Greg Steeves,
Cichlid Room Companion
Furu Fanatics

What choo callin' me? -- Lake Victoria cichlid nomenclature

By , 2006. image
Last updated on 21-Jan-2006


So there you are, gazing into a friend's beautifully stocked tank. The air is thick with anticipation as he awaits your comments. You look things over and notice a brightly colored cichlid defending a rock from other tank inhabitants.

"Beautiful setup" you reply.
Your friend beams proudly, grinning from ear to ear.
"What is that little fish by the rock?" you ask.
Your friend, still wallowing in your positive review states "That is a Christmas fulu".
"A what?" you inquire curiously.
"Phytophagus," he answers.
"Pardon me?"
"It's a Xystichromis phytophagus or Haplochromis Christmas fulu" he stutters nervously.
"You don't know which one it is?" you ask.
"That's what it is" he replies Xystichromis phytophagus or Haplochromis Christmas fulu".
Fearing an unrehearsed offshoot from a Laurel and Hardy skit, you decide to leave well enough alone and hope that your friend's medication begins to work.

This type of conversation has happened to almost everyone whose fish keeping interests include cichlids of Lake Victoria and surrounding waters. What could be so difficult about the name of a fish? Well, in all honesty, the inhabitants of Lake Victoria are unique in biodiversity as well as situation. Firstly, species of cichlids in Lake Victoria are babies in evolutionary terms. Estimated age of the lake varies between 12,500 and 14,000 years old. This would mean that the 500 or so species of cichlids from Lake Victoria have very rapidly evolved from a few riverine ancestors. Because of man's intervention, half of the endemic cichlid population, in a generation, has been forced into extinction. What does this have to do with the name of an individual species? Well, in a nut shell, cataloguing the inhabitants of Lake Victoria is a task taken on by few, and overwhelming to all.

Can you imagine tossing a cast net into the pristine waters of the newly discovered great lake? A multitude of small fish of every color conceivable lies in front of you. None of these fish has been seen before and nothing has been named or studied. It's all new and you have just captured a minute sampling from the second largest lake on earth! Every cast contains a new fish or two you haven't seen before. How do you keep track of things? Are these fish all different species? Are some variants of others? What characteristics do you use to separate one from another? This is exactly what the pioneer ichthyologists (modern as well) had to endure.

Perhaps the most revered scientist to work with the fish of Lake Victoria was Humphrey Greenwood. Greenwood made it his life's work to discover, examine and classify these creatures. Modern scientists still employ many of his methods to sort furu taxonomy. Greenwood's frustration with the multitude of species to sort becomes evident with some of the descriptive names he bestowed upon them. One such cichlid he dubbed "brassy bastard".

It is these common names usually given to the fish shortly after collection that we use in lieu of anything better. Names like "flameback", "all red", "golden duck", and many others are the briefest of descriptive monikers by which we know these fish. These titles are given by the collector, the scientist, the importer or exporter, or the hobbyist. It is no wonder there is such confusion with Victorian nomenclature.

The first species description of a Lake Victoria cichlid was done by Dr. Franz Hilgendorf in 1888. This fish was the infamous Haplochromis obliquidens. The genus name of Haplochromis represented small brightly colored cichlids. Unfortunately, Haplochromis has become a catch-all for any Victorian cichlid lacking a scientific description.

Greenwood reviewed, examined; substantiated, or corrected work made by his predecessors and erected or verified 28 new genera. To this grouping, he sorted and named about 200 fish on a species level. This is an incredible feat providing us with a reference point to which further classifications can be made. Revisions to cichlid nomenclature, as anyone with a vague knowledge of cichlid taxonomy can attest, are in a state of constant flux. As species are examined, more stable groupings based on a variety of criteria occur. In effect, names change but the fish remains the same. Many times we will use a "Greenwood-approved" genus to label an undescribed species. An example of this would be Lipochromis sp. "Matumbi hunter". With good fortune, someday a universally accepted description will be made on this fish, but in the meantime, we understand that this species conforms to Lipochromis (Regan, 1920). Some people prefer to refer to this fish as Haplochromis sp. "Matumbi hunter" because, in their opinion, until a modern description is made, the species is in limbo. I can understand the reasoning behind this somewhat, but to me it seems redundant to not utilize effort made by this great scientist.

Greenwood's methodology is highly revered by the scientists of today. Les Kaufman has dubbed newly discovered species with such names as "ruby" and "madonna". The latter descriptive name refers to the dorsal coloration which reminds him of the blonde hair and black roots of a famous singer. This fish conforms to another Greenwood approved genus Neochromis (Regan, 1920). We most accurately refer to this particular fish as Neochromis sp. "madonna". In 1998 Ole Seehausen (and others) erected three new genera. Many factors Seehausen considered in these classifications are the same Greenwood used in his notes. Today's scientist has an arsenal of tools such as genetic analysis not available in Greenwood's day but the basic cues used in classification (dentition, scale profiles, coloration, pharyngeal examination, etc.) remains unchanged.

Another method used to classify undescribed fish is to assign each species a number. This numbering scheme warrants consideration as plausible, especially when it comes to cataloguing in the field. German collectors in particular have an affinity for this system. For the unwary aquarists, this process of numerical categorization is popular today with the many undescribed species of catfish from South America (Datz "L" and Das "LDA" numbers). Using this practice, and adding further to the confusion, a Victorian cichlid can also be known by its Greenwood classification or the ever popular "Haplochromis". An example of this would be Astatotilapia sp. "44" or Haplochromis sp. "44". Oh and in case that didn't confuse you, that particular fish was given the eloquent name of "thick skin" in the field so it can also be known as Astatotilapia sp. "thick skin" or Haplochromis sp. "thick skin". If all that wasn't bewildering enough. retailers routinely sell this species as none other than Haplochromis obliquidens. Do you feel like screaming yet?

So what do you call a fish with no name? There are two trains of thought on the subject. The first is to use Hilgendorf's Haplochromis to describe everything not described by modern scientists and omitting the life work of Humphrey Greenwood (wasn't the Haplochromis genus erected before Greenwood's time?) or make every attempt to classify these fish using whatever tools and references you have at your disposal. Whatever methodologies you employ to portray these vibrant cichlids, try to remember that naming and categorizing fish is man's game. No matter what we choose to call them, Victorian cichlids know what they are and isn't that what's important?

The stand I am taking in this section will respect Greenwood's work and use his classification when available, I will also use up-to-date species nomenclature reflecting any further descriptions. If nothing is available for the considered species, l will have to use the general Haplochromis sp "whatever" concept.

References (2):


Steeves, Greg. (Jan 21, 2006). "What choo callin' me? -- Lake Victoria cichlid nomenclature". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Sep 23, 2023, from: