Background Management and conservation of biodiversity requires adequate species inventories. The Yasuní National Park is one of the most diverse regions on Earth and recent studies of terrestrial vertebrates, based on genetic evidence, have shown high levels of cryptic and undescribed diversity. Few genetic studies have been carried out in freshwater fishes from western Amazonia. Thus, in contrast with terrestrial vertebrates, their content of cryptic diversity remains unknown. In this study, we carried out genetic and morphological analyses on characin fishes at Yasuní National Park, in eastern Ecuador. Our goal was to identify cryptic diversity among one of the most speciose fish families in the Amazon region. This is the first time that genetic evidence has been used to assess the species content of the Napo Basin, one of the richest regions in vertebrate diversity. Results Phylogenetic analyses of partial mitochondrial 16S ribosomal RNA gene (∼600 pb) DNA sequences from 232 specimens of the family Characidae and its closest groups revealed eight candidate new species among 33 species sampled, representing a 24% increase in species number. Analyses of external morphology allowed us to confirm the species status of six of the candidate species. Conclusions Our results show high levels of cryptic diversity in Amazonian characins. If this group is representative of other Amazonian fish, our results would imply that the species richness of the Amazonian ichthyofauna is highly underestimated. Molecular methods are a necessary tool to obtain more realistic inventories of Neotropical freshwater fishes.