Payara Fish Facts & Care (AKA Vampire Tetra)

Common Name(s)Payara Fish, Vampire Tetra, Dogtooth Tetra, Sabre Tooth Tetra
Scientific NameHydrolycus scomberoides
OriginAmazon Basin
Temperature75.2-82.4°F (24-28°C)
Size47 inches (120 cm)
Minimum Tank Size500 gallons (2000 L)
Food & DietPiscivores
LifespanUp to 12 years
Water pH6.0 to 8.0
Tank MatesTank mates are generally not recommended
BreedingMigratory spawner
DiseaseMay be susceptible to bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections.

Payara Fish Facts

Payara Fish (Hydrolycus scomberoides), also known as Vampire Tetra, is a predatory species of dogtooth tetra that can be found swimming in the tropical waters of the Amazon Basin as they actively hunt for their next meal. Payara fish are born with gaps in their upper jaw to accommodate their razor-sharp fangs. These fangs are very sharp and they are designed to kill their prey. These sword-like fangs can reach up to six inches long. The long silver body of a Payara fish is very powerful. They go after schools of fish, latching onto their prey with a sudden strike.

Payara fish were first discovered in 1918 by Georges Cuvier, a French naturalist and zoologist. The scientific name Hydrolycus scomberoides originated from the Greek words: “hydro” meaning water, “lykos” meaning wolf, and “scombros” meaning tuna. The Payara Fish are easy to spot amongst the other genus – the side of their tail and pectoral fins feature a dark spot and a large, bony face that sneakily conceals their gills. Payara fish belong to the Dogtooth Characins family. They are often mistaken for Hydrolycus armatus since they look similar, but they are not the same species of fish.

Payara fish vibrate their swim bladder to create various sounds for communication with other Payaras. They communicate to warn others of possible dangers or to attract a potential mate.

Over the years, Payara fish have earned several nicknames due to their unique appearance. These nicknames include Vampire Tetra, Sabre Tooth Tetra, Vampire Fish, Sabre Tooth Piranha, Vampire Piranha, Sabre Tusk Barracuda, Sabre Tooth Barracuda, and Dog Tooth Characin.

Payara Fish
Payara Fish (Hydrolycus scomberoides)

Payara Fish Care

Payara fish can be difficult to care for, and therefore they are not recommended for new fishkeepers. This fish should be kept only after proper research and careful consideration.

One factor that prevents many aquarists from keeping this fish is the high cost.

First, there is the high cost of acquiring this fish. Payara fish are caught in the wild and transported to exotic pet stores that often end up charging high prices for these fish.

Next, there is the high cost of caring for this fish. These are large carnivorous fish that require lots of room to swim. Therefore, a large tank is required. The cost of maintaining a proper aquarium for this fish can get expensive and time consuming. This is one of the reasons why these fish are usually better suited for public aquariums rather than home aquariums. This is not your average tetra that you can purchase at your local fish store.

Caring for juvenile specimen can be different than caring for fully mature specimen. Juvenile fish usually prefer water with slower water flow. As they mature, they will be able to swim through stronger currents. Of course, as they get larger in size, a significantly larger tank will be required.

Committed fishkeepers that are able to provide the proper care for Payara fish may find this unique fish stimulating and rewarding to keep.


Since Payara fish prefer tropical climates, their ideal temperature would be 24°C to 28°C (75.2°F to 82.4°F). Temperatures outside of this range can lead to increased risk of health issues. Therefore, it is important to monitor the temperature of the aquarium on a regular basis.

Water pH

Payara fish do best at a pH level of 6.0 to 8.0. This pH range will allow these fish to thrive. Maintaining ideal water pH in their aquarium is important since Payara fish can become easily stressed or even die in extreme cases. Good quality water is essential for all aquatic life and a basic understanding of biochemistry would be beneficial. This especially true for Payara fish since they are a breed for more advance fish keepers.

Payara fish can tolerate low concentrations of dissolved metabolites (products of cellular metabolism). A good fish keeper will need to regulate the balance of chemicals in order to avoid giving their Payara fish tissue problems, which can lead to infection and even death. Fish keepers need to pay close attention to the levels of ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, nitrogen gas, and ammonium. Regularly changing the water in the aquarium will ensure good water quality, however, cleaning the aquarium filter should not be done at separate times as it could damage the oxygen-loving bacteria that keep the toxic ammonia at a low level.

Water Hardness

Wildly-caught Payara fish require a certain level of water hardness for survival, with the ideal range being 2 to 25 dGH. Overlooking this part of their care will lead to unsteady water conditions. Anything outside of this range will decrease the life expectancy of the Payara fish since they will lack the necessary electrolytes in their tank.

Payara Fish Size

Payara fish in the wild can reach an amazing length of up to 120 cm (47 inches), weighing between 10 to 40 lb (4.5 to 18 kg). The average size of a captive Payara fish is 30 cm (12 inches) with a weight of 5 to 10 lbs (2 to 5 kg). Although, there have been reports of larger Payara’s kept in fish tanks that have managed reach 51 cm (20 inches).

Payara Fish

Payara Fish Tank Size

Payara fish require large aquariums with plenty of space to swim around due to their great size, in addition to being an unfriendly species that become anxious in crowded areas. The minimum tank size is 500 gallons (2000 L) with a dimension of no less than 96L x 24W x 48H inches (244 x 61 x 122 cm).

Can you keep Payara Fish in an Aquarium?

Payara fish can habit aquariums with little to no problems, though only if the fish keeper makes sure the proper environment is maintained regularly, with high-quality water that is both filtrated and aerated the correct way. Aquariums can be a good replicate of a Payara’s environment, but realistically it is still vastly different from that of the wild, therefore any change outside of the recommended range may disturb this species.

Payara Fish Food & Diet

Payara fish are carnivorous piscivores, typically preying on live fish in the wild, that are pierced and then aggressively shred to pieces with their knife-like fangs in pure primal demonstration. Payara fish are ichthyophagous and do not consume plant life. Payara fish tend to feed on tetras, crustaceans, trout, earthworms, river shrimp, minnows, piranhas, and even other Payara’s. Payara fish favour smaller to medium-sized fish, however, they are unafraid of hunting larger prey and studies have shown that this species can surprisingly devour up to 50% of its own body weight.

In captivity, Payara fish should be weaned onto eating a varied diet of non-living fish, as live meals such as feeder fish bear the risk of carrying parasitic diseases and offer very little nutritional benefits. Payara fish can be encouraged to eat squids, earthworms, trout, mackerels, shrimps, clams, silversides, lance fish, and smelt. Owners can try giving Payara’s premium fish food pellets, though this species prefers seafood instead of flake, tablet, and pellet foods.

Payara fish need to be given several feedings each day (two to three) and the size/quantity of the meal should accommodate their specific size (to be eaten within two minutes), especially as Payara’s tend to be bought as juveniles. Payara fish can survive up to two weeks with no food, although, Payara’s are good eaters and there is no reason why they should not be fed everyday.

Payara Fish Lifespan

Payara fish have short life spans and can live up to two years in captivity if conditions in their tank are of superior quality, which is why this species is for advanced aquarists who can provide Payara’s exactly what they need. On average Payara fish generally survive for six to twelve months, however wild Payara’s are able to live five to twelve years. Despite adapting well to their aquariums and being fed a nutritious diet, Payara fish die once they grow to 12 inches for no particular reason. Some theories point towards the high volume of nitrogenous waste the Payara fish excrete being the cause of their short lifespan, while other hobbyists argue that schooling behaviour, diet, and water tank conditions are to blame.

Payara Fish Tank Mates

Because of their aggressive personality, Payara fish should not be grouped with other fish species on a long-term basis, as it is highly likely they will attempt to display their dominance to tank mates small or large. Hobbyists will not be quick enough to prevent any attacks and Payara’s will pursue their target, even if they have just had a feeding. It would do well for owners to remember that Payara fish have cannibalistic tendencies and will even fight each other. This is a temperamental species that is observed to live isolated from others, unless it is migrating season. Most tank mates will cause unneeded stress for a Payara fish, thus is it recommended to keep these fish separate from other species (and even their own).

However, there are some hobbyists who have no issues housing Payara fish with tank maters, and fish like Black Ghost Knifefish, Freshwater Barracudas, Arowanas, Pacus, larger Barbs (spanners, tinfoil barbs), and Silver Dollars are the most compatible. If a fish keeper is planning to have a multiple-species aquarium that also houses Payara fish, the setup needs to be large enough for all the species to live comfortably.

Are Payara Fish Dangerous?

Payara fish are classed as “harmless” to humans and there is no documented cases of humans attacked by Payara’s, certainly no associated deaths. While their sharp teeth may give them a frightening appearance, they are do not prey on humans. Despite this, Payara fish should be handled with caution as they have the ability to break skin with their bites and proper disinfectant should be used in rare cases such as this.

Payara Fish Tank Setup

Payara fish are not hardy in captivity and may easily become sick, which is the reason why these fish require a specific tank setup to ensure their safety and comfort. An advanced filter needs to be included with their tank, where the water flow must evenly match four to five times the volume of the fish tank.

Tanks should come with a sturdy lid that won’t be easily moved. Payara’s are acrobatic swimmers that frequent fast-water rivers, strike prey with great intensity and have the tendency to leap out of water. Decorations and ornaments can be a great finishing touch, but the middle section of the tank should be open as Payara fish like to dart quickly in the water and need that space to roam without the risk of crashing into the decorations. Low driftwood caves and tree trunks are ideal options for this species.

Payara fish live in deep waters and are not used to bright lights or the extremely clear water of a tank, therefore minimum lightning should be used, just enough to see parts of the tank. The tank’s surface should be painted a dark colour, (preferably black) to mimic the deep waters Payara fish naturally occupy.

Payara Fish Breeding

Payara fish are very difficult to breed in captivity for several known reasons and there are currently no reports of aquarists who have managed to succeed in breeding their Payara’s. Payara fish are migratory fish that swim long distances from river systems towards larger bodies

of water, with the purpose of spawning and feeding. These fish migrate at the beginning of the monsoon (from November to April), but this behaviour is not practiced when homed in aquariums, as this species dislikes still water and prefers moving waters, such as streams, channels, and the sea. There has not been much research conducted on Payara fish sexual reproduction and very little is known. It is also hard to determine their sex from appearance alone, although males may be less deeper-bodied than females.

Payara Fish Disease

Payara fish can have health risks, just like any other pet and fish keepers need to be vigilant when it comes to spotting symptoms so that the appropriate treatment can be administered. These fish can battle bacterial disorders (especially Mycobacterium bacteria), parasitic infections (particularly specimens of Braga patagonica and Ichthyobodo necator, previously known as Costia necatrix), and fungal infections (present on their skin). Fish keepers should pay close attention to the water conditions of the aquarium, there are even pet stores that will test a sample for free. Payara fish need a varied diet with top-quality food to keep them healthy and free of these issues.

Where can I find Payara Fish for Sale?

Payara fish can usually be purchased at online retailers that likely import the Payara’s from the Amazon Basin. Online communities and forums may also be a good source when searching for these unique fish, as those already in the hobby will be able to direct fish keepers to others who may be looking to sell their Payara’s. One might even get lucky browsing eBay or Craigslist, although, buying live animals from previous owners always comes with some risks.

Payara Fish Origins

The Payara fish originated in the Amazon Basin, home to thousands of diverse Amazonian fish, all of which vary in ecology, behaviour, shape and size.

Where do Payara Fish live in the wild?

The Payara fish is a fresh water species that can be found in South America, specifically the Amazon river basin, where it occupies moving tropical rivers and lakes in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. If necessary, Payara fish are able to stay in still water, but will move onto their preferred shooting currents as soon as they can. Wild Payara’s can also be spotted at the bottom of rapid waterfalls when they are not pounding into the water during a feeding frenzy.

Payara fish and Piranha

Some people may be surprised to discover that Payara fish and Piranha’s have more differences than similarities! Both are freshwater fish, belonging to the same order (Characiformes), yet differ when it comes to family classification. Piranha’s posses a reputation of being predatory and have even been in the news for attacking humans, although fatalities remain rare and injuries are usually minor. Payara fish have no such reputation, despite being a carnivorous species that even snacks on Piranhas! Surprisingly enough, Piranha’s are omnivores that feed on plants and fruit if they fall into waters (in addition to eating aquatic and land mammals).

Piranha’s have one of the most powerful bites found in Actinopterygii (bony fish) and their sharp rows of teeth are designed for shredding, much like the Payara fish, though Piranha’s lack the recognisable protruding fangs. Keeping Payara fish as pets is easier as there are not as many legal restrictions compared to Piranha’s, that remain illegal in the Philippines, Malaysia, Germany, Mexico, Australia and many U.S. states.