Synodontis Catfish Care Guide

Synodontis Catfish


Synodontis catfish are a diverse group of freshwater fish belonging to the genus Synodontis, which encompasses numerous species. These fascinating catfish are known for their intriguing characteristics and unique features that set them apart from other aquarium fish.

One of the most striking features of Synodontis catfish is their sleek and elongated body shape. Depending on the species, they can grow to sizes ranging from 3 to 12 inches (7.6 to 30 cm) in length. Their bodies often exhibit intricate patterns, spots, or stripes, adding to their visual appeal.

Synodontis catfish possess long and sensitive barbels, which are sensory organs located around their mouths. These barbels help them navigate their environment, locate food, and detect changes in water conditions. The barbels give them a distinctive appearance and contribute to their unique feeding behavior.

Another remarkable characteristic of Synodontis catfish is their ability to clean up leftover food and debris from the tank. They are highly efficient scavengers and will eagerly consume food particles that settle on the substrate or float in the water. This scavenging behavior makes them valuable additions to aquariums, aiding in maintaining water cleanliness.

Additionally, Synodontis catfish are primarily nocturnal, preferring to be active during the night. They tend to spend the daytime hours hiding in caves, crevices, or among plant structures, providing them with a sense of security. Creating suitable hiding spots within the aquarium helps mimic their natural habitat and promotes their overall well-being.

Summary Table

Common NameSynodontis Catfish
Scientific NameSynodontis spp.
Origin / DistributionAfrica (Congo Basin, Nile River, Lake Tanganyika, etc.)
Size3 to 12 inches (7.6 to 30 cm)
Aquarium SizeMinimum 30 gallons
Water ParametersTemperature: 75-82°F (24-28°C) pH: 6.5-7.5 Hardness: Soft to moderately hard
Feeding FrequencyOnce or twice daily
TemperamentGenerally peaceful
TankmatesPeaceful community fish
BreedingChallenging, requires specific conditions and separate breeding tanks
Lifespan10-20 years
Care LevelIntermediate
Unique Features / AppearanceSleek body, various patterns and coloration, long barbels, interesting fin structures
Conservation StatusVaries depending on species
Additional NotesNocturnal, appreciate hiding spots,can clean up leftover food and debris


  • Common Name: Synodontis Catfish
  • Scientific Name: Synodontis spp.
  • Family: Mochokidae
  • Order: Siluriformes

Synodontis catfish belong to the family Mochokidae, which is a family of catfish commonly known as “upside-down catfish” or “squeakers.” They are part of the order Siluriformes, which includes a diverse group of catfish species found worldwide.

The common name “Synodontis Catfish” is widely used to refer to various species within the Synodontis genus. The term “Synodontis” is derived from the Greek words “syn” (meaning “together”) and “odous” (meaning “tooth”), referring to the fish’s closely set teeth. The species within the Synodontis genus are designated by additional specific epithets in their scientific names.

As part of the order Siluriformes, Synodontis catfish share characteristics with other catfish species, including the presence of barbels around their mouths, scaleless bodies, and the ability to breathe atmospheric air using a specialized organ called a labyrinth organ.

Within the family Mochokidae, Synodontis catfish are known for their diverse forms and adaptations. The family includes several other genera and species, each with its own unique characteristics and distributions.

Natural Habitat & Distribution

Synodontis catfish are native to various freshwater habitats across Africa. They have a wide geographical range and can be found in different regions of the continent.

Their distribution includes countries such as Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia, among others. Within these regions, they inhabit rivers, lakes, and tributaries, each with its own specific environmental conditions.

Synodontis catfish are well adapted to diverse aquatic environments. They can be found in both fast-flowing rivers and stagnant bodies of water. Some species are known to inhabit rocky habitats, while others prefer sandy or muddy substrates.

In their natural habitats, Synodontis catfish often seek shelter among submerged vegetation, driftwood, rocks, or caves. These hiding spots provide them with protection from predators and create a sense of security. The presence of hiding places in their aquarium setup helps replicate their natural environment and promotes their well-being.

Due to their broad distribution, Synodontis catfish have adapted to various water conditions. They can be found in both acidic and alkaline waters, with pH levels ranging from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. The water temperature in their natural habitats can vary depending on the specific region, but they generally thrive within a range of 75-82°F (24-28°C).

Understanding the natural habitat and distribution of Synodontis catfish allows aquarists to create suitable environments in captivity that mimic their native conditions. Providing them with appropriate water parameters and replicating their preferred hiding places contributes to their overall health and well-being in the aquarium.

Physical Appearance


Synodontis catfish exhibit variations in size depending on the specific species. On average, they range from 3 to 12 inches (7.6 to 30 cm) in length when fully grown. Some species may reach even larger sizes. The size can also depend on factors such as genetics, diet, and environmental conditions.

Coloration and Patterns

The coloration and patterns of Synodontis catfish can vary significantly among species. They display a wide range of colors, including shades of brown, gray, black, and even golden or albino forms. Their bodies often feature intricate patterns, spots, or stripes, providing them with camouflage in their natural habitats.

Body Shape and Fin Structures

Synodontis catfish have a sleek and elongated body shape. They possess a flattened, underslung mouth that is adapted for bottom-dwelling and scavenging. The body is covered in small, smooth scales or may have a scaleless appearance, depending on the species.

Their dorsal fin, located on the back, is often long and can be divided into two distinct sections. The pectoral fins, situated on the sides of the body, are well-developed and play a crucial role in maneuvering through the water. The caudal fin, or tail fin, is typically forked or rounded, aiding in propulsion.

Sexual Dimorphism

Sexual dimorphism in Synodontis catfish is not always prominent or easily distinguishable. In some species, males may have more elongated or pointed dorsal and pectoral fins compared to females. Additionally, in certain cases, males may develop more pronounced odontodes, which are small bony projections, on the snout or along the body. However, determining the sex of Synodontis catfish can be challenging, especially in juveniles or when the differences are subtle.

Appreciating the physical appearance of Synodontis catfish, including their size, coloration, body shape, and fin structures, enhances the fascination of observing and caring for these unique aquatic creatures.

Behavior & Temperament

General Behavior

Synodontis catfish are generally peaceful in nature. They tend to exhibit calm and non-aggressive behavior, making them suitable additions to community aquariums. However, it’s important to note that individual temperament can vary depending on the species and the specific environment they are kept in.

Social Interactions with Other Fish

Synodontis catfish are social creatures and can coexist well with a variety of fish species. They are typically not aggressive towards their tankmates and can be kept in mixed-species aquariums. They often display tolerant behavior and may even form loose schools with conspecifics or other compatible fish.

Suitable Tankmates

When selecting tankmates for Synodontis catfish, it’s crucial to consider factors such as size, temperament, and water parameter requirements. Here are some suitable tankmates that can coexist harmoniously with Synodontis catfish:

  • Peaceful community fish: Tetras, rasboras, peaceful barbs, danios, gouramis, and small to medium-sized cichlids (such as angelfish or dwarf cichlids) can make good tankmates.
  • Other catfish species: Many catfish species share similar peaceful temperaments and can be housed together, such as Corydoras catfish or other Synodontis species that are compatible in terms of size and behavior.
  • Bottom-dwelling species: Non-aggressive bottom-dwellers like loaches, certain species of plecos, and some types of gobies can be suitable companions for Synodontis catfish.

It’s important to avoid keeping Synodontis catfish with aggressive or fin-nipping fish species. Such tankmates can cause stress and potential harm to the catfish. Also, be mindful of the size compatibility, ensuring that tankmates are not significantly larger or smaller than the Synodontis catfish.

Aquarium Requirements

Minimum Tank Size

The minimum tank size for Synodontis catfish depends on the specific species and its adult size. Generally, a tank with a capacity of at least 30 gallons is recommended to accommodate most Synodontis catfish species. However, larger species may require larger tanks to provide ample swimming space and to maintain water quality.

Water Parameters

Maintaining suitable water parameters is crucial for the health and well-being of Synodontis catfish. Here are the recommended ranges:

  • Temperature: 75-82°F (24-28°C)
  • pH Level: 6.5-7.5
  • Water Hardness: Soft to moderately hard water (4-12 dKH)

It’s important to monitor and maintain stable water conditions by regularly testing the water parameters and performing necessary water changes.

Filtration and Aeration Needs

Synodontis catfish benefit from efficient filtration and adequate aeration in the aquarium. A quality filter should be used to maintain water clarity and remove waste. Additionally, providing gentle water movement and surface agitation aids in oxygen exchange, benefiting the overall health of the fish.

Substrate Preferences

Synodontis catfish are bottom-dwelling fish, so it’s recommended to use a fine-grained substrate such as sand or smooth gravel in the aquarium. Avoid sharp or coarse substrates that can potentially injure their delicate barbels or bodies. The substrate should be kept clean to prevent the accumulation of debris.

Lighting Requirements

Synodontis catfish do not have specific lighting requirements. They are primarily nocturnal and tend to be more active during dim or low light conditions. Providing moderate to subdued lighting is sufficient for their well-being. However, some live plants in the aquarium may require appropriate lighting for their growth.

Decorations and Hiding Places

Creating a well-decorated aquarium with suitable hiding places is important for the comfort of Synodontis catfish. They appreciate caves, crevices, and other hiding spots where they can retreat and feel secure during the day. Utilize driftwood, rock formations, PVC pipes, or purpose-built caves to provide them with adequate hiding places.

Live or artificial plants can also be added to the aquarium, but ensure they are not sharp or abrasive to avoid injuring the catfish. The overall décor should aim to replicate their natural habitat and provide a stimulating environment.

Diet & Feeding

Synodontis catfish are considered omnivores, meaning they have a versatile diet that includes both plant matter and animal-based foods. Providing a balanced and varied diet is essential for their overall health and nutrition.

Type of Diet

In the wild, Synodontis catfish feed on a variety of food sources, including insects, small crustaceans, worms, plant matter, and detritus. In captivity, their diet should consist of a combination of:

  • High-quality sinking pellets or flakes specifically formulated for catfish or bottom-dwelling fish.
  • Frozen or live foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, daphnia, or blackworms. These provide essential proteins and nutrients.
  • Fresh or blanched vegetables like spinach, zucchini, or peas. These offer fiber and other essential nutrients.

Feeding Frequency

Synodontis catfish should be fed once or twice daily, offering an amount of food that they can consume within a few minutes. It’s important not to overfeed them to prevent digestive issues and water quality problems. Observe their eating habits and adjust the portion size accordingly.

Tips for Providing a Balanced and Varied Diet

To ensure a balanced and varied diet for Synodontis catfish, consider the following tips:

  1. Offer a mix of high-quality commercial catfish pellets/flakes and supplemental live or frozen foods to provide a diverse nutritional profile.
  2. Rotate between different types of live or frozen foods to provide variety and stimulate natural feeding behaviors.
  3. Supplement their diet with fresh or blanched vegetables to provide fiber and additional nutrients. Remove uneaten vegetable matter to maintain water quality.
  4. Consider occasional treats like freeze-dried or freeze-dried insect-based foods to add dietary variety.
  5. Monitor their feeding behavior and adjust the amount of food offered to prevent overfeeding and maintain water quality.

Remember to observe the dietary needs and preferences of the specific Synodontis catfish species you are keeping, as different species may have slightly different dietary requirements.

Tank Mates

Compatible Species

Synodontis catfish can be compatible with a variety of peaceful fish species in a community aquarium. Here are some compatible tank mates to consider:

  • Small to medium-sized tetras, such as neon tetras, ember tetras, or cardinal tetras.
  • Peaceful barbs, like cherry barbs or gold barbs.
  • Rasboras, such as harlequin rasboras or chili rasboras.
  • Dwarf cichlids, including Apistogramma species or German blue rams.
  • Peaceful gouramis, such as honey gouramis or dwarf gouramis.
  • Other catfish species that share similar temperaments, like Corydoras catfish or peaceful species of plecos.

When selecting tank mates, consider similar size requirements and compatible water parameter preferences to ensure a harmonious coexistence.

Incompatible or Potentially Problematic Species

While Synodontis catfish are generally peaceful, some fish species may not be suitable tank mates due to their aggressive nature, fin-nipping tendencies, or incompatible requirements. Here are some species to avoid keeping with Synodontis catfish:

  • Aggressive or territorial fish, such as larger cichlids or certain species of barbs.
  • Fin-nipping fish, including some tetras or tiger barbs.
  • Fast-swimming fish that may outcompete Synodontis catfish for food or cause stress, such as danios or certain active livebearers.
  • Bottom-dwelling fish with similar body shapes or requirements that may compete for hiding spots or resources.

Recommendations for Creating a Harmonious Community Tank

To create a harmonious community tank with Synodontis catfish, consider the following recommendations:

  1. Research the compatibility of potential tank mates with Synodontis catfish in terms of temperament, size, and water parameter requirements.
  2. Introduce tank mates of similar size or slightly larger than the Synodontis catfish to prevent them from becoming targets of aggression.
  3. Avoid overcrowding the aquarium to minimize competition for resources and reduce stress levels.
  4. Provide ample hiding places and territories for all the fish in the aquarium, ensuring each species has its own space.
  5. Monitor the behavior of tank mates closely during the initial introduction and subsequent interactions. If any signs of aggression or stress occur, be prepared to rearrange or rehome incompatible fish.


Breeding Behavior

Breeding Synodontis catfish in captivity can be challenging, and successful breeding often requires specific conditions and careful management. The breeding behavior of Synodontis catfish can vary among species, but generally follows these patterns:

  1. Courtship and spawning: During courtship, males may display increased activity and aggression. They may chase and nudge females, leading them to potential spawning sites.
  2. Spawning and egg deposition: Synodontis catfish are typically egg scatterers. The female deposits adhesive eggs on suitable surfaces such as rocks, caves, or flat substrates.
  3. Fertilization and parental care: Once the eggs are fertilized, both parents may guard the spawning site and defend the eggs against potential threats. However, parental care varies among species, and some may abandon the eggs after spawning.

Ideal Breeding Conditions

Creating ideal breeding conditions for Synodontis catfish can increase the chances of successful breeding. Here are some considerations:

  1. Separate breeding tank: Set up a separate breeding tank with appropriate water conditions and provide suitable spawning sites such as caves or flat surfaces.
  2. Water parameters: Maintain stable water conditions with suitable temperature, pH, and hardness specific to the species you are breeding. Research the specific requirements of your chosen species.
  3. Simulate seasonal changes: Some Synodontis catfish species require simulated seasonal changes, such as temperature fluctuations or changes in water chemistry, to trigger breeding behaviors.
  4. High-quality diet: Provide a varied and nutritious diet to condition the breeding pair, as proper nutrition is essential for successful reproduction.
  5. Privacy and security: Create a quiet and dimly lit environment in the breeding tank, providing hiding places to mimic their natural habitat and reduce stress.

Raising Fry and Specific Care Requirements

Raising Synodontis catfish fry requires specific care to ensure their survival and growth:

  1. Fry separation: Once the eggs hatch and fry emerge, it is recommended to separate them from the adult fish to prevent predation. Transfer the fry to a separate rearing tank.
  2. Infusoria and small live foods: Initially, feed the fry with infusoria or commercially available liquid fry food until they are large enough to accept larger live or powdered foods.
  3. Gradual introduction of larger foods: As the fry grow, introduce small live or frozen foods, such as newly hatched brine shrimp or microworms, to their diet.
  4. Frequent water changes: Maintain excellent water quality in the rearing tank by performing regular partial water changes and monitoring water parameters.
  5. Provide suitable hiding places: Include fine-leaved plants or structures with small openings in the rearing tank to provide hiding places for the fry.

Note that successful breeding and fry rearing can be highly species-specific, and it’s important to research the particular requirements of the Synodontis catfish species you are working with.

Health & Disease

Keeping Synodontis catfish in good health requires proactive care and monitoring. Here are some common diseases that may affect them, along with prevention and treatment strategies:

Common Diseases and Their Symptoms

  1. Ich (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis): Symptoms include white spots resembling grains of salt on the fish’s body and fins, accompanied by scratching or rubbing against objects.
  2. Fin Rot: Infected fins appear ragged, frayed, or disintegrating. There may be discoloration, inflammation, or red streaks in the affected areas.
  3. Dropsy: The fish’s abdomen becomes swollen, giving a bloated appearance. Scales may stick out and the fish may appear lethargic or lose its appetite.
  4. Fungal Infections: Fungal infections manifest as cotton-like growths or patches on the fish’s body or fins.
  5. Bacterial Infections: Symptoms can vary depending on the type of bacteria involved but may include open sores, ulcers, redness, or abnormal behavior.

Prevention and Treatment Strategies

To prevent diseases and maintain the health of Synodontis catfish, follow these strategies:

  1. Quarantine new fish: Before introducing new fish to the aquarium, quarantine them for a few weeks in a separate tank to monitor for any signs of disease. This helps prevent introducing pathogens to the main tank.
  2. Maintain good water quality: Regularly test and maintain appropriate water parameters, perform partial water changes, and ensure efficient filtration to reduce stress and minimize disease risks.
  3. Provide a balanced diet: Offer a varied and nutritious diet to boost the fish’s immune system. A well-fed and healthy fish is less susceptible to diseases.
  4. Observe and monitor: Regularly observe the fish for any signs of abnormal behavior, physical changes, or symptoms of disease. Early detection allows for prompt treatment.
  5. Quarantine and treat infected fish: If a fish shows signs of illness, promptly isolate it in a quarantine tank to prevent the spread of disease. Consult with a veterinarian or knowledgeable aquatic professional to determine the appropriate treatment for the specific disease.

Treatment options for diseases may include medicated baths, antibiotic treatments, antifungal medications, or other appropriate remedies. It’s crucial to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer or seek professional advice for proper dosages and administration.

Care Level

The care level for Synodontis catfish can be considered intermediate to expert, depending on the specific species and their particular requirements. Here’s an overview of their care level and special considerations:

Difficulty of Care

Synodontis catfish require more specialized care compared to some other beginner-friendly fish species. They have specific needs and behaviors that require attention and understanding. Therefore, they are generally more suitable for intermediate to experienced aquarists who are familiar with maintaining water quality, providing appropriate tank conditions, and addressing potential challenges.

Special Considerations or Requirements

When caring for Synodontis catfish, there are some special considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Tank Size: Synodontis catfish need sufficient space to swim and explore. Depending on the species, a minimum tank size of 30 gallons or larger is recommended to accommodate their size and activity level.
  2. Hiding Places: Providing suitable hiding places, such as caves, driftwood, or rock structures, is crucial for Synodontis catfish. These hiding spots offer security and allow them to exhibit natural behaviors.
  3. Water Quality: Maintaining excellent water quality is essential for the health of Synodontis catfish. Regular water testing, appropriate filtration, and regular water changes are necessary to keep their environment pristine.
  4. Dietary Needs: Synodontis catfish require a balanced diet that includes high-quality pellets or flakes, supplemented with live or frozen foods and fresh vegetables. Offering a varied diet helps ensure their nutritional needs are met.
  5. Compatibility: Selecting suitable tank mates that are peaceful and compatible with Synodontis catfish is crucial. Avoid keeping them with aggressive or fin-nipping species that may cause stress or harm.
  6. Behavior and Nocturnal Activity: Being primarily nocturnal, Synodontis catfish are more active during dim or low-light conditions. Consider adjusting the lighting schedule to accommodate their natural behavior.
  7. Species-Specific Requirements: Different Synodontis catfish species may have specific care requirements. Researching the particular needs of the species you are keeping is essential for their optimal care.

Conservation Status

The conservation status of Synodontis catfish species can vary depending on the specific species and their respective populations. Here’s some information regarding their conservation status and any legal restrictions on keeping them in captivity:

IUCN Red List or Other Conservation Status Information

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assesses the conservation status of various species, including some Synodontis catfish species. However, due to the extensive number of species within the Synodontis genus, not all species have been individually assessed for their conservation status.

Some Synodontis catfish species have been evaluated and assigned conservation status by the IUCN. For example, the Synodontis multipunctatus species from Lake Tanganyika is listed as “Least Concern” as of the last assessment. On the other hand, other species may have different conservation statuses depending on their geographical distribution, habitat threats, and population trends. It’s important to refer to specific species assessments for accurate and up-to-date conservation status information.

Legal Restrictions on Keeping the Species in Captivity

The legal restrictions on keeping Synodontis catfish species in captivity can vary depending on the country or region. Some countries may have regulations regarding the import, export, or possession of certain species of fish, including Synodontis catfish. It is advisable to research and comply with the regulations specific to your location before acquiring and keeping any fish species.

Additionally, some Synodontis catfish species may be protected under local or international wildlife protection laws if they are classified as endangered, threatened, or otherwise at risk. These legal restrictions aim to safeguard wild populations and prevent illegal collection or trade. It is crucial to ensure any fish you acquire are from legal and sustainable sources.

To accurately determine the legal restrictions on keeping Synodontis catfish in captivity, it is recommended to consult local wildlife authorities, fishkeeping associations, or relevant governmental agencies in your jurisdiction.

By staying informed about the conservation status and legal restrictions, aquarists can contribute to responsible fishkeeping practices and support the conservation efforts for Synodontis catfish species.

Additional Information & Fun Facts

Here are some additional information and fun facts about Synodontis catfish:

  1. Wide Species Diversity: The Synodontis genus comprises numerous species, estimated to be around 150 or more. Each species possesses unique characteristics, behaviors, and appearances, making them a diverse group of catfish.
  2. Whiskers and Sensory Abilities: Synodontis catfish have long, sensitive barbels, also known as whiskers, around their mouths. These barbels are equipped with taste buds and play a crucial role in locating food and navigating their environment.
  3. Ancient Origins: Synodontis catfish are part of the family Mochokidae, which has a long evolutionary history. Fossil records indicate that catfish belonging to the Mochokidae family have existed for millions of years.
  4. Nocturnal Nature: Synodontis catfish are primarily nocturnal, meaning they are more active during the night. They often display heightened activity levels and feeding behaviors when the aquarium lights are dimmed or turned off.
  5. Cleaning Crew: Synodontis catfish are highly efficient scavengers and can help clean up leftover food and debris in the aquarium. They play a role in maintaining water cleanliness and can contribute to the overall balance of the aquarium ecosystem.
  6. Personality and Individuality: Synodontis catfish have unique personalities and behaviors. Some individuals may be more outgoing and active, while others may be more shy or reclusive. Observing their individual traits and behaviors can be fascinating.
  7. Long Lifespan: With proper care, Synodontis catfish can have a long lifespan in captivity. Many species can live for 10-20 years or even longer, providing long-term enjoyment for dedicated aquarists.

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