Unique Freshwater Aquarium Catfish—Raphael Species
Let’s face it, the reason that people get into fishkeeping in the first place is because the fish at the pet store are beautiful. As we grow and our tastes in fish became more refined, there comes a time to experiment with more than the standard tetras and goldfish. You might feel that it's time to build a fully functioning community tank with fish of all shapes and sizes. It is at this point that we really begin to understand the interrelationship of all the different fish, plants, and even substrate bacteria in the aquarium. Now is the time to add fish, not only for their stunning visual presence, but for their functional value to the community ecosystem. To that end, I introduce the family Doradidae, the talking catfish.
Raphael Takes a Swim
Doradid Background—The Armored Catfish
Doradids are native to the tropical regions of South America, primarily Brazil, Peru, and the Guianas. They are found in the Amazon River and its tributaries as well as other localized areas of the basin. Their bottom-dwelling nature, and penchant for anything edible, makes them one of the most important parts of the natural cleanup crew in the region. They share the river with the red-bellied piranha, one of the dirtiest fish in the world a fact that also explains their unique physique. Doradids are recognized by a well-developed nuchal shield in front of the dorsal fin and bony scutes that project from their midlines. These features, coupled with the spines along the edges of the pectoral and dorsal fins, keep the fish safe from the large predators in the area. It is also suggested that the striped motif of some of these fish acts as a visual reminder to predators in the area of the painful spines.
There are currently 78 known species of doradids, only a hand full of which are suitable for keeping in a home aquarium, the others are simply too big. Three of these varieties are readily available in the fish trade, while others require a bit of luck or a good connection to get a hold of. Most large exporters focus on the more colorful striped Raphael (Platydoras armatulus) and spotted Raphael (Agamyxis pectinifrons) varieties because they are easier to sell than the other small, brown doradids that spend the majority of their time hiding. Occasionally, a stray chocolate Raphael is accidentally shipped with a group of striped Raphael.
So, These Catfish Talk?
To say that the Raphael catfish speak is a bit of a stretch, but they do make audible sounds, especially in protest when being lifted out of the water. The croaking sound is produced by the quick contraction of a muscle that runs between the rear of the skull and the anterior end of the swim bladder. When the muscle contracts, the swim bladder resonates creating a sound like the croaking of a small bullfrog. While some scientists speculate that these sounds are used like echolocation to determine the confines of the fish’s environment, others believe that it is used as a way to warn other doradids of danger in the area. Either way, this sound production is unique to the doradid family.
There is another sound producing mechanism that the family shares, this one involves locking the pectoral fins and grating the spines against the fin sockets. This behavior is most likely a way for the fish to scare off predators, as in addition to making the sound, it puts the razor-sharp pectorals in a position to do maximum damage. While these fish are relatively docile and good natured, even experienced handlers get sliced from time to time when handling them without gloves. This feature is also the reason that nets should never be used to catch a Raphael. They will get hopelessly tangled and have to be cut out of the net. It is best to use a clear plastic container to wrangle them.
The Catfish Barks!
While this video does a great job catching the sound that a Doridad makes when it is out of water, there is one major concern: a net is used to catch the fish. These fish have extremely spiky exteriors and can get caught in the mesh of the net. This entanglement can tear the net or hurt the fish. Instead of a net, you should always use a small plastic container to remove them from your tank.
You Said These Are Good Looking Fish?
As a small aquarium catfish, rarely reaching more than eight inches in length, the doradid spends a great deal of its life cruising the riverbed in search of food. It is a fairly aerodynamic fish with a flattened body and streamlined head, much like a plecostomus. Viewed from the top, it is teardrop shaped from the rounded mouth to the tip of the vertical tail. The talking catfish has three pairs of barbels, only missing the nasal bars, an adipose fin and a spined dorsal fin with anywhere from four to six individual rays. The major identifying factor, other than the distinctive skin patterning, is the row of scutes that run down the lateral line of the fish. In addition to the scutes, talking catfish also have sharp edges on their pectoral fins. The head is large and heavily boned with evenly spaced, small eyes. The underbelly is soft and smooth to facilitate frictionless movement across the sandy bottom of the Amazon.
The three major aquarium doradids: striped, spotted and chocolate Raphaels, are fundamentally similar with the only differences being in the color of their skin (an adaptation that is directly related to the portion of the Amazon which it inhabits). Striped Raphaels have white underbellies, a horizontal white stripe starting just above and behind the eyes and running the length of the body along the midline all the way through the tip of the tail. There is also a white stripe at the base of the dorsal fin and on the exterior of each pectoral and the adipose fin. Spotted Raphaels have completely black skin covered in pinhead to pea sized white spots. At the far end of both the adipose fin and the tail, there is also a white vertical stripe. Chocolate Raphaels are very similar in appearance to striped Raphaels except that their stripes are tinted a brownish yellow, and the top of their heads exhibit a paisley type patterning. Chocolates are usually accidentally shipped in with the striped Raphaels and almost never seen for sale on their own. A discerning eye (or an in with the local fish dealer) can net you one of these rarer specimens.
The scutes and bony plates of the Raphael give it an almost prehistoric look. The striking physical appearance of these fish is made even more impressive when they are seen swimming through the tank. They glide in a style similar to sharks and rays, usually just above the substrate. Unlike those fish, they sometimes swim in schools, which is quite spectacular.
So They Must Be Hard to Manage, Right?
With the versatility of the Raphael, it is surprising that more aquarists haven’t tried their hands with them. They are well suited for almost any freshwater home aquarium set up, thriving in well-mannered community tanks as well as with some of the most aggressive types of fish (remember they are native to waters inhabited by the red-bellied piranha). The thorny nature of the Raphael’s covering prevents it from becoming a meal to larger South American Cichlids like the Red Devil and Oscar.
Raphaels are right at home in a community tank as they are very peaceful fish that tend to keep to themselves and scurry about near the bottom of the tank. They may have problems with larger plecos when they are first introduced to the tank, not because Raphaels are aggressive, but because plecos are territorial and will try to push the Raphaels out. Of course, Raphaels are omnivorous catfish and this means that fish keepers need to remember the number-one rule about fish compatibility; if a fish is small enough to fit in another fish’s mouth, that is usually where it will end up. So guppy and breeding tanks are no-nos for the Raphael.
One of the knocks on Raphaels is that they are shy fish, but this really isn’t true. There are two reasons that they are misrepresented in this way. First, they are low-light or nocturnal fish and second, aquarists often try to keep them as individual fish in a community tank. This double whammy makes a single Raphael much more hesitant in leaving its safety zone. These smaller doradids are naturally a community fish, preferring to spend time in groups of four to six individuals. A single specimen may come out during the evening, after the lights are off, and roam for food when the other fish are less active whereas a small group is more likely to cruise around when the lights are on. The good news is that striped, spotted and chocolate Raphaels will school together so it is possible to acquire three different looks without having to purchase 18 fish.
Is My Tank Ready for Talking Catfish?
Knowing that talking catfish are native to the tropical rivers of South America, it should be no surprise that they thrive in aquariums that are kept between 72 and 86 degrees. They do well in tanks with pH values between 6.5 and 7.5 but can survive all the way up to 8.2 making them one of the few bottom feeders that can be kept with African Cichlids. Water hardness is best kept in the slightly hard range at 4 to 18 ppm. As for tank size, this is a tough call. To handle a group of at least six Raphaels the tank should be at least 36 inches long and 24 inches wide. Remember, these are bottom dwellers and the surface area of the aquarium floor is their preferred stomping ground. If you are planning on trying to keep a single fish, then a standard ten-gallon tank is acceptable provided there are no other bottom feeders.
While some experts claim that these catfish are carnivores, the truth is they prefer meaty foods but in a pinch will eat anything that is available. Their preferred diet can include sinking catfish pellets, flake food, aquatic snails (of which they are particularly fond) and bloodworms.
Preparing Your Tank for an Armored Catfish
Although Raphaels are hardy fish that can survive in a large range of environments, there are a few things that you can do to make your aquarium talking cat-friendly. Their natural environment includes a sandy bottom devoid of sharp rock. Your tank should have a substrate that the talking cat can bury itself in. Sharp edges on a larger substrate run the risk of cutting the underbelly of the catfish and inviting serious infections. Another must-have for Raphaels is an adequate hiding area. Heavily planted tanks will not only provide plentiful hiding places for your cat; they also will promote more fish activity. The Raphaels are a low-light fish and prefer environments where their barbel senses put them at an advantage.
One of the most dangerous places in a tank for a Raphael is the interior of resin decorations. These areas are often too tight for the fish to escape from. Raphaels will wiggle themselves forward into any area that is available, including the underside hollows of tank decorations. If you haven’t seen your talking cat in a while it may have holed up in one of these dead spaces in the tank. To prevent this from happening, either take the decorations out of the tank or fill in or cover the empty space with a sturdy, waterproof tape or non-toxic resin. As a replacement, a good makeshift cave can be made from a half-circle of six-inch diameter PVC pipe. This size is large enough that the cat won’t become stuck even as an adult. You can cover the outside of the pipe with moss or just hide it behind some decorative plants if it is too distracting.
The only other thing that will readily kill off a Raphael in an otherwise normal tank is the food situation. These fish will literally eat themselves to death if given the opportunity; they have no natural hunger depressant mechanism. If you accidentally overfeed your tank, the catfish will gobble every last bit down until the lining of its stomach bursts. On the other end of the spectrum, if you fail to put enough food in, the catfish won’t get anything to eat and will starve to death. The best way to confront this feeding dilemma is to feed the tank right before you turn out the lights. Let the other fish eat for a couple of minutes and then shut the lights off and allow the rest of the food to settle to the bottom where the Raphaels will eagerly wolf it down.
Overall, doradids are a fantastic addition to any aquarium. Housed in an appropriate size aquarium and fed properly, they can live for up to 20 years. They don’t hassle tank mates, dig up plants or require a unique tank set up, but they do keep the bottom of the tank free from debris and add a visually stunning look to the bottom of the tank.