Sven O Kullander


What are cichlids?

The family Cichlidae Bonaparte (1840), is one of the major groups of teleost fishes, comprising more than 1,600 species. Nearly all of them live their entire life in freshwater. Only a few species frequent brackish water.

Bonaparte text

The family was first recognised by Prince Bonaparte in 1840 (p. 191), as a subfamily of the Chromididae (now known as Pomacentridae) and with the spelling Cychlini.

The Cichlidae are one of few tropical fish families whose monophyly is virtually uncontested — see Stiassny (1981, 1987, 1991), Zihler (1982), Kaufmann & Liem (1982), Gaemers (1984), Stiassny & Jensen (1987), Casciotta & Arratia (1993), Kullander (1998) and Sparks & Smith (2004) on the phylogeny of the family.

Externally, cichlids can be identified by a suite of characters including single nostril, usually divided flank lateral line, 16 (exceptionally 14) principal caudal fin rays, and the spines in the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins. Sizes range from ca 30 mm to at least 600 mm among South American species. Habitat and food specializations are still largely uninvestigated, although it seems that the spectrum is considerable. There are examples of rheophilic to extreme lentic forms; and herbivorous, planktivorous, molluscivorous and piscivorous specialists have been distinguished, although the majority of the South American cichlids may be opportunistic carnivores. Cichlids have a varied behaviour and are established study objects of ethologists.

Reproductive behaviour includes mouth brooding, of which several strategies are recorded, although the majority of the American cichlids are substrate spawners. All cichlids practise some form of parental care.

South America has at least 450 species of cichlids of which 311 species described to date. That would be about 8 % of the South American fresh water fish fauna (estimates suggest about 5,000 species). Cichlids are a proportionally more important faunal component numerically in Africa and Central America, but are nevertheless the major non-otophysan group in South America and one of the four largest families, the Characidae, Pimelodidae and Loricariidae having more or about the same number of species.

Economically, only the Cichla species are important in fishery statistics. A much larger number of smaller species are consumed regularly, however. Astronotus is occasionally kept in pond culture in Brazil, and Caquetaia umbrifera is common in Colombian ponds. Caquetaia kraussii is another popular pond culture fish expected to effect considerable damage on the native fish fauna as it spreads across the Orinoco drainage to which it was introduced only in the 1970s. The dominating cichlids in South American aquaculture, however, remain the tilapias, mainly Tilapia rendalli and Oreochromis niloticus. The flesh of South American cichlids is firm and generally appreciated for the lack of intermuscular bones.

The latest complete revision of the South American cichlids was published about 90 years ago (Regan 1905-1913). Since then, no attempt has been made at a comprehensive revision, although the number of nominal species and genera has increased considerably. Kullander (1986) gave an estimate of 275 species in 40 genus group taxa; and the first figure is certainly low. Kullander & Nijssen (1989) considered 239 nominal species and 36 nominal genera as valid, including the six new species and three new genera that they described. My current estimate is that there are about 450 species, of which more than 100 species have not been described. Kullander (2003) gave at total estimate of 571 species for South and Central America combined.


BONAPARTE, C.L. 1840. Prodromus Systematis Ichthyologiae. Nuovi Annali delle Scienze naturali, Bologna 4: 181-196, 272-277.
CASCIOTTA, J. & G. ARRATIA.1993. Tertiary cichlid fishes from Argentina and reassessment of the phylogeny of New World cichlids. Kaupia (2):195-240
GAEMERS, P.A.M. 1984. Taxonomic position of the Cichlidae as demonstrated by the morphology of their otoliths. Netherl. J. Zool. 34: 566-595
KAUFMAN, L.S. & K.F. LIEM. 1982. Fishes of the suborder Labroidei: phylogeny, ecology, and evolutionary significance. Breviora (472): 1-19
KULLANDER, S.O. & H. NIJSSEN. 1989. The cichlids of Surinam. E.J. Brill, Leiden and other cities, XXXIII+256 pp.
KULLANDER, S.O. 1986. Cichlid fishes of the Amazon River drainage of Peru. Stockholm, 431 pp.
KULLANDER, S.O. 1998. A phylogeny and classification of the South American Cichlidae. Pp. 00-00 in Malabarba, L., et al. (eds), Phylogeny and Classification of Neotropical Fishes, Porto Alegre.
KULLANDER, S.O. 2003. Family Cichlidae (Cichlids). Pp. 605-654 In: Reis, R.E., S.O. Kullander and C.J. Ferraris, Jr., eds, Check List of the Freshwater Fishes of South and Central America. Edipucrs, Porto Alegre.
REGAN, C.T. 1905. A revision of the fishes of the South-American cichlid genera Crenacara, Batrachops, and Crenicichla. Proc. zool. Soc. Lond. 1905: 152-168
REGAN, C.T. 1905. A revision of the fishes of the South-American cichlid genera Acara, Nannacara, Acaropsis, and Astronotus. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (7) 15: 329-347
REGAN, C.T. 1905. A revision of the fishes of the American cichlid genus Cichlosoma and of the allied genera. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (7) 16: 60-77, 225-243, 316-340, 433-445
REGAN, C.T. 1906. A revision of the South-American cichlid genera Retroculus, Geophagus, Heterogramma, and Biotoecus. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (7) 17: 49-66
REGAN, C.T. 1906. A revision of the fishes of the South-American cichlid genera Cichla, Chaetobranchus, and Chaetobranchopsis, with notes on the genera of American Cichlidae. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (7) 17: 230-239
REGAN, C.T. 1913. A synopsis of the cichlid fishes of the genus Crenicichla. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (8) 11: 498-540
SPARKS, J. S. and W. L. SMITH. 2004. Phylogeny and biogeography of cichlid fishes (Teleostei: Perciformes: Cichlidae). Cladistics, 20: 501-517.
STIASSNY, M.L.J. 1981. The phyletic status of the family Cichlidae: a comparative anatomical investigation. Netherl. J. Zool. 31: 275-314
STIASSNY, M.L.J. 1987. Cichlid familial intrarelationships and the placement of the neotropical genus Cichla. J. nat. Hist. 21: 1311-1331
STIASSNY, M.L.J. 1991. Phylogenetic intrarelationships of the family Cichlidae: an overview. In KEENLEYSIDE, M.H.A. (ed.), Cichlid fishes. Behaviour, ecology and evolution, pp. 1-35
STIASSNY, M.L.J. & J.S. JENSEN. 1987. Labroid intrarelationships revisited: morphological complexity, key innovations, and the study of comparative diversity. Bull. Mus. comp. Zool. Harv. (151): 269-319
ZIHLER, F. 1982. Gross morphology and configuration of digestive tracts of Cichlidae: phylogenetic and functional significance. Netherl. J. Zool. 32: 544-571.