Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine / 2012 / Article
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Medical Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology in Latin America

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Volume 2012 |Article ID 474716 | https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/474716

Ana Carla Asfora El-Deir, Carolina Alves Collier, Miguel Santana de Almeida Neto, Karina Maria de Souza Silva, Iamara da Silva Policarpo, Thiago Antonio S. Araújo, Rômulo Romeu Nóbrega Alves, Ulysses Paulino de Albuquerque, Geraldo Jorge Barbosa de Moura, "Ichthyofauna Used in Traditional Medicine in Brazil", Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2012, Article ID 474716, 16 pages, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/474716

Ichthyofauna Used in Traditional Medicine in Brazil

Academic Editor: Maria Franco Trindade Medeiros
Received16 Aug 2011
Accepted10 Oct 2011
Published01 Feb 2012


Fish represent the group of vertebrates with the largest number of species and the largest geographic distribution; they are also used in different ways by modern civilizations. The goal of this study was to compile the current knowledge on the use of ichthyofauna in zootherapeutic practices in Brazil, including ecological and conservational commentary on the species recorded. We recorded a total of 85 species (44 fresh-water species and 41 salt-water species) used for medicinal purposes in Brazil. The three most commonly cited species were Hoplias malabaricus, Hippocampus reidi, and Electrophorus electricus. In terms of conservation status, 65% of species are in the “not evaluated” category, and 14% are in the “insufficient data” category. Three species are in the “vulnerable” category: Atlantoraja cyclophora, Balistes vetula, and Hippocampus erectus. Currently, we cannot avoid considering human pressure on the population dynamics of these species, which is an essential variable for the conservation of the species and the ecosystems in which they live and for the perpetuation of traditional medical practices.

1. Introduction

Nature offers various resources that people use to guarantee their survival [1] and to reproduce their ways of life and their practices. The use and management of these resources is intimately linked with the needs of various human populations. Among traditional populations, the use of plant and/or animal resources for medicinal purposes has been reported by various authors as an essential practice in traditional medical systems [213]. Natural resources have been used in traditional medical practices since ancient times, and their use is spreading in contemporary society [14]. One very old alternative therapy involves the use of animals and their derivatives in the production of zootherapeutic medications [15]. Zootherapy is an important alternative for cures in local populations; it can also be useful for the development of new drugs in modern medicine [4].

In Brazil, zootherapy appears well established; its broad biological diversity, along with its cultural complexity, drive production of zootherapeutic products [16]. In addition, the difficulty in accessing the main health system encountered by some populations increases the demand for traditional medicine [17].

Among the animal taxa used as medicinal resources, fish deserve special attention due to their strong representation in zootherapeutic surveys in Brazil [2, 7, 8, 12, 30, 42]. As a resource, fish are exploited in different ways by each culture [36]. Their medicinal applications include the use of both body parts and materials produced by the fish, along with live individuals [22].

Many of the animals used medicinally are found on the list of endangered species [7]; the risk of extinction is not only for the species but also for the benefits they offer. One of the benefits resulting from research in zootherapy is the discovery of new compounds that have pharmacological potential [21]. Given what has been stated above, this study aims to gather the current knowledge on ichthyofauna used in zootherapeutic practices in Brazil. By doing so, we expect to broaden the knowledge base through a compilation of species used to provide a first approximation of the wealth of these resources and their potential. Additionally, the study will evaluate whether the habitat of these species influences its versatility of use and if there are differences in the diversity of species cited for each body system.

The information compilation was based on bibliographic data. We considered bibliographic data from book chapters, in periodicals publications, and technical information available in online databases. We only considered a valid taxa the identified on species level, since the use of clades identified on the genus level, without its proper description, does not allow the technical-scientific accumulation of the taxon, which justifies this compilation with a fewer species number when compared to Costa-Neto and Alves [42] and R. R. N. Alves and H. N. Alves [13].

The database generated contains information on taxonomy, habitat, conservation status through the IUCN, the part of the animal used, therapeutic indications, and the Brazilian states where the species were cited. Species nomenclature, their habitats, and conservation status were confirmed and updated according to [4345].

Though the locations sampled employed different methods and collection efforts, we counted the numbers of species used for zootherapeutic purposes by Brazilian region (state) and therapeutic indication. While it was not possible to perform a refined comparative analysis on the distribution of species use, this method allowed us to record the breadth of geographic distribution of the zootherapeutic indications and the study frequency by Brazilian regions and states.

We used the Index of Relative Importance (IR) [46] to measure the versatility of use of each species. This index takes into consideration the properties attributed and the body systems that are indicated for each species. This index varies from 0 to 2, with 2 indicating the most versatile species. We used the Kruskal-Wallis test to evaluate whether the relative importance of a species was related to its habitat (i.e., salt water or fresh water) and its conservation status. We also compared habitats relative to species wealth for each body system using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. BioEstat v.5.0 software was used for analysis [47].

Therapeutic indications were categorized according to body systems from [48]: digestive, respiratory, gynecological/urinary, circulatory, nervous, sensory, motor, puerperal, cutaneous, scarring, poisoning, neoplasia, hematopoietic, nutrition, infectious/parasitic, lack of sexual desire, anti-abortive, and postpartum. Indications that could not be classified in these systems were grouped as “undefined pains/disorders.”

2. Ichthyofauna in Traditional Medical Practices in Brazil

The inventory of ichthyofauna used in Brazilian zootherapy produced a list of 85 species, of which 44 are predominantly fresh water and 41 are predominantly salt water fishes; 22 are cartilaginous fish (Figure 1). The most commonly listed fish were Hoplias malabaricus (Bloch, 1794) ( ), followed by Hippocampus reidi Ginsburg, 1933 ( ), and Electrophorus electricus (Linnaeus, 1766) ( ) (Table 1). These three species are highly important for zootherapy due to their documented use in various regions of Brazil [2426, 31, 36].

Taxa/local nameIUCNPart usedTherapeutic indicationNumber of bodily systemsStateRIReference

Predominantly salt water



Ginglymostoma cirratum
(Bonnaterre, 1788)
DDCartilageRheumatism1MA, PB0.138[7, 9]
(Nurse shark/Cação-lixa)


Carcharhinus limbatus
(Müller and Henle, 1839)
NTCartilage, fatOsteoporosis1MA0.138[79, 16]
(Blacktip shark/Sucuri-da-galha-preta)
Carcharhinus porosus
(Ranzani, 1839)
DDCartilage, fatAsthma, rheumatism, wounds, inflammations, osteoporosis3MA, BA, PA0.492[7, 9]
Carcharhinus leucas
(Muller and Henle, 1839)
(Bull shark/Tubarão)
NT PE[3]
Galeocerdo cuvier
(Péron and Lesueur, 1822)
NTCartilage, fatOsteoporosis1MA, PI0.138 [7, 9]
(Tiger shark/Jaguará)
Rhizoprionodon lalandii
(Müller and Henle, 1839)
DDCartilage, fatRheumatism1PB, BA0.138[7, 9, 16]
(Sharpnose shark/cação-frango)
Rhizoprionodon porosus
(Poey, 1861)
(Caribbean sharpnose shark/Cação de praia)
LCCartilage, fatRheumatism1PB, BA0.138[7, 9, 16]


Sphyrna lewini
(Griffith and Smith, 1834)
ENLiver oilAsthma, wounds, rheumatism3BA0.415 [2]
(Scalloped hammerhead/Cação-martelo)


Pristis perotteti
Muller and Henlle 1842
CRRostral expansionRheumatism, arthritis1PA0.138[9]
Pristis pectinata
(Latham, 1794)
Smalltooth sawfish/espadarte
CRRostral expansionAsthma, rheumatism, arthritis20.135[18]


Narcine Braziliensis
(Olfers, 1831)
DDFatTooth pain1BA0.138[2, 4]
(Brazilian electric ray/Raia elétrica)

Atlantoraja cyclophora
(Regan, 1903)
VUEggsPostpartum hemorrhage1RJ0.138[19]
(Eyespot skate/Almofadinha/barata do mar)


Dasyatis guttata
(Bloch and Schneider, 1801)
DDTeeth, liver oil, tail, ventral mucus, liverAsthma, wounds caused by the fish itself, burns on the skin2PB0.315[7, 9]
(Longnose stingray/Raia branca)
Dasyatis marianae
Gomes, Rosa, and Gadig, 2000
DD Teeth, liver oil, tail, ventral mucus, liverAsthma, wounds caused by the fish itself, burns on the skin2PB0.315[7, 9]
(Brazilian large-eyed stingray/raia mariquita)


Aetobatus narinari
(Euphrasen, 1790)
NTTeeth, liver oil, tail, ventral mucus, liverAsthma, wounds caused by the fish itself, burns on the skin, and hemorrhages3PA, PI, PB0.453[7, 9]
(Spotted eagle ray/raia-chita)


Urotrygon microphthalmum
(Delsman, 1941)
LCTeeth, liver oil, tail, ventral mucus, liverAsthma, wounds caused by the fish itself, burns on the skin2PB0.315[7, 9]
(small-eyed, round stingray/raia)


Megalops atlanticus
Valenciennes, 1847
NEScaleAsthma, lack of air, headache, stroke3MA, PB, AL0.454[79, 20]


Gymnothorax funebris
Ranzani, 1840
NEMeatWounds1PB0.138[7, 9]
(Green moray/moréia verde)
Gymnothorax moringa (Cuvier, 1829)NEMeatWounds1PB0.138[7, 9]
(Spotted moray/moréia pintada)
Gymnothorax vicinus
(Castelnau, 1855)
(Purple mouth moray/moréia)
NEMeatWounds1PB0.138[7, 9]



Opisthonema oglinum
(Lesueur, 1818)
(Atlantic thread herring/sardinha)
NEEntireAlcoholism1PB0.138[7, 9]

Bagre bagre
(Linnaeus, 1758)
NEEntireWounds caused by the fish itself1BA0.138[2, 21]
(Coco sea catfish/bagre-fidalgo)
Genidens barbus
(Lacepède, 1803)
NEEntireWounds caused by the fish itself1BA0.138[2, 21]
(White sea catfish/bagre-do-mar)
Genidens genidens
(Valenciennes, 1840)
LCEyeWounds caused by the fish itself1BA0.138[22]
(Guri sea catfish/Bagre)
Aspistor luniscutis
(Valenciennes, 1840)
NEEntireWounds caused by the fish itself1BA0.138[2, 21]


Gadus morhua
Linnaeus, 1958
VUFat, skinRheumatism, furuncle, back pain2PB, BA0.315[2, 23]

(Atlantic Cod, bacalhau)


Thalassophryne nattereri
(Steindachner, 1876)
NEMeat, eye, and brainWounds caused by the fish itself1MA, PI, BA0.138[2, 7, 9]


Ogcocephalus vespertilio
(Linnaeus, 1758)
NEEntireAsthma, bronchitis, rheumatism, arthritis2MA, PB, RJ0.354[79, 19]
(Seadevil/Peixe morcego)


Holocentrus adscensionis
(Osbeck, 1765)
NEStingWounds1RJ0.138 [19]


Hippocampus erectus
Perry, 1810
(Lined seahorse/Cavalo-marinho)
VUEntireAlcoholism, thromboses, impotence, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, bronchitis, cancer, asthma, and rheumatism6Brazil0.985[21]
Hippocampus reidi
Ginsburg, 1933
(Longsnout seahorse/Cavalo-marinho)
DDEntireEdema, asthma, bronchitis, impotence, thromboses, hemorrhage, hemorrhage in women, postpartum disorders, gastritis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, alcoholism, increasing female fertility, osteoporosis, heart disease cancer, asthma, rheumatism, avoiding miscarriage10RJ, PE, RN,
PI, Brazil
1.731[1, 2, 4, 79, 19, 2429]


Centropomus undecimalis
(Bloch, 1792)
NEFatSwollen legs, edema1BA0.177[2]
(Common snook/Robalo)


Calamus penna
(Valenciennes, 1830)
(Sheepshead porgy/peixe-pena)


Cynoscion acoupa
(Lacepède 1802)
LCOtolithsRenal insufficiency1MA0.138 [8]
(Acoupa weakfish/Pescada amarela)
Cynoscion leiarchus
(Curvier 1830)
NEOtoliths, HeadRenal insufficiency, lack of air1MA, PB0.177[8, 30]
(Smooth weakfish/Pescada branca)
Micropogonias furnieri
(Desmarest, 1823)


Trichiurus lepturus
(Linnaeus, 1758)
(largehead hairtail/peixe espada)
NETailAsthma10.138 [18]


Balistes vetula
Linnaeus, 1758
VUSkinAsthma, back pain2MA0.277 [8]

Balistes capriscus
Gmelin, 1789


Colomesus psittacus
(Bloch and Schneider, 1801)
(Banded puffer/Baiacú)
NELiver oil, bileBreast cancer, back pain, warts3MA0.415[7, 9]

Sphoeroides testudineus
(Linnaeus, 1758)
(Checkered puffer/Baiacú)

Predominantly fresh water



Paratrygon ajereba
(Walbaum, 1792)
DDSpur, FatAsthma, cold, cough, ear pain, pneumonia, umbilical hernia, burns on the skin3TO0.569 [31]
(Discus ray/raia)
Plesiotrygon iwamae
(Rosa, Castello and Thorson, 1987)
(Long-tailed river stingray/Arraia)
DDFatWounds caused by the fish itself, cracks on the soles of feet, wounds1PA0.138[9]
Potamotrygon hystrix
(Müller and Henle, 1841)
(Porcupine river stingray/Raia)
DDSpur, FatAsthma, cold, cough, ear pain, pneumonia, umbilical hernia, burns on the skin3TO0.569[31]
Potamotrygon motoro
(Müller and Henle, 1841)
(South American freshwater stingray/Raia)
DDSpur, FatAsthma, cold, cough, ear pain, pneumonia, umbilical hernia, burns on the skin3TO0.569[31]
Potamotrygon orbignyi
(Castelnau, 1855)
LCFatWounds caused by the fish itself1PA0.138[9]
(Smooth back river stingray/Arraia)


Arapaima gigas
(Cuvier, 1829)
(Arapaima/arapaima, pirarucu)


Osteoglossum ferreirai
Kanazawa, 1966
(Black arawana/Aruanã)
LCscaleDermatological problems1AM0.138[32]
(Arapaima/arapaima, pirarucu)
(Cruvina, Crumatá)Fat, meat
Prochilodus nigricans
Agassiz 1829
NEFat, gall, meatInflammations, cholesterol, burns on the skin, wounds, rheumatism, chilblains, malaria, whooping cough5CE, TO, Brazil0.808[27, 33, 34]
(Black prochilodus/Curimatã, Papa-terra)


Leporinus piau
Fowler, 1941
NEFatRheumatism1BA0.138 [35]
Leporinus steindachneri
Eigenmann 1907

Schizodon knerii
(Steindachner, 1875)
(Piau branco)
NEFatEdema, leukoma2AL0.277[20]


Brycon nattereri
Günther, 1864
Piaractus brachypomus
(Cuvier, 1818)
Serrasalmus brandtii
Lütken, 1875
NETail, gall, fatImpotency, jaundice, edema,
3BA, AL0.454[20, 22, 35]
(White piranha/Piranha)
Mylossoma duriventre
(Cuvier, 1818) (Pacu manteiga)

Incertae sedis in Characidae

Astyanax cf. bimaculatus
(Linnaeus, 1758)
NEEntireAlcoholism1BA0.138 [2]
(Two-spot astyanax/Piaba)
Chalceus macrolepidotus
Cuvier, 1818
NEEntire, eyeAsthma1AM0.138[11]
(Pink tailed chalceus/Araripirá)
Paracheirodon axelrodi
(Schultz, 1956)
(Cardinal tetra/Cardinal)
Salminus hilarii
Valenciennes, 1850


Hydrolycus scomberoides
(Cuvier, 1819)
NEFatEar pain1TO0.138[31]


Erythrinus erythrinus
(Bloch and Schneider, 1801)
NEEntireAsthma1AL0.138 [20]
Hoplias lacerdae
Miranda Ribeiro, 1908
NEFatRheumatism, “vilide”2BA0.277[35]

Hoplias malabaricus
(Bloch 1794)
NEFat, epidermal secretion, “bucho”, entire, head, scale, meatAlcoholism, ear pain, inflammations, cholesterol, sore throat, umbilical cord inflammation, contusions, inflamed ear, hearing problems, ocular inflammation, urinary infection, deafness, asthma, muscle strain, erysipelas, wounds, hemorrhages, snakebite, conjunctivitis, edema, rheumatism, leukoma, stroke, asthma, diarrhea, vision problems10AC, BA, RN,
2.000[1, 2, 8, 9, 11, 16, 20, 22, 24, 27, 28, 30, 31, 33, 36, 38]


Cetopsis candiru
Spix and Agassiz, 1829
NEMeatWhooping cough1TO0.138[37]


Aspredinichthys tibicen
(Valenciennes, 1840)
NEBarbelsAsthma1MA0.138[7, 9]
(Tenbarbed banjo/viola)
Aspredo aspredo
(Linnaeus, 1758)
NEBarbelsAsthma1MA0.138[7, 9]


Callichthys callichthys
(Linnaeus, 1758)
NEEntireAsthma, umbilical hernia, bronchitis, helping a child to walk earlier3BA, AL0.454[2, 20, 39]


Brachyplatystoma filamentosum
(Lichtenstein, 1819)
NEFinCough, alcoholism2TO0.277[37]
Phractocephalus hemioliopterus
(Bloch and Schneider, 1801)
(Redtail catfish/Pirarara)
NEFatBurns on the skin, rheumatism, cough, wounds, bronchitis, whooping cough, hoarseness, pneumonia, asthma, cold, umbilical hernia3AM, TO, Brazil0.723[11, 31, 34, 37]
Pseudoplatystoma corruscans
(Spix and Agassiz, 1829)
NEFatBurns on the skin1BA0.138[36]
(Spotted sorubim/Surubim)
Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum
(Linnaeus, 1766)
(Barred sorubim/pintado)
NEFat, gallScarring, whooping cough, body pain, muscular pains, bone pain, bronchitis, stroke5TO0.769[37]
Sorubimichthys planiceps
(Spix and Agassiz, 1829)
NEMeatTuberculosis, leishmaniasis2TO0.277[31]
(Firewood catfish/Surubim-chicote)
Zungaro zungaro
(Humboldt, 1821)
(Gilded catfish/Jaú)
NEFat, skin, meatBronchitis, asthma, burns on the skin, rheumatism, cold, ear pain, tooth pain, chilblains6TO0.908[31, 37]


Lithodoras dorsalis
(Valenciennes, 1840)
NEFatSwelling1PA0.138 [9]
Oxydoras niger
(Valenciennes, 1821)
(Ripsaw catfish/Abotoado)
NEFatAsthma, bronchitis, grippe, scarring, dry skin3TO0.492[37]


Trachelyopterus galeatus
(Linnaeus, 1766)
(Driftwood catfishes/Cumbá)
NEEntire, spurImpotence, umbilical hernia, asthma3BA, AL0.415[20, 35, 40, 41]

Megalodoras uranoscopus
(Eigenmann and Eigenmann, 1888)
Pterodoras granulosus
(Valenciennes, 1821)
(Granulated catfish/cuiú-cuiú)


Electrophorus electricus
(Linnaeus 1756)
(Electric eel/Peixe Elétrico, Poraquê)
LCEntire, fat, spin, and boneAcne, alcoholism, asthma, itching, contusions, headache, back pain, muscular pains, wounds, swelling, spots on the skin, osteoporosis, snake bite, insect bite, pneumonia, cold, rheumatism, deafness, muscle strain, thrombosis, tuberculosis8RN, PE, DF,
1.608[1, 79, 12, 17, 27, 28, 31, 37]


Synbranchus marmoratus
Bloch, 1795
(Marbled swamp eel/muçum)
NEEntireMaking the child walk sooner, bronchitis, asthma, bronchitis, umbilical hernia3BA0.454[2, 39]


Pachyurus francisci
(Cuvier, 1830)
(San Francisco croaker/Cruvina, curvina-de-bico)
NEOtolithsAsthma, back pain, diuretic effect, renal insufficiency3BA0.454 [36]
Plagioscion squamosissimus
(Heckel, 1840)
NEOtolithsKidney stones, renal insufficiency, urinary infection, hemorrhages, snake bite3TO0.492[31, 37]
(South American silver croaker/Corvina)
Plagioscion surinamensis
(Bleeker, 1873)
NEOtolithsUrinary infection, hemorrhages, snakebite3TO0.41538[31]

These most frequently used fish resources are part of the native fauna, demonstrating the importance of local fauna as a source for traditional remedies. According to R. Alves and H. Alves [13], the composition and availability of fauna are factors that directly affect the composition of the local zootherapeutic arsenal.

The dissemination of zootherapeutic knowledge is reflected in the population’s contact with resources that, in principle, are not available locally. Some species that are restricted to the coast, such as the seahorse (Hippocampus reidi), are broadly disseminated throughout the interior of Brazil [24, 25, 27]. The use of this species was recorded for populations in the interior, such as the cities of Santa Cruz do Capibaribe-PE [24], Crato-CE [33], Queimadas-PB [25], and Caruaru-PE [26]. This situation may be explained by the existence of commercial routes for medicinal animals involving different cities in Brazil [49]. An exotic species such as the cod Gadus morhua Linnaeus, 1958, is available commercially in various states in Brazil for culinary purposes, but it is also used medicinally in states such as Paraíba and Bahia [2, 23].

Zootherapeutic practice involving ichthyofauna was recorded in 14 Brazilian states, representing the North, Northeast, Center-West, and Southeast regions. The state of Bahia (28 spp.) had the highest number of fishes used as traditional remedies, followed by the states of Tocantins (21 spp.), Paraíba (19 spp.), Maranhão (16 spp.), and Pará (9 spp.). This may not reflect the true situation regarding zootherapy in Brazil; the number is likely underestimated due to the concentration of studies in these regions (Figure 2).

The Northeast region was the best represented, with research performed in eight states: Piauí, Maranhão, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, and Bahia. This region has a significant presence of zootherapy in curing practices [7, 50]. Alves [12], while recording zootherapeutic practices in this region, did not perform studies in Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte; however, studies performed that same year [27, 33] and in the following year [28] demonstrated the medicinal use of animals in these two states. The North region was the second-most frequently represented, followed by the Southeast and Center-West regions, which accounted for 7% of the studies.

3. Therapeutic Indications for Ichthyofauna

Various therapeutic indications have been associated with ichthyofauna for medicinal use in Brazil, with 83 different diseases or illnesses recorded, particularly asthma, rheumatism, wounds, alcoholism, and bronchitis.

Hippocampus reidi and Hippocampus erectus stand out among the salt water species, with RI (relative importance) values of 1.73 and 0.98, respectively. The importance of these species is also evident from the number of studies that reported them in their inventories, especially in Northeast Brazil.

Hoplias malabaricus scored highest on diversity among the predominantly fresh water species, with an RI of 2.00, the highest score among all the species in the inventory. This species also stood out regarding the number of parts of the fish that can be used in traditional remedies. Electrophorus electricus received the second-highest RI score (1.60). It was also evident that these species have regional importance, due to the fact that they are cited in various studies conducted in Northern and Northeast Brazil. There was no significant difference between the species regarding habitat, according to the Kruskal-Wallis test ( ; ).

The therapeutic indications were grouped into 16 body systems (Figure 3). Of these, only two categories did not appear for the fresh water species: neoplasias and problems relating to pregnancy, birth, and puerperium. Two categories did not appear among salt water species: sensory system disorders and undefined pains/disorders.

The systems with the greatest diversity of species included disorders of the respiratory system (e.g., asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia) and wounds, poisonings and other results from external causes (e.g., wounds caused by the fish itself, burns, and scarring). In spite of the fact that 57% of systems had greater diversity for fresh water than for salt water species, no significant differences in species wealth were observed ( ) between the two groups.

Often, a single species is the source of treatment for many diseases and infirmities [27]. Among the most versatile species are Hoplias malabaricus, Electrophorus electricus, Hippocampus reidi, Hippocampus erectus, and Phractocephalus hemiliopterus. The trahira (Hoplias malabaricus) was very versatile in treating 35% of therapeutic indications, ranging from bone and respiratory problems to alcoholism and snakebite. The electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) and the longsnout seahorse (Hippocampus reidi) treated 23% of indications each, and the redtail catfish (Phractocephalus hemiliopterus) and another species of seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) each treated 12%. It should be noted that seahorses and the trahira are heavily commercialized in Northeast Brazil [9, 51].

Although a particular species can be associated with various indications, these therapeutic uses may be associated with the use of different parts of the animal. The head of Hoplias malabaricus (trahira) is used for treatment of tetanus [38], while its scales are used to combat stroke [20], and the fat and skin secretion are indicated as a remedy for alcoholism [16, 27]. Another example of therapeutic versatility is found in Electrophorus electricus (electric eel), whose bones are used to treat snakebite [31], while the fat is associated with other indications, such as pains [26, 28, 31], rheumatism [79, 17, 26, 27, 31, 37], colds [31], asthma [31, 37], and pneumonia [8, 37].

Among the fish parts most commonly employed for the production of zootherapeutic products, fat stood out with a 40% use occurrence. Fish fat is indicated for various infirmities and diseases. Its use recurs often in popular medicine [31]; fat has been documented as the most commonly used animal part in various studies [8, 35]. In India, the fat from various animals is indicated for combating all types of pain, impotence, burns, and paralysis [52]. The widespread use of fat can be related to the ease of its extraction. Additionally, it can be preserved at room temperature for long periods [29].

The use of various other parts of fish has also been recorded, including teeth, eyes, gall, liver, wattles, otoliths, fins, and stingers. Many fish parts used in zootherapy are not used for other purposes, such as scales and leathers, to maximize the use of local resources [35]. Another method for keeping therapeutic resources available are food taboos, through which the consumption of some of these species would lead to negative consequences, thereby keeping these animals available in case of necessity (Figure 4) [31].

In addition to dead animals and their parts, the use of living animals is a recurring practice in traditional medicine systems and is a part of the beliefs and “spells” in local systems [22]. A mystical use has been reported for the species Synbranchus marmoratus (marbled swamp eel) and Callichthys callichthys (armored catfish) [39] in the treatment of asthma; namely, one should spit in the mouth of a living animal, and then put it back in the river.

Another demonstration of aspects associated with popular medicine occurs when the morphology exhibited by the animal inspires its therapeutic application. Sometimes the morphology of the animal and/or the organs utilized is associated with the part of the human body to be treated because the similarities are interpreted as indicative of a potential benefit [35]. Moura and Marques [35] recorded the use of the common wood catfish (Trachelyopterus galeatus) in the treatment of impotence, due to the species’ large, fringed testicles.

Zootherapy has been the focus of increasing attention from the pharmaceutical industry [7]. These industries have used the biologically active components present in traditional medicines as sources for the production of many drugs [53]. Compounds extracted from fish are already used in official medicine, such as Tetrodotoxin, which originates from pufferfish and possesses a powerful anesthetic effect [5456]. Other widely distributed compounds from fish, omega-3 fatty acids, are associated with the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, kidney disease, and inflammation [57].

The exploitation of medicinal fauna resources by local populations and the pharmaceutical industry has had a negative impact on several species, with their survival threatened by overexploitation [10, 58]. Among the fish used therapeutically in Brazil, three species can be singled out as having an elevated danger of extinction and are included in the “vulnerable” category by the IUCN [59]: Atlantoraja cyclophora, Balistes vetula, and Hippocampus erectus. Sphyrna lewini is in the “in danger” category, with a very high risk of extinction, and Pristis perotetti and Pristis pectinata are “in critical danger.” Among these species are four cartilaginous fishes that have low levels of fecundity, such as the ray, the hammerhead shark, and the swordfish. Seahorses (Hippocampus spp.) are considered susceptible to exploitation and are threatened worldwide due to excessive use and destruction of habitat due to their high monetary value and potential for commercialization [51] (Figure 5). The species H. reidi, currently listed in the “insufficient data” category, is widely commercialized for medicinal purposes throughout Brazil and exhibits low reproduction and high mortality rates in initial phases [60].

However, the great majority of fish identified in this survey have not yet been evaluated by the IUCN, or there is insufficient data for analysis (Figure 6). This fact highlights the scarcity of knowledge regarding the true situation of these fish, demonstrating the need for studies directed toward those species that are used medicinally to preserve these resources and all aspects linked to them. Also, there is no significant differences in the relative importance (RI) between IUCN categories according to the Kruskall-Wallis test ( ).

In addition, the extinction of some species could compromise both traditional knowledge and the discovery of new drugs [61] because these species could disappear before science becomes aware of their potential. The growing demand for the biotic resources used in traditional medicine is due to the increasing quantity of studies that demonstrate the efficacy of their use, drawing the attention of the pharmaceutical industry [62].

Extractivism is generally the only method for obtaining zootherapeutic resources, highlighting the need to add these species to conservation efforts by including creatures involved in zootherapeutic practices in planning for the management of fauna. Both the local population and the pharmaceutical industries can contribute in different ways to the maintenance of these resources. In addition, it is also necessary to understand the ecology and biology of the species used in medicine to propose effective strategies for managing these resources.

Final Considerations

We highlight the importance of fish in zootherapeutic practices in Brazil, emphasizing the knowledge gap that must be explored in ethnobiological and pharmacological research in the country. The Northeast region represents the major center for research on this subject, both in terms of the large number of publications and the number of local researchers.

We recommend greater investment in exploration projects for fish, especially in inland water resources, associating ecological parameters that drive population dynamics to better understand the relationships of humans with these resources. This will enable more efficient management proposals for the conservation of these species and their associated ecosystems and will allow for the perpetuation of traditional medical practices.


This paper is the contribution P002 of the Rede de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Saberes Locais (REBISA-Network of Research in Biodiversity and Local Knowledge), with financial support from FACEPE (Foundation for Science and Technology) to the project Núcleo de Pesquisa em Ecologia, Conservação e Potencial de Uso de Recursos Biológicos no Semiárido do Nordeste do Brazil (Center for Research in Ecology, Conservation and Potential Use of Biological Resources in the semiarid region of Northeastern Brazil: APQ-1264-2.05/10).


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