While the common pleco (Hypostomus plecostomus) is one of the most popular bottom feeders available in the aquarium trade, there are a few better options that are more colorful and won’t quickly outgrow your tank. One of these options is the pictus catfish.
The pictus catfish is a beautiful fish, unmistakable for its spotted pattern and long barbels. These fish are a little more challenging to keep than most other beginner freshwater fish due to their activity level and predatory behavior but are definitely worth it if tank conditions are met.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about pictus catfish care and keeping one of these fish in your own aquarium!
Pimelodus pictus is commonly known as the pictus catfish; they are sometimes mislabeled as a species of Angelicus catfish. However, pictus catfish belong to the Pimelodidaefamily.
Members of Pimelodidae are known for growing very long barbels, also known as whiskers, and reaching impressive body sizes. The family currently houses 30 different genera with about 100 different species overall, making it one of the most diverse families of catfish. It is important to note that Pimelodus pictus is likely to be reclassified in the future as the genera within this family are loosely connected and need to be reexamined deeper for similarities.
Like most other species of catfish, Pimelodus pictus lacks scales. However, they do have very sharp dorsal and pectoral fins which can get stuck in fish nets during transportation and can cause skin irritation if pricked.
The pictus catfish is a South American catfish, found in the Rio Orinoco and Amazon basins throughout Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. There, they can be found in shallower waters lurking at the bottom of main river systems and tributaries. The substrate is usually sandy or muddy and the current is flowing. Interestingly, these fish are often found in shoals.
While these fish were discovered in the late 1800s, not much is known about their preferred water conditions and exact habitat.
The pictus catfish is one of the most popular species of catfish in the hobby due to their manageable size, personality, and striking pattern. These fish can grow to a maximum of 5 inches (12.7 cm) long, not including their much longer barbels. The pictus catfish has a beautiful silverish-white base color with unique black spots all over its body and fins. They have a flattened head like most catfish, which allows them to easily dig through the substrate for food.
It can be very difficult to correctly sex pictus catfish. Females tend to be a little larger and stockier all around while males seem to be smaller and more streamlined. As we will discuss later, this has caused breeding pictus catfish to be very challenging.
Because these fish are sometimes mislabeled as a type of Angelicus catfish, they may be confused with another popular species, Synodontis angelicus. Synodontis angelicus are also most commonly known as angel squeakers and are a part of the Mochokidae family, largely known as the upside-down catfish. Angel squeakers are very easy to tell apart from pictus catfish and there should be little confusion besides the mislabeling of common names:
Angel squeakers (Synodontis angelicus). These fish grow a little larger than the pictus catfish and can reach a maximum length of 8 inches (20.3 cm) when fully grown. The main difference between angel squeakers and pictus catfish though is their coloring. Angel squeakers have a dark brown/black base color with lighter yellow-white spotting; this is the exact opposite of the black-on-white pictus catfish! Their bodies are also a little more compressed and they do not have the signature long whiskers of the pictus cat.
While it is unlikely to find one in the aquarium trade, the pictus catfish is also sometimes confused with the sailfin pim (Leiarius pictus). However, these fish can easily reach 24 inches (60 cm) and are not usually a suitable addition to the typical home aquarium. Sailfin pims have long whiskers like the pictus cat but will have an easily-identifiable large upright sailfin.
Pictus catfish tank requirements
The pictus catfish likes to hang out around the bottom of the tank, digging in the substrate and hiding under rocks and branches. While they are relatively small fish, they can be quite active and will need plenty of space to swim around with a small shoal.
The minimum tank size recommended for a pictus catfish is 55 gallons (208.2 L) with a longer tank being better than taller one to allow for more swimming space. These fish are primarily a nocturnal species, so the aquarium should always be dimly lit to make your catfish feel more comfortable and active during the daytime. This also means that feeding times should be held close to when the aquarium lights turn off, but we will discuss more about pictus catfish diet later.
Since these active fish stay on the bottom of the tank, they will need a fine substrate, like sand or silt, will work best to prevent injury. Pictus catfish will appreciate plenty of hiding places in the form of rocks and driftwood; more artificial hiding spots like plant pots may also be used. Because the aquarium is dimly lit, it could be difficult keeping plants. Less-demanding species, like Java fern (Microsorum pteropus) and Anubias sp., might still grow even under low light intensities.
These fish also prefer a moderate water current as they are naturally found shoaling in the water flow of rivers and tributaries. However, like catfish, they are likely to eat anything that might pass them by in the water column, including smaller fish.
The pictus catfish live in a pretty general range of water conditions, but remember that they do not have scales so they are slightly more susceptible to disease and injury than other fish.
These fish come from tropical waters and will need a stable water temperature between 74-81° F (23.3-27.2° C). They do best in a fairly neutral pH between 6.0-7.5.
Pictus cats can be messy fish and have the ability to produce a lot of waste. It is important to make sure that your catfish is eating all of its food and that leftovers are immediately removed within 10 minutes of feeding time to help keep the tank ammonia-free. Weekly or biweekly water changes will also help keep parameters stable and optimal for your pictus catfish.
Pictus catfish tank mates
There is a lot of controversy about which fish goes best with the pictus catfish. Many hobbyists have stories about their catfish eating anything that might float by in the water, including smaller fish, while others have had luck with an assortment of community fish and more-aggressive species.
It is important to keep in mind that while the pictus cat is a peaceful and non-territorial species, they are very active predatory fish and should be housed with like-species.
What fish can go with pictus catfish?
While hobbyists have successfully kept both community fish and more-aggressive species with these catfish, some specific species seem to work best:
Rainbowfish are bright, attractive freshwater fish that tend to be just as active as the pictus catfish. They share a similar peaceful demeanor and grow large enough to mostly be able to escape a hungry catfish. Rainbowfish will need to be kept in a school with an appropriate ratio of males to females to prevent harassment during spawning periods. Some popular species of rainbowfish are Australian rainbowfish (Melanotaenia fluviatilis; grow to 4 inches/10 cm) and red rainbowfish (Glossolepis incisus; grow to 4-6 inches/10-15 cm).
Not all gourami will do well with pictus cats, so make sure to do your research on the specific species you want before you go out and get it! For the most part, larger species will do better, though you will need to consider tank space and aggression. Some recommended species are kissing gouramis (Helostoma temminckii; grow to 12 inches/30 cm) and opaline gouramis (Trichopodus trichopterus; grow to 6 inches/15.2 cm).
Giant danios (Devario aequipinnatus)
Not to be mistaken with the zebra danio (Danio rerio), the giant danio is more aggressive. These active schooling fish grow to be about 4 inches (10.2 cm) long and will stay away from the bottom of the tank and safely out of reach of your pictus catfish.
While these fish can be kept alone in the aquarium, it is much more recommended to keep them in a small shoal. However, as these fish are very active, more pictus catfish means that more space is needed for them to have enough room to properly swim around. As we mentioned before, a 55 gallon (208.2 L) aquarium is suitable for one pictus cat. Here are the recommended sizes for keeping shoals of pictus catfish:
- 75 gallons (283.9 L): two pictus catfish
- 100 gallons (378.5 L): three pictus catfish
- 125 gallons (473.2 L): four pictus catfish
- 150+ gallons (567.8+ L): five or more pictus catfish
If your tank size cannot accommodate for the activity level and predatory behaviors of this fish, it may be better to check out our guide on 8 aquarium catfish for community tanks here.
Can pictus catfish live with cory catfish?
Unless you have an extremely large tank, a pictus catfish and cory catfish combination probably won’t work. Cory catfish are also active schooling fish that take up a lot of space at the middle and bottom of the aquarium. However, they are much smaller than the pictus catfish and much more likely to become stressed out or eaten.
For the most part, you can either have a large school of cory catfish or a small school of pictus catfish depending on the size of the tank, but the two together will not work unless the aquarium is several hundred gallons.
Pictus catfish behavior
Pictus catfish are usually sold as peaceful community fish, which often leads to poor tank compatibility with smaller fish quickly becoming food. By nature, the pictus catfish is a predator that won’t hesitate to take a taste of something that finds its way to the substrate.
These fish tend to be very active and can be seen darting back and forth across the aquarium, especially in a group setting. It is recommended to keep more than one pictus catfish to make your fish more comfortable in their tank; if only one pictus cat is kept by itself, it is more likely to stay at the back of the tank or in its favorite hiding places.
Pictus catfish are mainly nocturnal fish. This means that they will be the most active when the lights are turning down and when they have completely shut off. It is recommended to always have the aquarium light slightly dimmed so that the fish is encouraged to come out more during the daytime.
Are pictus catfish aggressive?
Pictus catfish aren’t aggressive, but they are opportunistic feeders. This means that while they don’t have specific territories within the tank, they may still try to eat any small fish or invertebrates that come near them. Some hobbyists have had success keeping this species with fish of all sizes, but it is usually recommended to only go with active species that grow to at least 5 inches (12.7 cm) long to avoid being easily eaten.
Pictus catfish diet
Because these fish tend to be curious with an appetite, they are easy to feed. While these fish are usually labeled as omnivores, they do especially well when given a concentrated meat diet.
Pictus catfish should regularly be fed an assortment of high quality live, freeze-dried, and frozen foods. They will love worms (bloodworms, earthworms, and Tubifex worms) and brine shrimp. Pictus catfish will also eat any leftover fish flakes or algae wafers that fall from the upper water column.
It is important to note that while this species of fish stays toward the lower portion of the tank and might look like a type of algae eater, pictus catfish will not solve your algae problems. Pictus catfish are unlikely to touch the algae in your tank and will go for meat-based foods as opposed to plant-based foods.
Since these catfish try to eat anything that falls in front of them, they are prone to becoming overweight, causing their stomachs to become distended. It is important to make sure that your catfish is not eating too much; any frozen foods that are offered should be thawed ahead of time to keep your catfish from swallowing large portions of food at once. Adequate tank size will also ensure that your catfish has enough space to swim and get exercise.
Breeding pictus catfish
As of yet, the pictus catfish has not been bred in the aquarium hobby. This is most likely due to the species needing so much room to be active and create breeding pairs. Males and females can also be very difficult to tell from each other which can lead to uneven ratios of both genders; females tend to be a little bigger and stockier than males, but this difference can be very difficult to see.
These fish are egg layers, which means that the female will lay eggs which will then be fertilized by the male. No further parental care has been observed.
The pictus catfish can be demanding in terms of tank space availability and tank mates but their active personality and beautiful coloration more than makeup for it. As long as these fish are given plenty of space to swim, kept in small groups, and monitored for food intake, you will have a happy shoal of pictus catfish for your larger aquarium!
If you have any questions about pictus catfish or have had experience keeping these fish in your aquarium before, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!