Sailfin Pleco 101: Care, Size, Diet, and More

The Sailfin Pleco is an interesting freshwater fish that we recommend quite often. They have an interesting look, are relatively peaceful (in the right habitat), and don’t have complicated care requirements.

Due to their size, a lot of aquarists tend to gravitate to other plecos instead of the Sailfin. But if you have room, we think you should give this species a shot!

This guide will teach you the essential elements of Sailfin Pleco care along with a bunch of other useful info you’ll need to know about this fish. By the time you’re done reading it, you’ll be an expert!

Species Summary

The Sailfin Pleco (Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps) is a large freshwater catfish that is found primarily in the northern area of South America. You will sometimes see this species referred to as the Leopard Pleco as well.

The countries that have the highest concentration of this species are Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia. There have been instances where these fish have managed to make their way south, but that’s far less common.

Sailfin Pleco near some wood in their freshwater tank

Sailfin Plecos spend most of their time at the bottom of slow-moving and murky rivers (with the Amazon and Orinoco being the most common). During the times of the year where the water levels aren’t as high, these fish will actually bury themselves in the mud.

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For the most part, this type of pleco eats plant matter (they’re some of the best algae-eaters out there) but will have meaty foods on occasion as well. These fish are known for their size, which makes keeping them in a home aquarium something that not everyone can do.


The typical lifespan of a Sailfin Pleco is around 15 to 20 years when in captivity. It’s far more common for these fish to reach the upper end of their lifespan in the wild though.

Author Note: In order to ensure that this species lives as long as possible you’ll need to give them proper care. The main factors that influence their lifespan are their tank size, water quality, and diet.


The Sailfin Pleco is a rather beautiful fish that is quite hypnotizing to look at. They have a highly-condensed series of spots that cover their entire bodies (hence the source of the “Leopard Pleco” name).

This pattern is pretty consistent on all areas of their body. While other species usually have a change in pattern on their fins, head, or underbelly, the Sailfin does not!

This gives them a very unique and textured look that a lot of people like. Depending on the lighting and colors present in their tank, this pattern can either make them blend in or stand right out!

The most common colors of these fish are faded orange with dark brown spots. The contrast between the spots and their base color will vary a bit based on the specimen.

When it comes to their body shape, the Sailfin Pleco has a lot in common with the rest of the common aquarium plecos such as the Bristlenose, Rubber Lip, and Clown. Their head, body, and fins are all pretty much the same.

But there is one big exception.

True to their name, the Sailfin Pleco has a massive dorsal fin. This fin is not only quite tall but it has a lot of surface area as well. At the front, it extends straight up before fanning back almost to the start of the caudal peduncle.

Sailfin Pleco Size

The average Sailfin Pleco size is between 13 to 19 inches in length when fully grown. These are very large fish!

Their size will depend on a variety of factors. Fish in the wild tend to be a bit larger than ones in captivity, but Sailfins in very large home tanks can grow quite long as well. If they were bred, the quality of the breeding practices will impact their max size as well.

Author Note: The growth rate of Sailfin Plecos is rather fast. These fish can go from being quite small to over a foot in length in the blink of an eye. This is why we recommend planning ahead with a large tank instead of slowly working your way up.


Sailfin Pleco care is very straightforward. There aren’t any overly tricky or unique aspects of their requirements that you’ll need to think about.

However, it doesn’t mean you can sleepwalk your way through owning these fish. Because of their size, it’s important for you to set them up with the right kind of habitat (and maintain it).

Below are the main factors you should consider:

Tank Size

The recommended tank size for Sailfin Plecos is 100 gallons at least. While some aquarists keep these fish in tanks that are smaller by 20 or 30 gallons, that’s clearly not the best approach if you want them to thrive.

Large fish need large tanks. Not only will it help them grow to their maximum size, but it plays a major part in managing any aggression and keeping them stress-free. This all plays into their overall health in ways that are difficult to quantify.

Here’s something to think about:

Pretty much all of the owners who have seen these fish reach (or exceed) their maximum lifespan have kept them in tanks 100 gallons or larger. In our opinion, getting the tank size right is the second most important part of Sailfin Pleco care (after water quality of course).

If you want to keep them in a community tank you’ll need to add some extra space to accommodate the other fish. This is especially true if you’re planning on keeping additional bottom-feeders.

Water Parameters

Providing these fish with the proper water parameters is obviously extremely important. Even though this is a relatively hardy species you’ll need to provide water they’re comfortable with.

The nice thing about having to keep these fish in such a large tank is it’s a bit easier to maintain a level of consistency with the parameters. Keeping everything stable is just as important as getting the levels right!

  • Water temperature: 73°F to 85°F (the middle of this range is ideal)
  • pH levels: 6.5 to 7.4
  • Water hardness: 6 to 10 KH

Run some tests every few days after they’ve moved into their new tank to be sure these parameters are stable. Sailfin Plecos can tolerate some degree of change (more than a lot of other freshwater species), but you want to avoid it if possible.

What To Put In Their Tank

Setting up the interior of their tank is a very important part of the process. A fish that’s housed in an aquarium that doesn’t feel comfortable will experience higher stress levels and show potential aggression.

When it comes to the substrate, these fish aren’t very picky. You can use standard gravel if you wish, but we prefer sand if you can manage it. Since they will spend a lot of time at the bottom of the aquarium a softer substrate will be a little nicer for them (they might even do a bit of digging in it).

Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps at the bottom of the aquarium

Something that you should definitely include in a tank with a Sailfin Pleco is a decent piece of driftwood. These fish love to spend time hiding underneath logs and wood (especially during the day). Not only that, but wood is a great surface for algae to grow on which will give them something to snack on as well.

Don’t go overboard when adding wood to their tank. One or two solid pieces if you have a 100-gallon tank should be fine. If you’re keeping them in something significantly larger feel free to add more though!

You can also add some plants to their habitat as well. Leopard Plecos are known to nibble on vegetation so you’ll want something that can bounce back (Hornwort, Water Wisteria, or Java Moss are all great choices). Don’t feel obligated to go with a heavily planted tank for this species though.

Author Note: You’ll want to have a pretty strong canister filter when keeping these fish as well (we recommend the Fluval FX4 or FX6). This will allow you to change the water a little less frequently and provide better quality overall.

Their tank should have a little water flow as well. You can be flexible with how you achieve this based on your setup preferences.

Common Possible Diseases

One good thing about Sailfin Pleco care is that these fish are quite hardy. They are rather resilient and won’t easily fall ill, unlike some other freshwater species.

However, they’re not invincible. Just like any animal, these fish can get ill if they’re kept in a habitat that doesn’t fit their needs (or if they just have bad luck).

The vast majority of illnesses that these fish experience are the usual freshwater culprits. Ich is the most common, but various other infections and parasites can strike too.

Be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary so you can act fast. White spots, scars, cuts, or a change in behavior are all causes for concern. Even a disease that isn’t very severe can progress into something serious if left untreated.

When you notice something it’s important to act fast. Consult your vet and begin treatment immediately. The sooner you act, the higher the chance is that your fish will recover.

Of course, the best way to keep the risk of disease low is by simply keeping the tank in great shape. Not providing clean, high-quality water conditions will significantly increase the chance of your Sailfin getting sick.

Food & Diet

Providing Sailfin Plecos with a healthy diet is a piece of cake. These omnivores are not picky and very low-maintenance when it comes to food.

As we mentioned earlier, a lot of what these fish eat is types of aquarium algae. In captivity, they’ll scavenge and nibble on various other items they happen to find as well (they might even chew on your plants).

Even though you should have some wood in their tank to facilitate natural algae growth, you can’t rely on that alone.

Algae wafers tend to be the food of choice when it comes to this species, and we’ve had great success with them as well.

You can also give them a snack of veggies from time to time as well. Cucumbers and zucchini are both fantastic options that they should have no trouble eating.

Some owners like to mix things up by dropping in some freeze-dried or live foods as well. These fish will eat insects in the wild when they come across them, it’s just rare. Anything such as bloodworms or larvae can be tried (some don’t go for these though).

You should make sure that you don’t overfeed your Sailfin Pleco, especially since you’ll be using a lot of algae wafers. If they eat too much there will likely be health complications, and if too many end up uneaten then it can negatively affect the water quality.

Don’t give them more than they can eat in a couple of minutes, and aim for a twice per day schedule (you can be a little bit flexible here if needed). You’ll need to exercise good judgment based on the feeding behavior of your particular fish, but these guidelines will be a good starting point.

Behavior & Temperament

The behavior and temperament of the Sailfin Pleco is quite interesting. These fish will alternate between being fairly active, and the exact opposite.

While they aren’t technically nocturnal, this species is generally more active at night. During the day they have a tendency to camp out underneath their favorite log or hiding spot.

As we’ve mentioned earlier, these fish are bottom-dwellers just like their relatives. They will spend the vast majority of their time in the bottom third of your tank (seeing one venture up to the surface pretty much never happens).

As far as their temperament goes, Leopard Plecos are rather peaceful. They just want to have room to hang out at the bottom of the aquarium and be left alone. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll see them starting trouble with other species as long as they aren’t paired with anything too aggressive.

Author Note: The only situation where you might see this species show aggression is toward each other. Sailfin Plecos can get a bit territorial with one another (especially if they don’t have enough space). If you introduce one after the other there’s a good chance this will happen.

Sailfin Pleco Tank Mates

Because of their mellow nature, there are plenty of tank mates that work well with a Sailfin Pleco. These fish are peaceful and simply want to do their own thing.

Not only will they not mess with other fish, but they’re also too large to get picked on as well!

You won’t need to worry about this species accidentally eating smaller fish either since they’re not on the menu anyway. This is a luxury that you don’t have with many other large freshwater species.

To help get you started, here are some compatible tank mates that tend to work well:

There are obviously many more species you can consider as suitable tank mates for Sailfin Plecos, but the species on this list tend to work very well. As always make sure you consider the care requirements of any other fish you want to pair them with.


Breeding Sailfin Plecos is something that is basically never done successfully in home aquariums. Not only is it very hard to identify the gender of these fish, but the conditions they require in order to breed are very specific.

In fact, we haven’t heard of any verified reports of this successfully happening. These fish are only bred in commercial facilities that can facilitate the process and provide the conditions they need.

The main obstacle is that these fish naturally need very muddy water in order to breed. They’ll even bury themselves in the mud!

Because the conditions required to breed these fish are so difficult to replicate at home, we highly discourage you from attempting this. It’s better for the fish if you let the fisheries handle it.

Closing Thoughts

Now that you’re an expert on Sailfin Pleco care and what this species needs to thrive, it’s time to decide if you want one or not!

If you know you can provide the proper care and are simply on the fence, we think you should give them a shot. These fish are quite fun to own and over the course of their long lives, you’ll definitely build a special bond.

We know owners who have Sailfin Plecos that enjoy being rubbed on the back! They’ll reach their hands into the tank and the fish will rush up to the surface and greet them.

If you have any fun stories about these fish that you’d like us to include in this guide we’d be more than happy to hear from you. We’re planning on adding some personal anecdotes from owners in the near future!

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