The Payara, also known as the Vampire Tetra, shows just how diverse a group Characins are!
The Vampire Tetra Hydrolycus scomberoides is a remarkable characin, but it is not your typical tetra. 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. In fact, the two main lower teeth are so long that upper jaw has holes for them to fit into.
The Payara are mainly known as a game fish and are prized by fisherman for their fighting ability. 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. Collectively, they are called Pirandirá or Payara. Its common names are Vampire Tetra, Vampire Characin, Payara Characin, and Sabre Toothed Tiger Fish.
Payara are fast and aggressive feeders. 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. In fact, it can grow to about twice the size of its almost identical looking relative, the Sabertooth CharacinHydrolycus armatus. This fish can reach up to about 4 feet (117 cm) in length and weigh up to 40 lbs (18 kg), though aquarium specimens are usually only reach a quarter of that size, around 12 inches.
The Vampire Tetra 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 6 months to a year in captivity, with just a few having been reported as living up to 2 years. Their short lifespan is due, in part, to their diet and their need for a top quality environment. Vampire Characin need a varied diet, so just feeding them goldfish is inadequate. Sometimes, Payara refuse to feed. It seems that once they reach about 12 inches, they mysteriously die.
A school of Payara will need an extremely large aquarium. Young specimens will loosely school with their own kind, but adults are voracious predators and should be kept alone. Although they school loosely in the wild, they become less tolerant with a crowd. As they mature, they are not good community fish. In nature, the bulk of their natural food is the Piranha. Payara also need optimal water conditions in captivity. In the wild, these fish have different environments, depending on their age. Younger fish will avoid areas where there is strong water flow, but mature specimens will move into waters with faster currents. Providing Payara with these different environments as they age, as well as a wide variety of prey, takes the right type of dedicated hobbyist.
For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Family: Cynodontidae
- Genus: Hydrolycus
- Species: scomberoides
- Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
- 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)
- My Aquarium – Enter your aquarium to see if this fish is compatible!
Habitat: Distribution / Background
The Payara Hydrolycus scomberoides was described by Cuvier in 1819. The species is not listed on the IUCN Red List. Other common names for this species are Vampire Tetra, Vampire Characin, Vampire Fish, Cachorra, and Chambira. The genus, which consists of four species, is collectively known as Pirandirá or Payara. As 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 as well as 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 reach 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 to reach more than about 12 inches (75 cm). Its body is an iridescent silver, and its fins are semi-transparent, tinged with black towards the outer portions, and sometimes spotted with white.
The Payara’s elongated body is streamlined and very powerful. It tapers towards the tail and has a large, fan-shaped caudal fin. The head is large with a prominent, upturned mouth full of needle-sharp teeth and two long fangs. The two main lower teeth are so long that the upper jaw has holes 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 the Sabertooth CharacinHydrolycus armatus, but the Payara is almost twice as large. The Payara 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 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 – They often only live 6 months to a year, with just a few having been reported as living up to 2 years.
Fish Keeping Difficulty
Payara are extremely difficult to keep. These large predacious fish are best cared for in public 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 6 months to a year, with just a few having been reported as living up to 2 years. Their short lifespan may be a result of a large bio load, resulting in nitrogenous waste. An extremely large aquarium is necessary 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 6 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.
Foods and Feeding
Payara are carnivorous piscivores. They only eat live foods, and they love fish, 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.
- 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. Aquariums are closed systems, and regardless of size, all need some maintenance. As with most predatory species, these fish produce a lot of waste, so a highly-efficient filter is needed. Over time, decomposing organic matter, nitrates, and phosphate build up and water hardness increases due to evaporation. To combat these ever-changing conditions, water should be replaced on a regular basis. Weekly water changes of 30 to 50% are recommended.
- Water Changes: Weekly – Do a 30 to 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. When first purchased as small juveniles, they may initially be kept in a large home aquarium. But eventually, 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 fine with moderate water movement, but adults need strong, turbulent currents.
Vampire Characins will mostly occupy the middle of the tank and need lots of open space for fast swimming. The decor should be minimal, but can have some low driftwood type caves for retreat. The aquarium also needs a tight fitting lid. Although they are not really jumpers, they have highly developed pectoral fins to aid in rapid pursuit of prey, and they may shoot out of the water.
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. It helps to cover the sides and back of the tank with either a dark aquarium background or paint them with a dark color. An overly bright light will also stress them out, so keep the lighting moderate and have some areas that are dim. A more subdued lighting coupled with a dark backdrop will bring out their best coloring too.
- Minimum Tank Size: 500 gal (1,893 L)
- Suitable for Nano Tank: No
- Substrate Type: Any
- Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting – Moderate lighting with some dim areas in the tank is best.
- 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, Payara are often seen in groups, but in captivity, they tend to become belligerent towards their own species when kept in small groups. They can be kept in a school of 6 or more in a very, very large space or singly.
These fish can be 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 kept singly, they can become nervous, swimming frantically and even damaging themselves, especially if there is any quick movement around the tank.
This fish 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 crowded environments. 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 – Payara will swim in schools of 6 or more in a very, very large space.
- Peaceful fish (): Threat
- Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
- Aggressive (): Threat
- Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
- Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Monitor
- Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe – not aggressive
- Plants: Safe
Sex: Sexual differences
Breeding / Reproduction
The Vampire Tetra has never been bred in captivity. Not much is known about the courtship and spawning behaviors of the Hydrolycus species. However, the Payara are a migratory fish and begin reproduction with the onset of the rainy season. They move from lakes and river channels into the rising waters of large rivers, migrating long distances upstream for spawning and feeding. Presumably, it would be difficult to impossible breed them in an aquarium and would require a very large tank. For a description of breeding characin fish, see Breeding Freshwater Fish: Characins.
- Ease of Breeding: Unknown – This fish has never been bred in captivity.
The Payara 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 these needs are met, Payara mysteriously do not survive long in captivity. They often live only for 6 months to a year, with only a few reports of keeping them for up to 2 years.
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 introduce disease. 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 as not to upset the balance. Because these fish eat live foods, diseases 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 dealt with 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 a well-balanced diet. The more closely their environment resembles their natural habitat, the less stress the fish will have, making them healthier and happier. A stressed fish is more likely to acquire disease.
As with most fish, 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. Aquarists should read up on 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.
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. 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, like Texas, they are banned from public and /or private possession. Most likely, this is due to concerns that people may unwittingly release them into native waters.
- Animal-World References: Freshwater Fish and Plants
- Hydrolycus scomberoides (Cuvier, 1819) Payara, Fishbase.org
- 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