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Brackish Water Catfish

Dr. Neale Monks

Neale Monks is editor and senior author of Brackish Water Fishes, published by TFH and due out this summer (2006). He is the brackish water 'expert' in Practical Fishkeeping Magazine, and has been maintaining a popular FAQ on the topic for over 10 years.


The Salt-allergy Myth


ne of the most persistent myths in fishkeeping is that catfish are allergic to salt. The rationalisation behind this is that because catfish lack scales (which is true) they are much more sensitive to the osmotic effect of brackish water (which is nonsense). Consider this: moray eels also lack scales, yet virtually all of them live in the sea, with only a handful being found in brackish or fresh water.

The ability of a fish to control the flow of salts and water in and out of its body depends not on whether it has scales or not, but on its overall physiology. This, in turn, depends on the how evolution has modified that species to fit into a particular environment. Catfish adapted to soft water habitats, for example, are indeed unlikely to to do well in a brackish water aquarium, but the same holds true for all the other soft water aquarium fish, such as barbs, tetras, loaches, gouramis, and so on. What might come as a surprise to many catfish enthusiasts is that there are lots of catfish adapted to brackish water environments, and there are two families that are primarily marine in distribution, containing relatively few species that inhabit completely freshwater environments. These are the families Ariidae and Plotosidae, known as the sea catfish and eel catfish respectively. A few other families, including the Aspredinidae, Bagridae, Clariidae, Ictaluridae, Siluridae, and Loricariidae, include species that either tolerate brackish water or are found primarily in brackish water, further shattering the myth of catfish as being allergic to salt.

Brackish water plecs

Easily the question I get asked most often is whether or not plecs can be kept in a brackish water aquarium. The short answer is probably not, but the long answer is a much more complex than that.

To begin with, there are species of loricariid catfish that are apparently adapted to slightly brackish water habitats. In aquaristic terms, that would correspond to a specific gravity, or SG, of around 1.003 to 1.005. Hypostomus ventromaculatus is one such species, being found primarily in the Amazon estuary and according to FishBase only within the tidal, brackish water region of the river. Another species, Hypostomus watwata, is also common in slightly brackish environments, even being found living among mangrove tree roots. While these fish sound like ideal additions to a low-salinity brackish aquarium alongside things like mollies, gobies, and dwarf cichlids, the problem is that they are not traded much, if at all

Hypostomus plecostomus
Hypostomus plecostomus
is another species known to inhabit slightly brackish water, though in this case such observations have often been made outside of its natural range. In Florida, for example, where this fish has become widely established, it is quite commonly found in slightly brackish water.

Of course the main problem with using this species in the brackish water aquarium is that while the name Hypostomus plecostomus is commonly used in aquarium books and magazines to refer to the standard issue, common or garden plec, it is hardly ever the species available for sale. You are far more likely to find species of Liposarcus or Pterygoblichthys masquerading as "common plecs" in most aquarium stores.








Freshwater catfish that occur in brackish water


A number of catfish families include species that tolerate brackish water even if they don't need it. Siluris glanis, for example, one of the Siluridae, is normally found in freshwater rivers but can also be the slightly brackish water fringing the Baltic and Caspian seas. The same holds true for various species of clariid and ictaluriid catfish. These fish probably don't have any specific adaptations to brackish water, it's just that they are incredibly hardy and tolerant of sub-optimal conditions. Ictalurus punctatus in particular thrives in low salinity brackish water aquaria, though its large adult size and predatory nature do limit its usefulness.

Brackish water specialists

Mystus gulio
Catfish that tolerate brackish water are one thing, but species that actually prefer brackish water conditions are something else. Mystus gulio is one such species. It is a large bagrid catfish known in its natural range (South and South East Asia) as the estuarine catfish, a good indication of its preferred habitat. It is large (45 cm), silvery, schooling catfish that has only rarely been traded as an aquarium fish. Superficially similar in form and habit to the popular Colombian shark catfish (discussed below) it contrasts with that species in requiring slightly rather than strongly brackish water. It is adaptable though, and is common in completely freshwater rivers, and is even sometimes found in the sea. Nonetheless, for optimal health, this fish should be kept in slightly brackish water around the SG 1.005 mark. While not recommended for use alongside scats or monos, which prefer more strongly brackish conditions, this would be a fine companion for large sleeper gobies, green chromides, Siamese tigers (Datnioides spp.), and other large but peaceful, low salinity, brackish water fish.

It should be noted that Mystus gulio is unique among Mystus species in being a brackish water specialist; most of the other Mystus species sold as aquarium fish are strictly freshwater animals and should be maintained accordingly.

Bunocephalus coracoideus
Another group of catfish primarily associated with freshwater habitats but including a few brackish water specialists are the banjo catfish. The small species, like the ever-popular Bunocephalus coracoideus, are entirely freshwater fish, but it is the larger ones, such as Aspredinichthys, Aspredo, and Platystacus spp., that are the brackish water specialists.

These big banjos typically grow to around 20 to 30 cm, but are otherwise very similar to the dwarf species in terms of habits and requirements. In the wild they are normally found in coastal regions, though not always in brackish water, but they are not found in the sea. Like Mystus gulio, a low salinity suits them best, although they can be maintained in freshwater aquaria too, provided the water is not too soft or acid.




Marine catfish


When it comes to salty water, two catfish families stand out: the Ariidae and the Plotosidae. The Ariidae is perhaps the best known to freshwater fishkeepers, with one species, Hexanematichthys seemanni, being very Hexanematichthys seemanniwidely sold as the Colombian shark catfish. This is a large family (around 120 species) with representatives to be found along the coastlines of all the continents except Europe and Antarctica. Australia has a number of species that have secondarily become truly freshwater fish, presumably in the absence of competition from other catfish families, but ariids are otherwise completely marine animals that only migrate into rivers when foraging for food. The Colombian shark catfish, for example, while sold as a brackish water fish, is best kept in a marine aquarium.

The Plotosidae are a smaller family (around 30 species are known) that are confined to the Indo-West Pacific. Oddly enough, most of them are strictly freshwater fish found in Australia and New Guinea, where they are known locally as "cobblers" or "tandans". Nonetheless, there's no question that the family evolved in the sea, and many of them still live there. Like the Australian freshwater ariids, the freshwater plotosids have presumably radiated to occupy the ecological niches in Australia and New Guinea that 'true' freshwater catfish occupy elsewhere.

Plotosus lineatus
Only a single species of plotosid has had had any impact on the hobby (outside of Australia, at least), Plotosus lineatus. Normally the neatly-marked juveniles are sold as a marine fish, but since the adults are 30 cm long and rather drab by comparison with most other ornamental marine fish, they haven't become at all popular. While they can be maintained in marine aquaria, they will do equally well in mid- to high-salinity brackish water tanks where the specific gravity is maintained at 1.010 or more.

Adults in particular seem to be very accommodating, and have even been found in completely fresh water. Plotosus lineatus is a schooling fish when young, but adults are territorial are usually end up being kept alone. They are predators, but will mix fine with fishes too large to eat, such as scats.





Summary


Just as catfish manage to span the range of ecological niches from herbivores to predators, from cold mountain streams to tropical swamps, so have they managed to exploit brackish water and marine habitats with a remarkable degree of success. While most of the marine species inhabit coastal waters and estuaries, particularly across sandy or muddy substrates, Plotosus lineatus, is often found on coral reefs, making it unique among catfish as being a true reef-dweller that naturally occurs alongside things like butterflyfish and damsels. This is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that the other orders closely related to the catfish -- the characins, carps, loaches, and knifefish -- have singularly failed to adapt to brackish water, let alone the sea. In short, the idea that catfish are "allergic" to salt is not only erroneous, but obscures the fact that, as in so many other ways, catfish have proved to be one of the most remarkable and adaptable of all the bony fish.

Photo Credits:

Hypostomus plecostomus...............Geoff Smith
Mystus gulio...................................Robin Warne
Bunocephalus coracoideus..............Johnny Jensen's  Photographic Library
Hexanematichthys seemanni .........Bill McBurnie
Plotosus lineatus............................Johnny Jensen's  Photographic Library

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                                                                      Article updated = December 13, 2009
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