Fun Cuckoo Catfish Facts For Kids

Moumita Dutta
Oct 20, 2022 By Moumita Dutta
Originally Published on Aug 06, 2021
Edited by Jacob Fitzbright
Learn about brood parasitism with these cuckoo catfish facts.
Age: 3-18
Read time: 8.5 Min

Are you a fan of the aquatic world? Enrich your knowledge about fish with this one-of-a-kind catfish.

Deriving its name from the avian parasite brooder cuckoo, the cuckoo catfish synodontis is the only other non-avian vertebrate to exhibit this unique method of breeding. Although parasitic brooding is quite common in certain invertebrates, for instance, social insects like bees, wasps, ants, and some beetles and some vertebrates like birds, it is an unheard phenomenon among fish.  

The genus of the scientific name of this fish is derived from the Greek words 'syn' meaning together and 'odont' meaning teeth. It refers to the closely spaced lower jaw teeth that the genus Synodontis have.

The species part of the name, on the other hand, comes from Latin - 'multi' meaning many and 'punctate' referring to dots. They are also famously known as cuckoo squeaker and multi punk. This catfish is a native of the African lake Tanganyika and with time has become a favorite aquaria pet.

The cuckoo squeaker is primarily nocturnal but has been found to be quite active during the day as well. They use fish who have poor eyesight to play host to their eggs.

The most invaded fish are the horei cichlids, Ctenochromis horei, and Pseudosimochromis babaulti, both endemic to the Great Rift Valley system lake Tanganyika.

Researchers have categorized these fish as obligatory brood parasites who neither build their nesting places nor offer any parental care to their fries. However, recent research in this catfish-cichlid relationship has shown that the hosts over time have developed certain evolutionary tactics to protect their brood.

The male cichlids try to protect the eggs by aggressively attacking the intruding catfish while the mother cichlid expels her own eggs in a panic to expel the interlopers and scoop up her own brood.

But this technique often backfires upon the hosts themselves. The multipunks surely are one clever school of fish!

For more relatable content, check out these spiny dogfish facts and catfish facts for kids.

Cuckoo Catfish Interesting Facts

What type of animal is a cuckoo catfish?

A member of the Siluriformes order which consists of ray-finned fish known for their barbels, the cuckoo catfish belongs to the family Mochokidae which contains catfish, all of which have their origins on the African subcontinent.

What class of animal do cuckoo catfish belong to?

Cuckoo catfish synodontis is a fish belonging to the Actinopterygii class, the class of ray-finned fish.

How many cuckoo catfish are there in the world?

The population of this species of fish remains undocumented. The number of cuckoo catfish can be safely said to be in several hundred thousand and in no immediate danger.

Where does a cuckoo catfish live?

The cuckoo catfish live in the rocky bottoms of freshwater lakes with a slightly alkaline medium of 7.5-8.5 pH with a predominantly muddy, shelly, or sandy substrate. The catfish synodontis reside in the benthic and littoral zones at a maximum depth of 328 ft (100 m).

What is a cuckoo catfish's habitat?

Lake Tanganyika part of the Great Rift Valley system and tributaries of Malagarasi River, Tanzania situated in east-central Africa is home to the endemic synodontis species.

Who do cuckoo catfish live with?

The cuckoo catfish, Synodontis multipunctatus, is a gregarious fish species, it lives in fairly large schools in its natural habitat. It can also be bred in a tank, aquarium along with other host species that practice mouthbrooding.

How long does a cuckoo catfish live?

The average lifespan of cuckoo catfish is 15 years in an artificial breeding setup, for instance, a tank or aquarium.

How do they reproduce?

Much like the avian brood parasite, cuckoo, the cuckoo catfish, Synodontis multipunctatus, is known for its brood parasitism. The catfish usually in the proximity of cichlid, another freshwater fish, begin their breeding and spawning.

Unlike other aquatic animals, when breeding the cuckoo catfish are excited into the reproduction process when cichlids are spawning.

When an adult female cichlid lays eggs and begins the fertilization process by chasing the adult male cichlid, a pair of the catfish species immediately pounce upon the opportunity. The female interloper quickly lays her eggs, about 10 at a time, among the cichlid eggs feeding on the eggs of the host mother at the same time.

The male cuckoo fish fertilizes the eggs in the meanwhile and the parental pair swim away to breed again without having a thought about the young ones.

The process is over in a matter of seconds. By the time the mouthbrooding female cichlid host is back with a mouth full of sperm to fertilize her eggs are either gone or diminished in number.

The cichlid then proceeds to quickly scoop up the eggs of her brood which includes catfish eggs as well in her mouth.

The interloping cuckoo catfish synodontis pair kick up chaos to confuse the host which dives in to save her brood from harm. The hosts' eggs take six to seven days to hatch while the young catfish hatch out in about two to four days.

What is their conservation status?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened species enlists the cuckoo catfish, S. multipunctatus, as a species of Least Concern.

Cuckoo Catfish Fun Facts

What do cuckoo catfish look like?

A dwarf cuckoo catfish is a perfect aquarium pet!

A prominent member of the catfish family, the cuckoo catfish is a medium-sized fish with an elongated body. It comes in colors of white, gold, tan, or beige with dark black spots of varying sizes on its upper body and head.

The spots increase in size as we move down from the head to the tail. The pectoral, dorsal, and caudal fins are mostly black but have a white or transparent edge to them.

The caudal fin is forked.

The catfish has large eyes on either side of its head. The mouth on the underside of the head complete with three pairs of feathery sensory white barbels, much like a cat's whiskers, that are characteristic of the Siluriformes order.

The anal fins are transparent and have triangular spots on them close to the body. The young synodontis species are miniature copies of the adult catfish except that they have a much darker body that grows paler as they mature.

How cute are they?

These inhabitants of Lake Tanganyika are pretty, to say the least. The cuckoo catfish synodontis will definitely add color and charm to any aquarium or tank!    

How do they communicate?

Exhibiting a familiar trait of the Mochokidae family, the cuckoo catfish are known to squeak, a sound produced through their pectoral fins, when disturbed. These squeakers also croak when pulled out of water.

How big is a cuckoo catfish?

The average cuckoo catfish size is 5.9 in (15 cm) but it can reach a maximum body length of 10.8 in (27.5 cm). The male multipunctatus is slightly larger in size than the female. It is slightly smaller than the channel catfish, which is 12-24 in (30.48-60.96 cm) long.

How fast can a cuckoo catfish move?

The cuckoo catfish synodontis can move quite fast when faced with danger.

How much does a cuckoo catfish weigh?

Much is not known about the weight of a cuckoo catfish synodontis but an average body length to weight estimate suggests it weighs around 3.5 oz (0.1 kg).

What are the male and female names of the species?

No specific male or female names have been assigned to the cuckoo fish.

What would you call a baby cuckoo catfish?

The young of a cuckoo catfish synodontis is called a fry.

What do they eat?

The catfish multipunctatus species are voracious eaters feeding on anything that is smaller in size. The diet of this fish usually includes invertebrates, for instance, gastropods, shrimps, insects, snails, and bloodworms.

Being omnivores their diet also includes phytoplanktons or other such vegetable matter as available in its natural habitat, Lake Tanganyika. In an aquarium or tank, the fish is open to feeding on shelled peas, cucumber, courgettes, pellets, wafers, and other fish food.

Are they poisonous?

Catfish, Synodontis multipunctatus, are not poisonous.

Would they make a good pet?

These African fish make for good pets although they are yet to gain popularity in the commercial pet trade.

The cuckoo catfish synodontis can be easily homed in an aquarium or tank but the owners need to create an environment akin to that of its natural habitat in Africa, Lake Tanganyika with a muddy substrate filled with sands, shells, and rocks.

The catfish is a calm and easygoing, non-fussy pet and gets along with a large variety of fish.

However, owing to their natural instinct they are easier to be bred with mouth breeding cichlids that can play host to their offspring when they are spawning.

Did you know...

A cuckoo catfish synodontis takes as long as three to five years to mature sexually.

The female catfish are only about 4 in (10cm) in size while the young fry can measure 1 in (2.5 cm) in size at the time of birth.

If bred in a tank, the catfish must be provided with vegetable matter like zucchini, spinach, cucumber in their food to size down their prey instinct otherwise they will eat up all their smaller tank mates.

Research shows the offspring of this catfish show greater evolutionary development. They hatch earlier than the host cichlids and also draw nutrients from the yolk sacs of the hosts' eggs when inside their adoptive mother's mouth.

It is interesting to note that the cuckoo catfish synodontis can exist without exercising brood parasitism, i.e., they can develop outside the mouth of cichlids.

This catfish can breed by scattering their eggs in the muddy bottoms of the lake and then when the mother cichlid opens the mouth to let her fries out the interloping fries swim into the hosts' mouth to protect themselves from future harm until they are ready to come out.

The young cuckoo catfish synodontis are cannibalistic in nature. If there is a scarcity of host cichlid eggs inside the mouth of the adoptive mothers, the young fries will turn to eat each other.

The barbels upon the fish help in locating food sources and tasting.

Males and females can be distinguished through the presence of genital papilla.

Are cuckoo catfish aggressive?

The killer cuckoo catfish synodontis are quite aggressive and territorial to their own kind. Hence they should not be kept in pairs but in schools of three or more to ease out the tension. The more cuckoo catfish there are better the temperament.

Does cuckoo catfish eat other fish?

This freshwater lake inhabitant will eat any fish that is smaller in body size than itself. Therefore, it becomes imperative for aquarium owners to house them with suitable tank mates that cannot be preyed upon by these fish.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly animal facts for everyone to discover! Learn more about some other fish from our swai fish facts and skate fish facts pages.

You can even occupy yourself at home by coloring in one of our free printable cuckoo catfish coloring pages.

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Written by Moumita Dutta

Bachelor of Arts specializing in Journalism and Mass Communication, Postgraduate Diploma in Sports Management

Moumita Dutta picture

Moumita DuttaBachelor of Arts specializing in Journalism and Mass Communication, Postgraduate Diploma in Sports Management

A content writer and editor with a passion for sports, Moumita has honed her skills in producing compelling match reports and stories about sporting heroes. She holds a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, Calcutta University, alongside a postgraduate diploma in Sports Management.

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