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Sailfin Pleco Care Guide: Everything You Need To Know

Sailfin Pleco Care Guide: Everything You Need To Know

The Sailfin Pleco is a gorgeous exotic fish that is not well known. With low maintenance, a docile temperament, and a beautiful coat, these fish are highly desirable for first-time pet owners. When considering Sailfin Plecos as pets, what do I need to know?

Sailfin Plecos, are large freshwater catfish with leopard coats from South America. Because of their beautiful markings, they are sometimes referred to as Leopard Plecos. These fish make excellent pets because of their easy temperament, omnivorous diet, beautiful appearance, and long lives. Considerations for Sailfin Plecos include tank size, Ich, and their nocturnal schedules. 

Plecos are part of the Loricarrdae family of armored catfish and have large armored scales and coats with beautiful designs. Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps, in particular, have a large dorsal fin, similar to sailfish, that extends their entire backs.

Sailfin Pleco Overview & Natural Habitat

  • Common name: Sailfin Pleco
  • Scientific name:  Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps
  • Care level: Easy
  • Size: 13-19 inches
  • Lifespan: 15-20 years
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Group size: Solitary fish
  • Minimum tank size:
  • Tank level: Bottom dweller
  • Water temperature: 73-85°F (22.78-29.44°C)
  • Water pH levels: 6.5-7.4
  • Water hardness: 6-10kH

The Sailfin Pleco (Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps) is an exotic fish native to South America, specifically Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. Because of its minimal living requirements and friendly demeanor, it makes a wonderful pet for many. 

These fish are a hardy species and live relatively close to the equator. As such, they are used to temperate waters with a minimal range due to the stable year-round temperatures of their natural habitats.

Sailfin Plecos live at the bottom of river basins in equatorial South America, where the water is relatively calm and rich in nutrients. 

These fish are bottom-dwellers that wade through the substrates at the bottom of rivers, often latching onto objects and remaining motionless for long periods. 

Appearance & Size

Sailfin Plecos are beautiful fish, known for their stunning leopard coats, featuring several black or dark brown spots against a beige or golden background. 

Young Plecos have more prominent spots in a honeycomb pattern throughout their coat. As Plecos grow, these spots contract into the familiar leopard coat. 

Many fish from the pleco genus have irregular coats, meaning that leopard spotting is unique for the fins, body, dorsal fin, etc. In Sailfin Plecos, the skin is uniform, with the spots covering their entire body without any divisions. 

This uniform coat appearance sets Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps apart from other members of their genus and makes them highly desirable as pets. 

Compared to other freshwater fish, the Sailfin Pleco is quite large. These fish grow about 13 to 19 inches, or 1-1.5 ft long. The breeding quality of the Sailfin Pleco will directly impact how large it gets. 

Fish of this size typically require about 100 gallons (378.54 liters) of fresh aerated water, especially if they have tank mates. 

Another consideration is that Sailfin Plecos grow much faster than other freshwater fish. It’s better to have their adult tank set up initially than try to increase tank size once they’re already grown. 

Personality & Behavior

Sailfin Plecos are peaceful and largely dormant. The exception is when they are feeding, which they carry out very actively. As bottom feeders, these fish primarily graze and swim within the bottom third of the fish tank. 

Occasionally, Sailfin Plecos are shy and hide from sight. Over time, they become more accustomed to their habitats and social among humans. 

The most significant contributor to a Sailfin Pleco’s temperament is the tank size, as smaller tanks limit resources and force Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps to become territorial. 

Are Sailfin Plecos Territorial?

Sailfin Plecos are not innately territorial. However, if they feel they lack the resources (such as tank space) to survive, they will compete for those resources. 

As long as you have a large enough tank to house your Sailfin Pleco and possible tank mates, your Pleco will not become territorial and will work well with several other freshwater fish. 

Sailfin Pleco Sleeping Schedule

Sailfin Plecos are predominantly nocturnal, meaning they spend most of their waking hours at night. They are not truly nocturnal, and it is common to see them basking during the day. 

As temperaments and sleeping habits between fish can vary, keep an eye on your Pleco to determine the best time to feed it or relocate objects in its tank. 

Expected Lifespan

Sailfin Plecos live about 15-20 years and are lifelong companions for many. Their extended lifespans make them highly desirable pets. 

However, their lifespan is directly related to their living conditions, and improper care can limit the longevity of Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps. The most important qualities to consider when maintaining the health of your Pleco are adequate tank size, a balanced diet, and suitable water parameters. 

Sailfin Pleco Care & Tank Set Up

The most crucial step for caring for your Sailfin Pleco is establishing its tank settings before you get the fish. Doing so will ensure that your Pleco is healthy, stress-free, and has room to grow within its tank. 

Sailfin Plecos do not grow gradually. They typically undergo growth spurts. Having the adult tank ready when you get the fish ensures you don’t need to upgrade the tank. 

The most significant consideration for Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps is the size of the tanks, which can get expensive and difficult to clean. According to Wayfair, large tanks are necessary for the following reasons: 

  • To allow for efficient gas exchange
  • To allow waste to disperse appropriately
  • To allow the fish to grow to its maximum size
  • To allow the fish to live as long as possible
  • To reduce stress and aggression

While Sailfin Plecos are docile fish, they can get territorial and aggressive in tanks less than 70 gallons, as they need to compete for limited resources. Additionally, the size of Plecos requires a significant volume for waste and gasses to disperse within the tank. 

While large tanks are difficult to clean, a massive advantage for Sailfin Plecos is that they help clean algae and other waste products from the tank, easing maintenance. 

Tank Size

A minimum of 100 gallons (378.54 liters) is recommended for Sailfin Plecos. While it’s possible to raise them in smaller tanks, this limits their size and age while increasing their anxiety. If you want your sailfin pleco to live and grow as long as possible, get at least a 100-gallon tank. 

If you’re going to include other fish, you’ll need a larger tank, to avoid competition for tank space. One advantage of larger tanks is that they maintain temperature, pH, and hardness more efficiently than smaller tanks. 

Water Parameters

For fish as large as Sailfin Pleco, it is important to maintain appropriate water parameters so you can closely resemble their natural habitat. Replicating their natural environment will help their chances of reaching their full size and lifespan.

  • Water temperature: 73-85°F (22.78-29.44°C)
  • Water pH levels: 6.5-7.4
  • Water hardness: 6-10kH

Water Temperature

Sailfin Plecos require tank temperatures of 73-85°F (22.78-29.44°C). I recommend about 80°F degrees Fahrenheit (26.67°C) over a range of temperatures. 

The natural range of Sailfin Plecos is equatorial, and these fish thrive in warm, consistent temperatures. Use a heater to achieve the right balance but stay within limits. Going outside its natural temperature range can leave your Pleco susceptible to disease and other conditions

Water pH Levels

pH levels are a critical factor for any tank setup and essential in ensuring your Sailfin Pleco remains happy and healthy.

These fish require a pH of 6.5-7.4, not too basic or acidic. Make sure you check your water parameters regularly so you can detect any changes before they become a significant issue.

Water Hardness

Hardness measures water’s ability to resist changes in pH and represents the amount of carbonate (kH) in the water. Carbonate binds with acids and neutralizes them, buffering pH and keeping it stable. 

The hardness requirements you’ll need to maintain for these fish are between 6-10 kH. 

What To Put In The Tank

Setting up the right environment is an important part of keeping your fish happy and stress free. Emulating their natural habitat helps make them feel comfortable and safe.


Sailfin Plecos are bottom feeders and will spend most of their time at the bottom of their tanks, burrowing and hiding in sandy shallows. The best substrates are plenty of sand or very light gravel at the bottom of the tanks. 


I highly recommend adding several pieces of driftwood.  Your Sailfin Pleco will not only love to hide under the driftwood to feel safe and comfortable, they will also love nibbling on the algae that grows on the driftwood.

Ideal Plants

You’ll want to choose plants that can bounce back because your Sailfin Pleco is going to nibble on the plants.  I recommend strategically placing Java Moss, Water Wisteria or Hornwort in your tank, you don’t have to go all out with a heavily planted tank for this species.


These fish require aerated water with some air flow to provide plenty of oxygen for your fish. Ensure you have a suitable filter to handle a 100+ gallon (378.54+ liters) tank to keep your water clean and your fish content. 

Sailfin Pleco Tank Mates

Sailfin Plecos are not only docile, but they’re also friendly. Several fish make great tank mates for the Pleco.

Ideal tank mates for sailfin plecos are slow-moving fish that inhabit the upper regions of the tank and won’t invade your plecos’ space.

Some good options are:

Unlike some large freshwater species, you don’t have to worry about them eyeballing smaller fish to snack on.

Sailfin Pleco Food & Diet

One of the best qualities of Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps is their omnivorous and varied diets. These fish will eat almost anything and have an appetite to match their size. 

However, be cautious about overfeeding your Pleco, as they can continue to eat everything in sight. Overfeeding Plecos can lead to health complications and affect your tank parameters if their food is left untouched and dissolves. 

The best feeding regimen is twice daily in about 5-minute cycles. The best practice is to feed them only what they can consume in two minutes. 

In addition to the algae in their tanks, algae wafers are one of the best and most cost-effective foods, which you can purchase online or at your local pet store. This food can make up the majority of their diet. 

In addition to algae and to maintain a healthy diet, Sailfin Plecos eat the following foods: 

  • Fresh or frozen vegetables e.g., cucumbers, zucchini, carrots
  • Live or preserved crickets and other insects
  • Insect larvae
  • Bloodworms

Sailfin Plecos do not eat other fish, and there is no risk of them eating other, smaller fish in the tank. If you feed them animal protein, limit it to bugs and other invertebrates that are small enough for their digestive tracts

Breeding Sailfin Plecos

Breeding Sailfin Plecos in home aquariums is a challenging task and to my knowledge there are no verified reports of this being successfully achieved. 

One of the primary difficulties lies in accurately identifying the gender of these fish, which poses a significant obstacle. Equally as difficult is trying to create the specific conditions necessary to successfully breed these fish.

Typically, these fish are bred in commercial facilities equipped to handle the process and meet their specific requirements.

Sailfin Pleco Common Health Issues

The most common disease to look out for in Sailfin Plecos is Ich, short for Ichthyophthirus Multifiliis. This disease is a parasite characterized by white spots on a fish’s underbelly and fins. 

Ich is a parasite that is transferred from other fish, aquatic vertebrates, plants, water, or tank tools from another tank to your tank. This disease is most common when introducing new fish or structures to your tank. 

Treatment for Ich is complicated; if you see white spots, diagnose the issue immediately with a vet. There are several causes for white spots, but Ich is the most life-threatening. 

Aside from Ich, few diseases get past Sailfin Plecos’ robust immune systems, and if tank parameters are monitored, these fish see relatively few health problems. The most common cause of health complications is overfeeding, which can be quickly remedied. 

Considerations for Sailfin Plecos as Pets

Sailfin plecos are excellent pets because of their ease of care, varied diet, and easy-going temperaments. Additional qualities are its beautiful leopard coat and inclination to eat tank algae. 

Care for Plecos is relatively straightforward, as these pets primarily care for themselves. The most significant consideration vs. other fish is the tank size. These fish grow large and need extensive tanks with aerated water to survive. Much larger tanks are necessary if you have additional tank mates with your Pleco. 

Sailfin Pleco FAQs

Are Sailfin Plecos Exotic Fish?

Sailfin Plecos are exotic fish from South America. Exotic fish are any members of a wild species that do not live on their native continent. Despite many being bred in captivity, species such as the Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps are not domesticated and are considered tame exotic pets.

How Do Sailfin Plecos Compare to Other Exotic Fish?

Among various exotic fish, the Sailfin Pleco is considered one of the most docile, easiest to care for, and friendliest around other tank mates.

They are larger, live longer, and are more robust than loaches, which have many similar requirements. Other popular, smaller fish such as guppies, tetras, and mollies are schooling fish, requiring multiple tank mates with short lives.

For these reasons, it’s considered one of the best exotic fish to own and is highly recommended for first-time pet owners.

Are Sailfin Plecos Exotic Fish?

Sailfin Plecos are exotic fish from South America. Exotic fish are any members of a wild species that do not live on their native continent. Despite many being bred in captivity, species such as the Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps are not domesticated and are considered tame exotic pets.

Wrapping Up

Many exotic fish are valuable options for first-time fish owners and connoisseurs alike. However, the Sailfin Pleco, or Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps, stands out as one of the best exotic fish to own, especially as starter fish. 

Sailfin Plecos have the following qualities which set them apart from comparable fish: 

  • Beautiful coats
  • Docile temperaments
  • Hardy immune systems
  • A varied and omnivorous diet 

When deciding on a Sailfin Pleco, the primary considerations are that it requires a significantly large tank, there is a possibility of Ich or other health complications, and their nocturnal schedules. 

If you’re interested in Pleco fish and want to check out some others have a look at this article about Types of Plecos.

I’m Elle, the founder of FishHQ. I created this website to share knowledge, tips, and inspiration for beginner hobbyists to help them create a healthy, happy, and vibrant environment for their fish to thrive. Read more...