Those Muddied Florida Peacock Bass!

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uconn fishhead
uconn fishhead's picture
Those Muddied Florida Peacock Bass!

I decided to investigate the controversy around fishfunkk’s Peacock Bass (pictured below) - i.e. whether it is a Butterfly Peacock (Cichla ocellaris) or a Popoca Peacock (C. monoculus) –  so I emailed the guys who (literally) ‘wrote the book’ (Fishes in the Freshwaters of Florida):  Rob Robbins (main author) and Larry Page (curator fish collection Florida Museum of Nat. History).  Both responded.  The exact words of their pertinent responses are included below. I will present a synopsis…


Bottom line is that Kenman and Alex 05 are both correct - both Butterflys and Popocas have likely been stocked in Florida as well as possibly hybrids between the two.  But the real story is much messier than we (at least I) thought.



Part of the problem stems from the genus Cichla being recently reclassified (Kullander and Ferreira 2006, complete reference is below somewhere) which includes descriptions of 9 new species.  The following website covers most of Kullanders ID criteria pretty well:


The biggest problem is that the key in this new paper is based primarily on color patterns which are typically variable within any fish species, but seem to be extremely so in Peacocks (just peruse the photos of Butterfly Peacocks on Roughfish).  Both Rob and Larry are very critical of the new key and feel that Florida Peacocks especially cannot be reliably identified without genetic analysis because:

1. Florida Peacocks are the result of various introductions from different stocks and could be extensively hybridized.
2. Because they’re introduced, the all-important watershed/location information necessary for positive ID within their natural range cannot be applied.
3. When fish get stressed by capture, they often lose color which obscures external patterns.


Because they don’t feel any Peacocks in Florida can be reliably ID’d, Robins and Page lumped all specimens observed under C. occellaris (Butterfly Peacock) in the Fishes of Florida book because this is the ‘type species’ for the Genus.


Based on the above, I recommend that (while discussion on appearance of these animals is interesting) on Roughfish we should also  just lump all Florida Peacocks under C. ocellaris.  The single C. monoculus entry on Roughfish is probably OK because it was caught in Peru (and I assume was properly researched).


Of final interesting note is that Rob Robbins feels that “…a half-dozen or so other introduced species in Florida including Hemichromis (Jewel Cichlids), Clarias (Walking Catfish), some of the tilapiines (Tilapia)....and more...”  also cannot be reliably identified assumedly due to uncertain origins/genetics.



Rob and Larry’s emails:

Hi Bob,
Thanks for this e-mail. I'm somewhat familiar with the confusion concerning the identification of Cichla, though the fellows copied likely have more or better information to add to the following.

Your fish does look typical for what we find in Florida and seems to partly meet the diagnosis for C. monoculus -- at least as pertains to color pattern and as given by Kullander (2006).

Two features of C. monoculus it appears to lack are a large or distinct occipital bar -- this fish has some pigment in the occipital region, but not a bar -- and lateral bars tapering ventrad (though arguably, this is true of the anterior most bar of your fish).

In the "it doesn't seem to be C. ocellaris" camp, your fish seems to lack bars 1a and 2a of Kullander -- a key diagnostic feature of C. ocellaris. Of course, this could be condition factor, though the same could be said of the lack of a occipital bar required for monoculus.

That this fish looks typical of what I think of as peacock bass in Florida tells me I've drank the "condition factor" or "stress of capture" kool-aid for some time (i.e., external factors affect coloration or pattern).

Of long-standing confusion to me is the business of a continuous lateral line, said to be common in ocellaris (and three other species). I have NEVER seen such a thing in Cichla from Florida.

C. monoculus is one of five species in which a continuous lateral line has not been observed.

Kullander looked at n=26 C. ocellaris and thirty something C. monoculus. I am not clear as to how many of these were adults -- on the average, the fish he used were quite small (180 mm for C. ocellaris and 200.5 mm for C. monoculus). The whole thing stands to be revisited. Jim may tell you that the FWC, in introducing the fish may have used hybrid stocks. Certainly it appears the founding stock were of uncertain provenience.

How's that for a confusing answer?

Best wishes,
Rob Robbins
Bob, et al., I am going to be more confusing (or at least less helpful) than Rob.  As you no doubt know, Kullander published a revision of the genus Cichla in 2006 (reference below).  Many fish taxonomists have tried to id specimens using the keys and descriptions in that publication, but doing so is very difficult -- especially if you are working with specimens that are outside the natural ranges of the species, and you can't use locality to help in the id.  in my opinion, Kullander's diagnoses are very poor.  In addition, it seems that Cichla has been introduced more than once in Florida, possibly from different sources and therefore possibly involving different species, which may have hybridized to point where you can no longer confidently assign the Florida specimens to any species.

Kullander, S. O. and E. J. G. Ferreira  2006  A review of the South American cichlid genus Cichla, with descriptions of nine new species (Teleostei: Cichlidae). Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters v. 17 (no. 4): 289-398.

I think the only way to identify the Florida fish(es) would be to compare specimens genetically to relevant populations in South America, and no one has the samples to do that.  Why did we (and earlier colleagues) choose Cichla ocellaris?  It is the type species for the genus.  If some of the species names disappear with subsequent study, which would not surprise me, Cichla ocellaris is the only name that is sure to remain available.  Larry Page
I'm in agreement with Larry's statement: "...the only way to identify the Florida fish(es) would be to compare specimens genetically to relevant populations in South America..."
Such comparisons to native populations are needed for a half-dozen or so other introduced species in Florida including Hemichromis (Jewel Cichlids), Clarias (Walking Catfish), some of the tilapiines (Tilapia)....and more... Rob Robbins


BradleyR's picture
Thanks for looking into that

Thanks for looking into that for us, it really does seem like a complicated situation lol

uconn fishhead
uconn fishhead's picture
Forgot to Mention...

I forgot to say that Rob Robbins said they used Roughfish in their research for the Florida Fishes book.  They wanted to know what "people were catching"  i.e. to make sure that didn't miss anything.   I'd say it's kudos to Roughfish for being such a credible resource!

Outdoors4life's picture

That is cool that they used roughfish as a source. 
Corey and Andy have worked to keep everything credible and not add things to make people feel good such as hybrids.

It is all perspective!

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andy's picture
Thanks for the research!

Interesting stuff for sure.

Alex 05
Alex 05's picture
Thanks for the info!

Thanks for shedding light onto this subject, as you stated it is difficult to identify most Florida peacocks with true confidence because often times these two species do hybridize. Some peacocks in Florida have an interesting speckeled pattern but aren’t Cichla Temensis

Alex 05

Kenman's picture

I do aggree with all this, many of the exotics are mixed and stuff, these peacocks are very confusing, and there are two entries of C. Mono, one being the one in peru which is probably a pure mono because thats where its from and the second being under Popoca peacock bass caught in pompano beach FL(probably one of hybrids), for some reason rough fish considered popoca and mono as different with same scientific name. Anyways, these peacocks are very mixed and probably safe to call them butterfly, but if you do catch a “popoca” peacock in florida, you can put it under the strains, mutations, hybrids instead of a new species, i mean thats what they are.