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Synodontis Catfish for the African Cichlid Tank

Jason here. Working at That Fish Place, I have many people ask me about bottom feeders that they can put into a tank with their African Cichlids.  Since cichlids tend to be aggressive, it can be difficult to find suitable tankmates.  A great solution to this problem is adding a Synodontis catfish species. 

There are many species of Synodontis that grow to various sizes.  Synodontis are great because they are often found in many of the same locations as the cichlids. One of my personal favorites is Synodontis petricola, often referred to as Pygmy Synodontis among hobbyists.  They are a relatively small, in comparison to the other members of the genus, maxing out at around five inches.  This catfish is native to Lake Tanganyika, in Africa, which is part of the group of lakes commonly referred to as the African Rift Lakes and has a pH ranging from 7.0-8.5.  Their coloration is usually brown with black spots.  Their fins are black with highly defined white trim.  Dietary choices consist mostly of meaty foods, but they will also pick at algae from time to time.

Another excellent choice for those with an Afican cichlid tank is Synodontis multipunctata, also from Lake Tanganyika.  In their natural environment, their preferred pH ranges from 7.8 – 8.5.  They have a similar appearance to the Pygmy Synodontis, only with less defined white trim on the fins and a larger max size, as in the aquarium they grow to approximately 8 inches in length.  They prefer tanks with a lot of dark places to hide out.  Like the petricola, they are omnivorous and are known to pick at algae along with their main diet of meaty foods.  They can usually be found under the common name Cuckoo Synodontis, though petricola also shares that common name.

Our most commonly sold Synodontis is a tropical species that tends to swim upside down.  It gets its common name, Upside-Down Synodontis Catfish because of this odd style of swimming.  Its scientific name is Synodontis nigriventris.  Unlike the prior two catfish noted, this one won’t do as well in with the African Cichlids, but makes an excellent addition to tanks with a lower pH, ranging from 6.0 – 7.5.  Full grown they will only reach about 4 inches, and they are active and interesting to observe.  They can be kept with most tropical fish, but they have been known to cause some problems with the smaller tetras.

There are many other many possibilities, when looking for an interesting bottom dwelling species to add to your home aquarium.  There are many different colors and sizes.  Come in to see us or drop us an e-mail at Marinebio@thatpetplace.com if you need any help or advice in choosing a species.


  1. avatar

    i recently got a 30 gallon tank for my birthday i have Malawian chiclids
    and Pink convicts and i was looking for some catfish to stick in with them and i am extremely fond of up side down catfish but i didn’t Know if they were compatible with my fish so thank you for the info!!!

  2. avatar

    excellent article you have written here. thanks for the informative and entertaining read.


  3. avatar

    i have a hybrid syno in my tank now smaller than an inch with 1.5-2.5″ OB peacocks and yellow labs and a german red and a few smaller assorted africans too small to clasify and the lil catfish is hearty and noone bullies him even fish 3 to 4 X’s his size but he is quick and stealthy

  4. avatar

    What is a good reference guide for the synodontis species in conjunction with African Cichlid Aquaria?

  5. avatar

    not really sure if there is a single reference to use, forums and sites like planet catfish will give you good direction on individual species you may be looking to keep. Personal experiences from keepers will be best to consider.

  6. avatar

    I know that this is an old blog but why are synodontis most often recommended for African cichlids? I understand about the ph but is this the only reason?

  7. avatar

    Hi Jason. The main reason has to do with water parameters – Synodontis are some of the only catfish that are found in and can tolerate water conditions similar to African cichlids. Most plecos and other bottom-feeders can’t tolerate the hard water and higher pH safely for long so Synodontis catfish have become popular bottom-feeders for African cichlid tanks.

  8. avatar

    Thanks Eileen for the quick response. I have never kept a syno before and am wondering about the cichlid”s aggression. I have tried bn plecos, which I keep hear are good but they have killed the two that I have tried to keep with them. They are all around 1″-2″. Would a Chinese algae eater work or am I just stuck with synos? I do like some of them but the only ones that I see locally are the upside-down ones.

  9. avatar

    Hi Jason, What size is your aquarium? Cichlids are notoriously territorial and if the tank isn’t large enough with enough territory to go around, no bottom-feeder may be safe. Also, what are your water parameters? African cichlids should have a pH around 7.8-8.4 and a high water hardness; Chinese Algae Eaters should be kept in a pH around 6.5-7.5 and softer water. They can also grow very large and somewhat aggressive (and more carnivorous than algae-eating) as they grow. Synodontis catfish are not algae-eaters so if that it what you are looking for, there really aren’t true algae-eater options for African cichlid tanks. There are a number of Synodontis Catfish listed on our website if you are looking for some different species.

  10. avatar

    Hi Eileen, thanks for all of your help. The tank is a 75 with 1 t. duboisi, 1 red-tail shark, 1 yellow lab, 1 firemouth, 1 white (not albino) ob peacock, 1 cobalt blue zebra, 1 tiger barb (the largest out of 5), and 1 ? ( it came into the store that I work at with our shipment of JDs, it has the shape of a salvini but the colors are different). Don’t worry I’m not planning on keeping them all together, I’m cycling another tank. Oh and btw the ph is 8.2 and the water here is very hard, I forgot the exact reading. The only aggression issues that I’ve had so far, besides the loss of the other tiger barbs (caused by the one that I have now) & the loss of the plecos were the rts going after the tropheus (that has since stopped) & now the tropheus going after the cobalt blue zebra.

  11. avatar

    Hi Jason, That sounds like quite the eclectic mix of Tanganyikan and Malawi Africans, South American cichlids and tropical freshwater fish so its difficult to make recommendations. As far as the pH and hardness alone, I’d stay away from algae-eaters with those water parameters and stick to maintaining the algae by hand. A Synodontis could work as a bottom-feeder once you get your tank sorted with what is staying and what is moving into the new tank. I’d recommend giving us a call (717-299-5691, option 7 or 888-842-8738) and having a discussion with someone in our Fish Room about what is in which tank and what you are looking for once everything is cycled. A good person to have that discussion with would be Jose in our Fish Room; he’s our resident cichlid expert. Also, you can email us photos of your unidentified fish if you’d like and we can try to help you ID it.

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