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Royal and Blue-Eyed Plecos

The royal, or red-eyed, pleco (Panaque nigrolineatus) and the blue-eyed pleco (Panaque suttoni) have much in common as far as aquarium maintenance needs are concerned.

By Ginny Eckstein

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Q. My questions are concerning the catfishes of the Panaque species, specifically the royal and blue-eyed pleco catfish. I'd like to take on the challenge of breeding these beauties, but I haven't been able to find sufficient information on them to feel comfortable about beginning this project.

There are a few questions I'd like answered, but any info or advice you could share with me would be greatly appreciated. What vegetable other than zucchini do they like? Is there any way to sex them. Do they eat fruit, and if so, what kind? Are they strictly vegetarians?

With some fish, a high-protein diet of live foods is needed to condition them for breeding. Is this true for these species? What would be a good conditioning diet? What water conditions are best suited for them? Would a community environment of just these species be better than separate breeding aquariums?

A. Where do I begin? You're not the only one who would like to breed these incredible plecos, myself included. So, let's consider what we know about Panaque species in general. The royal, or red-eyed, pleco (Panaque nigrolineatus) and the blue-eyed pleco (Panaque suttoni) have much in common as far as aquarium maintenance needs are concerned.

Diagnostically, Panaque have spoon-shaped teeth and spines near the gill covers. Personally, I'd like to comment that I've seen two "different" blue-eyed plecos. Both have blue eyes, but are different fish. Although I know this, I can't explain it other than to say that the shape of the body and tail fin differ.

What do we know about these plecos? To begin with, let's consider basics rather than thinking about breeding. Remember, hobbyists don't breed fish — fish breed because they are sexually mature, well conditioned (that is, well fed) and have the right environment to trigger their spawning. In other words, doing what comes naturally, often in spite of the aquarist!

What might we consider as basic? Water quality and aquarium size are the first things that come to my mind, and, of course, diet. The water must be clean. These plecos seem to be the least tolerant or the most sensitive to ammonia build-up. This means large (50 to 75 percent), frequent water changes.

The aquarium must be well aerated and filtered. Filtration is very important because these fish produce copious amounts of particulate waste. I'm sure you've seen long strands of feces aquascaping your aquarium. Efficient mechanical filtration is necessary to remove this waste from your aquarium. An undergravel filter, even with powerheads, is simply not enough for large plecos!

Algae and other vegetable-based fish foods are a necessity. Plecos seem to be particularly fond of Tetra DoroGreen and Hikari Algae Wafers. Frozen and freeze-dried bloodworms and krill are eagerly devoured by many species. These fish also benefit from having a piece of driftwood on which to gnaw.

Aquarium size? Well, I tried breeding a pair of blue-eyed plecos in a 125-gallon aquarium, and that wasn't big enough! Perhaps I should explain.

Two blue-eyes arrived at an importer in the same shipment almost two decades ago (1980). I purchased one and a local pet shop the other — not to sell but to grow up for display. Both fish seemed to grow at the same rate, and 2½ years later were about the same size. Why then did the fish in the store appear larger than mine? After numerous trips back and forth between home and the pet shop, I decided the following: I had a female, they had a male.

Why did I reach this conclusion? This species is not known to display differences between the sexes, but, then again, little is known about separating the boys from the girls in many catfish. I realized that my pleco (and please try to visualize this — two fish approximately 12 inches in total length) had more body than tail. The gill cover spines and the pectoral fin spines were much longer on the store's fish, although they were also present on my fish. Their fish's stomach indicated a well-fed fish, but lacked the body fullness and round stomach that mine had, even prior to feeding. In addition, it's dorsal fin appeared larger. What was I to do?

The store fish was not for sale — just display. I knew I wanted it. I invited the store owner to my home to see my pleco. I explained my theory on the physical differences between the genders. He listened politely, studied my fish and said nothing. I admit that I felt stupid when he left my house.

Early the next morning my doorbell rang. He wanted to see my pleco again. At least I had him thinking about the possible differences...I was thrilled. Finally, he asked me what I wanted to do if I had both fish. Stammering, I said I would try to breed them, I guess. How? Well..., I hadn't really given it a lot of thought.

He made his decision. "Take my fish and try it. But I'm warning you, I can't add any other fish to this fish's aquarium in the store — he's totally intolerant." I knew my fish would never win the "Miss Congeniality" award either.

Now I was really nervous. I had the fish, I had an aquarium — what next? I loaded the aquarium with clay cylinders, large and heavy pieces of ornamental driftwood and varying lengths of PVC pipe (4 inches inside diameter). I separated the plecos with a grid divider. Under no circumstances was I going to risk either of these freshwater fish.

To be truthful, I first placed each fish at opposite ends of the aquarium, without the divider. I wanted to see their reaction. Within minutes they "discovered" each other on a piece of driftwood. As I tensely waited to see what would ensue, a dramatic color change took place — their subtle gold undertones became predominant. They appeared to be glittering gold plecos with scattered faint shadings of charcoal. Both fish displayed by quivering from head to tail, just like cichlids! I watched this interaction in amazement. After several minutes the female swam away — the male pursued. They repeated their earlier actions. Once again the female left. It was then that I put the dvider in.

Each day while I was working in the fish room I would remove the divider, hoping that they would adjust to each other. Then I made a stupid, tragic mistake — I left the fish room and went to an aquarium society meeting without replacing the divider. Other than stupidity, my only excuse is that I had been lulled into a false sense of security by their apparent compatibility. I must have simply stopped "worrying" about them. In addition, the room lights were left on, so the aquarium was not dark. Plecos are primarily active at night.

During my absence all hell must have broken loose. The female had no fins and was completely denuded of her armor plating. Her eyes were sunken. The combined dentition and sucking power of the male had mangled her worse than any cichlid fish casualty I've ever seen. By the next morning she was dead. As I removed her body from the aquarium, I knew there was something I had to do. I slit her underside, not an easy thing to do under the circumstances. She was filled with large, dark amber eggs in a jelly-like substance.

Her death was unwarranted. I had killed her. It's much easier to write about one's successes than about one's failures. I just don't want you to make the same mistake!

Because small 2-inch blue-eyed plecos are available seasonally — usually twice a year, I would suggest raising a group of these fish together in the largest available aquarium you have. Because their territorial skirmishes are less violent as juveniles, and in a large aquarium they have room to flee, I think things might work out. Yes, that's expensive. In addition, it requires time — perhaps five years — and a great deal of patience. Good luck! Success could be your reward.

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