It isn’t hard to understand the appeal of Synodontis Catfish. I mean, what’s not to like? Besides the array of bold and attractive patterns they exhibit, they have interesting history and habits that drive many freshwater aquarists crazy. If you’re not familiar with this group of fish already, read on to find out why they’re one of the most popular in the aquarium trade.
Synodontis Cats originate from the continent of Africa from the sub-Saharan rivers and rift lakes. There are over 120 identified species, ranging in size from just a couple of inches to over a foot in length. They are robust in build with prevalent dorsal and pectoral fins as well as large adipose fins (between the dorsal and the tail). Large eyes and 3 sets of barbels (whiskers) are also distinguishing characteristics. Synodontis catfish are also scaleless.
These fish tend to be shy when first introduced to a new environment, but once adapted to their surroundings, many aquarists find them to be favorites in the aquarium. They are active and interesting to watch once comfortable, swimming at strange angles (the upside-down catfish may be the best known for this behavior). Synodontis are also referred to as squeaker cats, named for their ability to create a squeaking noise with their pectoral fins when they’re alarmed.
Synodontis cats are easy to maintain as they readily accept just about any variety of food offered, greedily perusing the tank floor for anything edible. As long as the water quality is maintained they tend to thrive. They like some cover, such as caves or wood where they can hang out and feel secure, and like other cats they tend to be the most active in the evening. Though they can be kept singly, they prefer to be in groups and often congregate in their native habitats. They are not generally aggressive, but larger specimens should not be trusted with smaller fish in the tank as they may mistake them for food. They can be housed with a variety of tank mates that share water quality preferences, but should not be housed with larger aggressive or predatory fish. Since many of these fish come from the rift lakes in Africa they are often recommended as scavengers for African cichlid aquariums. They prefer the slightly harder water and a higher pH, so they adapt well to a rift lake aquarium. River species like the water a little softer and can handle lower pH. Be sure to research the preferences of the species you like before purchase, noting origin and preferred water conditions as well as adult size to ensure that cat will be a good fit for your tank. While Synos tend to be hardy, poor water conditions can cause their health to decline quickly, so regular water changes are essential.
There are only a few species of synodontis frequently offered for the aquarium trade. Limited availability and limited collection means most of these are a bit more expensive than most Asian and South American species. Some species are being bred in captivity by wholesalers and dedicated hobbyists, but not on a large scale. Synodontis petricola, Synodontis flavitaeniata and Synodontis multipunctatus are a few commonly offered as tank-bred individuals. The complexities of getting captive populations to breed and raising the fry to saleable size may be to blame. These fish require specific conditions and/or biological signals to spur them into breeding conditions. Little is known about the habits of more rare or obscure species.
If you happen to be an aquarist lucky enough to have Synos breed in the tank, watch for some of their interesting breeding behaviors. In some species, spawning is incited when mouthbrooding cichlids in the tank spawn. The opportunistic cats swoop into the nesting area, eat some of the cichlid eggs and replace them with their own, leaving the cichlids to brood the eggs and nurture the fry. Syno fry tend to hatch out faster than cichlids, and the new fry dine unhatched cichlid eggs and new fry (even their siblings if necessary) before being released to fend for themselves. Captive breeding usually requires the use of hormones, whether emitted naturally into their environment or otherwise to get the process started. Careful hand-rearing from collecting and maintaining the eggs and feeding and otherwise maintaining the fry until they are of viable size must follow.
In recent years, hybrid synos have permeated the trade. The decision to purchase and keep hybrids is a personal one. Purists scoff at these mixed pool fish and those that breed them, but the hybrids are often attractive, if not for their coloration for their reasonable price tag. In commercial breeding facilities, unless the fish are isolated by species hybrids can easily occur. The desire of dedicated hobbyists usually lies with keeping species pure to carry on the true genetic traits of said species for future generations. Some hybrids show unique traits that set them apart from pure breds in very obvious ways, while others may show only minute differences that can only be spotted by the sharpest eye. These differences usually manifest in coloration, markings or other anatomical variations. Whether you approve of hybrids or not, it pays to know where to look for these differences if for no other reason to be sure that if you’re looking for a pure bred fish, you know you’re getting what you’re paying for.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions on Synodontis cats, please ask us in the comments section, we’ll be happy to help you find the answers you’re looking for.
Synodontis grandiops image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Haps