The Bruin Skreeuber (Synodontis zambezensis)

Synodontis zambezensis

In the summer of 2003 several major aquatic wholesalers were given the opportunity to bring into the U.K. a large consignment of a ‘new’ Synodontis species, all of a juvenile form, known commonly as the Bruin Skreeuber (Afrikaans), Brown Squeaker, and to science as Synodontis zambezensis. As the majority of catfish fans will be aware, squeaker refers to the noise the majority of Synodontis species (there are over 100 scientifically named and a large number awaiting classification which are tagged as ‘species’ e.g. Synodontis species ‘Cameroon’).

Unlike the majority of Synodontis, which enter our hobby either as wild catches or from the large aquarium fish breeding establishments of Eastern Europe (where pairs are often hormone stimulated in order to reproduce), these particular fish were obtained, or so I am reliably informed, as surplus stock from a large scale fish farming operation in Southern Africa, with Government permission first obtained for their release. They had thus escaped the table for life in aquarists’ tank.

I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to the retail arm of BAS at Bolton (this Lancashire retail outlet is one of the largest of its kind in Europe) only a few days after these particular fish came out of quarantine. With plenty of specimens to choose from, and going on slight differences in body girth and shape of the adipose fin, I chose what I hoped would be a pair? Even in their travelling bag these were beautiful little fish. Their background body colour was a solid light blue-grey with a foreground of dark grey spots.

Upon arriving home the two fish were placed into a 36x12x12″ tank in the company of various Loricarin, Barbus and Trichogaster species. They thrived with a tank temperature of 74 F and a pH of 7. Every day that passed they became increasingly bolder until they reached a position where they were the first to any type of aquarium fish food that came their way. Thankfully they caused little aggression towards their fellow tank mates and restricted there own territorial quarrels to slight bouts of ‘feuding’.

By now I had begun a search for information on the Bruin Skreeuber. Having two common names and a scientific name to go on made this particular task fairly easy. The first fact of great interest, as stated by more than one textbook author, was that of the 2500 species of fish classed as catfish it was the Bruin Skreeuber which had been the most closely studied in its natural habitat(s). To write down all the facts I was able to discover about this particular fish would fill to much space so here are the ones which may be of most interest:

  • 1. The populations of Bruin Skreeuber vary in their body colouration. This is the only known species of Synodontis, in a wild form, in which albino patches can occur upon the body.
  • 2. These particular fish are found in pools and slow-flowing reaches of perennial and seasonal rivers.
  • 3. One of the true upside down catfish they find shelter in crevices and the underside of logs.
  • 4. The native people(s) of Southern Africa will eat the flesh of this particular species but, when possible, avoid fishing in areas were these fish are known to frequent as the strong tips of the pectoral fins can easily rip through nets (and flesh if my experiences with Synodontis species ‘Zaire’ are concerned, I will never forget the blistering and swelling of the affected fingers). Fishermen bait their hooks with cheese in order to catch this and other catfish species. Some African fishermen will actually bite off the spines of any Synodontis (a regular occurance with S. nyassae of Lake Malawi) species they catch before further handling of their catch but this must be a very risky undertaking?
  • 5. Breeds in the seasonal floodplains caused by monsoon-like rain (as do the better known S. angelicus and S. decorus).
  • 6. The colours of the eggs produced by a female Bruin Skreeuber are dark orange.

As the weeks passed more and more specimens began to appear in both local and regional aquatic retail outlets. On ‘first name terms’ with the majority of proprietors I had great fun relaying the facts above. By now these particular fish were appearing more and more without either common or scientific names displayed and under the ‘species’ catch all.

Taking a great interest in these fish I managed to persuade several retail friends to keep asking any fellow customers who purchased one or more how they were getting along and this would lead to the emergence of some very interesting bits and pieces.

Firstly the vast majority thrived in aquaria. In the short term the growth in body size (the two in my care went well over the 8″ (200mm) length quoted for adult specimens in the wild in less than 14 months) and the increase in body weight had been very impressive, taking some keepers by surprise.

Twelve months down the line it became clear that the way the juvenile Bruin Skreeubers had been kept had a large effect on their social behaviour? Those raised in pairs or small groups had, on the whole, proved to be of very little problem and were fine to house with fish of an equal size and strength. In contrast those kept singly, even in a mixed Synodontis tank, became tyrants attacking everything that moved around them.

As an example of the latter a local retailer took back a 6″ Bruin Skreeuber that had been kept singly, as the aquarist concerned was a good customer who had reached a stage were he was despairing of the antics of this particular fish. The retailer concerned believed he would be able to sell this fish on but had not bargained on its unsociable traits (which he believed were second only to the ‘king of thugs’ S. acanthomias) and ended up having to keep it in the shop with a label which read Synodontis species ‘Pit Bull Terrier’ and this was the one tank in the shop that he dare not put his hand into.

Sadly, in the long term, we had found a fish for the grouping Yorkshire catfish fans used to class as ‘Albert’s complex’ (in reference to S. alberti) in that the initial swift growth was countered by, in Synodontis terms, a short lifespan (the slower the growth rate the longer these particular fish appear to live and, as an example, a slow growing S. afrofischeri in my care is close to 21 years old). From the retailer feedback the average lifespan for these fish is 4 years with the oldest specimen we were able to keep tabs upon reaching 6 years of age. My pair lived for 4 years and 6 months and when their time came things happened very quickly, and without warning or any visible signs, with both passing away (all their fellow tank companions were fine) within 5 days of each other.

There is a gap in our article that we cannot fill as no breeding attempts, or even a sure-fire way of telling the sexes apart, were ever spoken of and I was never 100% sure that the two fish in my care were male and female?

As a little ‘moan’ I feel that the brown part of their common name is a little misleading in order to describe all of the regional variations of S. zambezensis and as my two matured their body colour became a solid grey without any hint of even a brown freckle.

As far as I am aware no further batches of this particular Squeaker have appeared in the U.K. since those of 2003. Should this happen in the future, and a U.K.-based aquarist see these fish before I do, please let me know as I would love a second chance to keep and study a fish well worth saving tank space for.

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