Featured Article Issue: March 2011
Author: Neale Monks, PhD
Photographer: Aaron NormanOf decidedly different shape, many species of whiptail catfish are easy to maintain and make fantastic attention-getters due to their unique appearance.
Whiptails are probably the most underrated catfishes in the hobby. They combine bizarre looks with hardiness, adaptability, and utterly peaceful temperaments. While generally they are carnivores rather than algae-eaters, their predatory instincts are directed toward worms and insect larvae, and whiptails won’t harm even the smallest tankmates, such as livebearer fry.
In short, they are excellent community tank catfish, among the best in fact, and I have to confess to having a very soft spot for them. Watching them move about is quite a sight; the smaller Rineloricaria species, for example, walk along using their mouth and pelvic fins like stilts!
One of the best things about whiptails is the range of species available. True, there aren’t as many whiptails as there are Corydoras catfish, but there’s a good range nonetheless. At the small end are dwarfs such as Rineloricaria parva, which are only 3 to 4 inches long, while the biggest species, like Pseudohemiodon laticeps, get to about a foot in length. So no matter how big your community aquarium, there’s a whiptail species for you!
Ichthyologists divide the whiptails into two tribes, the Loricariini and the Harttiini. This division is actually quite informative and can be helpful when trying to decide on the best conditions for a given whiptail. The Loricariini live in rivers, where they favor sandy substrates and leaf litter. The Harttiini live on solid substrates, either wood or rocks, and are often found in fast-flowing habitats such as rapids and upland streams.
There are also differences between the two tribes in terms of diet. While the Loricariini are carnivorous and feed extensively on insect larvae and worms, the Harttiini instead consume green algae and what biologists callaufwuchs, the tiny organisms that live within the algal turf. Broadly speaking, the Loricariini are easy to maintain and adapt well to captivity while the Harttiini tend to be much more challenging.
There are more than 30 whiptail genera, many of which are never seen in aquarium shops. Among the Loricariini, most of the small whiptails seen in the trade come from the genus Rineloricaria (or Hemiloricaria, according to some authorities). These include such favorites as the common whiptail R. parva and the red dragon whiptail R. sp. L010A. Quite a few other genera from the Loricariini are seen from time to time, though, including species of Loricaria, Planiloricaria, and Pseudohemiodon.
The Harttiini are primarily represented in the trade by various Farlowella species, usually called “twig catfish” without any attempt to tell the different species apart. A second genus, Sturisoma, is also quite commonly seen. It is very rare to see any of the other Harttiini in aquarium shops, though species of Lamontichthys and Sturisomatichthys are imported once in a while.
Keeping the open-water Loricariini isn’t difficult. Good water quality is important, of course, and while they prefer soft, slightly acidic water, they also do well in moderately hard, slightly basic water. Aim for a hardness of 3° to 15°, and a pH of 6.0 to 7.5. As for water temperature, they prefer conditions on the cool to middling side like many South American fish; 72° to 79°F is about right for most species. In other words, they like the same sorts of living conditions as neon tetras, black phantom tetras, Corydoras catfish, sheepshead acara, and keyhole cichlids. On the other hand, cardinal tetras, common rams, discus, and wild-caught angels prefer somewhat warmer conditions, and these wouldn’t be the best companions for whiptails.
Substrate is an issue, though, given that these whiptails forage in open water rather than among rocks or plants. What they really enjoy is a sandy substrate, such as the kinds of smooth silica sand (sometimes called silver sand) sold in garden centers for use in horticulture. This inexpensive, lime-free sand won’t affect water chemistry and is so smooth it won’t damage burrowing fish, something that can’t always be said about substrates like colored and black sands.
While you could use Indian almond Terminalia catappa leaves to create authentic-looking leaf litter, low-lying plants such as Cryptocoryne and dwarf lilies are just as useful and last much longer. Your whiptails won’t care, provided there are lots of open areas between individual clumps of plants.
Feeding open-water whiptails like Rineloricaria is easy. Catfish pellets and algae wafers are readily consumed and make nutritious staples. Such fare can be supplemented with fresh and frozen foods, such as bloodworms and chopped seafood. Whiptails are not strong competitors, however, and some care should be taken to make sure they get enough to eat. A few Corydoras shouldn’t cause any serious problems in a community tank large enough for everyone to find something to eat, but bigger, pushier bottom-feeders such as loaches and common plecos are not good companions for whiptails.
Farlowella spp. and the other Harttiini are much more
demanding. While some come from slow-moving pockets of water in shallow
streams, others are rheophilic, meaning that they come from habitats
dominated by strong water currents. Either way, the Harttiini all seem
to be very sensitive to the stagnant, oxygen-poor conditions commonly
found in overstocked or poorly maintained aquaria.
Most whiptail catfish require highly oxygenated water and prefer a hefty current. Fortunately, it is easy to provide a suitable environment for them, in large part thanks to the demand for wave makers for reef tanks. In addition to regular powerheads, which have been available for a long time, there are today many water pumps designed specifically to move water in powerful currents.
These work much like fans used to circulate air. They do not produce the pressure that powerheads do and cannot be used to lift water against head pressure, but they can move a large quantity of water very quickly—they create currents. By operating such pumps alternately, aimed in opposite directions, a reef aquarist can produce water movement that mimics wave action, which is beneficial for many reef animals.
The same equipment set up to move water constantly in one direction will create enough current to please any rheophilic species. Using a long, low aquarium will enhance the effect and provide plenty of water movement both at the bottom, where whiptails tend to be, and at the surface, where gas exchange—oxygenation—occurs.
Besides good water quality and robust filtration, feeding is the other key problem with the Harttiini. These whiptails really do need green algae in their diet, and that means they are best kept in a mature, spacious, and brightly lit aquarium that allows them to forage naturally. Algae wafers, Spirulina flake, sliced zucchini, and cooked spinach are also good foods, but these whiptails really should be provided with at least some live green algae in their diet as well.
By and large whiptails are gregarious catfish that work well in groups. Mature males of those species that defend a nest can sometimes be territorial, but any aggression is limited to scaring off threats or rivals. Indeed, the mildly territorial antics of the smaller whiptail species only add to their charm.
As far as tankmates go, the main things to remember are that whiptails are slow feeders and easy targets for nippy or aggressive fish. The best companions are docile, midwater fish like tetras, rasboras, danios, and so on. Within reason, a small school of Corydoras catfish or kuhli loaches shouldn’t cause any harm either, so long as there’s enough food to go around. Whiptails can make good companions for gouramis and the more peaceful dwarf cichlids, but they’re easily damaged if such fish become aggressive.
Nippy tankmates like tiger barbs, serpae tetras, and pufferfish should not be mixed with whiptails at all. Their instinctive reaction to trouble—sitting still and hoping not to be noticed—makes them easy targets for those types of fish.
Rineloricaria species in particular are regularly bred in captivity. Like bristlenose catfish Ancistrus spp., these small whiptails will breed without any intervention on the part of the aquarist. Obviously you’ll need a pair—males generally have more bristles on their cheeks than the females. If you start with a group of six whiptails, males should claim their own territories around the tank, and the females will mate with them as they see fit.
Essentially they’re spawned in exactly the same way as bristlenose catfish, and if you’ve bred them, then breeding Rineloricaria whiptails won’t present any surprises. Spawning takes place in hollow tubes, and then the male guards the eggs after driving the female away. Brood sizes are small, typically fewer than 100 eggs. The fry hatch after about a week but won’t exhaust their yolk sac for a day or so afterward. Once that happens the fry eat algae, liquid fry food, and very finely powdered flake food.
Farlowella and Sturisoma spp. are bred in aquaria less frequently, probably because they’re more difficult to maintain properly. These whiptails spawn on flat surfaces, often vertical ones like the glass walls of the tank.
Again brood sizes are small, and again the male looks after his offspring until they are free-swimming. Once the fry have used up their yolk sacs, they’re quite easy to rear on algae, infusoria, and finely powdered flake food. One thing that does seem to hold true for the Harttiini generally is that brisk water currents and ample oxygen levels are both essential to success, not just for ensuring the eggs and fry stay healthy, but also for getting the adults to spawn in the first place.
Not all the whiptails breed in such a conventional manner. Some of the larger open-water Loricariini have found a novel solution to guarding their fry in habitats lacking suitable caves: They carry their spawn around on their lips! Among the genera known to include lip-brooding species are Loricaria and Pseudohemiodon.
After spawning, the males gather up the small clutches of eggs—typically just a few dozen—and keep them together using their lips. Unsurprisingly, males have larger lips than the females, a useful tip when trying to sex these sorts of whiptails. Lip-brooding whiptails aren’t commonly bred in captivity, but it does happen from time to time, and apart from the way the males guard their eggs, rearing the fry once they’ve hatched isn’t much different to that of other whiptails.
The most commonly seen whiptails are species of Rineloricaria. Telling many of these small whiptails apart is not easy, and while names such as R. fallax, R. lanceolata, R. lima, and R. parva are often bandied about, the chances are that a whole range of species have been sold under these names fairly indiscriminately. That said, Rineloricaria parva is probably the most commonly traded species at the moment.
Fortunately, basic care seems to be consistent across the genus. All Rineloricaria are small with the biggest species, like R. lanceolata, getting to about 6 inches long, while the smaller species such as R. parva are only half that size. So far as stocking goes, allow 3 to 4 gallons per specimen. They can be kept singly, but Rineloricaria are more fun in groups.
There are two reddish-brown whiptails in the trade: R. lanceolata “red” and the red dragon whiptail Rineloricaria sp. L010A. They may or may not be the same thing. In fact, it isn’t known if they’re a naturally occurring morph, an artificial form produced on fish farms, or a hybrid of some sort. In any case, it’s the females that tend to be redder in color, the males being more rusty brown.
The larger whiptails including Loricaria, Planiloricaria, and Pseudohemiodon species can be kept in broadly the same way, provided due allowance is made for their larger size. P. apithanos is perhaps the most remarkable of the larger whiptails, being one of the very few catfish able to change its color at will.
It is normally light gray with an inverted-T-shaped reddish-brown to black marking on its dorsal surface, the stalk of the T running from the snout as far back as the dorsal fin, and then the transverse bar of the T across the back from side to side. There’s another band spanning the tail a bit farther back, and the tail fin is dark as well. When disturbed it turns jet black. Its maximum length is about 8 inches. P. apithanos isn’t difficult to keep, but given its size will require larger sandy areas than the smaller Rineloricaria whiptails, and it’s also considerably more adept at uprooting plants while foraging.
The Tricky Twig Catfish
As mentioned several times already, the Harttiini can be quite difficult to keep. The genus Farlowella includes around 30 species, at least three of which are routinely traded: F. acus, F. gracilis, and F. vittata. Telling them apart is difficult, and, as with Rineloricaria whiptails, misidentifications probably happen all the time.
Fortunately for the aquarist, basic care seems to be similar for all species. Soft to moderately hard, slightly acidic to slightly basic water at middling temperatures suits them best. Aim for a hardness of 3° to 10°, a pH of 6.0 to 7.5, and a temperature of 75° to 79°F. Good water circulation is critical, as all Farlowella suffer if kept in poorly oxygenated, overstocked living conditions.
When I was a teenager during the 1980s, the giant twig catfish of the genus Sturisoma were among the most highly prized catfish in the trade. These impressive catfish proved to be easier to keep than Farlowella, they breed in captivity quite readily, and the farmed specimens in particular are not hard to maintain.
That said, Sturisoma are fussier than Rineloricaria whiptails. They need a spacious tank, good water quality, and plenty of oxygen to do well. Like other twig catfish, they’re largely herbivorous. The two most common species are Sturisoma aureum and S. barbatum, both of which get to a maximum length of around 12 inches. S. panamense is sometimes seen as well, and it only gets to about 8 inches. None of them tolerate very warm water; keep them at 70° to 75°F.
Many of the whiptails have extra-long fin rays projecting from their tail fins, but Lamontichthys filamentosus has long extensions to its pectoral and dorsal fins as well. It’s a beautiful catfish that only gets to about 6 inches in length, but alas, it does poorly in captivity, even compared to Farlowella. It is definitely a species for the experienced hobbyist with a mature tank having enough green algae to tide the fish over until it gets used to algae wafers and other prepared foods. To be on the safe side, don’t combine this catfish with anything likely to compete for food, even other whiptails.
Usually when articles are written about oddball fish, they raise expectations with photos of funky-looking fish but then shatter those hopes by listing a litany of problems associated with said oddballs—need for brackish water or live food, psychotic social behavior, immense size, and so on. But the whiptails are different. At their best, as with the Loricariini, these are oddball catfish eminently suitable for community tanks. Not rough-and-tumble communities to be sure, but whiptails will do just fine with danios, tetras, and Corydoras catfish. The Harttiini are less accommodating, but not impossibly so, and with a bit of care even these can be kept in mixed species setups. What’s not to like about the weird and wonderful world of whiptails?