Oreochromis aureus
Oreochromis aureus
(Blue Tilapia)
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Oreochromis aureus (Steindachner, 1864)

Common name: Blue Tilapia

Synonyms and Other Names: Sarotherodon aurea, Tilapia aurea; Israeli tilapia

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo

Identification: In general, cichlids (Cichlidae) are superficially similar to sunfishes and black basses (Lepomis and Micropterus; family Centrarchidae). Cichlids can be distinguished from centrarchids by a single nostril opening on each side of the head (vs. two in centrarchids) and the presence of a discontinuous or two-part lateral line (vs. continuous in centrarchids).

Distinguishing characteristics, synonyms, photographs, keys, and discussion of hybrids were provided in Trewavas (1983); for identification also see Page and Burr (1991), and Skelton (1993). Illustrations and diagnoses of larval and small juveniles of introduced populations were given by McGowan (1988). Color photographs were presented in Axelrod et al. (1985) and Axelrod (1993). Many or most accounts of "Tilapia nilotica" in U.S. ponds probably refer to O. aureus, likely imported from Israel, before the two species were shown to be distinct (Trewavas 1983).

Size: 51 cm (Lee et al. 1980 et seq.

Native Range: Tropical and subtropical Africa, and Middle East. Native range includes Senegal, Niger, and many smaller drainages and lakes in Africa and Middle East (Trewavas 1983; Skelton 1993).

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Interactive maps: Point Distribution Maps

Nonindigenous Occurrences: This species (often identified as Tilapia nilotica) was stocked annually by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Auburn University in lakes and farm ponds in Alabama during the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (Rogers 1961; Smith-Vaniz 1968; Habel 1975). There are a few records of populations surviving mild winters, such as an account for Crenshaw County Public Lake, a southern Alabama public fishing lake, between 1971 and 1972 (Habel 1975). One recent record is of 25 specimens taken from Saugahatchee Creek in the Tallapoosa drainage, Mobile Basin, near Loachapoka, Lee County, on 2 October 1980 (museum specimens). The species reportedly is reproducing in experimental ponds associated with Auburn University, but there is no evidence of established populations in open waters of the state. It has been established in Arizona since about 1975 (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a). This species (and perhaps a hybrid with O. niloticus) is established and locally common in various parts of the lower Colorado River in the southwestern part of the state (Grabowski et al. 1984; Courtenay et al. 1984, 1986). Specimens of this species or a possible hybrid were collected from Alamo Reservoir on the Bill Williams River in the Colorado River drainage, Mojave and Yuma counties, ca. 1968 (Grabowski et al. 1984, Courtenay et al. 1986); the likely source of Alamo Lake tilapia was a population stocked in Francis Creek in 1968 that later moved downstream during flood periods (Grabowski et al. 1984). The species apparently is established as far north in the Colorado as Lake Havasu, above Parker Dam (Courtenay et al. 1986). It has been documented as being stocked in Dankworth ponds in Graham County, and in Randolph Park in Tucson, Pima County; many unrecorded stockings, official and unofficial, probably have occurred in various other parts of the state (Grabowski et al. 1984). The species is established in the Gila River north of Yuma (Courtenay et al. 1984, 1986). It was stocked in an irrigation district near Gila Bend in the early 1980s (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Courtenay et al. 1986). Several specimens were collected from the Arkansas River near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1998 (T. Buchanan, personal communication). It is established and locally common in several areas of the lower Colorado River in the southeastern part of California, near the Arizona border (Grabowski et al. 1984; Courtenay et al. 1986, 1991; Swift et al. 1993). The species is apparently established as far north in the Colorado as Lake Havasu, above Parker Dam (Courtenay et al. 1986). It also has been reported and taken from the Salton Sea and vicinity (Courtenay et al. 1986, 1991; Swift et al. 1993), although some tilapia taken from the Salton Sea appeared to be hybrids between O. aureus and O. mossambicus (Swift et al. 1993). Some populations introduced into the lower Colorado River were possibly hybrids between O. aureus and O. niloticus (Courtenay et al. 1986, 1991). This, or a closely related tilapia, reportedly was raised commercially for food in high-altitude geothermal waters and ponds in the San Luis Valley, part of the Upper Rio Grande River system, near Alamosa, Conejos County, Colorado (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Courtenay et al. 1984, 1986; Zuckerman and Behnke 1986); it was reported that tilapia escaped and established self-maintaining populations in two earthen ponds in 1977 (Zuckerman and Behnke 1986). This species was listed as not established by Courtenay et al. (1991). The first record of this tilapia in Florida was of 3,000 fish stocked in a series of phosphate pits for aquatic plant control experiments at the Pleasant Grove Research Station in Hillsborough County in August 1961 (Crittenden 1965; Courtenay et al. 1974; Courtenay and Hensley 1979a). The tilapia later spread and reproduced, and subsequent attempts to eradicate it failed (Langford et al. 1978; Hale et al. 1995). The species is now considered the most widespread foreign species in Florida. It has been reported or collected in more than 20 Florida counties, and is established in most of these (Buntz and Manooch 1969; Courtenay et al. 1974, 1984, 1986, 1991; Burgess et al. 1977; Foote 1977; Langford et al. 1978; Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Kushlan 1986; Loftus and Kushlan 1987; Zale 1987; museum specimens; Nico 2005; Charlotte Harbor NEP; International Game Fishing Association 2000). The northernmost established population in Florida is in Lake Alice in Gainesville, Alachua County, where the fish has been present since about 1969 or perhaps earlier (Burgess et al. 1977). This species also is reproducing in saline waters of Tampa Bay (Lee et al. 1980 et seq.; Courtenay et al. 1986).  It has also been collected in Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park (Tilmant 1999; Loftus 2004).  It was collected from a pond at Musgrove Plantation on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia, during 1980. Although no attempt was made to document reproduction, that population persisted several years but apparently did not survive the severe winter of 1989 (Gennings, personal communication). An unconfirmed report of this tilapia on St. Simons Island also was mentioned by Courtenay and Hensley (1979a) and Courtenay et al. (1984, 1986). Over 35 juveniles were trapped in a Skidaway River tidal creek draining an aquaculture experimental area on Skidaway Island, Chatham County, in July and August 1989 (Hales 1989). Another unconfirmed report indicated that tilapia, possibly this species, had been stocked and presumably were established in golf course ponds at Sea Island, Glynn County (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Courtenay et al. 1984, 1986). In reference to the same population, Gennings (personal communication) reported that an unknown species of tilapia, reported from golf course ponds at the Sea Island Golf Club, possibly was present during the late 1970s or mid 1980s, and indicated that the population apparently was extirpated during or before the winter of 1989. As of 1992, state personnel had concluded that the species is no longer established in Georgia (Gennings, personal communication). Specimens of this species recently have been reported as being taken from Lake Seminole, a reservoir on the Florida border in the Apalachicola drainage (Gennings, personal communication); however, all available specimens and photographs of tilapia from that lake have thus far proven to be those of O. niloticus (Smith-Vaniz, personal communication). This species has been cultured in Idaho in the Hagerman Valley, Twin Falls County, and may have become established following its escape into the Snake River near natural thermal outflows (Courtenay et al. 1987; V. Moore, personal communication). It has been taken in Kansas from a farm pond in Hodgeman County in 1967 and from a lake in Pratt County in 1990 (museum specimens). This species is known from the Muddy River system, Clark County, Nevada (Scoppettone et al. 1998), as well as from Lake Mead (USFWS 2002). It was purposefully introduced into Skyland Lake (now Julian Reservoir), North Carolina, a cooling reservoir of the Carolina Power and Light Company located in the French Broad-Tennessee drainage, south of Asheville, Buncombe County, in 1965 (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Courtenay et al. 1986). Although some information suggested that it had been replaced by O. mossambicus by the late 1970s (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a), recent reports indicated that O. aureus has continued to maintain an established population in Julian Reservoir (Menhinick 1991; D. Herlong, personal communication). The species was introduced into Hyco Reservoir in the Roanoke River drainage, Person and Caswell counties, in 1984, where it is established (McGowan 1988; Crutchfield 1995). In a distribution map for this species, Menhinick (1991) indicated this species had been found in the Tennessee River drainage (i.e., Julian Reservoir), the Roanoke River drainage (i.e., Hyco Reservoir), and possibly a lake site in the lower Cape Fear drainage in or near New Hanover County. In his table of fishes introduced into the state, Menhinick (1991) listed this species as having been introduced into the Neuse River drainage but not in the Cape Fear drainage. This tilapia is known from Oklahoma in the North Canadian River since 1977, where it was reported as having a confirmed range of 383 km, from Lake Overholser to Lake Eufaula (Pigg 1978). This population has been somewhat unstable. For instance, the species was reported to have died out during cold weather in late 1977 and early 1978 (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Lee et al. 1980 et seq.), but specimens were taken there again in 1979 (Courtenay et al. 1986; Courtenay and Williams 1992). Pigg et al. (1992) discovered large numbers in the North Canadian River in 1987, but they have found no additional specimens in the river since. This species has been taken from the Arkansas River in Tulsa (Pigg et al. 1992). It also has been reported from and may have been established in Sooner Lake (Arkansas River drainage), a power plant reservoir about 20 miles north of Stillwater in Noble and Pawnee counties, since the middle or late 1980s (A. V. Zale, personal communication). It was listed as established in Oklahoma by Courtenay et al. (1991). The species became established in Pennsylvania, in warmwater effluents of a power plant on the Susquehanna River, after escaping from Pennsylvania Power and Light's Brunner Island Aquaculture Facility sometime after October 1982, possibly in 1984 (Skinner 1984, 1986; Stauffer et al. 1988; Courtenay and Williams 1992). Populations in the vicinity of Brunner Island were eradicated in February 1986, when condenser cooling water was deliberately and temporarily released at lethal, lower temperatures (Skinner 1987; Stauffer et al. 1988; Courtenay and Williams 1992); however, Stauffer et al. (1988) postulated that O. aureus may still survive farther downstream based on an earlier report by Skinner (1984) that tilapia had been collected as far downstream as 78 km from the Brunner Island site. This species first appeared in Texas open waters in reservoirs during the 1960s, apparently as a result of fish farm and bait bucket releases (Howells 1992a). Muoneke (1988) reported that its general distribution included all but the northern- and westernmost parts of the state. This species is most common in warmwater reservoirs and has been reported or is established in more than 30 Texas counties (Whiteside 1975; Hubbs et al. 1978, 1991; Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Lee et al. 1980 et seq.; Muoneke 1988; Courtenay et al. 1991; Edwards and Contreras-Balderas 1991; Howells 1991b, 1992a, 1992b; Red River Authority of Texas 2001; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 1993, 2001). It is established in the Rio Grande, Trinity (USFWS 2000),  San Antonio, and Guadalupe drainages, and in parts of the Colorado River drainage; this tilapia is most abundant in areas with warmer water temperatures (e.g., in the lower Rio Grande Basin and in power plant reservoirs) (Hubbs et al. 1991). Reservoirs known to contain established populations include Calaveras, Victor Braunig, Fairfield, Tradinghouse Creek, Canyon, Casa Blanca, Nasworthy, Falcon, Walter E. Long, Fayette County, Gibbons Creek, Colorado City, and Amistad (Muoneke 1988; Anonymous 1992; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 2001). The species was established in Trinidad Lake, Henderson County, during the late 1960s and early 1970s (Noble and Germany 1986), but has since been extirpated (Hubbs et al. 1978; Noble and Germany 1986). Hybrids with O. mossambicus are present in the San Marcos River, and in Canyon and Gibbons Creek reservoirs (Howells 1992b). Listings of this tilapia's distribution in Texas, both before and after 1979, were given by Muoneke (1988).

Blue tilapia were collected in non-specific locations in Puerto Rico (Lee et all 1983).

Means of Introduction: This species has been introduced through a combination of means, including stocking and experimental work by states and private companies (e.g., the electric power industry), and release by individuals seeking to use the species as a sport fish, as forage for warmwater predatory fish, as a food source, and as a means of aquatic plant control. Introductions and spread have resulted by way of escapes or releases from aquaculture facilities and experimental control areas, and from various other holding sites (e.g., zoological parks); through aquarium and bait bucket releases; and by intentional transport by anglers and private individuals (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a; Lee et al. 1980 et seq.; Courtenay et al. 1984, 1986; Muoneke 1988; Courtenay and Williams 1992). The exact reasons for and sources of some introductions are uncertain (e.g., Texas) (Hubbs et al. 1978; Courtenay and Hensley 1979a). Apparently, power companies became interested in using so-called "tropical fishes" for food or sport in heated effluent ponds used to cool effluents from both fossil fuel fired and nuclear generating plants, where temperatures often became too high to support populations of native fishes (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a). Blue tilapia and redbelly tilapia were inadvertently introduced into Hyco Reservoir in North Carolina in 1984 after a small number of fish escaped from a holding cage located in the heated discharge area during an on-site agricultural study (Crutchfield 1995).

Status: Established or possibly established in ten states. Established in parts of Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas. Possibly established in Colorado, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Reported from Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas. For more than a decade it has been considered the most widespread foreign fish in Florida (Hale et al. 1995).

Impact of Introduction: The blue tilapia is considered a competitor with native species for spawning areas, food, and space (Buntz and Manooch 1969; Noble and Germany 1986; Muoneke 1988; Zale and Gregory 1990). Courtenay and Robins (1973) reported that certain streams where this species is abundant have lost most vegetation and nearly all native fishes. It has invaded the Taylor Slough portion of Everglades National Park where it is considered a major management problem for the National Park Service (Courtenay 1989; Courtenay and Williams 1992). The blue tilapia's local abundance and high densities in certain areas have resulted in marked changes in fish community structure (Muoneke 1988, and citations therein). A dramatic reduction in native fishes in the Warm Springs area of Nevada coincided with invasion of this species (Scoppettone et al. 1998, 2005).

Blue tilapia have also been implicated as the cause for unionid mussel declines in two Texas water bodies, Tradinghouse Creek and Fairfield reservoirs (Howells 1995).

Remarks: Oreochromis aureus has been used widely in aquaculture and is able to live and reproduce in brackish waters. The origin of the U.S. stocks of O. aureus, imported as Tilapia nilotica, was Israel (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a). Voucher specimens taken from the lower Colorado river system, Arizona, in 1980 were initially reported as mango tilapia Tilapia (= Sarotherodon) galilaea; but these were later determined by D. Thys van den Audenaerde to be O. aureus. Some lower Colorado River populations in California and Arizona may be hybrids with O. niloticus (Courtenay et al. 1984, 1986). Although all species from the genus Oreochromis readily hybridize (D'Amato et al. 2007), electrophoretic studies on tilapia sampled from 12 Texas reservoirs indicated that most populations were O. aureus without indicating genetic introgression with other tilapia species (Howells 1991b). There is a 1971 record of Alabama fish overwintering in outdoor ponds at Auburn University (Courtenay and Hensley 1979a, Courtenay et al. 1986); however, tilapia introduced into that state typically begin to die each fall when water temperatures reach about 10°C (Smith-Vaniz 1968). This species was stocked in aquaculture ponds in Iowa to test growth potential; although it reproduced there, it did not overwinter (Pelgren and Carlander 1971; Courtenay and Hensley 1979a). In the southwestern United States, the Central Arizona Project canal system is proving to be a major dispersal route for blue tilapia (Courtenay, personal communication).

Collection and reported localities were mapped for all or part of the United States, mainly Florida, by Courtenay et al. (1974), Foote (1977), Courtenay and Hensley (1979a), Lee et al. (1980 et seq.), Loftus and Kushlan (1987), and Menhinick (1991). Hale et al. (1995) reviewed the history of blue tilapia in Florida.

Voucher specimens: Alabama (AUM 20907), Florida (UF 23163, 40306, many others), Kansas (KU 13026, 22917), North Carolina (UNCC uncatalogued), Pennsylvania (PSU 2031).

References: (click for full references)

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Buchanan, T.- Department of Biology, Westark College, Fort Smith, AR.

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Herlong, D. - Carolina Power and Light Company.

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FishBase Summary

Author: Leo Nico, Pam Fuller, and Matt Neilson

Revision Date: 6/19/2013

Peer Review Date: 4/1/2016

Citation Information:
Leo Nico, Pam Fuller, and Matt Neilson, 2018, Oreochromis aureus (Steindachner, 1864): U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?speciesID=463, Revision Date: 6/19/2013, Peer Review Date: 4/1/2016, Access Date: 2/23/2018

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.

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URL: https://nas.er.usgs.gov
Page Contact Information: Pam Fuller - NAS Program (pfuller@usgs.gov)
Page Last Modified: Tuesday, January 30, 2018


The data represented on this site vary in accuracy, scale, completeness, extent of coverage and origin. It is the user's responsibility to use these data consistent with their intended purpose and within stated limitations. We highly recommend reviewing metadata files prior to interpreting these data.

Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2018]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [2/23/2018].

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