Iberian small-head barbel (Luciobarbus microcephalus)

Iberian small-head barbel leaping weir on spawing migration
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Iberian small-head barbel fact file

Iberian small-head barbel description

GenusLuciobarbus (1)

Although similar to most other Iberian barbels in overall size (2) (3), the Iberian small-head barbel (Luciobarbus microcephalus) is distinguished by its proportionately small head in relation to the body (2). The upperparts of this fish are variable in colour, but are usually brown to olive-brown with yellowish or golden tones, or sometimes completely silver. The underparts are paler. Smaller individuals, below about 15 centimetres in length, are mottled on the back and sides (2).

The Iberian small-head barbel has a relatively large dorsal fin, with a somewhat concave back edge. The last simple (unbranched) ray of this fin is thick and bony, and is strongly serrated along most of its length (2) (3). The female Iberian small-head barbel generally reaches a larger size than the male, and also has a proportionately larger anal fin, which is probably used to dig a hollow in the substrate during egg-laying. Males can also be distinguished by the presence of small projections, known as nuptial tubercles, which appear on the front part of the head during the breeding season (2) (3).

Like other barbel species, the Iberian small-head barbel has four fleshy barbels around the mouth (4), which in this species are quite thin and short in relation to the head (2) (3). The Iberian small-head barbel has thin lips, which are somewhat retracted, not covering the tip of the jaw (2) (3) (5). It can sometimes be difficult to identify Luciobarbus species due to some individuals appearing intermediate in form, possibly as a result of hybridisation between different species (2) (6).

Barbus microcephalus.
Length: up to 59.2 cm (2)

Iberian small-head barbel biology

The diet of the Iberian small-head barbel varies seasonally, but consists mainly of invertebrates and their larvae, detritus, sediments and plant material, particularly algae (2) (5) (7). As an individual grows, the proportion of plant material and sediment in its diet increases (2) (7). Like other members of the Cyprinidae family, the Iberian small-head barbel lacks teeth in the jaws, but has a specialised pair of enlarged bones in the throat that possess ‘pharyngeal teeth’, used to process food (4).

Very little is known about the reproductive behaviour of the Iberian small-head barbel. However, it has been recorded spawning between April and June (2) (3), after migrating upriver to shallower, faster-flowing waters (2). During these migrations, the adult barbels may move through very shallow water or even leap over obstacles in their path. After spawning, the adults return to deeper waters (2). The Iberian small-head barbel has been recorded living to at least eight years old (2) (7).


Iberian small-head barbel range

The Iberian small-head barbel is endemic to the Iberian Peninsula, occuring in the Guadiana river basin of Spain and Portugal (1) (2) (3) (5) (6). It also occurs in a small part of the Tajo River, where it may have been introduced (1) (2) (3).


Iberian small-head barbel habitat

The Iberian small-head barbel inhabits the middle and lower reaches of rivers, where it prefers deep, slow-moving water (1) (2) (3) (5) (6). It has also been recorded in reservoirs (1) (2) (3) (6).


Iberian small-head barbel status

The Iberian small-head barbel is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Iberian small-head barbel threats

The Iberian small-head barbel is declining due to a combination of habitat loss, habitat alteration and the introduction of non-native fish species. Water extraction and infrastructure such as dams have affected the natural flow regimes of rivers, while the extraction of aggregates such as gravel and sand has affected this species’ spawning grounds. Pollution has also affected water quality (1) (2) (3) (5) (6).

Introduced, non-native fish species such as the pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus), black bullhead (Ameiurus melas), largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) and pike (Esox lucius) present a threat to many endemic fish in the region, through predation, competition or the spread of disease (1) (2) (3) (6). The Iberian small-head barbel is also sometimes illegally poached in its spawning grounds, where the shallower water leaves the adults more exposed (2).


Iberian small-head barbel conservation

In addition to being listed on Annex III of the Bern Convention (8) and Annex V of the European Union Habitats Directive (9), the Iberian small-head barbel is listed as Near Threatened on the Portuguese Red Book (6) and as Rare on the Spanish Red Book (3).

There are no specific conservation measures currently known to be targeted at this fish (2) (3), but a range of actions have been recommended. For example, the Iberian small-head barbel would benefit from better protection of its habitat, including improvements in water quality, controlling water extraction, and assessing the impacts of infrastructure such as dams. Non-native species need to be controlled and any further introductions prevented (2) (3) (6). The Iberian small-head barbel would also benefit from population monitoring and further research into its biology and ecology (2) (6).


Find out more

Find out more about the Iberian small-head barbel and its conservation:



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Simple plants that lack roots, stems and leaves but contain the green pigment chlorophyll. Most occur in marine and freshwater habitats.
Anal fin
In fish, an unpaired fin on the under surface of a fish, behind the anus.
Fleshy projections near the mouth of some aquatic vertebrates.
Litter formed from fragments of dead material.
Dorsal fin
The unpaired fin found on the back of the body of fish, or the raised structure on the back of most cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
Cross-breeding between two different species or subspecies.
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
Stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
The production or depositing of large quantities of eggs in water.


  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
  2. López, R.M. (2010) Barbo cabecicorto - Luciobarbus microcephalus (Almaça, 1967). In: Salvador, A. and Elvira, B. (Eds.) Enciclopedia Virtual de los Vertebrados Españoles. Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid. Available at:
  3. Doadrio, I. (2001) Atlas y Libro Rojo de los Peces Continentales de España. Dirección General de Conservación de la Naturaleza, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid. Available at:
  4. Campbell, A. and Dawes, J. (2004) Encyclopedia of Underwater Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. FishBase - Luciobarbus microcephalus (May, 2011)
  6. Cabral, M.J., Almeida, J., Almeida, P.R., Dellinger, T., Ferrand de Almeida, N., Oliveira, M.E., Palmeirim, J.M., Queiroz, A.L., Rogado, L. and Santos-Reis, M. (2005) Livro Vermelho dos Vertebrados de Portugal. Instituto de Conservação da Naturaleza e da Biodiversidade, Lisbon. Available at:
  7. Pires, A.M., Cowx, I.G. and Coelho, M.M. (2001) Diet and growth of two sympatric Iberian barbel, Barbus steindachneri and Barbus microcephalus, in the middle reaches of the Guadiana Basin (Portugal). Folia Zoologica, 50(4): 291-304.
  8. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (May, 2011)
  9. EU Habitats Directive (May, 2011)

Image credit

Iberian small-head barbel leaping weir on spawing migration  
Iberian small-head barbel leaping weir on spawing migration

© Dr. Ricardo Morán López

Ricardo Moran-Lopez
Group of Investigacion on Conservation Biology (G.I.C.)
University of Extremadura Avda. de Elvas s/n
Tel: +34924289300 ext 6975
Fax: +34924289417


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