The Synodontis Catfish or Synodontis multipunctatus Catfish is an intriguing African species that is an essential addition to any tank with Great Rift Lakes species. It is an attractive tank species and also an excellent tank cleaner with interesting interrelationships with cichlid species.
This article will help you understand the native habitat of the Synodontis Catfish, its interactions with other Great Rift species, and how to care for and maintain your fish.
Synodontis multipunctatus is a species known by many names, including the Cuckoo Catfish, Cuckoo Squeaker, and Multipunk. Its various names come from its habit of making squeaking noises when held or alarmed and from its breeding behavior of sneaking eggs into cichlid broods. It is one of the mochokid catfishes and comes exclusively from Lake Tanganyika, the largest of Africa’s Great Rift Lakes.
Lake Tanganyika is the second oldest and second deepest lake in the world after Lake Baikal in Siberia. It is one of the Rift Lakes, a series of vast inland water bodies that separate The Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia.
It is the deepest lake in Africa and holds the greatest freshwater volume, accounting for 16 percent of the world’s available freshwater. It is over 420 miles long, making it more of an inland ocean with freshwater sardines and jellyfish. Lake Tanganyika drains into the Congo River system and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.
What makes the Rift Lakes and Lake Tanganyika relevant to aquarium keepers is the plethora of species the lake contains and their beauty in an aquarium. The lake has over 250 recorded cichlid species, many unique to the lake, and 150 non-related species, including the Synodontis Catfish. This catfish species has long been important to local fishers as a food source. It has only been a favorite with aquarium keepers since it was introduced to European collectors in the 1950s.
In appearance, the Synodontis Catfish and most of the African mochokid catfishes are markedly different from their North American cousins. Its body is long and sleek, almost shark-like with close, powerful fins, a topsail dorsal fin, and a widely forked tail. Be wary when handling the Synodontis Catfish because the top dorsal fin contains a sharp spine that can cause a puncture and sensation like a mild bee sting.
The eyes are broad, adapted for low light, and placed far back on its head for excellent peripheral vision. Much of its forward sensing ability, especially in low light and at night, comes from the fleshy barbells at the corner of its mouth. There are three sets of barbells that help it locate food and obstacles by touch.
Its mouth is set low on the head to provide the ability to suction up and grind foodstuffs scavenged from the bottom of the lake or a tank. Their teeth are a single top and bottom merged plate perfect for crushing shells and anything else plant or animal they can fit into their mouths. This plate structure is where the Latin name “Synodontis” comes from, which means merged teeth.
Their coloration in the wild ranges from dark brown on the top of their back to light brown on their bellies. Synodontis Catfish have many large, dark spots which give them a striking, distinctive look. In aquariums, the species may develop attractive bronze shades with apparent spots. No matter the color, the telltale arch of their backs and widely forked tails indicate the species. The Synodontis Catfish size can reach up to 12 inches in huge aquariums. Still, it will usually reach a maximum length of 8 inches.
This catfish tends to live in large schools in up to 130 feet of water over various bottom types. It is adaptable to tank sizes, aquarium composition, and a wide variety of tank mates. This makes them ideal specimens for novice and experienced keepers to add to their African Rift Lake aquariums.
Synodontis Catfish Stats
|Size||Medium to large, usually under 12″ (30cm)|
|Aquarium||Depends on species, minimum 20 gallons|
|PH||6.0 to 7.5|
|Hardness||Soft to medium 4-15 dH|
|Temperature||72-82 °F (22-28 °C)|
|Food||Frozen, live, flake and tablets, some vegetable-based|
|Compatibility||Medium to large tankmates overall peaceful|
Synodontis Catfish Care
If you are looking for a species that is easy to care for, the Synodontis Catfish will meet your needs. A good setup for an aquarium of Synodontis Catfish can be as small as 20 gallons. In a medium pH and hardness, keeping the water clean with a temperature range of 72-82 °F (22-28 °C) is sufficient.
Providing good aquarium sand or gravel bottom with a few driftwood pieces or other structures will give them various things to nibble on as algae grow in the tank.
If you are building a Rift Lakes tank, use the same water conditions you would for cichlid species. They prefer their aquarium water much cleaner, which is very acceptable to the Synodontis Catfish. For a mixed catfish and cichlid tank, it is recommended you use double the standard filtration required for you’re the size aquarium you are kitting up.
This also helps with some movement in the water to ensure adequate oxygenation. Since many species of cichlid are diggers, underground filters can be exposed and nibbled on. If possible, keep as much of the filtration system outside of the tank as possible or select tankmates that are not digging species.
The ideal pH range for a mixed African aquarium is 7.5 to 8.5. To help maintain the hardness of the water, consider adding crushed coral to the gravel. Synodontis Catfish are bottom dwellers, so the same substrate, shelters, and ornamentation you would use for lower strata cichlids are appropriate tank decor.
Sometimes called Synodontis Lace Catfish for the pattern of their spots, this species does well singly or in groups of three or four per 20-gallon tank. This helps prevent inter-species aggression as each fish cause distractions for the others. A 50-gallon or greater aquarium will allow you to keep as many as eight catfish, which will also help keep the tank clean.
A larger tank also enables more rock and structure to create caves and crevices they can hide when not roaming the bottom. As with many cichlid species, keeping the aquarium dimly-lit will encourage them to come out and explore and help their bronze colors be more visible.
Synodontis Catfish Breeding
Its lake of origin is home to several mouthbrooding cichlids species. Still, both Ctenochromis horei and Simochromis babaulti most often fall victim to this brood parasite.
Both are shallow-water species that make it easier for Synodontis Catfish to make their switch. Some mouthbrooding species from Lake Malawi and Lake Victoria make suitable host species as well.
When target species cichlids begin to spawn, their spawning pheromones trigger the spawning activity of the Synodontis Catfish. Female catfish will follow the spawning female cichlid and quickly gobble up their eggs before the cichlid can take them into her mouth.
Simultaneously, the female Synodontis Catfish lays her eggs that hovering males fertilize. The female cichlid, anxious to protect her eggs, ends up mouthing catfish eggs and her own for a mix of species that she is now brooding.
In terms of Synodontis catfish growth rate, the eggs mature faster than cichlid eggs. On average, Synodontis Catfish eggs will hatch after three days, and by the fifth day often have eaten all the cichlid eggs. By comparison, it can take as long as two weeks for cichlid eggs to hatch. When the cichlid mother finally releases the Synodontis Catfish fry, all her brood has been consumed. The drawback to this approach is that if the mother does not release the brood soon enough, the Synodontis Catfish fry will begin to eat each other.
To replicate this spawning cycle in your aquarium, you need a grouping of male and female Synodontis Catfish and male and female mouthbrooding cichlid. Cichlid can be easily sexed by observing body types: males tend to be longer, and females are usually rounder. Be sure to source your species from breeders who will guarantee the fertility of the fish they sell.
Sexing Synodontis Catfish is more complicated and best accomplished by an experienced keeper. The process is described here, but please avoid getting stuck by the catfish’s spiny fins.
First, wet your hands to avoid removing any of the protective slimes from the fish’s body. Place the Synodontis Catfish in your palm, belly up with the head facing away from you. Keep the spiky dorsal fin between your middle and ring finger to isolate it and help keep the fish still.
You seek to identify the genital pore, a depressed section of skin hidden by the fish’s pelvic fins. If you gently pull down on the tail and very gently arch the fish’s back, you should reveal the genital pore and the anus of the catfish.
On male Synodontis Catfish, the genital pore will have a somewhat ridged genital papillae with the spermatoduct on the backside towards the tail fin. An egg-bearing female will also display extended papillae. Still, the oviduct will be closer to the ventral fin than the anal fin. A non-egg-bearing female will only show two pink pores for the anus and oviduct.
If you observe your cichlid and Synodontis Catfish in their breeding cycle, wait about three days, then try to get the female cichlid to release the Synodontis fry. You can move them to a separate rearing tank and feed them tiny brine shrimp until they are large enough to return to a regular tank environment.
Synodontis Catfish Tank Mates
Synodontis Catfish can sometimes be aggressive towards each other but are mostly peaceful towards other species in their environment. They make excellent tankmates for most other African Rift Lake species.
If you want to set up an aquarium that is true to Lake Tanganyika species, here is a comprehensive list of tank mates to consider:
- Simochromis babaulti: Babaulti is one of the other target host parents for Synodontis Catfish.
- Paracyprichromis nigripinnis: Blue Neon Cichlid, a bright, attractive shoaling fish that does best in groups of six or more. It tends to stay in the upper part of the tank. It does very well with other shy and peaceful tank mates.
- Cyprichromis leptosoma: Known as the Frog face Cichlid, this streamlined mouthbrooder exists peacefully with bottom-dwelling species since it lives and spawns in the mid-regions of the aquarium. Like Fronts, they are a shoaling fish and need a group of at least 10 to feel safe. An aquarium with plenty of open mid-water swimming rooms is required to keep them successfully.
- Neolamprologus leleupi: Often called the Lemon Cichlid, This is a prevalent African species for its beautiful yellow color and peaceful manner. It gets along well with most species and is only aggressive when spawning. It is a solitary fish aside from mating. Feed them foods rich in carotene to help them maintain their brilliant color.
- Ctenochromis horei: The Horei is one of the Lake Tanganyika cichlid species that is a host parent for Synodontis Catfish parasitic brooding. It is an attractive species and does well in small groups.
- Julidochromis dickfeldi: Dickfeld’s Julie is one of the long, sleek cichlid species found in Lake Tanganyika. It can grow up to 3 inches long and has three distinctive dark bars running the length of its body. This is an aggressive species that can live up to eight years and best kept in pairs.
- Callochromis macrops: The Big Eye Mouthbrooder is a large-eyed, somewhat aggressive cichlid species. They do best in small groups and are long-lived.
- Spathodus erythrodon: The Blue Spotted Goby Cichlid shares the same aggression level as other cichlids in the companion list. It is not as long-lived and does well in a small grouping. It is an attractive species with a black or gray body and neon blue spots.
- Tropheus moorii: The Blunthead Cichlid is easily recognized by the large, blunt shape of its forehead. It is an aggressive fish but also a shoaling fish. If kept in a small group, it will ignore bottom dwellers such as Synodontis Catfish.
- Neolamprologus pulcher: The Daffodil Cichlid is an attractive species with long, flowing fins and a bright yellow hue. They are moderately aggressive with a long lifespan. Do not use them if you have other species in the tank that are fin nippers.
- Neolamprologus brichardi: Fairy Cichlids are very similar in body structure to Daffodil Cichlids with markedly different body colors. They are long-lived and do best with another Fairy Cichlid to keep them company.
- Cyprichromis leptosome: Sardine Cichlids are brilliantly colored fish with an attractive, rounded fin structure. Their colors range across bright blues and yellows. Their specific marking will vary depending on what part of the lake they come from. This is a shoaling species that does well in groups of 8 or 10 in tanks of 100 gallons or more.
- Tanganicodus irsacae: The Spotfin Goby Cichlid is a smaller species with bright blue spots on its bodies and fins. They do best in groupings of at least five and can be somewhat aggressive. Their life span is about five years.
- Xenotilapia papilio: The Butterfly Cichlid are aggressive fish that reach about 4 inches in length. They are very striking in appearance and have long, slender bodies with black spots. You can keep a pair in a tank. They live up to 10 years.
- Altolamprologus calvus: The White Pearl Calvus looks quite different from standard cichlid body types. It can grow up to 6 inches, and the balance of long snout and long, rounded fins give the fish a flattened look. The coloring is a dark brown and yellow barred pattern with light stripes and spots. They can live up to 10 years and are somewhat aggressive. Keep in pairs.
- Tropheus duboisi: The White Spotted Cichlid is doubly attractive as a juvenile and an adult. It starts life with a black body and bright white spots, hence its name. As the species matures, the White Spotted Cichlid becomes almost pure black with a bright blue head and vivid white stripe between head and body. The species will live up to 8 years and can be pretty aggressive. Best kept in pairs.
- Cyphotilapia Frontosa: Also called Fronts by aquarium keepers, these brilliant bluefish can grow up to 12 inches and are mouthbrooders. They are social fish and need a group of at least 6 to be happy. Fronts are herbivores and peaceful even with smaller fish.
- Altolamprologus compressiceps: The Compressed Cichlid is a larger cichlid species with a flattened body, making them look thin when viewed head-on. They can grow up to 8 inches long, so they are best off in tanks over 100 gallons in groups of 2 or 3. They can live up to 10 years and are moderately aggressive.
A note of caution on adding many different species of cichlid as tank mates. Since most cichlids are semi-aggressive to aggressive, you either want a small group or a balance of groups to keep each other in check. Good aquarium design will also help by creating zones where each species can live.
Like most aquarium fish, if it encounters other species that are much smaller than itself, it might turn its neighbor into dinner. If you keep all aquarium species to smaller groups of similar size fish, competition and aggression will be kept to a minimum. The broader selection of tank mates gives you many options when designing an aquarium unique to Lake Tanganyika or more broadly representative of African freshwater species.
Synodontis Catfish Diet
Catfish, in general, are not fussy eaters and Synodontis Catfish are no exception. In their native habitat, they feed on snails, small mollusks, insects, vegetation, and small fish, plus other dead fish and foods they find on the bottom.
In captivity, they prefer a diet heavy on meaty foods but with enough variety to keep them interested. You can use flaked, frozen, or pelleted foods with success. Bits of garden vegetables or even garden bugs that sink will also be consumed greedily. It is comical to watch Synodontis Catfish chew away at bits of squash and cucumber with their plate-like teeth.
- Synodontis Catfish are attractive and easy to care for.
- They can be kept individually in small aquariums or groups in larger tanks.
- The species can live 8 to 10 years.
- Synodontis catfish do well in tanks set up for African Rift Lake fish species.
- They are parasitic mouthbrooder who trick mouthbrooding cichlid species into rearing their eggs.
- There are many peaceful Lake Tanganyika fish species and other African Rift Lake species that make great tank mates.
- Keep the tank dimly lit to get your Synodontis Catfish to be more active.
- Feed them a mix of meaty and vegetative foods to keep them healthy.
- Synodontis Catfish are excellent tank cleaners.
Synodontis multipunctatus Catfish are vital to any African Rift Lake aquarium or any tank where a lively, friendly bottom-dwelling species is wanted. You will appreciate their color, movement, and ability to help keep a clean aquarium.