• Species: Synodontis decorus

  • Species: Synodontis brichardi

  • Species: Synodontis eupterus

  • Species: Synodontis flavitaeniatus

  • Species: Synodontis nigriventris

  • Species: Synodontis notatus

  • Species: Synodontis angelicus

  • Species: Synodontis brichardii

  • Species: Synodontis decorus

  • Species: Synodontis eupterus

  • Species: Synodontis flavitaeniatus

  • Species: Synodontis multipunctatus

  • Species: Synodontis petricola

Squeakers and Synos: hardy African catfish

18 February 2018


The family Mochokidae is one of the smaller catfish families, but it is very well known among aquarists thanks to the diverse and adaptable genus Synodontis. These catfish come from a wide range of habitats, from fast-flowing mountain streams through to the giant Rift Valley lakes of East Africa. A few species are even found in slightly brackish deltas and estuaries.

On the plus side, Synodontis catfish tend to be very hardy, and given at least basic care can be expected to live for a very long time, well over 15 years in many cases. They are very undemanding with regard to water chemistry, and apart from those species adapted to the alkaline water conditions in Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika, most will do equally well in both soft and hard water aquaria.

But on the debit side must be placed the legendary reticence of these species when kept in brightly lit tanks. These fish abhor strong light, and most are very nocturnal in their habits. Rocks, bogwood roots, and especially floating plants will provide the shade they need, but even then, some species will only very rarely swim about during the daylight hours.

Maintenance

As noted earlier, water chemistry is not a critical issue with most species. Anything in the range pH 6-8, 5-20 degrees dH will be acceptable to the vast majority of riverine species including such popular species as Synodontis angelica, Synodontis euptera, and Synodontis nigriventris.

The species from Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika are slightly fussier, and shouldn’t be kept in tanks with soft, acidic water. Instead, ensure that the pH is around 7.5-8.2 and the hardness above 10 degrees dH. Such conditions will suit species like Synodontis multipunctata, Synodontis njassae, and Synodontis petricola.

In other regards Synodontis are much like other catfish. They appreciate good water quality, a moderate to strong water current, lots of hiding places, and a varied diet. By default, these catfish feed primarily on algae and insect larvae, though the larger species often augment this diet with things like snails and shrimps. In the aquarium they do very well on a typical catfish diet of frozen bloodworms, chopped seafood, catfish pellets, and algae wafers.

Synodontis are prone to burning themselves on glass heaters. Either use a heater that goes outside the aquarium (such as the Hydor ETH or an Eheim Thermofilter) or else fit a plastic guard to the heater so that the catfish cannot get too close to it.

Social behaviour

The smaller Synodontis tend to be schooling fish, as is the case with the popular species Synodontis nigriventris. Keep these species in groups of three or more for best results.

Most of the larger sized species are also tolerant of their own kind, and if kept in small groups may even be more outgoing than if kept singly. This is certainly the case with things like Synodontis euptera and Synodontis decora, which do particularly well in large tanks with plenty of hiding places, so individuals can congregate or spread out however they wish.

Only exceptionally do Synodontis become so territorial as they mature that keeping multiple specimens can be difficult. Among the species most likely to be snappy towards their own kind are Synodontis schall and Synodontis nigrita.

Synodontis work extremely in community tanks alongside fish of similar size. The bigger species can be predatory towards very small fish, but otherwise these fish tend to be tolerant and harmless. They get along well with cichlids, thanks to their body armour, stout spines, and their ability to produce squeaks and clicks when irritated. For whatever reason, these sounds disturb most fish, and cichlids and other such troublemakers tend to leave them alone.

Note should be made of those Synodontis species with unusually long dorsal fins, such as Synodontis euptera and Synodontis decora. These fish are prone to being nipped by tiger barbs, serpae tetras and the like, so tankmates should be chosen with care.

Synodontis alberti

Only occasionally traded, this catfish is remarkable for its big eyes and very well developed whiskers. It comes from the Congo region, where it is found in a variety of habitats. Like a lot of fish from African rivers, it doesn’t like especially warm water, and the ideal is around 23-24 degrees C. Otherwise this species isn’t fussy, but as its big eyes and long whiskers might suggest, it is very strongly adapted to night-time foraging, and rarely swims about during the day.

Synodontis alberti can be kept singly, but in big tanks groups work rather well. Maximum length in captivity is around 15 cm. They are rather restless at night, and this can disturb some fish, so choose reasonably robust, though not nippy or aggressive, tankmates. Giant danios and Barilius for example would make ideal companions, doing well in similarly cool, flowing water conditions.

Synodontis angelica

Sometimes called the Polka-dot Catfish, Synodontis angelica is one of the most sought after catfish in the trade, but it is rarely seen and consequently expensive whenever it is offered for sale. Its charm lies in its beautiful colouration, essentially dark grey with numerous small off-white spots. Juveniles sport the darkest greys and the brightest whites, but even adults are impressive fish.

Synodontis angelica comes from the various rivers that make up the Congo basin, and as you’d expect, it’s fairly adaptable in terms of environmental requirements. It is one of the larger members of the genus, getting to over 25 cm in aquaria and around 55 cm in the wild! Despite its large size, it isn’t especially predatory, but it would be unwise to trust it with very small fish such as neons. When properly maintained this species is famously long lived, with many specimens living well past their twentieth year.

Synodontis clarias

The Red-tailed Synodontis is a big (around 30 cm) species noted for its reddish-brown tail fin. Apart from this feature, the species is rather drab, with a greyish-brown body marked only with a few small black spots on the fins and caudal peduncle. It is rather a high-backed species and has a large, well developed dorsal fin.

Basic care is similar to other large Synodontis, this fish being adaptable, omnivorous, and prone to being territorial unless given plenty of space. It is best kept singly in a large tank with robust community fish such as oscars, large barbs, clown loaches, and so on.

Synodontis decora

Known as the Clown Catfish, this is another species from the Congo river system. As its common name suggests, this species is attractively marked, with a golden-green body and dark grey patches. Juveniles are particularly strongly coloured. At all ages the dorsal fin has a long extension at its tip that can stretch as far back as the tail fin.

Like most members of the genus, this species is fairly gregarious when given sufficient space, but at around 25 cm in length when fully grown, this is quite a big catfish. Nonetheless, Synodontis decora is hardy and adaptable, and does well across a broad range of temperatures and water chemistry values. About its only weakness is its vulnerability to fin-nippers, so avoid mixing with nippy barbs, tetras, pufferfish and other such companions. Juveniles are rather

Synodontis euptera

The famous Featherfin Catfish, Synodontis euptera is one of the finest members of its genus in the trade. Juveniles have a network of thick brown squiggles across their bodies, but as the fish mature, this gradually changes to a pattern of small dark spots. Juveniles don’t have especially large dorsal fins, but on mature adults the dorsal fins are large and very impressive.

Synodontis euptera is widely distributed across Africa, and can be found in rivers from Nigeria and Ghana in the west to Ethiopia and Sudan in the east. Unsurprisingly then, this species is very adaptable in terms of water chemistry and temperature. It is a peaceful species best kept in groups, though as ever with Synodontis, there should be adequate space and hiding places for each specimen. It mixes well with community fish, though nippy and aggressive tankmates must be avoided. Maximum length is around 22 cm.

Synodontis flavitaeniata

Also known as the Orange-striped Squeaker, this distinctive catfish has a dark grey-brown body marked with irregular yellowy-orange bands. It’s a good species for community tanks, being both gregarious and rather peaceful, but it is less hardy and considerably more nervous than most other Synodontis. Tankmates should not be too large or too aggressive, with small, midwater characins and barbs being ideal. This is not a species for immature aquaria, and water quality needs to be excellent. Maximum length appears to be around 15 cm.

Synodontis multipunctata

Known as the Cuckoo Catfish because of its peculiar breeding behaviour, this is one of a handful of Synodontis species native to Lake Tanganyika. It is a very distinctive species with large eyes, a coppery-gold body, white belly, and numerous dark brown spots. Its fins are tipped or edged with white, the dorsal, pectoral and tail fins being especially well marked. The whiskers are white, and it gets to a maximum length of around 15 cm.

Synodontis multipunctata can be confused with Synodontis petricola, another species from Lake Tanganyika, but that species is smaller (around 10 cm in length) and has white running along the leading and trailing edges of the dorsal, pectoral and tail fins, whereas on Synodontis multipunctata the white edging is on the trailing edges only. So far as is known, only Synodontis multipunctata is a ‘cuckoo’ spawner, with Synodontis petricola and the very similar species Synodontis lucipinnis spawning in the traditional manner.

A superb little catfish for the Rift Valley aquarium, it does equally well with Tanganyikan, Malawian and Victorian cichlids, provided its tankmates are of similar size and not too aggressive. When kept with aggressive tankmates it will simply hideaway during the day, defeating the point of keeping these catfish at all! Given their preference for hard water, these catfish would also be good choices for use alongside hard water community fish including livebearers and rainbowfish.

Although their breeding behaviour is well documented, it isn’t especially common in aquaria. Most Tanganyikan cichlids seem to recognise Cuckoo Catfish for what they are, and will remove any catfish eggs placed in their nests. Aquarists intending to breed these catfish often find Victorian and Malawian cichlids a better bet, presumably because these cichlids don’t ‘know’ about these catfish. Essentially what happens is that pairs of catfish wanting to spawn identify a pair of spawning mouthbrooding cichlids, and when the female cichlid is picking up her fertilised eggs, the catfish eject their eggs and sperm onto her clutch. The duped female cichlid picks up her eggs and the catfishes’ eggs, incubates them together.

Synodontis nigriventris

Probably the most widely kept member of the genus, the Upside-down Catfish Synodontis nigriventris is a super community tank resident and rightly popular among aquarists. It is a schooling species though, and unless kept in groups of at least three, and ideally five or more specimens, this catfish is apt to be very shy. Otherwise it is very undemanding, and will do well in most community tanks.

As its common name suggests, Synodontis nigriventris likes to swim with its belly upwards. It almost invariably rests with its belly wedged against solid surfaces such as the roofs of caves, but it also enjoys resting underneath floating plants. Unlike most other Synodontis, sexing mature Synodontis nigriventris is comparatively easy: Females are much darker and rounder in shape than the males. Synodontis nigriventris are occasional fin-nippers, usually towards things with unusually long fins, such as bettas and fancy guppies.

Synodontis njassae

This is the only member of its genus native to Lake Malawi, and while it isn’t particularly widely traded, this species is popular with aquarists keeping Malawian cichlids. It is hardy and robust, but if combined with the more aggressive Mbuna, it’s likely to spend all its time hiding, so choose companions with care. Labidochromis, Iodotropheus, Aulonocara and the less aggressive mbuna make good tankmates. On the other hand, these catfish are effective predators on eggs and fry, so shouldn’t be kept in tanks where breeding the cichlids is important.

Juveniles are essentially silvery-green with numerous dark grey spots, but the size of the spots and their density is highly variable. As the fish mature their overall colour becomes much darker, more silvery-brown.

Synodontis schall

This is a big, robust fish noted for its territorial behaviour and predatory nature. It should be kept with equally robust tankmates, such as plecs and large cichlids. At up to 37 cm in length is cannot be trusted with small community fish. Its overall colour is greyish-brown with little in terms of body markings, though it does have white whiskers and, when young, some small black spots on the dorsal, anal, and tail fins. Some specimens are reported to have red tails somewhat like Synodontis clarias.