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Catfish From the Rift Lakes

We all know how colorful African Cichlids are, but did you know that there are also other fish in the rift lakes like catfish, crabs, eels? We are going to talk about some cats this time around. I have kept plecos with most of my African Cichlids and most other people do too, but fish like the “Cuckoo Cat” and the Petricola are more adapted to these kinds of tanks. Although they won’t eat algae, they will feast on flakes, pellets or any other frozen food that you may feed your cichlids. Below I’ve listed just a few of the species that are found in the rift lakes, and some may not be found in pet shops.

Lake Tanganyika

Claroteidae – there are at least 62 species in this family, but we will talk about a few that have been bred in the aquarium and may also be found in pet shops.

Lophiobagrus cyclurus– This bullhead looking catfish hails from Lake Tanganyika and remains small at 3.1 inches. It is a nocturnal species that prefers to dine on bugs, but in the home aquarium I’m sure that a diet of brine shrimp or mysis, with flake food eventually, would be enough to keep them happy. This cat prefers to live in caves. Its body mucus is poisonous to other fish, so be sure it has a place where is can avoid contact with tankmates. It is a mouth brooder and the male that looks out for the fry.

Chrysichthys brachynema – Known as the salmon catfish this one attains a length of almost 28 inches. Like most catfish it is nocturnal, so provide lots of hiding places for this Tanganyikan brute. Food offerings may consist of catfish pellets, prawns, mussels and nightcrawlers. Any tank mate that is small enough to be consumed will probably end up as a snack. They’re great candidates to be housed with adult Frontosas.

Phyllonemus filinemus – Another species that looks like a bullhead catfish. With a stretched brown body. this nocturnally active Tanganyikan likes to conceal itself in rock/rubble during the day. It is a small fella at just under 3.5 inches. Both male and female tend to the eggs by means of mouth brooding. It tends to make its home in crevices. Provide a meaty diet of shrimp and other similar offerings.

Phyllonemus typus – This species that closely resembles P. filinemus, but the end of its barbels are spatula shaped, really cool. This Tanganyikan also attains a small size of 3.5 inches. It is a very peaceful fish that should not be kept with larger aggressive species as it can be easily out-competed for food. Its large mouth allows it to prey on baby cichlids and other very small fish, so be cautious. Does best in aquariums when kept in groups.

Mochokidae – This family consists of 190 species with the majority being Synodontis. A couple of popular species are commonly offered and kept in the trade.

Synodontis granulosus – This Tanganyikan may be the holy grail of the Synodontis species. Years ago, I remember seeing specimens selling for close to $1000 or more. I have been fortunate to have and still own one for about 5 years now and can say that he is a tough and hardy fish. They grow to almost 10 inches.

I have my granulosus in aquariums with African Cichlids and Centrals. Currently, he resides with a 5 inch large-mouth bass. Younger specimens have a brownish body with dark spots which diminish as they mature. On most individuals, the barbels and all fin edges are a stunning white. Feeding poses no problems as they will take almost any kind of prepared food, but they do relish a weekly feeding of a meaty food like shrimp. Mine loves night crawlers. Provide a cave for cover.

Synodontis multipunctatus – also known as the “cuckoo cat”, this species can grow to 9 inches. Another specimen that I have personally kept, I was lucky enough to have mine spawn in an African Cichlid Display, but never saw the actual spawning. One day before the store opened I was siphoning the aquarium when a little half inch thing darted towards the front of the glass. My first thought was a baby cichlid, but when I netted it, I realized it was a Synodontis fry. I was really stoked!

These are striking schooling fish. The main color is pale, whitish grey that becomes golden bronze on the head and upper body. The belly is white. The body spots are irregular all over. The dorsal fin is edged in sharp white. They are easy fish to feed, but they love meaty treats.

Synodontis petricola – A small 5 inch fish that resembles the cuckoo cat. The only difference is the solid white leading dorsal and pectoral fin rays. Another easy fish to feed, they will accept any food and conditioning is easy. They prefer to hide in rock clusters, but enjoy long, tall, flowing plants like giant Vallisneria. I have seen another fish marked as Dwarf Petricola, but I’m not sure if its a new species.

Lake Malawi

Synodontis njassae – Known as the Lake Malawi Syno, this species attains a length of 7 inches. There are two variants– a large and a small spotted species. Both are long, slender-bodied fish with a body coloration resembling the Petricola, with dark spots and pale barbels. Feed it a vegetable based diet, and like all other Synodontis provide caves for cover.

There are also members belonging to the Bagrus genus, but these guys get too big for most home aquariums.

Well thats about it for now! All these species should be able to be kept with African Cichlids, just make sure they have some caves and that they get enough food to eat.

Until next time,


Cuckoo Cat image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mario Rubio Garcia

About Jose Mendes

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That Fish Place’s resident “Cichlid Pro.” In addition to working at TFP for 13 years, Jose’s been breeding Cichlids for over 14 years and has produced over 200 different species. Jose is the man to question for everything cichlid. Check out Jose’s work in the article: Keeping and Breeding African Cichlids in Small Aquariums, and his many other contributions on cichlid husbandry, behavior, and his personal experiences with keeping cichlids from across the globe.