Are you looking for a hardy, easy to care for freshwater fish that also doubles as part of the aquarium’s clean-up crew? Then check out my all-time favorite bottom dwelling-catfish, the Bristlenose Plecostomus! They look fierce, with their bushy tentacles and armored body plates, but they’re an ideal algae eater for peaceful community tanks!
Quick Facts About Bristlenose Plecostomus
Common Name (species)
Bristlenose Plecostomus, Bushynose Catfish, Brushmouth Pleco Fish (multiple Ancistrus species)
Guiana Shield region in South America
3 to 6 inches in length
Diet and Feeding
Omnivore but primarily feeds on biofilm, algae and plant materials. Scavenger will readily consume leftover food scraps and live treats such as brine shrimp
Nocturnal and active at night
Peaceful, mellow, shy; male fish are territorial and may fight with each other if there’s not enough room in the tank
Minimum Tank Size
25-30 gallons per male; allow an additional 10-gallons per female for a group
60 to 80°F
6 to 10 KH
6.5 to 7.5
Prefers very clean water with a moderate to high flow rate along the bottom of the tank
Egglayer; male protects and cares for the eggs until they hatch
Works well in communities with non-aggressive fish, but may also thrive when kept with smaller semi-aggressive species like barbs and South American cichlids. Avoid keeping with large, aggressive species like Common plecos.
OK for Planted Tanks?
Ideal for planted tanks but will snack on them, so provide a mix of fast-growing treats like hornwort and slower-growers like Amazon Sword
Introduction to the Bushynose Pleco
If you’re looking for a fish that’s friendly, functional and looks really weird, then you should consider the Bristlenose Plecostomus! One of the most popular algae eaters in the trade, these suckermouth catfish are also known as the Bushy Nose or Brushmouth Pleco for the tentacles sprouting from their heads.
Bristlenose catfish have earned their popularity for several reasons:
- They’re easy to care for and tolerate a wide range of conditions, making them ideal for both novice and experienced fishkeepers.
- Bristle’s are peaceful bottom dwellers who get along well with many types of tank mates, and since they rarely grow larger than 5-inches they’re an ideal fit for community tank’s 25-gallons and up.
- They’re primarily herbivores who feed on problematic aquarium algae and plant materials, but as scavengers, they’ll also clean up scraps leftover from the rest of your aquatic community.
- They are one of the few species of plecostomus that breed freely and easily in captivity, so if you’d like to raise a tank of fry this would be a great option for a single species tank!
Types Of Bristlenose Catfish
How many types of bushynose are there, and does it matter which species you end up buying? This is where things can get a bit confusing, since stores sell them under a variety of names. There’s actually more than 70 unique species of wild “bristlenose” catfish, and the list keeps growing:
- The first species, Ancistrus cirrhosus, was identified in 1836, and many pet stores still use this (usually incorrect) scientific name as a generic name for all their bushynose plecos.
- Aquatic specialty shops typically prefer to use the more accurate terms “Ancistrus species” or “Ancistrus cf cirrhosus” for their bristlenose fish tanks, since the true species or hybrid mix is usually unknown.
- Captive bred fish are nearly all hybrid species, so it’s often impossible to identify which you have unless they were harvested from the wild and you know the exact location they were collected from.
- Some popular domesticated varieties or morphs include the Common, Albino, Calico, Starlight, Lemon, Super Red, Blue Eye and Longfin bristlenose.
The good news is it doesn’t really matter which type of bushynose you buy. There’s little danger that you’ll accidentally end up with an aggressive mimic, as in the case with the Spotted Raphael catfish or Rubber Lip pleco. Bristlenose catfish are all peaceful species, with similar dietary and care requirements in your tank.
Natural History And Habitat
Species of bristlenose are found in shallow, fast-moving rivers and streams across an incredibly broad range of tropical South America. They live along the bottom of the waterways, hiding in piles of wood as they feed on biofilm, algae, vegetation and the occasional fish egg or insect treat.
Bristle’s were originally discovered in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, but we’ve since found many related species widely distributed within a 270 million hectare region known as the Guiana Shield. Populations may be found in parts of Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Panama, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
While there are at least 76 distinct species of bristlenose, many of these populations have overlapping ranges:
- It’s not unusual for wild catfish to freely interbreed and produce hybrid offspring.
- Unlike many naturally-occurring hybrids (like the mule, a horse-donkey mix), hybrid bushynose catfish are usually fertile and not sterile.
- This is another reason it’s very hard to identify specific species of bristlenose catfish; even wild-caught fish may be a hybrid of two or more species!
Bristlenose Pleco Size And Appearance
Bristlenose catfish average between 3 and 5 inches in length at maturity, and rarely grow longer than 6-inches. This makes them ideal for smaller and mid-sized aquariums, unlike the larger, unrelated Common Pleco (Hypostomus plecostomus), which may exceed 2-feet in length!
As members of the Loricariidae or armored catfish family, they don’t have scales but are instead covered in thick, boney plates. They have a spiny dorsal fin that usually lies flat along their backs, but stands upright when they are alert. Their strong pectoral and abdominal fins help them navigate along the bottom of the tank:
- Their heads are wider, and their bodies are thicker, flatter and shorter than the Common Pleco, and they have a laterally located suckermouth with wider lips than most other plecos.
- They’re named for the facial “bristles” or fleshy protuberances thatsprout around their snout, suckermouth and sometimes their head at maturity.
- Longfin varieties usually have a fancier caudal fin known as a “veiltail,” and some highly-bred lines may also have extended dorsal, pectoral, and abdominal fins as well. This trait is especially common in the rarer Albino and Super Red lines.
Color Morphs And Patterns
Bushynose catfish are available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Common bristlenose are usually a mix of black, brown, grey or olive base colors with paler white or orange/yellow patches or spots. These patterns help camouflage fish in the wild, and change as they mature. Rarer varieties and morphs include:
- Starlight or Brilliant catfish usually have a blue-black base color covered with a regular pattern of small white or yellow spots or “stars”.
- Albino Bristlenose have a pale pink to yellow base color and subtle spots.
- Lemon’s come in a range of pale to deep yellow hues.
- Super Red lines range from pale orange to a vivid crimson.
- Calico Bristlenose have darker markings over a paler pink, red/orange, or yellow base color, and their pale spots may be missing or less distinct.
Gender Differences: Male VS Female Bristlenose Catfish
It’s very easy to spot the differences between male and female fish once they’ve reached maturity around their first birthday. Male fish grow faster than females and are usually noticeably larger by 6 months of age. Their tentacle development is the key way to spot male vs female bristlenose catfish, however:
- Male bristlenose develop prominent, fleshy protuberances around their snout, mouth, and face, and sometimes even on their heads.
- Female fish may also sprout small tentacles, but they are limited in size and length and never extend beyond the region around their snout. Some female bristlenose never develop any noticeable tentacles at all.
- Male bristlenose may also have tiny spines on their pectoral or dorsal fins, but the number and location of the spines vary across the different species.
Bristlenose Catfish Lifespan
These catfish usually survive in aquariums for about 12 years on average. With diligent care, you can expect to have your bristlenose pleco for at least a decade!
Behavior and Temperament
Bushynose plecos are mostly nocturnal and spend the daylight hours hiding in driftwood caves and feeding on biofilm. They are peaceful community species, and unlike many plecos, they won’t hunt and eat your smaller fish! But they are catfish and may opportunistically snack on smaller invertebrates or fry.
Males establish and defend a territory against other male catfish, so it’s best to avoid keeping multiple males together unless you have a long aquarium with plenty of room. You can keep a single catfish or a mixed-gender group in your community tank.
How to Care for Your Bristlenose Catfish
It’s not hard to set up the ideal habitat for these funny-looking but friendly catfish! Let’s take a look at the care requirements for the bristlenose pleco:
Bristlenose Tank Set-up and Habitat Requirements
What kind of aquarium set-up do these tentacled plecos need to thrive?
These small plecos do well in tanks 25-gallons and up. As bottom dwellers, bristlenose prefer horizontally-oriented tanks rather than tall or portrait-style aquariums. If you’re buying a standard size aquarium, consider getting a long breeder tank for your pleco community.
It’s best to use a soft substrate in a bristlenose tank, rather than sharp or harsh gravels. Using aquarium sand, soil or fine gravel prevents injury to your fish’s abdomen or fins. For breeding set-ups and single-species tanks, you can skip using substrate entirely if you want to make your maintenance really easy, but you may have to skip having live plants (or keep them in pots).
Water and Temperature Parameters
Bristlenose catfish are hardy and tolerate a wide range of temperatures. They prefer water from 60 to 80°F, so you may not need a heater for your tank, and a pH range from 6.5 to 7.5. They are not especially sensitive to your water hardness and do best at 6 to 10 KH.
Filtration, Aeration and Lighting
Bristlenose catfish prefer well filtered and very clean water with a moderate to high rate of flow along the bottom of their tank. Canister filters are ideal for pleco tanks, but HOB filters may suffice in smaller aquariums. They are nocturnal fish and prefer low light or heavily shaded areas of your tank during the day.
If you’re using a robust filtration system you may not need an airstone for your pleco tank, but it can’t hurt to use one, either. Some bristlenose can store oxygen in their stomachs for up to a day, and may be able to survive low-oxygen conditions, but other fish may suffer when exposed to hypoxic zones in your tank.
Plants and Decorations
Bristlenose catfish prefer tanks with a lot of live plants, and they actively feed on the biofilm and algae that grow in mature aquariums:
- It’s best to provide your plecos with a variety of plants and surfaces to feed on, including fast-growing vegetation like Hornwort and decor such as rocks, sticks and wood to rasp.
- These fish enjoy hiding in driftwood during the daylight hours, so provide them with plenty of caves and hiding holes.
Brushmouth catfish are easy to care for, but with their vigorous appetites, they also produce a lot of waste. Be sure to change your aquarium’s water on a regular basis and replace the filter media as needed to keep your water quality high. Poor water quality leads to stress and can make your fish sick.
What do Bristlenose Plecos Eat?
Bristlenose catfish are scavenging omnivores and will enthusiastically consume both plant and animal foods. But unlike most species of catfish, they don’t thrive on a high protein diet, which can lead to bloating and other health problems. They do best when fed about 90 to 95% vegetable matter with the occasional protein treat:
Bristlenose are known to feed on bogwood and aquarium biofilm, as well as algae and live plants, but aquariums can’t provide them with a naturally balanced diet. It can take up to 6 months for a tank to mature and produce biofilm, so you should always supplement your pleco’s diet with commercial foods and treats:
- Offer your bristlenose a daily mix of sinking algae wafers, spirulina pellets and/or freshly blanched veggies like peas, cucumbers, zucchini and spinach.
- Your catfish will also eat scraps left by your other fish, and once a week you can offer a small protein treat like brine shrimp, Daphnia or shrimp eggs. Be cautious when offering bloodworms to your community, since they’re very easy to overfeed.
Compatible Bristlenose Tank Mates
You can keep a group of bristlenose in a single species or breeding tank, but these shy fish are also a great option for community aquariums! They are compatible with other peaceful species and often do well with the smaller semi-aggressive fish like Tiger Barbs. Some fun options for tank mates include (but are not limited to):
- Live-bearing fish like mollies, platys, swordtails and guppies (pleco may eat their fry, however)
- Peaceful and semi-aggressive barbs
- South American cichlids
- Loaches and Cory Cats
Bristlenose catfish are easy to breed as long as you have a mix of genders in your tank, and they’ve been known to produce viable eggs even in community aquariums. In that case, you’d probably have to transfer the eggs to a breeding tank if you wanted to raise fry, since the community would eat ‘em.
Here’s a brief overview of the spawning process; for more information and detailed instructions, check out this translated article by a respected German authority:
- Male fish naturally establish their territory and even excavate “caves” underneath driftwood decor, or you can provide them with a partially buried plastic container, PVC pipe or ceramic flower pot as an easy-to-transfer egg cave instead.
- When the female fish are plump and ready to spawn, the male lures them into the cave. The female lays the eggs and attaches them to the cave wall, and then her role in the breeding is finished and she swims away.
- The male fertilizes the eggs and then protects the embryos for about 10 days, until they hatch. Rival males will readily eat these developing eggs, and even female fish will snack on eggs and young fry if they can.
Bristlenose catfish are usually very healthy fish, but they’re susceptible to any bacterial, viral and fungal diseases carried in your water. It’s important to quarantine new fish and live plants before introducing them into your community to prevent the spread of aquatic diseases.
- Be cautious when treating a sick bristlenose community, since these scaleless fish are very sensitive to medications that contain copper and could be poisoned by them!
- As voracious eaters, bristlenose often suffer from bloat or constipation problems if they consume too much protein.
Ultimate Bristlenose Breeding Tank: Equipment and Supply List
What do you need to start a single-species tank for bristlenose catfish? It depends on whether you also plan to raise fry, since you’ll need another basic set-up for the babies once they hatch. Here’s a complete list for a breeding tank with 4 fish (1 male and 3 females):
- 50-gallon (or larger) aquarium with a cover/lid
- Canister filtration system
- Driftwood or bogwood decor
- Plastic containers, PVC pipes or ceramic flower pots for breeding caves
- Commercial algae wafers and spirulina pellets
- Treats like blanched veggies, and the occasional high-protein snack
- Water conditioner and hoses/buckets for water changes
Optional but useful equipment includes:
- Soft aquarium soil, sand, or fine gravel substrate
- Mix of fast and slow-growing live plants
- Airstone and pump
- Light Fixture and/or Moonlight for nighttime viewing
- Fry tank with a sponge filter
As you can see, there’s a ton of reasons to consider adding a bristlenose catfish to your planted freshwater community. Have you had bristlenose plecos before, or raised their fry? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below, or come dive into our community of fish lovers online!
You can also see our article about Sailfin Pleco (Pterygoplichthys Gibbiceps) – Care Guide!