Columbian Shark Overview, Care & Breeding Guide

The Columbian shark, a captivating brackish water fish – but born in freshwater, has been steadily growing in popularity in recent years.

The catfish is not nearly as large, hefty, and dangerous as real sharks. Rather, it’s pretty friendly and perfect for a well-researched community tank.

So, if you’re intrigued, let’s dive right into the enigmatic world of this elusive species.

What is a Columbian Shark Catfish?

A Columbian shark that gets its name from a shark is actually a catfish that is born in freshwater. Let us understand some more of its characteristics below:

OriginSouth and Central America; Estuaries and Pacific draining rivers from Mexico to Peru
Scientific NameAriopsis seemanni
Common NamesColumbian shark catfish, white-tip shark catfish, tete sea catfish, shark catfish, silver-tipped shark, Christian catfish, west American catshark, Jordan’s catfish, silver-tipped shark, blackfin shark
IUCN Red List StatusLeast Concern
AppearanceStriking silver-grey hue, semi-transparent black fins, white stripe running through pelvic, anal and pectoral fins
SizeUp to 35 cm (14 in)
LifespanIn captivity, up to 10-15 years
TemperamentGenerally peaceful, aggressive toward smaller species
Tank LevelMostly bottom dwellers, sometimes in the middle
Water Temperature71-80 °F (21-27 °C)
pH Level6.8-8.5
Water Hardness10-30 dGH
Care LevelModerately difficult
Minimum Tank Size75 gallons for 1, 180-225 gallons for a group
Tank EnvironmentBrackish water conditions, minimum decorations, plenty of hiding spaces
DietOmnivorous with carnivorous preferences
Tank MatesOwn school, other non-aggressive, similar-sized species

What is the Natural Habitat of Columbian Shark Catfish?

The Columbian shark catfish lives in the Eastern Pacific area and is native to the estuaries and rivers of Central and South America.

It’s also found in rivers and estuaries from the southern Gulf of California to northern Peru.

It prefers to live in medium and large rivers and is generally found in the river mouths near the Pacific Ocean.

Normally, it lives in slightly salty water. But being a migratory fish, it can swim long distances into freshwater areas.

It starts life in freshwater as juveniles and moves to slightly salty water as it grows up. When fully grown, it can even live in the ocean.

As per the IUCN Red List status of Threatened Species, this species is considered as Least Concern.

Which family does Columbian Shark Catfish belong to?

The Columbian shark, scientifically known as Ariopsis seemanni, belongs to the Siluriformes order and Ariidae family.

As a catfish species and having a slight resemblance to sharks, the fish has been given a variety of common names like the following:

  • Tete sea catfish
  • Columbian shark
  • White tip shark catfish
  • Shark catfish
  • Silver tipped shark
  • Christian catfish
  • West American cat shark
  • Jordan’s catfish
  • Silver tipped shark
  • Blackfin shark

Fun Fact: The Columbian shark is often described as a ‘catshark’ and refers to bottom-dwelling sharks due to their cat-like eyes found in tropical waters.

How does Columbian Shark Catfish look?

School of columbian shark catfish

A Columbian shark catfish looks like a shark and has various features similar to a shark. This is the reason it gets its name. If you want to know more before you dump this fish into your tank, here are all the physical attributes of the fish to identify it!

What is the Size of Columbian Shark Catfish?

The typical size of a Columbian shark is up to 35 cm (14 in) in length.

Due to its massive adult size, the fish demand spacious tanks, making it unsuitable for novice aquarium enthusiasts.

The biggest published length and weight for the fish is 44.4 cm (17.5 in) and 912.3 g.

The ones in pet stores are usually 5-10 cm (2-4 in) long.

What is the Color of Columbian Shark Catfish?

In the juvenile stage, the fish sports a silvery-grey hue with white undersides, accompanied by black pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins.

Its common names often reflect its distinct features, such as the white-tipped pectoral and anal fins and the black linings on their dorsal and tail fins.

The fins are semi-transparent and appear in a striking black shade.

Additionally, many specimens feature a delicate white stripe running along the tips of pelvic, anal, and pectoral fins.

As it matures, its coloration becomes slightly less vibrant. But it still remains an attention-grabbing fish with a predominant silver-gray color. The adult female fish grows to have lighter fins.

What are the Features of Columbian Shark Catfish?

The Columbian shark is commonly associated with sharks, even though it’s a catfish. This is because it shares a distinctive shark-like appearance, featuring a prominent triangular dorsal fin along with noticeable anal and pectoral fins.

The slender, elongated species is well-suited for swift swimming in water.

The dorsal fin is relatively small and positioned closer to the middle of its body. This triangular fin extends about one-third of the way back from the head before coming to an abrupt halt in the mid-body region.

Further, the fin has a spine that connects to a venom-producing gland. It can sting you pretty badly, so be careful while handling the fish or its tank.

It also boasts notably large pectoral fins equipped with robust rays, functioning as effective rudders when needed. Furthermore, the anal fin is comparatively large compared to many other catfish species.

On its head, you’ll notice whisker-like barbels on each side, emerging from tiny openings in front of the eyes. These barbels serve as sensory organs, detecting movement in surroundings.

Interestingly, it has a sensitivity to electric fields, much like sharks, which helps it locate hidden food beneath the gravel.

It also has typical catfish attributes like a downward-pointing mouth.

How do male and female Columbian Shark Catfish differ from each other?

The Columbian sharks exhibit sexual monomorphism. It means that males and females have a similar appearance, making it challenging to distinguish their genders.

This is tricky, particularly in young specimens – when they are generally under 8 inches.

However, as they mature, females tend to have a more robust and thick body shape and lighter fins compared to males.

Another indicator to differentiate between females and males is by examining the shark’s nasal whiskers, known as barbels.

In males, these whiskers are longer and point forward or slightly upward rather than being spread out widely in females.

What is the behavior of Columbian Shark Catfish?

The Columbian shark is generally peaceful and stays in the lower and middle regions of the aquarium during the day.

It is sociable and gets along well with others of its size and doesn’t show territorial behavior.

In its natural habitat, it forms schools, so it’s advisable to keep them in groups of at least three or more in an aquarium.

When kept alone, it becomes visibly uncomfortable, displaying nervous behavior like darting around and rapidly swimming from top to bottom.

With other shark catfish, it becomes quite active, which is also one of the most appealing aspects of these fin-buddies.

The only situation where you might encounter aggression problems is when the fish is housed with smaller species. It has a strong hunting instinct, so it may mistakenly view smaller fish as prey.

Even if, as juveniles, it shares the tank with smaller fish, they will eventually be seen as potential food.

An intriguing aspect of the fish’s behavior revolves around the surprisingly loud noises it generates.

It creates distinct clicking or grinding sounds by friction between their pectoral fins and the sockets.

While the exact purpose of these sounds remains a mystery, they might serve as communication signals to help keep the school united in murky environments.

It can even function as a form of echolocation, akin to how dolphins navigate. In habitats with poor visibility, this auditory navigation method proves more effective than relying solely on vision or lateral lines.

Additionally, the fish makes more sounds when threatened. So, it leads to confusion when other conspecifics in the same aquarium also produce clicking sounds.

How long do Columbian Shark Catfish live?

In captivity, the Columbian shark typically lives for about 10-15 years. But it can occasionally surpass this in well-maintained conditions.

Its lifespan is greatly influenced by its surroundings and the quality of care. This species has specific requirements, and neglecting them can seriously impact fish’s lifespan.

In its natural habitat, it tends to live even longer.

Author’s Note: If you house this fish in a species-only tank, it’ll become comfortable, explore its home, and often be spotted on the surface.

How to Take Care of Columbian Shark?

To help the fish live long, you must keep it happy, healthy, and satisfied. Here are some conditions you should maintain.

What is the Recommended Tank Size for Columbian Shark Catfish?

Columbian sharks are large and lively fish that require a generous area for swimming. They exhibit rapid growth, typically reaching nearly 14 inches in just two years.

A minimum tank size of 75 gallons can accommodate a single specimen. But it’s crucial to note that these fish are naturally skittish creatures that thrive when kept in a group of at least three individuals.

To ensure the well-being of a school, some recommend a tank size of 100 gallons. But in my experience, it’s better to invest in a 180 or 225-gallon tank.

If they appear uncomfortable, you may observe them hiding in a corner or seeking refuge behind a filter.

What should be the Water Chemistry for Columbian Shark Catfish?

The fish is often marketed as exclusively freshwater fish. But the fish actually thrives in marine conditions. It fares better in hard water with relatively lower levels of salinity.

Below are some specific water parameters to consider for their care.

  • pH Levels: 6.8-8.5
  • Water Temperature: 71-80 °F (21-27 °C)
  • Water Hardness: 10-30 dGH
  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: Less than 20 ppm
  • Specific Gravity: For juveniles: 1,002; For adults: 1.010

What should be the Tank Environment for Columbian Shark Catfish?

The Columbian shark has specific requirements when it comes to its captive environment. You must recreate its natural environment to make it feel comfortable. To achieve that, follow these while setting up your tank.

Do you need Substrate for Columbian Shark Catfish?

In general, the best substrate for catfish is something soft and smooth to prevent any injuries to sensitive barbels.

The Columbian shark is not very picky with the substrate, but fine sand is the ideal choice. Avoid using rough substrates like gravel, as they can potentially harm the fish.

What type of Plants do you need for Columbian Shark Catfish?

If you decide to incorporate some vegetation, ensure that the plants are capable of thriving in brackish water conditions.

A few suitable choices include Anubias, Anacharis, java fern, moneywort, seaside brookweed, and sago pondweed.

Keep in mind that the majority of aquatic plants cannot endure high salinity levels. So, you might want to consider using artificial plants instead.

What type of Lighting do you need for Columbian Shark Catfish?

Some say the Columbian shark is adaptable to different lighting conditions, making them versatile for aquarium setups.

But it’s better to steer clear of excessively intense lights. Use moderate and subdued lighting in your tank. The fish is primarily active during the night as they are nocturnal. Gentle lighting will encourage the fish to explore more.

Add caves and hiding spots to provide further cover from lighting.

What sort of Décor do you need for Columbian Shark Catfish?

To create an optimal environment for your pet fish, maintain a tank with minimal decorations.

However, you can install minimal decorations with hollow logs and rock caves. These can be good hiding options if the fish suddenly becomes territorial.

If you have juvenile individuals, it’s a good idea to provide a few more hiding spots like driftwood or mangrove roots to offer them a sense of security.

Since it’s not reef-safe, avoid using crustaceans, corals, and sessile invertebrates, as the catfish might end up eating them.

What type of Filtration do you need for Columbian Shark Catfish?

To ensure a healthy environment for your Columbian shark, use effective filters that provide strong water flow. Consider the natural habitat in fast-flowing rivers when setting up your filtration system.

It’s recommended to invest in a powerful filter capable of efficiently cycling the tank’s volume regularly.

The ideal filtration method for such species is a pump system.

Avoid hanging filters, as the fish swims in the middle water column for easy access to food and oxygen.

A robust pump not only keeps water in motion but also helps maintain low ammonia levels, preventing harm to your fish. Look for a pump with multi-stage filtration capabilities for optimal results.

Perform weekly 30% water changes and substrate vacuuming.

Additionally, promptly remove any deceased or ill fish, as the fish may feed on carcasses, potentially putting its health at risk.

What is the Water Flow Rate needed for Columbian Shark Catfish?

The Columbian shark is typically found in rivers with swift water movement. Being a migratory creature, it prefers a strong current. You might observe the species spending extended periods swimming in front of a powerful water filter outlet.

To achieve this, utilize outlets of your filter and pumps to ensure adequate oxygenation and a robust water flow.

Is Columbian Shark Catfish Venomous?

The Columbian shark catfish is venomous and may sting you with its venomous dorsal spine, causing painful swelling. Exercise caution during tank maintenance or fish handling to avoid accidental bumping.

If you get stung, treat it like bee stings: immerse in hot water to denature the venom and seek medical aid if you’re highly sensitive to toxins.

What do Columbian Shark Catfish like to eat?

The fish is an omnivore with more liking to meaty treats.

Similar to other catfish, it’s an excellent scavenger and relies on its barbels to detect food sources.

The juvenile fish consumes a wide range of live, fresh, and flake foods. To maintain a healthy diet, provide high-quality flake food or pellets daily.

As the fish matures, include items such as

  • Catfish pellets
  • Sinking tablets
  • Earthworms
  • Mussels
  • Prawns
  • Strips of squid, octopus, or fish
  • Sinking tablets
  • Live fishes
  • Shrimps
  • Crustaceans
  • Beef heart
  • Bloodworms
  • Slight vegetables

Ensure you feed the fish twice daily and avoid feeding any longer than 5 minutes. You must also not overfeed them as it can be detrimental to their health.

What are the Tank Mates for Columbian Shark Catfish?

First of all, the Columbian shark needs friends of its own species. So, always buy 2-3 of them together. This helps the non-territorial fish form schools and feel more secure.

The fish is also an excellent choice for community aquariums owing to its peaceful nature. But the only challenge lies in getting fish of similar sized, non-aggressive brackish water fish.

Here are some suitable companions to consider:

  • Gobies
  • Arches
  • Garpikes
  • Monos
  • Target fish
  • Scats
  • Green chromides
  • Morays
  • Large barbs
  • Silver dollars
  • Peaceful cichlids
  • Bristlenose plecos

After housing all tank mates, monitor the behavior of all species during the initial weeks. If you notice significant signs of aggression, it’s necessary to separate the fish.

Additionally, it’s essential to offer plenty of hiding spots and designated territories within the aquarium to minimize stress and aggression among various fish species. This promotes a more natural and harmonious environment.

Which Tank Mates to Avoid for Columbian Shark Catfish?

Columbian sharks do not do well with any species that are smaller than them and are territorial bottom-dwellers. Some of the fishes you should never put in your tank includes:

  • Guppies
  • Neon tetras
  • Dwarf rasboras
  • Discus
  • Betta
  • Corydoras
  • Rainbow sharks
  • Red-tailed black sharks

What are the Common Diseases for Columbian Shark Catfish?

Columbian sharks, like any other marine species, are susceptible to diseases. Some of the most common diseases include:

Disease NameCausesSymptomsTreatment
Marine IchProtozoan Parasitic InfectionLoss of appetite, lethargy, white spots on the body, flashingIch medications, raise the water temperature, use aquarium salts
Fin RotBacterial InfectionDisintegration of fin, loss of appetite, fin discoloration, fraying, lethargyBoost water quality, aquarium salts, antibiotics, remove physically harmful objects
ColumnarisBacterial InfectionTail and fin rot, fungus growths, red and sore body, white film on body, appetite loss, energy lossEnhance water quality, antibiotics, and stress reduction
Velvet (Gold Dust Disease)Parasitic InfectionScratching and rubbing behavior, rust or gold-colored film on the bodyUse sea salt in the tanks, use medications designed with copper sulfate, and raise the water temperature
Swim Bladder DiseaseOverfeeding, a diet lacking fiberDifficulty in swimming, floating on a sideFast the fish for a few days
Gill FlukeParasitic InfectionPale and swollen gills spread opercula, restless, mucus secretion, breathing problems, loss of weight, dark color, jumping out of the tankAquarium salts, antibacterial medications

The fish lacks scales, so avoid using medications with potassium permanganate or copper. Use melafix, pimafix, or half or a fourth the recommended dosage of formalin or Malachite green.

You can prevent all these health issues by maintaining excellent water quality by following these measures:

  • Ensure the water is clean and free from parasites and harmful bacteria
  • Observe the species regularly to notice any discoloration, appetite loss, or strange behavior
  • Offer a balanced diet to boost their immune system
  • Reduce stress by avoiding sudden water parameter changes and overcrowding
  • Quarantine the new fish for at least 30 days before adding them to a new tank

How to Breed Columbian Shark Catfish?

Breeding Columbian sharks is a challenging endeavor, especially if you lack a sophisticated system to manage salinity levels. It’s challenging to replicate the necessary natural environmental transitions in captivity.

Important Note: We strongly advise against attempting to breed these sharks in captivity until there is a well-established track record of success. This is because even if the process is unsuccessful, it takes a major toll on your pet fish.

However, if you’re curious about the process, here are the details.

How to Establish a Breeding Tank for Columbian Shark Catfish?

A separate, spacious breeding tank filled with brackish water, sandy substrate, and numerous hiding spots using rocks and driftwood is necessary.

Optimal water conditions include:

  • Water Temperature: 75-79 °F (24-26 °C)
  • pH levels: 7.0-8.0
  • Specific Gravity: 1.005-1.010.

Courtship & Mating Behavior

A healthy and sexually mature pair (around 2-3 years of age) is then introduced to the breeding tank. The pair is then conditioned with a nutritious and diverse diet, including:

  • High-quality pellets or flakes
  • Live or frozen foods (brine shrimp or bloodworms)
  • Plant matter

The pair needs a stress-free and calm environment to stay healthy and happy for spawning.


Environmental factors such as changes in temperature and other parameters trigger their mating instincts.

During this period, the male becomes highly active in pursuit of females during courtship rituals. These rituals involve chasing, and males may also gently bump females, particularly in their stomach regions. This stimulates the release of eggs by the females.

He also builds nests with the substrate to woo her.

Under suitable conditions, the female lays her large eggs, which the male fertilizes externally.

Incubation & Paternal Care

One of the most fascinating aspects of Columbian Sharks’ breeding behavior is their unique parenting strategy, which involves paternal mouthbrooding.

The male then takes the fertilized eggs into his mouth. He carries the fertilized eggs until they hatch, ensuring their safety and providing them with a stable environment.

However, this behavior should not be mistaken for cannibalism; it is an essential part of their reproductive strategy.

The exact incubation phase of the eggs is unknown as the fish isn’t successfully bred in captivity.

When should you Separate the male and female Columbian Shark Catfish?

Once the eggs are laid, it’s important to move the female fish from the tank. This lets the male fish care for the brood without any disturbance.

Now, these juveniles are promptly moved to a separate tank for growth. They’re fed finely crushed flake food or specially prepared fry food to ensure proper development.

Migration During Breeding In The Wild

In its natural habitat, the fish spawns in the ocean. The male fish takes the eggs in his mouth and swims upstream toward freshwater sources. The fry are released in the freshwater. During the early stages of life, the fry stay there and migrate later to the ocean.

Which Columbian Shark Catfish should you Buy?

Buy a school of juvenile fish of around 3-4, as they are social and feel more confident in groups.

A word from FishInAquarium

Columbian sharks are mesmerizing species popular for their distinctive appearance and temperament. It’s a gratifying experience to raise a bunch of these inexpensive fish in your aquarium.

While they are relatively easy to care for, you need some prior experience to provide the right conditions for their well-being.

Hope this post was enlightening and you are now all prepared to add a baby shark to your tank. If yes, this is your chance to share the article with other aquarists in your circle. Share the joy of raising the fish together!

In case you face any roadblocks, reach out to us via mail without any hesitation, and we will be more than happy to help.

Minnie B Miller - Professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium

About Minnie B Miller

Minnie B. Miller, a professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium, has over 8 years of expertise in fish breeding and care, gained through her roles at AquaticTX and Sea Lion Landing. Having honed her skills with various aquatic species, she is dedicated to empowering fellow enthusiasts by sharing her knowledge and experience.