Catfish - The Basics

Discussion in 'Articles' started by SalmonAfrica, May 2, 2010.

  1. SalmonAfrica

    SalmonAfrica Batfish

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    Catfish - A guide to the groups commonly kept in aquaria

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    When one thinks of a catfish, almost immediately you’ll be thinking of a fish will whiskers on its face – and that’s probably their most defining characteristic: their filamentous barbells that are found around their mouths. With about 2500 species found across the globe, the catfish group (known scientifically as Siluriformes) are one of the diverse groups of fish on the planet, being found on every continent (except Antarctica), in freshwater, brackish, and marine environments. Within these habitats, there are those that are predators, those that are vegetarians, and those that have a bit of both; some hold the stereotypical image on a sluggish bottom dweller, while others occupy the upper water column. Such diversity is reflected in the hobby, and the aquarist has such a range of catfish to choose from – even among the more common stock – that the idea of it is almost bewildering.

    This guide aims to inform both the beginner and advanced aquarist about the more common catfish in the hobby. While individual species aren’t spoken about, the families in which they belong to are discussed, providing general information about the family that can be applied to the fishes throughout that family*.

    *Do bear in mind that each species is unique – before the purchase of any fish, be it catfish or not, it is highly recommended that you do as much research as possible as to assure that the proper care can be provided for your pet. Websites, books and your local pet store are all good sources of information.

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    NB: Before purchase
    Besides the reading up and research that should be conducted beforehand, one should also keep a few general pointers in their head when looking at buying a catfish. There are times when catfish at the local pet store are malnourished, either because they’re being kept in tanks with overly-competitive species, or because they simply refuse to eat (commonly because they’re being offered the wrong foods). As a result, it’s best to do two general checks on a catfish (as well as any other fish) before purchase.
    Firstly, take a look at the underside of the catfish to see how well nourished it is. On most species, it is easy to tell if the fish is being well fed or not – the stomach should either be flat or convex, and bones shouldn’t be apparent from the outside (this doesn’t apply to see-though and armoured catfishes, obviously). Starved or undernourished fish will have a concave stomach. These fish are not only lacking nutrition, but may be hard to get back to feeding as well. Some fish have concave stomachs due to an internal infestation of parasitic worms, and such specimens should be avoided all the same.
    Secondly, check if the catfish is feeding. Ask a staff member to add the correct food to the tank and make sure that the fish is eagerly taking foods. Fish that reluctantly take foods might be ill, or otherwise shy, a common problem with catfish. Regardless, it is important to know that the catfish is feeding, as this makes your task of raising it a lot easier. Getting a fish that isn’t eating in the first place to feed can be a mission and a half. If the fish you intend on buying is a shy/nocturnal species, judge its health on external looks, as that’s the best you can do, really.

    In some catfish, such as the armoured suckermouth catfish (plecos and otos) and glass catfish (Asian species, Kryptopterus, and African species, Pareutropius), it can be difficult to tell whether or not the fish is undernourished or not. A lot of the time it can be hit-and-miss, but as a general guide, if the glass catfish looks happy, healthy and active, they’re doing alright. Plecos can be a little harder to work with, so checking their undersides for emaciation (hollow-looking bellies) is your best bet.



    Catfish in General

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    Really, by no means should these paragraphs ever be written, as I know many serious catfish keepers would shun me for writing such paragraphs – after all, catfish are all far too diverse to write a single paragraph on how to keep them all. However, what is to be summed up here are some very important pointers that will apply when keeping most kinds of catfish. Everything else that isn’t mentioned here, you’d simply so as you’d normally had done with any aquarium.



    The tank itself: Many people make the mistake of putting catfish in an aquarium that is far too small for it, using the excuse that “it’s a catfish, they hardly move all dayâ€. To be fair, they’re half right – if they’re nocturnal, they will hardly move at all during the day. But once the lights go out, you’ll be utterly amazed how your once ‘lazy’ catfish is now moving around. Be sure to accommodate your fish properly – some catfish are nocturnal, using the same amount of space that any regular fish would use. Other catfish are extremely active hunters, often darting around the aquarium when looking for food; an aquarium that is too small will confine such active creatures and as such the animals themselves may damage themselves on the glass, due to lack of space.



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    The substrate: there are those catfish which spend the majority of their time on the floor of the tank, active or not. It is important therefore to carefully consider what kind of substrate you’re going to use when housing a sedentary catfish. Avoid sharp, large, angular gravel, as catfish rooting around such substratum is likely to cut itself on such gravel – bear in mind that catfish lack protective scales, so damage to the skin is more likely. Generally fine sand should be used for catfish, as it can easily be burrowed into if the catfish possesses such habits, or food can be grubbed for without fears of damage.

    The substrate should also be kept clean, usually done so by the use of a gravel vacuum. If the gravel is left unattended, it can turn foul quite quickly. Catfish (or any bottom dwelling fish for that matter) are most exposed to this polluted area, and, infections resulting from this are not uncommon. A clear sign of unclean substrate is when the barbells of a sedentary catfish start to turn white, and then degenerate. In the worst cases, the barbells may degenerate altogether.



    Food: seeing as different catfish eat different things in different environments in different places all around the world, it’s hard to say exactly you should go about feeding catfish in general. In my experience, use the food that sinks – rarely will a catfish ever come to the surface to feed, not unless it’s become tame, in which case some species are known to feed from the surface (especially plecos, Synodontis and some of the larger catfish).

    Vareity is as important to catfish as it is to any other pet or aquarium fish. You’ll find that a lot of what you eat is suitable to feed to your fish, after a good wash – most veggies are good for the herbivores, and uncooked, unseasoned meat is good for the carnivores (although its best to avoid mammalian meats and very fatty foods if possible – catfish will have a hard time digesting those). As a staple diet, any standard aquarium pellets or frozen food will do, depending on what species you keep.

    Also bear in mind that your catfish may not be a competitive feeder. A general remedy for this is to feed once the lights turn out. Otherwise another method is ‘target feeding’ – this involves using methods of getting the food directly to the fish itself. Among such methods includes using aquarium tongs and placing the food near to where the catfish is residing, or using a 2 litre coke bottle with the bottom cut off, and sinking the food through there such that the food sinks to where the catfish is while blocking off the other fish from the food. It’s up to you, but make sure that your catfish is getting fed.



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    The decor: probably one of the most important aspects of a catfish aquarium – although what kind of decor you use, and how much, depends of the species being kept. For the shyer species, plenty of rockwork, wood, and pipes should be used; on the other hand, for active species, more open space should be provided, only building up decor on the sides and back of the tank.

    The majority of catfish enjoy having a place to hide, and such places can be created from leaning rocks or wood together, buying artificial caves, or providing clay pipes or pots.

    Any rocks that are used in the tank shouldn’t bear any sharp edges – if they do, consider smoothing them down. As mentioned earlier, catfish lack the protective scales common on other types of fish, and as a result can be more vulnerable to injury and infection. A startled catfish may dart away from the perceived danger, and sharp decor in the tank can pose a serious threat in these instances.

    Plants, as with any other decor, depend again on the species. Not many catfish are out-and-out plant munchers, but softer-leaved and young plants may fall victim to some types of plecos. Whether live or plastic plants are incorporated into the tank, be sure to secure them properly, as any catfishes’ foraging activity is likely to uproot the plants. Place rocks or pebbles around the base of the plants for extra security.



    Lighting: it’s hard to say that all catfish don’t appreciate bright light, but I can find very few that do. You’ll actually find that even with shy species, that if the lighting is subdued, they’re more likely to become more active during the day. Generally, all you need is enough light so that you can see the fish, and if you keep to that, most catfish will be happy.



    Illness: Lacking scales and having somewhat sensitive skin, catfish can be more prone to certain illnesses than other fish, and beyond that, can be sensitive to certain medications as well. As a result, unless otherwise stated on the packaging, use half the recommended dosage for medications in tanks containing catfish (and other scaleless fish). Because less of the medication will be used (less effective), other methods may have to be used simultaneously, such as turning up the temperature or using aquarium salts, depending on the ailment of course.



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    THE CATFISH FAMILIES



    Below is a basic introduction to the most commonly encountered catfish in the hobby in South Africa. With each paragraph is some background information on the family, some of the more commonly seen species from each group, as well as basic care requirements and pointers for keeping each group.



    Suckermouth Catfish (family Loricariidae)

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    Most commonly known as and referred to as Plecos or Algae Eaters, these fish are probably one of the most well known group of catfish. They can be found in all sorts of habitats across South America. While they’re most popularly sold as community algae eaters, this is a diverse group that has herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores too. Besides diet, they can hugely vary in size, from minute species of 5cm to monsters as big as 50cm and upwards. With such diversity, it’s important to know what kind of Suckermouth catfish you’re going home with.

    As said before, they are popularly sold as algae eaters. However, it is very important to include other foodstuff in their diet as well, as plecos can easily starve to death if expected to sustain themselves on algae. First and foremost, they need greenery in their diet – peas, cucumber, and even carrot slices are all appreciated by suckermouth cats. Alternatively, there are also sinking pellets especially for plecos available at pet stores.

    Having some form of wood in the tank (driftwood, bogwood) is beneficial for most suckermouth species, as they will occasionally rasp on such wood, which acts as an additional source of fibre for them.



    Mailed Catfish (family Callichthydae)

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    What makes this group of South American catfish so well known is the genus Corydoras, or as they’re affectionately known in the hobby, Corys. However, these aren’t the only fish in this group – several larger species, such as those in the genera Megalechis and Hoplosternum (The Hoplo cats), are also quite popular. Nearly all species in this family are very easy to keep, rarely growing to sizes that exclude them from the list of suitable community fish.

    Corys in particular are pretty much all the same as far as captive care goes, being tolerant of a wide variation in water quality. Another great thing about them is that there are in excess of 100 species of Corydoras, making choices in colour and uniqueness large.

    Unfortunately, they’re most often sold as ‘scavngers’ or ‘clean-up crew’ for freshwater community tanks, which is cruel in the sense that they receive less food than they should be. As with any bottom dweller, be sure to feed sinking foods to ensure that your catfish are well nourished.



    Antenna Catfish (family Pimelodidae)

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    While there a great number of catfish in this family – all well known for their very long barbells – by far the most often seen are the catfish giants of the aquarium world, among them the Red-Tail Catfish (Phractocephalus hemiolopterus) and the Tiger Shovelnose (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum), both capable of growing to over a meter in length. Besides these, others of much smaller size are also popular among hobbyists, like the Pictus Catfish (Pimelodus pictus). All fish in this family are carnivores (quite a few are active predators), and as such it is important to add such catfish to the aquarium with caution. They are an exclusively South American family.

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    Talking Catfish (family Doradidae)

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    Another South American group, they are so named because they make audible grunting and rasping sounds (especially when netted out the tank), this group consists of rather inconspicuous species that don’t make particularly interesting show fish; however, they are interesting in their own right, having a uniqueness about them. All are known to have very sharp and occasionally serrated fins and bodies, and as such be very careful when handling fish from this family. They often get tangled in nets and are known for puncturing plastic bag, and it may be best to capture and transport them in glass or solid plastic containers.



    African Upisde-Down Catfish (family Mochokidae)

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    This catfish family has species from nearly every corner of the African continent. The only catfish that we see in South Africa from this group are from the genus Synodontis, to which the popular Upside-down catfish (Synodontis nigriventris) and Featherfin catfish (S. eupterus) belong. Despite the common name for the family, not all species in the group exercise the habit of swimming upside down, and some only do so irregularly. Synodontis make interesting and lively pets, often coming out during the day and sometimes even eating from the surface – upside down.

    http://i264.photobucket.com/albums/ii168/SalmonAfrica/IMG_0082-1.jpg[/IMG]

    Above: the ‘branched’ barbells typical of African upside-down catfish





    Banjo Catfish (family Aspredinidae)

    While not a majorly popular or conspicuous group, these catfish are seen with some regularity in pet stores and are taken home as ‘oddities’ for the home aquarium. Once they’ve settled into the tank, however, it’s not likely that you’ll see much of them again – they’re experts of camouflage, not only looking just like a dead leaf lying on the substratum, they’re also known to bury themselves in the gravel. Some specimens will refuse dry foods, and some will only eat once the lights are out. Since they’re not very competitive feeders, hang around the tank to make sure that they’re actually getting food.



    Bagrids (family Bagridae)

    http://i264.photobucket.com/albums/ii168/SalmonAfrica/IMG_0108-1.jpg

    Not an immensely popular or often seen group, Bagrids hail from Asia and include a host of interesting species. They come in from time to time, but because of their usually secretive habits, you’ll have to look for them among the dealer’s tanks to find them. Some species stay extremely small, while others grow large and boisterous – make sure to do plenty of research before taking any of these home, as many species can look alike.



    Shark Catfish (family Pangasiidae)

    http://i264.photobucket.com/albums/ii168/SalmonAfrica/hifinpangasius140cm.jpg[/IMG]

    http://i264.photobucket.com/albums/ii168/SalmonAfrica/pangasius115cm.jpg

    In my opinion, the most unsuitable fish in the aquarium hobby. The vast majority of this family grow into giants – the largest freshwater fish belongs to this group: The Mekong Catfish ([I]Pangasiodon gigas[/I]) is fully grown at a whopping 3 meters. While that fish is fortunately not for sale for ornamental use, two of its relatives are: [I]Pangasius hyphophthalmus[/I] with a potential size of over a meter and [I]Pangasius sangitswongei[/I] capable of growing to just under two meters. Beside their enormous size, these are active schooling fish, found in large rivers of moderate flow. To provide such conditions in captivity is only something to be attempted by public aquariums. Please, by all means, avoid purchasing fish from this family.


    [SIZE=4][B][/B]
    [B]Sheath Catfish (family Siluridae)[/B][/SIZE]

    A unique group found across Europe and Asia, only a one is ever seen in South African pet stores – the Glass catfish, [I]Kryptopterus minor[/I]. The most interesting aspect about these fish is the fact that they have completely translucent bodies, where one can easily see their internal organs and skeleton. They can sometimes be difficult to acclimatize to a community setup, partly because of their inherent shyness and refusal to accept dry foods. Eventually they may come to accept dry foods. It is important to have a group of at least 5 individuals or more; single specimens or small groups tend to shy away and may refuse to eat. The addition of a mild current in the tank is said to be beneficial to these river-dwelling catfish.



    [B][SIZE=4]Sea-Catfish (family Ariidae)[/SIZE][/B]

    [IMG]http://i264.photobucket.com/albums/ii168/SalmonAfrica/SharkCat.jpg

    A very attractive group of catfish that have a global distribution, they are most interesting because of their tendency to live in marine or brackish environments, and occasionally freshwater as well. The most popular member of this family (and only one seen in the hobby with any regularity) is the so-called Silver Shark Catfish, [I]Hexanematichthys seemani[/I]. While its shark-like swimming habits, activeness and silvery sheen may lend one to thinking they may be a good aquarium occupant, several considerations should be taken into account. First of all and most importantly, these fish are brackish/marine fish. While the pet store will sell small specimens in fresh water, as they grow older they begin to need more salt in their water.

    Secondly, they have a decent potential adult size of roughly 30cm. Besides the space required (especially since they're active), their size also means that they have a large mouth, easily capable of swallowing smaller fish. [/FONT]


    [B][IMG]http://i264.photobucket.com/albums/ii168/SalmonAfrica/IMG_1634-1.jpg[/B]
     
    Bazil, Gert Combrink, Zoom and 2 others like this.
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  3. speedz

    speedz In need of a fishroom....

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    very nice article plus great pics!
     
  4. Gert Combrink

    Gert Combrink Active Member

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    Great Article SalmonAfrica!
    Awaiting your follow up!
    Gert
     
  5. Nirv

    Nirv P. fasciatum

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    As a fan of catfish, this gets a major thumbs-up!
     
  6. AidanEel

    AidanEel Active Member

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    +1

    I have quite a few catfish, they are by far some of the most interesting creatures to keep.
     
  7. Zoom

    Zoom Retired Moderator

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    Thanks SA. That was a GRET read, and VERY informative.
     
  8. Nawaaz

    Nawaaz Tanganykman

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    Nice man. Thanks for sharing this article
     
  9. OP
    SalmonAfrica

    SalmonAfrica Batfish

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    Thanks for the kind comments everyone :)

    It's just a pity I couldn't get any pictures of a few of those families, having never kept them before. Hopefully the next time I do an article (if applicable) I'll be able to get shots of everything I write about.
     
  10. Reafer

    Reafer Active Member

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    :cheers::top:awesome post m8
     
  11. Jenn

    Jenn Retired Moderator

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    "Bagrids (family Bagridae)"

    Hi Tim

    Could you please help? Do you know the specific species of the fish you have pictured under bagrids? The reason I ask is that I was sold some fish that I was told were Corys. However, their behaviour is very different from my other Corys. In fact they seemed a little aggressive when I first put them in the tank. Now they hide under rocks and only come out at night. They look a hell of a lot like your bagrid. :eek:

    I have read that some Bagrids can be aggressive & grow big. Mine are currently about 3 cm, but I'm worried that I've introduced potential killers to my peaceful tank (Swordtails, Angels, Corys) - not to mention seriously messing with my South American theme :bigsmile:

    PS - great info, thanks
     
  12. OP
    SalmonAfrica

    SalmonAfrica Batfish

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    Hi Jenn

    I'm very sorry to tell you that the fish you have, if it's the same as the one pictured, is among the least suitable community fish available. It is an Asian Upside-down catfish, which can grow up to a foot (30cm) long and doesn't tolerate other fish well. I highly recommend returning it to the pet store as soon as you can, as they get more and more boisterous as they grow.

    Good luck and happy fishkeeping
     
  13. Jenn

    Jenn Retired Moderator

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    I was worried about that :( Thanks for the reply. The problem is, it seems cruel to return them to the pet store after they've enjoyed clean water and uncrowded conditions. So, before I give in to MTS ;) ... Anybody out there looking for Asian Upside-down catfish?
     
  14. manicmonkey

    manicmonkey Active Member

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    we have a banjo cat fish and they are absolute stunners (when you see him ) its one of those gem's in the tank that just makes your day when u see it
     
  15. EnvironmentalBro

    EnvironmentalBro Active Member

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    +1 Excellent article, Catfish :thrasher:
     
  16. Zuraki

    Zuraki Active Member

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  17. Catfreak

    Catfreak Active Member

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    AWESOME READ...I love my upside down catfish.He's a real character and "parades" around my tank.He doesn't really bother anyone...maybe due to the fact he's the smallest of my cats. He's got a rtc and 2 large pangasius to contend with.
     
  18. dash

    dash Well Known Member

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    A really good article thank you
     
  19. OP
    SalmonAfrica

    SalmonAfrica Batfish

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    Thank you very much @dash

    I've been wanting to re-write this article since posting it - I've learned so much more since then, and taken many more photos suitable to the topic. Given academic pressure, though, it's a no-go for now. One day I'll write up a much more comprehensive article (or, preferably, a set of linked articles) to better help out local aquarists.

    Regards,
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 2, 2016
  20. scales don

    scales don Member

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    please can anyone give me a list of african freshwater cats that are blacklisted e.g. schilbids? or any such african butters or glass please
     
  21. OP
    SalmonAfrica

    SalmonAfrica Batfish

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    Looking through it quickly:

    Amarginops platus
    Several Amphilius spp.
    Auchenoglanis spp.
    Austroglanis spp.
    Bagrus spp.
    Bathyclarias spp.
    Chrysichthys spp.
    Clarias spp.
    Gephyroglanis spp.
    Gymnallabes spp.
    Heterobranchus longifilis
    Leptoglanis spp.
    Malapterus spp.
    Parauchenoglanis spp.
    Schilbe spp.
    A handful of Synodontis spp. (all quite southern in distribution - none of the common ones)

    The list we have mentions a "Schilbecces" - a genus I cannot find anything about, and have doubts in whether that was correctly spelt. There are several mispellings in that list. Also, I am not familiar with all the African catfish genera so I may have missed quite a few. Best check against the SA freshwater fish blacklist to be sure.

    Regards,
     

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