Sabertooth Characin

Payara, Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish, Pirandirá

Family: CynodontidaeSabertooth Characin, Hydrolycus armatus, Payara, Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish, PirandiráHydrolycus armatusPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy David Brough
Latest Reader Comment - See More
I've had my Hydrolycus Armatus for close to a year now and deal with all 4 payara species on a daily baisis. The 'sudden death' of payara in aquaria ONLY applies to... (more)  kyle

A fascinating fish, the Sabertooth Characin has a mouth full of needle sharp teeth and two large fangs!

The Sabre Toothed Tiger Fishes are a group of fish known collectively as Pirandirá, and are often referred to as Payara. This group, of the genus Hydrolycus, consists of four species. Primarily known as a game fish, the Payara are prized by fisherman for their fighting ability. They inhabit fast moving rivers and are often found in schools.

The Sabertooth Characin Hydrolycus armatus is one of the Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish. The common name, Sabertooth, comes from it having two large fangs on its lower jaw. These two teeth are so long that there are holes in the upper jaw for them to fit into. This fish is a voracious carnivore that is fast and aggressive. It will usually grab its prey whole, trapping the fish in its mouth, then adeptly manuveur it about to be swallowed head first. If it prey is to big however, it may first chop it into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Like all the Saber Tooth fish, the Sabertooth Characin gets large. So to keep one as a pet. be prepared for a high feeder fish bill!

Though only about half the size of its close relative, the Vampire Characin Hydrolycus scomberoides, the Sabertooth Characin is a very big fish that needs a large volume of swimming space and plenty of food. They are occasionally available and will readily adapt to aquarium life, but they are most often short lived. The Payara generally seem to survive for only six months to a year, though there are a reports of a few having survived up to two years. This inability to keep them for a any length of time is thought to be due to aquarists attempting to keep them in an environment that is unsuitable.

To keep them it will take a lot of work by a very advanced hobbyist. Providing their diet, their need for a top quality environment (i.e. an extremely large aquarium to support a school of Payara, and maintaining optimal water conditions takes the right type of dedicated hobbyist to accomplish this.

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care


Geographic Distribution
Hydrolycus armatus
Data provided by GBIF.org
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Characiformes
  • Family: Cynodontidae
  • Genus: Hydrolycus
  • Species: armatus
Armatus Feeding

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Cool video of a Sabertooth Characin feeding!

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Sabertooth Characin - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Temperament: Large Aggressive - Predatory
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
  • Diet Type: Carnivore
  • Minimum Tank Size: 200 gal (757 L)
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 82.0° F (23.9 to 27.8° C)
  • Range ph: 6.0-8.0
  • Hardness Range: 2 - 25 dGH
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Sabertooth Characin Hydrolycus armatus was described by Jardine & Schomburgk in 1841. This species is not listed on the IUCN Red List. They are found throughout the eastern and central portions of the Amazon River basin in South America as well as in the Rio Orinoco and Essequibo River in Guyana. The waters are clean and fast flowing and they are often found in schools. Other common names they are know by are Payara, Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish, and Pirandirá.

  • Scientific Name: Hydrolycus armatus
  • Social Grouping: Groups - Found in loose groups.
  • IUCN Red List: NE - Not Evaluated or not listed

Description

The Sabertooth Characin has an elongated body that is streamlined and very powerful. It is an iridescent silver fish with fins are semi-transparent, tinged with black towards the outer portions, and sometimes spotted with white. They have a large upturned mouth full of needle sharp teeth and two long fangs on the lower jaw. The fangs are so long that there are holes in the upper jaw for them to fit into.

It is almost identical in appearance to its close relative known as the Vampire Characin or Payara Hydrolycus scomberoides, but the Vampire is almost twice as large. It can also be distinguished from its cousin by a small dark spot on its gill cover that is oblique in shape, while the same marking on H. scomberoides is more circular in shape.

  • Size of fish - inches: 23.6 inches (59.99 cm)
  • Lifespan: - Often only live six months to a year, with just a few having been reported to have a lifespan of up to 2 years.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

Sabertooth Characin are extremely difficult to keep. It needs a very large home, so to keep one as a pet you will need to provide a tank of 200 gallons or more with a better than average filter system. Excellent water quality is a must, and it must be very well oxygenated. They sometimes refuse food in captivity, and once feeding need a varied diet of fish. They have also been known to injure themselves in frantic efforts to escape.

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 these Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult - This fish requires a lot of swimming space and extremely well oxygenated water to survive. Furthermore, if this fish is startled it has been known to injure itself frantically trying to escape.
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced - The aquarist must maintain a very large tank in pristine condition to care for this demanding and expensive fish.

Foods and Feeding

The Sabertooth Characin 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 - This fish prefers a diet of raw fish although river shrimp or earthworms are suitable substitute. It has been suggested that this species could be trained to accept whole dead fish although this is unconfirmed.
  • Meaty Food: All of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day

Aquarium Care

These Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish are big messy fish that need pristine, well oxygenated water and extremely high filtration. Weekly water changes of 30 - 40% are recommended.

  • Water Changes: Weekly - Do a 30 - 50% water change every week.

Aquarium Setup

A Sabertooth Characin needs a large home. To keep one as a pet, you will need to provide a tank of 200 gallons or more with a better than average filter system. Excellent water quality is a must, and it must be very well oxygenated. Younger specimens may be okay with a moderate water movement, but the adult should have strong turbulent currents.

Provide a decor that has some caves, but these are very active fish and will need a great deal of open area for swimming. They frighten easily, so 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. They are also excellent jumpers, so the tank should be tightly sealed to prevent this fish from jumping out.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 200 gal (757 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: Moderate
  • Water Region: Middle - They will mostly swim near the middle of the tank.

Social Behaviors

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 a calm armored catfish, but they are best kept singly. There are some drawbacks to keeping them singly though, they can become nervous, especially if there is any quick movements around the tank. Swimming frantically and possibly damaging themselves can be the result.

The Sabertooth Characin does not do well in a crowded situation, and won't survive unless it has plenty of room. Even though other large fish such as a Pacu or large catfish will probably be able to survive with it, the Sabertooth will do best kept in alone in a single specimen tank, or again, in a very, very large environment as a school.

  • 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 - Either keep them singly or in a school of six or more in a very large aquarium.
    • Peaceful fish (): Monitor - Calmed armored catfish could survive alongside this species but they have been known to attack other fish of all sizes.
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Slow Swimmers & Eaters (): Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe - not aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sex: Sexual differences

Unknown.

Breeding / Reproduction

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 not yet been bred in captivity.

Fish Diseases

This is a large, difficult fish to keep. The biggest concerns with the Sabertooth Characin 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 Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish 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.

Availability

The Sabertooth Characin are occasionally available, but they do take up a lot of space when shipped from South America, which makes shipping costs high. So 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.

References

Author: Clarice Brough CFS
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Lastest Animal Stories on Sabertooth Characin

kyle - 2012-12-14
I've had my Hydrolycus Armatus for close to a year now and deal with all 4 payara species on a daily baisis. The 'sudden death' of payara in aquaria ONLY applies to the Scomb. species. Most of the information posted above is correct though. All 4 of the payara species can be trained onto dead/frozen foods (such as fresh market fish fillets or frozen silversides), but they are quite stubborn to train, so the use of teacher fish may be a good idea to speed up the process. My Hydrolycus Armatus was 4' at purchase, and is now about a foot. They do require very large tanks with lots of curret and prestine water quality, anything less and they will perrish. They are quite rare (Scombs and Tats are often mislabeld as Armatus so do your research first) as mentioned above, so if you do find one, expect to pay minimum $100.

Reply
rick mcgrath - 2011-01-19
How can you tell the difference between male and female?

Reply
Ng Lian Yik - 2012-03-30
Hi , may I ask you how long their life can be?

  • Jeremy Roche - 2012-03-31
    In the wild up to 35 years.
  • Ng Lian Yik - 2012-04-06
    If fed in aquarium it's just only can stay 2 year? or can more then 10 year?
  • Jeremy Roche - 2012-04-06
    With a big enough tank it can be long lived. The key is the size of the tank.
Reply
d.wezzy - 2008-06-22
I think they are okay fish to have and very quick. But I wouldn't recommend them in tanks with fish the same size and more aggressive, because the chances of one dying is really high.

Reply
mike - 2012-07-14
I have a sabertoothed tetra and as long as u feed it rite and keep it in a big enough tank it will live longer then 6 months to 2yrs that most people say. Also making sure it has hiding spots to hide in (lots of plants, driftwood, maybe a cave as well. Try and change at least 30% or more of the water every week or so. I am waiting for my (vittaus tiger fish) and hoping if i add it to my sabertooth tetra does anyone have any experience of having different fish with it?? i'd like to add a silver arrowana and a gar eventually as well??

Reply

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