from the 2,207 species, we are left with
2,159 formally described cichlid species.
However, not all of those 2,159 species
should be considered valid. There are many
cases where two descriptions concern the
same species and are considered synonyms,
with just one of them being valid.
Different authorities (e.g., FishBase and
the Catalogue of Fishes of the California
Academy of Sciences) have different
criteria for synonyms. In the Cichlid
Room Companion catalogue, which is
sanctioned by our own set of specialists,
we list 458 described taxa in synonymy. If
we subtract these from the 2,159 formally
described species, we are left with 1,701
An Exceptionally Diverse
If we consider that, according to FishBase,
33,100 species of fish had been described by
April 2015, with an average of five species
per family, we can infer the evolutionary
success of the family Cichlidae, which at
1,701 valid species accounts for more than
5 percent of all fishes!
There are also species that are
recognized by some authors as “potential
species,” which means that the authors
have reasons to believe the species should
be recognized as a new species and get a
formal ICZN-compliant description. As
expected, the number of such potentially
recognizable taxa is extremely variable
and ranges from fish known and generally
agreed to be unique for many years to
forms whose proponents cannot say
exactly how they differ from others of
their current species. This number of
potential species changes regularly.
In the Cichlid Room Companion, we
recognize such potential new species when
they are given a temporary diagnosis (an
enumeration of traits that make the form
different from valid species) and there is a
publication of the form’s temporary name
(often in quotation marks). Under this
system, we list 673 undescribed species,
which would potentially raise the number
of cichlid species to 2,374. With this large
number of undescribed species, however, I
am very cautious to offer a range of error.
The many different forms from Lake Malawi
and Lake Victoria are the champions in the
tally for such potential species.
For some of the potential species, the
decision of whether to describe them
is complex and requires a previous
knowledge of their distribution and
variability, possibly with a comparison
of their DNA, before a decision can be
reached. Take, for example, the so-called
Honduran red-point cichlid, a variant of
the convict cichlid from Honduras. This
form was discovered by Rusty Wessel, and
there has been extensive discussion about
whether this species should be considered
a geographical variant of Amatitlania
nigrofasciata (the convict cichlid) or a valid
species unto itself. New field evidence
suggests that this fish occurs together with
the normal convict cichlid, and, in fact, the
two fishes form separate breeding pairs,
but some DNA information contradicts
this view, so more information is needed.
In recent times, we have seen an emerging
situation regarding the publication of new
species descriptions, as past synonymies
were mostly published by mistake.
Because of slow communication, limited
information on the specimens involved,
limited access to museum collections,
or some other problem, the same species
could be described twice, even by two
reputable authors. Nowadays, however,
though it’s likely that there are still some
new, previously unknown cichlid species
that are clearly unique, most of the different
cichlid forms already known.
New synonymies emerge from the
eagerness of authors to sometimes publish
descriptions of new species based on the
slightest differences between them. Such
descriptions often do nothing more than
confuse the general public, since people
often cannot discriminate between the
different species described, and sometimes
the authors can’t either, at least without
detailed analysis or knowledge of their
provenance. This is an unfortunate
situation, since by this overly exuberant
taxonomic splitting, the recognition of the
natural variability of a species is ignored,
and the authors of such descriptions skip
right to deeming it new.
An Ongoing Study
With this explanation of the vast
number of cichlid species, I hope I have
given you a clear overview of the problems
facing species recognition, as well as an
idea of how many valid cichlid species
are available. It is evident that taxonomic
work, by its nature, is never finished, but
the good news is that we will continually be
learning more about our beloved cichlids.
And, after all, species classification is a
human construct intended to facilitate
the study and understanding of biological
variability. Nature is not concerned with it
Barlow, George W. 2002. The Cichlid Fishes:
Nature’s Grand Experiment in Evolution.
Perseus Publishing. 352 pp.
Rícan, Oldrich & L. Piálek, K. Dragová & J.
Novák. 2016. “Diversity and evolution
of the Middle American cichlid fishes
(Teleostei: Cichlidae) with revised
classification.” Vertebrate Zoology. v.
66(no. 1), pp. 1–102. D
16 www.tfhmagazine.com Sep/Oct 2017
There are currently 10 described subspecies of Mayaheros urophthalmus, some of which may eventually
be considered synonyms of M. urophthalmus, while others may be elevated to species status.