Piaractus brachypomusCachama(Also: Pacu)

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Geographic Range

The natural range of red-bellied pacu extends from 23°N to 11°S latitude, in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins/flood plains. Common names for this species vary by region. It is known as pirapitinga in Brazil, paco in Peru and cachama blanca in Colombia. Introductions of red-bellied pacu populations have been reported in many regions around the globe, in places as unlikely as Vancouver, British Columbia. Occurrences such as these are most likely a result of fish outgrowing hobbyists’ aquariums and the owners releasing fish into local waters. Red-bellied pacu were introduced to India sometime between 2003 and 2004 from Bangladesh and have become the focus of several aquaculture projects. (Chattarje and Mazumdar, 2009; Froese and Pauly, 2010; Hanke, et al., 2006; Innes, 1966; Nascimento, et al., 2010; Ramirez-Duarte, et al., 2008)

Habitat

As fry and juveniles, red-bellied pacu can be found in and around floodplains of nutrient rich tributaries, or in headwaters when nutrients are poor. Pacu move further out into main waterways as they mature. Optimal water pH is 6.8, with an optimal temperature of 26°C. Considered a mid level swimmer, this species is found at depths of up to 8 meters. (Burkhart, et al., 2002; Carolsfeld, et al., 2003; Martelo, et al., 2008)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • rivers and streams
  • Range elevation
    <100 m (Amazon basin) to >1000 (Orinoco basin) m
    to ft
  • Range depth
    0 to 8 m
    0.00 to 26.25 ft

Physical Description

Red-bellied pacu are often confused with other pacu (Piaractus mesopotamicus, Colossoma macropomum) or piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri) species, due to their similar appearance. The body is deep and laterally compressed, with silvery sides (becoming darker approaching the dorsum) and red coloration on the belly, chin, pectoral fins, and occasionally the leading rays of the anal fin. The remaining rayed fins are uniformly dark-colored. As in other characin species, a small, unrayed adipose fin is present approximately midway between the dorsal and caudal fins. The dorsal fin contains 15-18 rays, the pectoral fins 16-19, the anal fin 24-28, and the pelvic fins 8. The first few rays of the dorsal and anal fins are longer than the remaining elements. A row of sharp serrae formed by modified scales is found on the abdomen. Although not as well-developed and sharp as in their piranha cousins, red-bellied pacu have two rows of hard, flattened teeth used for crushing seeds and nuts. This dentition is comprised of 2 series of molariform incisors located on the premaxilla and 1 row of dentary teeth. The largest individuals can weigh up to 25 kg and measure 88 cm, though these numbers are usually lower in captivity. Smaller captive sizes are most likely due to insufficient nutrition; the notion that ‘they will grow to fit their environment’ is a widespread myth. (Innes, 1966; Lovera, 2005; Nascimento, et al., 2010; Ross, 2001; Sakamoto, et al., 2001; Schleser, 1997)

As juveniles, red-bellied pacu mimic piranha by displaying dark grey to black spots on the body, a standard characteristic of piranha. This wards off attacks by predators, including piranha themselves, when pacu are at a vulnerable age. As pacu get older and surpass the size of an average piranha, the spots disappear. (Froese and Pauly, 2010)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    1 to 25 kg
    2.20 to 55.07 lb
  • Range length
    25 to 88 cm
    9.84 to 34.65 in

Development

Eggs generally hatch between 12 and 20 hours after fertilization. At birth, fry are approximately 2 mm long and weigh .16 grams. By the time that they hatch, pacu fry have a fully developed nervous system with a heightened number of neurons in the fore- and hindbrain. This is believed to correspond to the main motor cortex and allows quicker reaction by tail muscles in prey acquisition or predator escape. After a month, juveniles more than quadruple in weight and almost double in size. Pacu reach sexual maturity around 3 years of age. Except for the body spots displayed by juveniles, young fish look similar to adults. (Jaramillo, et al., 2009; Schleser, 1997)

Reproduction

During spawning, females scatter adhesive eggs; fertilization then occurs externally. Although parents abandon their eggs, pacu are brood hiders, minimizing the chances of the clutch being discovered by predators and scavengers. (Froese and Pauly, 2010; Innes, 1966)

Breeding occurs in annual cycles with the onset of the wet season. Spawning begins as early as November, when the waters first begin to rise, and can last through February. Prime spawning conditions are achieved at 4.0 mg/L of oxygen and 27°C. Spawning is preceded by the release of just a few eggs by females and a ‘knocking’ sound produced by the males. On average, eggs measure 1.2 mm across and weigh just above 1.6 mg. In large pacu species, mature females lay an average of 150,000 eggs, though this number can occasionally reach 1,000,000. After laying a clutch, females can be ready to spawn again in 10 weeks. Although males produce sperm year-round, one study found that females were sensitive to seasonal cycles and sometimes would not ovulate even after artificial induction. (Chattarje and Mazumdar, 2009; Dabrowski, et al., 2003; Dugue, et al., 2005; Jaramillo, et al., 2009; Nascimento, et al., 2010)

  • Breeding interval
    Pacu spawn annually, sometimes multiple times during a single spawning season.
  • Breeding season
    Spawning occurs during the rainy season (usually from September to February).
  • Range number of offspring
    1,000,000 (high)
  • Average number of offspring
    150,000-200,000
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 20 hours
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 4 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 4 years

Besides attempts to hide egg clutches, pacu eggs and juveniles receive no parental care. (Froese and Pauly, 2010)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Red-bellied pacu are long-lived fish, with popular aquarium sites quoting life spans of 25 years and beyond. One account by MSNBC reported on a 43 year old black pacu Colossoma macropomum, a similar species that is often confused with its red-bellied relative. ("Aqua-fish.net", 2009; "Not a Fish Tale! Pet Pacu Buttkiss is 43!", 2010)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    15 to 25 years

Behavior

In native environments, red-bellied pacu are shoaling fish that may become more independent with age. A pacu’s entire life is characterized by annual cycles corresponding to the rainy and dry seasons. They migrate upstream during the months of June through October and then, in response to the first rains of the wet season, start to spawn from November to February. All pacu species are known for being able to adjust to unfavorable environmental conditions, such as depleted oxygen levels. Behavioral responses to these conditions include spending greater amounts of time near the surface, increased movement, and protrusion of the lower lip, all of which facilitate the use of surface water in respiration. (Burkhart, et al., 2002; Dabrowski, et al., 2003; Nascimento, et al., 2010)

Home Range

Information regarding the home range size of this and other pacu species is currently lacking. Though young individuals form shoals and are peaceful to conspecifics, observations of aquarium specimens have indicated that aggression and territoriality increase as the fish age. ("Aqua-fish.net", 2009)

Communication and Perception

Pacu, like other characins, can be very sensitive to environmental disturbances. In addition to the normal range of sounds detectable by other fishes, they can detect higher-pitched sounds through the use of a modified osteological complex (composed of several anterior vertebra and other bones and known, collectively, as the Weberian apparatus) that bridges the swim bladder with their inner ear. (Nelson, 2006)

Pacu are capable of intraspecific communication using an alarm chemical known as "Schrekstoff". If one fish is injured, this substance is discharged from the wound into the water, alerting nearby conspecifics and related species of possible danger. (Smith, 1992)

Pacu species also use their lateral line system when identifying movement in the water, which aids in maintaining proper shoaling behavior. (Faucher, et al., 2010)

Food Habits

The dietary composition of red-bellied pacu (and a number of closely related species) shifts depending on the season. During the wet season, they rely heavily on seed predation from the newly dropped fruit of riparian trees and plants. Although red-bellied pacu are widely considered to be frugivores, they are actually omnivorous, also eating crustaceans and smaller fishes, especially in the dry season. As some of the largest fish in the Amazon, pacu require large amounts of food. They feed in multiple “bite events”, with each event containing a number of individual bites, which is similar to the feeding behavior observed in true piranhas. (Burkhart, et al., 2002; Fernandes, et al., 2004; Froese and Pauly, 2010; Hanke, et al., 2006)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

Predation

Information regarding specific predators of red-bellied pacu is not available. Larger fishes and wading birds likely represent the greatest predatory threat to juveniles. The large size attained by adult pacu would protect them from all but the largest predatory fish species, such as pirarucu (Arapaima gigas). Black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) are another likely predator of adult red-bellied pacu. Pacu are popular aquaculture species and native populations are subject to predation by humans. (Nirchio, et al., 2003; Palacios, et al., 2006)

Ecosystem Roles

The role of pacu species is integral to the growth and development of the Amazonian habitat. With the rise of seasonal flood waters, their diet shifts almost exclusively to seeds and nuts from the trees and plants that line the river, making these fish an important vehicle of seed dispersal. A study of the contents of pacu stomachs recorded seeds from 27 tree and 26 non-woody plant species. This relationship has been negatively impacted by climate change, ranching, irresponsible farming practices and logging. (Burkhart, et al., 2002; Cohen and Kohn, 2009; Innes, 1966; Thatcher, 1999)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Anacanthorus penilabiatus (Monogenea: Dactylogyridae)
  • Mymarothecium viatorum (Monogenea: Dactylogyridae)
  • Dadaytrema oxycephala (Trematoda: Cladorchiidae)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

As robust, rapidly growing species prized for their meat in many South American countries, pacu are increasingly attractive candidates for sustainable aquaculture projects in many regions. A recent increase in research on red-bellied pacu shows clear links to these commercial interests, with many studies focusing on optimal feeding strategies. Not all pacu farming is large scale, as pacu are cultured in many rural areas for use as a direct food source or income supplement. Hybridization of red-bellied pacu and other closely related species is being explored to combine the most favorable aquacultural attributes of these fishes. (Burke, et al., 1997; Fernandes, et al., 2004; Nirchio, et al., 2003; Palacios, et al., 2006)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Concerns have been raised about the potential impact of red-bellied pacu as an invasive species. Due to their large size and food requirements, it may easy for pacu to outcompete native species. Hybridizations of red-bellied pacu with common carp Cyprinus carpio and other exotic species are also currently being tested. Although these cross-species strains are intended to establish favorable traits for aquaculture, the intelligence of developing hybrid fish with a voracious appetite and the ability to survive in local waterways, should they somehow be released, has been questioned on a number of occasions. (Chattarje and Mazumdar, 2009)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

Conservation Status

Although this species has not been evaluated by IUCN Red List, native populations are facing increased stress due to commercial fishing demands, with both legal harvest and poaching leading to population declines. Furthermore, with growing demands for food production, agriculture is now threatening populations of red-bellied pacu. A study examining the effects and lethal concentrations of chemicals in the herbicide Roundup, widely used on coca and poppy crops in the region, found that pacu exposed to the herbicide, even at low levels, developed lesions and showed possible nervous system damage that could negatively affect future reproduction. (Palacios, et al., 2006; Ramirez-Duarte, et al., 2008)

Contributors

Blake Hintz (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Christine Small (editor), Radford University, Jeremy Wright (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

detritus

particles of organic material from dead and decomposing organisms. Detritus is the result of the activity of decomposers (organisms that decompose organic material).

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

frugivore

an animal that mainly eats fruit

granivore

an animal that mainly eats seeds

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

mimicry

imitates a communication signal or appearance of another kind of organism

molluscivore

eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

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