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Amazon Game Fish Taxonomy

Classification Overview

The Characins

The Characins (Order Characiformes)
Taxonomic Grouping Latin Descriptor English Translation
Kingdom Animalia animals
Phylum Chordata with spinal cords
Subphylum Vertebrata with back bones
Superclass Gnathostoma jawed vertebrates
Grade Osteichthes bony fishes
Class Actinopterygii ray-finned fishes
Division Teleostei completed bones
Subdivision Ostarioclupeiomorpha bone-shield-form
Superorder Ostariophysi bone-bladder
Series Otophysi ear-bladder
Order Characiformes Characins

The Characins account for almost 50% of the fish species diversity of the Amazon. And diverse is exactly what they are, both morphologically and ecologically. They range in size from minuscule 13mm long tetras to 80 pound plus tambaqui and meter long payara and trairao (wolfish). They range in shape from some of the roundest fish in the world to some of the most elongate. They include the curimatidae, bottom favoring detritus feeders with no teeth at all; to the piranhas, whose teeth we're all well aware of. They also include fishes ranging from some of the mildest mannered community dwellers and aquarium favorites to some of the fiercest and most exciting gamefish in the world.

Characins - General Characteristics

Most characins are carnivores (although there are entire subfamilies of fruit, seed and flower eaters as well as a range of detritus feeders, scavengers and bottom sifters) with well developed and often very specialized teeth. Almost all have an adipose fin and are well covered with ctenoid scales. None have barbels. Like all fishes in the Series Otophysi, Characiformes have a Weberian apparatus, a series of bones and ligaments that connect the inner ear and the swim bladder for sound transmission. Characins, as members of the Superorder Ostariophysi, possess an alarm chemical (‘shreckstoff’) which is released into the water upon injury to the skin, inducing a fright reaction in other, nearby members of their species. (Anglers who've fished for piranha or matrinchao know that after you hook a few, the school quickly disappears.)

Characins - Specializations

Several Characin groups have extremely specialized characteristics. The unique fang-like dentition of payara, the grinding molars of pirapitinga, the winglike pectoral fins of hatchetfishes and the headstanding behavior of Anostomidae are testament to the adaptations Characins have evolved to enable them to populate just about all of the incredibly diverse habitats of the Amazon basin. The great diversity of Characins, their propensity for convergently evolved characters and the logistical difficulty of access and collection in the Amazon basin has made classification of these fishes a work in progress, with ongoing taxonomic changes. The families described below represent some of the most economically important Amazon groups from the standpoint of anglers, aquarists and commercial fishers.

Neotropical Characin Families
Parodontidae

Small fishes with ventral mouths and teeth specialized for scraping algae from rocks. Mostly stream dwellers. Not of angling interest.

Curimatidae Curimatidae

Known as detrivores because of their feeding habit, these fishes ingest the bottom sediments (detritus) in their waters, extracting nutrition from microscopic bio-matter particles contained in the fine-grained material. These fishes are distinguished from other Characins by the total lack of dentition in their jaws. Curimatids generally travel in large schools and make up a significant portion of the biomass in their waters, allowing them to be exploited by commercial fishermen. Generally thick-bodied fishes, some can attain a half meter in length. Although one would expect that their diet prevents them from being of interest to anglers, they can be caught on small, brightly colored flies in certain waters. Not bad as fighters, they are fairly scrappy. Under normal conditions, not of interest to anglers.

Prochilodontidae Prochilodontidae

Their odd, fleshy lips are equipped with two rows of teeth forming a tooth-lined oral disk. This adaptation allows them to scrape periphyton (a crust of algae, diatoms and other organisms) from aquatic surfaces. They also exploit detritus. The availabilty of these food sources and their migratory behavior makes them a prominent source of food and energy flow across aquatic ecosystems. Known as an important forage fish of peacock bass, their movements may explain how peacock populations in nutrient poor waters are able to obtain adequate biomass. Their tails and anal fins generally exhibit strong yellow and black stripes. Not of interest to anglers but often found in aquaria.

Anostomidae Anostomidae

A family of fusiform (spindle-shaped) fishes, they are known to aquarists as "headstanders", due to their inclined feeding position. Feeding on a wide range of substances, these mostly omnivorous fishes can achieve fairly large sizes (up to .80 meter) and several are of interest to anglers. The large "boga" is actively sought by anglers in southern South America while the "aracu" is a light-tackle target in Amazonia. Many are migratory and are exploited for food, both commercially and by subsistence fishers. A large family with many species still undescribed, they are found in most habitat types, ranging from lentic lowlands waters to fast-moving high gradient rivers. Many genera, such as Leporinus and Anostomus, are popular in aquaria.

Chilodontidae

A small family of fishes also known to the aquarium trade as headstanders (as are Anostomidae), none are of interest to anglers.

Crenuchidae Crenuchidae

Known as "darters", these small fishes are mostly inhabitants of fast-moving small streams. Not of interest as either food or sport fish, Crenuchidae are sometimes encountered in the aquarium trade.

Hemiodontidae

This family comprised of 28 species is pelagic in habit, forming large schools in open waters of lakes and rivers. Feeding omnivorously, some species are filter feeders. None are of interest to anglers.

Gasteropelecidae Gasteropelecidae

A great example of the diversity within Characiformes, these odd little fishes are known as "hatchet fishes". All are capable of jumping long distances using their deep-bodied, keeled shape and their enormous, heavily-muscled pectoral fins. Some species occur in small streams and creeks. When startled, they take to the air in a swarm, making for an interesting sight. A favorite of the aquarium trade, none are of interest to anglers.

Characidae Characidae

This extremely large and diverse family poses a variety of challenges for taxonomists. Many interfamily taxonomic relationships are not yet clearly known, leaving large numbers of species (at least 620 - or about half of all of the Amazon Characiforme species) unassigned to subfamilies. Most, however, are well-known to aquarists as tetras and characins and many are favorites of anglers, including the famed freshwater dorado. The well-defined subfamilies within Characidae also contain some of the Amazon's greatest sportfish. Within the subfamily Serrasalminae, are found the infamous piranha, the fruit and flower eating pacu and the Amazon bully, the pirapitinga. The subfamily Bryconinae includes piraputanga and matrinchao, great aerobatic fighters in their own right.

Acestorhynchidae Loricaridae - Catfish

This family of elongate, pike-like fishes contains a single genera with 15 species. Well known to peacock bass anglers, they are known, variously and regionally as, peixe-cachorro, cachorrinho or joele. Armed with wicked conical teeth and lined with extremely small, reflective scales, these fast-start predators will aggressively strike artificial lures. Although not specifically targeted by anglers, some species can exceed two feet in length and when hooked will provide a leaping challenge on light tackle.

Cynodontidae Cynodontidae

Highlighted by the fantastic payara, this family is readily recognized by their oblique mouths, exaggerated canines and their well-developed pectoral fins. Several species are encountered by anglers. Within the genus Hydrolicus, anglers pursue the giant payara (H. armatus) primarily in fast-moving rivers. Anglers may also encounter the smaller H. scomberoides in lowlands rivers. Both are known as pirandira in Brazil. The more elongate and more widely distributed Rhaphiodon vulpinus is also sought by anglers. Called biara or chafalote, they provide excellent sport.

Erythrinidae Erythrinidae

Characterized by their thick, cylindrical bodies and mouth full of wicked conical teeth, the fishes in this family, except for the ubiquitous traira, are poorly known to anglers. The larger, more desirable sporting species, such as the trairao (wolfish), tend to have smaller natural distributions in relatively fast water systems. Attaining enormous sizes (up to one meter), they are aggressive and athletic game fish.

Lebiasinidae

Mostly known in the aquarium trade (as pencil fishes), this family contains 61 small species, found mostly in quiet, clear or blackwater streams. Not of interest to anglers.

Ctenolucidae Ctenolucidae

This family of elongate, pike-like predators is known as bicuda in Brazil, for their beak-like mouth. Armed with a single, comb-like row of fine teeth, some species can reach large sizes, up to nearly one meter in length. Among the finest of all freshwater gamefish, they are poorly known by all but the most adventurous of anglers.

Preserved specimens photographed at INPA (National Institute of Amazon Research), Manaus, Brazil

References

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2009. FishBase. World Wide Web electronic publication. www.fishbase.org, version (06/2009).

Géry, J. 1977. Characoids of the world. Tropical Fish Hobbyist Publications, Inc., Neptune City, NJ.

Mattox, G. M. T, Toledo-Piza, M., Oyakawa, O. T. and Armbruster, J. W., Taxonomic Study of Hoplias Aimara (Valenciennes, 1846) and Hoplias macrophthalmus (Pellegrin, 1907) (Ostariophysi, Characiformes, Erythrinidae), Copeia, 2006, 3, 516-528.

Nelson J, (2006) Fishes of the World. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey, USA

Reis, R. E., S.O. Kullander, and C. J. Ferraris, Jr. (eds.) 2003. Check List of the Freshwater Fishes of South and Central America. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, RS. Brasil. 620-621.

The Osteoglossids

The Order Osteoglossiformes
Taxonomic Grouping Latin Descriptor English Translation
Kingdom Animalia animals
Phylum Chordata with spinal cords
Subphylum Vertebrata with back bones
Superclass Gnathostoma jawed vertebrates
Grade Osteichthes bony fishes
Class Actinopterygii ray-finned fishes
Division Teleostei completed bones
Subdivision Oststeoglossomorpha  
Order Osteoglossiformes bony tongues

A primitive order in relation to other bony fishes, the Osteoglossiformes (bony-tongues) get their name from well-developed teeth on their tongues that bite against similar teeth on the roof of the mouth. Although they are primarily tropical dwellers, members of the order are found on all of the original Gondwanaland continents. They are represented in the Amazon by two very well-known game fish species.

Neotropical Osteoglossid Families
Arapaimatidae Arapaima

This family contains only 2 species, the African bonytongue and the South American arapaima. Capable of growing to immense sizes (confirmed reports of 3.9 meters - over 12 feet), the arapaima has extremely large scales, a somewhat flattened head and a cylindrical body becoming laterally compressed posteriorly. Long a highly desired food fish, their reliance on atmospheric oxygen makes them visible to and easily captured by commercial fishers. Although populations are rebounding in some protected areas, the occurrence of extremely large individuals has become rare. Predatory fish eaters, they are a unique and interesting target for sport fishermen while their sheer size and power make them a memorable catch.

Osteoglossidae Aruana

Five species of Osteoglossidae exist, with two known from the Amazon and the remaining three from Southeast Asia and Australia. The family is generally elongate, laterally compressed and possesses large scales. Unlike Arapaimidae, they have very large, oblique mouths with barbels on the lower jaw. They are important in aquaria, as sport fishes and as both commercial and subsistence food fishes .

Photos from INPA (National Institute of Amazon Research), Manaus, Brazil

References

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2009. FishBase. World Wide Web electronic publication. www.fishbase.org, version (06/2009).

Goulding, M. 1980. The fishes and the forest. University of California Press. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA.

Nelson J, (2006) Fishes of the World. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey, USA

Reis, R. E., S.O. Kullander, and C. J. Ferraris, Jr. (eds.) 2003. Check List of the Freshwater Fishes of South and Central America. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, RS. Brasil. 620-621.

Amazon Clupeiformes

The Clupeid Order (Clupeiformes)
Taxonomic Grouping Latin Descriptor English Translation
Kingdom Animalia animals
Phylum Chordata with spinal cords
Subphylum Vertebrata with back bones
Superclass Gnathostoma jawed vertebrates
Grade Osteichthes bony fishes
Class Actinopterygii ray-finned fishes
Division Teleostei completed bones
Subdivision Ostarioclupeiomorpha bone-shield-form
Superorder Clupeomorpha  
Order Clupeiformes  

This large, mostly marine order contains the fishes known as herring, anchovies, shads and sardines. They are distributed throughout the world's oceans and coastal regions and are very important to international commercial fisheries. Most are schooling and some enter estuaries and freshwaters. The exclusively freshwater Amazon species may be the result of adaptations of marine species enclosed in freshwaters after the rise of the Andes or colonizers entering during saltwater incursions into the basin during geological periods of warming. Among the Amazon species, many are filter feeders. These fishes typically have a series of enlarged scales on their ventral edge, forming a keel-like surface. Three families are found in the Amazon.

Amazon Clupeid Families
Clupeidae Four genera with about ten species are found in the Amazon region. All are smallish fishes (the largest less than a foot long) and of no interest to anglers.
Engraulidae Engraulidae

The Neotropical anchovies are small to medium fishes with underslung mouths and prominent snouts. They are covered with small, deciduous scales. Not of interest to anglers.

Pristigasteridae Pristigasteridae

Pristigasterids are sardine-like fishes externally distinguishable by their long anal fins. Mostly small to medium sized fishes, two species in the genus Pellona reach sizes exceeding half a meter and 17 pounds. Known as "apapa" or "sardinata", they are excellent game fish on conventional or fly tackle. They readily attack surface and subsurface artificial lures.

Preserved specimens photographed at INPA (National Institute of Amazon Research), Manaus, Brazil

References

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2009. FishBase. World Wide Web electronic publication. www.fishbase.org, version (06/2009).

Goulding, M. 1980. The fishes and the forest. University of California Press. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA.

Nelson J, (2006) Fishes of the World. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey, USA

Reis, R. E., S.O. Kullander, and C. J. Ferraris, Jr. (eds.) 2003. Check List of the Freshwater Fishes of South and Central America. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, RS. Brasil. 620-621.

Amazon Perciformes

The Perciforme Order (Perciformes)
Taxonomic Grouping Latin Descriptor English Translation
Kingdom Animalia animals
Phylum Chordata with spinal cords
Subphylum Vertebrata with back bones
Superclass Gnathostoma jawed vertebrates
Grade Osteichthes bony fishes
Class Actinopterygii ray-finned fishes
Division Teleostei  
Subdivision Euteleostei  
Superorder Acanthopterygii  
Series Percomorpha  
Order Perciformes  

Perciformes is the largest of all fish orders with 160 families and over 10,000 different species. In fact, they are the single largest order of vertebrates in existence. Not only are they numerous, they are the most diversified of fishes, ranging dramatically in shape and form. Although they dominate vertebrate ocean life and most freshwater, the Amazon basin is an exception, with its extraordinarily radiated Characiforme and Siluriforme orders. Perciformes are restricted to 5 Amazon families. Although this represents over 200 species, they are no match numerically for the estimated 2500+ species represented by the other orders. Highly evolved fishes, Perciformes have well-developed skeletons and spiny fin rays. Their bodies are mostly covered by ctenoid scales and they possess complex protrusible jaws. This order is still undergoing taxonomic revision.

Amazon Perciforme Families
Sciaenidae Sciaenidae

The Sciaenidae comprise a large family with members distributed throughout the world's coastal, estuarine and fresh waters. Mainly piscivorous, the Amazon genera are well distributed throughout the basin. Sciaenidae are distinguished by relatively soft fin rays and a prominent lateral line, in some species extending into the rays of the tail. Known as croakers or drums in English and corvina or pescada in Spanish and Portuguese, respectively, the family is important for its value as commercial food fishes. Although most Amazon Sciaenidae are medium sized fishes, the genus Plagioscon has larger species (P. squamosissimus exceeding 3/4 meter in length) that are valued as game fishes.

Cichlidae Chaetobrancus-Cichlidae, Pike-Cichlid, Cichla

Cichlidae are one of the most well-known families of fishes for both aquarists and anglers. Species-rich, the family has over 1300 species world wide (mostly in Africa). The family is known for its often brilliant coloration, complex mating behavior and proclivity for providing extensive parental care of fry. Amazon Cichlids number about 200 species and include the mighty peacock bass, the unique and beautiful discus fish and the aquarium favorite, the oscar. Cichlidae feed on a variety of food types, ranging from plant matter to planckton to other fishes. Amazon predatory species have highly developed protrusible jaws. Amazon Cichlids breed pairwise and typically deposit adhesive eggs on a substrate, where both parents invest energy in guarding and tending to the eggs. There are several mouthbrooding species (Geophagus). Many species are strongly sexually dimorphic and in most species, the male is larger.

Mugilidae

Two species of freshwater mullets occur in South America and several brackish water species enter Amazon waters. Not of interest to anglers.

Gobiidae

Gobies are primarily small fishes occupying coastal or marine habitats. Species in the genus Microphilypnus are strictly freshwater species and occur in the Amazon basin. Not of interest to anglers.

Polycentridae Leaf Fish

Known as leaf-fishes, the family comprises a group of small, cryptic, leaf-imitating fishes. Two South American species are both male fry guarders. Monocirrhus polyacanthus is endemic to the Amazon basin. Known in the aquarium trade, none are of interest to anglers.

Preserved specimens photographed at INPA (National Institute of Amazon Research), Manaus, Brazil

References

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2009. FishBase. World Wide Web electronic publication. www.fishbase.org, version (06/2009).

Goulding, M. 1980. The fishes and the forest. University of California Press. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA.

Nelson J, (2006) Fishes of the World. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey, USA

Reis, R. E., S.O. Kullander, and C. J. Ferraris, Jr. (eds.) 2003. Check List of the Freshwater Fishes of South and Central America. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, RS. Brasil. 620-621.

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