Synodontis multipunctatus, a species of upside-down catfish found in Lake Tanganyika, is known for its unique breeding behavior. While the lake is renowned for its diverse cichlid population, S. multipunctatus stands out as a brood parasite, earning it the nickname "cuckoo catfish."
At depths of around 40 meters (130 ft) in Lake Tanganyika, S. multipunctatus forms large schools. However, its breeding strategy is what truly sets it apart. The lake is home to mouthbrooding cichlids, which carry their eggs and young in their mouths for protection. S. multipunctatus takes advantage of these unwitting cichlids, particularly species like Ctenochromis horei and Simochromis babaulti, as foster parents for its own offspring.
The scent of spawning cichlids triggers S. multipunctatus to initiate its own spawning. As the cichlids lay their eggs, the catfish swiftly enter and consume the cichlid eggs before they can be collected by the mother. In the process, S. multipunctatus releases and fertilizes its own eggs. The female cichlid, in a hurried attempt to gather her eggs, unintentionally scoops up the catfish eggs as well. These catfish eggs hatch inside the cichlid's mouth, where they proceed to consume the cichlid's own eggs before being released by the deceived foster parent. This clever strategy relieves S. multipunctatus of parental care responsibilities and allows them to breed again more quickly.
This unique reproductive tactic of S. multipunctatus demonstrates its adaptation to exploit the parental care behavior of mouthbrooding cichlids in Lake Tanganyika.