Male with fry
A male of Vieja melanurus with fry in Lake Peten-Itza [Guatemala]. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas. (27-Apr-2016). determiner Juan Miguel Artigas Azas







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Vieja melanurus (Günther, 1862)


Original description as Heros melanurus:


  • Günther, Albert C. L. G. 1862. "Catalogue of the fishes in the British Museum. Catalogue of the Acanthopterygii, Pharyngognathi and Anacanthini in the collection of the British Museum". Catalogue of the fishes in the British Museum London. 4:i-xxi + 1-534 (crc00035)

Synonyms (3):

Taxonomic history:

Etymology: melanos = black (Greek) + oura = tail (Greek).

The specific name melanurus is frequently treated as an adjective with the ending altered according to the gender of the generic name (e.g. Vieja melanura). However, since it was originally published without indication whether it is a noun or an adjective and could be either, it has to be treated as a noun in apposition (ICZN, 1999: Art. 31.2.2) and remains unaltered irrespective of the gender of the generic name (From Morgenstern, in press).

Common names: Quetzal cichlid (en).

Types: syntypes (5): BMNH 1864.1.26.78-82 (5).

Syntypes; Five specimens 7.5 to 25 cm long belonging to the Godman and Salvin collection done in Central America and sold to the Natural History Museum [London], where they are registered with codes 1864.1.26.78-82.

Diagnosis: Vieja melanurus possesses a single dark horizontal to the slightly angled band or stripe that typically extends from the caudal-fin base to near the mid-point of the body; ranging from about one-third to nearly half the length of the body. The band appears as a series of connected dark blotches that, in many specimens, are then broken into separated blotches near the band’s anterior extent. The characteristic "caudal band" is present in both adults and large juveniles and distinguishes the species from its congeners as well as all other syntopic cichlid fishes.

This species is most closely related to Vieja maculicauda (Hubbs, 1935; McMahan et al., 2010). Vieja melanurus is clearly distinguished from V. maculicauda by the presence in V. melanurus of a long black caudal band, often extending to the mid-body. In V. maculicauda, the "band" is absent, replaced by a single large dark blotch at the caudal-fin base. In addition, adult V. maculicauda typically possesses a dark vertical bar (belt) at the midbody. This character is absent in V. melanurus. The caudal band of V. melanurus also allows this species to be differentiated from all other members of the genus Vieja. In contrast to V. melanurus, the three congeners Vieja guttulata, V. zonata, and V. fenestrata each have a longitudinal band that extends the entire length of the body. V. bifasciata differs from V. melanurus based on the presence of two stripes along each side of the body. The upper stripe may be a blotch if not developed; however, the lower stripe runs from the pectoral fin base to the caudal fin. V. breidohri differs from V. melanurus by possession of a relatively complete longitudinal dark band extending from near the head to the caudal-fin base. (From McMahan, 2011).

For Vieja bifasciata (Steindachner, 1864), coloration and marking diagnosis includes a defined black blotch on the operculum to which the horizontal caudal band points. This blotch is just faintly visible in some adult individuals of Vieja melanurus. V. bifasciata also has a defined “second” horizontal black band (which gives it the specific name) between the caudal band and dorsal fin base, widening into a blotch in its middle part and running from the base of the caudal fin to the opercular blotch. In some cases, this second bar actually fuses with the caudal band, which in V. bifasciata, unlike Vieja melanurus, extends father frontward (at least to the middle part of the dorsal fin) and in many cases (in particular in younger individuals) to the opercular blotch. Vieja bifasciata also has a distinctive reticulated color pattern on the head, which varies in extension in populations but it is always visible on the cheeks (Artigas Azas, 2008).

Size: In the wild males regularly do not exceed 25 centimeters in total length, while females remain smaller at 18 centimeters. In aquaria monster males of up to 35 centimeters are not at all rare.

Sex dimorphism: Similar in appearance and coloration, males grow larger than females. Males also develop a nuchal hump on the forehead.

Type locality: Lago Petén, Guatemala.

Distribution: Lowland water bodies in the eastern slope of the southern part of the Yucatan peninsula in México, northern and central Belize, south to Stann Creek (Greenfield & Thomerson, 1997). It also inhabits Rio Usumacinta tributaries in México and Guatemala. I have always found them below 200 m but there are reports of them as high as 600 m in clear water rivers in Chiapas (Stawikowski & Werner, 1998). Water bodies include big and small rivers, coastal marsh lagoons, cenotes, and lakes.

Habitat: Lowland water bodies within their range. Water can rank from very transparent to murky (Like the type locality). They are found mainly in larger water bodies like lagoons or big rivers, mainly in areas with slow water flow. Mud and sandy substrate is commonly found, and driftwood is normally scattered. Water plants are present on some occasions, with plants like Ceratophylum sp., Vallisneria, and floating Euchornia sp. common.



Conservation: Vieja melanurus is not evaluated by the international union for the conservation of nature in the iucn red list of threatened species. Vieja melanurus remains stable in most of its range.

Feeding: In the wild Vieja melanurus is highly herbivorous but also omnivorous to a degree, with a high part of its diet being detritus and vegetable matter. On stomach examinations made on 31 individuals from Laguna de Caobas in Quintana Roo (Valtierra-Vega & Schmitter-Soto, 2000), filamentous algae were found in the digestive tract of all of them, and no mites. They are known to strike small spinner bait (Greenfield & Thomerson, 1997) but they would certainly strike a hook baited with a worm. On more than one occasion, I have observed the closely related Vieja bifasciata rushing to the surface when a small fruit from an overhanging tree falls into the water, eating it. The Quetzal cichlid is quite opportunistic. In Cenote Azul, a 90 meters deep cenote adjacent to Laguna de Bacalar near the Mexican border with Belize, Vieja melanurus stays just below the terrace of a restaurant at the shore, waiting for people to throw them “tortillas” (corn flour made bred type), bread, crackers, seafood or other edibles. They greedily go to the surface and eat them. In my aquariums, they have certainly enjoyed soft fruits like watermelon, melon, papaya, and even bananas, and they eagerly ate all of these fruits (Artigas Azas, 2008).

Breeding: Vieja melanurus starts breeding efforts at about two years of age when males are at least 15 cm. in total length, and females slightly smaller. I have been lucky enough to observe Vieja melanurus breeding in the wild on several occasions, always in the spring. They form territories around a hard surface, always as far as possible from the bottom and with a natural pit were to later place the wrigglers, always near the nest. Males are very shy and don't usually stay around when a bigger danger approaches (Like me diving). On one occasion I was able to watch the entire spawning sequence in White Water lagoon, Belize river. The pair, with red heads, bright yellow iris, and striking black markings, had cleaned a small area on a sunken tree trunk inside a bed of Vallisneria. The female and the male would take turns making runs over the nest, the female depositing eggs and the male fertilizing them. The eggs were yellowish, and measure 2.2 mm in length (Coleman, 2004). I estimated over 500 eggs. When I got close to the nest, regardless of how carefully I did it, the male flee away, only for the female to do the same when I got close to one meter from the nest. Astyanax aeneus did the rest in a matter of seconds, my big mistake.

In Cenote Azul I was luckier at a seven-meter depth, being able to observe the full spawn and the female staying close to the eggs, fanning them, while the male stayed at a safe distance. On both occasions, a pit was just beside the spawning site.

On one occasion a pair had the wrigglers inside a pit in the wood where they apparently had spawned (You could see the cleaned area), in this occasion, presumably having more to lose, both male and female stayed close to the nest, allowing me to get them in pictures. Unlike other Central American cichlids, only one pit was available for the wrigglers.

In Lake Bacalar, I have seen pairs herding their babies on more than one occasion. Males as in many Central American cichlids show the general direction to the females while females stay just above their fry, guiding them with spasmodic movements of the body and opening and closing their fins. Small free-swimming fish show a black longitudinal bar all across them. They feed on particles on the surface of rocks and substrate. The largest babies I saw with their parents were about 1 cm in length, but I saw small ones about 2 cm. Vieja melanurus in the shallow areas among beds of sunken leaves.

Aquaristics: Vieja melanurus is an easy fish to keep in an aquarium, the main challenge is to provide them with a tank that is big enough for them. I would personally not advise anything less than 600 liters and 1.8 meters in length, although I know of cases where they have been bred in smaller 300 liters tanks. Sand substrate, driftwood, and rocks are suitable decorations, although due to their vegetarian tendencies, plants are not a good idea unless you want to include them in the menu.

Feeding is not a problem; they are eager eaters of any regular fish food offered, although I always tried to give them a good deal of vegetable matter, including soft fruits. Growth is fast if the space is provided. Vieja melanurus is not a terribly aggressive cichlid and rarely bothers any other fish that can not be eaten. They do fine in groups in the aquarium.

You should be aware that small Vieja melanurus, as with the other Vieja types, with a few population exceptions, are poorly colored when they are under ten centimeters in size and start showing their wonderful colors as they grow.

Pairs establish after they reach 15 cm. when they are about two years old and are very stable, even for several spawning efforts. Adult pairs could be stable for years, and I have known of Quetzal cichlids reaching over ten years of age in captivity. The first spawning efforts are normally unsuccessful; many times males do not properly fertilize the eggs. Once mature they are good parents and do not eat their own fry. In short, Vieja melanurus, giving the space, is a wonderful aquarium fish (Artigas Azas, 2008).

Comments: For many years the most popular scientific name for this fish was that of its junior synonym V. synspila, although the differences between species were not always clear. DNA analysis showed them as sister species with a low number of differences. McMahan et al (2011) have made a morphological comparison between the two species and finally determined their synonymy. Being V. melanurus the older name available, this name prevails, although being less popular than that now in junior synonymy.

References (18):

  • Allgayer, Robert. 1991. "Vieja argentea (Pisces, Teleostei, Cichlidae) une espèce nouvelle d'Amérique centrale". Revue Française des Cichlidophiles. 114:2-15 (crc00017)
  • Allgayer, Robert. 1989. "Révision et redescription du genre Theraps Günther 1862. Description de deux espèces nouvelles du Mexique (Pisces, Perciformes, Cichlidae)". Revue Française des Cichlidophiles. 10(90):4-30 (crc00144)
  • Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. 2008. "The Quetzal Cichlid (Paratheraps synspilus) (Hubbs, 1935)". Cichlid News Magazine. 17(4):11-19 (crc01611) (abstract)
  • Coleman, Ron. 2004. "The Cichlid Egg Project". Cichlid Research Home Page ( (crc01633)
  • Eigenmann, Carl H & C. H. Kennedy. 1903. "On a collection of fishes from Paraguay, with a synopsis of the American genera of cichlids". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (crc00070)
  • Eigenmann, Carl H. 1893. "Catalogue of the fresh-water fishes of Central America and Southern Mexico". Proceeding of the United States National Museum. 16(925):53-60. DOI: 10.5479/si.00963801.925.53 (crc02506)
  • Evermann, Barton Warren & E.L. Goldsborough. 1902. "A report on fishes collected in Mexico and Central America, with notes and descriptions of five new species". Bulletin of the U.S. Fish Commission. 21(1901),137-159 (crc00270)
  • Greenfield, David W. & J.E. Thomerson. 1997. "Fishes of the continental waters of Belize". University Press of Florida, USA. i-xvii 1-311 (crc01631) (abstract)
  • Günther, Albert C. L. G. 1862. "Catalogue of the fishes in the British Museum. Catalogue of the Acanthopterygii, Pharyngognathi and Anacanthini in the collection of the British Museum". Catalogue of the fishes in the British Museum London. 4:i-xxi + 1-534 (crc00035)
  • Hubbs, Carl Leavitt. 1935. "Fresh-water fishes collected in British Honduras and Guatemala". Miscellaneous Publications, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan. (28):13-15 (crc00252)
  • Jordan, David Starr & B.W. Evermann, H.W. Clark. 1930. "Checklist of the fishes and fishlike vertebrates of North and Middle America. Appendix X". Report of the US Commissioner of Fisheries. 416-424 (crc02509)
  • Jordan, David Starr & B.W. Evermann. 1896. "Checklist of the fishes and fish like vertebrates of North and Middle America". Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries. XXI:207-584 (crc02517)
  • McMahan, Caleb D. 2011. "Paraneetroplus synspilus is a junior synonym of Paraneetroplus melanurus (Teleostei: Cichlidae)". Zootaxa. (2833):1-14 (crc03297) (abstract)
  • McMahan, Caleb D & A.D. Geheber, K.R. Piller. 2010. "Molecular Systematics of the Enigmatic Middle American Genus Vieja (Teleostei: Cichlidae)". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 57(3):1293-1300. DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2010.09.005 (crc02683) (abstract)
  • Miller, Robert Rush. 1966. "Geographical distribution of Central American freshwater fishes". Copeia. 1966(4):773-802 (crc01105) (abstract)
  • Regan, Charles Tate. 1905. "A revision of the fishes of the American cichlid genus Cichlosoma and of the allied genera". Annals and Magazine of Natural History. [Series 7]16:60-77:225-243:316-340:433-445 (crc00042)
  • Stawikowski, Rainer & Uwe Werner. 1998. "Die Buntbarsche Amerikas, Band 1". Ulmer Verlag, Stuttgart. 540 (crc01090)
  • Valtierra-Vega, Maria Teresa & Juan Jacobo Schmitter-Soto. 2000. "Hábitos alimentarios de las mojarras (Perciformes: Cichlidae) de la laguna Caobas, Quintana Roo, México". Revista de Biologia Tropical. (48):503-508 (crc01505) (abstract)


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (May 09, 2011). "Vieja melanurus (Günther, 1862)". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Jun 17, 2024, from: (crc10879)