Complete Sailfin Pleco Care Guide

Are you looking for a beautiful, hardy fish that can elevate your tank? Look no further than the Sailfin Pleco. Of the over 600 species of the Plecos available, it’s one of the most popular. And this must be for a reason.

The Sailfin pleco is a peaceful fish that is easy to care for and can survive in almost any water condition. However, if you want it to reach its full potential, giving it the necessary weather conditions and food is non-negotiable.

Scientific Classification

Scientific name: Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps
Common names: Leopard Sailfin Pleco, Spotted Sailfin Pleco, Albino Sailfin Pleco, Marbled Sailfin Pleco
Genus: Pterygoplichthys
Family: Loricariidae

History and First Sighting

The Sailfin Pleco has a long history, with its first description as Ancistrus gibbiceps by Kner in 1854. Later, it was described as Liposarcus altipinnis by Gunther and eventually as Glyptoperichthys gibbiceps. The previous description is currently used as a synonym.

While there are over 600 species of Plecos, the Sailfin pleco is the most unique due to its dorsal fin having more rays compared to the other varieties. Most plecos have fewer than eight rays; the sailfin has more than ten.

Species Overview


Sailfish Pleco is a large freshwater fish predominantly found in the Northern Area of South America. It’s primarily found in the waters of the Amazon and Orinoco basins of Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The species prefers shallow, calm waters. However, as the waters go down, they move to the flooded forested areas.

There exist over 600 species of Plecos, with the Sailfin being one of the most popular. It’s an armored catfish with protective bony plates. It’s different from the common Pleco due to its smaller size and longer life span.

Sailfin is nocturnal; it burrows into the wet sludge during the day and feeds at night. It is fondly referred to as the “Leopard Pleco” due to the spots covering its body. Unlike other fish, its protective body plate covers its body, tailfins, underbelly, and head. This gives it a unique look and makes it the center of attraction in any tank. Feel free to creatively use lighting to enhance the coloration for a more eye-catching look.

Sailfin Pleco Lifespan

A typical Sailfin pleco lives for around 15 to 20 years in aquariums. However, it can live up to 25 years with the right care and optimal tank conditions.

Unlike in the wild, where the fish lives to its maximum age, it struggles to reach its late years in captivity. This makes it a one-of-a-kind fish, unlike most others that live longer when bred in a controlled environment.

The Appearance of Sailfin Pleco

The Sailfin Pleco might not be the most colorful fish in your tank, but it’s a gorgeous fish in an enchanting way. It has a unique, highly condensed series of spots all over its body, which are not common in any other fish. While most fish tend to have a change in coloring patterns on the head, fins, or underbelly, the Sailfin has a continuous series.

Like the other plecos, the Sailfin has an armored body to protect it from scratches and aggressive tank mates.

Distinct Features

While the Sailfin plecos have several similarities to other plecos like the Clown, Rubber Lip, and Bristlenose, they also have unique features like a large head with an elongated body.

Sailfin plecos also have unique fins. They come with a massive and significantly rayed dorsal fin like the one on a marine sailfish. The dorsal has a large surface area, extends straight, and fans back towards the caudal peduncle. The fish also has a wing-like and bony pectoral fin it uses to dig into the silt.

In contrast to most other pleco species, the sailfin retains its juvenile base color and spots in adulthood. However, the intensity of coloration might vary on specific fish depending on the quality of the initial breed. Ensure a proper diet and water conditions to avoid premature fading.

Even though Sailfin plecos boast a leopard-print body, another variant called the Albino Sailfin pleco is a little more attractive. However, the albino is quite rare, meaning most aquariums end up with Sailfin plecos.


The Sailfin pleco is a very large fish with an average length of 13 to 19 inches when fully grown.

However, the size of the Pleco also depends on several factors, with the ones in the wild being bigger than those in captivity. Nonetheless, with the right conditions, such as the right food and water, plecos in home tanks can grow to be as long.

Even though the sizes of individual fish can vary, you should plan for the biggest size possible. This way, you’ll be ready no matter what size the fish end up being.

How to Take Care of Sailfin Pleco

The Sailfin Pleco is a hardy fish that can survive in a wide range of environments and can withstand changes in its surroundings. This makes it ideal for beginner aquarists.

But that does not mean you should neglect its needs. The fish needs the perfect conditions to reach its growth potential, keep its coloring, and live the longest. You have to provide it with enough food at regular intervals and also ensure a clean and settled water environment.

Food and Diet

Sailfin Pleco is an omnivore that can feed on literally anything edible. While they have endless food options in the wild, they prefer the biofilm that grows in rocks and woods. Young pets tend to prefer algae. However, they should also have additional food options to ensure a proper diet.

In general, the fish tend to love algae a lot. You don’t have to worry about cleaning any algae from your aquarium as long as it is around. If there’s no algae, it may scavenge on other vegetation in the tank.

While Sailfin can eat any type of vegetable, some of its favorites include cucumbers, carrots, spinach, and zucchini. Include dry foods in its diet, like fish and vegetable wafers, to enhance growth.

Ensure sound judgment when choosing the food portions, as you can easily overfeed the fish. For example, reduce food rationing when you have an ongoing algae problem the fish is dealing with.

Overfeeding the fish can have various effects on the water quality. It can lead to a build-up of debris that would change the environment. Therefore, keep the food levels at something the fish can clear in 5 minutes or less per serving. Normally, you can feed them twice a day.

The ideal food composition of the fish should be 80% veggies and 20% of the other options. Even though it can eat natural foods like some of the tubifex-type worms, inspect it well to avoid introducing infections in the pool.

Give the fish enough food if you keep it with other scavenging fish species. Considering it is nocturnal, feed it with the lights off. Also, add driftwood to the tank to provide it with enough cellulose for improved digestion.

The Right Tank Size

The Sailfin Pleco is a huge fish that requires a spacious environment. A 100-gallon tank provides the perfect space for the fish. Double the size when keeping a pair. While some aquarists opt for smaller tanks of around 70 to 80 gallons, it’s unrealistic as you can never tell how big the fish might grow.

A bigger space also makes for a livelier community. It helps the fish avoid stress while giving them ample room for swimming.


Sailfin plecos do not worry much about lighting and can do well with moderate to normal lighting. However, feel free to introduce additional light.

Due to its nocturnal tendencies, create a lighting model for the fish to have sight of its surroundings at night for ease of movement. You can achieve this by adding artificial lights and illuminating objects.

Recommended Water Parameters

Even though the fish can be considered a little hardy, they can be sensitive to water parameters. You must meet all its water needs to ensure it is healthy and comfortable.

Some of the required conditions include the following;

  • Water temperature: 73°-85°F
  • Acidity levels: 6.5 – 7.5 pH
  • Hardness: 6 – 10 dKH

Always run tests on the water before introducing a new Sailfin Pleco to the tank. While a slight change in water parameters won’t affect the fish too much, it needs stable conditions for peace of mind.

What Does Sailfin Pleco Need in Their Tank?

The tank setup is crucial to the health and lifespan of the Sailfin Pleco. An uncomfortable environment can be stressful to the fish, which might lead to it becoming aggressive.

The fish require a substrate like medium-sized gravel or sand in the tank. The sand is preferable, as it provides a comfortable place for the fish to lie as it spends more time at the bottom of the tank. At the same time, it takes more work to manage the sand because the fish can dig into it.

For more comfort, consider making the tank look like the fish’s natural habitat through decorations. Add a piece or two of driftwood to provide a hiding place for the fish, especially during the day. It also improves cellulose levels in the tank.

Add a few pieces of wood to the tank to provide a surface where the algae can grow. The fish will, in turn, feed on the algae. You can add smooth rocks, caves, and tangled roots to the tank.

Adding natural plants to the tank also works wonders for the fish due to the additional daytime hiding spaces. However, only go with the hardy plants, as the fish can damage the leaves on the softer ones. Some ideal plants include Java moss, Java fern, Anubias, Amazon sword, and Jungle Vallisneria.

Filter System

The Leopard Sailfin Pleco requires the best water conditions to reach its maximum growth potential. However, this can seem hard to attain as the fish produces a lot of waste. Therefore, you must invest in a top-quality filtration system to keep the environment friendly.

A canister filter or Powerhead aquarium filter are some of the best systems. They can filter up to four times the tank volume per hour and ensure a constant supply of clean water. You can have a healthy Sailfin Pleco if the water stays clean and well-aerated.

Common Potential Diseases

Due to its natural habitat being mucky places, Sailfin Pleco is a robust fish that does not fall ill easily. A healthy sailfin has bright coloration, a rounded belly, a good appetite, and is active at night.

However, fish are not immune to diseases. Some of the common potential conditions for the fish include;


Also known as the “white spot disease,” ich is a common disease in fish caused by the protozoan ichthyophthirius multifiliis. Tiny white spots on the body characterize the disease.

Catching the disease early enough helps with better management. Instead of quarantining a single fish, consider treating the whole tank if you notice a case. Turn the water temperature high for some days, then look for over-the-counter medication to treat ich.

Skin and Gill Flukes

This disease is caused by parasites that attach to the skin and gills of the fish. A fish with the fluke has scratches on its skin from scratching against the substrate and decor.

Manage the diseases by using a suitable anti-parasitic medication.

Fungal and Bacterial Infections

Fungal and bacterial infections can also affect the fish, depending on the environment. Fungal infections come with fluffy white growths on the body, while bacterial infections have symptoms like reddened skin, ulcers, patches, and sores.

Both infections are treatable through anti-fungal and anti-bacterial treatments.

Starvation and Stress

While most aquarists only look at overfeeding as an issue with Sailfin Pleco, poor feeding is another concern. Most beginner aquarists who keep the fish primarily to clean the tank tend to assume it can only survive on algae and other water components. While these are good foods, they are not enough for a healthy body.

Starved fish can become stressed and aggressive, making it tough to coexist with others.

Behavior and Temperament


The sailfin pleco is such an interesting fish when it comes to behavior and temperament. It can alternate between being an active breed and a calm and reserved species. The nocturnal tendencies of the fish mean it spends most of the day hiding under rocks or logs. It then becomes more active at night.

The fish is a bottom dweller that spends most of its time in the lower parts of the tank. It’s naturally a peaceful and relaxed fish.

Nevertheless, Sailfin pleco can become territorial when necessary. It can fight when threatened, most so when provided with smaller spaces. Provide enough space and food for the fish to avoid conflicts. Also, avoid keeping it with fish that has almost similar appearance features.

The fish can spread its dorsal fins to give the impression of a bigger body to scare away predators. It also swallows air above the water’s surface in case of a limited oxygen supply. The gulping produces a hissing sound that scares away predators.

Best Tank Mates

Thanks to its calm nature, several fish species can co-exist peacefully with the Sailfin Pleco. The fish is unlikely to create chaos and, in most cases, minds its own business. It’s also too big to get picked on by the other fish in the tank.

While most big fish always come with the threat of eating up the other, smaller ones, you don’t have to worry about that with the Sailfin Pleco.

Some of the best tankmates for the fish include:

  • Kuhli loach
  • Clown Loach
  • Silver dollar fish
  • Honey gourami
  • Sparkling gourami
  • Green terror Cichlid
  • Pearl gourami.

You can match several other species with the Sailfin Plecos, but the ones above work best. At the same time, consider the tank requirements for every species before putting them together.

Sailfin Pleco Breeding

Sailfin Pleco breeding is one of the most challenging aspects of the fish you will experience in a home aquarium. Spotting the specific genders is such a hassle, and it also requires conditions that have proven too hard to meet.

The fish prefer muddy waters for breeding, which has been proven too much to create in home aquariums. They can sometimes even bury themselves in the mud to breed.

Thus, commercial facilities have taken up the role of breeding the fish species. These facilities have the resources and expertise to meet the required conditions.

Gender Differences

Even though it’s a little hard to identify the specific gender of the Sailfin Pleco, it’s not entirely impossible. You can reliably identify the gender of the fish by observing its genital papilla. The females have a small papilla lying on their backs. The male has a smaller yet thicker Trump protruding from the undercarriage.

The males tend to be more aggressive compared to the females. However, this can also depend on individual characteristics. The females, in most cases, grow bigger than the males as long as they are of the same age and brought up in similar conditions. Females are also more rounded compared to males.

How Do Sailfin Pleco Breed in the Wild?

Sailfin Pleco breeds only when it’s very muddy. They bury themselves deep, where the female digs up a hole to lay eggs. She lays around 500 eggs, which the male fertilizes. The male then guards the fertilized eggs until maturity.

Sailfin pleco breeding in the wild is often a wild affair, whereby the male struggles with the female until she agrees to mate. The female can, at times, be injured in the process.

Final Thoughts

The Sailfin Pleco is generally an easy-to-maintain species. It’s a hardy and peaceful fish that does not come with many requirements to thrive. You don’t have to worry about much food as the fish can depend on algae that naturally grows on water. You only need to supplement this with vegetables and commercial portions.

Even though the fish has low requirements, you must stay keen to ensure its well-being. Look out for signs of distress and disease and react accordingly. Give it enough space with additional rocks and plants for swimming and hiding during the day. Also, avoid keeping it with fish of similar characteristics.

Sailfin Pleco is an ideal fish for both beginners and experts and can work magic for your aquarium!


Are Sailfin Plecos territorial?

Yes, Sailfin plecos are territorial, especially when they grow larger. Avoid combining them with their own or closely related species to ensure peaceful coexistence. If you plan to keep several species together, you must invest in a spacious tank and use creative decorations to avoid direct competition.

Do Sailfin Plecos eat other fish?

One of the major concerns among aquarists who keep large fish is the concern of them eating the smaller ones. You don’t have to worry about the same thing when you keep sailfin plecos, as they do not feed on other fish. It’s a non-aggressive species that won’t even threaten others. At the same time, it’s too big-bodied to get bullied by the other fish.

Are Sailfin Plecos Nocturnal?

Yes, Sailfin Plecos are nocturnal; they tend to hide away during the day and come out for feeding and swimming at night. Install the right lighting inside the tank so that the fish can move around easily at night and hide behind decorations or thick plants during the day.

How do Sailfin Plecos defend themselves?

The fish has several techniques to protect itself from being eaten by other fish. First, its big body means that most other fish are no threat. At the same time, it locks its pectoral spine at 90 degrees, making it impossible for any predator to swallow them. They also have a signature armored body from the Loricariidae family, which most species would not risk messing with.