Catfish of the Month Right Arrow August 2012 • Article © Julian Dignall, uploaded September 10, 2012



Ocellated Synodontis - Synodontis ocellifer   Boulenger, 1900

In at least some parts of the Northern hemisphere, fishkeeping activities take something of a backseat in the summer months. We're out in the good weather — hopefully — or at least going on holiday or partaking in outdoor pursuits of one kind or another. I am not sure I can lay the blame for August's CotM article actually being published in September due to this, but it's as good an excuse as any; the truth is, I've been writing this article for nearly a year now and have only just got it as right as I can get it.

Synodontis are, for the main, hardy catfish. Should your water change regime slacken during the busy summer months it will likely not affect them. If you go on holiday for a couple of weeks, no problem — they will happily wait it out. One great example of a robust, hardy and delightfully catfishy species is Synodontis ocellifer. This species name tells us this is a spotted fish, and it is very pleasingly so, with medium to large black spots adorning a grey to brown body.

While wild imports are available (this species is widespread in a handful of major sub-Saharan, west African river systems) the grey form of this species is farmed and available all year round at a relatively low cost. Indeed, its fecundity, hardiness and size have led to it being one of several species used to create increasing number of hybrid Synodontis.

The topic of hybridisation is an emotive one. Planet stalwart and fully-paid-up member of the syno fan club Richard Broadbent started a nice record and sane topic on it in the forum. The emotion, however, is multiplied in the realm of catfish keepers by the fact that so many catfishes found for sale are wild caught: relatively few are captive bred in aquaria. Catfish specialists keep hundreds of species that are exactly as they are found in the wild. One day I must work out how many catfish genera have had at least one species bred in captivity, but, for now, let's just say it's a lot harder to name 10 cichlid genera that have not been bred than name, for example, 10 African (or Asian) catfishes of equal status. Therefore, the catfish-keeping crowd have not really had to get used to too many commonly available hybrids until the emergence of the Syno hybrid. The near absence of hobbyist spawnings of Synodontis mean that their hybridisation is limited to fish farms; organisations that exist to make profit and don't tend to tell. In short, it's all a bit cloak and dagger.

The ethical angle is one thing, the commercial another. Those farm breeders of Synodontis ocellifer can take a male and a female of that species and produce a lot of low margin offspring that look just like their parents. That comes at it from an aquaculture angle and, ok, that is how a lot of fishes are produced. However, take the (whichever) Synodontis species from the next vat down and cross that with S. ocellifer and you get about the same amount of equally hardy offspring that will look different (therefore new) and so will sell for higher margin. Now, what about the rare Synos the breeder only has a few of? Or the dull species that grows large fins. Combinations of traits can produce more individuals per batch, faster growing, with longer fins and so on.  Doing this to make profit is where things get a bit warm: I'd suggest the dividing line between fishkeeper and businessman is drawn here. If that's warm then the fact that some, not all, methods of hybridisation risk the lives or are fatal to the parents is devilishly hot. These issues are why it's such an emotive topic.

Part of me understands that this is just ornamental fishkeeping. That search for something new that brought us artificial hobby staples like veiltail dwarf ram cichlids or black moor goldfish. Somewhere in that exaggeration of species we may go too far. There is more dislike of long fin Ancistrus (for example) than there are of long fin Danios — at least amongst the catfish crowd. But this is mostly not hybridisation: that can be something a bit more nefarious. There's one form of hybridisation that gives us copycat species that look quite a lot like expensive Syno species (let's call them “fake synos”) and there is another route that gives us new things that really don't look like any described species. Let's call them “ornamental synos”. Both can be really pretty — are both bad?

Then there is a point around pressure on wild stocks. If the human race can farm a bunch of ornamental  synos, isn't that a good thing because we're not taking them from the wild? Well, maybe it is in terms of a significant percentage of total volume, but what of the local fisherman? What of the trade in Africa? What value will people — local to the rivers these animals come from —  place on that river if a significant source of revenue is removed by farming of those species closer to market? Lots of questions. It appears to me that perhaps we need both.

Farm bred Synodontis have a solid place in the volume market. The trade in wild caught species helps sustainable fishkeeping. Both help each other out.  If the local fisherman can't sell the fish they catch in their river, then one outcome at least plausible due to commercial logic says they may (because the internet is global) learn how to create hybrids at source. If some of them get back in the river (pretty likely — where easier to breed them?) then we have a real problem.

What of the fake synos? Is the issue then one of fraud — a hybrid sold as a species? Fakes seem one aspect of this we could do without — but it is sadly circumvented by loose LFS labelling — “polka dot syno” just means it has spots right? If it's a £200 fish being sold for £20 then one has to ask why. One might also argue, if it looks the same, then so what? The purist might think only buy wild caught — but perhaps buying farm bred recognisable species is the way to go as it means the farmer sees more of these lines on their stocklist spreadsheet sell as opposed to hybrids.

There is even a case for recognisable ornamental hybrid strains because, unless we all start breeding Synodontis as hobbyists, they are generational cul-de-sacs. The game changer (hobbyists breeding more syno species) is one that would up the ante again and indeed is already an issue for Lake Tanganyika Synodontis that are frequently tank bred and are also used in the production of hybrids. I am not sure, with all the natural variety in the genus Synodontis, that this is a great idea — to me these new, artificial beauties inadequately fill a hole created by the decreasing number of, especially riverine, African exports. However, if the export situation does not improve — well, some hybrids are very attractive fishes. Maybe they have a place in the hobby somewhere. But those bent-headed, arched-fin-spine oddities that are clearly hybrids? They appear to me like failed experiments; also, to my mind, clearly not a good thing.

As you may have surmised, I chose this species as a reason to discuss hybridisation amongst Synodontis in the ornamental fish trade. Hopefully this will be of some interest, but please do not let me detract from the natural (farm bred or wild caught) beauty of Synodontis occellifer. If there is one thing I'd like the reader to take from this article, it is that farm bred species that look like their wild cousins are a good thing and must not be shunned due to the availability of hybrids.

If the average size of your fishes is more than 4” I would suggest you might look at the loyal Synodontis ocellifer — if catfishes were dogs, it is the black labrador of African catfishes and, as such, hard to beat. It can be kept alone or in groups, is easy to feed and will accept a variety of conditions and tankmates. It is an archetypal Synodontis and a farmed and wild caught species worthy of universal support.


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 ocellifer  Boulenger, 1900
Common NameOcellated Synodontis
Type LocalityKunchow Cr., Gambia R., w. Africa.
Pronunciationsin oh don tiss - awe CELL if err
EtymologySynodontis: From the Greek syn, meaning together, and odontos, meaning tooth; in reference to the closely-spaced lower jaw teeth. ''ocellifer'', having little eyes, from ''ocellus'', diminutive of ''oculus'', eye and "ifer" meaning "to carry". In reference to the black spots (possibly with white centers) found on the flanks of this species.
Jump to next section Species Information
Size 200mm or 7.9" 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.

Pale yellowish-brown body with black spots. Some specimens have lighter background coloration or minimal spotting. The characteristic to look for when comparing with other similar spotted species is the adipose fin. In S. ocellifer is is very long running almost from caudal to dorsal fin.
Jump to next section Habitat Information
DistributionWest Africa, various river basins from Senegal to Chad (Senegal, Gambia, Volta, Chad, Niger basins)
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)
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, Nigeria Waters, Niger (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
pH6.2 - 8.0
Temperature23.0-28.0°C or 73.4-82.4°F (Show species within this range)
Jump to next section Husbandry Information
FeedingOmnivore. As with other Synodontis, but with a little more meat.
FurnitureRocks, driftwood, plants.
CompatibilityJuvenile fish are suited to a community tank, but adult fish grow fairly large, and may eat smaller fish.
BreedingBy hormone injection in Eastern Europe.
Jump to next section Further Information
ReferencesProc. Zool. Soc. Lond.1900 (pt 3) - pp514
Registered Keepers(1) TP (k: 4), (2) Birger (k: 4), (3) synoguy, (4) Silurus, (5) GreenSynoMan, (6) synodont_fan (k: 2), who also notes: "Quite mild mannered. Not very active. Cuter when small, but the adult pattern is nice.", (7) Redcatman, who also notes: "I live in a soft water area. The only water quality parameter measured regularly is pH which is kept between 6.5 and 7.0. Ammonia and nitrite are usually zero when I do occasionally measure them. Nitrate controlled by parial water changes every 2-3 weeks. The tank is filtered using an old (40 years!) Eheim external filter which has been in continuous use since it was purchased. Contains various Eheim filter materials also bought 40 years ago. Only material replaced is a layer of filter wool. Filter is cleaned out when water flow drops which is usually every 2-3 months.", (8) KenyanSandBoa, (9) cwm, (10) kvnbyl (k: 2), (11) nuth88, (12) kagal, (13) vriesea (k: 2), who also notes: "Bought two in PCCA auction. Full grown, $7 for the pair.", (14) Junttis (p: 2), (15) jippo (k: 2), (16) syno-kev, who also notes: "this one is out all the time about 4 inches not really that exciting though", (17) Plunt, (18) glyde (k: 2), (19) aledk85, (20) cathje (k: 5), (21) Shovelnose, (22) Cornuta, (23) Moomoo, (24) Khalid, (25) Nick44, (26) sonovue, (27) gotya, (28) phenix, (29) wwajfd, who also notes: "Slow grower", (30) bigcatsrus, (31) oliv67, (32) Caracal, (33) Bloodywertzie, (34) Mike C, (35) Avinitlarge, (36) TheFishGuy, (37) wimmels, (38) VonKarppis, (39) snakelover (p: 3), (40) andregurov (p: 2, k: 2), (41) JamesStuddart, (42) tomr, (43) Cyberdragon, (44) arapaimag, (45) milosz, (46) Catfish freak, (47) lasteeves (k: 6), (48) Brisch, (49) Jass, (50) dmcat, (51) Shipmonkey, (52) mcaquatic, (53) VickyEll7, (54) Arron_N, (55) slayer5590, (56) flatdog, (57) apo1980, (58) WadeNCreeks, (59) Schall, (60) Flatdog, (61) Tanganyikafreak.

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Last Update2008 Jan 21 12:10 (species record created: 2012 Sep 10 08:27)

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