Spatula Barbel Catfish - Phyllonemus typus   Boulenger, 1906

Article © Birger Kamprath, uploaded March 01, 2008.

Our catfish of the month for March 2008 sees another forum regular contributing their first article into this section. I'll leave it then to Birger Kamprath to introduce this small mouthbrooding predatory catfish, which, in his words, makes you think, "how intriguing is that?"

Oftentimes you will hear of someone expressing interest for a catfish of manageable size, one that can be bred and has an interesting shape and behavior, Phylonemus typus is one that fits the criteria. It is a small torpedo shaped mouthbrooder and a very capable predator.

Africa’s Lake Tanganyika is commonly associated with the Synodontis or cichlids that call it their home, but it also brings us Phylonemus typus, a member of the catfish family Claroteidae described by Boulenger (1906). P. typus is one of two species of endemic Phylonemus currently identified from the lake with the possibility there may be more yet to be described. It is not a flashy species but has a nice copper tone to its reddish brown body with a creamy underside. Only reaching lengths up to 90 mm SL (3.5 in.) makes it a manageable size for maintaining in a group. Its body is well streamlined yet it has a deceivingly large mouth (see figure 1) well suited to engulf its intended prey of insect larva and small fish. A noticeable feature is the long maxillary barbels that are flattened at the ends resulting in its common name of Spatula barbeld Catfish.

Water conditions should be as for most fish from Lake Tanganyika, mine are kept at 24 degrees centigrade (74°F) with a ph of 8.6. In their natural habitat, they frequent littoral (near shore) rock rubble and to approximate this; I started with a layer of sand. On it I placed many 100mm (4 in.) flowerpot bases turned upside down with a piece cut out of the sides. Over these, I laid random pieces of slate and hid them with a layer or two of river rock 5-15 cm (2-6 in.) diameter. A space is kept between the front glass and the stones leaving a stretch of open sand. This may seem like a lot of extra rock-work but it provides many dwellings deep within the substrate, crucial to their well being. With the extra cover they can be seen calmly cruising among the many passages between the stones, even during the day time. What will generally cause the most damage to these fish are fights that break out for choice hiding spots; these can become very serious battles. The rock-work will help to minimize this fighting.

As for other occupants, I would be wary of fish that will target the long barbels or would compete for defended space in the lowest levels of the aquarium such as territorial rock or shell dwelling cichlids. Ideal tankmates would spend a good portion of their time in the upper levels. One should always keep in mind the predatory nature of these fish. I have heard a few stories where people purchased young Cyprichromis as tank mates, only to have them disappear overnight. This is when the true nature of P. typus as a predator is recognized; even a 2 cm (1 in.) fish is in mortal danger. Phylonemus typus has cohabited with Synodontis lucipinnis and S. grandiops in these rock structures with no apparent problems. Possibly because the Synodontis will swim higher among the layers of stone and each species can go about their own business. Aggressive feeders should be avoided, food needs to reach the lowest levels and adequate time must be given for them to realize that food is available especially if they are nestled in their comfy cave. As long as food reaches them, feeding is not difficult. I have them living and breeding on a diet of frozen bloodworms and NLS pellets alternated daily. Occasionally I supplement with live food provided by a pair of Central American Cichlids.

MouthFigure 1. The gape of P. typus should not be underestimated.

Typical refugeFigure 2. A typical refuge for this species.

Phylonemus typus is a biparental mouthbrooder. This means that incubation and hatching of the eggs are done within the mouths of one or both of the parents. For breeding purposes, I like to use a larger group (6 or more) as opposed to a single pair. I have found when they are not interested in spawning the pairs may separate and you need to make sure they can get far enough away from each other or serious damage will occur. With a larger group however, aggression is spread and couples can form when they choose. Two fish paired together in a cave is a good indicator that they are considering breeding or have already done so. If a spawn has taken place, the distended buccal pouch will be visible, that is, if you can see them. A properly constructed residence will have the entrance completely sealed off (see figure 2). It may take a couple of tries to get to this point but if not disturbed they make good parents. Within the first month and still in quarantine, I was taken by surprise by the first broods when all I had for their feed was minced bloodworm. I had such good results (no losses) that I continued to use this as a first food. By dropping it right over them and as they become older alternating with NLS .5 mm growth food feeding young is not difficult. They are not shy eaters. One time while giving a group of fry their first feeding I watched as two devoured a whole bloodworm one at each end until they were nose to nose. It was their constant twisting and turning that finally broke it in two.

A problem for this fish is that they are not very noticeable when first observed in an LFS. The owner of the store, where mine were purchased, told me he would not bring them in again saying “no one knew what they were”. This is a shame because they are a very interesting addition to an aquarium of fish from Lake Tanganyika.

Down Cat-eLog Data Sheet
Scientific Name Phyllonemus typus  Boulenger, 1906
Common Name Spatula Barbel Catfish
Type Locality Niamkolo, Zambia, Lake Tanganyika.
Pronunciation fie low NEE muss - tie puss
Etymology The generic name comes from the Greek phyllos, meaning leaf and nema, meaning thread, in reference to the distinctive barbel shape of the type species Phyllonemus typus. The specific epithet means form in Latin.
Down Species Information
Size 88mm or 3.5" SL. Find near, nearer or same sized spp.
Identification An upper body colour of brown-maroon with a cream coloured belly. Easily distinguished from the rarer P. filinemus by the small spatula-shaped endings on their maxillary barbels.
Sexing The male is larger and more strongly built than the female. The female may also be plumper when viewed from above.
General Remarks Other literature sources of note are: Ochi, H., A. Rossiter and Y. Yanagisawa, 2000 The first record of a biparental mouthbrooding catfish. J. Fish Biol. 57(6):1601-1604. Bailey, R. M., and D. Stewart, 1984 Bagrid Catfishes from Lake Tanganyika, with a Key and Descriptions of New Taxa. UMMZ, Ann Arbor. Eccles, D.H., 1992 FAO species identification sheets for fishery purposes. Field guide to the freshwater fishes of Tanzania. FAO, Rome.
Down Habitat Information
Distribution Africa: Lake Tanganyika.
African Waters, Western Rift Valley Lakes, Tanganyika (click on these areas to find other species found there)

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IUCN Red List Category Least Concern, range map and more is available on the IUCN species page. Last assessed 2021.
pH 7.6 - 9.0
Temperature 23.0-28.0°C or 73.4-82.4°F (Show species within this range)
Other Parameters A pH in between 7.8 and 8.2 is best suited to aquarium husbandry.
Down Husbandry Information
Feeding Will readily take most prepared foods. Its diet should be supplemented with live foods from time to time. In the wild, its diet has been shown to consist of very small fish and larval insects.
Furniture Prefers rock work over driftwood or plants. Will make its home in small crevices.
Compatibility A very peaceful fish which may be out competed for food and picked on if kept with much larger, more aggressive fish. A model citizen except for its large mouth which means it can and will eat smaller fishes. Should be kept in a group, since it is a fairly social fish and will be emboldened by the presence of conspecifics.
Breeding According to Ochi et al, 2000, P. typus is a biparental mouth brooder. Male and female form a strong pair bond before mating and caring for young, with the male and/or female incubating and hatching the eggs in their mouth.
Breeding Reports There are 4 breeding reports, read them all here.
Down Further Information
Reference Transactions of the Zoological Society of London v. 17 (pt 6, no. 1), pp 552, Pl. 32 (fig. 3).
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There are 30 registered keepers, view all "my cats" data.
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There are 11 records of this fish being seen, view them all.
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Last Update 2020 Sep 16 02:06 (species record created: 2008 Mar 01 04:10)

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