The Iron Head catfish (Trachycorystes trachycorystes)


The Iron Head catfish goes by the scientific name Trachycorystes trachycorystes. It’s real tongue twister of a scientific name that even seasoned fishkeepers will have a difficult time pronouncing. And as if it wasn’t hard enough, you even have to say it twice!

But if you think saying its scientific name is such a challenge, try looking for one in a fish store, and you will have a more difficult time. This catfish is rarely available in the country because it is not very popular and stocks, if ever there are any, are very few. To my recollection, I have only seen this catfish available for sale in the Philippines on three or four occasions in the last 10 years.

The T trachycorystes was first described by French zoologist Achille Valenciennes in 1840. It is a South American catfish that is found in the Amazon River basin, Essequibo River basin in Guyana, and Orinoco River basin in Venezuela.

Not just hard of head

Fishkeepers from different parts of the world have given many names to the T trachycorystes. It is also known as the Iron Head Driftwood catfish, Black Driftwood catfish, and Black Woodcat, among others. All are apt names for the T trachycorystes, but I simply prefer to call it “Iron Head catfish” because of its iron-like head. In fact the name Trachycorystes is from the Greek word “trachys,” meaning “rough,”and “korystes,” meaning “one armed with a helmet” in reference to its tough cranial shield. Its head is built tough. Once this catfish goes berserk and swims wildly around the tank, hitting its iron-like head on the glass panel, believe me, you will hope it won’t break your aquarium.

The T trachycorystes is a kind of Wood catfish, the same group of catfish to which the Fisher’s Woodcat (Trachelyopterus fisheri), Honeycomb Woodcat (Tatia perugiae), Jaguar Catfish (Liosomadoras oncinus), and the legendary Gulper Catfish (Asterophysus batrachus), among others, belong. As you may have noticed, those aren’t too common either.

The T trachycorystes is one of the bigger Wood catfish as it grows to a maximum size of 18 inches. The body is elongate and is generally black all over. The underbelly may be lighter in color. They say some specimens are brownish in color, but the ones I have seen locally are jet black.

It has a broad, flat head that is solidly built. The head seems to possess some kind of bony armor and is very hard, hence the name “Iron Head.” It has a huge wide mouth at the terminal part of the head. The lower jaw is protruded and slightly longer than the upper jaw. A band of small teeth is present in each of the jaws and are visible because the mouth is open most of the times.

It has large black eyes set a little higher than the mouth. It has a pair of primary whiskers near the nostril on the upper jaw area and two pairs of secondary whiskers on the lower jaw area. The gill plate or operculum is hard and forms a sharp point.

A few cautions

The dorsal fin of the T trachycorystes is strong, with the primary ray or spine thick with tiny teeth-like spikes along the anterior edge. The same can be said about its pair of pectoral fins, which are also broad. The primary rays or spines of these three fins can cause a nasty prick if you happen to be accidentally stung. So be very careful in handling the T trachycorystes. Like most catfish, they have venom in these spines, and it can cause pain and discomfort.

The pair of ventral fins is also wide and fan-shaped. Next to these is a soft anal fin. Opposite the anal fin on the dorsal side of the body is a fleshy adipose fin that looks like a stub. At the end is a strong wide tail or caudal fin which is slightly forked. All fins are black.

There is slight sexual dimorphism to differentiate the two sexes. It is said that males have a genital papilla in the area of the ventral fins. While the males do not grow as large as females, their whiskers are thicker and their dorsal spines larger and thicker than those of the females.

Care and feeding

The T trachycorystes is rather easy to keep in an aquarium. It is best kept in slightly acidic water with pH of 6.4 – 7.0 and within the temperature range of 23 to 29°C. They are undemanding when it comes to water parameter requirements and are quite tolerant. However, it is best to avoid extremes to keep them healthy.

Feeding is not a problem with the T trachycorystes, but since it is primarily a predator, it is best to offer meaty food. With its large mouth, it enjoys big morsels. Whether food is live or non-live does not matter; it will always find a way to grab the food with its large mouth. It will take any food offered.

You may offer the T trachycorystes live fish, shrimp, earthworms, or the like; you can also give it chunks of fresh fish, shrimp, squid, mussels, chicken meat, etc. It will also eat prepared fish food. Well, catfish are known to have big appetites and the T trachycorystes is no exception.

Big fish in the tank

Contrary to what most literature on the internet claims—that the T trachycorystes is an aggressive catfish—I firmly believe this is not so. I believe they must be provided conditions that will prevent them from manifesting their aggressive behavior in the community tank. With its large mouth and corresponding appetite, it would be wise to choose tankmates for the T trachycorystes carefully. Never include fish half its size because it could easily be eaten by T trachycorystes. After all, it is a predatory catfish and will therefore eat small fish. Tankmates should be large and quite robust in size and behavior.

As a predator, it will seek out its own territory in the tank. It will hide among the driftwood and wait until unsuspecting prey swims by. It will not swim around and wreak havoc in the tank. If you provide driftwood or other objects in the tank where it can peacefully settle, it will not bother larger tankmates.

A minimum tank size of 75 gallons should be adequate enough for the T trachycorystes; anything bigger is, of course, better since it may grow 12 to 18 inches. While it may look timid and lazy in the daytime, like some other catfish, it will prowl around the tank when nighttime falls. Thus a swimming area void of driftwood in a big tank should also be provided.

The tank must be outfitted with a strong filter like a canister filter, overhead filter, trickle filter, or sump filter adequate for addressing the needs of the size of the tank. This is a carnivore, so it will create a large amount of bioload. Therefore a strong filter is required so that it can process the wastes T trachycorystes will create.

Tank maintenance need not be complicated, as it is quite a hardy fish. A weekly partial water change of 40% should be enough to maintain good water conditions in the tank, which should keep the T trachycorystes healthy.

Is it for you?

The T trachycorystes can prove to be a very interesting catfish to keep. It is not very difficult to keep but you must have the smarts to house it with the right tankmates. A fishkeeper with average fishkeeping skills should be able to successfully keep a T trachycorystes.

Unfortunately they are rarely available in the Philippines, so it will be quite difficult to get one. But keep your eyes open for a solidly built black catfish with a large mouth and a hard head hiding behind the sponge filter whenever you are in a fish store. If you are lucky, you might end up bringing home one. Take a picture of it and post in your favorite fish group; I bet others will be so envious of your prized new find.


This appeared in Animal Scene’s October 2016 issue.