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Related Catfish FAQs: Driftwood Catfishes Identification, Behavior, Compatibility, Selection, Systems, Feeding, Disease, Reproduction

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/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

The Driftwood & Jaguar Catfishes, Family Auchenipteridae


By Bob Fenner


    This is one of the most aptly named groups of fishes. The scientific family name is derived from the Greek, "auchen" for neck and "pter" for fin... and the close-placement of their pectoral fins does lend more to their appearance as chunks of wood... along with often leaf colored camouflage, stout bodies and commonly sedentary behavior. Most are freshwater (though Pseudauchenipterus nodosus is brackish at times), living in rivers from Panama to Argentina. All but one of the 60species in this family of 19 genera possess three pair of barbels, of which the maxillary pair are largest. They bear a stout spine, easy to puncture careless hobbyists hands and nets on their serrated pectoral and dorsal fin anterior spines. Auchenipterids may have a fleshy adipose fin or no. The Driftwood cats are easily confused with the talking catfishes of the family Doradidae. They're easily told apart by observing the latters lateral scutes or body armor, which auchenipterids lack.

    Smallish fishes, from 3 to 12 or so inches, the driftwood cats aren't for everybody, but for catfish enthusiasts and folks who have a penchant for biotopic presentations they might easily fit a niche.


Decor: Driftwood catfishes are nocturnal and do best being granted a dark place to wedge into by day. A favorite choice here is their namesake, driftwood... a piece or three with nice knobby holes or undercuts will do nicely, as well as the wood contributing to improved water quality (and beauty of your tank for that matter!). Barring this natural choice, clay tiles, a section of plastic pipe or other such contrivance will do. Substrates and rockwork should not have sharp edges to it as cuts and scrapes are likely to ensue.

Lighting: should be subdued in compliment to these fishes night-active natures. If you do want a brightly lit system, do provide shade, perhaps with one area of the tank being heavily planted, to allow your auchenipterid solace during the "day".

Water Quality: Though some auchenipterids are brackish at least temporarily in their annual life cycles, all do well in water of near neutral pH (7 or so), of moderate hardness (10-20 DH) and tropical temperature (upper seventies, lower eighties F.). On the issue of heating I want to mention the common danger from heaters burning these catfishes. Due to their wedging/sleeping behavior during the day they can easily be caught unawares and scalded badly on their scaleless skin. Do either hide your heaters in perforated sleeves, entirely out of the way behind solid decor, or better, outside the system entirely.


       By dark of night, driftwood cats undergo a total transformation from drowsy, clunky lay-abouts to serious predators, looking for food or fishes that will fit into their mouths. Hence, only smart, fast and larger than meal-size tankmates need apply. Their mouths being remarkably large, other fishes housed with them should be at least their overall size. In the wild, most species feed overwhelmingly on smaller fishes... Discus, Angelfish, Juraparoids, Prochilodus, larger characoids like the various Silver Dollars, South American Knifefishes... the auchenipterids aren't "mean" fishes, just susceptible to sucking up smaller fishes at night.

Species Aquarists Might Encounter:

Ageneiosus inermis (Linnaeus 1766). To 59 cm., 2.5 kg in weight. Water Cond.s: pH 6.5-7.8, DH to 20, temp. 22-24. In the wilds of South America this species lives in low current backwaters where it feeds on crustaceans and fishes. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=47969&genusname=Ageneiosus&speciesname=inermis


Ageneiosus marmoratus Eigenmann 1812, the Bottlenose or Marbled Catfish. To 18.5 cm. in length. One of the most commonly utilized species of the family by aquarists. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=12146&genusname=Ageneiosus&speciesname=marmoratus


Auchenipterichthys thoracatus (Kner 1858), the Zamora or Midnight Catfish. To 11 cm., found in several places in the Amazon River. Water Cond.s: pH 6.5-7.2, DH 7 to 16, temp. 20-24. One of the most commonly utilized species of the family by aquarists.  http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=13114&genusname=Auchenipterichthys&speciesname=thoracatus


Auchenipterus nuchalis (Spix & Agassiz 1829), the Brackish or "Fast Water" Driftwood Cat. South America: Lower Amazon and Tocantins rivers northward to Marowijne River. Possibly also Rupununi and Negro rivers. To about 6 inches in length. Water Cond.s: pH 6.7-7.2, DH 7 to 16, temp. 20-22. Swim in the upper water, sometimes even during the day. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=52120&genusname=Auchenipterus&speciesname=nuchalis


Epapterus dispilurus Cope 1878. To nearly five inches in total length. South America: Central and western parts of the Amazon basin along and south of the main channel of the Rio Amazonas, and Rio Paraguay system in Paraguay, northern Argentina and southern Brazil. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=47660&genusname=Epapterus&speciesname=dispilurus


Liosomadoras oncinas (Jardine 1841), the Jaguar Catfish. South America: Branco River basin. To 17 cm. Water Cond.s: pH 4.8-6.8, DH to 12, temp. 20-24. Likely the most commonly utilized species of the family by aquarists. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=12106&genusname=Liosomadoras&speciesname=oncinus


Tatia aulopygia Kner 1858, a Pygmy Driftwood Cat. South America: Guaporé River basin. To 6.5 cm. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=13126&genusname=Tatia&speciesname=aulopygia


Trachelyopterichthys taeniatus (Kner 1858), the Striped or Eel Driftwood Cat. South America: Upper Amazon River basin. To six inches in length. Water Cond.s: pH 5.8-7.2, DH to 14, temp. 20-25. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=13281&genusname=Trachelyopterichthys&speciesname=taeniatus


Trachelyopterus fisheri (Eigenmann 1916), Driftwood Cat. South America: Suico River basin. To 28 cm. in length. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=12110&genusname=Trachelyopterus&speciesname=fisheri


Trachelyopterus galeatus (Linnaeus 1766), the Common Driftwood Cat. South America: Widespread in northern South America, including Peru. To 22 cm. Water Cond.s: pH 6-7.5, DH  to 18, temp. 20-24. Likely the most commonly utilized species of the family by aquarists. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=13280&genusname=Trachelyopterus&speciesname=galeatus


Trachelyopterus striatalus (Steindachner 1877). Found in the coastal rivers in southeastern Brazil. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=12111&genusname=Trachelyopterus&speciesname=striatulus


Trachycorystes trachycorystes (Valenciennes 1849), the Black Catfish. To 14 inches in length. South America: Amazon River basin. A prodigious digger.  http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=12113&genusname=Trachycorystes&speciesname=trachycorystes



    Driftwood catfishes are one group that rarely can be trained to feed by daylight. Do plan on offering food near or after dark should you acquire one. They will eagerly accept all types of foods; flake, pellet, fresh, frozen/defrosted, live... as long as it is offered during lights out and near or on the bottom.


    For naked catfishes auchenipterids are remarkably tough, and generally disease resistant, though they can and do succumb to super infectious states of the usual freshwater parasitic protozoans. A note re their skin being both very soft all along their bodies with the exception of the head region, and its properties of regeneration. Driftwood cats can regrow badly damaged skin in a few weeks time and do regularly slough off excess growth. In fact, there are instances of "cocoon" formation amongst them, following heavy feedings, lasting up to several hours. Such appearances are mentioned so you won't be surprised on their observation.

    Eye infections are common in these catfishes, particularly when newly arrived. These should be addressed seriously and treated by assuring water quality is fine and administering an anti-microbial (my choice is Nitrofurazone) to the treatment tank. Take care to check and change the system water during treatment for ammonia and/or nitrite presence and correct by either changing massive amounts with previously made water and/or adding biological filter media.


    Members of the family are known to employ internal fertilization, with males possessing a copulatory organ as part of their anal fins, females being able to store spermatozoids in their genital tract. During times of sexual readiness male auchenipterid anal fins enlarge, thicken and often change color. Particulars of the aquarium spawning of Trachycorystes insignis can be found in a citation below, as well as a wild account for T. striatulus  in the same piece. Males are typically decidedly smaller, more colorful and better marked, showing other sexual characteristics like pronounced growth in their dorsal fins, rigidity and shrinking in their maxillary barbels during breeding season. Females release fertilized eggs at a later/chosen date/site, but no parental care is expressed.

Other Biology of Note:

    Like other catfish families, auchenipterids can produce sound, a sort of croaking noise like the talking catfishes, family Doradidae. Linked to this noise making is also the groups capacity for locking their pectoral fins... and a note to re-make re netting these fishes. Don't. If you can't just prod them into a container underwater with your hand, use the opposite end of a net to do so. If they get caught in netting, don't say I didn't warn you re... and carefully cut the netting away from the fish.


    Don't let these fishes suspended animation dissuade you for trying them, particularly in a South American biotopic presentation with large enough size tankmates. They are indeed interesting conversation pieces and may well earn you some bet money on their being alive... or even fishes!

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Catfishes on the Internet: http://phylogeny.arizona.edu/tree/eukaryotes/animals/chordata/actinopterygii/siluriformes/siluriformes.html

Planet Catfish: http://www.planetcatfish.com/core/index.htm

Brittan, Martin R. 1976. The jaguar catfish, Centromochlus species. TFH 24(7):36-40.

Burgess, Warren E. 1982. The first aquarium spawning of the woodcat, Trachycorystes insignis. TFH 8/82.

Burgess, Warren E. 1989. An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes. Tropical Fish Hobbyist Publications. NJ, USA. pp. 786.

Curran, Daniel J. 1989. Phylogenetic relationships among the catfish genera of the family Auchenipteridae (Teleostei: Siluroides). Copeia 1989(2) pp. 408-419

Eckstein, Ginny. 1996. The Zamora. These hardy, interesting catfish are seldom seen, even in their aquarium. AFM 10/96.

Finley, Lee. 1983. Liosomadoras oncinus (R.H. Schomburgk), the Jaguar catfish. FAMA 6/83. 

Finley, Lee. 1997. The Jaguar catfish. TFH 8/97. 

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3d ed.. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. NY. 600pp.

Sands, David D. 1986. Catfishes in aquaria. Part 1: The driftwood catfishes. TFH 6/86.

Sands, David. 1992. Beauty to the beholder: the family Auchenipteridae. FAMA 4/92.

Teats, Kerry and Barb. 1986. A black cat that rarely crosses your path, Trachycorystes trachycorystes. TFH 12/86.

Walker, Braz. 1975. The driftwood catfishes. TFH 10/75.

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