The Panda Catfish, Corydoras panda : Maintenance And Breeding

The Panda Catfish, Corydoras Panda, is one of the most delightful members of a Genus already well-known and well-loved for its droll, comical and expressive fish species, and one that deservedly attracts a number of devoted fans among fishkeepers specialising in Corydoras Catfishes. This article is devoted to the care and breeding of these adorable fishes, and also contains a few other pieces of information for the aquarist intent upon acquiring this species as part of a collection.

First, I shall devote some space to taxonomic and geographical information. The Panda Catfish is fully classified as Corydoras panda, Nijssen & Isbrücker 1971, and was first collected by one H. Richards in 1968. The species is native to Peru, particularly the Huanaco district, and is found in the Rio Aquas, Rio Amarillas (tributary of Rio Pachitea), and the Rio Ucayali river system. The maximum SL for this species is cited in most reference sources as 55 mm.

The Panda Catfish hails from waters that are fed directly from Andean meltwaters, as well as the extremely heavy rains that fall to the east of the Andes Mountain Range, and consequently prefers the cooler regions of the tropical temperature spectrum. The temperature range according to my maintenance experience lies between a low of 16°C and a high of 26°C, although adults will survive temperatures as high as 28°C for short periods. However, the Panda Catfish is a species that very definitely does NOT like being 'cooked', and consequently is incompatible with warm-water fishes such as Venezuelan Rams (Papilochromis ramirezi). Fry and young juveniles are even more heat sensitive, and temperatures above 26°C will kill them in fairly short order, as I discovered to my great dismay during the heatwave that hit Britain in August 2003, when daytime temperatures reached as high as 38°C. Consequently, I shall recommend that they be maintained at temperatures of around 22°C-23°C ideally, and that they be housed with fish species that are comfortable in that temperature range. Their home waters have very low mineral content, and one should aim for a pH of around 6.8, with a hardness not exceeding 8° dH, and preferably some way below this. The pH tolerance of this species ranges from around pH 6.4 to pH 7.4 in my experience, although some aquarium-bred individuals may live in waters beyond this range. However, excess acidity is defintely NOT to their liking, and a pH below 6.0 is NOT recommended, as this could prove catastrophically fatal.

Because their home waters tend to be clean, and the substrates of their home rivers are likewise clean, Panda Catfishes will NOT tolerate gunk-filled gravel beds, which again will prove catastrophically fatal. Pandas are much more fussy in this regard than many other Corydoras species, and the aquarist intent upon maintaining these fishes should pay scrupulous attention to water changes and gravel vac operations. However, this scrupulous attention will be handsomely rewarded, as I shall reveal in due course! Furthermore, a little extra care and attention acclimatising new arrivals is welcome, as juvenile Pandas in particular seem to be somewhat e to shock if suddenly transferred to water whose chemistry differs significantly from the water in which they were raised. Time spent performing this operation carefully will again reap handsome rewards in the future, as I shall reveal ...

Because Panda Catfishes are expressive, lively fishes, a stimulating environment is de rigeur for them. Natural plants, bogwood decorations with abundant lush growths of Java Moss and Java Ferns, providing caves and other nooks and crannies to inspire their inquisitive natures, are ideal, and if given an environment of this kind, they will prosper. Furthermore, Panda Catfishes share with the smaller Corydoras species such as pygmaeus a tendency to be more avowedly social than the larger members of the Genus, and seem to need the psychological security afforded by numbers. Four should be considered a bare minimum number, and if one can gather together a group of 8 or more, then they will reward the aquarist's generosity handsomely. Given an aquarium environment rich in stimuli, subject to scrupulous attention to cleanliness, these delightful little fishes come alive spectacularly, and offer the aquarist some truly hilarious Corydoras 'comedy moments' during their bustling activity around the aquarium. Indeed, these fishes exude an almost mammalian degree of cuteness that is not normally associated with fishes, and with the combination of the Panda eye patches, long barbels and scurrying activity over the substrate, resemble hamsters more than fish! In my experience, Pandas also appreciate being given an undulating substrate with 'hills' and 'craters' to explore, so when I perform gravel vac operations, I try to ensure that the gravel bed is suitably interesting for them: they seem to know that this is being done for their benefit, and will cause a few headaches with respect to gravel vac operations by following the gravel vac around, waiting for tasty titbits to be brought into 'sniffing range', as it were! Oh, and take care with substrate choices in the Panda aquarium - rounded gravel and sand particles to avoid barbel irritation and barbel loss are the order of the day.

Once settled into their home, they will explore their environment with a level of curiosity that is fascinating to watch. My Pandas regularly perform tricks such as swimming upside down, Synodontis style, under the bogwood arch in their aquarium, surfing the powerhead bubbles and sitting on plant leaves swaying in the current, almost like budgies on swings! They will also play 'tag' with certain other fishes in the aquarium: this is harmless fun on their part, and Pandas seem to be especially endowed with a sense of humour to match their expressive faces. Also, mine have discovered that knocking snails off the front glass of the aquarium makes for an amusing sport, which as will be described below, is related to reproductive behaviour.

If kept in a community aquarium, a little thought with respect to their companions is due. Ideal companions include other Corydoras Catfishes (they would probably perform even more mirthful antics if kept with pygmaeus), various small Characins such as Cardinals and Lemons (both of which share my Pandas' home), and Otocinclus sucking catfishes, with which the Pandas will sometimes play 'tag'. They will doubtless live happily alongside small Danios, small Barbs, smaller Rasboras such as Harlequins or Rasbora borapetensis (if the rare and beautiful Rasbora vaterifloris can be obtained, pairing it with Pandas is a wonderful combination), and any Livebearers that do not mind relatively soft water. While they can coexist with some Apistogramma Dwarf Cichlids, given the inquisitiveness of Pandas, compatibility will rapidly become an issue if the Dwarf Cichlids spawn, and the Pandas decide to help themselves to a little caviar! Compaitibility with Labyrinth Fishes is potentially fraught with complications: while the smaller species such as Honey Gouramis will probably coexist peacefully from a temperament standpoint, the liking of many Labyrinth Fishes for warmer waters will mitigate against this pairing. Pandas will also live with smaller, relatively peaceful Killies, epsecially those that prefer the lower end of the tropical temperature spectrum, or small surface-dwellers such as the Rocket Panchax, Epiplatys annulatus. Under NO circumstances put them in with big Cichlids such as Oscars, as the potential for catastrophe is all too great: not only will big Cichlids try eating the poor Pandas, but the Corydoras defensive mechanisms will cause them to become stuck in the Cichlid's throat, leading to the death of both fishes. Likewise, I have updated this article to include a warning with respect to larger Plecs: RasboraMary has had a less than delightful experience with a Rhino Plec that played 'tail baseball' with her Pandas, bashing them across the aquarium with its armoured tail. This probably results from the Pandas' incessant curiosity, and the Rhino Plec being less than delighted at the attention: I would hesitate in the light of this recent development to put big Plecs alongside Pandas or any other small Corydoras in case the same phenomenon occurs. In any case, as RasboraMary has dicovered to her cost, a big Plec can kill small fishes with this defensive manouevre, and Pandas deserve far better than to be 'batting fodder' for a grumpy Plec ...

On the subject of companions, my Pandas also share their home with Beckford's Pencil Fishes, which led to an interesting moment demonstrating their intelligence. During a live food banquet, one of my Pandas was happily munching upon a Bloodworm, the 'red spaghetti' darting back and forth in and out of its mouth as it chewed away, when a male Pencil Fish stole the Bloodworm right out of its mouth. The expression on the Panda's face was a picture to behold - it was tempting to mentally insert the words "Hey! Where did that go?" at this point. Soon afterwards, the 'mugging victim' took to sitting upon his Bloodworm to prevent future thefts! Not only this, but somehow, he communicated this to the other Pandas, and now, they all sit upon their Bloodworm as if taking no chances! Also, of late, they have discovered that the Lemon Tetras will help themselves to all the Bloodworm if given due latitude, and so the Pandas ensure their share of the bounty by sitting upon portions of Bloodworm, thus keeping them out of reach of the Lemons ...

This brings me nicely on to feeding. Variety is the spice of life with all fishes, but with Pandas, it seems to reap special rewards. Interspersing feedings of live foods with high-quality flake, and moreover, different varieties of flake, brings them into peak condition in pretty short order. My own approach is to feed Daphnia, Brine Shrimp and Bloodworm all mixed together, so that the Pandas can pick and choose their favourite morsels from a sort of fish smorgasbord, and they will partake of all three with relish. Frozen Bloodworm will, in all probability, be appreciated too, a relief for those aquarists unable to obtain the live variety, but if live food can be obtained, then do so, as Pandas will become even more perky and active than usual if given such treats.

Furthermore, I have discovered over time that Pandas will home in with laser-guided accuracy upon small pieces of broken Hikari Algae Wafer. Originally intended to supplement the diet of my Otocinclus, they are welcomed by my Pandas with particular glee, and the Pandas provide more comedy moments pushing the broken pieces around the gravel like ice hockey pucks as they try to nibble bits off them! A quick look at the ingredients list confirmed the reason for this: these algae wafers, while containing spirulina algae for Otocinclus and larger Plecs, also contain white fish meal and krill meal. As Corydoras of all species are primarily feeders upon animal matter, they will happily devour these supposedly 'vegetarian' treats with almost as much relish as they devour live Bloodworm. Freeze dried Tubifex is another treat that Pandas appreciate, and preferable to the live variety because live Tubifex can bring unpleasant diseases with them, particularly if collected from the wild, as the natural habitat of Tubifex is an extremely unsavoury one. However, cultured live Tubifex maintained in reasonably hygeinic surroundings, free from the threat of unwanted fish pathogens, can be administered, and Corydoras of all species love devouring them. Be advised, however, that live Tubifex can become something of an addiction among Corydoras of all species, and Pandas are no exception in this regard. If live Tubifex are to be fed to Pandas, they should be done so as an occasional treat, and less risky live foods are definitely the preferred option.

In another post on Corydoras, I said that they should be treated as honoured guests, and not expected to rummage around constantly for other fishes' leftovers if they are to be brought to peak condition. This is especially true with Pandas, which will NOT appreciate being expected to live out their lives exclusively as so-called 'scavengers'. Pandas are special, adorable little fishes that should be given a place setting of their own at the banquetting table, as it were, and will repay due consideration in this regard amply, again as will be described later.

Once a group of juveniles has been acquired, and settled into a new home, the aquarist may notice that they begin swimming up and down the aquarium glass in groups, alternating this with 'powerhead surfing', seeming to take a delight in swimming against the current. These behaviours all have sound underlying reasons: firstly, swimming against the current is an instinct they acquired in their native home, where fry are carried downstream by some of the rapid currents that can occur in their home waters. Swimming upstream to return to their birthplace is a fairly strong instinct in Pandas, and they are likely to surf powerhead bubbles much more than other Corydoras species, other than hillstream natives from similar habitats. The 'glass swimming' will, if watched closely, be accompanied by 'cleaning' activity, where males in particular seem to spend time removing unseen bits of detritus from the glass. This is, along with the current swimming, preparation for maturity and impending parenthood! Moreover, males will be observed engaging in ceaseless 'cleaning activity' almost in competition with each other up and down the glass, watched by attentive females: this seems to be the means by which females judge the fitness of males for breeding, and the Panda male that most diligently performs the 'New Man' role of cleaning the glass is likely to be high on the list of desirable suitors when the females are ready to mate.

Well-fed, well-conditioned adults in a clean, verdant environment will spawn readily, and my Pandas spawn in the community aquarium at a prodigious rate. This probably reflects the fact that they are regularly fed live foods, at least three times per week, and receive substantial water changes and gravel vacs around once every three days. As I said, scrupulous attention to such matters is rewarded handsomely, usually with the patter of tiny fins! Adults are, in my experience, sexually mature at around 9 months, and begin spawning soon after reaching this point in their lives if well-fed and happy. Water changes usually trigger spawning activity, and I have discovered that while they respond to a water change that creates a temperature drop (a stimulus for most Corydoras species), this is not absolutely necessary, and on occasions have spawned after a water change followed by a 1°C temperature rise. The influx of new water appears to be the most important stimulus, with temperature a secondary stimulus, and spawning can take place at any temperature from 20°C to 24°C if the parents are happy in their surroundings, though 21°C is probably the optimum.

Panda spawning deviates mildly from the 'standard' Corydoras model, in that the majority of couplings take place in midwater, and early couplings can be spectacularly acrobatic. The species adopts the 'T' position of the standard Corydoras model, but in midwater, both partners trembling during the coupling with a vigour that looks as if it could trigger an earthquake! At the end of each coupling, which is sometimes so acrobatic that a pair can somersault during the 'T' position, the female will purse her pelvic fins, and a single egg, occasionally two, will be seen to be present. There follows a mad scramble around the aquarium as the female seeks a suitable egg deposition site, usually followed by two or three males, the spectacle resembling a rugby scrum or a running game scrimmage in American Football. Female Pandas, if given the choice, will most often choose to deposit eggs inside lush clumps of Java Moss or similar foliage, and although I have never used spawning mops because I have Java Moss to spare, chances are these will be pressed into service too. Pandas will occasionally deposit eggs on glass, but prefer foliage for the purpose, and if given the choice, will burrow into Java Moss with a fervour that few moles can match! Once egg deposition has taken place, the males will redouble their efforts to mate, although females can be fussy, and tend to couple with those males that pay particular care and attention to courtship rituals involving barbel stroking of the caudal peduncle and the region just behind the head. Males that court their females assiduosuly are much more likely to be successful than 'laddish' males that simply try to force a 'T' position without the foreplay, so to speak!

After observing numerous spawnings, I have concluded that Pandas can sometimes eat their own eggs, and originally considered this to be a problem. However, more recent observations suggest that I have unduly maligned the Panda Catfish with respect to this, and that it may be far less guilty in this respect than notorious egg-eaters such as Corydoras sychri. My second-generation breeders have recently laid eight eggs on glass, in clusters, which survived to hatch. This would not have occurred if egg-eating were a significant problem. The earlier incidents of egg-eating that I witnessed may have been more accidental than deliberate, although as I have said in other posts, egg-eating is likely to be an instinct to watch for in any species of fish that engages in 'gang spawning', all the better to eliminate competition for one's own young. Consequently, I recommend that Pandas be given forests of Java Moss as a spawning medium (or a suitable subsititute in quantity), thus allowing the parents to find plenty of egg deposition sites while minimising the chance of encountering previously laid eggs. In the interest of maximising fry yields, this approach will pay dividends.

Spawning is not only energetic, but prolonged in the Panda Catfish - expect a fit female to continue spawning with eager males for up to five hours. The aquarist who wants to film this activity will discover, as I have, that Pandas are not in the least bit shy about being photographed during spawning, and frequently are so intent upon reproducing that they seem oblivious to the outside world. Comedy moments involving collisions with Lemon Tetras during spawning chases in the community aquarium have reinforced this view!

Once spawning is over, the aquarist would do well to have some live food handy. Dropping a big batch of Bloodworm or Daphnia in with the parents once spawning is finished will likewise ensure that any egg eating propensities that the parents may possess are minimised. In any case, the now ravenous parents will most certainly appreciate a post-coital banquet! Let them settle and feed for a while, then carefully transfer them from the breeding aquarium back to their usual home.

Now the business of egg and fry rearing begins. Eggs will take around 4 days to hatch at 22°C, during which time the aquarist would be advised to fire up some infusoria cultures ready for the fry. Also, a judicious use of an antifungal agent is recommended - Tetra now market a product called FungiStop which is claimed to be specially formulated for egg protection, and in my experience works well.

Once the eggs have hatched, it will be another 3-4 days minimum before the fry are free-swimming and ready to start eating whatever foods the aquarist supplies. The best approach, recommended by Lambourne in his highly readable Corydoras handbook, and which tallies with my own experience, is to intersperse feedings of infusoria with liquid fry food. This certainly helps the fry grow, and the babies grow from being 3 to 4 mm slivers of glass to quite chunky 10 mm junior Catfishes in relatively short order - around 5 weeks. At 10 mm long, Panda babies are able to take Daphnia, and will do so with surprising ease!

Even from the moment that they are first free-swimming, Pandas have noticeable barbels. In fact, a 4 mm baby Panda Catfish can have a face like a walrus! Against natural gravel, the babies are superbly camouflaged, and chances are the aquarist will only see them when they move. They will relish being given hiding places, appreciate care and attention during maintenance, and water changes should be administered 'trickle style' until they reach the point where they start to look like miniature versions of the adults.

At this point, be warned that the fry are VERY sensitive to overheating, and should NEVER be exposed to temperatures above 26°C - this will wipe them out like the Black Death. On the other hand, it may also be wise not to let the temperature fall below 18°C, although they seem to be able to cope with lower temperatures better than higher ones. ANY temperature change should be gradual, needless to say.

A tip that was passed on to me with regard to fry raising in general is particularly useful with Pandas. Hornwort, Ceratophyllum demersum, is a plant that not only provides a wonderful nursery for fry, but aids in nitrate management too. In a Panda nursery, Hornwort will make the job of keeping nitrate levels down much easier, and consequently assist in maintaining the fry. With quite a few species, Hornwort reduces fry mortality significantly, and I would heartily recommend that an aquarist aspiring to breeding Pandas obtain specimens of this plant for the Panda nursery.

By the time Panda fry reach around 10 to 14 mm, they will acquire the 'Panda eye patches' and the black mark on the caudal peduncle. The rest of the body will be covered in fine black 'pepper dots', which will disappear at around 12 weeks of age, when the juveniles will be little miniature versions of their parents. Growth from this point on is steady but not spectacular, but this will be more than offset by the fact that a group of 20 or so juveniles will gambol and frolic about the aquarium with a vivacity that has to be seen to be believed! Once full adult colouration is attained, the juveniles can be given their first taste of Bloodworm - some aquarists may consider it wise to give chopped Bloodworm to juvenile Pandas, but those I have raised have always seemed able to dive in and take full-sized Bloodworm almost from the word 'go'. And, they certainly enjoy the experience of munching the 'red spaghetti'! Live feedings interspersed with flakes will result in bouncing healthy juveniles that are a delight to behold, and all the more so because you helped bring them into the world.

Furthermore, if one has successfully raised a decent clutch, say over 20 fry, and brought them to the point of resembling miniature versions of the adults, then be prepared for some truly frantic activity. As I said above, Pandas are among the most avowedly social of all Corydoras, a Genus that contains fishes that are all at the very least enthusiastically gregarious, and the greater the numbers present, the happier they will be. If anyone has the space and the money to put 40 or more of these fishes together in the same aquarium, the resulting activity on the fishes' part will be a non-stop source of delight and entertainment, as anyone who successfully raises a good clutch of fry will soon discover. If preparing them for sale, do not offer them for sale until they are at least 16 weeks old, and preferably over 20 weeks. While five months is a long time to maintain the young prior to sale, it will pay dividends in that post-sale losses will be greatly reduced or eliminated, especially if care and attention is paid to acclimatising them to a new aquarium. While they are not e to transport shock per se, they do require care and attention when acclimatising them to new water. Care in this regard will not only result in successful sales, but to more and more people discovering the joys of these adorable little Catfishes without the headaches.

And with that, I shall leave the other Panda fans on this board to enjoy my latest offering!