Types of Pleco Catfish - Planted Tank Mates
Super red bristlenose pleco catfish (Ancistrus sp. "Super Red").

Types of Pleco Catfish

Overview

There are many types of pleco catfish that can join your freshwater community.  These suckermouth catfishes are often advertised as algae-eating “tank cleaners”, but can actually produce a lot of waste themselves.  It’s a common misconception to just buy them and let them eat the crap in your tank.  They do require a balanced diet and nutritious food must reach the bottom at night when they’re most active.  Besides their unique appearances, knowing the size of these nocturnal creatures is just as important.  Plecos are typically sold in stores as a 2” – 4” juvenile, but some can grow up to 18”!  Selecting the right type of pleco catfish will ensure it’s longevity and happiness, along with aiding your balanced aquarium.

Tank Setup

Plecos are a tropical species that prefer warm waters around 74° – 82°, so an aquarium heater is recommended.  Most are hardy and can accommodate a wide PH range of 6.5 – 7.5, but they can be sensitive to drastic changes.  They can produce a lot of waste, so have a good filtration system and check your nitrates regularly.

While they’re generally considered peaceful with community fish, they can be aggressive and territorial with their own species.  This is particularly true with males, so always keep a higher ratio of females such as 3:1.  Keep the bottom of your tank wide and open, and include hiding spaces for them to take relief.  Many local fish stores and online shops will have caves designed specifically for Plecos.  Be weary of your planted tank setup with many vertical elements that can limit their open swim space. 

Planted tank with many vertical tree brances
Planted Tank with Vertical Hardscape

When it comes to feeding, it’s important to remember that they’re not just bottom feeders that eat poop, algae and left over flakes.  They actually need a high quality diet with food that sinks to the bottom and doesn’t dissolve too quickly.  Feed in the evening and alternate with a variety of food such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, veggies and slow dissolving gel.  Plecos can actually starve to death if food does not reach to the bottom or gets eaten by others. 

Types of Plecos

Small Plecos 2-5” | 20-30 gallons 

Mega Clown Plecos have gorgeous body patterns and are only 3” in size.  This is one of the smallest plecos in the trade and they size up well with other nano community fish.  They can be shy at first, so having some mid to top-dwelling dither fish can make them feel more comfortable.  Contrary to what many think, they’re not good algae eaters so have that quality food rich in protein ready.  

Mega clown pleco catfish (Hypancistrus sp.).
Mega Clown Pleco

If you have a bigger wallet, check out the Zebra Pleco.  Their black and white stripes are extremely unique and they max out around 4” in size.  They’d make a great centerpiece fish if only they came out more frequently.  Naturally shy, they are mostly active at night and not aggressive eaters, so make sure food reaches the bottom for them.

Zebra pleco catfish on driftwood
Zebra Pleco

If you have a really big wallet, an alternative to Zebra Pleco is the Queen Arabesque Pleco.  They have similar black and white colors, but the Queen Arabesque Pleco has patterns that are much smaller and more wavy.  They do prefer some moderate water flow, so you can pair them up with some stronger swimming community fish like Rummynose Tetras or Pencilfish.

Queen arabesque pleco catfish on white gravel
Queen Arabesque Pleco
Medium Plecos 6” – 11” | 30 – 75 gallon

Bristlenose Pleco are known for their distinct appearance and are one of the most popular plecos.  To some people, the bristles on their face can look creepy, but others will see it as just awesome.  The bristles are more prominent in males, so if you want a more subtle appearance search for a female.  They can get up to 6” in size, so have at least a 30 gallon aquarium but the bigger tank, the better.

Bristlenose pleco catfish close up
Bristlenose Pleco

Green Phantom Plecos are another great alternative for medium size catfish.  They have a green, light brownish body with small yellow spots across the top region.  Similar to other plecos, they have 2 rows of teeth for attaching themselves to fast moving waters and for grazing.  Add different types of hardscapes like Dragon Stones or Cholla wood to mimic their environment.

Green phantom pleco on rock hardscape
Green Phantom Pleco

Gold Nugget Plecos are definitely an eye catcher.  Their black body is decorated with yellow spots and their dorsal fin and tail are highlighted yellow.  They can reach up to 9” – 10” in size, so aim for at least a 55 gallon tank.  Have that large cave ready as Golden Nugget Plecos can be shy.  Although you may want to see and enjoy them daily, it’s important to create a stress-free environment which includes cover space and relief.  Have those large caves ready.

Golden nugget pleco catfish on beige color gravel
Golden Nugget Pleco
Large Plecos 12” – 18” | 100 gallon plus

Common Plecos have a brownish body covered with decorative black botches.  In the wild, they can get up to 24” in size but will mostly stay around 18” in a contained environment.  They can grow fast, so unless you have a larger tank ready, don’t expect a small transition tank to last.  One of the most important things about large plecos is the commitment to their care.  Large Plecos are hardy fish and an invasive species, so never release them into the wild.  Only keep them if you can sustain a large tank and care for them 15 years plus.

Large common pleco catfish on gravel.
Common Pleco

Royal Plecos typically have red eyes, but several varieties such as the Dull Eyed Royal Plecos are an alternative you may find.  They have striking patterns across their body and can look like zebra plecos when juvenile.  The tips of their dorsal fin and tail are sometimes highlighted gold and their pectoral and pelvic fins can have a spotted pattern.

Large royal pleco catfish
Royal Pleco – available on Amazon

Leopard Sailfin Pleco have a tall dorsal fin to help them stabilize in fast moving waters.  Their yellow-brown body with black leopard-like patterns are an eye catcher in any aquarium.  They can be kept with fish like arowanas, but be sure their sizes are similar.  These larger plecos not only require a big aquarium but a good filtration system as well to accommodate their waste load.

Large leopard sailfin pleco with smaller community fish
Leopard Sailfin Pleco – available on Amazon

All Things Considered

Plecos make a great addition to any tank, but their size must be taken into consideration.  Never release them or any livestock into the wild.  Always reach out to local fish stores and other responsible fishkeepers if you can no longer care for them.  Contrary to being tank cleaners, they need a nutritious diet and can produce a high waste load.  While they’re generally considered peaceful and won’t eat smaller community fish, they can be territorial and aggressive towards other plecos and bottom dwellers.  The key to keeping them happy and healthy for years is a combination of a good diet, low-stress habitat and exceptional water quality.  Provide a good filtration system with adequate flow and have those caves ready!

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