Synodontis Catfish Species Profile: Size, Care, Tank Mates & Lifespan

Author: Hasty Fish

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If you’re searching for a freshwater fish that is as visually impressive as it is captivating, you don’t want to miss out on the Synodontis catfish.

From their intricate patterns and vibrant colors to their mysterious habits, these freshwater fish are hard to miss. What makes Synodontis catfish even more interesting is the wide variety of species available.

In this guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about Synodontis catfish, including size, lifespan, tank mates, care requirements, and more. By the end of it, you should have a good idea if these fish are right for you!

Without further ado, let’s unravel the world of Synodontis catfish as we delve deeper into what makes these fish truly one of a kind.

Synodontis Catfish Species Overview

Synodontis Catfish

The Synodontis catfish is a fascinating freshwater fish that can be an excellent addition to any aquarium.

These fish are indigenous to Africa, with the majority living in the central and western regions of the continent. They are typically found in the Great Rift Valley’s vast lakes, home to many brilliantly colored species, including many varieties of cichlids.

Synodontis catfish have become popular among fish enthusiasts, particularly those who favor biotope aquariums that mimic the natural African bodies of water.

These catfish are versatile and can adapt to various habitat conditions, making them relatively straightforward to care for, resulting in them being one of the most sought-after freshwater species.

Appearance, Colors, & Markings

Synodontis catfish are a diverse species, with over 130 unique varieties that boast a similar physique. These fish, known for their flattened bellies and distinctive shark-like outline, are distinct bottom-dwellers that spend most of their time exploring the depths of their habitats.

Most have a gray or brown-colored body adorned with large dark spots that create distinct camouflage patterns, allowing them to blend in seamlessly with the murky bottoms of lakes and rivers to ensure maximum protection from predators.

Natural shading is visible on the fins and upper half of the body, adding to their distinct appearance. Additionally, some Synodontis catfish may have striking bright white accents around their fins, further enhancing their overall beauty.

Most notably, these fish possess three pairs of whiskers or barbels that protrude from the corners of the mouth. These fleshy protrusions enable the fish to hunt for food more effectively and easily navigate underwater terrain.

They lack traditional scales and armor, as seen in other species. However, they have developed spiny pectoral fins and a sharp dorsal fin, which can be used to protect themselves from predators. Note that these spines can inflict severe physical harm. So it’s crucial to handle them with care.

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Synodontis catfish can live a full and healthy life when provided with the right tank conditions and care. In a well-maintained environment, these fish typically have a lifespan of eight to ten years.

Like any other freshwater fish, they are prone to health problems when neglected or housed in poor conditions. So, as a responsible fish owner, it’s crucial to provide and maintain the perfect habitat for your Synodontis catfish to ensure a long and healthy life.

By keeping a keen eye on water quality and avoiding overfeeding, you can prevent disease and premature death and enjoy the company of these fascinating and elegant fish for many years to come.

Synodontis Catfish Size

Synodontis Multipunctatus in Lake

These fish can grow to be quite large, with a size range that can vary significantly depending on the species and environment.

Some Synodontis catfish reach only three inches, while others can grow up to a foot long! That said, the average size tends to be around eight inches in captivity, making them a popular choice among fish keepers.

Habitat & Care

The Synodontis catfish, despite their exotic looks, are surprisingly hardy creatures and can tolerate a healthy range of water conditions. This is excellent news for fish enthusiasts, as it means that keeping these fish happy and healthy shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

Implementing basic care guidelines such as maintaining water quality and a well-balanced diet can go a long way towards ensuring the health of these charming fish.

Here are some tips you should keep in mind when setting up the ideal environment for your Synodontis catfish:

1. Recommended Tank Size for Synodontis Catfish

Synodontis catfish require ample space for swimming, and having a 20-gallon tank is the minimum requirement for keeping them happy and healthy.

However, if you have the room available, a 50-gallon tank is preferable since it will give your fish more space to explore and swim around and, more importantly, allow for sufficient space for a small school of 4-5 fish. If you want a multi-species community tank or a larger school of catfish, opt for an even larger tank.

2. Ideal Water Parameters

Synodontis catfish are an incredibly adaptable species of freshwater fish, which makes it easy for hobbyists to replicate their natural environment in a home aquarium. To keep your Synodontis catfish healthy, aim for water conditions close to what they would experience in the wild.

The parameters can vary from one species to another, but generally, you should maintain a:

  • Temperature of 72-82 °F (22-28 °C)
  • pH between 6.0-7.5
  • Water hardness of 4-15 KH

An adequate filtration system is also essential for creating the perfect environment for your Synodontis catfish. By providing the right habitat, you can enjoy watching your beautiful fish thrive in its new home.

If you are planning to build a Rift Lakes tank, you can use the same water conditions you would use for cichlid species.

And when it comes to mixed tanks with catfish and cichlids, you’ll want to double the standard filtration required for the aquarium size you’re setting up. This ensures that cichlids and Synodontis catfish can coexist happily in a healthy and stable environment.

3. What To Put In Their Tank

Synodontis catfish are bottom-dwellers and spend most of their time scavenging for food in the sand. Due to this, it’s crucial to choose the right type of substrate for their tank.

You’ll want to avoid pebbles or rocks in the substrate, as these can injure the fish when digging and moving around. Fine gravel or sand is an ideal choice, as it allows the fish to comfortably burrow and excavate their territory. Also, you can consider adding crushed coral to help maintain the water hardness.

Additionally, you’ll need to provide these fish with plenty of hiding places, such as rocks, caves, and driftwood, to make them feel secure in their environment. They also love hiding in crevices, so it’s a good idea to provide them with sizable shelter structures to accommodate their needs.

You’ll want to avoid adding live plants into their tank, as these fish are notorious for digging up roots. Yes. You can use artificial plants, but anything living should be avoided, especially those with a deep root system secured to the tank’s glass. Complementing their preference for dim lighting, adding floating plants can help achieve a more natural and comfortable setting for these catfish.

4. Common Synodontis Catfish Diseases: What To Look Out For

While Synodontis catfish are hardy and adaptable, they can still be prone to some diseases. In fact, these fish are susceptible to many of the same diseases that affect other captive fish, including bacterial and parasitic infections, fungal problems, and stress-related illnesses.

One of the most common ailments to look out for is Ich. It presents itself as white spots on the body, fins, and gills and can be deadly if not treated quickly. So, if you notice any of these white spots, you’ll want to quarantine the fish and treat the infirmary tank with appropriate medication.

One thing to note is that treating Ich with copper-based medications can be dangerous for Synodontis catfish since they have no scales. Therefore, you’ll need to use a treatment that is safe for scaleless fish.

Proper maintenance of the aquarium, such as regular water changes and efficient filtration, and using caution when introducing new fish or items into the tank can go a long way to prevent any illnesses in your Synodontis catfish.

Synodontis Catfish Diet

Synodontis catfish are omnivores and are not picky eaters. In the wild, they will eat a variety of foods, including snails, insects, small mollusks, vegetables, plants, small fish, and other sources of nutrition they find at the bottom.

When in captivity, it’s best to provide them with a diet heavy in meaty foods. And it’s important to incorporate enough variety to keep them engaged and stimulated. Flaked and frozen foods or sinking pellets make good options. You can also offer them bloodworms, tubifex worms, as well as garden vegetables, cucumber, and other nutritious treats.

Note, though, they are known for their voracious appetites and will eagerly feast on whatever food they find available. So, be sure to feed these catfish in moderation, as overfeeding can lead to serious health problems.

Temperament & Behavior

Synodontis catfish are a social and peaceful species that prefer swimming in groups, ideally composed of at least four or five fish. Shoaling offers benefits such as socialization and reduced territorial behavior.

Despite being placid and easygoing, Synodontis catfish can sometimes become aggressive towards other fish in the tank, especially when there isn’t enough space to swim and hide. However, these disputes usually never amount to anything more than disputes.

Synodontis catfish are also common night owls and love to scavenge for food at the bottom of the tank at night. During the day, they prefer staying in hiding spots within the tank, sticking mainly to the shadows.

Synodontis Catfish Compatible Tank Mates

Synodontis Catfish Tank Mate - Neolamprologus Leleupi
Caption: Synodontis Catfish Tank Mate – Neolamprologus Leleupi

When selecting tank mates for Synodontis catfish, it’s crucial to keep in mind that they can mistake smaller fish for food and turn them into a meal. So it’s best to avoid any small fish that could fit into their mouths. It’s also best to steer clear of larger, aggressive species because Synodontis catfish may be bullied.

But otherwise, they work great with many other peaceful fish species and get along well with fish of similar size.

The best tank mates for Synodontis catfish, you ask? Well, they are best kept in tanks with fish from similar habitats, particularly fish native to the rivers and lakes of Africa and other Synodontis catfish types. Some examples include:

  • Ctenochromis Horei
  • Cyprichromis Leptosoma
  • Neolamprologus Leleupi
  • Paracyprichromis Nigripinnis
  • Simochromis Babaulti

Note that when adding multiple types of cichlids to a tank as tank mates for your Synodontis catfish, caution should be taken. The reason is that cichlids are generally semi-aggressive to aggressive in nature. Therefore, you’ll want to choose either a small group of them or a balanced variety of different species to prevent territorial disputes.

Breeding the Synodontis Catfish

The Synodontis catfish is a fascinating species with a unique personality that distinguishes it from other fish. Though it may be challenging to breed Synodontis catfish intentionally because it’s unknown how to manipulate temperature or environmental conditions to induce spawning, their breeding habits are still intriguing.

Some fishkeepers find success breeding Synodontis catfish with cichlids in the tank. This is based on the fact that Synodontis catfish will lay eggs amongst the eggs of mouthbrooding cichlids. This careful process is called brood parasitism, often going unnoticed by the cichlids themselves, who will unwittingly raise the baby catfish as their own, which is why Synodontis catfish are also called the Cuckoo catfish.

One significant benefit of this breeding habit is that the eggs of Synodontis catfish mature faster than cichlid eggs, meaning they will be the first ones to hatch. As the baby catfish grow and become more independent and skilled hunters, they feast on unhatched cichlid eggs and sometimes even cichlid fry.

If you happen to witness your Synodontis catfish and cichlid in their breeding cycle, wait for approximately three days before attempting to strip the Synodontis fry from the female cichlid’s mouth. Once released, the fry should be removed and placed in a separate rearing tank. It is essential to feed them tiny brine shrimp to support their growth until they are large enough to safely return to the primary tank.


In conclusion, the Synodontis catfish is a fascinating species offering unique physical traits, natural behaviors, and companionship in the aquarium world.

With careful consideration of their preferred environments, dietary needs, and compatible tank mates, this docile and entertaining fish can be one of the best additions to any freshwater tank. And if you happen to catch them in their breeding cycle with cichlids, witnessing the process of brood parasitism can be an incredibly exciting experience. 

So if you’re looking for a relatively easy-to-care-for fish that offers a unique presence and interesting social dynamics in your tank, the Synodontis catfish is definitely the way to go.

Good luck and happy fishkeeping!