The origin of the word ‘teta’ is thought to come from ‘tetar’ meaning to suck, and may also be related to the French word for tadpole: ‘tetard’. They spend most of their time sucking onto the stream bottom with their rasping mouth which they use to graze green algae from rocks and to vacuum up plants and crustaceans. Fascinatingly, their bodies are covered in tiny ‘taste buds’ to help them sense their environment. Although primarily nocturnal, it is likely that they are active both in the day and night-time. Their ‘suckermouth’ has the added purpose of helping them cling on to rocks and logs in fast-flowing water, as well as enabling them to dig out holes in the river bank in which to hide. They have even been known to erode the concrete walls of artificial ponds with their rasping action!
Both teta and jumbie teta belong to the Loricariidae family of catfish, which has hundreds of representatives throughout the rivers and streams of Central and South America. However, our two species are both believed to be endemic to Trinidad. This means that they are recorded from nowhere else in the world. The common teta is found throughout Trinidad, while the jumbie is restricted to the streams along the southern slopes of the Northern Range. Indeed, the name ‘Ancistrus macarasae’ honours the Maracas river, from where it was first described in 1946. Neither species is present on Tobago or in the North Coast streams.
In the Northern Range, they are frequently found living alongside each other. This is interesting as they are closely related and appear to have similar habits and food preferences, meaning they most likely are in direct competition for food and space in such habitats – and yet they seem to coexist relatively happily.
To reproduce, females of both species lay between 20-200 sticky eggs on hard substrates in the river, where they are fertilised and guarded by the male, who will even fan them to keep them well-oxygenated for the 7-10 days until they hatch.
Once adults, teta and jumbie teta are able to breathe air when needed (such as when caught out in a small pond at the height of the dry season), thanks to a modified stomach which can act as a ‘lung’.
Both species are popular in the pet trade, thanks to their useful ability to keep the sides of home aquaria clean and algae-free with their efficient grazing. Once exported, our native species tend to be referred to as ‘plecos’ or ‘plecs’, as they get lumped together with their more famous relative Hypostomus plecostomus. All get referred to as ‘janitor fish’ by aquarists, for obvious reasons.
The extent to which they are taken for international export as pets is unclear and this may be impacting certain populations. Overfishing for food is not thought to be a great threat to teta presently; fishermen tend to harvest them from fairly polluted locations, so the threat is probably greater to the consumer than the prey.
In addition to being targeted by humans, teta and jumbie teta are also hunted by large predatory fish such as the guabine. They are extremely well camouflaged among the rocks and cobble, and even have evolved a ‘crescent-shaped’ pupil to help camouflage their eye. If they are spotted despite these measures, they can also dart away from danger incredibly quickly, thanks to their large tail fin. This is the reason that when bathing in the river or walking along the bank, you are only likely to catch a glimpse of them as they dash under a rock. Teta are also known to make grunting noises when distressed; these may be to alert companions to danger, or to remind predators about their painful spines.
This article originally appeared in the TTFNC's weekly column in the Newsday