Searching for Discus in Peru & Colombia

Antonio Silva Biotope, Biotopes of South America, Discus Fish, Fish History 2 Comments


The discus was a high body Red-Spotted Green. It looked like the high body form commonly reared by Asian breeders. This specimen, however, was unique. It was caught in the Nanay River in Peru. I have seen wild caught Snakeskins, Pigeon Bloods and solid Blue Discus. These examples suggest that the forms developed in Asia have comparables swimming in the wild in South America.

The Green Discus was one reason why I had travelled to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon and subsequently to the city of Leticia in the Colombia Amazon. I had never visited the habitat of this discus in Peru and the Colombian form is virtually unknown in the aquarium trade. I had wanted to see them again.


Leticia has changed a lot in the decades that have passed since my first visit. The mighty Amazon at one point came into the city, but rivers are living and change course often. The Amazon now converges with the Nanay some distance from the center of Iquitos.

On Arrival as Vasquez Cobo Airport, I had someone waiting for me. He took me to the Victoria Regia, a comfortable and clean hotel in the city center. The hotel is named after the giant waterlily, whose pads are sufficiently large that a small child can stand on them. The next morning Francisco Pin, the general manager of the Stingray Aquarium, picked me up. Francisco had made arrangements for me to visit the discus collecting site nearest to Iquitos—Tarapoto. There a discus fishermen would be available to answer my questions. But before leaving Iquitos he wanted to show me his most prized discus—the aforementioned high body green. The fish was imposing and showed better proportions to those produced in Asia by breeders.


Peruvian Green Discus are said to be introduced in the early 1970s, having initially escaped from a cocha or oxbow lake where Acuario Bustamante was holding them; the fish were collected in Colombia and Brazil, where discus are endemic. The story is that during the rainy season the river rose and the fish escaped. A second accidental introduction occurred some years later when a plane carrying discus from Colombia for the Goriat brothers, tropical fish exporters at the time, was forced to land. To take off again, it had to dump the cargo of fish (discus) in order to lighten the load. The excellent water quality of the Nanay proved a perfect home and the discus began to reproduce. They are now found at many localities in the Nanay River.


Some question the story that the discus were introduced, arguing that they probably occurred naturally. Those that claim they were introduced suggest that their distribution is limited to one river; if they occurred naturally, they argue, the discus would have radiated throughout the rivers which share a similar water quality. Discus from most areas of Colombia do not possess a red eye, which all of the Nanay discus clearly show. If fish from Brazil were also introduced, then hybrids would be involved. Clearly one can continue to give opposing arguments for pages. How they got there is not as important as the fact that they are now found there.


Discus are found in the same habitat throughout their range: slow moving water, areas where the submerged trees or tree roots offer refuge, where fruit trees abound (they are an important dietary element) and where the water is soft and acidic. During the rainy season, discus disperse into the flooded forest. Collecting them during the rainy season is impossible not only because they are spread out but also because the rains can make working conditions very difficult. As the rainy season ends, the water begins to recede back into the river. The fish follow the water. The low water level not only concentrates the fish around the submerged vegetation but also gives to a fishermen sitting in a canoe.

To collect the discus, the fishermen paddles to an area where they occur. Once near the submerged trees where the discus occur, the hands replace the paddles, so the canoe can be moved close to the discus without startling them. A flashlight attached to a hat or held in the mouth is used to shine a bright light into the water. When a discus is sighted, the light is fixed on it. The light seems to daze the discus, which is then scooped up with a met. The fish is placed in a pail, bucket or even the bottom of a canoe filled with some water.

Depending on the area, the discus are kept in the same containers or even in a let suspended into the water until they can be transported to a buyer. Discus are some of the most valuable commodities a fishermen can collect and they are generally sold as quickly as possible.


Wild discus invariably display nipped fins. Some even show distinctive body scars that resemble rosettes. The damage in both cases is from piranha, which are found commensally.

Discus from Peru display various levels of spotting. The best specimens have the sides marked in clearly defined spots, making them very striking. The fish are graded by the exporters according to the level of spotting. The fishermen are aware of this grading system. Indeed, the discus fishermen that I met asked me specifically how many spots was I looking for on a discus? I said a minimum of 90. He smiled and said I wanted AAA quality. He lived in a thatched hut with no access to power or even an outhouse—the village had a single outhouse—but he knew how to grade discus.

My experience from Iquitos is that the discus are plentiful and like in other parts of their range, they display tremendous variation in colour.

After having seen the habitat and discus of the Nanay, I left for Colombia. When I departed Miami International Airport I was unsure of when I would return. Iquitos and Leticia are literally neighbours but there was no commercial flight that I could book connecting the two. I was prepared to spend several days on a boat or to hire a fast boat to take me from Iquitos to Leticia. If the boat would not be ready, I was prepared to wait.

Once I got to Iquitos, Franscisco Pin had good news. The Peruvian Airforce operated twice weekly flights from Iquitos to Santa Rosa. The hydroplanes held only a handful of passengers but provided for me at least an invaluable service.


The day of my departure I received a call about two hours before the plane was to depart. The woman on the phone was asking me to come immediately to the port from where the plane departed, as an impending storm was approaching and the plane would leave early. I laughed as I hung up. Nothing in South America works on schedule. I nevertheless departed immediately for the plane, which took off from the area where the Nanay meets the mighty Amazon. When I got there, everyone else scheduled to leave was waiting.  The plane and the storm were late.

Santa Rosa is the Peruvian city closes to Leticia. When the plane touched down (1:45 minutes after departure), I walked to the police station for a stamp and then to the immigration office. Neither bothered to look at my passport photo; both wanted to know my opinion of the upcoming US presidential election. I skirted giving an opinion by stating that I had been away from the US and CNN for many days and was unsure of recent events. As soon as my passport was stamped, I returned to the place where the plane landed. The first canoe that I found was hired to take me to Leticia. The canoe took exactly 13 minutes to cross the Amazon.


When I arived in Leticia, I jumped out of the canoe and walked to my hotel to check in. There was no immigration control; that would come later at the airport when I departed for Bogota, Colombia’s capital. Border countries generally permit free roaming. I walked from Leticia to Brazil, realizing that I was in Brazil when the language changed from Spanish to Portuguese.

I first visited Leticia many years ago. Mike Tsalikis, a Greek American, was at the time the most important man in this small Amazonian city. He was the lead businessman, the wildlife trader and the US consulate—a diplomatic post given more because of his importance than because US citizens needed his help (only a handful travelled yearly to Leticia then). Mike was important for me to meet because he was the first person to arrange a shipment of living Green Discus—in 1959/60 he sent 92 specimens in a single shipment to a joint venture operated by the Rainbow Aquarium and Suwannee Gardens in Chicago. I heard about Mike from Kyle Swegles of the Rainbow Aquarium and eventually travelled to Leticia to meet the mystical man.


The Colombian discus exported by Tsalikis were described by  Earl Lyons in he holiday issue (1960) of  Tropicals Magazine  as a new form—Symphysodon discus tarzoo (the Tarzoo is the telex name for Tarpon Springs Zoo, the business Tsalikis operated out of the US. This name was considered invalid by  L.P. Schultz when he produced his early discus taxonmic work,   A Review of the Pompadour or Discus Fishes, Genus Symphysodon of South America(June 1960 Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine)  because diagnostic features were not described. Some have questioned that Schultz ever reviewed the article, as he refers to the Colombian fish as blue. Photos accompanying the Lyons article clearly show that they are red-spotted and Lyons in writing even references this fact, noting that the fish possessed ‘a large anal fin which is covered in bright red dots.’ The fish were unequivocally Green Discus and . The name tarzoo was forgotten until it was  resurrected and applied to Green Discus from the western Amazon region (see Ready et al., 2006, Journal of Fish Biology, 69 (supplement B): 200-11).

Leticia thus has a special place in the annals of the Discus. When I checked into my hotel many years ago, I mentioned at the reception that I was looking for Mike Tsalikis, ‘el griego’ as he was called—a reference to his Greek ancestry. Soon someone was knocking on my door. It was Tsalikis; he wanted to know why I was looking for him.

Mike has been absent from Leticia for more than a decade; he was arrested and convicted in the 1980s in the US for cocaine traficking. His name, however, is still widely known, as I recently inquired and everyone I asked had heard of him. The old lodge he built is now called the Decameron Lodge and his ‘isla de los micos’ or Monkey Island still attracts visitors. The island was purchased by Mike to release monkeys on for later export (primates were his principal trade).



Mike told me that the discus he exported were collected in the Putumayo River. Later he also imported discus from Brazil for export. I obtained some and used them for breeding. They were nicely colored though lacked the desired red eye color.

No one that I know imports discus from Colombia, so my travel there was to see if the trade was still occurring and if the fish were any different today than some decades ago; in Brazil many populations now show hybrid traits, which was not the case years ago. Such hybrids are the result of fish from various areas or representing more than one form being accidentally or purposely released. As an example, I have seen discus from Nova Canaá in Brazil that ranged from Heckel Symphysodon discus to Blue Symphysodon aequifasciata haraldi type. Years ago only Heckels were collected in the same area.

In Leticia, I found that discus are still collected and exported, but that more than one locality provides the fish, which are sent to Bogota where there is a thriving interest in aquarium fish. Some of the discus must be sent to other Colombia cities, as I just received photos of some in the hands of an aquarist in Barranquilla.


The discus from the Putumayo differ little from those exported years ago. Alfonso Cuellar recently exported 120 from that locality. Those from the second locality, La Pedrera, were unattractive. These fish were tracked down in Bogota after visiting just about every pet store in the city; in many countries, stores selling similar items are grouped into neighbourhoods.. I had missed the fish in Leticia by days and thus had to find them in Bogota. This was a locality totally new to me. The effort was worthwhile as I have seen discus from both Colombian localities. Locality specific discus are of interest because one can see whether the populations have inherent traits. I remember seeing many strikingly colored Green Discus many years ago in Colombia and Alfonso Cuellar, the chief exporter of tropical fish in Leticia (he operates out of a flotante or floating house, with the fish kept in vats, tubs and cages floating in the river), tells me that roughly 30% f the fish could be considered ‘royal greens’ or strongly striated.



My old Yagua indian chief friend, Pablo Cuache, told me that foreigners no longer bother looking for discus in Colombia. I suspect that this is because vibrantly colored discus can be obtained in Brazil and Peru. For me wild discus that are brightly colored are as imposing as any of the fancy strains developed for aquarist. Breeding discus is no longer the challenge of yesteryear, when anyone what could produce young was considered a master aquarist; modern discus are no more difficult to breed than Angelfish Pterophyllum spp.

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