The handsome Leopard Pleco Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps was until recently described as Glyptoperichthys gibbiceps., but this name is now considered a synonym. This popular catfish is also known by a number of common names including the Sailfin Pleco, Clown Plecostomus, and Gibby. This is a very hardy fish and the most common catfish used for getting rid of problem algae in the aquarium. They do wonders for managing algae growth in the aquarium, and a tank with a good algae crop also helps to keep them healthy and long lived.

Leopard Plecos make very good community fish as they are peaceful with other tank mates. The only exception to this is they can get aggressive and territorial towards other plecos if they were not raised together. They will need a large aquarium of at least 100 gallons as an adult. Keep some wood in the tank since rasping algae from the wood provides a perfect place for more algae to grow, which helps maintain a constant food source for this fish. The cellulose in wood is also necessary for their digestive process. They are a nocturnal fish, so when offering supplement foods to the natural algae growth, it is best to feed them in the evening just before turning out the lights.

A word of caution, although the Leopard Plecostomus is primarily an algae eater, they will also eat dead fish in their natural habitat. In the aquarium they have been known to remove slime from laterally flattened fish like discus and angelfish when they are sleeping. They can also get quite large. Generally they are fairly small when first obtained, but these fish are fast growers and can soon become too big for small aquariums.

There are many species sold under the name “Pleco” (over 100) and the main differences between many of them seems to be in their varying color patterns. But the Leopard Pleco can be identified by the dorsal fin. It has 10 or more rays while other pleco genera will have 8 or less. The Hypostomus genus is more frequently sold in pet stores, but the Sailfin Plecostomus is sometimes available as well.

Leopard Pleco – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Beginner
Aquarium Hardiness:Very hardy
Minimum Tank Size:100 gal (379 L)
Size of fish – inches20.0 inches (50.80 cm)
Temperature:73.0 to 86.0° F (22.8 to 30.0&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Leopard Pleco Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps, was originally described in 1854 as Ancistrus gibbiceps by Kner and as Liposarcus altipinnis by Gunther. Then, until recently, it was described as Glyptoperichthys gibbiceps., but this name is now considered a synonym. They are found in inland river systems in most parts of South America. They are widespread throughout the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon, Rio Pacaya in Peru, and are also known from the Rio Orinoco. Other Common names it is known by are Sailfin Pleco, Leopard Plecostomus, Gibby, Clown Pleco, Spotted Sailfin Pleco, Clown Sucker Catfish, and Clown Plecostomus.

There are many species of suckermouth catfish sold under the name “Pleco”. However this fish is unique in that it has more dorsal fin rays  than other genera. While most plecos have eight or less, the genus Pterygoplichthys more than ten. The larger Hypostomus species that have 8 or fewer rays are the ones most likely to be confused with Pterygoplichthys. These include: the common pleco Hypostomus plecostomus and the Trinidad Pleco or Spotted Pleco Hypostomus punctatus. Other plecos often confused with the Leopard Pleco include the Orinoco Sailfin Catfish Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus, and the Amazon Sailfin Catfish Pterygoplichthys pardalis.

There are over 120 Hypostomus species alone, and at least 50 of them have a spotted patterning. Many more species are occasionally available, including some that science has yet to describe.

  • Scientific Name: Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps
  • Social Grouping: Groups – Can be kept as single specimens in the home aquarium. If the fish are not raised together and the aquarium is not large enough, territorial disputes may arise between individuals.
  • IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed


The Leopard Plecos is fairly large and a long-lived catfish. It can get up to 20 inches (50.8 cm) in length and can live more than 20 years in the wild, though they tend to live between 10 to 15 years in captivity.

Plecos have an elongated, dark brown body with a large head. The body is covered in bony plates, also referred to as armor clad scales, except on the belly which is flat. Plecos have small eyes that are set high on the head.

The Sailfin pleco has a beautiful dorsal fin the can be several inches high and resembles the dorsal fin of the marine Sailfish. It can also be distinguished by a ray count of its dorsal fin, it will have more than 10 rays. Juveniles have about the same coloration as adults.

  • Size of fish – inches: 20.0 inches (50.80 cm)
  • Lifespan: 15 years – In the wild they can live more than 15 years, but have an average lifespan of 10 – 15 years in captivity.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Leopard Plecostomus is easy to care for as long as there is plenty of algae and/or other algae based foods provided, making it a great fish for the beginner. The chemistry is not critical, but its quality must be good.

Be aware that the Clown Plecostomus grows quickly and becomes quite large, so will require a large tank with age. This fish is often sold to aquarists coming into fish stores complaining of high algae. They will often leave without realizing how large the adult size of the fish they have just purchased is. Additionally, it is often falsely reported that this fish is a suitable algae eater for goldfish bowls. This is simply not the case. A goldfish bowl will not provide this tropical fish with enough food, nor will it have adequate space to thrive.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner

Foods and Feeding

Although Plecostomus are omnivorous, the bulk of their diet is algae. The Leopard Pleco will eat undesirable algae. It will not harm plants, but make sure the aquarium is well seasoned and do feed supplements including algae wafers, green foods and sinking pellets to make sure they don’t starve. Because they are super algae eaters, they must have their veggies. Other supplements that can be offered include vegetables like blanched spinach, lettuce, zucchini and peas. They also like brine shrimp as well as live worms, small crustaceans, and insect larvae. Note: they have not been observed to eat blue algae.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore – Plecostomus are omnivorous, the bulk of their diet is algae.
  • Flake Food: No
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet – Brine shrimp as well as live worms and other small proteins can be offered on occasion.
  • Vegetable Food: All of Diet – Feed algae wafers or sinking pellets to ensure they get enough to eat, especially in aquariums with little or no algae.
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Weekly – The Leopard Pleco will happily subsist on the algae growth in the tank provided it is plentiful enough. The aquarist keeping a Pleco for these purposes should only feed their specimen(s) when algae levels become too low.

Aquarium Care

The chemistry is not critical for Sailfin Plecostomus, but its quality must be good. Good filtration and regular water changes are important because of the large amount of waste this catfish produces. The recommended water change is 10 – 15% every other week to keep up with the bio-load.

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly – Frequent water changes are recommended to from becoming heavily fouled as Leopard Plecos produces an enormous amount of waste.

Aquarium Setup

A minimum 100 gallon aquarium is recommended for the Leopard Plecostomus. Although when small they can be kept in a smaller aquarium for a short period of time, these are fast growing fish and will soon need to be moved. The aquarium should have plenty of wood for the fish to ‘chew’. Not only do they rasp off algae, but the cellulose in wood may provide a necessary digestive aid. Wood decor also provides them places to hide in during the daylight hours. A well planted tank is great, but use hardy species as they can damage delicate plants as they move around grazing on algae growths. Also, as adults they may eat plants.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 100 gal (379 L) – Juveniles may be kept in a smaller aquarium for a short period of time, but these fish are fast growing and will need a larger tank as adult.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: Sometimes
  • Substrate Type: Any
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting
  • Temperature: 73.0 to 86.0° F (22.8 to 30.0&deg C)
  • Range ph: 6.5-8.0
  • Hardness Range: 4 – 18 dGH
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: Bottom – The Leopard Plecostomus will swim and feed on the bottom of the aquarium, but will also swim around their entire home.

Social Behaviors

Plecostomus are very popular because of their peaceful nature and ability to help keep the aquarium free of algae. The Sailfin Plecostomus is no exception and are a good community fish. They are not aggressive, and because they are primarily herbivorous, smaller fish are in no danger of being eaten. They do well with most larger fish with the exception of only the most highly aggressive species. But they are territorial towards their own species and can out compete other less gregarious plecos for available food. They also have been known to remove slime from laterally flattened fish like discus and angelfish while these fish are sleeping, and sometimes goldfish as well.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful – Although peaceful by nature, specimens will occasionally develop a taste for the slime coating of their tankmates. Large, slow moving, laterally compressed fish such as Discus and Angelfish are in particular danger in this regard. Furthermore, Leopard Plecos who did not grow up together may be hostile towards one another if suddenly placed in shared quarters.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes – Although peaceful by nature, specimens will occasionally develop a taste for the slime coating of their tank mates. Large, slow moving, laterally compressed fish such as Discus and Angelfish are in particular danger in this regard. Furthermore, Leopard Plecos who did not grow up together may be hostile towards one another if suddenly placed in shared quarters.
    • Peaceful fish (): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Aggressive (): Monitor – Many semi-aggressive and aggressive fish will not bother plecostomus catfish.
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Monitor
    • Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe – not aggressive
    • Plants: Monitor – Adult Sailfin Plecostomus will eat many plants.

Sexual differences

Plecoscostomus fish are difficult to sex for all but the most experienced. A trained eye can compare a male and female, with a male’s genital papilla being a small but thick stub protruding from its undercarriage. On the female it will be either recessed or lie flat on the body.

Breeding / Reproduction

In the wild, the Plecostomus breeds in deep burrows excavated in the mud walls of riverbanks. This fish has been commercially farmed but has been bred in home aquariums only sporadically. They are bred in large commercial fishery ponds where a spawning pit is fanned out in the side of the muddy steep banks.

  • Ease of Breeding: Difficult – A precise method of breeding has yet to be defined although there are various methods that appear successful. The condition of the fish seems critical to successful breeding. The practicality of breeding such a large fish and the space required should be evaluated before attempting to breed this fish.

Fish Diseases

Leopard Plecos are very hardy fish, but are are subject to the same diseases as other tropical fish. Disease is not usually a problem in a well maintained aquarium and these catfish are very resilient. One of the most common freshwater fish ailments is ich.

All medications should be used with caution. 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. Take care when treating disease as catfish are extremely sensitive to medications.

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.


The Leopard Plecostomus Glyptoperichthys gibbiceps is generally available from pet stores and online, and are moderately priced.



Featured Image Credit: Hristo Peshev, Shutterstock