Adult at Motzorongo
Adult of Thorichthys maculipinnis at Motzorongo, Papaloapan drainage [Mexico]. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas. (06-Apr-2021). determiner Juan Miguel Artigas Azas








Last updated on:

Thorichthys maculipinnis (Steindachner, 1864)


Original description as Heros maculipinnis:


  • Steindachner, Franz. 1864. "Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Chromiden Mejico's und Central-Amerika's". Denkschriften der Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien. 23(2):57-74 (crc00248)

Synonyms (1):

Taxonomic history:

Etymology: macula = spot [Latin] + pennula = feather, wing, fin [Latin]: having spotted fins, in reference to the small spots on the dorsal and anal fins.

Common names: Chescla, United States: Spotcheek cichlid.

Types: syntypes (3): NMW 17368-70 (3).

Three syntypes the largest 4 ½ inches (11.5 cm) collected by Karl Bartholomaeus Heller in the Jamapa River in Veracruz, Mexico. They are stored in the Vienna Natural History museum (Naturhistorisches Museum Wien) with registration NMW 17368-70.

Diagnosis: Thorichthys maculipinnis can be told apart from its two more closely related species: T. callolepis and T. aureus (Říčan et al., 2016:17,18,20) in that T. callolepis among other differences lacks the ocellated eye spot on the sub-operculum present in the rest of the Thorichthys species. In life coloration T. aureus has a strong iridescent light blue coloration that extends well on the scales of the mid and upper areas of the flanks, absent in T. maculipinnis. Additionally T. aureus (particularly the females) often show somewhat translucent dark blotches with blue vertical strakes that partially extend the fourth and fifth vertical dark bars (from back to front) into the dorsal fin, reminiscent of those conspicuously present in T. panchovillai. Those blotches are absent in T. maculipinnis.

Thorichthys maculipinnis can also be differentiated from T. helleri in that the former has ticker lips. The last dorsal spine in T. helleri is longer (1.8-2.0 times in the head length) than that of T. maculipinnis (2.2 – 2.6 times in HL).

Size: The largest paratype of the synonym Thorichthys ellioti is 11.4 cm in standard length (some 14 cm in total length), which is about the largest size Thorichthys maculipinnis reaches in nature in my experience. Kullander (Kullander, 2003:644) and Miller (Miller, 2005:377) give 15 cm in total length and 11.5 cm in standard length respectively, as the maximum size. The life span of T. maculipinnis is of about seven to eight years.

Sex dimorphism: There is no obvious sex dimorphism in Thorichthys maculipinnis, however, females have a rounder belly than males. Males have longer filaments extending from the dorsal, caudal and anal fins, and reach a larger size than females.

Type locality: Río Xamapa [Jamapa], Veracruz, Mexico.

Distribution: Thorichthys maculipinnis is distributed in the lowlands (up to about 200 m asl maximum) from the Actopan river south to the Papaloapan river drainage and its affluents in the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca, Mexico.

In recent years the range of T. maculipinnis has extended northwards probably because of introductions by humans, and populations can be found as far north as the Cazones river where I was able to see it in good numbers in January 2002. The exact date of introduction is unknown, but early museum records of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan do not show the presence of the fish in what is an area widely surveyed by the late emeritus professor and Mexican fish expert Robert Miller in the 1940s-60s. Museum records (e.g. ECOSC P1286) at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur [San Cristobal, Mexico] show specimens collected in 1970 by the late Mexican ichthyologist José Álvarez del Villar from the Cazones river. So the introduction should have been a little earlier than that.

As other cichlid species with large distributions Thorichthys maculipinnis exhibits some geographical variability, more significantly between populations in the San Juan Evengelista river (southern arm of the Papaloapan drainage) and those of the northern Papaloapan affluents, and the rivers Otapa, Blanco, Jamapa, Antigua and Actopan. Populations of the San Juan Evangelista river commonly show a marked yellow-orange coloration in the belly area, which is only subdued or missing in the northern populations.

Habitat: Thorichthys maculipinnis inhabits in rainforest and tropical forest areas in creeks, small rivers, shore areas of large rivers and lagoons with clear but also murky water, they are found over a substrate of mud, sand, shale, gravel and rocks, aquatic vegetation is usually scarce. They prefer areas layered with sunken leaves in or around protection in the form of trees, roots, branches, or overhanging vegetation. T. maculipinnis inhabits down to about two meters depth but overwhelmingly prefer areas with less than one meter of depth.

The water in the range of Thorichthys maculipinnis is regularly low in visibility with a maximum of about 3 meters in the clearer areas. Water temperature tops to about 30 °C during the dry season with a very narrow range of variation, the lowest temperature I have measured being about 22 °C degrees (Otapa river). Stawikowski & Werner (Stawikowski & Werner, 1998:494) report a water chemistry for San Juan Evangelista river of pH 7 – 8; general hardness 4 – 11 °dGH and carbonate hardness of 5 – 13 °KH. The temperature was reported 25° — 30° C.

There are four native cichlid species in the Papaloapan river drainage that share the habitat with T. maculipinnis, namely Paraneetroplus nebuliferus, Rocio octofasciata, Trichromis salvini, and Vieja fenestrata, plus there have been introductions of Mayaheros urophthalmus and Petenia splendida in the lower areas of the Papaloapan river.


Conservation: Thorichthys maculipinnis is evaluated by the international union for the conservation of nature in the iucn red list of threatened species as (LC) least concern (2018). Most populations of Thorichthys maculipinnis appear to these days stable in their natural distribution.

Feeding: Thorichthys maculipinnis feeds in loose groups in shallow areas of the habitat. It wanders facing downwards and picking on the substrate, creating small pits in it, more than sifters Thorichthys are pickers, they do not systematically pick on every area of the substrate like sifter cichlid species (e.g. Crybroheros robertsoni) do, the way the locate their prey or if it is random picking has not been studied to my knowledge. Material picked up is scrupulously examined in the mouth and inedible matter expelled through mouth and gills, with softer material filtered out by gill rakes. Thorichthys are carnivorous and I have never seen them collecting vegetable matter, although it may be ingested as a sub-product of the picking process.

Breeding: Thorichthys maculipinnis starts breeding efforts in the last months of the dry season around March, when the water is clearer, warmer and the flow is slower. Breeding may extend to October but is drastically reduced after May, when the rains arrive. In my observations T. maculipinnis normally selects territories in slower flow areas of the river, in many occasions over accumulations of fallen leaves that seem to hide their color pattern from above. Suitable areas may be occupied by many pairs, separated on occasion by no more than one meter. A solid surface in the form of a rock, wood or sunken leaf with surrounding cover is a valuable asset for a territory and males fight for such areas. Males defend territories prior to the formation of pairs, and start courting passing females by assuming a slightly head down position, extending fins and slightly shaking their bodies. Females, smaller in size, respond by circling males with their fins extended in ever tightening circles. At one point pairs get side by side while males, with undulating movements of the body, push water at the females in an apparent effort to show their strength. If a female decides to stay with the male, they start a vigorous side-to-side courting motion while circling.

Alternatively pairs form without the previous establishment of a breeding territory and once a pair is formed both wander throughout the habitat in search and establishment of one, apparently for some days judging from aquarium observations.

At one point the territory is defended by the new pair. They defend their territory by making small frontal runs towards neighboring pairs with their gular pouches and opercular plates extended. In this situation the black blotches on the extended operculum, resembling eyes, give them the appearance of bigger fish, and other fish are normally intimidated without a fight. On a few occasions pairs get to their counterparts mouths and bite them, but without any apparent damage being produced.

T. maculipinnis cleans the spawning surface vigorously with their mouths prior to depositing their ovoid yellowish translucent eggs in tight circles. I would estimate spawns of about 100 to 300 eggs, depending on the size of the female. Females watch over their spawn, circulating water among eggs with their pectoral fins, while males chase intruders away from the territory.

Eggs hatch in about 48 hours under aquarium conditions at 28 °C. Small pits in the substrate are excavated by the pair where they place the newly hatched wrigglers; subsequently wrigglers are transported by the female from one pit to another several times a day. Five to six days later the yolk sac, with which the babies are born, is fully consumed and the little babies start making swimming attempts inside their pits. The next day, with all the wriggler now swimming, the pairs school them around the territory.

I have followed pairs for hours and have seen that they always circle the same area around the nest, not venturing more than a few meters away, and it is probable that they use the same pits for night cover. Herding their babies the pair behaves as other Central American cichlids do: the females closely guarding the babies and guiding them. Signaling is achieved with spasmodic body shakes and with rapid opening and closing of the fins. Males, also signaling, take the lead.

Fry appear to decrease in number with the passing of the days and when babies reach about a centimeter (in aquarium, about four weeks post spawning) they are normally (but not always) significantly fewer in number. Predation pressures, especially from other fish such as Astyanax ssp., take a toll on the fry.

Babies seem to feed picking on the surfaces that they pass, and females don’t seem to make any special effort (unlike other Central American cichlids) to provide food for their babies.

When babies abandon their parents at a little over a centimeter and half in length (about two months post spawning) they congregate in covered shallow areas of the habitat, where they are seen in the company of many other young fish.

Aquaristics: It is not easy to tell with precision when Thorichthys maculipinnis has made its debut in the aquarium hobby. Stawikowski & Werner (1985:237) show pictures of aquarium fish in Germany in 1985. In the United States however it is more difficult to know. A checklist of species (Luchterhand, 1984:11) kept by the members of the specialized Cichlasoma Study Group in 1984 does not include T. maculipinnis, neither several subsequent checklists in the same publication. The first reference I found was in 2010.

When keeping T. maculipinnis, remember its habitat preferences. Unlike T. meeki, T. maculipinnis cannot successfully thrive in low oxygen, bad quality or warm water (over 28 ̊C) conditions. It likes cool and oxygenated water, within its natural parameters. If water loses quality, bacterial infections and hole-in-the-head are likely to strike.

I believe Thorichthys maculipinnis is the most aggressive of the Thorichthys species and the only one that in my experience would actually kill conspecifics if kept in an aquarium with reduced dimensions. I would not recommend anything less than 300 liters for housing a group of Thorichthys maculipinnis. As for decoration, I prefer somewhat natural looking aquariums with rocks and driftwood, with a fine sand substrate that allows them (and me) to enjoy their natural picking behavior. You can then notice that at feeding time many small pits are dug on the sandy surface of the aquarium.

Although not particularly shy, dither fish are always a great addition to a T. maculipinnis aquarium. I have used large Poecilia species, naturally occurring with T. maculipinnis in some areas of the habitat. Any other large Poeciliids (or other large dither fish) would do just fine. Just try to avoid fish that bite on the fins, as they can produce a counter effect to what you are looking for. Small dither fish may be eaten by adult T. maculipinnis.

Providing for food for T. maculipinnis is not a problem; they are eager eaters when in good health. I consider Thorichthys of the T. helleri group a delicate fish in terms of diet, and although they are carnivorous in nature, I suggest to avoid diets with terrestrial animal proteins to avoid clout. It worked well for me.

As for breeding, if conditions are right, nothing will stop them from trying. I use inverted flower pots with the bottom opened as nest possibilities and they love them and readily use them, but readily spawn in open areas as well. They do not become too aggressive in breeding time and in fact you can raise a group of babies in the home aquarium, again, if conditions are right. You may however fail the first few occasions as they are quite shy and nervous but you will eventually succeed, and it is wonderful to observe their full pattern behavior in the home aquarium!

Thorichthys are a joy to keep in the home aquarium. They are interesting, not very aggressive, and wonderfully colored Central American cichlids.

Comments: The taxonomic history of T. maculipinnis is somewhat convoluted. Thorichthys maculipinnis was described in 1984 by Franz Steindachner together with Thorichthys helleri, being the first two Thorichthys species to be scientifically described. Both detailed descriptions were based on material collected by Karl Bartholomaeus Heller during trips he made to Mexico between 1845 and 1848. Both species were placed in the genus Heros, as then was understood.

Pellegrin (1904:240) followed on the validity of both Heros maculipinnis and H. helleri (treated as Cichlasoma helleri). In the same year however Regan (1905:320) declared T. maculipinnis synonym of Thorichthys aureus (treated as Cichlosoma (Thorichthys) aureum).

Meek (1904:223) erected the genus Thorichthys and described the species T. ellioti as its type, at the same time that he placed T. maculipinnis as junior synonym of T. helleri. The diagnosis of his new species T. ellioti refers to black spots on the side of the head, plus a lower dorsal fin and more elongated body. While it is true that the dorsal fin is lower than in T. helleri (the other species he examined), this is not so the case with the types of Heros maculipinnis. The dark spots on the side of the head, clearly visible in the illustration of the type (1904:224) by Howard Stebbins, are certainly an effect of the intensity of the blue dots on the head of life specimens in preservation, the same effect is seen in a picture of preserved types of T. panchovillai (referred as Cichlasoma sp. “aureum”) in Miller (1961:9) or seen in a comparison of pictures of live and preserved specimens by Allgayer (2010:29). A combination of social, geographical and environmental factors has a great deal of impact on the intensity of the blue spots on an individual or population.

No comments were made by Meek about the reasons he had to place T. maculipinnis in synonymy of T. helleri, even when aspects of the syntypes of the former species could have unambiguously diagnose them as separate: like the ticker lips and shorter last spine on the dorsal fin in T. maculipinnis, although somewhat damaged in the syntypes. Regan (1905:443) however has mentioned that specimens received for examination corresponding to Meek’s material of both Thorichthys helleri and T. ellioti are absolutely identical if it were not for the presence of blue dots often surrounded by a dark ring on the cheeks of T. helleri, judging from collection localities it seems plausible to conclude that Meek's identification of T. helleri was incorrect and therefore he also misjudged the synonym.

An interesting annotation by Meek is that of the type locality of T. maculipinnis at Rio Zanopa, instead of Rio Xamapa stated by Steindachner as the type locality — also given as Rio Jamapa in the paragraph prior his description of Heros maculipinnis and other places in his paper. This annotation is wrong and interesting because there is in fact a Rio Zanapa (in an old Mexican oil company PEMEX map even referred as Rio Zanopa), which is one of the two main branches of the Tonalá River, where T. helleri is found at the westernmost area of its distribution. This error may have likely span the identification confusion.

Rico Morgenstern (2017:90) has made a detailed retracing of Karl Heller’s trip and found that it is clear that the types of T. maculipinnis could not had been collected in Rio Tonalá (Rio Zamapa), where he had not been, and were in fact collected in Rio Jamapa, probably at the place known as Paso del Macho where the Rio Jamapa leaves the high plateau and enters the warm lowlands of the Veracruz state west of the state capitol city.

Although it was suggested by Werner (1994 taken from Morgenstern, 2017:89) that given their geographical origin both T. ellioti and T. maculipinnis could be the same species, it has been me (1996) who first used the name Thorichthys maculipinnis as senior synonym of Thorichthys ellioti.

Kullander (2003:644) treats Thorichthys maculipinnis as junior synonym of T. ellioti, recognizing that although T. maculipinnis has name priority, the name T. ellioti may be in prevailing usage and therefore to be applied to the taxon. This is however not applicable since the common use of a name does not cancel the priority rule. For a synonym to substitute the first name given among other things it is required by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZNICZN, 1999:Article that “… the senior synonym or homonym has not been used as a valid name after 1899”, which is not the case for T. maculipinnis — both Pellegrin, 1904:240 and Artigas Azas, 1996 did.

Another challenging position has been to consider that maybe both species: Thorichthys ellioti and T. maculipinnis are valid (Tobler, 2006) and different to each other, a claim probably based on the black spots seen in the illustration of the holotype of T. ellioti — mentioned above as an unattainable difference. Both species have type localities that although in different river system (Motzorongo at Rio Papaloapan drainage and Jamapa river) are very close to each other, with the same ecological characteristics, in the same hydrological area and with the same ichthyological fauna. Most importantly as mentioned before the main difference established by Meek when diagnosing T. ellioti, that of the black spots on the face of preserved specimens, does not hold.

Recently this year (2021) I (in the company of some friends) have been able to find the type locality of T. ellioti. Since while most water courses around Motzorongo have been severely affected by pollution caused by sugar mills, a small track of the stream passing by Motzorongo remains to our days in pristine conditions. Predictably, the Thorichthys found there does not exhibit back spots on the head, but blue dots, and in my opinion (see included pictures) is undistinguishable from other populations of T. maculipinnis. I have furthermore surveyed closer rivers flowing to the Miguel Alemán dam and the Thorichthys specimens are exactly the same.

Clearly enough, Thorichthys ellioti is one and the same species as T. maculipinnis and the name Thorichthys maculipinnis should be applied to refer to it. For a beautifully researched and detailed analysis of the synonymy considerations I highly recommend reading Morgenstern (2017).

References (20):

  • Allgayer, Robert. 2010. "Réhabilitation de l'espèce Heros maculipinnis Steindachner, 1864 (Pisces: Cichlidae) du bassin du Rio Papaloapan au Mexique". L'an Cichlidé. 10(2010):27-30 (crc02816)
  • Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. 1996. "The forgotten Thorichthys maculipinnis". The Cichlids Yearbooks. 6:68-73 (crc00935)
  • 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)
  • ICZN. 1999. "International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th edition". International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, Natural History Museum London (crc03781)
  • Kullander, Sven. 2003. "Family Cichlidae (Cichlids)". Check list of the freshwater fishes of South and Central America. 605-654 (crc01092)
  • Luchterhand, Ken. 1984. "Species checklist". Cichlasoma Power. 4(1):11 (crc08351) (abstract)
  • Lyons, Tim J. 2019. "Thorichthys maculipinnis". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. T138885345A2179834. DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-3.RLTS.T138885345A2179834.en (crc11202) (abstract)
  • Meek, Seth Eugene. 1904. "The fresh-water fishes of Mexico north of the isthmus of Tehuantepec". Field Columbian Museum Publication. 1-252 (crc00159)
  • Miller, Robert Rush. 2005. "Freshwater Fishes of Mexico". University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1-524 (crc01245)
  • Miller, Robert Rush & B.C. Nelson. 1961. "Variation, life colors, and ecology of Cichlasoma callolepis, a cichlid fish from Southern Mexico, with a discussion of the Thorichthys Species Group". Occasional Papers of the Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan. (622):9 (crc01100)
  • Morgenstern, Rico. 2017. "Thorichthys maculipinnis (STEINDACHNER, 1864) oder Thorichthys ellioti MEEK, 1904?". Deutsche Cichliden Gesellschaft- Informationen. 48(4):88-96 (crc08095)
  • Pellegrin, Jacques. 1904. "Contribution à l'étude anatomique, biologique et taxonomique des poissons de la famille des Cichlidés - Taxinomie". Bulletin de la Société Zoologique de France. 121-400 (crc00027) (abstract)
  • Pellegrin, Jacques. 1904. "Contribution à l'étude anatomique, biologique et taxonomique des poissons de la famille des Cichlidés". Memoires Societe Zoologique de France. 16(2-4):41-400 (crc06953)
  • 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)
  • Stawikowski, Rainer & Uwe Werner. 1985. "Die Buntbarsche der Neuen Welt. Mittelamerika". Essen (crc01091)
  • Steindachner, Franz. 1864. "Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Chromiden Mejico's und Central-Amerika's". Denkschriften der Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien. 23(2):57-74 (crc00248)
  • Tobler, Michi. 2006. "T. maculipinnis vs. T. ellioti". The Cichlid Room Companion (crc05807)
  • Werner, Uwe. 1994. "Ein Buch mit sieben Siegeln". TI-magazin. (177):4-9 (crc08352)
  • Říčan, Oldřich & L. Piálek, K. Dragová, J. Novák. 2016. "Diversity and evolution of the Middle American cichlid fishes (Teleostei: Cichlidae) with revised classification". Vertebrate Zoology. 66(1):1 – 102 (crc07292) (abstract)


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (Jun 16, 2021). "Thorichthys maculipinnis (Steindachner, 1864)". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Jun 18, 2024, from: (crc10820)