Aquarists looking for freshwater fish for their fish tanks should consider the Leopard Pleco as a viable option. The species is often overlooked because of their size. However, Sailfins are peaceful and forgiving in terms of care and maintenance.

If you’ve been holding back from considering getting a Leopard Pleco for your aquarium due to lack of info, we’ve got what you need.

This article will focus on all aspects of caring for Sailfin Plecos, including essentials like tank habitat, water parameters, diet, and much more. All you need to do is take a moment to go through our pleco guide, and you’ll be a pro in no time.

Leopard Pleco Stats

Family  Loricariidae
Care Level  Beginner
Average Lifespan 15 to 20 years
Maximum Size 13 to 19 inches
Diet Omnivores
Breeding Type Egg-laying
Minimum Tank Size 100 gallons

Leopard Pleco: Overview

Leopard plecos belong to the Loricariid family; however, they fall under the Pterygoplichthys genus. If you’ve not come across that category before, it’s a family of South American armored catfish.

The species found within this genus are also called Sailfin Plecs or Janitor Fish. There are currently 16 recognized species under the Pterygoplichthys genus, and one of them is the Pterygoplichthys Gibbiceps (aka Leopard Pleco).

The Leopard Plecostomus frequent the Amazon and the Orinoco river systems, and their numbers are highest in countries like Venezuela, Columbia, and Brazil. Unlike other Pleco species, Leopard Plecs are voracious algae-eaters and remain in demand with fish keepers the world over for this reason.

Sailfin Pleco Appearance and Behavior

Leopard Plecos are rather beautiful to look at. They are among the more sizable catfish species and are difficult to miss in aquariums. Their scientific name —  Pterygoplichthys Gibbiceps —  offers some insight into the species’ appearance.

Pterygoplichthys roughly translates to ‘wing fish’ and points to the species’ well-developed pectoral and dorsal fins (with eight to ten dorsal rays). You can also identify these Plecs thanks to a prominent hump just before the dorsal din – giving them a rounded appearance from the top.

As to patterns and color, Sailfin Plecos sport spots all over their bodies, including their heads, fins, and underbodies, which makes them distinct among other Pleco species. The spots on their bodies are generally black with a background hue of dull yellow, giving them a golden hue in certain light settings.

In the wild, Leopard Plecs inhabit brackish waters, and their coloring and pattern help them blend in with their surroundings by working as a sort of camouflage.

The fish are available in several base colors, ranging from a faded orange to amber. Aquarists interested in lighter tones can look at alternatives in the form of the Yellow Leopard Pleco (L075) and the Snow Leopard Pleco for their light amber and whitish base layers.

Aquarists should also note that juvenile Leopard Plecos will have more prominent spots on their bodies, making them appear similar to the Red Tail Leopard Pleco (L114) in looks. However, these spots grow smaller as the fish matures.

Aquarists wondering what the Sailfin Pleco is like temperament-wise will be happy to learn that they are non-aggressive and entirely peaceful. These Plecs will do well in most community tanks, provided fish keepers are smart about the species they select to house.

Despite their calm nature, these fish can turn somewhat aggressive and hostile among members of the catfish family with similar features. It’s also best to avoid pairing this species with other aggressive fish because it may result in skirmishes.

Sailfin Plecos are more active during the twilight hours, but they’re not entirely nocturnal. That means you will be able to observe them floating around the tank during daylight hours somewhat lazily.

Like other members of the catfish genus, Leopard Plecos also like discovering strategic points around the tank for a resting spot. In the wild, the species burrow in the ground during the wet season and when female Sailfins want to lay their eggs. That’s something aquarists should keep in mind when selecting appropriate tank habitat.

Leopard Plecos rarely leave their area of the tank; however, you may observe your Plec swim to the surface to gulp air when oxygen levels are running low. If you do happen to catch a Leopard Pleco straying to the upper surface of your tank, it’s a good idea to check the oxygen levels to avoid hypoxia-related problems.

Overall, Sailfin Plecos like keeping to themselves and only want enough room to move around at their level to stay happy and content.

What Does Care for the Leopard Pleco Involve?

Beginning hobbyists can sometimes be under the misconception that caring for a fish species revolves around proper diet and keeping the tank clean. While both those things are indeed part and parcel of looking after aquatic pets, there’s more to caring for a fish species than you’d expect.

For example, did you know poor water quality can affect the health of your fish and impact their lifespan? Or that an improper diet leads to undernourishment and keeps your fish from achieving its maximum size potential?

For all those reasons and many more, fish keepers need to understand every aspect after looking after a species, including the minutest details. That’s precisely why this section is tailor-made to help aquarists of (all skill levels) understand what caring for Leopard Plecos involves — from start to finish. Ready?

– Diet

Sailfins are opportunistic bottom feeders, which means the species will eat pretty much anything available. These fish are omnivores and can survive on algae and the occasional vegetable snack (peas, courgette slices, carrots, etc.)

However, fish keepers wanting to avoid diet-related health problems should rely on high-quality pellets or flakes. That’s because these are formulated keeping in mind the required nutritional intake of fish.

Leopard Plecos will also enjoy the infrequent protein snack in live or frozen form. Aquarists wanting to keep their Plec’s diet from getting too repetitive can feed their fish fresh brine shrimp, bloodworms, among other things, to keep things interesting.

Unlike other algae eating Plecos, Sailfins have quite the appetite for alga. You can depend on this species to clear away any algae growing in your tank without any fear for your natural aquatic plants.

Some experts recommend feeding these fish at night because that is when they are at their most active. The only problem is that Sailfins have pretty diverse personalities and may not take to night-time feeding. Try feeding your fish at morning and night times to compare which time your Plec likes best.

– Water Parameters

One of the simplest and most authentic rules of fishkeeping is that large fish require large tanks to stay healthy and happy. That’s why the minimum recommended tank size for Sailfins is 100 gallons.

That value can scare a lot of newbie aquarists. But the truth is once you get over the intimidating proportions of a 100-gallon tank, it’s easier to maintain in terms of water conditions than smaller tanks. That’s because the large volume of water helps avoid abrupt fluctuations and changes in water quality.

Fellow aquarists might recommend starting with a 30-gallon aquarium. Still, considering the size and nature of Leopard Plecos, it seems cruel to force the species to inhabit such a compact setup.

Doing so can not only impact the health of your fish by bringing on stress but also bring out the worst in a Sailfin’s behavior. Plus, if you’re thinking of adding a Leopard Plec to a community tank, you’ll want something big enough to be able to accommodate all species according to their levels.

Sailfins have the hardy nature of most Plecostomus. However, this does not mean the species aren’t sensitive to water parameters. Seeing as how Leopard Plecs originate from the tropical region of South America, they’re used to moderate to warm temperatures ranging from 78 to 85 F. The species also do well in neutral waters and thrive in pH levels between 6.5 to 7.4.

– Tank Habitat

Fish care guides and fish profiles grew in demand once budding hobbyists realized the importance of recreating a species natural habitat for successful acclimatization.

The more your aquatic pet feels at home in your aquarium, the better its chances are at longevity and survival.

The good news is, recreating the natural habitat of Leopard Plecs isn’t too difficult and requires only a minimum of effort. Leopard Pleco isn’t too picky about the substrate. So, fish keepers can either opt for a sandy base layer or smooth gravel because both will allow the species to burrow and move around the aquarium easily.

You can make your Sailfin feel at home instantly by decorating the tank with items like rock caves, driftwood, and of course, natural aquatic plants. But, no matter the combo of decorations you pick, ensure you’ve left enough free space for your Plec to move around freely and not feel crowded.

As sizable aquatic creatures, Sailfins can create a lot of waste (remember, they’re always looking for algae to munch on). That’s why a powerful water filtration system, complete with powerheads, is a must to keep the water clean and well oxygenated.

Your tank’s lighting shouldn’t be too harsh because this might cause the Leopard Plec to remain inactive or hidden in its resting spot – waiting for the dark. Instead, opt for LED lights with timers to control your aquarium’s color, duration, and brightness and keep the Plec feeling comfy.

Leopard Pleco Size, Lifespan, and Growth Rate

The significant aquarium requirements will make more sense once you learn Sailfins grow to lengths of 13 to 19 inches upon maturity, making them large-sized plecos.

These Plecos grow much larger in the wild, but how large Plecs will grow depends on several factors in captivity. For example, with commercially bred specimens, breeding practices can impact size.

The growth rate of Sailfins is pretty fast, too, considering their dimensions. You can expect your Plecs to grow an inch or two per year, which is why using a smaller tank isn’t a practical option. If you’re not looking to spend money upgrading tank size often, it’s best to just invest in a large tank in the beginning and wait for the fish to mature.

The average lifespan of Leopard Plecos ranges from 15 to 20 years, provided the quality of care isn’t compromised. Nonetheless, this sturdy catfish species make excellent long-term companions for aquarists who want their tank set up to last a while.

Illnesses Sailfins Are Susceptible To

Leopard Plecos have a strong constitution and don’t get ill very often. Unlike other freshwater Plecos, this species doesn’t require too much effort when it comes to health factors. Nonetheless, certain diseases are commonly found among the species, and here’s what a few of them are:

– Fungal infections

If you notice a fluffy white growth (resembling cotton balls) on the body of your Plec, it may have contracted a fungal infection. Treatment of such conditions will require clearing the water with antifungal medication and quarantining all affected fish separately.

– Ich

White spot disease is widespread among freshwater fish, and Leopard Plecos are no different. As the name suggests, affected fish develop white spots on their bodies when affected by Ich. While treatment of the disease requires the use of over-the-counter medications like Melafix, it is best to have your fish looked over by an aquatic veterinarian to ensure proper diagnosis and dosage.

– Bacterial infections

Leopard Plecos are also susceptible to bacterial infections, and symptoms of the condition include patchy skin, redness, and sores. Treatment of bacterial infections is pretty similar to fungal infections and requires aquarists to treat the water with medication.

– Skin Flukes

Sailfins Can also contract skin and gill flukes. The condition develops due to the presence of bacteria that attach themselves to the body of the host and cause discomfort. Fish suffering from this condition will often rub themselves against the fish tank substrate or decor to find relief. Treatment of this condition requires the use of antiparasitic medication.

Breeding Leopard Plecos in Captivity

As uncomplicated as Leopard Plecos are to care for, they’re just as challenging to breed in home aquariums. To begin with, their size makes it pretty difficult for hobbyists to initiate the breeding process. Then there’s the fact that commercial farmers utilize a super-sized aquarium with a large wall of mud for the incubation and hatching of eggs.

Aquarists who wish to try their luck in a home setup will first need to sex the fish, which isn’t easy through the lack of sexual dimorphism. The species achieve sexual maturity at around three years of age.

As stated earlier, the female of the species will burrow in the ground and create tunnels to lay their eggs. A female can lay up to 120 to 150 eggs in one go. Once the eggs have been laid, the male guards the eggs until the yolk sacs are consumed, and the fry is ready for a diet change.

In short, it isn’t straightforward for hobbyists to recreate the ideal settings to breed this species at home, and the process is best left to commercial farming professionals.

Tank Mates for Sailfin Plecos

Leopard Plecos get along with most inhabitants of a multi-species setup because of their easy-going and non-aggressive nature.

They do best with other similar-sized fish, though they can be problematic for slow movers or smaller fish because of their size and opportunistic feeding habits.

Fish keepers should also avoid housing this species with other non-violent or peaceful fish varieties because these Plecs may bully them. You should also avoid adding similar-looking Plecos in any tank that contains Leopard Plecs, as it can cause the fish to turn territorial.

Some of the best tank mates for this species include:

  • Gouramis
  • Bloodfin Tetras
  • Jewel Cichlids
  • Clown Loach
  • Black Skirt Tetra
  • Silver Dollar Fish
  • Kuhli Loach


Despite their size, Leopard Plecos are an ideal alternative for beginner aquarists looking to put together their very first home aquarium. The species have forgiving care requirements and a strong constitution to boot. Let’s review the key points of the article:

  • Sailfin Plecos sport spots all over their bodies, including their heads, fins, and underbodies, making them distinct among other Pleco species.
  • The species have a non-aggressive nature and do well in community tanks.
  • Leopard Plecs are voracious algae-eaters. They’re also omnivorous, which means they do well on a diet of pellets or flakes, along with occasional treats of vegetables and live and frozen food.
  • The minimum tank size requirement for the species is 100 gallons, and they’re used to moderate to warm temperatures ranging from 78 to 85 F. The species also thrive in pH levels between 6.5 to 7.4.
  • Tank habitat for Leopard Plecos should include a sandy substrate, aquatic plants, driftwood, or rock structures to provide hiding spots.
  • The species can reach lengths between 13 to 19 inches upon maturity and have an average lifespan of 15 to 20 years.
  • Sailfins are susceptible to freshwater fish diseases like Ich, fungal, and bacterial infections.
  • Breeding Sailfin Plecos in a home tank isn’t possible due to their size and breeding processes.
  • Suitable tank mates for the species include Gouramis, Kuhli Loach, Black Skirt Tetras, etc.

With an average lifespan of 15 to 20 years, Leopard Plecos are a long-term commitment. However, if you’re okay with the species’ longevity and size, there shouldn’t be much stopping you from getting one for your community tank!

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