Herichthys deppii (Heckel, 1840)
Rediscovering a Lost Species
self-proclaimed intrepid explorers
had collectively crossed the Rio Nautla
four times before opportunity and
motivation simultaneously appeared
and propelled us upstream. The previous
year, two photographs of a mystery
fish (Glaser et al., 1996, page 94)
had beckoned with an alluring temptation,
a siren call, but the constraints
of time and fatigue had prevented
their appeal from fulfillment. A year
later, after first traveling further
south, the realization that "its now
or never" awoke us from a fish collecting
stupor and propelled the car again
north towards the Rio Nautla.
Arriving at the river, we decided
to avoid the toll by not crossing,
so in front of the bridge the two
rented Suburbans made a U-turn and
went west on the road that followed
the south bank of the Rio Nautla.
The scenery was semi-tropical, the
fields filled with sugar cane. After
20 minutes we came to a quaint town
with neatly kept streets and buildings
that appeared to be very old. It was
near here (N 20.10.747, W 96.49.579)
that we captured a Vieja sp. cf.
fenestratus "Rio Nautla", an unexpected
catch that extended the northern range
of this genus by fifty miles and over
a mountain range. The river here was
wide and dirty. Going into the water
to retrieve a snagged cast net, Jeff's
shirt was spotted with brown material
that did not easily wash out, probably
debris from a sugar cane processing
plant somewhere upstream. Unable to
capture more fish, we headed west.
A long and dusty gravel road finally
took us to a small stream. Throwing
the nets yielded Mexican mollies and
not much else. Some of us wanted to
turn around and give up. The night
before, we had driven to Veracruz
to partake in the celebration of Mardis
Gras. Those amongst us with the monster
reputations (and hangovers) found
that little sleep and the drone of
the gravel under the wheels was making
a case for a timid retreat home. We
protested, "Just ten more kilometers."
A rare vehicle coming the other way
informed us that the water where we
threw our nets was 'muy malo' (very
bad), but that a river was just ahead.
We drove on, none of us, all males,
able to accurately gauge inches, much
We passed through a small town, Posada
de la Reunion, and soon after came
to a larger stream, the Rio Chapa
Chapa (N 20.05.101, W 96.53.603).
The bridge showed damage of very high
water, the concrete guard rails having
been bent and washed away by the water,
currently some 10 feet below. Some
of us ran down to the water, momentarily
seeing some fish which looked rather
interesting. The steam had a moderate
flow, picking up speed where it narrowed,
but not enough to knock one over when
crossed at its most rapid point. We
caught a couple of the fish off a
sandy bank, but the majority came
from a deeper hole, where the debris
of civilization had also settled,
and came up regularly in the cast
net. We threw our nets for a couple
of hours, catching seven cichlids,
one of which jumped from the net to
the stream, resulting in a grand total
of six fish. But what fish was this?
Months later, after sending by email
a photograph to Juan Miguel Artigas
Azas, his response was, Herichthys
Searching the internet and the aquarium
literature at our disposal has yielded
many interesting facts about this
name, but not a crystal clear answer
as to whether this is that fish or
not. Actually, Herichthys deppii
as a species, has probably not changed
or moved much since its original description
as Heros deppii (Heckel, 1840)
by Johann J. Heckel way back in 1840
(Fishbase reference ID 2064). However,
subsequent to its original discovery
and description it has nearly disappeared
from the collective ichthyologic consciousness.
It never attained commercial demand
from the aquarium trade, and perhaps
for this reason has also been largely
ignored until recently in current
Central American cichlid literature.
Aqualog 3 (Glaser et al., 1996) is
the only publication in English that
even has a picture of the fish, and
although it is labeled as an undescribed
species, Herichthys sp. "Rio
Nautla", it played an important role
in our "rediscovering" H. deppii.
You can hardly blame the authors for
the confusion. We had to go back in
our literature to Seth Meek's "The
Fresh-Water Fishes of Mexico North
of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec" published
in 1904 to even find a reference to
H. deppii. Even in this work
we found no pictures to help in identification,
just an abbreviated morphological
Eventually our research led us "across
the pond" to German literature where
we were finally able to find additional
information and photographs. Pictures
were helpful in identification, but
since neither of us can read German,
at first we were limited in what information
we could gather. However, we were
fortunate to have met Mary Bailey
at this year's ACA convention. Aside
from being a renowned cichlid author
and speaker, Mary provides translations
from German to English. Her help was
invaluable in our research. Mary translated
Heckel's original 1840 description,
the most relevant part being:
present colour in alcohol is light
rust-brown, whitish on breast and
belly; on the posterior half of the
body, specifically between the anus
and the caudal fin, there are 6 darker
vertical stripes with even intervals
of the same width; there is an even
darker spot on the centre of the last
stripe. Each scale on the lower half
of the body bears a longitudinal streak
at its centre, all running in the
same direction, so that there appear
to be as many horizontal lines as
rows of scales. The fins are the colour
of the body, except that the base
of the soft dorsal and anal is whitish
and speckled with black between the
Heckel dedicated this beautiful species
to Ferdinand Deppe of Berlin, who
brought it back from his journey to
There are many challenges to working
with preserved specimens. One of the
most difficult is to account for the
changes in coloration that preserved
specimens undergo in comparison to
live fish. Another challenge to ichthyologists
of Heckel's day was that type specimens
were typically deposited in the museum
of the describer regardless of country
of origin. Many times ichthyologists
were working with the same fish but
they only had drawings of preserved
specimens to share with their international
colleagues. Understandably, that left
a lot of margin for human error. Aside
from those issues many facilities
of the day were so overwhelmed with
new specimens that they did not practice
fundamental organizational hygiene.
In other words they either lost, mislabeled,
or at times did not even correctly
preserve many of the type specimens
of newly discovered species of fish.
This helps to explain why the former
'Cichlasoma' genus is still
in a taxonomic state of disarray even
in the year 2002.
H. deppii appears as a valid
name (Kullander, 2001). Dr. Kullander
deppii is the oldest available
name in Herichthys (if it is
one), dating from 1840, and among
the earliest names for Central American
cichlids, so it cannot really be invalid.
I found it a good idea to use the
name in the sense of Stawikowski &
Werner (Stawikowski and Werner, 1998),
and it will appear as such in CLOFFSCA
(Checklist of the Freshwater Fishes
of South and Central America). The
final roundup of this issue will have
to be taken care of in due course,
but I see no drawback in using the
When the genus Heros was assigned
to South American fish, and all of
the Central American cichlids formerly
located within Heros were deposited
into the catchall Cichlasoma
genus, H. deppii was reclassified
as Cichlasoma deppii (Jordan
and Everman 1896). When Dr. Kullander
(Kullander, 1983) restricted Cichlasoma
to 12 South American species, with
Cichlasoma bimaculatum as the
type species, Heros deppii
(Heckel 1840) was placed into Herichthys.
H. deppii's new genus is defined
by the type specimen Herichthys
cyanoguttatus (Baird and Girard,
1854), commonly known as the Texas
Cichlid. That is how a fish species
can end up being described 14 years
before its genus' type species.
Ranier Stawikowski and Uwe Werner
have published two books on Central
American cichlids. In the first book
(Stawikowski and Werner, 1985), they
picture an undescribed species from
near the town of Nautla, and the same
fish in breeding dress below (page
116). In their second book (Stawikowski
and Werner, 1998), they provide many
details about H. deppii, and
Mary Bailey generously translated
the relevant text, paraphrased as
specimen is lost at the Vienna Natural
History Museum, and Heckel gave the
type locality simply as "Mexico".
In the Museum of Natural Science at
Humboldt University in Berlin, there
are eight cichlids catalogued as Heros
deppii. They were probably collected
in 1829, when Ferdinand Deppe, at
that time palace gardener at Sanssouci
(Potsdam), dispatched the specimens
to Europe from Misantla on the river
of the same name (Veracruz, Mexico).
He evidently donated the bulk of his
collection to the Berlin Museum, but
sold a few specimens to Vienna, where
Johann Jakob Heckel (1790-1857) did
the bulk of his work and the species
was described. However, the 8 fish
are apparently a mislabeled Paraneetroplus
nebuliferus, 3 Vieja cf. fenestratus
and four fish that based on shape
are presumed to be Herichthys.
The three cf. fenestratus may
be the basis for the confusion with
Heros montezuma, which may
be a junior synonym for Vieja fenestratus.
A reconstructed outline drawing of
the lost type specimen based on Heckel's
description and numerical data suggests
that it may have been a member of
the Rio Misantla species, and therefore
we provisionally identify that species
as Herichthys deppii. Heros
montezuma (Heckel 1840) might
be a junior synonym, but may be linked
to the Vieja types found in
the same collection.
Such confusion! But even more confusing,
not long after Heckel's description,
the name H. deppii was synonymized
with Tomocichla sieboldii (Kner
and Steindachner, 1864) and this (i.e.
deppii equals sieboldii)
has been carried into the modern literature
(Ufermann, et. al., 1987; Konings,
1989). However, T. sieboldii
was described from "New Granada",
the region that included Colombia,
Panama and most of Venezuela. It is
incredible that Kner and Steindachner
could lump the fish from Mexico, collected
by Deppe on the Rio Misantla, with
fish from Panama. These scientists
were not working in the dark, unaware
of each others efforts (see nmh-wien
website). Kner, a graduated physician,
worked for Heckel for three years,
but then left 1839 for 10 years in
Ukraine, eventually returning to Vienna
in 1849 to chair the Zoology department.
Heckel, not formally trained as a
scientist, died in 1857. Kner threw
out H. deppii as a species,
synonymizing it with T. sieboldii,
7 years later. Speculation: the subordination
to T. sieboldii may have been
due to mislabeling of museum specimens;
perhaps they were confused by the
appearance of the fish after being
preserved; maybe they performed just
a cursory examination of the material;
maybe there were other more personal
reasons for their actions. We may
never know the exact reason.
Heckel also described Heros montezuma
from the same area of Mexico. H.
montezuma (Heckel, 1840) was also
synonymized with T. sieboldii
by Kner. As noted by Stawikowski and
Werner, H. montezuma also may
be a valid name, and could refer to
any of the Vieja species we
found in several rivers going north
from Veracruz to Nautla. Whether these
fish are truly different from Vieja
fenestratus, only time and/or
DNA analysis will tell.
Heckel, who was not formally trained
in ichthyology, was still regarded
as one of the most respected ichthyologists
of his day. Much of his work is still
standing the test of time nearly 145
years after his death, a true testament
to the quality of his work. However,
the bulk of his work was with the
ichthyofauna of South rather than
Central America, so his comparisons
to the related but distant South American
genera Hoplarchus, Hypselecara
and Mesonauta are not as useful
as much of his other comparative analyses.
Perhaps if Heckel had had more Central
American species to work with, his
works may have been that much more
significant to our dilemma.
Meanwhile, back in Mexico we were
packing it up. The members of the
other vehicle voted to give Eric the
fish. It was a grand gesture, since
he was but one of the prime motivators
for finding the site. Perhaps his
fanaticism for swallowing stream water
(sterilized afterwards by liberal
doses of Mexico's finest) convinced
them that he was better mollified
than confronted. We slacked our thirst
in the village Posada de la Reunion.
They had an outdoor sports bar, with
two pool tables, a soccer game on
TV, a taco stand, and a cooler with
ice-cold beer (see Morfitt, 2001).
We spent many pesos and an hour or
two there before driving east and
then south, back to the hotel at Boca
A week later the fish were safely
at home. The H. deppii were
placed in a 55 gallon tank with a
bunch of highland swordtails (Xiphophorus
alvarezi). The smaller swordtails
didn't last very long, so the H.
deppii were moved into another
tank. There, after 8 weeks, they spawned
for the first time at about 3" TL.
Remarkably, there was initially little
color change in the brood caring fish,
compared to Herichthys carpintis
"Laguna de la Puerta", found farther
to the north, or especially compared
to the geographically closer Herichthys
sp. "Turquoise", which exhibit dramatic
color changes, turning from the normal
turquoise, to nearly completely white
and black markings. As the deppii
matured, their spawning colors changed
too. The deppii female eventually
gained the dark lower mask characteristic
of H. cyanoguttatus, but the
male got only a dusky chin. During
this time one of the deppii
was killed. The main pair was removed
and promptly spawned. The fry were
divided into 4 tanks. The fry are
fairly easy to raise. They accept
baby brine shrimp and other fine foods.
Like other Central American cichlid
fry, they need clean water. When overcrowded,
they can be prone to developing bloat,
which in fry is basically incurable,
so do not try to raise too many in
too small of a tank.
All five remaining adults were then
placed into a 100 gallon tank with
four Amphilophus rostratus,
a large male Thorichthys maculipinnis,
and a pair of Archocentrus
sp. "Honduran Red Points". The
dominant pair of deppii spawned
again but lost the fry the day after
they were free swimming. The large
T. maculipinnis was removed,
and things really changed. The pair
of deppii spawned again. A
pair of rostratus began to
come into their spawning coloration
with a blackening of the area under
their operculum and began to guard
a territory close by. The "Red
Points" spawned at the far end
of the tank. Then a second pair of
deppii took over the flower
pot formerly occupied by the maculipinnis
and laid eggs. By now the female deppii
had fairly normal Herichthys
breeding color, though she was not
solid black caudally, and in the tail
retained some stripes. The male only
turned black in the chin, his body
only showing the striped pattern,
though lighter than the female. Instead
of the fry being eaten right away,
the dominant pair of deppii
guarded the babies for a week. The
colors of the adults continued to
change, the unpaired fins having taken
on a rosy hue. With the pair currently
guarding a spawn of several hundred
fry, they appear very dusky, almost
gray, totally unlike their youthful
appearance, and totally unlike any
other Herichthys we have ever
So is this fish Herichthys deppii?
It is basically the same fish as pictured
in Stawikowski and Werner (1985) page
116, Stawikowski and Werner (1998)
page 333, Aqualog 3 (Glaser et al.,
1996) page 94, and probably the undescribed
"Cichlasoma sp." on page 189
in Konings (1989). Stawikowski and
Werner (1998) say that the reconstructed
line drawing of H. deppii,
based on Heckel's 1840 measurements,
matches the Herichthys types
found in the collection of Deppe in
the Berlin Museum. But most telling
is the original description by Heckel,
"Each scale on the lower half of the
body bears a longitudinal streak at
its centre, all running in the same
direction, so that there appear to
be as many horizontal lines as rows
of scales." This time, the pictures
speak for themselves.
Our research to "rediscover" this
new and yet very old species first
led us across the back country of
the East coast of Central Mexico.
Then, on a literary trail from the
United States to England, Sweden,
Germany, and Switzerland in our efforts
to verify that what we had actually
discovered was what we had originally
set out to find. The mixture of Herichthys,
Vieja, and Paraneetroplus
in the collections of Deppe suggest
that more surprises await future explorers.
We found a Vieja species with
Herichthys deppii in the Rio
Nautla, and further south in the Rio
Antigua, we found Vieja fenestratus
and Thorichthys maculipinnis,
but not Paraneetroplus, which
is, however, in Deppe's collection.
It is what we did not yet find that
will propel these self-proclaimed
intrepid explorers south again.
We would like to extend our thanks
to Mary Bailey, Sven Kullander, Michi
Tobler, and Juan Miguel Artigas Azas
for their gracious assistance in our
research. Also thanks to Rusty Wessel,
Dan Woodland, Joe Middleton, James
Maney, Steve Lundblad, Craig Morfitt,
Ian Tapp, Jeff Cardwell, Jason Barrett,
Randy Parnham, and Viral Surati for
being our companions.
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