Vieja zonata

Vieja zonata can reach a total length of about 35 centimetres. They, therefore, need a spacious aquarium with preferably sand on the bottom.


Vieja zonata

Vieja zonata was described by Meek in 1905. Vieja is pronounced “we-eega” and means old woman. Zonatus means “belted”, referring to the extended lateral band.

Synonyms: Cichlasoma zonatum, Paraneetroplus zonatus, Paraneetroplus zonata.


After the rehabilitation of Vieja guttulata in the article by Rico Morgenstern (2016) “Wer ist Paraneetroplus guttulatus?” (the Germans still stick to the genus name Paraneetroplus) one burning question remained, namely “Wer ist paraneetroplus zonata?”. Morgenstern suggested that the fish that we (aquarium keepers) had called Vieja zonata for years was in fact Vieja guttulata. But which fish was hiding behind the name Vieja zonata?

Meek described this second Cichlid on the Pacific side of the state of Oaxaca as Cichlasoma zonatum in 1905. Niltepec is indicated as the location, but there are certain uncertainties about this. Miller 1966 initially regarded Cichlasoma zonatum as a synonym of Vieja guttulata, but reconsidered this opinion later on. Only in his posthumously published book “Fresh Water Fishes of Mexico” the species were demarcated opposite each other.

The fish would have an irregularly defined longitudinal stripe, sometimes with dark spots underneath, a convex head profile with a distinct curve between the eyes, and usually 30 vertebrae instead of 31 in Vieja guttulata. The type specimens do indeed have a fairly steeply ascending head profile, as Morgenstern was able to establish. In addition, they show irregularly scattered dark dots and spots below and above the longitudinal stripe. However, these characteristics do not match the Vieja zonata that we have come to know in our hobby.

But with another Vieja .., namely the one from the upper reaches of the Coatzacoalcos. This is the fish that was known to us for years under the name Vieja sp. Coatzacoalcos and which was rather unexpectedly described in 2018 as Vieja coatlicue sec. However, this fish occurs on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, while Vieja zonata is described from the Pacific side. This seems incompatible. But is this also the case? This remains to be seen because catch data from recent years shows an interesting picture in this respect (Morgenstern 2016). It appears that several fish species from the Atlantic side occur in Pacific rivers and vice versa, there are also fish species from the Pacific side in the Atlantic rivers. For example, Willem Heijns filmed Amphilophus trimaculatus years ago in a tributary river of the Rio Coatzacoalcos.

Soft borders

So it would appear that the geographic boundaries between the upper reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific rivers are occasionally ajar. We can only guess at the causes, but perhaps that the earth’s surface is lifting a corner of the veil here. This area is characterized by a kilometer-wide break of the Sierra Madre, a mountain range that separates the rivers of the Pacific and the Atlantic. They call this the Chivela pass, which is known for its strong winds. These winds travel from north to south and affect the ecosystem far into the Pacific. The Chivela Pass forms a kind of funnel in which these winds accelerate and once every few years, together with other factors, such as pressure differences and El Niño, they reach such high speeds that we can speak of a hurricane. In such a weather type, rivers easily overflow their banks and connections can be created that are normally not possible.

It is not difficult to imagine that during these kinds of weather phenomena fish could overflow. In addition, it is conceivable that seismological activity, in the form of landslides, played a role in the spread to the South, and human action cannot be ruled out either, because the pass has traditionally been an important transit route. So there are several ways these animals managed to reach the Pacific. Here Meek subsequently described them as Vieja zonata at the beginning of the last century. This hypothesis also explains the small distribution area and the identification problems, because these migrants undoubtedly faced competition from the Viejas who were already here and, according to the saying “if you can’t beat them, join them”, hybridization is very obvious.

New research from McMahan 2019

McMahan’s genetic research in 2010 had already shown a very close relationship between Vieja coatlicue (sec) and Vieja zonata, but a newly published study by the same author in 2019 also found Vieja coatlicue’s morphological diagnostic key to be useless. The features that would make Vieja coatlicue unique were not only vague and unsuitable for differentiation but also occurred on both sides of the Tehuantepec. This invalidates the latest diagnostic differences between the fish of the Atlantic Coatzacoalcos Vieja coatlicue and the Vieja zonata of the Pacific and makes the animals synonymous. Because the description of Vieja zonata (Meek 1905) dated a century earlier than that of Vieja coatlicue (Moral-Flores 2018), this meant the end of Vieja coatlicue (sec).

The distribution area of ​​Vieja zonata thus goes from a few dozen kilometres to several hundred kilometres. Moreover, Stawikowski and Werner noted in the 1990s that Vieja sp. Coatzacoalcos sec. can occur in the most diverse waters. All this does not make an accurate description of this fish any easier. And how should we interpret the great morphological diversity? Should we consider them as local variants? The answer is, “probably not,” because McMahan was unable to geographically capture the slight genetic variation. So there will still have to be a lot of targeted research before we get answers to this. For the time being, we will have to make do with one species that can occur in different capacities. A polymorphic species, comparable to Amphilophus citrinellus and Herichthys minckleyi. The title of McMahan’s research “Species or population? ” was chosen for a reason.




The original distribution area of Vieja zonata (Meek 2005) consisted of one short river flowing into the Pacific, the Rio Niltepec. In 2006, this was extended by Robert Miller to all streams between the Rio Tequistlán in the West to the Rio Tapanatapec at the border with Chiapas in the East but still limited to the Pacific side. But now that Vieja coatlicue has been declared synonymous with Vieja zonata (MacMahan 2019), the entire catchment area of the Coatzacoalcos, including by-products, has been added. Here it occurs in a wide variety of waters, including the stagnant water of residual pools, lakes and lagoons, for example.

Specimen from the following rivers, among others, have been kept in aquariums in recent years. These are on the Pacific side: Ajal, Jaltepec, Chalchijapan, Grande, Solosuchil, Ostuta, Tehuantepec. And on the Atlantic side: Sarabia, Almoloya, El Cort, Escolapa, Pinal, Uxpanapa. Carolino, Nanchantal. and Junapan.


The explanations regarding the behaviour of this Cichlid vary quite a bit. Some speak of a peaceful Cichlid, others of a decidedly aggressive cichlid that will not tolerate even species-foreign fish, let alone individuals of its own species. The aggression management of the individual aquarist will undoubtedly play a role in this, but it cannot be ruled out that the great variation of this species is also reflected in the behaviour.


Vieja zonata are omnivorous, but especially the populations from the middle and upper ranges will largely depend on plant-based food. Therefore, extra attention should be paid to the vegetable part of their diet in the aquarium. Regular fish food generally contains too much protein and too little fibre. This puts the animals at risk of intestinal problems. Plant-based nutrition is an absolute must to prevent this.

Plants contain cellulose, which is indigestible for the fish, but it does put the intestines to work. The vast majority of the greengrocer’s range is usable. Think of corn, spinach, peas, zucchini, green beans, broccoli. In cooked form, almost anything is usable. The preference is for organic products because the residue standard for pesticides is focused on people and not on fish, which have a much lower tolerance simply because of their lower weight.

Breeding Vieja zonata

Open substrate brooder. Sexing this species is difficult in young animals. In some varieties, the females have a dark area in the dorsal fin that is especially visible when aroused. However, adult animals show clear gender differences. The males grow larger and develop a heavier head profile. They often show a beautiful blue sheen on the body with green-yellow iridescent spots at the base of the dorsal fin. The red border around the caudal fin varies by population, as do the reddish-brown spots on the head which in some populations concentrate to a red nose. The females stay smaller, show more yellow-brown tones and sometimes have a pink zone at the gills.

Almost all colours disappear during the incubation period. This applies to the beautiful red-brown spots on the head and back as well as the longitudinal stripe of which sometimes remnants remain at the junctions of the transverse bands. However, the spot on the caudal peduncle remains visible under all circumstances. The ventral side turns dark and from there (the normally invisible) transverse bands emerge. These usually do not extend beyond the horizontal boundary. The gaze now becomes serious and penetrating through the bright yellow iris. Field observations often speak of bright yellow flocks, but in the aquarium, this is often not fully evident.

As soon as a couple has formed, the renovation work starts. Digging takes place and the spawn area is polished. Depending on the nutritional status of the female, about 100 to 1.000 eggs are deposited and depending on the temperature, they hatch after about three days. In nature, the parents feed their young by swirling up the soil. However, this will not provide much food in the aquarium. With insufficient nutrition, the fry will therefore eat skin secretion from the parents. This to the dismay of father and mother. One can now do two things. Or feed more, or reduce the nest. In this consideration, it may be wise to realize that it is hard to sell large numbers of Central American Cichlids.

The Aquarium

Like all other Viejas, these are large animals with ditto metabolism. The females can reach 30 centimetres and the males up to 35 centimetres. This means that only the largest aquariums are eligible. Two meters is therefore the absolute minimum, in the long term this is probably still too small. Decorate with wood, sand and rocks. It is preferable not to have coarse gravel on the bottom, as this hinders the animals in their natural foraging behaviour. They like to sift out the soil in search of food particles. Plants are dug out and/or eaten. A strong filter installation and regular water changes promote growth and vitality. PH 7.5 – 8.5, medium-hard to hard, temperature 24 – 28 C.

We prefer to keep these animals in groups, or together with large salmon or catfish. A combination with other large cichlids is not recommended by Nuttal (2010), unless in very large aquariums. This well-known author-aquarist has a lot of experience with these fish and combines his Vieja’s with smaller species such as a pair of Trichromis salvini or a group of Thorichthys panchovillai. This seems to go wonderfully well and these species also occur in nature sympatrically with Vieja zonata.



Rene Beerlink – NVC

Copyright image

Jeff Rapps –


Meek S. E. 1905. A collection of fishes from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec


Buchhauser P. 2012. Naturhybriden aus Mexico: die Pazifische Abdachung. DCG, 43e jaargang, nr 7, blz 138 tm 146
Günther A. 1864. Report of a collection of fishes made by Messrs Dow, Godman and Salvin in Guatemala
Keijman M. 1998. Vieja sp. “Coatzacoalcos”. Cichlidae 24e jaargang, nr 6, blz 160 tm 165
Krahnefeld L. 1996. Zum Titelbild, Vieja zonata (Meek, 1905), DCG info 27-6 blz 122 tm 129
McMahan C. et al. 2010. Molecular systematics of the enigmatic Middle American genus Vieja
McMahan C. et al. 2019. Species or population? Systematic status of Vieja coatlicue
Meek S. E. 1905. A collection of fishes from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec
Meek S. E. 1907. Notes on Fresh-water Fishes from Mexico and Central America. Blz 141
Miller R. 1976. An evaluation of Seth E. Meek’s contributions to Mexican ichthyology
Miller R. 2005. Fresh Water Fishes of Mexico
Moral-Flores L. et al. 2018. Vieja coatlicue sp. nov., a new species of cichlid from basin River Coatzacoalcos, Mexico.
Morgenstern R. 2016. Wer ist Paraneetroplus guttulatus (Günther, 1864)? DCG info, 47e jaargang, nr 1. blz. 2 tm 9
Nuttall L. 2011. Paratheraps sp. “Coatzacoalcos” a number not a name
Stawikowski R. / Werner U. 1998. Die Buntbarsche Amerikas band 1 blz 392 tm 394
Werner U. 2007. Heros guttulatus Günther 1864 en enkele daarop gelijkende Midden-Amerikaanse Cichliden. Cichlidae jaargang 33 nr. 2 blz 25 tm 33
Werner U. 2009. Wieder afgetaucht: Der Gürtelbuntbarsch Vieja zonata. DCG info 40-6, blz 3 -13
Werner U. 2016. Anmerkungen zu Rico Morgensterns Artikel: “Wer ist Paraneetroplus guttulatus (Günther, 1864)?”in DCG-info 47 (1)

Additional information







Social Behaviour

Breeding behaviour


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