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The Family Doradidae or "Talking Catfishes"

Chris Ralph  

here are a number of catfish that belong to the family Doradidae. Quite often these fascinating catfish are referred to as "Doradids", "Dorads", "Talking Catfish", "Thorny Catfishes" and other names, which cannot be mentioned, as they are too rude! This group of catfish are found throughout South America. There are small doradids and large doradids commonly offered for sale at most good aquatic retailers. The problem with some of the larger species such as Pseudodoras niger (Mother of Snails Catfish/Black Doradid) and Pterodoras granulosus (Common Bacu) is the fact that they would soon outgrow a 72"x 24" x24" aquarium and are therefore not ideally suited to life in an aquarium unless you can provide a large enough aquarium or tropical pond to house them in. As I do not wish to encourage any unsuspecting aquarist to keep large catfish I will concentrate this article on some of the smaller representatives of this family of fish. Those of you that know me will already be aware that this family of fish is perhaps my favourite, as I am unable to resist walking past a dealers tank without looking to see what doradids lurk behind the décor.

Why are they referred to as "Talking Catfishes" I hear you ask? I will now attempt to answer this question. Doradids have two ways in which they can produce "Talking Sounds", which subsequently gives them their common name. The first way of communicating sound is by the fish partially locking their pectoral fins in their sockets, and then the action of moving the fins, the fin spines grate against the socket producing the sound. The second way, in which these fish produce sound is via a mechanism known as the "elastic spring mechanism", there is a muscle that is attached to the rear of the fishes skull at one end and to the anterior of the swimbladder at the other end. The fish is able to quickly contract and relax this muscle and as a result it can make its air filled swimbladder resonate to produce sound. These catfish use these methods of communication as a means of self-defence against would be predators and also as a way in which they can find conspecifics in its natural environment (or aquarium). The doradids can also be described as narrow-breasted or broad-breasted. The narrow-breasted species tend to have feathered barbels a characteristic that the broad-breasted species do not posses. With the broad-breasted species the width between the base of the pectoral fin spines tends to exceed the length of the head.

One of the main features of this family of catfish is the fact that they posses bony projections along the lateral length of their bodies. These bony projections are known as "scutes", which are very sharp just like thorns. These scutes give this family of catfish an almost prehistoric look about them. Care should be taken when removing these fish from an aquarium as they all too often get themselves snagged up in nets. When these catfish are frightened they immediately lock their pectoral and dorsal fin spines erect. These fins have serrated edges and when locked makes the fish safe from would be predators. If nets have to be used then they should be very fine meshed in order to prevent the scutes and fin spines from penetrating it. Some aquarists prefer to pick these catfish up by their dorsal fins taking care not the get their fingers trapped between the pectoral fins and the scutes on the body of the fish, as believe me this can be a very painful experience! If you can use a plastic container or a plastic bag in which to chase the fish this is perhaps the best way of removing the fish from the aquarium. When removing the larger species it is perhaps best to wrap the fish in a bath towel(s) and lift it out of the water (this tends to be a two person job one lifting the head end the other the tail end taking care not to cut your hands on the razor sharp scutes.

The ideal set-up for these catfish would be an aquarium with a sand substrate such as BD Aquarium sand or fine gravel. Décor should include bogwood in which the catfish will hide, smooth rocks to avoid damaging the bodies of these fish. Some aquarists use plastic or clay pipes for their catfish to hide in, if these materials are to be used please ensure that they are large enough to allow the catfish to be able to get out of. I have known a number of people to lose their catfish as they have become too large to get out of the pipe and they have subsequently become stressed and died. Wherever possible use large diameter pipes if they are to be used. I would personally recommend an aquarium that is at least 36" x 15" x 12"in order to keep these catfish satisfactorily. The ideal water conditions are pH 6.5-7.5, temperature in the range 22-26ºC or 72-79ºF and dH up to 15º. These catfish thrive on a mixed and varied diet that includes sinking catfish pellets, granular foods, flake, tablet foods, aquatic snails, shredded prawns, earthworms and frozen foods such as bloodworm. As sand has been mentioned as the ideal substrate for these catfish I would suggest that internal power filtration or external canister filtration be used, as under gravel filtration would not be efficient as the sand would cause it to clog. Weekly or fortnightly 20-25% water changes should also be undertaken to ensure good water quality at all times. When undertaking water changes always ensure that you use a water dechlorinator, preferably one that will treat both chlorine and chloramines, prior to adding the fresh water to your aquarium.

As promised I will now mention a few species that will not grow into "Tank Busters" and would be ideally suited to life in a community type aquarium. Please bear in mind that whilst these catfishes are not predatory they will eat any unsuspecting fish small enough to fit inside their mouths. This said I have kept some of the smaller doradids in with small fish, BUT I am not recommending that you should. I will begin with some of the more commonly seen species and mention also some that are not so readily available.

Platydoras armatulus


Platydoras armatulus commonly known as the Humbug Catfish, the Striped Talking Catfish or Striped Raphael. This particular catfish is readily available from most good aquatic retailers, and is perhaps the most commonly seen representative of this family of catfish. Like most of the doradids it prefers to be kept in a small group, although there may be the odd squabble over territory. The natural habitat for this catfish is the river system of South America from Peru to Brazil. Platydoras armatulus (previously known as Platydoras costatus) can attain a length of 200mm or 8". I have found that when kept in small groups these catfish will soon rid an aquarium of an aquatic snail problem. Single specimens will relish snails but will be unable to rid an aquarium of snails single-handed! Price guide £4-£10 depending upon size.


Orinocodoras eigenmanni


Orinocodoras eigenmanni is more commonly known as the Raphael Catfish. This catfish is not commonly available but to the trained eye the odd specimen can be picked out amongst imports of Platydoras costatus, which has been the way in which I have gradually obtained a group of them. Orinocodoras eigenmanni has a more pointed snout and its scutes tend to be smaller than those of Platydoras armulatus (previously known as P.costatus). There are other differences as well such as the length of the adipose fin and the shape of the caudal fin, which when viewed side by side is quite apparent. Like most of the doradids these catfish also like to be kept in small groups, which can be difficult when only the odd one or two specimens are available. Fortunately these doradids are quite happy to shoal with Platydoras armulatus. The natural habitat for these catfish is the Orinoco River system in Venezuela hence its name Orinocodoras. This catfish can attain a length of 175mm or 7". Like the other doradids this catfish also relishes aquatic snails as part of its mixed and varied diet. Price guide £5-£15 depending upon size and if the retailer is aware that this fish is amongst Platydoras armulatus.

Agamyxis pectinifrons


Agamyxis pectinifrons is commonly known as the Spotted Talking Catfish, White-spotted Doradid and Spotted Raphael. This particular catfish is also quite often available at most good aquatic retailers. The colour pattern tends to differ slightly from individual to individual, but is quite eye catching being jet-black body colour with white to creamy coloured blotches along the body and fins. Again this catfish prefers its own company so the aquarist should ideally keep them in small groups of between 4 and 6 specimens. The natural habitat for these catfish is throughout the river systems of South America notably in Peru and Pebas. This particular species can attain a length of 140mm or 5½". These catfish thrive on a mixed and varied diet including aquatic snails. Price guide £4-£10 depending upon size and availability.

Amblydoras nauticus


Amblydoras nauticus (previously known as Platydoras hancockii) is commonly known as Hancock's Catfish or Talking Cat. There is also reference made to this catfish under the name of Amblydoras affinis just to add to the confusion. This catfish is occasionally seen at some retailers and is quite often imported at no more than 50mm or 2" in length. This species can attain a length of 100mm or 4". Again another catfish that fares better in small groups therefore I would recommend keeping between 4 and 6 specimens together. The natural habitat for these catfish is widespread throughout the rivers of South America from Guyana to Brazil. This particular species prefers water that is neutral and soft with dense vegetation for it to hide amongst. Again these catfish thrive on a mixed and varied diet that includes aquatic snails. Price guide £5-£10 depending upon availability.

Anadoras grypus



Anadoras grypus is commonly known as the Dusky Doradid. This catfish is not very often available for sale to the hobbyist. The odd one or two sometimes appear amongst shipments of Amblydoras hancocki, which as juvenile fish share a similar colour pattern. Whilst collecting fish in Peru I was able to collect large numbers of what initially appeared to be Amblydoras hancocki, but which later turned out to be Anadoras grypus. The specimens collected were approximately 25mm or 1" in length. This particular species can attain a length of 150mm or 6". Another peaceful doradid that prefers to be kept in groups of at least 6 specimens. The natural habitat for these catfish is South America, widespread throughout the Amazon Basin. As with Amblydoras hancocki these catfish prefer neutral and soft water conditions with plenty of plant cover. They will thrive on a mixed and varied diet including aquatic snails and bloodworm. Price guide £8-£20 depending upon availability.

Ossancora punctata


Ossancora punctata is commonly known as the Feather Barbels Catfish. This is another species that is not readily available to the hobbyist, but is a very peaceful addition to a community aquarium. This species can attain a length of 115mm or 4¾". Another doradid that prefers safety in numbers assuming that you can purchase them. I would recommend that you keep at least 4 specimens together. The natural habitat for these catfish is the rivers of Peru and Ecuador. Good water quality is required by these fascinating catfish, as is a diet that includes finely shredded shrimp and bloodworm. Price guide £ 8-£15 depending upon size and availability. (Editors note: Was known until recently (2011) as Doras punctatus until a new paper by Birindelli, JLO and MH Sabaj Pérez (2011) asigned a new genera, Ossancora to this species).

Acanthodoras cataphractus


Acanthodoras cataphractus is commonly known as the Painted Talking Catfish and is also sometimes referred to as the Milky Cat. This catfish is occasionally available to the hobbyist. It can attain a length of 150mm or 6". I have kept these catfish in small groups of 4 specimens when numbers have been available to purchase, otherwise I have kept them with the other species of doradid already mentioned. The natural habitat for these catfish is South America throughout the Amazon River estuary. This species fares well on a mixed and varied diet. Price guide £8-£15 depending upon availability.

There are a number of other species of doradid available to the hobbyist in small numbers, which is why I have concentrated this article on those species mentioned above. I hope that this will give you an insight into this fascinating group of catfish and that some of you reading this article will take up the challenge of keeping them.

This article also appeared in the U.K. fishkeeping magazine
Practical Fishkeeping.

Photo Credits :
Platydoras armatulus     Allan James @
Orinocodoras eigenmanni Allan James @
Agamyxis pectinifrons  Danny Blundell
Amblydoras hancocki Allan James @
Anadoras grypus   Danny Blundell
Ossancora punctata Danny Blundell
Acanthodoras cataphractus Danny Blundell
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                                                                                                       Article updated = December 19, 2018
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