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How are cichlids named?

By , 2019. printer
Last updated on 24-Apr-2019

Juan Miguel Artigas Azas,

Classification: Taxonomy and phylogeny.

" How should we call cichlid species? Should we use common or binomial names? If we consider animals like mammals, it is common to talk about them using their common name, the same applies to birds, even die-hard birders regularly use the bird’s common name and just the most devoted of them, like scientist, refer them by their binomial name. But then when you talk about plants, let’s say cactus and succulents, it is common that even beginners refer them by binomial names. But what about cichlids? "

How should we call cichlid species? Should we use common or binomial names? If we consider animals like mammals, it is common to talk about them using their common name, the same applies to birds, even die-hard birders regularly use the bird’s common name and just the most devoted of them, like scientist, refer them by their binomial name. But then when you talk about plants, let’s say cactus and succulents, it is common that even beginners refer them by binomial names. But what about cichlids?

The problem of common names

There are common names for many cichlids, and they are normally included in specialized guides, like for example “Peces de las aguas continentales de Costa Rica” (Bussing, 1998); “Freshwater Fishes of Mexico” (Miller, 2005); or “Fishes of the continental waters of Belize” (Greenfield et al., 1997). Those are respected scientific guides and a common name (even two, in Spanish and in English for Costa Rica and Mexico guides) is included for each species.

To be fair, even in those cases many of the names included are made up purposely, they are not known by the majority and regularly not used in the natural distribution of the species in question. The reason is simple, many of those species do not have a common name in their natural distribution, or, having one, it covers several related species. Let’s take for example the name “Corrientera” (current dwelling), which is used vernacularly for at least seven species of cichlids in Mexico (Paraneetroplus nebuliferus, P. bulleri, P. gibbiceps, P. omonti, Rheoheros coeruleus, R. lentiginosus and Theraps irregularis) classified in three different genera, that number accounts for 14% of Mexican cichlid species. Not a great guide as you can see. In literature, the name corrientera has to be differentiated for each species; Miller (2005) uses the names “corrientera del Coatzacoalcos” for P. bulleri; “mojarra del Teapa” for P. gibbiceps; “mojarra del Papaloapan” for P. nebuliferum, and “canchay” for T. irregularis. Unlike in the case of common names for birds (e.g. red-winged blackbird, yellow-rumped warbler, snowy egret), the names given for P. gibbiceps and P. nebuliferum tell you nothing about those species, since mojarra is the general name for cichlids in Mexico (and incidentally for fishes in the Gerreidae family) and those are not the only cichlids found in the Teapa and Papaloapan.

The name canchay for Theraps irregularis is admittedly a name used in the range of the species, which would be representative if it weren’t because the fish is also vernacularly known as corrientera and payaso, depending where you ask. For species with very large distributions like Trichromis salvini, things get complicated. This fish is known as: azulita, cielito-lindo, cola de fuego, guapote tricolor, mango pinto, peine, pico del gallo, riquiraqui. This is just for Mexico, the fish also inhabits Belize, where is known as yellow-belly cichlid, Guatemala and Honduras. Select your favorite! In the aquarium hobby in the USA however, it is known as Salvin’s cichlid, yellow-belly cichlid or tricolor cichlid — you only have to learn three names. Other countries use different common names: Tsikhlasoma in Russia, Tulijuovakirjoahven in Finland or 索氏丽体鱼 in China for example.

Female with fry Trichromis salvini, a species with an abundance of common names. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas. (29-Apr-2012). determiner Juan Miguel Artigas Azas

African cichlids come with a different problem, as not even scientists have binomial names for many known species. The best guide for rock cichlids of Lake Victoria is without doubt Lake Victoria Rock Cichlids (Seehausen, 1996). In that authoritative book the status of our knowledge on reef inhabiting Lake Victoria cichlids is clearly shown, with 26 described species treated and 126 potentially undescribed. There are also cichlids that are not associated to rocks in Lake Victoria and for those a similar situation is likely. Dramatically, many of those species not yet described are already extinct because of the catastrophe caused by humans when the Nile Perch was introduced.

In Lake Malawi fishermen do not complicate themselves and use the name mbuna for all small reef dwelling cichlids, a number that closely approaches 150. They of course know there are many different species for mbuna but why to make life complicated? Especially when they cost so much effort per return.

There is no regulation for common names and commercial interests would potentially push for several names to be coined even for one species, so people think they are new and buy them. People in different areas or talking different languages would also give them different names.

The binomial classification

After reading up to this point you are likely concluding like I did long ago that common names are not the way to go for cichlids, and that scientific properly given binomial names are. Scientific names however come with their own problems.

Advances in taxonomy aim to get a better picture of biological species relationships, for more than two centuries taxonomy was based mostly on external morphological characters, and currently is more and more based on evolving techniques that compare the DNA of different species to establish their relationships. In this evolving knowledge, relationships are updated and species are constantly switched around in existing or new genera and many times split into separate species. This causes people to get frustrated by the constant change of binomial names, and the difficulty (sometimes even impossibility) to separate closely related forms and correctly name them.

In the past a knowledgeable person would tell you with authority the binomial name of a particular taxon, nowadays the same person would often doubt and declare: “I am not sure how it is called anymore”. Splitting of species has got so bad that one person that in the past could identify with certainty a Cichlasoma facetum (the chanchito), is nowadays faced with the fact that not just it is no longer C. facetum, but Australoheros facetus, in a new genus with 29 species some of which are almost impossible to tell apart due to the ongoing taxonomical splitting process, as the discovery of a variation such trivial as one more soft way would make their diagnoses collapse. I believe that species should be able to be differentiated by a layman who examines their diagnostic differences carefully, in other words, cichlid species should have differences. In our days, some species are told apart by esoteric characters like the shape of small bones, intestine position or the modal number of characters like dorsal rays.

The provisional names

We are also faced with populations of cichlids that are different enough to be considered separate species or with much less frequency we find completely new forms, it is then considered that they deserve a new name. To scientifically describe those forms however they first need to be studied in different ways: understanding their distributions, natural history and their relationships with related species to determine if the differences are worthy and could sustain a solid diagnosis for a scientific description. At least this is the theory as I mentioned above.

Meanwhile and while those species are being studied they need a provisional name. This name is regularly formed by the name of the genus the researcher believes the potential new species will eventually adopt and a provisional epithet that often includes the denomination ‘sp.’ that directly flags the species as undescribed together with a term between single (or double) parenthesis. A good practice is to coin this term with the name of the species that is more similar and an additional term that may reflect the most significant characteristic that make it different.

An example would be Metriaclima cyneusmarginatum, a small species of Lake Malawi reef dwelling cichlid (mbuna) that was described scientifically in 1997 by Stauffer, Bowers, Kellogg & McKaye. The species was first recognized as new in 1989 Ad Konings, who coined the name Pseudotropheus sp. 'zebra benga'. At the time Pseudotropheus was thought to be the genus where this species would be eventually placed (Metriaclima had not yet been described) and the provisional name was coined with the species closest relative Pseudotropheus zebra (now Metriaclima zebra), and the distinctive term Benga to inform that this potentially new species was found at Benga, Malawi.

Male at Chia <Metriaclima cyneusmarginatum was provisionally named Pseudotropheus sp. 'zebra benga'. Photo by Ad Konings. determiner Ad Konings

Other times the researchers may not be so sure and show more caution about the proposition of a new species adding just a term between quotes without legal effect as a suffix to the binomial name. In many cases nevertheless the name between quotes after the binomial name has no more intention than to establish either the geographical or morphological variant of a species.

Metriaclima benetos, a species described by Stauffer, Bowers, Kellogg & McKaye in 1997 had already been recognized as different fourteen years prior to its description in 1983 by Anthony Ribbink and colleagues (Ribbink et al., 1983). They coined the name Pseudotropheus zebra ‘mazinzi’. The name indicates that they considered it as P. zebra but with some differences that could potentially be used to describe it as new, the term ‘mazinzi’ indicated the origin of the species at Mazinzi Reef, Lake Malawi. They offered a record in their publication with some information they had recollected on the then new form.

Unlike binomial names, provisional names are not ruled by the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature and hence one species may hold several of them (or in different formats) until it is described. Apistogramma ortegai, a species described by Britzke, Oliveira & Kullander in 2014, was known previously as Apistogramma sp. 'papagei' or Apistogramma sp. “pebas”, in different publications. The example multiplies.

In some other occasions the term “aff.” (affinis = closely related, from Latin) is placed between the genus and species names, for example in what we know as Krobia sp. 'red eyes', a potentially undescribed South American cichlid recognized as new by Keith et al in 2000, who named it provisionally as Krobia aff. guianensis sp1. What the authors are saying there is that although the new potential species is closely related to the valid K. guianensis, they believe it is in fact an undescribed species.

The term ‘cf.’ (confer = compare from Latin) is also sometimes used (many times incorrectly) between the genus and species name to denote uncertainty, for example in the name Melanochromis cf. brevis used by Ribbink et al in 1983 to denote that a cichlid population was similar to Melanochromis brevis but they could not be sure about the identification. The population in question turned out to be subsequently described as Melanochromis robustus by Johnson in 1975, although in most cases where cf. is used a new species does not follow, but instead a proper identification.

I hope in this article I have given you a brief overview on how to use or interpret species names, the theme is however ample

References (7):


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (April 24, 2019). "How are cichlids named?". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on November 28, 2021, from: