Cichlidophiles: Two New Bandit Acaras from Venezuela

Author: Wayne S. Leibel

The genus Cichlasoma Swainson 1839 was restricted and redefined by ichthyologist Sven O. Kullander in his seminal 1983 monograph “A Revision of the South American Cichlid Genus Cichlasoma (Teleostei: Cichlidae)” as comprising the port cichlids, a group of at least 12 species, including both Aequidens portalegrensis (which became Cichlasoma portalegrense) and the type species of the genus (by historical precedence) Cichlasoma bimaculatum. Among other fallout from this action was the future fate of the genus Aequidens Eigenmann & Bray 1894, which like Cichlasoma before Kullander’s reanalysis (Cichlasoma, all with four or more hard anal fin rays) had become a catch-all for cichlids with three hard rays/spines in their anal fins.

The genus Aequidens was later restricted to acaras of the “tetramerus” group (Kullander 1986, “Cichlid Fishes of the Amazon River Drainage of Peru,” monograph), and the rest of the nominal Aequidens were orphaned pending reassignment to new genera, some of which Kullander did in a subsequent monograph (1986, see below).

What About Geayi?

One of these species, an unusual acara from the Guianas, presented cichlid systematists with a formidable challenge—where to put it? Aequidens geayi (usually pronounced “gay-eye”) was first described by Pellegrin 1902 as Acara geayi and promptly kicked into the genus Aequidens when Acara Heckel 1840 was sunk. The history of this fish in the hobby was to foreshadow systematic changes to come. I remember the first “Aequidens” geayi that were imported into the American hobby back in the late 1960s. I was sure I was looking at an eartheater of the genus Geophagus (broadly defined, but that’s another taxonomic story). In fact, they were being sold as Geophagus thayeri, an invalid species name that has been erroneously associated both with this fish and with the thread-finned acara Acarichthys heckelii.

The reason for geayi’s original inclusion in the genus Aequidens was simply that it had three hard anal fin rays and the fact that there was no discernible lobe on the first gill arch, a diagnostic of geophagine cichlids. Kullander (1983) was the first to formally suggest that Aequidens geayi should be removed from Aequidens and placed, instead, in the genus Acarichthys Muller & Troschel 1848 along with A. heckelii. For years thereafter, Aequidens geayi (Pellegrin 1902) was written about in the aquarium literature as Acarichthys geayi. While it does share some characteristics with A. heckelii, there are some differences that argue for placement in its own distinct genus.

A New Genus

For this and other reasons, Kullander and Nijssen (1989, “The Cichlids of Surinam,” monograph) erected the new genus Guianacara (“acara from the Guianas”) to house geayi and a small number of therein-described and yet-to-be-described species. Those described in the monograph in addition to geayi included oelemariensis, owroewefi, and sphenozona. Kullander and Nijssen also proposed again that species of the new genus Guianacara were more closely related to Acarichthys heckelii than to any Aequidens (broadly defined).

More recently, Kullander (1998) has described the two genera as sister taxa, which together form the tribe Acarichthyini, a distinct lineage within the neotropical subfamily Geophaginae. This has been generally confirmed by molecular evidence (i.e., DNA sequencing; Farias et al. 1998, LÓpez-FernÁndez et al. 2005).

One of the undescribed species mentioned in the Kullander & Nijssen (1989) monograph was a Guianacara from Venezuela. In a recent article by HernÁn LÓpez-FernÁndez, Donald Taphorn, and Sven O. Kullander (“Two New Species of Guianacara from the Guiana Shield of Eastern Venezuela,” Copeia 2006, No. 3:384–395) this species, along with a second from Venezuela, finally gets a name and formal description. And it would seem there are still more out there yet to be described.

Species in the Trade

Before I get to the descriptions and diagnoses, let me say something about the “geayoids,” or, better, “bandit acaras,” as aquarium fish. They are sometimes referred to as bandit acaras or bandit cichlids for the dark vertical bar passing from the nape down through the eye to the bottom of the gill cover (supra and infra orbital bars), much like a bandit’s mask, though usually they are sold as simply “geayi.” The fish in the hobby we have called and continue to call “geayi” is most likely G. sphenozona for reasons of geographic distribution.

The true Guianacara geayi hails from French Guiana, a region not usually collected commercially. It is replaced in the west (Surinam and Guyana) by G. sphenozona, and, given the very restricted distributions of G. oelemariensis and G. owroewefi in Surinam, G. sphenozona from Guyana is probably the hobby “geayi.” (Although, in recent times, several American and European aquarists have collected in Surinam and returned these other Guianacara species, which have had limited distribution through principally non-commercial hobby channels.)

Another increasingly frequent importation over the past decade has been the aforementioned undescribed Guianacara from Venezuela, which has been written about and sold as G. sp. “Venezuela” or G. sp. “red cheek,” and which indeed does have a bright red-orange spot on each of its “cheeks.” This fish may or may not have an official scientific name now. All the Guianacara species are very much alike in appearance and are discriminated chiefly by the extent and size of the midlateral bar and midlateral spot—a rectangular or round black spot on a duller wedge-shaped vertical bar of varying thicknesses—in the different species. The base coloration of yellowish/pinkish green or beige is overlain with rows of iridescent gold scales in some of the species and the vertical fins are lightly spotted.

Aquarium Care

The husbandry of all forms of Guianacara species in the aquarium is identical. According to LÓpez-FernÁndez et al. (2006), all known species prefer clear, soft, and slightly acidic waters with a substrate of large rocks intermixed with sandy patches often at sites with relatively fast current in the wild, so they should be housed accordingly in the aquarium. Their requirements in the aquarium are few, and they can hold their own in a mixed rowdy medium-sized cichlid community tank. I have seen large bull males of G. sphenozona reach lengths of over 6 inches (with a large blocky head), but they will spawn at 3 inches. Females are typically two-thirds or less the size of males.

I am unaware of published spawning observations in the wild, but in the aquarium these fish are cave-spawners. And the best cave for them? An inverted clay flowerpot where the bottom has been carefully knocked out or nibbled away with a ball-peen hammer! The trick is to choose a pot with an altered bottom that will permit the female easy access, but keep out fish larger than her, including—in cases of particularly belligerent males—the male. This so-called “hidey hole” method is one that has been used successfully for several cave-spawning fishes where there is sexual size dimorphism.

The female will remove the sand from the bottom of the inverted pot and, when she is ready, actively court the male. She will lay her eggs on the vertical surfaces of the pot and the male will fertilize them, either directly if he can enter the pot, or indirectly, spraying milt in from the opening above. Actually, most pairs are quite compatible, so make the opening large enough for both once compatibility has been established. For more information on aquarium husbandry and photos of live aquarium specimens I direct you to Weidner’s excellent book South American Eartheaters (2000, Cichlid Press).

Distinguishing the Species

The two new species described by LÓpez-FernÁndez et al. (2006) are G. stergiosi and G. cuyunii, and these, like the other four previously described species, are separated from each other principally by unambiguous differences in color pattern involving three key elements: the midlateral bar, the midlateral spot, and the coloring of the membranes of the anterior-most hard rays of the dorsal fin. The authors’ note: “Even though color pattern and anatomy are conserved, subtle color differences are unambiguously stable within species and provide reliable characters for species diagnosis.” (Lucky for us aquarists!)

The midlateral spot is the darkest area of the midlateral bar (the characteristic vertical saddle marking), which can be located at a variety of positions with respect to the upper lateral line. Juveniles of all species (except G. oelemariensis) have a uniformly dark midlateral bar without a spot. But as the fish mature, the bar lightens and a dark spot appears. Its position on the bar with reference to the lateral line is variable; some species have the bar and spot, some just the bar, and some just the spot as adults. These patterns are species-specific and consistently so. In fact, the authors offer—along with a verbal key to all six species—a diagrammatic representation of these distinguishing melanic colorations.

Guianacara stergiosi

Guianacara stergiosi is known from the Rio Caroni, Venezuela (the Venezuelan portion of the Guiana Shield). It was named to honor Dr. Basil Stergios, a botanist whose expeditions into remote regions of southern Venezuela has yielded several undescribed species of fishes. Guianacara stergiosi has both a midlateral bar and spot, but is distinguished from all other Guianacara species by having its round midlateral spot placed almost entirely below the upper lateral line (the other species have an oval-shaped spot, on or above lateral line) in adults (the bar fades and the spot darkens). In addition, this species expresses dark anterior dorsal fin lappets at all sizes (this is lost in G. geayi adults). In the aquarium hobby, this species has been (and is still) known as G. sp. “Caroni.”

The aforementioned Guianacara sp. “red cheek” (or in Europe, sometimes called sp. “Rio Aro”), with its conspicuous patches of red color on the opercle and subopercle, is distinguishable from nominal G. stergiosi only by these red patches. Guianacara sp. “red cheek” occurs within the area of distribution of G. stergiosi and has a midlateral spot placed almost entirely below the upper lateral line as is diagnostic for G. stergiosi. The authors write: “whether the red cheek form from the Aro River represents an unrecognized form diagnosable from G. stergiosi remains a possibility that will require further study.” So, we may be looking at another new species, or simply a geographic variant of G. stergiosi. Guianacara sp. “red cheek” has been around for awhile and is now commonly available in the American cichlid hobby.

Guianacara cuyunii

The second new species, Guianacara cuyunii, is known only from the upper Cuyuni River drainage in Venezuela and is named for the river, a tributary of the Essequibo River, where the type material was collected. Adults have a uniformly dark midlateral bar with no midlateral spot, and the midlateral bar is thinner than that of G. stergiosi, geayi, and sphenozona, being three scales at its widest point, thinning to two scales (versus four down to three scales in the others). Adults retain the black coloration in the membrane of the anterior three dorsal spines which is lost in G. sphenozona and G. geayi. The authors write: “Observations of material collected in the Essequibo drainage in Guyana suggest that tributaries of the Essequibo other than the Cuyuni may harbor yet another undescribed species of Guianacara distinct from cuyunii.” In addition, while all of the currently described species are restricted to the eastern portion of the Guiana Shield (geological highlands) in French Guiana and Surinam, they note the occurrence of yet more undescribed forms in the Branco and Trombetas river drainages in Northeastern Brazil.

The Key

Here is a brief verbal key that summarizes the diagrammatic key LÓpez-FernÁndez et al. provide in their paper (i.e., simple drawings of the species with diagnostic black markings). The diagnostic characters in adult fish involved are: the midlateral band, the midlateral spot, and the presence or absence of dark membranes on the first three or four anterior rays of the spiny dorsal fin.

In synopsis:

geayi: wide bar only, no spot, no black on dorsal fin lappets

cuyunii: thin bar, no spot, black on dorsal fin lappets

oelemariensis: no bar, spot only below lateral line, black dorsal fin lappets

owroewefi: wide bar, spot on and below lateral line, black dorsal fin lappets

sphenozona: bar, spot above lateral line, bar, no black on dorsal fin lappets

stergiosi: thin bar, spot below lateral line, black on dorsal fin lappets

Keeping any of the Guianacara species is a rewarding experience, and the ones you are most likely to encounter in the trade are G. sphenozona and G. sp. “red cheek.” They are worth seeking out for the cichlid aquarium.