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Tilapia is the generic name for a type of tropical spiny-finned fish that is native to Africa and some countries in the Middle East, such as Israel and Jordan. It is a freshwater fish whose natural habitat includes shallow lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. Belonging to the Cichlid family of fish, it has an oval shape, a thin body and long dorsal fins. Spines are located on the anal and pelvic fins, and the forward part of the dorsal fin is densely spined. Many species have vertical bars of color running down their sides.
There are nearly 100 species of the Cichlid family that are given the common name of tilapia. The name is actually the Latinized version of thiape, a Bantu word from southern Africa meaning “fish.” Legend has given it another name, St. Peter’s fish. According to tradition, it is the fish that Jesus served to the multitudes. A few tilapia species still inhabit the Sea of Galilee.
Although there are many varieties, tilapia do share a few general characteristics. All of the species are intolerant to cool water temperatures. In addition, all form pairs, all are nest builders and, usually, both parents defend the eggs and fry. Some of the species do not nest in bottom soil or rocks but are mouthbrooders, carrying the eggs and fry in their mouths instead. The species eats a variety of food organisms, from decomposing organic matter through larval fish, and is regarded as a filter feeder because it can harvest plankton from the water.
For thousands of years, tilapia have been of major importance as a source of food. The culture and farming of tilapia in ornamental ponds is shown on the wall of an Egyptian tomb believed to be more than 4,000 years old. Tilapia remained a fish localized to Africa and the Middle East until the 1940s and 1950s, when it began to be introduced worldwide as a source of aquaculture to Asia, South America and the United States. Today, tilapia is a worldwide industry and is regarded as one of the most important fish in aquaculture.
Consumers have come to value the fish for its mild taste, firm flesh and nutrients. All of the species eat a mainly vegetarian diet, so they naturally have very low levels of mercury. Research has indicated that the species might not be as rich in omega-3 fatty acids as some other fish, such as salmon, are. It generally is advised that an individual incorporating tilapia into his or her diet also continue eating other fish species as well.