Shane's World Right Reproduction Right The mysterious Red Lizard Catfish

Article © Sandor Tüllmann, uploaded December 23, 2009.

The Red whiptail catfish is probably the most mysterious catfish I've ever come across. This is not due to some special requirements or strange behavior, but simply because of its (hi)story. To better understand the comments on care and breeding given below, it is helpful to try first to summarize the strange story of this fish.

The origin of the Red whiptail
The origin of this beauty is the real mystery of this little red species. The following is a personal and thus subjective summary of information available in print(1) and also collected from a number of discussions with several other hobbyists. The only reliable information is that this species first appeared in the 1970s in the old German Democratic Republic (East Germany). And here already we are about it. It is sometimes claimed that the first fish were imported from South America, but others state this species is an artificially bred color form. Both versions of this story have their merits and inconsistencies.

If these fish were a bred color variant, the question around repeats cannot be answered properly. It really does appear improbable that such a color mutation has not appeared again in fish that are bred in the hundreds of thousands. And still, there is no case reported that in any whiptail catfish bred a red color variant ever - with the exception of one Sturisoma in the USA. Moreover it is not really clarified with any great conviction which species the origin of this red whiptail would be. Assuming instead that we are dealing with wild caught fish: why did this type of catfish neither show up in any import since nor could it be found by any group of hobbyists exploring ever distant places? While I occasionally come across rumors that this or that importer receiving them (and so, of course, give more weight to the rumor), I never actually saw the fish or pictures thereof with importers or the persons who claimed they would receive them. With this little excerpt of information I could gather up to now, it is hopefully clear why I came to the conclusion to just leave the origin of this fish a mystery until someone either manages to generate a “new”, purely bred strain of red whiptails or some of them show up at importers.

Figure 1: Semi adult specimen of the hybrid strain at approx. 7-8cm. Compared to Fig. 2, both “species” are almost identical.
Figure 1: Semi adult specimen of the hybrid strain at approx. 7-8cm.
Compared to Fig. 2, both “species” are almost identical.

Care and Breeding of the Red Whiptail
Having now established that we know next to nothing about the origin of the Red Whiptail, we can focus instead on care and breeding of them. And with this, we immediately hit upon the second complication. That is, not every Red Whiptail is a Red Whiptail. This problem came up some years ago with the hybridization of Red Whiptails (occasionally still referred to as Leliella sp. “Red”) with Rineloricaria lanceolata. While the Red Whiptail is considered to be harder to breed (see below), they willingly spawn with females of R. lanceolata. This has the additional “advantage” that R. lanceolata produces considerably more eggs than the Red Whiptail and, as stated, they are easier to spawn. Since the offspring of this hybridization are brightly red until they mature, commercial breeders of these fish turned to solely breeding hybrids. These hybrids adopt the markings of R. lanceolata when they mature and turn brownish while pure Red Whiptails remain brightly red without darker markings on the body or head. Since the pure Red Whiptail is now almost extinct and almost any “Red Whiptails” available in the standard trade are commercially bred, it should be reasonable to assume that fish from the LFS are in fact hybrids. The pure species is only preserved by some dedicated breeders and with quite some luck one might be able to obtain some from the members of the German group, IG-BSSW. At present I am unaware of any other reliable source of the pure species.

Figure 2: Semi adult specimen of the pure strain at approx. 7-8cm. Compared to Fig. 1, both “species” are almost identical.
Figure 2: Semi adult specimen of the pure strain at approx. 7-8cm.
Compared to Fig. 1, both “species” are almost identical.

In the past I had the opportunity to keep and breed both these “varieties” of the Red Whiptail and at least in my hands, both differed noticeably in behavior as well as, most obviously, in breeding them. I will therefore now summarize my experience with them, contrasting both “species”.

General care for both of these fish is pretty similar; they thrive in my standard tap water (pH around 7.0, conductivity of 350-400µS/cm). Temperatures around 25°C appeared to be fine, but a few degrees more or less pose no problem. They are not very active fish but prefer to lie or hang around. So they don't need too large a tank, just a standard 60cm tank will be sufficient. At least in my tanks, they differed in their preferred resting places. While the hybrids tend to prefer wood or just rest on the sand, the pure species preferred to hang around on leaves, be it Anubias or Vallisneria. Feeding is not difficult, but it appears that they are more carnivorous than the average whiptail species. While vegetables are refused altogether, feeding them a quality prepared food and occasionally some frozen food like red, black or white mosquito larvae or Artemia keeps them in superb condition; eventually resulting in the males growing the classic odontodes at the rim of the snout and the pectoral fin rays. In contrast to most other Rineloricaria species, there are little to no odontodes on the top of the head. Once also the females get gravid, attempts to breed them can start. They are cave spawners, but require caves open on both ends. In my tanks, the pure species preferred slightly elevated caves, while the hybrids usually bred in caves directly on the bottom of the tank. One can use caves made of clay or, as I used to do it, simple PVC pipe from the DIY store cut to an appropriate length. The caves should be rather long, I used pipes of 20cm for fish measuring 10cm TL, but quite thin, caves with an inner diameter of 16mm were preferred by my fish. Cave sizes apply to both “variants”, but as stated above, the caves for the pure species had to be attached to the side of the tank with suction cups, other caves were not accepted. Also, here is also a word of warning: be careful with tank mates. I had to learn the hard way that they also visit caves of other loricariid catfish and even smallish Ancistrus species going in there after them can push them in so strongly that the whiptail eventually dies. This is probably because the whiptails are rather clumsy when attempting to move backwards.

Figure 3: A pair of adult hybrids in the cave spawning. Note the faded color on the head and also the brownish markings, both signs of the hybrid strain.
Figure 3: A pair of adult hybrids in the cave spawning.
Note the faded color on the head and also the brownish markings, both signs of the hybrid strain.

Getting the hybrid species to spawn is not really a problem. Usually, they just “do it”, without any particular measures taken. In hard cases, a cool water change might get them to spawn, if necessary at all. The pure species in contrast was harder to get to spawn. In my hands, they only spawned during winter and usually required a cool water change with de-ionized water as trigger. Doing this water change the day before an upcoming low pressure front proved to be most promising. So if you don't get them to spawn, it might be worthwhile to have a closer look at the weather charts, like Corydoras breeders frequently do.

While the hybrid species is quite productive - one of the reasons to hybridize them in the first place - frequently laying 60-80 or even more eggs, large spawns of the pure species were only composed of 40 eggs, usually even less. Females in both “species” measured about 10cm TL, so this difference is not related to size of the female. The males tend to reliably guard the yellowish eggs in their caves until they hatch and that takes about 8 days at 25°C. In contrast to ancistrine loricariids, the brood care ends with hatching and the fry quickly spread around the tank. As the chances to raise them within the parental tank is virtually zero, I remove the cave including the male at the 3rd or 4th day into a small plastic container only equipped with an air stone. After hatching, the male in his cave is simply returned to the tank, but the fry is transferred to one of the fry rearing containers quite popular in Germany, called “Gerd-Kasten” which means “Gerd Box” in reference to their creator, Gerd Arndt (

With respect to raising the fry, both “species” differ significantly, at least in my hands, but also accounts of other aquarists who bred them have similar stories to tell. The hybrid species is rather easy to raise, only every other day the bottom of the container needs to be cleaned with a soft brush. Once the yolk is absorbed after 2-3 days, the fry can be solely fed on industrially prepared food, like finely ground tablets. If you then add some frozen Cyclops and Artemia to their diet, they will quickly grow to nice red specimens. Note that food with a high Astaxanthine content is required to have nicely red specimens, if this is not done right from the beginning, they will never become as red as they can be. To have a constant supply of food, I frequently added some dried leaves of stinging nettle, which disappeared after some days. I am uncertain however, if the fry actually feed on the nettle or just eat the microorganisms that degrade the leaves, but in the light of the adults refusing any vegetables, I tend towards the second possibility. Note that in the first days, they hardly search for food, so a little bit of water flow is helpful to constantly spread the food around the container. Applying this simple scheme, I frequently managed to raise batches with survival rates close to 100%. Within three to four months they reach a size of 5-6cm TL and are ready to be given to other interested aquarists.

Figure 4: Fry container with hybrid fry about two weeks old.
Figure 4: Fry container with hybrid fry about two weeks old.

With the pure species, the real trouble only begins once the fry have hatched. And while others might have different experiences, it was only the following recipe I succeeded raising a significant portion with. Once the fry are transferred to the container, the bottom of the container has to be cleaned at least twice a day to remove any bacterial growth on it. Even adding a layer of sand did not help here, only strict discipline in cleaning really did it. Absorption of the yolk requires about 2-3 days, and after that, they only accepted newly hatched, live brine shrimps for the first three to four weeks. Any other food was constantly rejected. This food was required at least twice a day, skipping that too often frequently results in massive loss of youngsters. Once this difficult period is over, they start to accept finely ground tablet food, where the more carnivorous types are preferred. They never accepted any purely vegetarian types of food, be it Spirulina algae, leaves of stinging nettle or more standard vegetables. Still, even when they started to accept tablet food, the strict cleaning procedure had to be kept up; usually I did it during the whole at least two months they spent in the container, becoming lazy usually again results in mass mortality of the magnificent young fish. Also these fish need to be fed with high amounts of Astaxanthine right from the beginning (feeding brine shrimp does that, of course), to achieve bright red fish. After about two months, they can then be safely transferred to a grow out tank where they grow to 5-6 cm before they can be given away. Also in this grow out tank, the hygiene should be higher than average, but extensive cleaning of the bottom is not necessary any more, especially if you provide them with some furniture or plants to hang out with. A well established filtration system is of course mandatory, as I found them comparatively sensitive to deteriorating water quality, at least more so than the hybrid species. With this regime, I frequently managed to raise around 75% of the fry.

As you can see, raising the fry of the two “species” requires quite different habits and levels of dedication. Specifically, according to my experience the pure species cannot be raised without feeding them live food in the first weeks. In this respect, it might then be a bit disappointing to see that in young stages both species do not really differ, but show almost the same, red coloration. It is only upon maturation that both variants become distinct and you can see whether you've really got some Red Whiptails or just some of the more abundant hybrids. It will also hopefully became obvious that the pure species is not easily bred but if you decide to do so, my experience tells me that you must be certain to have the spare time for this endeavor. If you don't: note that it is a real shame to see half of your hard raised fry die in a single night because you forgot the daily hygiene. Believe me, I have seen it. This also shows that the “real” Red Whiptail is unlikely to become a fish for the masses as the supply will never be as high as it would be required.

Figure 5: Fry container with fry of the pure strain, two or three weeks old. Compare with Fig. 4: no obvious differences among the two variants.
Figure 5: Fry container with fry of the pure strain,
two or three weeks old. Compare with Fig. 4: no obvious differences among the two variants.

I still hope that a sufficiently large group of aquarists manages to keep the pure species available for the hobby, as there is no other whiptail compared to this one, if you ever saw a tank with a decent group of brightly red whiptails hanging around in the plants!

(1) Evers, H.-G., Seidel, I., Wels Atlas Band 1, 2nd Edition, Mergus Verlag GmbH, 2005, Melle.

There is further information on this species on the Cat-eLog page.

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