What to Know About Raphael Catfish

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 09, 2023
5 min read

The Raphael catfish is a uniquely patterned fish with bold white stripes or spots. This nocturnal species is native to South America, but many hobbyists also keep it in freshwater tanks. The catfish can be a good aquarium fish, but it requires special handling due to its spiky fins. Explore this fascinating fish’s care requirements, origins, and traits.

The Raphael catfish is a member of the Doradidae family, which includes 94 species of catfish that inhabit freshwater ecosystems in South America. Doradid fish are commonly called armored catfish and thorny catfish because they have a row of bony midlateral scutes. Each protective scute typically has a single thorn. 

There are three species of Raphael catfish that have slightly different characteristics and markings: 

Striped Raphael catfish (Platydoras armatulus). This medium-sized catfish has a dark brown or black body with striking white stripes that run horizontally from head to tail. Three pairs of long, black barbels — or whisker-like appendages — grow around the catfish’s wide mouth. The striped Raphael catfish is one of the most popular armored catfish in the aquarium trade.   

This catfish is also sometimes referred to as the Platydoras costatus, though this is a separate species of striped catfish. Other names for Platydoras armatulus include bacu, chocolate catfish, and striped Raphael.  

Spotted Raphael catfish (Agamyxis pectinifrons). Also referred to as the whitebarred catfish, this species has a black body covered in large white spots, and the tail has a vertical white stripe. It has three pairs of black barbels with spots and a strong cephalic shield. 

Because of its striking appearance, people often keep the spotted catfish in captivity as an ornamental fish. 

Platydoras birindellii: This Raphael catfish was discovered in the Xingu basin in Brazil in 2018 and is currently known only by its species name. There are a few essential differences between this species and the striped and spotted catfish. Birindelli has a simple gas bladder instead of a secondary bladder chamber. This species also has uniformly dark dorsal and caudal fins. By contrast, the other two species have colored blotches or bands on the dorsal fin and dark stripes on the caudal fin.

The Raphael catfish size varies depending on the species. The striped Raphael catfish is the largest of the three. It can grow up to 24 centimeters long, but the average size is smaller.  

The maximum recorded length for the newly discovered Platydoras birindellii is 18.2 centimeters. The spotted Raphael catfish is typically smaller than 15 centimeters.

All three Raphael catfish are native to freshwater habitats in South America, but they have distinct ranges. 

Striped Raphael catfish. This species’ native range spans from Venezuela to Argentina. It resides in the Amazon, Essequibo, Orinoco, Parnaíba, and Tocantins River basins. You can also find striped Raphael catfish in French Guiana and Suriname coastal drainage regions The striped Raphael catfish typically inhabits rivers and streams with sandy bottoms. It enjoys lurking among mangrove roots.  

Spotted Raphael catfish. This catfish resides in the Amazon basin, where it lives in areas with free-floating plants and tropical forests that typically flood each high-water season. 

Platydoras birindellii. This species appears to reside only in the middle and upper portions of Brazil’s Xingu River Basin. The fish lives in rocky clearwater rapids in the basin.

Catfish in the Doradidae family have unique anatomical features that they use to communicate. They make two kinds of sounds as part of male courtship displays and to warn other fish about disturbances in the environment. 

Raphael catfish can make high-frequency stridulation, or pulsing, sounds by pressing their spine ridges to the groove of their pectoral girdle as they move their pectoral fins back and forth. They also have a thin, round bony plate known as an elastic spring. The catfish use the elastic spring to vibrate the swimbladder and create drumming sounds.

The Raphael catfish has specific care requirements when kept in captivity. The ideal tank size for this active fish is 55 gallons, though any size over 30 gallons is appropriate. You should include caves and PVC pipes to give this bottom-dwelling catfish areas to explore and hide.

The preferred Raphael catfish temperature is 75°F to 80°F. The tank water should have a pH of 6.5 to 7.6. 

The Raphael catfish is generally a calm and social fish that gets along well with other peaceful fish. Avoid housing the catfish in a tank with aggressive fish breeds, which can scare it. You shouldn't keep it with much smaller fish that can fit in its mouth. 

The Raphael catfish has sharp, thorny fins that can pinch human skin and get tangled in fishing nets. Handle the catfish with a glass or plastic cup to avoid injuring yourself and the fish.

The wild Raphael catfish diet includes crustaceans, mollusks, and organic debris. In captivity, you can feed Raphael catfish food like blood worms, fish flakes, and sinking catfish pellets. 

The Raphael catfish can be an invasive species that threatens ecosystems and native fauna. Spotted Raphael catfish have been observed in nonnative habitats in South Laguna Madre, Texas. 

These catfish have also been spotted in Florida, where they were probably released by pet owners. But the catfish haven’t been seen in this area since the first reported sighting in 1984, so this species hasn’t likely become established in the environment.  

Aquarium enthusiasts should practice responsible re-homing to prevent the spread of potentially invasive species. Always re-home your Raphael catfish with another hobbyist or a pet store instead of releasing it into the wild.

Spotted and striped Raphael catfish can make great pets if you have a large enough tank and the ability to safely handle the thorny fish. It’s also important to note that the typical Raphael catfish lifespan is 10 years, though some fish can live over 15 years. This long lifespan means that buying a Raphael catfish can be a significant commitment. 

With these caveats, the Raphael catfish can be an excellent ornamental fish for owners with the right knowledge and setup.