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Upside Down Catfish

Scientific Name: Synodontis nigriventris
Family: Mochokidae

About the Upside Down Catfish

Species Type: Freshwater Fish
Category: Catfish

Care Level: Easy. Does well in a slightly more narrow range of water parameters and shouldn't be used to cycle an aquarium. Will eat most prepared foods. May have some specific care requirements in terms of particular water parameters, social behaviors, food items etc.

Origin: Africa, middle Congo River basin; reports of occurrences outside the Congo basin are questionable. Found in areas of dense vegetation along the banks of streams and rivers.

Compatibility/Temperament: Peaceful, well suited to community tanks of basically any small to medium-sized peaceful fish. Requires a small group, no less than 3 or 4 but in larger tanks the group size can be increased; similar to the corys, this fish shoals in large numbers.


The upside-down catfish is aptly named for its upside down swimming posture. They are a popular species that apparently have been admired for countless centuries, as their images have been found in ancient Egyptian art. This species might be confused with S. contractus, but the latter's head, mouth and eyes are larger by comparison.

The Mochokidae, a family in the Siluriformes, currently has nine genera with approximately 200 described species, all occurring in Africa. They have large eyes, a large adipose fin, a forked tail, and three pairs of barbels. The first ray of the dorsal and pectoral fins is a spine that can be locked into position. The subject species has a light brown coloured body and is covered with dark brown blotches of various sizes. Interestingly, the underside of the body is darker hued, which is the opposite of fish that swim with their belly downwards. This reverse coloration serves to camouflage them when they swim at the surface of the water, which they frequently do to feed.

A well-planted tank is ideal, preferably using broad-leafed plants (Anubias is native to their habitat), and there should be several chunks of bogwood and/or larger branches as they like to browse the undersides of leaves and wood. It is quite normal for this fish to rest on the underside of rocks, leaves, and driftwood. The substrate should be of sand or fine gravel. Floating plants should always be included; this species is nocturnal, feeding mainly at night, and floating plants will provide shade. The filter flow should be minimal to slightly moderate.

Breeding: There have been a limited number of successful spawnings in an aquarium. Females are larger, are paler in coloration as they age, and have a plumper more rounded body, particularly when ready to spawn. Preparation with live foods, and softening the water to mimic spring rains will increase the odds for success. An overturned clay flowerpot or two, or even some PVC pipe, may be offered as a possible spawning location. Parents may be left in the tank after spawning, as they will tend to the brood. The eggs hatch in approximately two days, and the fry will feed off the yolk sac, which they carry for four days. Upon the fourth day, they will begin eating freshly hatched brine shrimp. In two months the fry will begin swimming in the characteristic upside down fashion of adults.

This fish spends up to 90% of its time in the inverted position and there have been several scientific studies conducted regarding its postural control. It was discovered that neither the swim bladder or inner ear mechanics (used for balance) were different to those in other fish. Changes in gravity also appear not to affect the fish. However, what was found, is that the relationship between the central nervous system and the inner ear organ is somewhat unique, and has a self-regulating capacity which essentially “resets” whenever the fish tips beyond 22°, allowing the fish to remain stable. [Matt Ford, Seriously Fish]

This species was described in 1936 by L. David. The genus [originally erected by G. Cuvier in 1816 as a sub-genus of Pimelodus] name derives from the Greek syn [= together] and odontos [= tooth] in reference to the closely-spaced lower jaw teeth. The species epithet is Latin [literally meaning dark belly] and refers to the reversed counter-shading.


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Upside Down Catfish Diet

In nature this fish feeds primarily on insects and insect larvae (especially mosquito) at the surface of the water, along with crustaceans and plant matter; they may graze on algae to supplement their diet. In the aquarium they accept most prepared foods, but unlike other catfish, this one feeds from the surface and also grazes the underside of wood and plant leaves. Fresh vegetables such as shelled peas, yams, squash; live and frozen shrimp, worms.


Attains almost 4 inches.

Minimum Tank Suggestion

30-inch length

Ideal water parameters for Upside Down Catfish

Soft (5-12 dGH), acidic to slightly basic (pH 6-7.5), temperature 22-28C/72-82F.

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