Pictus Catfish: Species Profile

Category: Catfish

Common Names: Pictus Catfish

Scientific Name: Pimelodus pictus

Family: Pimelodidae

Minimum Tank Size: 75 Gallons

Care Level: Easy

Temperament: Peaceful

Max Size: 4 Inches

Temperature: 72-80 F

pH: 6.0-8.0

Tank Level: Bottom

Colors: Black, Tan, Yellow

Diet: Omnivore

Breeding: Easy

By Claire H. [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Pictus Catfish Species Overview

The pictus catfish, also known as pimelodus pictus, is a small freshwater catfish native to South America, specifically the Amazon. They are members of the pimelodidae family, also known as long-whiskered catfish, which contains over 30 species.

Pictus catfish are popular among aquarium owners and are suitable for beginners as they do not require much upkeep, though they need a larger tank. They are fast, active swimmers making them a fun addition to any aquarium.

Pictus Catfish Appearance

Like most pimelodidae, pictus catfish have long, protruding barbels at their front end. These barbels look like whiskers but can grow as long as the length of their body and can help the fish taste and smell.

The pictus catfish is grayish or silver in color, with black, leopard-like spots and sometimes stripes all over its body. They are sometimes confused with the Angelica Catfish, which is an African catfish that is black with white spots.

Although they do not have scales, pictus catfish have sharp spines along their pectoral and dorsal fins, which must be handled with caution as they can cut through bags, get caught in nets, and even pierce the skin.

The spines along the dorsal fin are also venomous, causing bee-sting-like pain if touched. They use this as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from predators, such as larger fish or birds.

While the young pictus catfish sold in pet stores are only a couple of inches long, they can reach 4-6 inches when fully mature. They can do well in medium aquariums; however, because they are incredibly active and need lots of room to explore, the recommended size is 50-75 gallons.

The Origins of the Pictus Catfish

First documented by Franz Steindachner in 1876, the pictus catfish was recorded living in the warm waters of Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, and most prominently, the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers.

In their natural habitat, pictus catfish reside in warm, shallow waters with a muddy or sandy bottom. They are used to strong currents such as that of a river and usually swim in schools or shoals, despite being capable of surviving on their own.

The rivers where pictus catfish inhabit naturally are filled with plant life. They are happiest in densely planted waters and tend to hide in driftwood, caves, and rock piles. Pictus catfish enjoy making their way through heavy vegetation, quickly navigating their way with their long barbels.

The water temperature fluctuates between 77 F-86 F throughout the year, though the Pictus can adapt to slightly lower and higher temperatures for brief periods. The PH can vary but is generally between 7.0-7.5.

These omnivorous scavengers will eat almost anything they come across, including plants, insects, small fish, crustaceans, and veggies. Like most catfish, they are nocturnal bottom feeders, and most of their meals are found at the bottom of the river during the night.

Pictus Catfish Swimming in Front of Plants

Pictus Catfish Size

Adult Pictus usually get between 3-5 inches in length in captivity. However, when kept in a large group in huge aquariums, they can sometimes grow to six inches. Remember, too small of a tank will stunt a fish’s growth and cause numerous health issues and, eventually, death.

Pictus catfish generally reach their total growth by 8-12 months. How big they get largely depends on their quality of life and the aquarium size. The bigger the tank, the happier the fish, although the biggest recorded pictus catfish have been wild-caught so far.

When fully mature, female pictus catfish can sometimes be slightly larger than the males and rounder in appearance. However, it is not always obvious, and it can be tough to determine the sex of these catfish.

Lifespan of a Pictus Catfish

Many things factor into the longevity of a pictus catfish, including tank size, diet, tank mates, and disease control. A healthy, happy Pictus can live 8-10 years, if not more.

How To Identify Male and Female Pictus Catfish

Male and female pictus catfish are more or less identical on the outside, with the same silvery color, black spots, and long barbels. They have no external sex organs or other noticeable differences. The only distinguishing characteristic is that females are slightly larger than males of the same age.

The Temperament of Pictus Catfish

Pictus catfish are very active, outgoing fish, constantly swimming and exploring their environment. They are primarily nocturnal; however, if you have a shaded or low-light aquarium, you will likely see them buzzing about the tank during the day.

Pictus catfish are classified as semi-aggressive tropical fish, mainly because they will eat anything they can fit in their mouth—including other fish. In large aquariums with other similarly sized fish, pictus catfish are pretty peaceful.

While they are fully capable of living happily on their own, pictus catfish also enjoy living with a school or shoal. If you plan to keep multiple Pictus in an aquarium, you will need a large tank with lots of open swimming space.

Tank Parameters for Pictus Catfish

As with most fish, the ideal environment for pictus catfish is replicating their natural habitat as closely as possible. In this instance, a river with a strong current, heavy plant life, and sandy or muddy substrate. Temperature and PH levels should be monitored carefully to avoid issues.

Aquarium Size

Pictus catfish do well in 55-75 gallon aquariums. Long-style aquariums are best for this fish, as they spend most of their time near the bottom of the tank and need lots of room to explore. If you plan to keep a school of pictus catfish, a group of 3-5 fish, 150 gallons is ideal.

Keep in mind that, as with any fish, keeping a pictus catfish in too small of a tank can lead to stress, stunted growth, and a slew of serious health issues. When in doubt, always go bigger.

Water Specifications

To mimic the warm waters of the Amazon River, water temperatures should be between 75°F-82°F. A degree or two difference in either direction is acceptable, as pictus catfish can adapt accordingly.

PH levels should be neutral, between 7.0-7.5, though sometimes as low as 6.5 is acceptable. In the wild, pictus catfish reside in soft water but are also fine with hard water within dGH range of 3-15.

Aquarium Setup

When replicating a pictus catfish’s natural habitat, what goes in the water is almost as important as the water itself. Dense plant life, sandy substrate, strong currents, and places to hide are all vital to enriching the lives of your fish.


Pictus catfish are accustomed to the sand or fine gravel found along the bottom of the river bed. Since they spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank, finding the proper substrate is vital.

Aquarium sand is the best option for your pictus catfish. If sand is not available, small, smooth pebbles will suffice. Avoid using jagged or sharp gravel, as this can cause irritation or injury to this scaleless fish.

Sand can be layered 3-5 inches thick along the bottom of the aquarium and is ideal for burying plants. It is also gentle enough that Pictus can run its barbels along the bottom of the tank while scavenging for food without the risk of injury or getting stuck.


While pictus catfish are active swimmers, they also like to have places to hide and feel safe when they are not zipping around. In the wild, they often tuck themselves away in rock piles, driftwood, and dense plants.

Treated driftwood is an excellent addition to your tank and will provide pictus catfish with a place they can feel safe and secure when not out exploring. River rocks or other cave-like ornaments are also great options. Just be sure to avoid any sharp, jagged rocks that could injure your fish.


Since pictus catfish are primarily nocturnal, you want to keep their tank lighting dim. Low lighting will ensure your fish stays healthy and content.


Because pictus catfish are scavenging fish, they tend to defecate often. Because of this, they need frequent water changes and a strong filter. Over-the-back hanging filters are best, as their strong current is ideal for this strong swimming fish.

Be sure you have the proper size filter for your tank and don’t be afraid to go bigger. You can also consider bubblers or air stones to aerate the tank even more. You can get certain bubbling ornaments that double as both hiding area and bubbler.


To replicate South America’s warm, tropical waters, you will need a heating system in your tank to keep the temperature up. Ideally, the temperature of your tank should be between 75°F-80°F, although a bit of leeway in either direction is acceptable.

In large aquariums, you will likely need a powerful heating system or multiple heaters to distribute the temperature throughout the tank properly. Under-gravel heaters may be a good option, as the pictus catfish spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank.

Plants for Pictus Catfish Tank

Live plants are a must-have for a pictus catfish tank, and there are a variety of tropical plants to choose from. In the wild, they are used to navigating dense vegetation. Many of the options available are easy to care for and great for beginners, so you don’t need to stress when picking out the perfect plants.

Java Moss

Native to Southeast Asia, java moss is a commonly used aquarium plant for beginner aquarists. These bryophytes grow densely along rocks and driftwood and come in many shades of green. It is easy to propagate and can thrive in various water conditions with minimal care.

Java moss can grow in or out of the water and is commonly found along the river bed or on the roots of trees in moist areas. It grows thick, like a carpet, but is usually only 3-4 inches tall. It is the perfect plant to give your tank a natural feel and tropical aesthetic.

Amazon Swords

One of the most popular plants for aquarium owners everywhere, the Amazon sword has many benefits and is easy to care for. It can be partially or fully submersed and is a very hardy plant, doing best in PH levels between 6.5-7.5.

Amazon swords can help minimize ammonia and nitrate levels, keeping your tank clean because they use organic waste and debris to grow. These plants have leaves of 10-12 inches on average but can reach a total height of 20 inches.


Semi-submersible anubias is a flowering plant native to Africa. They grow in rivers, marshes, and streams and generally prefer shaded areas. They are prevalent in beginner aquariums, requiring minimal care and lighting.

Anubias is adaptable to various water conditions and is a very hardy plant. It comes in a dwarf form, which can be an excellent option to decorate the bottom of your tank for pictus catfish. A fully grown anumbias usually will grow to 7-8 inches, whereas a dwarf may only get 3-4 inches tall.

Floating Hornwort

Hornwort, also known as coons tail, is native to all continents except Antarctica. It is considered a harmful weed in some areas due to its invasive nature. It is highly adaptable and offers many benefits to tropical aquariums.

Floating hornwort is a hornwort plant that has not taken root and instead flows freely in the water. This feature can be helpful in pictus catfish tanks, as the floating Hornworth can provide partial shade in your tank. This bright green plant grows in dense clumps, creating beautiful foliage for your aquarium.

Pictus Catfish Diet

As previously mentioned, pictus catfish are scavengers and omnivores and, thus, will eat just about anything. They are very food motivated and will become very excited at meal time. Their diet should primarily consist of a high-quality sinking pellet or frozen food.

In the wild, pictus catfish will feed on insects, plants, snails, algae, and smaller fish. Often Pictus will help clean the algae from your tank. However, this is often a catch-22 since the waste they produce makes the tank dirty in other ways.

Group of Pictus Catfish Swimming in Front of Plants

Breeding Pictus Catfish

Unfortunately, it is not an easy task to get pictus catfish to breed. The process is highly complex and requires many tools to make it happen. It is nearly impossible to breed pictus catfish in a home aquarium.

As we’ve previously mentioned, telling male and female Pictus apart is very challenging, so there’s no way to know if you simultaneously have a male and female in the same tank. Additionally, even the largest home aquariums are too small to use as a breeding ground.

There is little known about the natural breeding of pictus catfish, and it is getting harder and harder to research with the shrinking of their natural habitat. In captivity, the breeding process is time sensitive and delicate, and once the eggs are fertilized, they are kept in an incubator.

Common Diseases

Pictus catfish can fall prey to many different ailments, but they are most susceptible to surface diseases because they have no scales. Ick (short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) and fungal infections are the most common.


One of the most commonly seen diseases in tropical fish is Ick. It is easily recognized by slimy, white patches along the body, fins, and gills. It is also called white-spot disease, as the spots sometimes look like white polka dots.

Ick is highly contagious, and if one fish in the aquarium gets it, it is highly likely to spread throughout the tank. Ick is often the result of introducing a new fish into the tank.

Treating the entire tank is the best way to get rid of Ick. Likewise, keeping the water quality of your tank up to par is the best way to prevent Ick. Always quarantine new fish for 14 days before placing them in your tank, and clean your tank regularly to avoid bacteria buildup.

Fungal Infections

Certain fungal infections can have similar symptoms to the white spots you see with Ick. These infections can be white or green and anything in between. However, fungal spots usually are more 3D, with a fuzzy, cotton-like appearance.

Infected fish should be removed from the tank as soon as possible to prevent the disease from spreading. You should also thoroughly clean your aquarium with at least a 50% water change. Change your filter, scrub the glass, and remove anything that might hold onto bacteria.

Fungal infections are usually caused by improper water quality, nutrient deficiency, or injury. Regardless, fungal infections can typically be cured with an antibiotic.

Tank Mates for Pictus Catfish

Pictus catfish is a fairly peaceable fish, so long as it is surrounded by similarly sized tank mates. Anything smaller than themselves could be considered food. However, many aquarium owners add fast-swimming schooling fish to Pictus tanks, as they are less likely to be targeted.

Other catfish and bottom feeders, such as plecostomus, are great tank mates for the pictus catfish. They are also commonly housed with rainbow sharks, bala sharks, barbs, and cichlids. Certain species of mollies or platys are also compatible; just be aware of their size.