Synodontis catfish are often missed in aquarium shops - often they are likely to be hiding in decor or kept in large aquariums unnoticed amongst bigger fish. These are fascinating fish however, and make interesting additions to the right aquarium.
Synodontis are part of the Mochokidae catfish family, more commonly known as the 'naked catfishes', since they have a lack of body armour or traditional scales. Synodontis typically have quite strong and spiny dorsal and pectoral fins, and three pairs of barbells, used for scavenging amongst the substrate and navigating surroundings.
Originating in African waters, synodontis vary considerably in size, with the majority of aquarium species reaching 10-30cm (4-12"), whilst some can reach up to 60cm or more.
The majority of synodontis are nocturnal or twilight feeders and will spend much of the day hidden away in preferred hiding spots under pieces of wood or decor. The range of different species available is large, and many synodontis sport attractive markings, although these often fade with age.
Synodontis are generally peaceful fish, but they can also be territorial so squabbles between individuals are common. Providing there are plenty of hiding spots available, the occasional squabble is nothing to worry about. Most species are at least partly nocturnal so will be more active in the evening and at night, when they will come out to feed and explore the aquarium for food items.
During the day, synodontis can be reclusive and may spend much of their time hiding, although this varies between individuals and well-settled fish are likely to be more confident. All synodontis have good characters, including the upside-down catfishes, which have the unusual habit of swimming or resting in an upside down position under bogwood or large leaves.
Mixing with other fish
Synodontis are generally hardy and adaptable and can be mixed with robust fish, and some aggressive or territorial species. They are a particularly common addition to African lake cichlid aquaria, where their scavenging habits help to stir up some of the debris created by messy fish or highly stocked communities. Since they can reach reasonable sizes, they should not be mixed with very small fish, which will become easy to feed upon at night.
Cichlids, barbs, rainbowfish and other robust fishes are ideal tank mates; only the smaller species of synodontis should be kept in general community aquariums.
Synodontis come from a range of water conditions in nature, with some originating from the hard water African lakes whilst others may live in softer, vegetated waters. In the aquarium most synodontis species are highly adaptable and are likely to be kept in local water conditions by retailers, so providing your water is not an extreme of hard or soft, there should be no problems with general water conditions.
Good filtration is essential however, since these fish are used to well oxygenated, clear waters in the wild. External filtration, regular water changes, and plenty of flow are best for larger fish, whilst small synodontis will suffice with good internal filtration. High nitrates or a build up of debris can cause health problems and damage to the barbells.
Since the fish are scavengers and have sensitive barbells, the substrate should not have any sharp elements; rounded pea gravel or sandy substrates are ideal. Plants will be used as hiding spots although some of the larger species can be destructive and may damage delicate plants.
Dark, cave like hiding places are very important and should be easily available, if the fish are forced to live out in the open they may become timid, stressed, and unhealthy. As nocturnal species, too much bright light will be detrimental, so again hiding spots and subdued or shaded areas should be provided.
Some synodontis will learn to take floating pellet foods from the surface whilst others will need to be fed on sinking foods, which should be given towards the evening when the fish are most active. Dried foods like sinking pellets, wafers, or granules are important, since they contain plenty of vitamins, but synodontis will also enjoy feeding on live or frozen foods such as bloodworm, brineshrimp, glassworm, and mixed foods.
You can also feed some synodontis on fresh vegetables such as pieces of lettuce, cucumber, or peas. Whilst fish enjoy foods like this, and they can help to maintain good health, at least half of their diet should always be made up from proprietary foods.