Raising Synodontis Cats

Author: Michael Delk

Although not as popular as cories or plecos, syno cats are just as entertaining and provide a bit of a challenge for the aspiring fish breeder.

Many people are familiar with the fish of the African Rift Lakes because of the cichlids that were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Known for their vivid shades of blue, yellow, red, and just about any other color of the rainbow, these active and entertaining fish have won the hearts of many hobbyists. The lakes of Africa have other great fish that can make great additions to your tank, however. Some of these include the catfish of the genus Synodontis, and one species that has won me over in particular is S. petricola.

The Forgotten Africans

Many tropical fish hobbyists are familiar with Synodontis catfish, with S. petricola and S. multipunctata beingtwo of the more popular species. The latter is known as the cuckoo cat because of its breeding habits. This catfish spawns by placing its eggs among those of mouthbrooding cichlids as it dines on the cichlids’ eggs. The unwitting cichlid then incubates the catfish eggs along with its own, and when the catfish fry hatch out first, they devour the cichlid eggs.

I was initially introduced to S. petricola while visiting a local fish shop, which were labeled and being offered at a reasonable price. I studied the adult-sized fish for about 15 minutes, and they appeared to be male and female—well, at least one was slender, and the other was heavier and stocky. I asked the owner if he knew where the fish came from, and he said that someone was changing out their Tanganyikan tank and brought the fish in for trade. I didn’t need any new fish, but these really caught my eye. Like a good fishaholic, I took the fish home and placed them into a 90-gallon tank with some African and South American cichlids.

A Missed Opportunity

S. petricola are active and highly interesting to watch. They can hide or just sit motionless, but generally they are out chasing each other. Sometimes they will stand straight up right next to each other in the middle of the tank, dancing and displaying.

I noticed one day that the fish suddenly became very active, with the male fish aggressively chasing the female. He would not stop following and harassing her regardless of where she went in the tank. I had noticed a few days earlier that she appeared a little heavier than normal. The female stopped underneath a fake rock formation and hovered about an inch above the gravel. The male came up beside her and wrapped himself around the front of her, forming the same T-formation used by cory cats when they spawn. The two shook, and a burst of about 15 to 20 small white eggs were scattered into the water. As luck would have it, I needed to be somewhere and had to leave.

When I arrived back home, the fish had finished spawning. The other fish were still prodding around the gravel, and I was pretty sure all of the eggs had been eaten. I decided not to go through all the work to move the other fish and never did see any eggs or fry. My work schedule became a bit hectic over the next couple of months, and I was unable to pay much attention to the pair.

Additions and Modifications

I took some of my cichlids to another fish shop to trade in for credit, and one of their tanks happened to contain a few adult-sized S. petricola. Not surprisingly, the credit I received for the cichlids didn’t last very long! I did my best to pick out a male and female. After bringing them home, I placed them in the same tank as the other two, and a couple of weeks later, I added two younger S. petricola from a third fish shop, bringing my total to six.

I freed up a 65-gallon tank and put in the six cats along with a pair of Neolamprologus brevis and a few other miscellaneous fish. The tank had an undergravel filter covering half of the bottom. A 1½-inch mixture of natural gravel and crushed coral covered the filter plate. About 20 shells were on the bare-bottom side of the tank. The shells not only provided a home for the pair of brevis, but they also helped maintain the water at a higher pH (just at 8.0). A good-sized Anubias was included, and its large leaves and roots provided resting and hiding places for the catfish. The temperature was 78°F. I also added a fake rock formation to the tank, hoping that the fish would spawn like they did in the 90-gallon tank.

About five weeks passed, and it appeared that spawning never took place. The female looked like she was heavy with eggs, and the other fish I thought was a female looked similar. I had heard that a few people saw success spawning these fish with a covered clay flowerpot partially filled with marbles, so I went off to the department store for the required materials. Using a hacksaw, I cut a notch out of the clay flowerpot. Approximately 30 marbles were placed in to make sure the drain hole at the bottom was plugged. The pot was then placed in the tank and covered with a clay plate. Initially, the fish were spooked by the new addition. They would swim up and touch it, and then quickly swim away. By next morning, however, they were all swimming in and out of the flower pot without hesitation.

A Successful Litter

About a week later, while feeding the fish, I noticed the same type of activity I had seen when they spawned in the 90-gallon tank. The male was chasing one of the females all around the tank. I decided to watch them a little closer. He would chase her and then stop and quickly go into the flowerpot. She would follow him into the flowerpot, and they would stay in there for 30 to 45 seconds. She would then come racing out, and he would be chasing close behind her. He would try to wrap himself around her when she stopped, but she would move away from his advances, only to follow him back into the flowerpot repeatedly.

If the other male entered the flowerpot, he would quickly be chased out and harassed by the dominant male. He would only chase him a short distance trying to nip him. If the other female went in, she would stay in for about 10 to 15 seconds and then be chased out. During this time, if either of what I thought were the spawning fish ran into another fish of the same sex, they chased it away from the flowerpot area, nipping away as they went.

Three Days Later

Three days had passed, and it was time to look into the flowerpot. I gently raised it out of the tank using my thumb to better plug the drain hole. I poured the water, marbles and all, into a plastic 3-gallon bucket. The bucket now had about 2 inches of water and a bunch of marbles. With a magnifying glass, I took a close look into the bucket and saw about two or three tiny movements within the marbles. I started carefully removing the marbles, not letting them roll and possibly crush the fry. Once all the marbles were out, the 25 fry were siphoned from the bucket into a plastic filter box that could be hung inside the adult’s aquarium.


The fry were very small, about half the size of newly hatched cory cats. I wasn’t sure if the fry were big enough to eat microworms. I continued to closely watch the fry, trying to figure out when to best start feeding them microworms. My best guess is that they adsorbed their egg sacs between eight and nine days. I noticed that the size of the fry increased after I began offering them microworms. Even though the fry are tiny, they have large heads and mouths for their size.

A Successful Gamble

Within two weeks, I observed the same type of activity that I had seen before. I was pretty sure the fish had spawned. I am on the board of our local aquarium society, and we were holding that month’s board meeting at my house. The meeting was five days after the day I thought the fish spawned. Since the officers and other board members would be at my house, I felt this would be a great time to show them newly hatched Synodontis cats. Our Breeder’s Award Program requires that a spawn is verified as early as possible and at a minimum of 30 days of age, so I thought that having everyone over would be a great opportunity to show how the spawn is verified the first time.

At the beginning of the meeting, I told everyone that I was planning on possibly showing them Synodontis fry that were only two to three days old. At this point, I did not know if the fish had spawned or if there were any fry in the flowerpot. I told everyone that this might be a bust; we might open the flowerpot and find nothing. But after the meeting ended, I pulled the flowerpot and dumped everything into the plastic 3-gallon bucket—and there were about 50 tiny clear fry darting around the marbles!

Refining the Technique

I have now seen the same type of activity a total of three times, and each time there have been fry in the flowerpot. The original spawn is now 30 days old. They are being fed microworms and newly hatched brine shrimp. I have just started feeding them finely crushed flake food. At about two weeks of age, you can see a pattern of light-dark blotches starting to show on the fry. It is easily visible on the 30-day-old fry and begins to look somewhat like the adult pattern, though it is still mostly just blotches. The 30-day-old fry have grown well and are over ¼ inch long.

My cats are currently on about a 10-day spawning cycle, which is pretty impressive because I am not feeding any live food to the adults. They are eating flakes twice a day. They will even take the food right off the top of the water as it floats. The technique I use to check the flowerpot for fry has now changed. The 3-gallon bucket is filled with about 4 inches of water from the spawning tank. The flowerpot is then lifted out of the spawning tank and gently set down in the 3-gallon bucket. The extra water in the bucket helps equalize the water in the flowerpot. The marbles are then carefully removed one by one, which reduces the chances of injuring the fry. After all of the marbles (except the one plugging the hole in the flowerpot) are removed, the fry are siphoned out into the plastic filter box.

Synodontis petricola or S. lucipinnis?

I purchased six fish from three different fish stores, all of which are exclusively fish shops, not all-purpose pet stores. They all had the fish labeled as petricola, so I thought I had purchased S. petricola. Then I remembered reading that there is another Synodontis species that is mistakenly sold as petricola. I checked TFH Digital and found enough information there to make me question whether I spawned S. petricola or S. lucipinnis.

It can be difficult to tell these two apart when comparing younger fish, but their markings change as they mature, which helps in distinguishing between the two. S. petricola normally has many smaller round spots with a somewhat organized pattern. S. lucipinnis generally have fewer spots that are larger and sometimes of irregular shape. Also, S. petricola can grow a little larger. The two fish are difficult to tell apart otherwise. Based on those differences, I believe I may have spawned S. lucipinnis, but which fish actually spawned will have to be left to someone who is more of a catfish expert than I am. Look for these fish the next time you are at your local fish shop!