Catfish of the Month Right Arrow July 2002 • Article © Julian Dignall, uploaded July 01, 2002

Cuckoo Catfish, Mangeplettet Gøgemalle (Denmark), Vielpunkt-Fiederbartwels (Germany) - Synodontis multipunctatus   Boulenger, 1898

The Rift Lakes of East Africa, comprised primarily of Lakes Tanganyika, Malawi and Victoria, are famous for the enormous diversity of the fishes that inhabit them. The amazing tale of cichlid speciation in these magical lakes has often been told. But while cichlid specialists have studied these lakes exhaustively, relatively little attention has been paid to catfish from the Rift Lakes. While the number of catfish species in the Lakes is much smaller than that of cichlid species, recent imports reveal that it is greater than we had previously known.

Of all the Rift Lakes, the greatest Siluriform diversity is to be found in Lake Tanganyika. It is by far the oldest of the Rift Lakes, with an age of approximately 6 million years, and also the deepest, with a depth of some 1,500 meters (though 99% of the fish life is concentrated in the topmost 200 meters). Species from the families Clariidae, Claroteidae (a recently split off from Bagridae), Malapteruridae and Mochokidae are allrelatively pillars of the Lake Tanganyika community, but it is the local Mochokidae, and specifically, the local Synodontis, that is both most numerous and of the greatest interest to the aquarist.

Seven species have been described by science: S. multipunctatus Boulenger 1898, S. granulosus Boulenger 1900, S. nigromaculatus Boulenger 1905, S. dhonti Boulenger 1917, S. tanganaicae Borodin 1936 (known as S. lacustricolus until this name was declared a junior synonym of S. tanganaicae by De Vos & van den Audenarde in 1998), S. petricola Matthes 1959, and S. polli Gosse 1982 (formerly known as S. eurystomus). All except S. nigromaculatus are endemic to Lake Tanganyika (i.e. they are found nowhere else). With the passage of time and as a result of more intensive collection and export of aquarium fish from the lake, it is becoming clear that many more undescribed endemic species exist. If we were assigning "M numbers" for hard-to-identify Mochokids, we'd be giving Corydoras' "C-numbers" and Loricariid "L-numbers" a run for their money!

Synodontis multipunctatus
Figure 1: Close-Up of Head

S. multipunctatus, the subject of this Catfish of the Month, is by far the best known and the most readily available of the seven identified Lake Tanganyika Synodontis species. All the endemic species share the same basic coloration of black spots on a copper or brown background, with white barbels and white fin edging (though S. granulosus and S. dhonti both lose their spots as they mature). This makes them notoriously difficult to identify correctly, and identifications by vendors and hobbyist publications are often wrong.

Synodontis multipunctatus
Figure 2: Humeral Process
Relative to the others, however, S. multipunctatus is relatively easy to identify. It has big eyes (see Figure 1), which are larger than those of any other Lake Tanganyika Synodontis, and an unspotted white belly, unique among the seven described species. The humeral process has a distinctive dagger shape (see Figure 2, where it is outlined in black).

Most S. multipunctatus seen in the hobby conform to the same basic pattern, but variant types can sometimes be found. Figure 3 shows a fish from Zambia which appears to be a S. multipunctatus but has smaller eyes, an off-white rather than copper background coloration, a sharper humeral process (shaped like a reclining "Y" rather than a reclining "V") and exhibits bolder, more restless behavior.

Also called the "Cuckoo Catfish", S. multipunctatus is the only fish known to practice "brood parasitism". Like the cuckoo, it lays its eggs among those of another species - mouth-brooding cichlids, in the case of multipunctatus - tricking the parents of the other species into raising its young. To add injury to insult, the catfish fry often end up eating their cichlid brood mates!

Synodontis multipunctatus
Figure 3: S. multipunctatus (Zambia)

This torrid tale of lust and deceit begins when the S. multipunctatus sense, through a combination of pheromone and visual cues, that a mouth-brooding cichlid species is in the midst of its mating and spawning rituals. Male and female catfish swoop down on the cichlid pair in flagrante delicto, gobbling up the cichlid eggs while scattering and fertilizing their own. In a few seconds the marauders are gone, usually chased away by the irate paternal cichlid. The maternal cichlid proceeds to hastily pick up the eggs, including the catfish's, which she then incubates in her mouth. The multipunctatus eggs typically hatch in just three days, several days before the cichlid eggs do. The fry begin to feast first on the cichlid eggs, and once those hatch, on the cichlid fry. When the mother finally releases "her" young, out swim a little swarm of well-fed baby Synodontis! The mother cichlid is so oblivious to the fact she has been duped that when alarmed, she will even take the Synodontis fry back into her mouth!

In the wild, S. multipunctatus parasitizes species such as Tropheus moori, Ctenochromis horei, Simochromis diagramma, S. babaulti and Pseudosimochromis curviforns. Interestingly, over the evolutionary eons, these cichlid species native to Lake Tanganyika appear to have developed a genetic "memory" of being cuckolded by S. multipunctatus, and are not easily duped. In the avian world, brood parasitism is a fairly common strategy, with about 1% of bird species laying their eggs in other species’ nests. Rejection of alien eggs is also common, reflecting the evolutionary incentive to minimize the negative impact of brood parasitism on the host’s reproductive success. It is thus not surprising that Tanganyikan cichlid species which have been parasitized by S. multipunctatus for thousands of years should also have “learned” to avoid losing their young in this way. We know of no reports of aquarists successfully spawning S. multipunctatus with a Tanganyikan cichlid host. Cichlids from Lakes Malawi and Victoria, on the other hand, do not appear to have this genetic wariness, and have proven much easier to work with in spawning S. multipunctatus in the aquarium. Victorian Haplochromines are best suited to this purpose.

Synodontis multipunctatus
Figure 4: Ten-week old fry
While S. multipunctatus seems to prefer to spawn with a cichlid host, it can also spawn without one. The eggs are perfectly capable of hatching and the fry of developing normally without cichlid (or human!) intervention. This has been well documented by several aquarists, and we have seen it ourselves. Spawning without a cichlid host has not been documented in the wild, but we expect that it must occur. Some scattered eggs probably fall into cracks and crevices where they are overlooked by the maternal cichlid and remain out of harm's way. More fundamental reasons why exclusive reliance on a strategy of brood parasitism is unlikely include:
  1. the large population of S. multipunctatus in Lake Tanganyika,
  2. the fact that larger females can hold up to a hundred eggs at a time, but only a small number of these is released in each sortie on a mating cichlid pair,
  3. the evident familiarity of Lake Tanganyika mouth-brooding cichlids with S. multipunctatus' wily ways, and
  4. the fact that surveys in the lake have found relatively few cichlids carrying catfish eggs and fry.

The fry grow quickly, have a healthy appetite and can fend for themselves from an early age. At a week old, they have black bands on a cream background, but by about eight weeks the bands break up into the spots characteristic of adults (see Figure 4). Leaving the fry with their parents is a viable option if the tank is uncrowded and has lots of little nooks and crannies in which they can hide, but if the fry can be removed to a separate tank, they will grow out more quickly and be safe from predation. Live baby brine shrimp are the favored food till the fry are about a month old, followed by chopped up live bloodworms from one to about three months, and whole bloodworms thereafter. The fry don't much care for flake foods, but will accept crushed Tetra ColorBits, which can be used to supplement live foods. As with all heavily fed fry, frequent water changes and waste removal are a must.

All Synodontis are long-lived fishes with a distinct life-cycle, and this is also true of S. multipunctatus. From about six months to about 3-5 years of age, S. multipunctatus is in its "adolescent" stage. Towards the end of this period, growth plateaus and the fish become sexually mature. Thereafter, they have another five years or so of vigorous adulthood ahead of them till they start to show signs of age. While senior fish may not long survive the rigors of the wild, this is not necessarily true in a sheltered aquarium environment, where S. multipunctatus may well live to an age of 15 or more years.

We know a lot about S. multipunctatus, but there is still much more to learn. And that may be the most wonderful thing of all about this little cuckoo among fish: it is accessible, but has not yet revealed all its many mysteries!

Copyright information for the images used in this article can be found on the species' full Cat-eLog page.

Jump to next section Cat-eLog Data Sheet
Scientific NameSynodontis multipunctatus  Boulenger, 1898
Common NamesCuckoo Catfish
Mangeplettet Gøgemalle (Denmark), Vielpunkt-Fiederbartwels (Germany)
Type LocalitySumbu, Lake Tanganyika.
Synonym(s)Synodontis multipunctata
Pronunciationsin oh don tiss - mull tee punk TATT uss
EtymologySynodontis: From the Greek syn, meaning together, and odontos, meaning tooth; in reference to the closely-spaced lower jaw teeth. multi- meaning many and punctatus meaning spotted.
Jump to next section Species Information
Size 220mm or 8.7" SL. Find near, nearer or same sized spp.
IdentificationAll species in the genus Synodontis have a hardened head cap that has attached a process (humeral process) which is situated behind the gill opening and pointed towards the posterior. The dorsal fin and pectoral fins have a hardened first ray which is serrated. Caudal fin is always forked. There is one pair of maxillary barbels, sometimes having membranes and occasionally branched. The two pairs of mandibular barbels are often branched and can have nodes attached. The cone-shaped teeth in the upper jaw are short. S-shaped and movable in the lower jaw. These fish produce audible sounds when disturbed rubbing the base of the pectoral spine against the pectoral girdle.

The base coloration is whitish grey, becoming a stronger brownish, often a very attractive golden bronze, on the head and upper body. The belly is whitish with or without spots. On the base color there are roundish dark spots of variable size, at most eye diameter and smaller on the head. In juvenile specimens spots are larger, irregular and sometimes confluent. Maxillary and mandibular barbels white. Iris yellowish to copper colored. Dorsal and pectoral-fin spines brown to black, filaments white. Pectoral spine with thin, light stripe along anterior margin. Dorsal and pectoral fins with black triangles at base, posterior margins white in color. Triangles in this species may be completely solid or composed of closely spaced dots. Black triangles at base of pelvic and anal fins absent or poorly developed. Single black spot may be present at the base of these fins. Adipose fin with white dorsal edge. Both lobes of caudal fin with dark bar from base to tip, posterior margin of fin white. Axillary pore present, mandibular teeth 13-29, 8 pectoral fin rays, eye 44.9-62 % of snout length, premaxillary toothpad uninterrupted, secondary branches on medial mandibular barbel absent, papillae on skin of body absent. Adipose fin short, poorly developed, margin convex. Humeral process narrow in juveniles becoming wider in adults, elongated, granulous, possessing distinct ridge on its ventral margin in young specimens, ridge becoming indistinct in adults, dorsal margin concave, terminating in a sharp point.
SexingMales have a higher dorsal fin. Females are generally plumper and more rounded in profile. As with other Synodontis, in male fish it is possible to distinguish a 3-4 mm genital papilla near the anus.
General RemarksS. multipunctatus and S. grandiops are most reliably separated by pectoral-fin ray counts with S. mutipunctatus having 1 pectoral fin spine with 8 soft rays and S. grandiops having a count of 1, 7 . The soft pectoral-fin elements (i.e. the rays) are almost always branched (the only exception being the last one or two rays, which are sometimes unbranched) a ray is counted as one at its base before it branches out. Also keep in mind the larger adult size of S. multipunctatus. It appears a southern and northern (at least) tribe exist, with the northern being the ''regular'' form and the southern being generally paler with more spacing between the spots.
Jump to next section Habitat Information
DistributionCommon throughout Lake Tanganyika, Africa
African Waters, Western Rift Valley Lakes, Tanganyika (click on these areas to find other species found there)
Show it on a map (Click the map-icon to show/hide map of species distribution)
IUCN Red List StatusLeast Concern
pH7.8 - 8.2
Temperature25.0-26.0°C or 77-78.8°F (Show species within this range)
Other ParametersClean water low in nitrates appears to be important to keeping the fish in good health and inducing it to spawn.
Jump to next section Husbandry Information
FeedingFeeds on snails, crustaceans and insect larvae in the wild. Not a fussy eater in the aquarium, but prefers meat based over vegetable based food. Generally considered to be a specialized predator of Neothauma tanganyicense(a snail)
FurnitureNatural habitat is littoral to benthic zones over shell, sand and mud bottoms, to a maximum depth of 170m (Coulter1991a). In aquaria caves formed by piling up calciferous rocks and Vallisneria. Porous rock also has the advantage of providing the fry with interstices in which to hide.
CompatibilityA schooling fish that prefers the company of its own kind. We recommend keeping at least three and ideally five or more S. multipunctatus together. Prefers crepuscular lighting. Generally peaceful, but may eat very small tank mates. Can hold its own with most Rift Lake catfish and cichlids seen in the hobby. .
Suggested TankmatesOften kept with Tanganyika, Malawi and Victoria cichlids, but dedicated siluriphiles may wish to consider keeping Tanganyikan Synodontis in all Synodontis tanks.
BreedingSee Catfish of the Month article (link below).
Jump to next section Further Information
ReferencesProc. Zool. Soc. Lond.1898 (pt 3) - pp497.
Florida Mus. Nat. Hist. Bull. 46(4):99-154.
Seegers, (2008) The Catfishes of Africa pg.450
Registered Keepers(1) synoguy, (2) mikey, (3) madattiver, (4) Richard B (k: 5), (5) Tulio, (6) Barbie, (7) Trident2004, (8) vriesea (k: 6), who also notes: "Great catfish for a community tank. Mine are very scurry about both day and night. More impressive in a school.", (9) Lornek8, (10) JJP2, (11) Ak Viking, (12) Dave Rinaldo, (13) amergim, (14) caudalis (k: 8), (15) arndogg (k: 5), who also notes: "F1 juveniles living in my tanganikyan tank. right now, I have no intention of breeding, but it is possible down the line.", (16) straitjacketstar (k: 5), (17) GreenSynoMan (k: 5), who also notes: "The juvenile was born in my aquarium, totally by accident.", (18) synodont_fan (k: 3), who also notes: "Great color and very mild mannered. Mine don't socialize much, so perhaps I need a bigger group.", (19) drgold (k: 8), (20) Cicolid, (21) Bristle nose, (22) bluenewt, (23) V, (24) kvnbyl (k: 8), (25) alga (k: 4), (26) amcmaster (k: 13), who also notes: "bred first cuckoo 27/12/08 caliptera host successfully bred 6 litters of fry but caliptera have now stopped breeding for last 6 months total fry sold ~50", (27) jollysue (k: 6), (28) Snowy (k: 26), (29) unblinded (k: 21), who also notes: "These are my favorite catfishes because of the way they interact with one another. I have them with about 60 Mbuna cichlids and it is hilarious to see the cichlids try to bully them and they just act like it's part of a game.", (30) L127 (k: 13), (31) joepleco, who also notes: "More attractive than its ugly sister Syn. Petricola. This one is more secretive than petricola as the latter seems to be more diurnal. Never the less both are cool.", (32) glyde (k: 4), (33) Rootbear (k: 6), who also notes: "Cats are in a heavily populated Mbuna tank. They are very active and there has been one Mbuna spawn so far with no cat fry.", (34) Zebadee (k: 4), (35) amazonfishman, (36) syno-kev (k: 2), who also notes: "got the golden eye varient of this one its about 3 inches and comes out now and again when its hungry, 5 inch males june 2008 i think these maybe a pair ", (37) synodontisjack (p: 4), (38) Didgeridoo (k: 5), who also notes: "Using Astatotilapia nubilus as hosts. Still waiting on cats to spawn. Nubilus spawn once or twice every week. I've observed the dominant male multi nudging the largest female multi in the abdomen. Dunno if this is courting behaviour or not!?", (39) tomr (p: 2, k: 4), (40) Julie, (41) elvis&lola, (42) ray_c (p: 5), (43) LowCat, (44) oxdeleon, (45) Tasplec (k: 3), (46) fleahound (k: 2), (47) Moomoo, (48) smegforbrains, (49) Kampfer, (50) pmbooper (k: 2), who also notes: "moving one from 30 gal to 40 gal cichlid fry tank ", (51) dragonphish, (52) neelhound, (53) reneb, (54) Wraith (k: 4), (55) earth intruder (k: 2), (56) redstallion02 (k: 10), (57) vman (k: 2), (58) ariefputranto, (59) judeblackburn (k: 2), (60) oliv67 (k: 22), (61) Caracal (k: 4), (62) raymond, (63) Groovylad (k: 3), (64) johnerud, (65) drpleco (k: 10), (66) SHEAG35 (k: 16), (67) abraxis77, (68) daniel4832, (69) exasperatus2002, (70) Viktor Jarikov, who also notes: "the smallest in the tank, 1 1/2 " but not shy, feeds well", (71) cory777 (k: 3), (72) Bartman (k: 5), (73) fleshgear, (74) WoonyFishMan (k: 2), (75) Cento (k: 3), (76) oli (k: 3), (77) Cory_lover (k: 5), (78) Miss Dib Dabs, (79) theviper06 (p: 2, k: 2), who also notes: "Leo", (80) chubbikins, (81) LeeRoy (k: 9), who also notes: "I have keep this group with a group of Aulonacara. I have had fry hatched in this tank, but not in last couple years.", (82) Sooperblooper, (83) rayfong, (84) FunkyFredFrog (p: 2, k: 3), (85) Tony, (86) zebra1 (k: 4), (87) aquaoahu, (88) Profiel310 (k: 3), (89) SHEAG (k: 8), (90) Buddiechrist, (91) arapaimag (k: 10), (92) clydeboy, (93) catfishhunter (p: 2), (94) kiwiplymouth, (95) TheCichlidKid15, (96) bigamefish, (97) anthonyking, (98) james gilbertson (k: 3), who also notes: "3 stunning fish, one female is heavily pregnant, when the light is turned off on a night they go crazy and get on brilliant with all fish in the tank", (99) richb (k: 6), who also notes: "I acquired my first multis in 1982 and still have an original female from that group. I have had her 30 years as of this year! I spawned them in the mid'80s through the early 1990s but haven't worked with them since. Moved the 5 younger fish into the 8'x24' tub early last year. Noticed fry late last year. No good way to get the young fish out of the rocks. They look nice!", (100) mrfishydude, (101) shooter50014 (k: 7), (102) tamara (k: 2), (103) lasteeves (k: 7), who also notes: "We have occasionally had fry in the mouths of Harpagochromis sp. 'Golden Duck'.", (104) BernieEcht (p: 2, k: 2), (105) Ostafrika-Barsche, (106) Anthonyck (k: 3), who also notes: "May add more. Very aloof, this first week. Seems to be schooling with the other synos. 7/18/12 - Added a juvenile of unknown sex. Seems quite healthy. First one has been out in the open at night, basking in the filter current. 8/4/12 - Could not pass up a very healthy adult at the store, for $25. Seems to be doing well. Feb 14 2015 - All three adults are well in the 75gal.", (107) shano6084, (108) Fruityscone, (109) SuzukaS2k, (110) victoriaz24, (111) auz_legend, (112) m1ke715m, (113) camtang (k: 8), (114) dvdrew, (115) Old MacDonald, (116) ScottishFish, (117) uaru (k: 4), (118) Marklar (k: 6), who also notes: "Wild-caught group imported by Mike's Rifts, UK. Kept in 450L Tanganyikan community tank with Tropheus and other rock dwelling cichlids. Water naturally hard and buffered to pH 8.2. Sharp-sand substrate, sandstone rock formations. Feeding as per cichlids (New Era red and green sinking pellets and Tanganyikan cichlid flake) and no doubt numerous cichlid fry.", (119) PhilC (p: 2, k: 6), who also notes: "Tank raised", "Wild", (120) adoo (k: 8), who also notes: "Adult group maintained in tank stocked with Mbuna (Gephyrochromis lawsii & Tropheops sp. Mauve), fed on Tropical (brand) Malawi/Mbuna flake supplemented with Sera Granugreen. Juvenile pictured at about 10mm SL.", (121) aquatropindo, (122) AlphaWolf1995 (k: 3), (123) Synofan1222, (124) Stefan2013 (k: 2), (125) mp1973, (126) jorgehdzy, (127) Matturbin, (128) langley01 (k: 4), (129) Marine590622, (130) DEZ, (131) Bioaquatix (k: 665), who also notes: "I have been keeping this fish for 7-8 years. I first set them up with Africans to act as surrogates. I have since changed that approach and now stripe spawn the fish. To control production better. I do not use hormones on this fish, when the females are conditioned the eggs can be gently squeezed. Males can be milked and fry are produced.", (132) chalamala, (133) Goodeid608, (134) kwalker, (135) zn30, (136) bassgenie, (137) matt1628 (k: 8), (138) hamejames (k: 4), (139) Long Barbels, (140) Shaddrag, who also notes: "Spends most of its time in the darkest areas of the tank, and when it's not there, it is under the sponge filter.", (141) rootbear, (142) CichliDon (k: 8), who also notes: "Purchased with aspirations of breeding them. It took over 15 years and the right cichlid (Metriclima estherae) to finally produce results. I've since given the group to a friend who has yet to breed them!", (143) Ambull (k: 4), (144) flatdog, (145) Wingostar, (146) pleconut (k: 2), who also notes: "Already had 1 very hyperactive male for 3 months now also added a female also have two featherfins to what will eventually become a synodontis cats set up with other fish -not cichlids- after a tank upgrade.", (147) oldfish (k: 8), (148) BiggNick916, (149) iSynoCat (k: 4), who also notes: "Very confident, spend a lot of the day just cruising around the tank. Swim up to the surface for food, very good eaters. Not bothered by larger S. Angelicus or mbuna cichlids.", (150) Schall, (151) evojoey, (152) Stalin, (153) bedwetter, (154) jmw975 (k: 4), who also notes: "F1's started breeding at 18months of age", (155) protopterus, (156) 1Opsophagos, (157) troutperchbeeman, (158) Medievalmum, (159) caninesrock, (160) jvision (k: 8), (161) crazycowboy55, (162) LauraG (k: 5), (163) rs12178, (164) angerygrover, (165) CatfishKeeper93.

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Breeding Reports(1) jmw975 (b: 37), (2) CichliDon (b: 30), (3) troutperchbeeman (b: 13), (4) tomr (b: 12), (5) evojoey (b: 8).
Article - Shane's World Reproduction Spawning Synodontis multipunctatus & S. lucipinnis
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Last Update2014 Jul 15 18:43 (species record created: 2002 Jul 01 11:22)

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