If two things have lately gained widespread appeal in the aquarium hobby it is planted tanks and those catfish of the family loricariidae better known as the plecos. The increased availability of technological gadgets that make planted tanks easier to maintain (e.g. substrate heaters, CO2 systems, VHO lighting), combined with the amount of reliable information available to today's hobbyist has everyone wanting an Amano quality aquarium. We just are not satisfied with bad plastic plants and bubbling divers anymore! The rise in the popularity of the loricariids is directly due to the fact that a seemingly unending stream of new and beautiful species has been flooding the hobby over the last decade. Even the most jaded reef aquarist has to raise their eyebrows at the sight of a zebra pleco. So, what could be more natural than to try and combine these interesting fishes with beautiful planted tanks?
This is where the aquarist that has not done their homework can get into big trouble fast. Some loricariids burrow, others bulldoze carefully arranged plantings, many can not thrive in the conditions necessary for a planted tank, and more than a handful see the planted aquarium as an all-you-can-eat salad bar. The family can be basically divided into three groups: those that are "worker" catfish and help maintain the tank by eating unsightly algae, those that are not effective algae-eaters but still make beautiful additions, and finally loricariids that are unsuitable because they eat plants or can not thrive in the conditions necessary for a planted aquarium. Finally, we will wrap up with some general information on maintaining loricariids.
Let's start with the good news and cover the "worker" loricariids first. Plecos in this group normally come from environments that are similar to those found in planted tanks. These fish are found in the wild amongst aquatic, floating and submersed flora. Typically, these waters are warm with little current and lower oxygen levels. In these environments we typically encounter members of Hypoptopomatinae as well as some Loricariini and Ancistrinae. All species contained within the first group are excellent worker catfish for the aquarium while members of the second two groups must be chosen with care.
The Hypoptopomatinae contains the hands down best worker plecos. Included in this group are Otocinclus, Parotocinclus, Hypoptopoma and Microlepidogaster. All of these fish stay small, usually under two to three inches, love to eat algae, and rarely damage plants. The first two genera are ideal for the smaller tank while Hypoptopoma and Microlepidogaster are better suited for a tank over 30 gallons. In the large planted tank (over 40 gallons) it is perfectly acceptable to mix groups from the various genera in order to have a multiple front attack on various algae species. All members of this group are happiest when kept in schools, so try to start with at least five or more.
For the planted aquarium, Loricariinae offers the genera Farlowella, Sturisoma, Sturisomatichthys, Hemiloricaria and Rineloricaria. Farlowella are extremely efficient algae eaters. As many aquarist has learned, they are so efficient that they usually clean a tank in a few days and then slowly starve to death over the next few months. These fish are better suited for the more advanced aquarist because they must be constantly watched for any signs of starvation. They are also not very aggressive fish and so should only be kept with much smaller loricariids and, even then, only in large tanks so that they are not out-competed for food. Sturisoma and Sturisomatichthys contain a number of very striking fish that are moderate algae eaters. That said, they make up in beauty what they lack as algae-eating machines. Since they can reach lengths of up to 12 inches, they are really only suitable for the largest tanks. Hemiloricaria and Rineloricaria are also moderate algae eaters and are suitable for medium to large sized tanks that have at least some unplanted sections.
The most suitable worker catfish in Ancistrinae are some members of the genus Ancistrus, better known as the bushynose plecos. A little caution is due here though because a few Ancistrus will damage plants and some species, such as A. ranunculus (L034), demand a strong current, cool water, and high oxygen. Experiment while the fish are in quarantine by placing a potted sword plant in the tank after the fish have had a few days to fill up on regular aquarium foods and vegetables. If after a week the plant is relatively undamaged, you have found a good candidate for the planted aquarium.
Now you have the good news. The loricariids above are the best choices for most planted tanks because they are interesting and earn their keep. All of the species above will also readily spawn in most planted tanks. Ancistrus and Hemiloricaria will usually only spawn if provided with sections of PVC pipe or bamboo (which is much more aesthetically pleasing) while all of the other species discussed to this point will spawn on the aquarium glass, driftwood, or broad plant leaves.
If you are after an Amano or Dutch style of planted tank, stick to the species above. If you are willing to leave some unplanted substrate (yes, it can be hard to do) so that there is room for caves and / or tangles of driftwood, the number of beautiful loricariid species that you can choose from really increases. These are plecos that will do little to clean up algae, but earn their keep simply because they look so good. This group includes the Peckoltia, dwarf Panaque species (such as L204), Baryancistrus (gold nuggets), smaller Pseudacanthicus (cactus plecos), Ctenoloricaria, Hypancistrus zebra, L047 (magnum orange seam), L128, Dekeyseria, L200, L235, and L260 (Queen Arabesque). While they may nibble at algae from time to time, these plecos are mainly carnivorous and will need bloodworms, brineshrimp, and the like. Most of these species appreciate a fair amount of current, so try to strike a balance between water movement and CO2 retention. I have found that deeply submersed powerheads work well by providing current without surface agitation.
The final group contains loricariids that have no business in any planted tank. These are plecos that eat plants, dig, have enough mass to flatten plantings, or will not thrive in the conditions necessary for a planted aquarium. Nearly all Hypostomus and Glyptopterichthys (sailfin plecos) get big and will eat plants. This also goes for the large Panaque species such as P. nigrolineatus. Loricaria, Planiloricaria and Spatuloricaria all like to bury themselves in the substrate alligator fashion, which wrecks havoc on the aquascaping. Acanthicus (Adonis or titan plecos) as well as large Scobinancistrus (L014) will bulldoze their way through the plants or just lay on top of the plants. Finally, avoid Chaetostoma (bulldog plecos), Parancistrus, Lasiancistrus, and their close relatives. Most of these species are found in rushing cool mountain streams and will never thrive in the warm, still water conditions necessary for a planted tank.
I would like to close this article with some basic information on pleco husbandry. Even a heavily planted tank with high output lighting will not produce enough algae to keep your loricariids satiated all the time. This is especially true for the worker plecos whose diet consists mainly of algae. Additional vegetable matter must be provided to these fish. There are several companies that make vegetable clips that stick to the side of the aquarium and these are perfect for use in heavily planted tanks since they are easily hidden from view. Every week, stick one clip on both ends of the aquarium. Change the types of vegetable matter offered every two weeks to make sure that the fish get a balanced diet. Typical offerings should include cucumber, zucchini, green beans, spinach, collared greens, and romaine lettuce. Feel free to experiment with other vegetables as well. If the vegetables are disappearing very fast (i.e. overnight), offer them twice a week. Do not offer vegetables all the time unless you are conditioning plecos for breeding or want lazy fish. Yes, plecos are lazy (or smart) enough that they will give up looking for algae if fresh veggies are always at hand.
Another very important factor in maintaining loricariids is the presence of driftwood in the aquarium. With few exceptions, loricariids need wood in their diet. In fact, the natural diet of the members of the genus Panaque is mainly wood. There are many theories as to why they need wood in their diet, but it appears safe to say that, at a minimum, that wood aids in digestion. Any tank that houses loricariids must have driftwood.
Choose your fish as carefully as you choose your plants. Are you looking for worker catfish to keep the algae down, or are you just looking for a fantastic "centerpiece" fish? The nice thing about loricariidae is that it offers both. With proper care, these fish can make fantastic additions to the planted aquarium.
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