Common Pleco – The Care, Feeding and Breeding of Common Plecos

common plecoQuick Stats

Minimum Tank Size: 55 Gallons (75 Gallons Recommended)
Care Level: Easy
Water Conditions: 6.5-7.5 Soft to Medium
Temperature: 72-86 F (23-30 C)
Maximum Size: 24 inches (60 cm)

The common pleco (Hypostomus plecostomus), also known as the sucker fish, is a staple of the aquarium hobby, and is easily one of the most popular fish available. They are found throughout South America, and have in recent years been reported as an invasive species in several countries, most notably in the several southern United States.

Their natural habitat consists of streams and rivers and they are also found in shallow, low oxygen ponds during the dry season. They tend to prefer slow moving water with sunken driftwood and plants that provide shelter during day. The reason that they shelter for much of the day is that they are nocturnal and are rarely active during daylight hours – a behavior that you can expect in the home aquarium. While many will become more active during the day after being kept in captivity for several months, they should always be provided with adequate hiding places such as caves, rock over-hangs or large pieces of driftwood.

Many of the plecos for sale in pet stores are juveniles, and don’t be fooled into thinking that they are a small fish. While most are sold in the neighborhood of only one to two inches, they quickly grow to aquarium busting sizes. It’s not unusual for a pleco kept in proper conditions to reach over 24 inches (60cm) in length – a size that will overwhelm most aquariums.

If you are looking to pick up a male and female pleco for breeding purposes, then you are about to be disappointed. They are incredibly difficult to sex, and while many people claim to have a system that can easily sex them based on their size, or the shape of their fins, it’s nearly impossible for the average person to determine their sex.

Housing

Because common plecos can grow to such massive sizes in the home aquarium, only the very largest of aquariums can be used to house fully grown adults. They can be kept in smaller aquariums while they are juveniles, but should be moved to at least a 55 gallon aquarium as soon as possible. And even with a 55 gallon aquarium, they will often become too large to turn around in the tank, and should be provided with at least a 75 gallon aquarium, with 100 gallons being preferable.

Something else to keep in mind when choosing an aquarium for a common pleco, is that they are known to become extremely aggressive when they reach adulthood. While juveniles are generally an excellent community fish, any adult plecos should be kept in a semi-aggressive tank, and should never be kept with any other common plecos. They can occasionally be kept with other species of plecos, but this can be hit and miss at the best of times and should be avoided if you don’t want to risk a fish fatality.

Their large size, and equally large appetites should be considered when choosing a filter, and any fish tank containing a common pleco should be heavily over-filtered. It seems their one goal in life is to eat and poop, and they will put a strain on even the best filter. The best way to keep up with their enormous bio load is to use an HOB (hang on back) filter in conjunction with a large sponge filter.

I would strongly recommend choosing an Aquaclear Power Filter for a common pleco tank. This filter combines excellent filtration with a durable design, and it will keep your tank sparkling clear for years to come. You can also read the Aquarium Tidings Aquaclear Filter Review here.

However, if you have access to a larger budget, then common plecos are a prime candidate for canister filters. These are usually the best option, and will keep the water sparkling clean even in tank with a prolific poopers like common plecos.

Feeding

Most people will tell you that the common pleco is a sucker fish, and can live off algae alone. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, and this belief leads to many underfed and malnourished plecos. They are actually omnivores, and eat plant material, algae, insects and small crustaceans in the wild.

This diet should be reproduced as closely as possible in the home aquarium, and they should ideally be fed algae wafers and a high quality flake food. They can also be fed frozen foods, with bloodworms being the best option since they sink, and are easy for plecos to catch. One of the best algae wafers to feed them are Hikari Algae Wafers and I use them for all of my plecos.

It is also important to regularly feed them a variety of fruits and vegetables. Their favorite foods are blanched zucchini medallions, shelled peas, cucumber and any soft melons. But you can always experiment and try different fruits and vegetables, and they will also greedily accept broccoli, lima beans and a wide array of other vegetables. With that being said, they should never be fed any acidic fruits or vegetables (oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, etc.)

Common plecos require a large amount of fiber in their diet, and regularly feeding them vegetables helps them to obtain most of their required fiber. But to be sure that they are getting enough fiber in their diet, they should always have access to driftwood in their tank. They will constantly rasp on the driftwood, ingesting tiny pieces of wood which helps with their digestion. If they aren’t provided with driftwood, they can become seriously ill in a short period of time.

plecoBreeding

Breeding common plecos is incredibly difficult and only a small number of hobbyists have ever successfully bred them. If after reading that, you would still like to give breeding a shot, then the first thing that you need is a very large tank. Since adult common plecos are notoriously aggressive, the minimum size tank for breeding adult plecos is approximately 100 – 200 gallons.

The tank should contain as many hiding places as possible to reduce aggression, and a cave like hollow should be built into the tank. Some people report success with large clay pots on their side, but the truth is that it is hard to mimic the river bank caves that plecos breed in in the wild.

Once the male has chosen a “cave” to breed in, it will meticulously clean the sides and attempt to attract the female into the cave. If the female is enticed in by the male, it will deposit eggs on the side of the cave, and the male will then set about guarding the eggs until they hatch.

The eggs will generally hatch in few days, and the fry can be feed infusoria for the first few days, and then will accept most commercially available fry foods and baby brine shrimp. They will also accept spirulina powder, but too much of this can quickly foul the water.

Comments

    • says

      The vegetables should be well cleaned, and then blanched. To blanch them, boil them for just a few minutes (usually 1-3) and then let the vegetables cool before serving. They just need to be softened up slightly, so make sure that you don’t overdo it.

  1. Norm says

    Hypostomus plecostomus is often called “common” pleco, but it isn’t. Nor are several others that often get called “common”. The true “common” pleco is (by code) L021 Pterygoplichthys pardalis which do not get as large (about 10″ to 12″ in a medium sized tank) and do well in a community tank (unlikely to eat your other fish). Anyway, good article except for the very, very common identification issue I have — call it nit-picking if you will. :) Oh, and some pleco do very well on a near algae diet…I had one I never gave special foods to; he may have scraped some drift wood or dined on missed flake food that floated to the floor — but I never saw him eat any of that or any of the Java ferns. I carefully allowed algae to grow on 3 sides of the aquarium and kept things pretty tidy. He was over 25 years old when he died (normal lifespan is about 15 years).

    • says

      I’ll definitely look into this, and correct it if need be. Do you have any sources I could reference?

      And that’s pretty impressive with the pleco. Most of my plecos have gotten a taste for fish food, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he stole some now and then. I often keeps rocks in rock near the window to grow algae, and cycle them through my pleco tanks. It’s a great way to give them some extra algae to eat.

  2. LeAnn says

    Not sure what mine is called but have always just given him wafers . I feel bad just been reading and seeing what they should be eating. He is 16 yrs old. We got him some driftwood just yesterday and he seems to love it. We originally bought him to clean the tank that we had for other fish and eventually everyone died but him so we just kept him. Now he’s our pet.lol. He’s about 14 inches long. I bought bloodworms too but haven’t seen him try to eat them. They float….how do I get him to see it?

    • says

      I wouldn’t worry too much – you must be doing something right if he’s lived that long. And most pet stores sell them as algae cleaners, without really telling people how to care for them. As for the bloodworms, eventually he should begin to notice them. Mine would often swim upside down at the surface to hoover them up. I also train most of my fish to know that it’s feeding time by lightly tapping on the glass. So when I tap on the glass, most fish will come up to the surface to be fed. You can try that also if you’re concerned about your fish not getting the bloodworms.

  3. LeAnn says

    Thanks Matthew I’ll start doing the tapping. He’s the only fish I have in the tank. Yes when I got him he was like 79 cents…just bought two to clean the tank and I wasn’t told anything but feed the wafers and I had to ask that. One day the top was left open and the next morning one had jumped out and was dead on the floor. So we knew nothing about them growing so large but I love it. My focus is now on keeping him healthy. Should I get another kind of fish for company? He’s been alone for so long . I did read not to put another placo in. Years ago we added a couple little fish and o think he killed them.

    • says

      Plecos can start to get fairly aggressive as they age to certain types of fish – mainly larger, wide body fish. And a mature pleco would not tolerate another pleco unless you have a huge tank where they can both set up territories. They aren’t a schooling fish, so they have no problem being alone in the wild, or at home.

      • Sean says

        I acquired a hundred gallon tank with 3 plecos that are over a foot long each. After reading this, I am seriously considering rehoming a couple of them. Now to add more driftwood to the tank, and buy bloodworms.

        • says

          That’s a good idea. Plecos can be extremely vicious towards each other, especially when they’re that size. It sounds like you have the right idea on how to take care of them though. The one you keep should be very happy.

  4. Jared says

    I recently found that my pleco had laid eggs when I decided to move my tank. Because I didn’t want to disturb the process I left them in the tank when I cleaned and moved it. I had removed all my other fish. It’s been about a week since I moved it and the male left the eggs for about 3 of those days. The female then returned and now the male is on the eggs again. I’m hoping to see results. Great article.

    • says

      Rubber lip plecos tend to be much less aggressive than common plecos, so it can be really hit and miss when keeping these two species together. Sometimes you may experience aggression, and other times you may not. With that being said, if you have a tank large enough to keep both of these large fish in it (100 gallons plus), then any aggression issues shouldn’t be too serious. You absolutely need a large tank though, since anything as small as even a 55 gallon tank would be too small for the common pleco alone, and the rubber nose will also grow quite large (7 inches plus).

  5. Leigh says

    Help, I have 3 Plecos, 2 Orange and 1 Brown ? A fortnight ago about a dozen + brown babies appeared and now orange one’s are appearing, 7 at last count. what do I do with them ?

    • says

      They wouldn’t be common plecos. You probably have bristlenose plecos. The orange ones are most likely albino plecos. I would feed them small pieces of algae wafers, and tiny pieces of lightly boiled zucchini. Any leftover food should be removed after 24 hours, since they are sensitive to water conditions. Also, I would keep up on your water changed, and even start to do two 10% changes a week. Newborn fry need pristine water conditions.

  6. Amanda says

    I have a smaller size tank, I have two pleckos in it and have I think 3 batches of babies. I don’t feed them anything special except the wafers, I have been trying to find some pet stores or people that would like some, any ideas on how to find any one that would like some?

    • says

      The absolutely best source I’ve found in the past are local fish forums. I know in my area there are several with sections for people selling fish locally, and bristlenose plecos are always in demand (which is what I’m assuming you have). Beyond that, if you’re in the states you could check out aquabid.com, and kijiji.com often works too. If you don’t want to go with any of those methods, I would check out all of the local petstores. While most often won’t pay you for them, they will often give you store credit which comes in handy.

  7. Megan says

    My almost 1yr old 30cm long pleco just LOVES peeled raw mushrooms! I just float them in the tank. It’s even refusing to eat zucchini which used to be it’s favourite!

  8. val says

    I have a pleco not sure what type it looks like a common one about 12 inches long. I wanted to know why he changes colour he is mostly dark spotted but every now and then his spots disappear and he looks white in’places.

    • says

      Turning white is generally a reaction to stress. I would check you water conditions, and check to make sure that the the temperature is in the ideal range. If both of those are fine, I would take a look at the tank size, and its tank mates. Is it with any aggressive fish? How often, and what are you feeding it?

  9. Bob says

    Hello,
    I saw this very large pleco at the zoo and was wondering what species it was. It’s name there was spiny suckermouth catfish and when trying to research that I received a thousand different results. We have to research an animal and a specific evolutionary trait and illustrate that alongside the animal. I love plecos and have some but this was the only species they had at the zoo that I can work from. I can’t seem to upload or copy images so I’ll try and describe it: It was a verydark brown larger than 2 feet long having 3 maybe 4 rows of small protrusions or “spines” on running down the sides of it’s body that went from the pectoral or pelvic fin all the way down to it’s tailfin.

    • says

      It can be quite tough determining the exact species of pleco, and even in fish stores, many are misidentified. From what you are describing though, my bet would be on it being a Hypostomus plecostomu. The size and general shape of body matches, and it is often referred to as spiny suckermouth catfish. The genus Hypostomus contains over 130 species though, so like I said, it can be difficult at the best of times to identify a mystery pleco like that.

  10. says

    I have lost a couple fish in the past without actually finding their “dead body” … do you think the pleco is the one that is getting rid of their dead bodies? Is he eating the other dead fish you think?

    • says

      Plecos can be part of it. They generally don’t consume a whole dead fish though. Do you have a lot of snails? Snails are a much more likely culprit in something like this. I know that my Malaysian trumpet snails will often eat almost an entire fish before I even notice that one is missing.

  11. Michael says

    Hi,
    Every 6-8 weeks I have a new bristlenose pleco babies. Every time about 100-150 of them. Just 5 minutes ago the female laid another eggs. I don’t know what to do with them. Please help :-) In the beginning I was trying to bread them, now I can’t stop them.. Lol.

    • says

      That’s great you provided them with such good conditions. And that always seems to be the way with fish. They’re tough to get going at first, but once they start, you’ll have fish living in every bucket and cup in your house after a while.

      • Michael says

        I have 3 fish tanks already. One completely full with plecos :-) waiting for them to grow up a little so I can offer them to someone.

        • Amanda says

          I have a 25 gallon tank and have the same thing going on I think my pleckos have had about 4 litters just waiting to get my 55 gallon up and running

  12. Tawni says

    really wish I had found this sooner.. I picked up a juvenile to live along a seasonal batch of tadpoles we’re keeping until they all have their legs and were going to release… I had no idea they got to sizes like this.. I remember having one as a child and loving that he stuck to the glass but not much else.. he must not have lived long cause I have no memory of him being larger than a couple of inches long.. I currently only have a 10 gal and a huge old tank we think may be 150 gal we used to use for a reptile but the glass is pretty dingey/cloudy and I have no idea what kind of condition the seals around the glass are in.. plus I no longer have a stand for it… maintenance on a tank that large is a little intimidating.. and we’re on a well with a high iron content. any suggestions to accommodate this guy without breaking the bank? and on what to keep with him as the tadpoles are temporary and a tank that large seems a bit excessive for a single fish.. thanks again for the info

    • says

      When I was a kid we always had little plecos in our family aquarium too, and it was a shock to me when I first learned how large they could grow. I don’t know what your budget is like, but you should try to get the largest tank that you can for your pleco. They can quite happily live in a tank as small as 29 gallons for the first few years of their life, but they’ll need to be upgraded to at least a 55 gallon at some point.

      You could probably get by on the just the basics for now – a decent hang-on back filter, incandescent light, and a heater. It will still cost you a fair bit to start up, but it’s worth it in the long run. The iron is relatively easy to deal with too, and you can get any of the water conditioners sold at pet stores for removing metal from the water. However, you’ll need to keep up on vacuuming your tanks and cleaning your filter to remove the leftover metal.

      Plecos do well with nearly any non-wide body fish. They are known to attack slow and docile fish like mollies or goldfish (which they shouldn’t be with anyways due to temp differences), but faster upper tank dwelling minnows are best. It sounds like you have hard water though, so you may want to consider hard water fish for your tank. Some hard water fish are platies, guppies, swordtails, American flagfish, blind cave tetras, rainbow fish, and some African dwarf cichlids (ie. Kribs).

      I hope this helps.

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