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How Cichlids Get Named
by Marc Elieson

In this article I discuss the characteristics of cichlid fishes, how they are classifed, how a name is often chosen, and then a few pointers on how to pronounce these odd names.


Before we begin talking about how Cichlids get named, we need to first define what a Cichlid is. A Cichlid (pronounced "sick-lid") is a fish belonging to the family Cichlidae, which has over 85 genera and upwards of 1,500 different species. Cichlids are so numerous, in fact, that they constitute 5% of all vertebrate species! Crudely, Cichlids are characterized as freshwater, perchlike fishes that have a laterally flattened body, with spines in the dorsal and anal fins, have only a single nostril on each side, have a divided lateral line, and lack a subocular shelf. Cichlids belong to the perch order, Perciformes.

As already mentioned, all Cichlids are freshwater fish, and are found in many parts of the world. In the Americas, they are found from as far north as Central Texas and reach all the way south to Argentina. They are also found throughout the Rift Lakes of Africa, Lake Victoria, and the surrounding rivers, as well as parts of the Middle East. There are also Cichlids along the coast of India and on the islands of Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies.

While many beginner hobbyists may be more familiar with the New World Cichlids (e.g., Angelfish, Oscar, Jack Dempsey, Discus, Rams, etc.), the majority of Cichlids, however, live in the African Rift Lakes — Tanganyika and Malawi — and the rivers, swamps, and lakes of the Lake Victoria Basin.


Cichlids form a monophyletic group; in other words, they all descend from a single common ancestor. This common ancestor, it is believed, emigrated from the sea to the brackish waters of the land of Gondwana (the former southern supercontinent) before its breakup more than 150 million years ago. Over time, these brackish waters underwent an evolution of their own until they reached their current freshwater state. It was in these waters that this ancient salt-water predecessor evolved into the more than 1,500 different Cichlid species.

Pseudotropheus flavusCichlids have been highly successful, evolutionarily speaking, displaying great diversity in size, coloration, and ecology. The many Cichlid species have also developed especially unique and specialized behaviors, particularly with regards to feeding and breeding. For example, many Cichlids are active predators, while others eat plants or insects. And yet others eat the scales of other Cichlids, steal the eggs right out of mouthbrooding females’ mouths, or scrape algae off of rocks or comb it from off of plants.

These different feeding specializations, habitat preferences, and colorations (in addition to their internal and external physical characteristics) aid researchers in their efforts to categorize Cichlids into genera and species. Ultimately, however, Cichlids are classified according to their relationship with common ancestors (phylogenetics). This is by no means an easy task. "At present, however, we still understand very little of the phylogenetic relationships of these fishes, and so they are still classified more or less intuitively. . . . By some estimates, only half of all Malawi cichlid species [, for example,] have even been named and described, let alone understood in terms of phylogeny."1


The earliest scientific descriptions of African Cichlids came about from the work of the British ichthyologist C. Tate Regan in 1922, who divided the then known 84 species from Lake Malawi into 15 genera. Since that time, scientists have discovered and attempted to classify thousands of other Cichlids, erecting more genera as they have learned more about Cichlids’ ancestral relationships and morphological as well as ecological similarities and differences. This has left Cichlid taxonomy in a constant state of flux, and consequently, many previously classified fishes are given new names as they are placed within a new genus or given their own species classification – all resulting in a confusing array of Latin names. This brings me to my next point: names.

Carl von LinnéBeginning in the middle of the 18th Century, a Swedish scientist and physician by the name of Carl von Linné devised a universal system to classify all living beings: the Systema Naturae (or Nature’s System). In an effort to make his new system of classification universal, von Linné chose Latin as the language whereby subjects would be categorized. Latin was widely accepted as a language of the educated, the sciences, and history, even though it was a dead language. True to his own system, von Linné latinised his name to Linnaeus. This act was only a foreshadowing of what was yet to come: Many of the so-called “Latin” names really aren’t Latin, but rather are words or names that have been borrowed from other languages (primarily Greek). These borrowed words are then latinised by being given a Latin suffix. This hybridization of Latin and Greek (or English, or German, or any other language) to form genus and species names holds true to some extent within the family Cichlidae, just as it does for almost all categorized living creatures.


In the early days of cichlid discovery and naming, family differences often were not well understood, and resemblances of a newly discovered genus to a familiar old favorite (even in an unrelated family) were often used in constructing a name for the new one. Note this is still done. Take for example, the many genera that use –chromis as a suffix (e.g., Champsochromis, Labidochromis, Haplochromis, etc.). Often times -chromis is used in reference to the closely-related, salt-water damselfish (genus Chromis). Other scientists, attempting to give names more practical meaning however, have employed the use of –chromis, without intending reference to the damselfish but rather because of the Greek root’s meaning: "color" or "colorful."

This was certainly the case for the genus Haplochromis, which means simple-color or single-color. Many of the early Haplochromines exported from Lake Malawi prior to 1970 were the large, monochromatic predators. Not to mention that taxonomists classifying these fish were looking at months- or years-dead, preserved and faded specimens. Dimidiochromis also, has been so named for the single horizontal line that bisects its flank.

In addition to chromis, another Latin root we find used a lot to describe the various Cichlid genera is tropheus, which means "feeding." To my knowledge, all –tropheus compounds have been named in reference, either directly or indirectly, to the Lake Tangayika genus Tropheus. Tropheus species were named such because their specialized teeth were such an obvious feeding adaptation. Then came the Malawi genus Pseudotropheus (meaning false tropheus), who looks a lot like Tropheus, but hales from a different lake. Later, Labeotropheus was classified and named accordingly because its appearance was somewhat of a combination of Tropheus and a Labeo minnow.

Iodotropheus sprengeraeAnother tropheus compound was erected in 1972, Iodotropheus. In this instance, Oliver and Loiselle were not really trying to compare the "Rusty Cichlid" to Tropheus itself, but just to underscore its similarity to the other Malwi –troheus genera, which were now an established stem in their own right. Furthermore, Iodo-, from the Greek root "iodes," as in iodine, can mean both the color of iron rust and a lavender color; Rusties have both colors.2

While genus names tend to be thoughtfully given, this is not always the case for the naming of species. Species can be named for any number of things, including the discoverer, a friend of the discoverer, a specific trait unique to the fish, or its location within the lake. Let’s look at some examples.

Aulonocara baenschi was named for Dr. Ulrich Baensch, founder of TetraWerke, the German fish-food and aquarium products company; Pseudotropheus demasoni was named for Laif DeMason, the well-known fish importer; Labeotropheus trewavasae was named for Ethelwynn Trewavas, who made incredible contributions to our understanding of Lake Malawi Cichlids during the long interval from 1931 through the 1980’s. And then there is Nimbochromis livingstonii:

On more than one occasion I have heard it stated that N. livingstonii was named for its unique hunting technique. When hungry, this fish will sink to the bottom of the lake, particularly the rocky areas, where it lies motionless on its side. Small, unsuspecting fish are drawn to it, thinking they’ll find a quick snack from a dead fish, only to discover that they have become the "quick snack." No, N. livingstonii does not mean "living stone," even though it plays dead among the rocky areas of Lake Malawi. Instead, N. livinstonii was named after its discoverer, Dr. Livingston.

Somewhat of a confusing name (for paradoxical reasons) is that of the "Electric Yellow." This morph that is so popular today was only recently discovered (about 15 years ago).

The species L. caeruleus was first identified in 1956, however, by Fryer. He described this fish as normally being white, with a black stripe through the dorsal fin, which would become a pale blue cast in breeding males. In fact, this species was named caeruleus (meaning "blue" in Latin) for this very reason. It seems possible that the "Electric Yellow" is just a locally occurring xanthic color variant of L. caeruleus, belonging to Mbowe Island and Lion's Cove. It also seems likely that it may receive it's own species classification, distinct from the more abundant blue and white colored variants.

In addition to naming species for someone or for a trait particular to that fish, there are numerous color morphs in each genus, and although some are more closely related than others, many have not been formally described, and it remains to be determined whether they are different only in their coloration or actually a separate species. These different color morphs are usually named after the place they were first collected (e.g., Lions Cove, Likoma Island, Otter Point, Nkhata Bay, etc.). This is the case for Labidochromis sp. "Hongi Island" and Cynotilapia sp. "Mbamba."

A couple of points should also be made, which without clarification, might make matters undecipherable. In naming Cichlids, if some question exists as to the identity of a particular species, the designation "cf." is used before the species name. This indicates that it is either closely related to should be compared with the Cichlid in question. Any genus name with quotes indicates that the species will likely be placed into a newly erected genus upon further scientific analysis.


Now on to perhaps the most practical portion of this already lengthy article: how does one go about pronouncing these names? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s start with suffixes first. The two most common endings are –ae and –i (or –ii). When a fish is named for a female, the ending –ae is given, whereas if the fish is named for a male, then the ending –i (or –ii) is given. –ae is pronounced "ee," whereas "-i" is pronounced "eye." The next thing to do if the fish has been named for a person is to learn how to pronounce the person’s name in its original language and then add the Latin suffix. So, for example, jacobfreibergi would be pronounced "yacob-fryberg-eye," demasoni would be pronounced "dee-mason-eye," and saulosi "sau-lôs-eye." □

1. Oliver, M.K.  How are Malawi Cichlids Classified?

2. Oliver, M.K., and P.V. Loiselle. 1972. A new genus and species of cichlid of the mbuna group (Pisces: Cichlidae) from Lake Malawi. Revue de Zoologie et de Botanique Africaines 85: 309-320.


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