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Temporal range: Early Cretaceous–Recent
Schmucksalmler (1).jpg
Hyphessobrycon bentosi
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
(unranked): Otophysi
Order: Characiformes
Regan, 1911
Type species
Charax gibbosus

Characiformes /ˈkærəsɪfɔːrmz/ is an order of ray-finned fish, comprising the characins and their allies. Grouped in 18 recognized families, more than 2000 different species are described, including the well-known piranha and tetras. [1]



The Characiformes form part of a series called the Otophysi within the superorder Ostariophysi. The Otophysi contain three other orders, Cypriniformes, Siluriformes, and Gymnotiformes. [1] The Characiformes form a group known as the Characiphysi with the Siluriformes and Gymnotiformes. [2] The order Characiformes is the sister group to the orders Siluriformes and Gymnotiformes, though this has been debated in light of recent molecular evidence. [1]

Originally, the characins were all grouped within a single family, the Characidae. Since then, and also 18 different families have been separated out. However, classification varies somewhat, and the most recent (2011) study confirms the circumscribed Characidae as monophyletic. [3] Currently, 18 families, about 270 genera, and at least 1674 species are known. [3] The suborder Citharinoidei, which contains the families Distichodontidae and Citharinidae, is considered the sister group to the rest of the characins, suborder Characoidei. [2]


The oldest characiform is Santanichthys of the early Cretaceous (Albian stage) of Brazil. While all extant species are of fresh water, this species was probably either brackish or marine. Many other fossils are also known. [1] The Characiformes likely first diversified during the Cretaceous period, though fossils are poorly known. [1] During the Cretaceous period, the rift between South America and Africa would be forming; this may explain the contrast in diversity between the two continents. Their low diversity in Africa may explain why some primitive fish families and the Cypriniformes coexist with them while they are absent in South America, where these fish may have been driven extinct. [2] The characiforms had not spread into Africa soon enough to also reach the land bridge between Africa and Asia. [2] The earliest they could have spread into Central America was the late Miocene. [2]


Below is a phylogeny of living Characiformes based on Betancur-Rodriguez et al. 2017 [4] and Nelson, Grande & Wilson 2016. [5]


Distichodontidae Günther 1864 Distichodus maculatus.jpg

Citharinidae Günther 1864 Citharinus citharus.jpg


Crenuchidae Günther 1864 sensu Froese & Pauly 2001


Hepsetidae Hubbs 1939 Hepsetus odoe.jpg

Alestiidae Cockerell 1910 Hydrocynus vittatus The fishes of the Nile (Pl. XVII) (6961607491).jpg


Tarumaniidae de Pinna et al. 2017

Erythrinidae Valenciennes 1847 Hoplias malabaricus2.jpg

Serrasalmidae Bleeker 1859 F de Castelnau-poissonsPl37 (Serrasalmus humeralis).jpg

Cynodontidae Eigenmann 1903 Hydrolycus scomberoides.jpg

Hemiodontidae Bleeker 1859 Hemiodus amazonum.jpg

Parodontidae Eigenmann 1910

Prochilodontidae Eigenmann 1909 Prochilodus lineatus d'Orbigny.jpg

Chilodontidae Eigenmann 1903

Curimatidae Gill 1858 Potamorhina latior (white background).jpg

Anostomidae Günther 1864 sensu Nelson 1994 Leporinus fasciatus2.jpg


Ctenoluciidae Schultz 1944

Lebiasinidae Gill 1889

Chalceidae Fowler 1958

Iguanodectidae Eigenmann 1909

Acestrorhynchidae Eigenmann 1912

Triportheidae Fowler 1940 Triportheus angulatus (white background).jpg

Bryconidae Eigenmann 1912 Brycon amazonicus de Castelnau.jpg

Gasteropelecidae Bleeker 1859 Salminus hilarii Castelnau.jpg

Characidae Latreille 1825 sensu Buckup 1998 Exodon paradoxus Castelnau.jpg


Characins possess a Weberian apparatus, a series of bony parts connecting the swim bladder and inner ear. [1] Superficially, the Characiformes somewhat resemble their relatives of the order Cypriniformes, but have a small, fleshy adipose fin between the dorsal fin and tail. Most species have teeth within the mouth, since they are often carnivorous. The body is almost always covered in well-defined scales. The mouth is also usually not truly protractile. [6]

The largest characins are Hydrocynus goliath and Salminus franciscanus and Hoplias aimara , [7] both of which are up to 1.2 m (3.9 ft). The smallest in size is about 1.7 cm (0.67 in) in the Bolivian pygmy blue characin, Xenurobrycon polyancistrus . [8] Many members are under 3 cm (1.2 in). [1]

Distribution and habitat

Characins are most diverse in the Neotropics, where they are found in lakes and rivers throughout most of South and Central America. The red-bellied piranha, a member of the family Serrasalmidae within the Characiformes, is endemic to the Neotropical realm. At least 209 species of characins are found in Africa, including the distichodontids, citharinids, alestiids, and hepsetids. The rest of the characins originate from the Americas. [1]

Relationship to humans

A few characins become quite large, and are important as food or game. [1] Most, however, are small shoaling fish. Many species known as tetras are popular in aquaria due to their bright colors, general hardiness, and tolerance towards other fish in community tanks. [1]

Related Research Articles

Characidae Family of fishes

Characidae, the characids or characins is a family of freshwater subtropical and tropical fish, belonging to the order Characiformes. The name "characins" is the historical one, but scientists today tend to prefer "characids" to reflect their status as a by and large monophyletic group at family rank. To arrive there, this family has undergone much systematic and taxonomic change. Among those fishes that remain in the Characidae for the time being are the tetras, comprising the very similar genera Hemigrammus and Hyphessobrycon, as well as a few related forms such as the cave and neon tetras. Fish of this family are important as food and also include popular aquarium fish species.

Cypriniformes Order of fishes

Cypriniformes is an order of ray-finned fish, including the carps, minnows, loaches, and relatives. Cypriniformes is an Order within the Superorder Ostariophysi consisting of "Carp-like" Ostariophysins. This order contains 11-12 families, although some authorities have designated as many as 23, over 400 genera, and more than 4,250 species, with new species being described every few months or so, and new genera being recognized frequently. They are most diverse in southeastern Asia, and are entirely absent from Australia and South America. At 112 years old, the longest-lived cypriniform fish documented is the bigmouth buffalo.

Gymnotiformes Order of fishes

The Gymnotiformes are an order of teleost bony fishes commonly known as Neotropical knifefish or South American knifefish. They have long bodies and swim using undulations of their elongated anal fin. Found almost exclusively in fresh water, these mostly nocturnal fish are capable of producing electric fields to detect prey, for navigation, communication, and, in the case of the electric eel, attack and defense. A few species are familiar to the aquarium trade, such as the black ghost knifefish, the glass knifefish, and the banded knifefish.

Black tetra Species of fish

The black tetra, also known as the black skirt tetra, petticoat tetra, high-fin black skirt tetra, black widow tetra and blackamoor, is a freshwater fish of the characin family (Characidae). It is native to the Paraguay River basin of south-central Brazil, Paraguay and northeast Argentina, but there are also populations in the upper Paraná and Paraíba do Sul Rivers that likely were introduced. It was formerly reported from the Guapore River, but this population is part of G. flaviolimai, which is found throughout the Madeira River basin and was described in 2015. The black tetra is often kept in aquariums.

Anostomidae Family of fishes

The Anostomidae are a family of ray-finned fishes that belong to the order Characiformes. Closely related to the Chilodontidae and formerly included with them, the Anostomidae contain about 150 described species. Commonly known as anostomids, they are found in freshwater habitats from the Río Atrato in northernmost South America to warm-temperate central Argentina; they are of Amazon origin, with few found west of the Andes. Their scientific name approximately means "mouth on top", from Ancient Greek áno- (ἄνω) "up" + stóma (στόμᾶ) "mouth", in reference to the arrangement of these fishes' mouth opening.

<i>Hyphessobrycon</i> Genus of fishes

Hyphessobrycon is a genus of freshwater fish in the family Characidae. These species are among the fishes known as tetras. The genus is distributed in the Neotropical realm from southern Mexico to Río de la Plata in Argentina. Many of these species are native to South America; about six species are from Central America and a single species, H. compressus is from southern Mexico.

Ostariophysi Superorder of fishes

Ostariophysi is the second-largest superorder of fish. Members of this superorder are called ostariophysians. This diverse group contains 10,758 species, about 28% of known fish species in the world and 68% of freshwater species, and are present on all continents except Antarctica. They have a number of common characteristics such as an alarm substance and a Weberian apparatus. Members of this group include fish important to people for food, sport, the aquarium industry, and research.

<i>Salminus brasiliensis</i> Species of fish

Salminus brasiliensis is a large, predatory characiform freshwater fish found in central and east-central South America. Despite having Salminus in its name, the dorado is not related to any species of salmon, nor to the saltwater fish also called dorado. It is very popular among recreational anglers and supports large commercial fisheries.

Flame tetra Species of fish

The flame tetra, also known as the red tetra or Rio tetra, is a small freshwater fish of the characin family Characidae. This tetra was first introduced as aquarium fish in 1920 by C. Bruening, Hamburg, Germany, and formally described in 1924 by Dr. George S. Myers. Today large numbers are bred in captivity and it is common in the aquarium trade, but the remaining wild population in Southeast Brazil is highly threatened.

<i>Bryconops</i> Genus of fishes

Bryconops is a genus of freshwater fish in the family Iguanodectidae from South America. Various species of tetra are amongst its ranks, and are sometimes seen in the aquarium trade.

Acrobrycon is a genus of characin found in tropical South America.

<i>Chalceus</i> Genus of fishes

Chalceus is a genus of fish that inhabits freshwater habitats in South America. Members can be found in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, as well as in the Guianas and various tributaries of the former. It is the sole representative of the family Chalceidae.

Clupeacharax anchoveoides is a species of characiform fish found in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. It is the only member of its genus.

Lignobrycon myersi is a species of characiform fish endemic to Brazil where it occurs in the Rio do Braço system. It is the only member of its genus.

<i>Triportheus</i> Genus of fishes

Triportheus is a genus of characiform fishes from South America, including Trinidad, ranging from the Rio de la Plata basin to the basins of the Orinoco and Magdalena. Some are migratory.

Otocephala Clade of ray-finned fishes

Otocephala is a clade of ray-finned fishes within the infraclass Teleostei that evolved some 230 million years ago. It is named for the presence of a hearing (otophysic) link from the swimbladder to the inner ear. Other names proposed for the group include Ostarioclupeomorpha and Otomorpha.

Iguanodectidae Family of fish

Iguanodectidae is a family of freshwater fish in the order Characiformes that lives in South America. It is home to the subfamily Iguanodectinae and the monotypic Bryconops clade. Several species in the family, such as the green line lizard tetra, the tailspot tetra, and the orangefin tetra, are sometimes taken as aquarium fish.

The orangefin tetra is a small species of freshwater fish from South America that belongs to the family Iguanodectidae. Though common in its native range, it seems to prefer fast-flowing and shallow creeks. It is an active swimmer that feeds on plant material and various invertebrates, sometimes jumping out of the water to catch prey above the surface.

<i>Bryconops alburnoides</i> Species of fish

Bryconops alburnoides is a small freshwater fish, approximately 6 inches long at its largest, that lives in the rivers of South America. It has a slender body, with a yellowish dorsal fin and yellow-tinged back scales that fade into silver on its belly. It is largely an insectivore that picks land-dwelling insects from the riverbanks, though it eats much more whenever rain washes prey into the water.

Tailspot tetra Species of fish

The tailspot tetra is a freshwater fish that lives in the coastal river regions of upper South America. Both its common and scientific names reference the distinct spot of color present on the tail fin, which is one of its defining characteristics. It is a small fish, reaching 4.8 in at its longest. Despite its small size, it is an active swimmer, with a preference for fast-flowing waters.


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  3. 1 2 Claudio Oliveira, Gleisy S Avelino, Kelly T Abe, Tatiane C Mariguela, Ricardo C Benine, Guillermo Ortí, Richard P Vari and Ricardo M Corrêa e Castro,"Phylogenetic relationships within the speciose family Characidae (Teleostei: Ostariophysi: Characiformes) based on multilocus analysis and extensive ingroup sampling", BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:275).
  4. Betancur-Rodriguez, Ricardo; Edward O. Wiley; Gloria Arratia; Arturo Acero; Nicolas Bailly; Masaki Miya; Guillaume Lecointre; Guillermo Ortí (2017). "Phylogenetic classification of bony fishes". BMC Evolutionary Biology (4 ed.). 17 (162): 162. doi:10.1186/s12862-017-0958-3. PMC   5501477 . PMID   28683774.
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