Catfish of the Month Right March 2004

Wallagonia leerii
Helicopter Catfish, Trey Stuak (Cambodia) - Wallagonia leerii   (Bleeker, 1851)

Article © Heok Hee Ng, uploaded March 01, 2004.

Thanks go again to Heok Hee Ng for this month's "catfish of the month" article.

This month's featured catfish is the Tapah (as it is locally known in Indonesia and Malaysia and never confused with any other catfish), essentially a leaner, sleeker version of the European wels (Silurus glanis) with an equally fearsome reputation. The fish is a beautiful brassy-olive with the body marbled in black and white by day and assumes a paler grey with longitudinal bands of grey and white running along its flanks at night. However, its upturned mouth and an impressive battery of sharp teeth combine to give this catfish an unsettleing grin. One of the largest freshwater catfishes in Southeast Asia, the Tapah can reach up to 2 meters (6 feet) in length and weigh over 80 kilograms (176 lbs).

Perhaps in keeping with its “leerii”-ng countenance, the Tapah has a fearsome reputation as a rapacious predator that attacks any animal small enough for it to swallow. Fish, frogs, waterfowl and even small mammals are not safe from its cavernous toothy gape. There are even reports of this aggressive fish attacking bathers. Malaysian folklore has it that the Tapah was so jealous of the Keli's (Clarias) eight barbels to its two that it will try to eat its smaller cousin at any opportunity.

In Southeast Asia, the Tapah is regularly caught for food and its flesh is of excellent taste (I had the opportunity to verify this in central Sumatra). It puts up a great fight when hooked, sometimes towing a boat with its occupants for a considerable distance. Keeping one in the aquarium is not for the faint of heart. Given the large size it can grow to [at least 60 cm (2 feet)] and its nature as an active predator means that it needs plenty of swimming room (something in the league of an 8-foot tank). Its reputation as a great jumper also means that a sturdy cover is necessary. Neither is feeding particularly easy (or cheap), given that it very much prefers live food. Introducing feeders into the tank usually results in the fish darting out of its resting place, and an almost casual sidle right up to its prey. A quick lunge too fast to be seen (usually accompanied by a loud thud as it hits the aquarium walls) and all that's left is a shower of scales and a catfish with a very satisfied grin. In time, the Tapah will learn and strike at prey the very instance they are dropped into water (usually resulting in a slight drenching to the owner), which means that strips of raw meat can be substituted as a healthier alternative to feeder fish or frogs. To make things easier on your wallet, the Tapah is perfectly happy fed only once or twice a week.

The Tapah is a loner and will attempt to eat tankmates. Given its need for swimming room, is perfectly happy with a minimum of “furniture”. One has to be careful with the water quality, though, as they are very sensitive to high ammonia / nitrate levels (the first sign of trouble is a loss of appetite immediately followed by barbel rot).

A catfish with a personality that will learn to recognize the owner (greeting at feeding time usually takes the form of a quick dart out of hiding followed by an expectant hovering near the surface of the water), the Tapah can be as endearing as Rover or Skip and promises years of enjoyment.

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

Down Cat-eLog Data Sheet
Scientific Name Wallagonia leerii  (Bleeker, 1851)
Common Names Helicopter Catfish
Trey Stuak (Cambodia)
Type Locality Sambas, western Borneo; Palembang, southern Sumatra, Indonesia.
Synonym(s) Ompok nebulosus, Wallago nebulosus, Wallago tweediei, Wallagonia leerii, Wallagonia tweediei
Pronunciation lee ree aye
Down Species Information
Size 2000mm or 78.7" SL. Find near, nearer or same sized spp.
Identification 1) mouth reaching only to anterior of eye
2) mandibular barbel shorter than pelvic fin
3) 12-16 gill rakers on first arch
4) 64-75 anal-fin rays
Sexing Males have a more slender genital papilla immediately in front of anus.
General Remarks Found in large upland rivers from Thailand to Indonesia. Population from mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam) represents a different species recently described as W. micropogon. Less common in the wild than Wallago attu.
Down Habitat Information
Distribution Peninsular Malaysia and the Greater Sunda Islands (except northeast Borneo, where the closely related W. maculatus occurs).
Pacific, Malaysia Waters, Peninsular Malaysia Waters (click on these areas to find other species found there)
Pacific, Greater Sunda Island Rivers (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 2019.
pH 5.0 - 7.0
Temperature 20.0-25.0°C or 68-77°F (Show species within this range)
Down Husbandry Information
Feeding Active predator. Will eat only live foods (fish or frogs) at first, but can be trained to take strips of raw meat. User data.
Furniture Large driftwood as a hiding place desirable, although not necessary. Bare tank makes cleaning easier.
Compatibility A solitary predator, will attempt to eat any tankmates.
Suggested Tankmates None.
Breeding Not known and impossible in the home aquarium, given its size.
Breeding Reports There is no breeding report.
Down Further Information
Reference Natuurkundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië v. 2 (no. 3), pp 427.
Registered Keepers There are 9 registered keepers, view all "my cats" data.
Wishlists Love this species? Click the heart to add it to your wish list.
There are 2 wishes to keep this species, see who wants what.
Spotters Spotted this species somewhere? Click the binoculars!
There are 8 records of this fish being seen, view them all.
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Last Update 2020 Jul 31 02:44 (species record created: 2004 Mar 01 11:22)

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