Just over two years ago, while looking through the stock tanks
at Frisby Aquatics in Hull, I came across a tiny Synodontis
offered for sale under the 'species' tag. At first glance the
resemblance of bodily features and colour pattern to those of
Synodontis schoutedeni indicated that here we had a colour variant
of this well known Congo species. Going back for a second look
convinced me that the dorsal pattern was a little different
so as a 'Synodontis nut' I made the purchase in the hope that
I would have what would be, to me, a 'new species' to study?
Upon arriving home I placed the little beauty into a 36x12x12"
aquarium in the company of Jade-eyed cichlids, Plecostomus,
Anabas and various Doradids. This aquarium has a pH of 7 and
a temperature of 24 C. The little Synodontis disappeared into
the shelter of a ceramic plant pot, which he diligently defended,
and would only be seen at feeding time when quick dashes from
cover were made in order to grab flake and sinking pellets.
It would take 12 months, and much growth, for this fish to
gain the confidence of coming out into the open and what a transformation!
By now the body was stockier built and more rounded on top than
that of schoutedeni.
The body colours change with mood and light but most often
are seen as a dark brown-black background with turquoise-brown
markings on the foreground. These markings, which run into the
thickly set adipose, resemble fluffy clouds and oxbow lakes.
As these fish grow so the belly region brightens with brown-yellow
colouration coming to the fore.
At this stage a thick white lateral line was clearly visible
but now this has become covered by black-brown skin. The head
has a shield very much like that of
Synodontis nigrita. The first ray of the dorsal was thickened
but it was not until I was able to take some vague digital photographs
that a proper view of the fins could be gained.
From the patterns already mentioned my thoughts, backed-up
by textbook and internet information, had turned to Synodontis
albolineatus as the identity of this lovely fish. Now the photographs
finally convinced me that this was the case. The first fused
rays of the dorsal are so thick that they resemble bone. In
these dorsal rays we have six broken bands of dark brown spots
that, in a left to right formation, number 5,5,4,3,3,2.
Similar peacock patterning occurs in the remaining fins.
So what do we know of Synodontis albolineatus?
This fish, which reaches a total length of 95mm, is small by
Synodontis standards. It is endemic to the Madjinga River system
of the Djova region of Gabon. When this fish was first discovered
the alcohol-based preservative changed the colour pattern of
the type specimen to such a degree ichthyologists working on
a possible identification believed they were looking at a second
population of Synodontis batesii with only notes made by the
collectors finally convincing them otherwise. When the ichthyologists
cleaned the flesh from the pectoral fins they found that the
remaining bone had a shape that resembled that of a seahorse.
The holotype specimen resides in the Musee National d' Histoire
Naturelle de Paris.
Due to the foreground body colours aquarists' in the U.K. gave
this fish the common names of Mustard catfish, Mustard Synodontis
and Mustard squeaker (due to the fact that these fish squeak
when removed from the water).
From my own observations this fish is much less volatile in
nature than Synodontis schoutedeni although it will look after
itself and defend a territory. Potential enemies receive small
nips for their trouble. My albolineatus grew to full body length
in under two years.
As far as breeding is concerned no information has come to
light. I suspect that pairs will spawn in the flooded grasses
that occur during the rainy season as the Majinga's banks are
broken and flood neighbouring forest areas. At this time there
are micro-organisms and insect larvae in abundance for the fry
to gorge upon. The resulting youngsters grow very quickly so
that they are strong enough to survive in river channels as
the flood recedes.
The Mustard catfish is a beautiful fish well worth the searching
of aquatic retail outlets to find.
By David Marshall, Ryedale Aquarist Society