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Plecos 101

What You Need to Know about Sucker Mouthed Catfish (Plecos)

The First thing you need to know about Plecos is that they Poo.... and Plecos poo a lot. Not just a lot, but massive ropey strands everywhere on the bottom a lot! (Especially the larger fish.) In all seriousness, they really do produce a huge amount of waste and add a considerable amount of bio-load to any tank. This is a very important consideration when keeping large plecos with the messier, "chew-and-spew" cichlids (Oscars, et al.)!



Meat Eating Pleco? Not all Plecos are the Same

There are many common misconceptions about the fish often called “Plecos” (any fish from the family Loricariidae). One of the most common misconceptions is that they are all basically the same fish, but with a different “paint job”. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Coming exclusively from South America, the family Loricariidae, is a highly diverse group of catfish with many specialized species. A good example of this diversity is the differences between the "Zebra Pleco," (Hypancistrus zebra) and the "Royal Pleco," (Panaque nigrolineatus). Zebra Plecos require a meaty, high protein diet where as Royal Plecos eat wood almost exclusively. (Yes, you read that correctly...they eat wood.) A Royal Pleco fed meaty foods would either starve or bloat from the high protein. Zebra Plecos would quickly starve if only fed wood and greens.

More Commonly Available Species:

Common Plecostomus (Now:Pterygoplichthys spp. often P. pardalis or P. disjunctivus Formerly: Hypostomus punctatus and Hypostomus plecostomus):

This is the pleco most often seen in your local fish store (LFS). These fish get large (~12 inches). They can be aggressive as adults and produce a lot of waste. Common plecos need a large, well-filtered tank with 75 gallons being the minimum recommended tank size. These fish are omnivorous, but like a lot of greens in their diet. Common plecos are not generally recommended for the rift lake aquarium. Mbuna and other Malawi cichlids tend to pick out the eyes of these fish. Most Tanganyikan set ups have PH’s that are too high for this pleco to be comfortable. Common plecos are often kept with larger South and Central American cichlids; however, check the chart below for more specific compatibility information.

Examples of Available Plecos

Bulldog, Rubber-nose, Rubber-lip Pleco (Chaetostoma spp. )

These medium sized (~6-8 inch) Loricariiads come from swift moving rivers and streams. They require cool, highly oxygenated water. They are omnivores and like a fair amount of protein in their diets. While not an ideal candidate, they can be acclimated to Rift Lake water chemistry if given a lot of water flow. However, beware, as Mbuna and other territorial cichlids may pick on them. This is a great candidate for medium (or larger) West African Ravine type aquariums.

Sailfin Pleco, Gibby Plecos (Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps)

A "tank-buster" of a pleco as these fish can easily reach 18 inches and are only suited for the largest of home aquariums. As their common name suggests, they have an impressively large dorsal fin and make for an attractive addition to any large aquarium. They are omnivores but like a good quantity of greens in their diet. Not recommended for rift lake set ups. They can be mixed with South and Central American cichlids similarly to the "Common” pleco.

Oto's Pleco (Otocinclus spp.)

The plecos in the genus, Otocinclus, are some of the smallest sucker mouthed catfish available. These little plecos reach a maximum size of approximately 2 inches depending on the species. Oto's do best in groups. They are primarily vegetarians and do great work on algae. While they are excellent additions to most planted tanks, due to their diminutive stature, they should only be mixed with the most peaceful of cichlids.

Bristle Nose Pleco (Ancistrus spp.)

The common "Bristle Nose" Pleco is a medium sized (~6 inches), omnivorous species. Many attractive line bred variants (long-finned, albino etc) are regularly available. The males of this pleco have large spines coming off of their noses giving them an intimidating appearance. While this fish normally comes from acidic to neutral pH waters, it has been found to be tolerant of high pH and is often mixed with smaller Tanganyikan cichlids. It is not recommended to house these smaller plecos in with large, aggressive South and Central American Cichlids.

Panaque sp. Royal Pleco (Panaque nigrolineatus), Clown Pleco (Panaque maccus) and others.


Royal Panaque 

The genus Panaque includes the wood eating Royal Pleco and Clown Pleco as well as a number of other described and undescribed xylophagous species. These fish require wood in their diets. This makes keeping them in rift lake conditions difficult as they are best suited to soft water tanks with plenty of bog and drift wood.

Care should be taken as some of the fish in this genus get quite large. Another word of caution is that these fish have teeth capable of eating wood! That means they can also scratch acrylic tanks, eat the silicone seams out of your aquarium and even munch through your heater’s power cord.

Royal Pleco flexing his Spines!

Zebra Pleco (Hypancistrus zebra)

This is one of the most hyped and expensive plecos on the market. These carnivores stay relatively small and peaceful. Considering the cost of this fish, I would not risk housing it with anything but the most peaceful of tank-mates.

Gold Nugget Pleco (Baryancistrus sp)

This omnivorous species is one of the more popular "fancy" plecos. It likes warmer temperatures and care should be taken as these plecos can get to over a foot in length.

courtesy of Frazzlerock

Photo courtesy of Frazzlerock

For more specific information on Plecos and Catfish in general, be sure to check out

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