetime, the tenth (1758) and the twelfth (1766) being multivolume works. In the eighteenth century it was customary to latinize patronymic names. Linnaeus' father, Nils Ingemarsson, took a Latin surname when he began his academic career which was to lead to him to becoming Linnaeus, a name also rendered as Linne. Carl Linnaeus once wrote "Linnaeus or Linne are the same to me, one is Latin, the other Swedish." From 1735 to 1738 Linnaeus wrote many of his best known works, among them the first edition of Systema Naturae, Genera Plantarum, Hortus Cliffortianus, inspired by the gardens of Amsterdam's wealthy burgomaster, George Clifford, and Methodus Sexualis. Because of the great simplicity of the binomial system and the chaotic method of nomenclature currently in use for the thousands of species being described in the 1700's. Linnaeus's methodology was readily accepted throughout Europe and England. The binomial system has stood the test of time and it is to this system that ichthyologists refer when describing any new living species.

Vieja maculicauda Vieja maculicauda, while being known as the black-belt cichlid it's species name refers to spots on the tail. This trait is more evident in juveniles and young adults. Photo by Peter A. Lewis.

They Wear It Well

Many cichlids, in common with most animals named under the binomial system, are named because of a feature or a trait they exhibit. Such are Neolamprologus lethops, so named because of its habit of playing dead or "lethargic," Ophthalmotilapia nasutus was christened so because of it's extraordinarily "large nose," Sarotherodon leucostictus can be expected to be a "white spotted" cichlid and as for Nanochromis nudiceps, this cichlid has a "naked head," that is the head region is devoid of scales. Any curviceps has a "rounded head," gibbiceps a "humped head," tretocephalus a "perforated head," while Steatocranus just has a "fat head." The genus name of the orange chromide, Etroplus, makes reference to the stiff anal fin rays characteristic of these fishes. Finally, consider Xenotilapia ochrogenys, a fish that nomenclature tells us will have "pale yellow jaws." So the next time a visitor to your fish collection asks you "What's in a name?" he or she should be prepared to find out in no uncertain manner.

A Lake Malawi cichlid that originally was sold to hobbyists as Pseudotropheus "chameleo" was formerly described by Ribbink and Lewis in 1982 as Melanochromis crabro. The specific name, crabro, is Latin for "hornet" and was given in reference to the yellow and black bars this cichlid may often display. Later reclassification put this fish back into the Pseudotropheus genus but it still kept it's specific name as "the hornet."

The genus Cyrtocara was erected in 1902 by none other than Dr. G. A. Boulenger. The name is derived from the Greek kyrtos meaning "curved" and cara meaning "head," given in reference to the obvious hump sported on the head of these fish, especially mature males. Currently the only species present in this genus is the blue dolphin cichlid from Malawi, C. moorii. Incidentally, the patronymic species name moorii refers to Mr. J. E. S. Moore who is recognized for being the collector to provide the first material of the species.

The genus name Aristochromis is derived from the Greek aristos meaning "best" or "most noble" and is taken to refer to the aristocratic profile of the fish's head. The type species for this genus is A. christyi.

As to the derivation of the name Julidochromis as applied to this genus of cichlids from Lake Tanganyika, the genus name was given to these fish because they resemble the marine wrasses...Julidini... it's that simple. When Max Poll described the pearly Lamprologus as Altolamprologus calvus, he noted the distinct lack of scales on the fish's head and hence christened the fish calvus which means "bald."

Initially imported into the United States as the "red-top Aristochromis," the specific name of the Lake Malawi cichlid, now identified correctly as Otopharynx lithobates, translates literally as "stone dweller." Thus hobbyists keeping this fish should be sure to furnish the aquarium with an ample supply of caves and rock work.

The Malawian haplochromine cichlid, Taeniochromis holotaenia, is currently the only species in its genus. It's specific name relates to the horizontal band which runs from the fish's eye into the caudal peduncle and a black bar that runs from each eye across the face of the fish in that this is a "complete stripe," broken only by the eyes of the fish.

A genus name new to me is Nimbochromis of which the type species is Nimbochromis livingstonii, Gunther 1893, This name is derived from the Latin for "stormy" or "rainy" plus "chromis" which is associated with many genera of African cichlids. The name makes reference to the irregular shaped dark clouded melanin blotches characteristic of the body pattern of the genus. This genus includes such cichlids as N. linni, N. polystigma, N. venustus, N. pardalis, and N. fuscotaeniatus.

The genus Aulonocara takes it's name from the Greek aulos meaning "flute" and kara meaning "head" and refers to the rather obvious holes present in the head of these fishes which are merely the termination of exaggerated cephalic sensory canals. In this genus is A. auditor which has a specific name from Latin and English, that is, auditor meaning "hearer" and making reference to the expanded acoustic sensory canals present in this species.

A fitting new genus name given to such former Haplochromines as H. macrostoma, H. polyodon, H. maculiceps, and H. nigriventer is Tyrannochromis from the Latin tyrannus meaning "a tyrant." Many of my fellow hobbyists feel that all cichlids should belong in such a genus, but I guess it's all a question of degree.

The blue Apistogramma, A. trifasciata, as it's scientific name implies, has three bands across its body. The most obvious runs from the snout through the eye into the caudal peduncle, a fainter band runs along the back just below the dorsal while the third band, that makes this fish unique among these dwarf cichlids, runs from the pectoral fin diagonally back and down toward the beginning of the anal fin.

The surprisingly peaceful South American cichlid, Uaru amphiacanthoides, was one of the cichlids collected by Johann Natterer during his 1830's expedition to the Amazon. The fish was formerly described by Heckel in 1840 along with a fish thought to be a separate species, Uaru imperialis, but which was later shown to be a pseudonym. The genus name, Uaru, comes from the native, word for "toad" while the specific name relates to a marine genus, Amphiacanthus, noteworthy for the number of spines members of this genus possess and probably referring to the spines characteristic of the unpaired fins of the Uaru.

A recently described cichlid genus, Teleocichla, contains six small "goby-like" species discovered to date. One of the choicest names from this new genus has to be T. cinderella. I cannot wait to read the description and to see what it was about this cichlid that prompted the researcher to tag the fish with such a specific name. Perhaps the other fish in the genus are "ugly sisters" by comparison, or perhaps the fish undergoes a transformation of sorts at the stroke of midnight each night

The outrageously colorful cichlid known as the Quetzal cichlid, Paratheraps synspilus, gets it's common name from comparison with the beautifully colored "Quetzal" bird of Central America.

Tropheus moorii Mpulungu Tropheus moorii, Mpulungu, named after J.E.S. Moore, an early collector of African cichlids. Fish and Photo by Peter A. Lewis.

Legend Has It

Kullander erected the new cichlid genus Hypselacara for the cichlids of the "chocolate" complex with H. temporalis the type species for the genus. The generic name derives from the Greek hypselos meaning "high" and the Guarani name for cichlid, "acara." In 1988 Kullander and Ferreira described a new species of Geophagine eartheater, namely Satanoperca lilith. The choice of the specific name, lilith, has an interesting background. According to ancient Hebrew folklore, Lilith was Adam's first wife and has since taken on the connotation in both European and Near East legend as a female demon. The name makes reference to the close relationship of S. lilith with S. daemon, the demon fish. The genus name translates to "Satan's perch."

Behaviorally Speaking

A rather unique cichlid from the genus Retroculus derives its specific name from the behavior it exhibits in attempting to protect its eggs once spawning is complete. In a manner typical of large to medium sized open spawning cichlids the pair will clean an area on a flat rock upon which the female will dutifully spawn as the male follows to fertilize the eggs. Once the spawning ritual is complete, however, their behavior differs from other cichlids known in the hobby in that the pair will collect small stones and pebbles from the neighborhood of the spawning site only to return to the spawn and spit the stones out over the eggs until they are completely covered and hidden from view. This unique act could have developed from the fact that in the wild these South American cichlids, from the rivers Tocantins, Araquaia and Guama, inhabit very fast flowing rapids such that the strength of the current would likely dislodge their eggs and dash them to pieces against the rocks were they not covered in the manner described. Observation of this spawning ritual has led to the specific name of the fish, that is, Retroculus lapidifer, the name meaning "stone carrier."

An example of a fishes behavioral pattern being used to name a fish occurs with the fish of the genus Caprichromis as for example C. orthognathus. The generic name comes this time from the Latin capra meaning goat and referring to the males butting behavior displayed when he tries to encourage the female to release the eggs she is brooding. With similar logic the genus name Copadichromis, as with C. quadrimaculatus, comes from the fishes shoaling behavior and is derived from the Greek kopadi meaning a shoal. Another new Malawi genus is Eclectochromis derived from the Greek eklektos meaning selective and applied to these fishes because of their selective feeding habits. The genus includes such favorites as E. ornatus, E. festivus, and E. lobochilus.

Home Sweet Home

The specific name of the keyhole cichlid, formerly known as Aequidens maronii but now placed in the genus Cleithracara, comes not from a person but rather from its locality, that of the Maroni River in South America. The newly erected genus Cleithracara is derived from the native word for the cichlid, acara, coupled with the Greek kleidos meaning "key." In a similar manner Apistogramma caetei is so called because it is found in the Rio Caete, Brazil.

The specific name for the Surinam earth-moving cichlid, Guianacara owroewefi, comes from the local native name for the fish, that of Owro wefi which translates literally to "old wife."

Cichlids such as Neolamprologus congoensis, N. kungweensis, Apistogramma iniridae, and A. moae are also named after the habitat, region, or river in which they are normally found or were originally collected. In a similar manner we can expect Alticorpus profundicola to be an "inhabitant of the deep." Aquarists can also expect cichlids of the genus Benthochromis, such as B. tricoti, to be found within the deeper levels of the lake since the prefix benthos is Greek for "depth."

Be Happy

In 1983 Sven Kullander began the monumental task of revising the genus Cichlasoma. As a result, in 1986, he erected a new genus, Laetacara, to include what could best be described as dwarf or small Aequidens species. Thus the sheepshead acara or flag cichlid now becomes Laetacara curviceps and the red-breasted or gold fin cichlid now becomes L. dorsigerus.

The origin of the genus name laetacara comes from the Latin for happy which is laetus and the Guarani Indian word for these cichlids which is acara, also though to mean "fish of little worth" or "trash fish," since it provides little food value to the natives. Maybe this new genus name comes from the common name given to Aequidens (Laetacara) thayeri by James Langhammer, that of "smiling acara," from the dark stripes running beneath the mouth of this fish that give the appearance that the fish is constantly smiling. Enthusiasts who keep such cichlids should look out for one new to the hobby given the name "Bukelkopf" or "humphead" by the German hobbyists. Not yet given a scientific name this cichlid is available under an unofficial name Aequidens (Laetacara) araguaia, since the Rio Araguaia was one of the sites from which this two to three-inch cichlid was first collected in the early 1980's.

It's Who You Know

The South American dwarf cichlid, Apistogramma hyppolytae, takes it's specific name from the legendary Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. The Mexican cichlid known as Herichthys bartoni was first collected by Professor Alfredo Dug├Ęs during a trip to the Rio Verde in 1890. The fish was given a patronymic name in honor of the ichthyologist Barton A. Bean. The cichlids Labidochromis mathotho, Steatocranus tinanti, Apistogramma hulingi, Apistogramma macmasteri, Neolamprologus mocquardi, N. hecqui, and Chromidotilapia finleyi all bear patronymic names in that they are named after people, many of whom have long been recognized as major contributors to the aquarium hobby. In fact, C. finleyi was named in honor of ACA member Lee Finley.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the fascinating "stories" behind the names of cichlids. For every described cichlid there is a reason behind the name. So the next time someone gives you a hard time about using "complicated sounding names" to describe the inhabitant of your aquarium, just sit them down, pin their ears back, and introduce them to Carolus Linnaeus and the binomial system.

Anomalochromis thomasi Anomalochromis thomasi, formerly known as Pelmatochromis thomasi, a cichlid that is an anomaly and carries a patronymic name in honor of it's discoverer. Photo by Peter A. Lewis.


Lewis, Peter A.. (Jan 04, 1998). "Naming Cichlids, It's Latin to Me". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Dec 08, 2023, from: