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Tilapia Characteristics

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Because of its nutritional benefits, flaky texture and cooking versatility, tilapia is among the most popular forms of seafood consumed in the United States and the second-most-farmed freshwater fish worldwide. Some people call it the St. Peter’s fish and believe it is the biblical fish that fed the masses.


Tilapias are native to Africa. The fish are part of the cichlid family, in three aquatic genera, and are found in vast varieties within their native lakes. All species of tilapia are tolerant to brackish water and, though they thrive better in warmer waters, they can survive in colder water above 50 degrees. Most varieties of tilapia are omnivores, and their ability to adapt to poor water conditions keeps their population flourishing, making them excellent farm fish. In some states, though, they are considered exotic fish, and farming them can require licensing.

Reproduction and Diet

Tilapias are nest builders and mouthbreeders. Eggs are laid in nests; once they're fertilized, the female scoops them into her mouth, where they will stay until hatching. In some species, the male carries them as well. Fry will often seek the adult mouth for safety for several days after they start to feed. Their diet consists of a variety of natural organisms including invertebrates, decomposing organic matter and plankton trapped by mucus on their gills.


Environment and genetic mutations, due to crossbreeding, makes it difficult to identify specific species of tilapia by color; however, they maintain the typical cichlid appearance. They have various banding on their caudal fins and, when they're younger, vertical stripes down their sides. Their deep bodies have horizontal compression and spiny fins. Spines are found not only on the dorsal fins but on the pelvis and anal fins as well. The first red tilapia was crossbred in in Taiwan during the 1960s and has a higher market value today due to a close appearance to the red snapper.


Tilapia have stronger-than-average immune systems, especially when water temperatures are kept warmer for optimum growth. However, in farming cultures or aquariums, recirculating-flow systems can cause heavy losses if infection starts. Like most fish, they are susceptible to parasites such as ich, which feed off the blood of their host, or to parasites of the Trichodina genus, which thrive on the bacteria of the flesh. Various forms of septicemia, or blood poisoning, can cause large losses. Pathogens such as streptococcus can pass to humans.