The Banjo Catfish is a curious fish, with a curious name that describes its shape!

The Banjo Catfish Bunocephalus coracoideus is for the person looking for something unusual. It has a growing popularity in the aquarium industry mainly due to its very odd appearance.

This is a scaleless catfish. It has a laterally compressed body that is covered with horizontal rows of large horny projections, called unculiferous tubercles. The first part of its latin name, Bunocephalus, is derived from the greek word bounos means hillock which translates into “bumpy head.”

But with its wide head and long slender body shape, it resembles a banjo or guitar, and thus its common name. It is also called the Two Colored Banjo Catfish, Bicolour Banjo catfish, and Guitarrita which means ‘little guitar’. Sometimes they are even called “Frying Pan Fish”. The Banjo Catfish was first thought to be a single species, but now there are several known “banjo” looking species, and all are incorporated under the same common name. This species can also be found in some publications as Dysichthys coracoideus, an original combination.

Banjo Catfish are moderately hardy and can adjust to a variety of aquarium conditions. They can be kept as singly or as a group and are very peaceful fish, desirable in any community aquarium. They are compatible with all sizes of community fish, even the smallest of tank mates. All sorts of small fish ranging from tetras to cory catfish, and even dwarf cichlids, will do well when kept with this fish.

These are sedentary fish that seldom move around much. Banjo’s are often mistaken for dead but when you try to take them out, they quickly swim away. They are also true scavengers, but because they are nocturnal, they feed at night. Their favored diet consists of different sorts of worms, but they will consume a wide variety of foods and debris on the substrate, even stuff that wasn’t meant to be ingested! They are also burrowers so prefer a sandy bottomed tank with light vegetation.

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care

Banjo Catfish Active and Eating

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Though the Banjo Catfish is rarely active, this video captures one energetically swimming around looking for food!

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Siluriformes
  • Family: Aspredinidae
  • Genus: Bunocephalus
  • Species: coracoideus
Banjo Catfish – Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Size of fish – inches: 5.9 inches (15.01 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 25 gal (95 L)
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Temperature: 68.0 to 84.0° F (20.0 to 28.9&deg C)
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Banjo Catfish Bunocephalus coracoideus was described by Cope in 1874. (Synonyms: Dysichthys coracoideus, Bunocephalus bicolor, Dysichthys bicolor, Bunocephalus haggini.). This species, Bunocephalus coracoideus can also be found in some publications as Dysichthys coracoideus, an original combination.

First thought to be a single species, the Banjo Catfish name incorporates several species all under the same common name. They originate from Peru, but their range goes throughout the Amazon into Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, and even as far west as Ecuador. Other common names they are known by include Guitarrita, Two Colored Banjo Catfish, Bicolor Banjo Catfish, Bicolour Banjo catfish, Bi-coloured Banjo, and Frying Pan Fish. Its close relative Bunocephalus amaurus, is also commonly called a Bi-coloured Banjo Catfish.

Bunocephalus coracoideus are primarily distributed in smaller streams, ponds, and lakes that all have calm conditions. Banjo Catfish love areas with lots of debris (e.g. wood) and leaf litter to hide under. They are omnivores and often consume organic debris. Because of their sedentary nature, they rarely “hunt” for any food. Banjo Catfish in the wild can be located alone or in small groups.

There are currently 10 species in the Bunocephalus genus. The Bunocephalus genus is the largest group in the South American family of catfishes called Aspredinidae. It is also the most widely distributed and the only genus found in rivers west of the Andes. The Aspredinidae family itself is comprised of three subfamilies with the Banjo Catfish being a member of the Bunocephalinae subfamily. The other two are Aspredininae and Hoplomyzontinae. Bunocephalinae have a can be distinguished from Aspredininae by their shorter body and anal fin.

The Bunocephalus species have been described as being very similar to a genus called Dysichthys. These two genera were described as very similar in coloration and shape but with the Bunocephalus species having a much rougher grainier skin than the Dysichthys species. It is unclear whether Dysichthys is recognized today as its own distinct genus as it is currently included in some taxonomical resources and absent in others.

  • Scientific Name: Bunocephalus coracoideus
  • Social Grouping: Pairs – Singly or in small groups.
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Banjo Catfish is a relatively small catfish, usually less than half a foot (15 cm). It is a scaleless fish with a wide head and a long slender body shape that resemble a banjo or guitar. Its body is laterally compressed and is covered with horizontal rows of large a wart-like projections, called unculiferous tubercles. This flattened slender body allows them to hide under many more objects than opposed to if they were bulkier. Their eyes are very small in comparison to their body, and its difficult to tell where their eyes and their mouths are. They have distinct pectoral fins and a long tail. But Banjo Catfish do not have an adipose fin and they lack the locking mechanism on their dorsal spine that is common in most species of catfish.

Due to its small size, it has numerous potential predators. To make up for this they have extremely advanced camouflage that literally makes them disappear into the debris of their natural habitat. Each individual has a unique mottling of browns and grays, and this along with the “bumps” all over their exterior contribute to their camouflage. Color patterns can range greatly.

  • Size of fish – inches: 5.9 inches (15.01 cm)
  • Lifespan: 12 years – These fish can live 8 to 12 years in the aquarium.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

Despite their exotic appearance, Banjo Catfish are relatively easy to keep if they have the proper environment and are eating. As long as adequate hiding places are supplied without too much daily light, they are happy. Being nocturnal, they need to be fed in the evening. But because these fish are sedentary by nature, feeding won’t be accomplished fast and it’s important to make sure they are getting their needed share of food.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate

Foods and Feeding

Banjo Catfish are omnivores. that feed on a wide variety of foods. These catfish are scavengers and are not too picky when it comes to mealtime. They prefer live foods such as bloodworms, earthworms, and tubifex. They also will accept frozen foods, flake foods, catfish pellets/tablets, and anything else that might sink to the bottom. It’s important to note that these fish are generally nocturnal and shy individuals will not come out at feeding time if the lights are on. It’s usually a good routine if you place their food in the tank right before you turn the lights out.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Flake Food: Occasionally
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Most of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Daily – Because they are nocturnal, they need to be fed in the evening after lights are out.

Aquarium Care

Banjo Catfish require no special aquarium maintenance. Simply make sure to siphon the substrate to ensure it is clean and free of dangerous ammonia pockets. They do well in most reasonable aquarium environments. The recommended water change is 10 – 15% every other week to keep up with the bio-load.

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly – Do water changes of 10 – 15% every other week.

Aquarium Setup

A minimum 25 gallon aquarium is recommended for the Banjo Catfish. These catfish require ample hiding places, particularly driftwood which mimics their natural environment. Have a few open spaces around their hideaways to drop their food in. After a while, they should come out and eat in daylight. Sand is recommended to allow the fish to bury under. Water parameters don’t have to be specific, and they can range quite drastically without affecting them. One great thing about this catfish is its ability to thrive in pH extremes.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 25 gal (95 L)
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: Sometimes – If it is a larger sized Nano tank, at least 25 gallons
  • Substrate Type: Sand – Fine sand or sand gravel mix should be provided so the fish can burrow.
  • Lighting Needs: Low – subdued lighting
  • Temperature: 68.0 to 84.0° F (20.0 to 28.9&deg C)
  • Range ph: 5.0-8.0
  • Hardness Range: 5 – 19 dGH
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: Bottom

Social Behaviors

Banjo Catfish are the epitome of a peaceful nature. They get along excellently in a community tank, though they are reclusive and nocturnal so may be rarely seen. Banjo Catfish are fine alone or in groups of their own kind, and can coexist with the smallest and most docile of fish. But be careful when adding them to a tank with boisterous and aggressive fish. This could end badly for the Banjo because they have few defenses and rely on camouflage, which is hard to achieve in an aquarium.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful – Peaceful and remarkably inactive. It appreciates hiding places and sand to burrow in.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes
    • Peaceful fish (): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Safe – The Banjo Catfish is a slow swimmer and eater.
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat – is aggressive – Banjo catfish have been known to eat snails and other invertebrates.
    • Plants: Monitor – May tear up plants to provide spawning areas under the leaves.

Sex: Sexual differences

Though both sexes look similar, a mature female Banjo Catfish can be recognized by her fuller and rounder belly.

Breeding / Reproduction

Banjo Catfish reach sexual maturity at about 4 1/2 inches. In the wild, it is possible that the Banjo Catfish spawn in groups. In an aquarium, the breeding pair prefer to spawn in a natural rock cave with a sandy bottom. However if rocks shelters are not available, they may tear up plants in order to drop leaves under which they may spawn.

Spawning usually happens in the dark, particularly at night where numerous batches of eggs are randomly deposited in an egg-scattering fashion. This often occurs over several nights, adding up to 4000-5000 eggs in total. Interestingly, this species incubates their eggs like a chicken by sitting on them. However, to protect the fry from other fishes they should be removed from the main aquarium (or placed in a hanging fry net). The eggs hatch in approximately three days. The newly hatched fry should be fed miniscule live foods. They can be fed rotifers and later tubifex worms. The fry won’t eat flake foods or Daphnia. This can be exchanged for tubifex worms and tablet food as they get older.

  • Ease of Breeding: Difficult – Aquarium breedings are very rare. Spawning occurs in a group and the eggs should be removed.

Fish Diseases

Banjo Catfish are not particularly susceptible to any one disease. If proper conditions and acclimating methods are met they should live healthy, long lives. Like most catfish, they are sensitive to ammonia poisoning because they occupy the bottom of the tank where ammonia is more concentrated. That’s why regular siphoning is crucial.

Because they are a scaleless fish, catfish can be treated with pimafix or melafix but should not be treated with potassium permanganate or copper based medications. Malachite green or formalin can be used at one half to one fourth the recommended dosage. All medications should be used with caution.

The best way to proactively prevent disease is to give your fish the proper environment and give them a well balanced diet. The closer to their natural habitat the less stress the fish will have, making them healthier and happy. A stressed fish will is more likely to acquire disease. For information about fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.


Banjo Catfish are becoming increasingly popular and are usually easy to find in most fish specialty stores and online. Occasionally, you will find them in a general pet store. Prices are reasonable.