If you’ve ever been to an aquarium—or taken a dip in the Amazon River—chances are you’ve seen some characids. Also called characins,(1,2,3) characids are the family of fish with the fourth highest number of species:(4) between 960 and 1,200 (1,4). These freshwater fish are native to rivers, streams and even underwater caves(1,2,3,5,6) from Texas (1,2) all the way down to southern Argentina,(4) with the greatest variety of species in South American river basins such as the Amazon, La Plata, and Orinoco.(4) The group’s amazing diversity and the ongoing dispute over which exact species should belong in it (4,7) make it hard to list its defining characteristics; these fish range in size from less than 3 cm (1,2) to over 100 cm long,(1) and show a wide variety of colors, patterns, and habits.(3) Some of these fish, such as some of the famous piranhas, are fierce predators.(3,7) Others often eat fruits that have fallen off of rainforest trees and spread the seeds, unintentionally helping new trees grow.(3,6) Some characids are fished for food by people.(1,3) Others, such as the many kinds of brightly-colored tetras and the flying fish known as hatchetfish, are familiar faces in aquariums.(1,2,3,7)
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