Mayan Cichlid

Mayan Cichlid, Cichlasoma urophthalmus

The Mayan Cichlid, Cichlasoma urophthalmus, whose common Spanish name is mojarra del sureste, is a species in the Cichlid and Tilapia or Cichilidae Family, known collectively as tilapias and mojarras de agua dulce in Mexico. This fish is also known as the Mexican Mojarra in the United States and as the mojarra castarrica in Mexico. Globally, there are thirty-nine species in the genus Cichlasoma, five of which are found in the freshwater systems of Mexico.

The Mayan Cichlids have oval compressed bodies that are similar in shape to elongated bluegills. They have a yellow to olive-brown body with five to seven distinct vertical green-black bars and a prominent black ocellus surrounded by a blue ring at the base of their caudal fin. The colors are more intense in breeding fish and fish caught in the wild. They have minimal sexual dimorphism (males are slightly larger than females) and dichromatism (males and females have similar colors). They have small eyes located high on their head and a small slightly protrusible terminal mouth with three rows of teeth on both their upper and lower jaws. The anal fin has 6 or 7 spines with 6 to 10 rays; the caudal fin is rounded; the dorsal fin has 15 to 17 spines and 10 to 12 rays; and the pelvic fins are posterior to the pectoral fins. They have 9 to 11 flat short gill rakers and are covered with scales.

The Mayan Cichlids are coastal residents found in lakes, rivers, rocky shorelines, lagoons, estuaries, coastal islands, mangrove swamps, and turtle grass flats in both fresh and brackish waters. They reach a maximum length of 39 cm (15 inches) but are more common between 25 cm (10 inches) and 28 cm (11 inches) and 1.1 kg (2.4 pounds) in weight. They prefer oxygen-rich waters in and around submerged vegetation and over muddy bottoms. They are capable of surviving extreme hypoxia (low levels of blood oxygen) and are euryhaline exhibiting a tolerance and affinity for brackish to marine conditions, including the ability to reproduce in waters with salinity from 0 to 40 ppt. They cannot survive in waters that are below 14oC (57oF) and are found in waters between 18oC (64oF) and 34oC (93oF) in the wild. They are philopatric, site-tenacious, and non-migratory with a limited home range. They are native to and found in all fresh water systems of the Atlantic slopes of Mexico. They are omnivores that feed predominantly on small fish but supplement their diet with algae, crustaceans, detritus, gastropods, aquatic insects, and wading birds. They are monogamous substrate-spawners that become highly territorial and very aggressive when breeding. They spawn continually, with several broods per year, when water temperatures are above 24oC (75oF). Adhesive eggs number 100 to 600 per brood and are cared for by both parents with great diligence for up to six weeks. The hatched eggs immediately relocate to the bottom and attach themselves to plant materials for about a week before becoming free swimming. They have a lifespan of up to seven years in the wild and up to eleven years in captivity.

In Mexican waters the Mayan Cichlid is found within all of the freshwater drainage systems of the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico including the Yucatan peninsula. Non-indigenous populations of Mayan Cichlids were first report in southern Florida in 1983 where they are now well-established and spreading rapidly northward. These introductions are believed to have originated via aquarium releases or fish farm escapes. As they are voracious predators they have the potential of becoming one of the most damaging introduced cichlids in the United States.

The Mayan Cichlid is easily confused with the Red Terror Cichlid, Cichlasoma festae (larger; shorter snout; bulging forehead; longer trailing anal and dorsal fins; nine dark bands on sides).

The Mayan Cichlids are targeted by artisanal fishermen for food and by recreational fishermen for their aggressiveness and strength when hooked. Some recreational anglers consider them pests. They are also raised in aquaculture facilities in Mexico primarily for food. Due to their beautiful colors and patterns and their complex behavioral patterns, this species is also used in the aquarium trade, however, they are only suitable for aquariums that hold at least 55 gallons and require special handling and high maintenance, due to their large size and very aggressive behavior.

Mayan Cichlid, Cichlasoma urophthalmus. Fish caught out of a garden pond within the Grand Mayan Riviera Maya property, Cancun, Quintana Roo, April 2012. Length: 15 cm (5.9 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of George Brinkman, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Mayan Cichlid, Cichlasoma urophthalmus. Fish caught from coastal water off Cancun, Quintana Roo, January 2016. Length: 16 cm (6.3 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Nick Morenc, Mission Viejo, California.

Mayan Cichlid, Cichlasoma urophthalmus. Fish caught in Tamiami Canal within the Big Cypress National Reserve in South Florida, December 2013. Length: 23 cm (9.0 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Kenneth Tse, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.