Catfish of the Month Right Arrow June 2008 • Article © Julian Dignall, uploaded June 05, 2008



False Upside Down Catfish, Common Syno, Common Synodontis, Lace Catfish, Nigerianischer Rückenschw. (schwarzwer) Kongowels (Germany), Syno - Synodontis nigrita   Valenciennes in Cuvier & Valenciennes, 1840

This month I have to admit to being a bit short on ideas when it came to picking a catfish to feature. After some on and off thought about it, I decided to take the scientific approach and wrote a bit of software to find out from the PlanetCatfish database which species was most accessed that had not featured in its own article as yet. Perhaps unsuprisingly the top hits came back as all plecos. I had to go past 34 suckermouths to find something else. And so, with my apolgies for a rather dull selection method, here's a more commonly found catfish than viewing statistics might make you think.

Upside down catfish, or to give them a name which is perhaps a bit more accurate, Squeaker cats are from Africa. Upside down catfish isn't the best name for them as only a few species spend nearly all of their time upside down and there are actually other catfishes from other families that do the same. The latter is however something of a moot point and squeaker isn't that better either as they don't claim to be the sole type of catfish that makes a jarring, squeaky noise when removed from the water. To my knowledge they are the only group of catfish that do that from Africa, so, for this article today, let's call them squeakers. If you don't like that, you can stick with the families formal name, Mockokidae - no squeaking there and it does sound wonderfully African.

This is a large genus of (at the time of writing) 123 species and has had a place in the aquarium hobby since the first frewshwater fish began to arrive from Africa. Although many peoples favourites, these characterful and sometimes very colourful fish have been somewhat out of fashion for a decade or two now. Despite this, you're likely to find this very common member, the spotted catfish, Synodontis nigrita, or as it is sometimes known as the "false upside down catfish" owing to the aforementioned ill placed naming for a fish that doesn't spend all that much time actually upside down.

There are many, many spotted catfish in the world. In fact, there are many spotted Synodontis. Their background colour is lighter and the spots are all across the fins and body when youngsters. As they mature they begin to change to take on a dark brown base with fewer spots especially less on the body. There are always spots on the fins and these tend to cluster somewhat on the fleshy adipose fin. In increasing difficulty of telling them apart and in terms of those you will find commonly in fish stores, when young, this species is sometimes confused Synodontis eupterus which can look similar when young but have more of a network pattern and high fins.

Synodontis ocellifer is another potential species for mistaken identify when looking at young fish. Synodontis ocellifer stays a lighter colour usually, but the tell tale sign (in this case literally) is a striped tail fin as opposed to spotted bands. This is less evident in younger specimens, but comparing all fins in the round makes it easier. Additionally, those looking closely at the humeral process will see a considerably bigger and heavier one in S. nigrita

Another similar species to the adult is the brown spotted Syno, Synodontis robbianus, generally, and rather unrelaibly, this species keeps more spots going into adulthood and but does firmly only reach a smaller size of around 13cm. (5"). The adipose fin is also higher but the two can be tricky to tell apart.

This species is exceptionally hardy, inexpensive, will eat almost all aquarium foods and doesn't grow especially big. It's an excellent catfish for the slightly more boisterous aquarium.


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 nigrita  Valenciennes in Cuvier & Valenciennes, 1840
Common NamesFalse Upside Down Catfish
Common Syno, Common Synodontis, Lace Catfish, Nigerianischer Rückenschw. (schwarzwer) Kongowels (Germany), Syno
Type LocalitySenegal R., Senegal.
Synonym(s)Hemisynodontis nigrita, Synodontis fascipinna, Synodontis ornatus
Pronunciationsin oh don tiss - nig reet ah
EtymologySynodontis: From the Greek syn, meaning together, and odontos, meaning tooth; in reference to the closely-spaced lower jaw teeth. 
Jump to next section Species Information
Size 275mm or 10.8" 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.

Commonly misidentified in the trade. Contaminants often include S. nigriventris and small juveniles of many West African Synodontis species.
S. nigrita has a dark gray background with black spots on the body and fins, giving it a ''lace-like'' appearance, hence the common name: ''lace catfish''.
Humeral process ends in a point, sweeping up in a curve on the bottom edge.
Sometimes swims in an inverted position.
SexingFirst lay the fish in your hand with its head toward your palm and the tail toward your fingers. Hold the dorsal spine between your middle and ring finger so the fish is belly up and you won't get stuck (Which by the way, hurts like crazy!). The genital pore is in a small furrow of tissue (in healthy fish) and will be obstructed by the pelvic fins. Pull down on the tail gently to arch the fishes spine and the pelvic fins will stand and the furrow open to display the genital pore and the anus of the fish. The male has a somewhat ridged genital papillae on which the spermatoduct is on the back side, facing the tail fin. A gravid female will also show an extended papillae but the oviduct is on the ventral side of the papillae (And may also show a little redness if really gravid). A thin or emaciated female will have just two pink pores, the oviduct and the anus.
General RemarksAn explanation is in order as to the status of the synonym, Synodontis ornatus. There is a paper by Pappenheim & Boulenger(1914) using Synodontis ornatus which shows a drawing of a fish that very much looks like a Synodontis nigrita, the fish shown in this paper is now considered a synonym of S. nigrita. A second paper by Boulenger (1920) using Synodontis ornatus shows a drawing of a fish that looks like the images that are shown for Synodontis ornatissima which this second ornatus is now a synonym of.
Jump to next section Habitat Information
DistributionOne of the most common of all Synodontis species. Widely distributed across Africa, including the Nile basin, Chad, Niger, Senegal, Gambia, Casamance, Geba, Kolente and Volta basins, and coastal rivers from Ghana to Nigeria.
African Waters, Casamance (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Geba (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Kolente (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Volta (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Gambia (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Nile (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Nigeria Waters, Niger (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Sénégal (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Chad (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
pH6.0 - 7.6
Temperature21.0-26.0°C or 69.8-78.8°F (Show species within this range)
Other ParametersIn nature, congregates in pools and ponds by the side of large rivers, but is typically not found in the rivers themselves.
Jump to next section Husbandry Information
FeedingOmnivore. Feed flakes and tablet food, supplemented by frozen and live food.
In nature, eats plant detritus and small crustaceans and insects.
Be careful not to overfeed. Has gluttonous appetite. Juveniles grow quickly.
FurniturePlants, driftwood, rocks.
CompatibilityRelatively peaceful, though older specimens can become territorial.
BreedingIn nature, breeding occurs during flood season. It is uncertain if bred commercially by hormone injection or if it has been bred in the aquarium.
Jump to next section Further Information
ReferencesHist. Nat. Poiss.v. 15 - pp265 - Pl. 441
Registered Keepers(1) synoguy, (2) natefrog, (3) caudalis, (4) Oliver D. (k: 10), who also notes: "Spawned...", (5) Silurus, (6) gage, (7) vriesea (k: 2), who also notes: "Boutht pair at auction at SVAC for $6.", (8) synodont_fan (k: 2), who also notes: "Unlike the pictured specimen, mine have a very black body color, so that the spots are barely noticeable. Mine seem to hide a lot.", (9) Redcatman, who also notes: "This fish was reported to be 10 years old when donated to me. In the time I had it, it only grew about 20mm. Other than that, there was no change in appearance before it suddenly died.", (10) brettwms75, who also notes: "Mine gets along great with my 2 Knife fish.", (11) Landlubber, (12) Pseudospecialops, (13) brettjurgens, (14) MC_Emily, (15) Gootch, (16) jippo (k: 11), (17) Bartman, (18) geekshow (p: 2, k: 2), (19) Ebisu, (20) ray_c (p: 3), (21) doesdavid, (22) chralis, (23) jquijano, (24) pmbooper (k: 2), who also notes: "one 6 inch syno in 1000 gal-moving 4 inch syno to 200 gal", (25) andy.cole94, (26) griffl, who also notes: "In tank with Syno Aterrima. Both are territorial and hang around driftwood log.", (27) OddOscar, (28) oliv67 (k: 3), (29) raymond (k: 3), who also notes: "are in a tank of malawi cichlids, but rarely make an appearance.", (30) danny.450, (31) danlinn, (32) matt836 (p: 2), (33) VonKarppis, (34) Birger (k: 2), (35) Buddiechrist, (36) nerdoutlaw, (37) DeepFriedIctalurus, (38) Dinnie, (39) clydeboy, (40) nowayhere, (41) Sargy60, (42) ellohcee, (43) james gilbertson (k: 3), who also notes: "Very friendly fish, out of all my synos this one feels the most comfortable in daylight conditions", (44) jakkals, (45) anglerfishuk, (46) ali12345, (47) lasteeves (k: 4), (48) Ysori (k: 2), (49) Dudders, (50) Josiemetzner, (51) JessM315, (52) PiggyCutie, (53) thecameraguy, (54) fi5thelement, (55) Shipmonkey, (56) Johnny579, (57) indeliKate, (58) Gallywags, (59) apo1980, (60) Reteos, (61) caninesrock, (62) Gulper.

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Breeding ReportsNone.
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Last Update2016 Dec 13 11:25 (species record created: 2008 Jun 05 03:08)

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