Do plecos need driftwood in their tank?

For many years people have been arguing about whether plecos need wood in their tank. Do they really need it to survive, or is it just something people say?

Most plecos don’t need driftwood to survive. However, for almost all plecos it is recommended to have at least some driftwood. Driftwood balances their diet and is beneficial for their digestive system due to the fibers they absorb when grasping on the wood.

What plecos need driftwood in their tank?

Maybe you didn’t know it, but plecos are actually a group of hundreds of species, who all go under the name of ‘pleco’. Some common species are Bristlenose plecos common plecos and clown plecos. They might seem very similar, which they are on certain areas, but they are also very different.

And so they are their needs in terms of wood. Clown and bristlenose plecos for example will both benefit from wood, while other species like Zebra plecos or Snowball plecos don’t mind a lack of wood.

But why do some species of plecos need wood in their tank, and others do not? This comes down to their natural habitat and diet. Some species live in areas where there is lots of wood available, while other species live in fast-flowing big rivers with only rocks.

This means that there are species that actively grasp on wood and other more carnivorous species that who don’t grasp on wood.

To help you out I’ve created a table with 15 of the most common pleco species, their natural diet, and whether they need wood as part of it. 

Species / genus Natural diet Wood recommended?
Bristlenose pleco(Ancistrus sp.) Vegetarian, grazing on biofilm Yes
Common pleco (Hypostomus sp.) Omnivore, mostly algae and some meat Yes
Clown pleco (Panaqolus sp.) Grazing on wood, other plant-based foods Yes
Flash pleco (Panaqolus sp.) Grazing on wood, other plant-based foods Yes
Zebra pleco (Hypancsitrus sp.) Entirely carnivorous, shrimps, snails, ... No
Queen Arabesque Pleco (Hypancistrus sp.) Entirely carnivorous, shrimps, snails, ... No
Snowball pleco (Hypancsitrus sp.) Omnivores, mostly meat No
Leopard frog pleco (Peckoltia sp.) Omnivores, mostly meat No
Candy Striped Pleco(Peckoltia sp.) Omnivores, will eat some algae Yes
Peppermint pleco (Paracistrus sp.) Mainly algae Yes
Golden Nugget Pleco( Baryancistrus sp.) Mostly high-protein plant-based foods Yes
Sailfin Pleco (Pterygoplichthys sp. Brown algae, plant-based material Yes
Royal Pleco (Panaque sp.) Mostly plant-based, ocasionally wood Yes
Blue phantom pleco (Hemiancistrus sp.) Omnivorous, a good algae eater Yes
Sunshine Pleco (Scobinancistrus sp.) Omnivorous, mostly meat No

As you can see, there are quite a lot of species that don’t need wood in their tank. They will do just fine when given a good amount of other natural hiding places like pleco caves and stones.

However, adding wood to your tank is still a great way to provide natural cover. Enough hiding places is something that all plecos – no exception – need and wood is a great way of providing it. So even if you have a species that doesn’t need it as part of its diet, it can still be beneficial.

Why do plecos need wood?

You might think that driftwood is just for providing shelter, or for your aquarium to look nicer. Actually, it has a lot more benefits for your pleco catfish than you might think.

Driftwood is a crucial part of the diet of many plecos in the wild. Plecos grasp on wood, which contains lignin, cellulose, and other fibers that benefit their digestive system. Wood also creates a natural place for them to hide and feel more comfortable. 

The ideal snack for pelcos. Photo by Joshua Ganderson

1. The fibers help their digestive system.

If you’ve taken a look at the table above, you have seen that the diet of pleco species is very varied. 

Some pleco species only eat meaty foods, while others will spend their time grasping on wood for the biofilm and fibers. 

When you look at the natural habitat of some pleco species, you can see rivers and streams with lots of trees growing on the sides. These trees shed leaves and obviously, pieces of wood get in the water. After a certain period of time, the wood will soften and biofilm will grow on it.

This extra source of food creates an open niche as we could say in biology terms, and species like Panaqolus maccus (Clown Pleco) and Ancistrus cf. cirrhosis (Bristlenose pleco) will sit around these branches grasping on it.

Wood-eating pleco species have a long gut system, which allows them to digest complex and hard fibers. Driftwood contains cellulose and lignin, which are both crucial part of the vegetarian pleco species’ diet.

So in your tank you should try to mimic the diet they get in the wild as much as possible and driftwood is ideal for it. Many plecos will hide between the wood and scrape on the wood. Since only a very small portion of the wood comes off a time.

The mouth of this Royal pleco is made for grasping on wood. Photo by Jan

2. Biofilm and algae on the wood

A few days after putting the wood in your tank, a lot of small organisms will start to grow on it. You might have noticed some algae growing on your driftwood, or a slime-like structure. The biofilm is just the dead wood being consumed by bacteria that create this slime layer.  Don’t mind, both aren’t harmful and even beneficial. 

We can see that some species like the Peppermint pleco (Parancistrus nudiventris) almost entirely live off of algae growing on rocks in the fast-flowing river of the Rio Xingu.

Thus, the micro-organisms and algae growing on your wood are actually a good thing, indicating a healthy ecosystem in your tank. Your pleco(s) will enjoy grasping them of.

However some plecos have algae and wood as a big part of their diet, additional feeding is still required. They can't survive on only wood, so feeding plecos vegetables, pellets and algae wafers is necessary.

The ideal snack for pelcos. Photo by Joshua Ganderson

3. Balances water parameters.

When you add wood to your tank, it releases tannins to the water. Just like when you add indian almond leaves, these totally unharmful (and often beneficial) tannins can cause a lower pH. Compare it to making tea ;). In these warmer water temperatures the wood will gradually release tannins.

In the wild habitat of plecos, we can see the water is often very brown. This isn’t because the water is polluted, but because of the large number of leaves and wood in the water. As a result, the water in these streams is often very soft, with pH between 5 and 6 or lower.

So, if you want a more balanced tank, why not add any driftwood?

4. It imitates their natural habitat

In the wild, plecos live in South America. Mostly in the tropical rivers of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. In these rivers, tons of organic material and leaves add up. This creates the ideal habitat for plecos to hide and breed.

Other species like Hypancistrus zebra live in bigger rivers (Rio Xingu) where the substrate mostly consists out of big rocks and sand. This is also one of the reasons why they don’t necessarily need wood but do great with other forms of hiding.

5. A natural hiding place for your pleco

Plecos are rather shy fish, that spend most of their time hiding on the bottom layer of the tank. They usually come out scavenging for food, but in the end, most plecos like the comfort of hiding.

This is why every pleco needs to have access to at least some natural hiding places. When you don’t give plecos enough options to hide, this causes stress and your pleco will actually hide more! 

Hiding places can be added by providing hard structures like rocks, pleco caves, or even better; driftwood. The reason I prefer driftwood is that the shape is always different. Many pieces of driftwood have holes or natural caves, which make the ideal places for plecos to hide in.

You might think that adding more hiding places cause your pleco to hide more, but actually the opposite is true. In a tank with lots of ding spots your pleco will feel safer and will dare to come out more.

As you can see, this Snowball pleco is way more active when given enough shelter. Photo by Nathan O'Nions

The best sort of wood for plecos

There are many kinds of driftwood available to put in your tank. All look slightly different, but many kinds are very similar. The main difference between the sorts of driftwood is their origin and the tree they come from.

If you’re looking for driftwood, search for driftwood that’s is slightly soft. This way, plecos can scrape off small parts. Here are three kinds of driftwood I recommend, and which your plecos will find great.

  • Spider driftwood – As the name suggests, spider wood is a complex structure of roots and can differ a lot in shape. Spider wood is a light wood and doesn’t release as many tannins as other kinds like Mopani and Malaysian driftwood, which makes it ideal if you prefer a more clean tank. It is a great hiding place for small pleco species, that can hide between the small branches. It’s a big biofilm producer, which makes it ideal for plecos to scrape on.
  • Mopani driftwood – Mopani driftwood is an African sort of wood, which is very heavy and releases a lot of tannins. It sinks very fast. Just like Spider driftwood, it’s also a big biofilm producer, which makes it ideal for your plecos to eat.
  • Malaysian driftwood – This wood is great because it’s very varied in shape. Whereas spider wood and Mopani wood have fewer holes, Malaysian driftwood has very unique shapes which makes it ideal for plecos to hide in. It will also release useful tannins and has a moderately soft edge, ideal for plecos to scrape on.

Conclusion

If you’re wondering wheter you should put driftwood in your tank, it’s probably a yes. Many species will benefit from grasping on the wood and by eating it. The biofilm and organisms growing on the wood are great extra nutrition too.

On top of that, in their natural habitat plecos hang out around wood and rivers are often brown from all the tannins released by the wood. Thus, the wood mimics their natural habitat, provides extra shelter while stabilizing the water parameters like pH.

If you’re looking to buy driftwood, there are many options available. My favorites are Mopani and Malaysian driftwood because they release lots of tannins and provide lots of hiding possibilities.