Vampire Tetra, Vampire Characin, Vampire FishFamily: Cynodontidae Hydrolycus scomberoidesPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy F Hall
The Payara, known as the Vampire Tetra, shows just how diverse a group Characins are!
The Payara Hydrolycus scomberoides is a remarkable characin, but it is not your typical tetra. This is a member of the Cynodontidae family which are called Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish, Dogtooth Characins or Dogteeth Tetras. The Hydrolycus genus consists of four species and collectively they are called Pirandirá, as well as Payara.
Payara are fast and aggressive feeders. One look at the mouth of this fish and there will be no doubt that the Payara is a vicious carnivore. This incredible fish has two large fangs on its lower jaw. These fangs can be 4 to 6 inches long. These two main lower teeth are so long that there are holes in the upper jaw for them to fit into. The Payara are mainly known as a game fish and are prized by fisherman for their fighting ability.
These fish usually swallow their prey whole, but will sometimes chop them into smaller, bite-sized pieces. They get large too, so if you want to keep one as a pet, be prepared to have a very high feeder fish bill. This fish can reach up to about 4 feet (117 cm) in length with a weight of up to 40 lbs (18 kg), though aquarium specimens usually reach only about 12 inches. Its appearance and behavior of this have led to the common names of Vampire Tetra, Vampire Characin, Payara Characin, and Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish.
The Payara can be kept in a large aquarium, but it takes a lot of work by a very advanced hobbyist to accomplish this. They are occasionally available and will readily adapt to aquarium life, but they are most often short lived. They often only survive for six months to a year, with just a few having been reported to live up to two years. Their diet and their need for a top quality environment play into this. The Vampire Characin needs to have a varied diet to provide the necessary nutrients, so just feeding goldfish is inadequate. Sometimes Payara also refuse to feed and it seems that once they reach about 12 inches they mysteriously die.
It takes an extremely large aquarium to support a school of Payara. Young specimens will loosely school with their own kind in the aquarium. Adults are voracious predators and should be kept alone. Although they school loosely in the wild, they become less tolerant with a crowd. They are also not good community fish when mature. As a matter of fact, in nature the bulk of their natural food is the Piranha. Payara also need optimal water conditions in captivity. In the wild these fish seem to have different environments, depending on their age. Younger fish will avoid areas where there is strong water flow, but mature specimens seem to move into waters with faster water currents. So providing different environments as they age, as well as a large variety of prey, takes the right type of dedicated hobbyist.
For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care
- Size of fish - inches: 46.6 inches (118.36 cm)
- Minimum Tank Size: 500 gal (1,893 L)
- Temperament: Large Aggressive - Predatory
- Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult
- Temperature: 75.0 to 82.0° F (23.9 to 27.8° C)
- Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
- My Aquarium - Enter your aquarium to see if this fish is compatible!
The Payara Hydrolycus scomberoides was described by Cuvier in 1819. The species is not listed on the IUCN Red List. Other common names this species is known by are Vampire Tetra, Vampire Characin, Vampire Fish, Cachorra, and Chambira. The genus, which consists of four species, is collectively known as Pirandirá, as well as Payara. As all members of the Cynodontidae family, they are known as Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish, Dogtooth Characin or Dogteeth Tetra.
Payara are found in South America; in the Rio Amazonas and its tributaries above the mouth of Rio Tapajós, and in the Orinoco River in Venezuela. They inhabit clean fast flowing rivers where the water is turbulent, including rapids and at the bottom of waterfalls. They are often found in loose groups and feed on smaller fish, but the bulk of their diet consists of piranhas.
- Scientific Name: Hydrolycus scomberoides
- Social Grouping: Groups - Found in loose groups.
- IUCN Red List: NE - Not Evaluated or not listed
The Payara can get up to get up to almost 4 feet (117 cm) in length and weigh just over 39 pounds (17.8 kg) in the wild. In captivity it is unlikely they will achieve a size of much more than about 12 inches (75 cm). Its body color is an iridescent silver. The fins are semi-transparent, tinged with black towards the outer portions, and sometimes spotted with white.
It has an elongated body that is streamlined and very powerful. It tapers towards the tail and has a large fan-shaped caudal fin. The head is large and they have a large upturned mouth full of needle sharp teeth and two long fangs. These fangs are the two main lower teeth, they are so long that there are holes in the upper jaw for them to fit into. These fangs can be 4 to 6 inches long.
The Payara is almost identical in appearance to its close relative known as the Sabertooth Characin Hydrolycus armatus, but the Payara is almost twice as large. It can also be distinguished from its cousin by a small circular dark spot on its gill cover, while the same marking on H. armatus is more of a bar shape.
- Size of fish - inches: 46.6 inches (118.36 cm) - These fish get up to to almost 4 feet (117 cm) in length and weigh just over 39 pounds (17.8 kg) in the wild, but they will usually only reach about 12 inches (75 cm) in captivity.
- Lifespan: 2 years - Often only live six months to a year, with just a few having been reported to have a lifespan of up to 2 years.
Payara are extremely difficult to keep. They are large predacious fish and should only be cared for in commercial aquariums or by the most experienced fish keepers with the space, financial ability, and dedication to care for them. They sometimes refuse food in captivity, and once feeding need a varied diet of fish.
These fish often only survive for six months to a year, with just a few having been reported to have a life span of up to two years. This may be a result of a large bio load resulting in nitrogenous waste. It takes an extremely large aquarium to support a school of Payara, and as they mature their habitat requirements change. Juveniles may live in less turbulent water, but adults are found in fast moving currents, like rapids and the base of waterfalls.
- Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult - This fish tends to have an extremely short lifespan in the home aquarium, generally between six months and a year. These fish are wild caught so they require very specific and very well maintained water parameters. A crowded tank seems to shorten their lifespan significantly.
- Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced - The aquarist must maintain a very large tank in pristine condition to care for this demanding and expensive fish.
The Payara are carnivorous piscivores. They only eat live foods, they love fish and preferably live ones. Appropriate aquarium fare includes live foods such as feeder fish, earthworms, and river shrimps. These fish could probably be trained to eat whole dead fish, such as frozen silversides and lancefish, but this has not been confirmed.
- Diet Type: Carnivore
- Flake Food: No
- Tablet Pellet: No
- Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Most of Diet - These fish need a varied diet of different types of fish to provide the necessary nutrients, just feeding goldfish is inadequate
- Meaty Food: All of Diet
- Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day
Vampire Tetras are big messy fish that need pristine, well oxygenated water and extremely high filtration. Weekly water changes of 30 - 50% are recommended.
- Water Changes: Weekly - Do a 30 - 50% water change every week.
The Payara is an extremely large predatory fish. Because of their large adult size, and their propensity for schooling as juveniles, they need a very large aquarium. If you plan on keeping one as a pet, be prepared to invest in a tank of 500 gallons or more with a better than average filter system. They require excellent water quality and it must be well oxygenated. Younger specimens may be okay with a moderate water movement, but the adult should have strong turbulent currents.
They will mostly occupy the middle of the tank. Vampire Characins need lots of open space for swimming and a decor that provides some caves. They are easily frightened so you must be careful not to make any quick movements when around their tank. Payara have been known to fatally injure themselves by swimming into the sides of the aquarium when disturbed. As they are quite adept at jumping, the aquarium needs to have a tight fitting lid.
- Minimum Tank Size: 500 gal (1,893 L)
- Suitable for Nano Tank: No
- Substrate Type: Any
- Lighting Needs: Moderate - normal lighting
- Temperature: 75.0 to 82.0° F (23.9 to 27.8° C)
- Range ph: 6.0-8.0
- Hardness Range: 2 - 25 dGH
- Brackish: No
- Water Movement: Strong - Juveniles may live in less turbulent water, but adults are found in fast moving currents, like rapids and the base of waterfalls.
- Water Region: Middle - These fish will swim near the middle of the tank.
In the wild the Payara is often seen in groups, but in captivity they tend to become belligerent towards their con specifics when kept in small groups. Ideal situations would be a school of six or more in a very, very large space or to keep them singly.
They can become aggressive and have been known to attack fish that were too large for them to eat. Other very large fish may survive with them, such as an armored catfish with a calm demeanor, but they are best kept singly. Keep in mind that when they are kept singly they can become nervous, swimming frantically and even damaging themselves, especially if there is any quick movement around the tank.
This is a fish that will not survive if it feels crowded so even though other large fish such as a Pacu or large catfish will probably be able to survive in the same tank, the Payara will do better if kept in a single species, single specimen tank.
- Venomous: No
- Temperament: Large Aggressive - Predatory - This fish does best in a species tank as it will generally be aggressive towards tankmates and doesn't live long in a crowded tank. It should be kept either singly or in a small group in a very large tank to reduce aggression.
- Compatible with:
- Same species - conspecifics: Yes - Will swim in schools of six or more in a very, very large space.
- Peaceful fish (): Threat
- Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
- Aggressive (): Threat
- Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
- Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Monitor
- Slow Swimmers & Eaters (): Threat
- Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe - not aggressive
- Plants: Safe
This fish has never been bred in captivity. For a description of breeding characin fish, see Breeding Freshwater Fish: Characins.
- Ease of Breeding: Unknown - This fish has never been bred in captivity.
This is a large, difficult fish to keep. The biggest concerns with the Payara are lack of space and food, and providing pristine water that is highly oxygenated. Even if you can meet these needs, these fish mysteriously do not survive long in captivity. They often live only for six months to a year, with only a few reports of keeping them for up to two years.
As far as disease, these fish are hardy and disease is not usually a problem in a well maintained aquarium. That being said there is no guarantee that you won't have to deal with health problems or disease. Anything you add to your tank can bring disease to your tank. Not only other fish but plants, substrate, and decorations can harbor bacteria. Take great care and make sure to properly clean or quarantine anything that you add to an established tank so not to upset the balance. Because these fish eat live food, disease can be passed to them from their foods. Make sure to quarantine live food before feeding.
An outbreak of disease can often be limited to just one or a few fishes if you deal with it at an early stage. When keeping more sensitive types of fish, it is common for all fishes to be infected even before the first warning signs can be noticed. The best way to proactively prevent disease is to give your fish the proper environment and give them a well balanced diet. The closer to their natural habitat the less stress the fish will have, making them healthier and happy. A stressed fish is more likely to acquire disease.
As with most fish the Vampire Tetras are prone to skin flukes, parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), ichthyobodo infection, parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), bacterial infections (general), and bacterial disease. It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about freshwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.
The Payara or Vampire Characin are not exactly rare, but smaller aquarium-sized specimens are hard to find. When shipped from South America, they take up a lot of space which makes shipping costs high. This all means that if you are lucky enough to find one for sale, the price will be high.
Before you purchase this species, be sure to check with the Fish and Game Department or other environmental authorities in your area to be certain that you can keep one of these fish. In certain states they are banned from public and /or private possession, Texas being one. Most likely this is due to concerns that people may unwittingly release them into native waters.
- Animal-World References: Freshwater Fish and Plants
- Joseph S. Nelson, Fishes of the World, Wiley, 2006.
- Dr. Rüdiger Riehl and Hans A. Baensch, Aquarium Atlas Vol. 4 , Mergus Verlag, 2004
- Hydrolycus scomberoides Payara, Seriously Fish, 2012
- Hydrolycus scomberoides (Cuvier, 1819) Payara, Fishbase.org