Vulture Catfish (Calophysus macropterus): A Complete Guide

vulture catfish in a very large aquarium
Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: July 20, 2024
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Vulture catfish sure are one-of-a-kind freshwater fish! With their long bodies and big mouths, they look pretty amazing in any fish tank. These guys are like the cleanup crew, munching on leftover food and junk, keeping the tank tidy. For both veteran fish keepers and new hobbyists seeking a cool, captivating pet, vulture catfish make an **awesome choice**.

Article Summary

  • Vulture catfish are unique freshwater fish known for their distinct appearance and scavenging behavior, making them popular among aquarium enthusiasts.
  • They belong to the species Calophysus macropterus and are native to South America, specifically the Amazon River and Orinoco River basins.
  • Vulture catfish have elongated bodies, broad heads, and superior eyes, with brown or gray coloration and a lighter underbelly.

Species Overview

The vulture catfish species, scientifically known as Calophysus macropterus, belongs to the family Pimelodidae. It is a species also commonly referred to as the Vulture Catfish and Bagre Machete in Venezuela. Gribbemalle is it’s common name in Denmark and Mapurite in Venezuela, and Pintadinho and Piracatinga in Brazil. It is referred to as the Pirate Catfish, and in Venezuela, its common name is Zamurito.

These fascinating creatures are native to South America, specifically found in the Amazon River basin and the Orinoco River basin. With their elongated bodies and broad heads, vulture catfish have superior eyes and flattened barbels. Their unique dentition sets them apart from other pimelodids. The coloration of these vulture catfish can vary; they are typically brown or gray with a lighter underbelly.

Vulture catfish can grow up to 400mm in length or 15.7″ SL (Standard Length). They typically exhibit a slow growth rate and have an average lifespan for species of their kind.

Habitat and Tank Conditions

To ensure the well-being of vulture catfish in your aquarium, it’s crucial to create a suitable habitat and maintain appropriate tank conditions. Let’s explore the key factors to consider.

Tank Size and Set Up

Vulture catfish require a spacious aquarium or tank with ample swimming space and hiding spots. In their natural habitat, these fish inhabit slow-moving rivers, streams, and flooded areas. Therefore, replicating this environment is vital for their comfort.

  • Tank size: A large tank is necessary to accommodate the adult size of vulture catfish.
  • Swimming space: Ensure there is enough open area in the tank for them to swim freely.
  • Hiding spots: Provide caves or driftwood as hiding spots since vulture catfish are nocturnal creatures that appreciate places to retreat during daylight hours.
  • Tight-fitting lid: Vulture catfish are known jumpers, so a secure lid is essential to prevent any escape attempts.
Amazon River
The Amazon River is home to the Vulture Catfish

Water Parameters

Maintaining suitable water parameters is crucial for the health of vulture catfish.

  • pH Range: The ideal pH range for vulture catfish is between 6.0 and 7.4.
  • Temperature Range: It’s recommended to keep the water temperature between 75.2°F and 84.2°F (24.0°C – 29.0°C). Aim for a stable temperature within this range.

Substrate and Decor

Choosing appropriate substrate and decor helps recreate a natural environment for your vulture catfish.

  • Substrate: Opt for soft substrates like sand or fine gravel that won’t harm their delicate barbels while they search for food.
  • Decor: Include caves, driftwood, or other structures where they can hide during the day. This will provide them with a sense of security similar to their natural habitat.

Creating an optimal habitat and maintaining the right tank conditions will ensure the well-being and happiness of your fishes. By considering the details of their natural environment and replicating it in your aquarium, you can provide them with a comfortable home to thrive in.

Tankmates and Temperament

The vulture catfish, also known for its scavenging habits, is a carnivorous and adaptable species. It has earned the nickname “vulture catfish” due to its tendency and ability to bite, catch, and scavenge for food. This fish has an interesting behavior as it can act both as a scavenger and a predator. It has the ability to bite other fishes and remove flesh from them.

When considering the tankmate family for the vulture catfish species, it’s important to choose carefully. This species can be aggressive towards smaller fish, so compatibility is key. Here are some suggestions for tank mates that are more likely to get along with the vulture catfish:

Compatible Tank Mates

  • Armored loricariids: Like the Bristlenose Pleco, these fish species have protective plates on their bodies which make them less vulnerable to any potential aggression from the vulture catfish.
  • Doradids: Similar to armored loricariids, the doradid species also possess bony plates that provide protection. Doradids like the Talking Catfish (Platydoras armatulus) can make good tankmates for the vulture catfish.
  • Larger fish such as cichlids: These larger, more robust fish species are less likely to become targets of aggression by the vulture catfish. The Firemouth Cichlid (Thorichthys meeki) are both visually striking and compatible tankmates for your vulture catfish aquarium.

On the other hand, there are certain common tank mates that should be avoided and consider caution housing a vulture catfish:

Tank Mates to Avoid

  • Smaller fish species: The vulture catfish may see smaller fishes as potential prey and could exhibit predatory behavior towards them.
  • Crustaceans: The scavenging nature of the vulture catfish includes feeding on crustaceans, so keeping these species together in the same tank might result in conflicts over food resources.
  • Insects: Similarly, if there are insects present in the tank, they may also become targets for this opportunistic feeder.

It’s crucial to create a balanced ecosystem within your aquarium by carefully selecting compatible tank mates for your vulture catfish family. By doing so, you can ensure a harmonious environment for all the inhabitants of your tank.

Vulture Catfish Care

To ensure the well-being of your vulture catfish species, there are a few essential care recommendations to catch and keep in mind.

Food and Diet

The vulture catfish species have a carnivorous diet and primarily feed on other fish, crustaceans, and insects. They require a high-protein diet to thrive.You can opt for live or frozen foods such as shrimp, fish, and protein-rich bloodworms. These options provide the necessary nutrients for their growth and overall health.

Bloodworms in White Background
Vulture Catfish need a protein rich diet that includes bloodworms, insects, and small fish.

Common Diseases and Prevention

Vulture catfish are generally hardy and disease-resistant fish species. However, they can still be susceptible to common fish diseases like ich (white spot disease) or fin rot. It is crucial to monitor their health regularly and take preventive measures to keep them in optimal condition.

To prevent diseases:

  • Maintain good water quality by regularly testing the tank’s parameters.
  • Perform regular water changes to remove any accumulated toxins.
  • Quarantine new fish before introducing them into the main tank.
  • Avoid overcrowding the tank as it can lead to stress and increased disease susceptibility.

By following these care recommendations and taking preventive measures against common diseases, you can ensure that your vulture catfish family thrives in its environment.

Breeding the Vulture Catfish

Breeding the vulture catfish species can be quite challenging due in large part to the lack of reported information on their breeding habits. However, there are some recommended tank setups and techniques that may help encourage breeding behavior in these fascinating fish.

Recommended Tank Set Up

To simulate natural breeding conditions for vulture catfish, it is important to create a suitable environment in your aquarium. Here are some key details to consider:

  • Temperature Drop: Lowering the water temperature slightly can mimic seasonal changes and trigger spawning behavior in vulture catfish.
  • Increased Water Flow: Providing a moderate increase in water flow can also help replicate their natural habitat and stimulate breeding activity.
Planted Aquascape
A large aquarium with the right environmental condition increase the chances of successfully breeding.

Breeding Process

While there isn’t much known information about the specific details of the breeding process of vulture catfish in captivity, it is believed that females lay adhesive eggs on surfaces such as rocks or plants within the aquarium. These eggs are typically guarded by the male until they hatch.

Fry Care

Once the eggs hatch, it is crucial to provide proper care for the fry to ensure the survival of their species. Here are some considerations:

  • Hiding Spots: Providing suitable hiding spots within the aquarium will allow the fry to seek shelter and avoid potential predators.
  • Small Live Food: Offering small live food options such as newly hatched brine shrimp or micro worms will provide essential nutrients for healthy growth.

Breeding vulture catfish requires patience and attention to detail. While there may not be much documented information available, creating an optimal tank setup and providing appropriate care for both eggs and fry will increase your chances of successful breeding.


What size tank is suitable for vulture catfish?

Vulture catfish species require a spacious aquarium as they can grow up to 10 inches in length. A minimum tank size of 50 gallons is recommended to provide ample swimming space for larger fish species and accommodate their territorial and aggressive nature.

What should I feed my vulture catfish?

Vulture catfish species are omnivores and have a scavenging nature. They will eat various types of food when fed sinking pellets, frozen or live foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and even small crustaceans, fish or insects.

Can I keep multiple vulture catfish together?

While vulture catfish species are generally peaceful towards similarly-sized fish species, they can become territorial and aggressive towards their own family if kept in tight quarters. It’s best to keep them singly or in small groups of typically three or more individuals with plenty of hiding spots within the aquarium.

How often should I clean the tank for my vulture catfish?

Regular maintenance is important to ensure water quality remains optimal for your vulture catfish species. Perform partial water changes of 20-30% every two weeks and clean the substrate using a siphon to remove any accumulated waste.

Can vulture catfish breed in captivity?

Breeding the vulture catfish species in captivity can be challenging due to their specific breeding requirements. It often requires simulating natural conditions such as seasonal temperature changes, water chemistry adjustments, and providing suitable spawning sites such as caves or PVC pipes.

Image Reference

  • Featured Image:  Fish Story, a DIY Public Aquarium & Fish Rescue. (2022). We’re cleaners, we make things disappear in Amazon: 4x vulture catfish 2-2.5ft/60-75cm 8yo 100Kliter. [Screenshot, Video]. YouTube.
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