Suckermouth catfish are a large family of fish occurring naturally in tropical America, including South and Central America from Uruguay north to Panama. Introduced to Florida in the 1950’s these species are established in Southern Florida, Texas, Hawaii, and Nevada. Isolated specimens have been found in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. These armored fish prefer pond, lakes, and slow moving streams and lakes. They tend to be most abundant near shore and in shallower waters. Most species tolerate brackish waters over a wide range of temperatures over 50 degrees. Adults stay hidden much of the time, attaching to the underside of logs or large rocks.
Suckermouth catfish tend to bet brownish in color with many darker spots. All have large sucker mouths. They are covered with rows of bony plates over all their body, except the belly area. The pectoral fins stout with rough surfaces resembling course sandpaper and sport spines. The adipose fin is also spiny. Depending on species they can grow to more than 20 inches and weights of 3.0 pounds.
These catfish are sexually mature around 12 inches, with males generally larger than females. Spawning occurs from late spring to early fall. They generally construct horizontal nesting burrows in banks were approximately 2,000 eggs are laid and forms an adhesive mass. The burrow is guarded until eggs hatch in three to five days.
Algae and detritus are their primary forage. They use their suck-like mouth to scrape algae from surfaces. Other food items include small freshwater bivalves, water fleas, worms, and insect larvae.
Suckermouth Catfish in Florida
Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Appearance: All three suckermouth catfishes (family Loricariidae) in Florida have rows of bony plates covering all but their belly area. Sailfin catfish are distinguished by worm-like pattern of dark markings on the head over a dark-golden background; pectoral fins stout with rough surfaces resembling course sandpaper; disc-like, protrusible mouth is under the head, and used like a suction cup to attach and feed on algae; females tend to be smaller, and fish larger than 18 inches probably males; lifeless and hollowed-out 'armored' bodies sometimes seen on canal and lake banks
Similar Species: Vermiculated sailfin (Pterygoplichthys disjunctivus) and suckermouth catfish (Hypostomus sp) are also found in Florida (see image of a Hypostomus to right); vermiculated sailfin catfish (see image below and to left) have worm-like markings similar to but generally bolder than sailfin catfish which is the easiest way to distinguish these two species; suckermouth catfish (see image to right) is a shorter, stouter fish (maximum size less than 17 inches); has a pattern of black spots on head and less than 10 dorsal fin rays while other loricariids in Florida have 10 or more dorsal fin rays and worm-like markings on head.
Range: The sailfin catfish is by far the most successful, abundant, and widespread loricariid in Florida, and is found throughout central and south Florida. Although the suckermouth catfish (Hypostomus sp.) has been in Florida since the 1950s, it is not widespread, being found primarily in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties. The vermiculated catfish is occasionally found in central Florida, including Six-Mile Creek in Hillsborough County and the St. John's River. Native range for all loricariids is South America.
Habitat: Sailfin catfish live in nearly any type of slow moving streams, canals, ponds, and lakes; and are normally most abundant along the shore and in shallower waters. They are known to create spawning burrows along shorelines, sometimes undermining canal banks and lake shorelines. Little is known about the vermiculated sailfin's specific habitat preferences; poor success of suckermouth catfish to date indicates it is less well adapted to Florida waters than are the sailfins.
Spawning Habitats: Male and females start maturing when 13 and 11 inches long; female lays about 2,000 eggs in shoreline burrows, holes, or crevices generally between April and September; nests guarded until eggs hatch; adhesive eggs clump together in masses; egg masses are sometimes collected from the wild, aerated, hatched, and grown on tropical fish farms for sale in the pet industry.
Feeding Habits: 100% of stomachs that were examined contained detritus, and most also contained algae, sand, small freshwater bivalves, water fleas, and decaying matter; most active around dusk when root around bottom looking for worms and insect larvae; sucker-like mouth used to scrape algae from stones and other surfaces with their spoon shaped teeth.
Age and Growth: Grow to more than 20 inches and weights of 3.0 pounds.
Sporting Quality: None; no bag or size limits
Edibility: Fair to good, but difficult to clean and best to cook 'in the shell,' after which the white flaky meat can be slid out.