Columbian Shark: Ultimate Guide (Care, Diet, Breeding & More)

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Written By Matt Stevens

Hi, I'm Matt! I've been obsessed with fishkeeping for over 15 years now and created this site to share my knowledge with others.

The Columbian Shark is a fascinating brackish water fish with many qualities you will never see in another species.

For instance, did you know that these fish thrive in saline conditions? Or that they can cohabitate peacefully with Gobies and Arches in the same tank?

We bet you didn’t know that these fish are sometimes called West American Cat Sharks! Anyway, this guide will demystify all the misconceptions you might have heard about these attractive brackish water fish.

What do Columbian Sharks eat? Who would be their best tank mates in captivity? And is it even possible to breed them in home aquariums?

This guide addresses all the key areas of Columbian Shark care; feeding habits, appearance, lifespan, tank mates, tank size, breeding, and more!

Species Overview

Columbian Sharks are technically not saltwater sharks, despite the “shark” given name. They are part of the broader Ariidae family with the scientific name, Ariopsis seemanni.

The fish’s general body appearance earns them the shark moniker because it resembles the dreaded saltwater monster when it’s swimming. Unlike many fish, Columbian Sharks are never condensed in a specific region.

Lifespan10-15 years
Care LevelIntermediate
Behavior & TemperamentPeaceful
CompatibilityPeaceful fish
Food and DietOmnivores
SizeUp to 14 Inches
Tank SetupTropical freshwater for juvenile fish, brackish water for adults
Tank Size (Minimum)100 gallons

Their name would suggest that these sharks are dominantly found at the Pacific coast of Colombia. But over the years, they’ve been located throughout South America, Mexico, Guatemala, and California.

Being natural inhabitants of the rivers and tributaries draining into the Pacific Ocean, these fish require specific water conditions to survive in captivity.


A typical Columbian Shark will have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years in a confined setting. As expected, these sharks will have a longer lifespan in their natural habitat compared to captivity.

Generally, their lifespan is solely tied to the level of care and food choices in captivity. If you don’t strive to satisfy all the conditions they’ve been accustomed to in the wild, your beautiful sharks won’t grow to full maturity. 


The Columbian Sharks may not resemble the saltwater sharks in behavior and temperament, but they have the iconic pointed dorsal fin that the latter casually displays.

On top of that, they have moderately sized pectoral and anal fins to support their movement in the tank water. At first sight, you will notice the characteristic catfish appearance, including big mouths with several pairs of long barbels.

Columbian Sharks have dominant silver-gray color that’s more pronounced in the young fish. The eye-catching silvery body pattern is further complimented by white bellies and black fins of semi-transparent color.

In many cases, Columbian Sharks will also have a subtle white stripe at the top of their pectoral, anal, and pelvic fins.

But be cautious when handling these fish because the tall and sharp dorsal fin leads to a venom secreting gland in their body. A typical sting from the shark’s dorsal fin won’t be fatal but can inflict moderate pain and swelling.


A fully grown Columbian Shark will measure about 10 to 14 inches in captivity. But that’s just the standard size, and it’s normal to see Columbian Sharks as large as 20 inches if you provide the right conditions.

Columbian Shark Care

The most interesting thing about Columbian Sharks is that their care requirements vary with age, making their general care even more interesting!

Usually, many aquarists will purchase them from local pet stores as ordinary small fish and instantly assume that caring for them is a breeze. But the fun quickly ends when they realize that these fish will have specific care requirements as they grow.

Now, let’s look at the primary care guidelines to help you maintain healthy Columbian Sharks at home.

Tank Size

Don’t get it twisted. A large tank is an essential must-have when keeping Columbian Sharks at home. If you intend to introduce a single fish in a home aquarium, the minimum tank size should be 75 gallons.

However, if you plan to keep multiple species, the tank size should be at least 100 gallons. The takeaway point is that Columbian Sharks are great swimmers who need sufficient space to stay comfortable, happy, and active.

Water Parameters

Now, this is where many aquarists give up. And we sincerely hope your journey won’t follow the same path.

While the general perception is that Columbian Sharks are just like any other freshwater fish, the little-known secret is that these fish thrive in saline conditions in captivity.

Unfortunately, many aquarists miss this point and end up introducing their young sharks to freshwater conditions. And the result is always disappointing.

We mentioned that Columbian Shark care requirements vary according to age. So, throughout their lives, they tend to survive under specific water conditions.

Young sharks will predominantly stay in freshwater rivers and tributaries. But as they age, they will shift to the coastal region with brackish waters. In full maturity, these fish can even survive in extensive marine conditions without any problem.

You can confidently keep Columbian Sharks at home if you commit to creating the most suitable conditions at every stage of the fish’s lifecycle. If you can’t follow these guidelines strictly, be sure to provide hard water with low salinity. 

Furthermore, the Columbian Shark’s special care requirements mean that you should test the tank water regularly to monitor its status.

Staying updated on the exact water conditions will help you make necessary adjustments and provide optimal care throughout the fish’s lifecycle.

Here’s a summary of the key parameters at the standard levels.

  • Water hardness: 10-12 KH
  • pH levels: 7.0-8.0
  • Water temperature: 75°F-80°F

What to Put in Their Tank?

For Columbian Sharks, the focus should be on creating enough space for effortless exploration inside the tank. Sand is the substrate of choice to recreate the actual conditions in the wild.

If you purchase juvenile fish, they will benefit from small decorations that offer enough hiding spots inside the tank. Mangrove roots and driftwood should be fine to help you achieve that.

Also, you may want to introduce the right plants in modest quantities to support the fish’s life. When doing so, only select the right plants that can adapt to salty conditions. Some of the best options include Sago pondweed, java fern, and anubias.

We won’t stop reminding you that the most important thing for the Columbian Sharks is sufficient swimming space. So, even when introducing new plants, ensure they are neatly placed to leave enough space for the fish.

Another vital aspect will be solid filtration systems. As strong swimmers, don’t be surprised if Columbian Sharks sour the water every time. The easiest way to counter that is to invest in the right filter to help you cycle the tank water occasionally.

Finally, Columbian Sharks are used to fast-flowing waters in their original habitat. Again, you can solve that by getting suitable filters and pumps to guarantee proper oxygen supply.

Common Diseases

Generally, Columbian Sharks can withstand different water conditions without showing any signs of vulnerability. However, this never eliminates the need to provide the right diet and quality water.

Your fish may still be susceptible to specific ailments such as Ich and a range of bacterial and fungal infections affecting most freshwater fish. What’s more, gill fluke disease and skin flukes are other common conditions you will want to keep away from your shark community.

The good news? You can easily prevent most of the conditions mentioned above by maintaining the water conditions at ideal levels.

The biggest secret nobody will tell you about the Columbian Shark is that they thrive in slightly saline conditions, which is also the main challenge many beginner-level aquarists face from the get-go.

If you don’t provide salty water, your shark may never grow to full maturity and easily succumb to stress and common ailments.

Remember, these are scaleless fish, and you will have plenty to worry about regarding protection.

On the same note, it’s crucial to avoid copper-based over-the-counter medications when choosing the right antibiotic to manage common diseases.

What Do Columbian Sharks Eat?

Columbian Sharks are omnivores, where they feed on plant matter and animal food sources in the wild. In their original habitat, these fish will have a strong appetite for shrimps and small crustaceans.

You can embrace the same feeding habits in home aquariums by providing different foods to promote their health and lifespan.

They can eat sinking pellets, flakes, and live frozen foods. This means earthworms, live fish, and shrimps will be great for a typical meal.

To avoid overfeeding them, you can adopt a twice-a-day meal plan while giving them the right amount of food at any given time. You can set the time limit to 5 minutes or less to prevent overfeeding.

Behavior & Temperament

Columbian Sharks are peaceful fish species and are more comfortable at the bottom end of the tank or the middle sections.

As part of the broader catfish family, these fish never stop searching for food inside the aquarium. If the tank is large enough, you will spot them at the water surface, exploring their new habitat.

However, they may show slight aggression if you keep them with smaller fish. Usually, Columbian Sharks view other small fish as potential prey. And that’s the biggest challenge if you keep them together with smaller fish.

Columbian Shark Tank Mates

If you are already sold on the idea of keeping Columbian Sharks at home, we have some good news for you. They are perfect community sharks.

In our opinion, the most important aspect of keeping Columbian Sharks in a large community is to find compatible tank mates. As you may guess, the first place to look for ideal tank mates is within the catfish family itself.

And the best options will be the same species; fellow Columbian Sharks. Keeping these sharks in small groups gives them a sense of belonging and will make them more secure in the tank.

If you choose to keep them with other species, you should only consider peaceful fish that survive in brackish water. Some of the best options are listed below:

  • Green chromides
  • Targetfish
  • Gobies
  • Scats
  • Arches
  • Monos
  • Garpikes

You can confirm if the newly introduced fish is compatible with your Columbian Shark by closely monitoring its behavior over a few days or weeks. At this point, it would make sense to separate the fish at the slightest sign of aggression. 


If you can recall the Columbian Shark’s unique care requirements in the wild, you will understand why breeding these fish in captivity is challenging.

Just like the water parameters, the spawning process in Columbian Sharks has specific requirements. For example, adult fish will only breed in oceans, which is unimaginable in captivity. 

When breeding occurs, the females usually initiate the process by laying eggs in specific hiding spots. Later, the male fertilizes the eggs. Typically, the male sharks will protect the young fish until they are ready to swim in freshwater conditions.

Don’t stress out if you can’t breed Columbian Sharks in captivity. Not many have done it successfully in a confined setting.

Final Thoughts

By now, you may have realized that Columbian Sharks are one of the most underappreciated species in the entire fishkeeping community.

Keeping these fish at home with their colorful appearance and simple care requirements should be easy for many aquarists.

We hope this guide has completely changed your opinion about these amazing brackish water sharks.

If you filter the valuable information from the endless misconceptions, you will understand that Columbian Sharks are a unique species in the entire aquatic community.

And we can’t wait to hear your success story with these fish in a home aquarium!