The Whiptail Catfish: an Interesting Fish

Some fish are definitely beautiful. Other fish are decidedly ugly. Some fish are neither; instead they are definitely interesting looking. As much as beauty is the eye of the beholder, I think the many varieties of whiptail catfish fall in the “interesting looking” category.

These are flattened, very slim, armored catfish from South America. The top caudal fin ray grows into a long whip-like filament that gives them their common name. Overall they have a pre-historic appearance to them, looking a little like an crocodile. They belong to the family Loricariidae. In fact one of their genera, Loricaria, gives the family its name. A revision of the Loricaria genus in 1978, placed most of the aquarium species in the genus Rineloricaria.

There are many species under a handful of genera that are offered under the name whiptail catfish. I’m not sure of any of the species I’ve kept for many Rineloricaria look alike, with the possible exception of R. lanceolata which is very distinctive looking, with a mostly clear dorsal fin and a broad black stripe near its leading edge. Large whiptails are probably species of Sturisoma, Loricarichthys or Pseudohemiodon. A related genus is Farlowella, the twig catfish.

I became acquainted with whiptails on my first year of aquarium keeping. A friend of mine gave me a fish, which had been caught in a creek that runs behind my old high school. I immediately looked the fish up in my only fish book but I didn’t like what I read: “This is an extremely sensitive fish in an aquarium and if its ideal conditions are not met, its won’t live for long”. The rest of the information was fine. Scientific name of Loricaria parva, from south Brazil, harmless to other fish, only bred once by Carrol Friswold (no date given).

Either I had a tough fish, or I provided ideal conditions for the fish lived for quite a while. I lost it, along with many other fish, when I filled my pond with water that was straight from the tap (the city had increased the chlorine in the water). One thing I observed right from the beginning was that the fish was strictly nocturnal. It spent the whole day buried in sand, with only the eyes protruding. At night, I would switch off the room lights and leave a small reading light illuminating the tank. The fish would then shake off the sand and swim around the tank looking for food.

My second experience with whiptails came when I set up my large tank. Once I decided that the substrate was going to be sand, I remembered my first whiptail so I decided to keep them again. I bought a “pair” of whiptails. The person at the store made a point of picking a light-colored one and a dark-colored one because according to him that’s how you sex these fish. I didn’t believe it for a minute as I had read a few books by then and knew that the best way to sex them is to look at the fish from above. The females are wider at a point behind the pectoral fins, while the males are wider at a point inline with their eyes. Males also develop odontodes, bristles that cover the face and pectoral fins. Whether the person at the store really knew his stuff, or it was sheer luck I ended up with a pair. The male developed wonderful bristles all over his face and pectoral fins. The ones on the fins looked like Velcro hooks, so he became the only fish in the tank to have a name: Velcro.

Unlike my first whiptail, neither of them bury themselves in the sand. For many months Velcro had a favorite spot on a piece of driftwood. He would lay there motionless for most of the day. The female always lies close to an Amazon sword plant, usually radially aligned with the plant so she looks just like a dead leaf. As the plants grew in size and number, the whiptails became part of my invisible fish population (close to 20 fish that I hardly ever see). The only time I see them is when I do a water change. I always end up trying to suck one of them with the siphon hose thinking it is a dead leaf. At other times I find the long whip-like ray on the tail fin near some plants and I can follow it back to the owner, usually Velcro. His whip has reached close to three-quarters of his body length. Being in a mostly undisturbed large tank ensures that the whip doesn’t break.

I’m not sure what their favorite food is, though I like to make sure the catfish get their share of food. I feed sinking shrimp pellets, Spirulina wafers, frozen blood worms, and frozen brine shrimp, usually less than two hours before the lights go out. The sinking pellets and wafers last for quite a while, and I always ensure I overfeed a little with the frozen food to make sure the night crew finds something to eat when the lights go out. There is usually some algae on the front pane of the tank, though I have never seen any of the whiptails attached to the glass, nor have I seen them scraping the driftwood. My references indicate they eat algae, flakes, and pellets. At any rate, I’ve had them for five years now so they must be happy.

I don’t know if my pair ever bred, or even tried to. They are usually in the same corner of the tank, though never side by side. Their strictly nocturnal habits, their shyness, and the lush plant growth in the tank make them very difficult to observe. Though males are good fathers, I doubt that the young would survive the other sucker mouth catfish and the tetras. Besides Carrol Friswold, many people have bred whiptails in the aquarium, and I believe Birgit can provide the details.


Klee, Albert J. Enjoy Your Catfish, Harrison, New Jersey: The Pet Library Ltd.

Pereira, Raul. Como Cuidar do seu Aquário, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Edições de Ouro.

Riehl, Rüdiger, and Baensch, Hans A. (1986). Aquarium Atlas. Melle, Germany: MERGUS-Verlag.

Sands, David (1988). A Fishkeeper’s Guide to South American Catfish. Morris Plains, New Jersey: Salamander Books Ltd. (Tetra Press)?