African Butterfly Fish – Species Profile & Facts

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The African butterfly fish (Pantodon buchholzi) are not the common pet fish you would usually see. Their appearance is a little bit weird. The reason they are named butterfly fish is the fact that their pectoral fins are similar to a butterfly’s wings with their breath-taking colors.

They are usually present near the water surface. Their natural habitat are the African lakes, such as Lake Chad. You can also find a large number of them in the Congo Basin, Lower Niger, Cameroon, Ogooue, and Upper Zambezi. In these places, you are most likely going to find them in pairs or small groups.

In the wild, the African butterfly fish can grow up to five inches in length. However, since the aquarium is just a synthetic environment for them, they could only grow up to about four inches of length in it.

The African butterfly fish has a flat head and back. The back can be greenish or light brown. It has dark markings on the fins and belly.

The fins have a variety of beautiful colors and their muscles allow them to have enough power to jump or glide over short distances. This characteristic allows the African fish to slip away from predators.

The most fascinating thing about the African butterfly fish is that they are able to breathe air, just like us. They have a big, properly vasculated swim bladder. It regulates buoyancy and allows gas exchange while breathing air from the surface.

Housing these fish can be a handful. Despite their beautiful and innocent appearance, they need an experienced person to take care of them.

They have special requirements that are different from many other types of fish. Now, we shall be discussing all these needs, and you shall see for yourself that keeping this type of fish will not be an easy task.

Aquarium Requirements for African Butterfly Fish

Aquarium Requirements for African Butterfly Fish

Aquarium Requirements for African Butterfly Fish (sourceCC BY-SA 4.0)

The African butterfly fish don’t care about water depth. They prefer staying in shallow water and most of them approach the water. However, they need considerable space, as they tend to roam freely.

Therefore, you should get at least a forty-gallon tank if you are willing to raise them. Also, make sure that the tank isn’t too deep and has more of length and width to it. This will provide them with the room they need.

You can put anything in the substrate, as they rarely visit the bottom of the aquarium. You have to focus on taking care of the surface and making it a similar replica to the wild.

Put the tank in a place where the light intensity isn’t high. Also, place some plants on the water surface to cover the light and make them feel like they’re in their natural habitat.

The African butterfly fish have a slightly bad temper. They can easily get scared and fly out of the tank. So, you should provide the aquarium with a strong lid and keep them away from surprises.

These fish are naturally suspicious. Until the aquarium gives a high resemblance to the wild, they’ll remain frightened and they won’t show any normal behavior.

The aquarium must have a good, powerful filtration unit that can keep the water pure and fresh all the time. But the current and water movement coming from the filter can easily disturb the fish. They do not swim well in moving waters. Therefore, place the filter at the bottom of the tank and over the substrate. You should change about 20% of the water each week.

African Butterfly Fish Water Parameters

African Butterfly Fish Water Parameters

African Butterfly Fish Water Parameters (sourceCC BY-SA 4.0)

Due to the vast difference between all fish, each type settles in a certain place under the water surface. The durability and homeostasis of the fish are two major key factors to determine the needed water specifications.

The African butterfly fish prefer to stay near the surface. Water must have a moderate temperature that ranges between 77- and 82-degrees Fahrenheit.

The optimum water temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit. As mentioned before, they don’t like fast moving water, so place the filter as far as possible from the surface.

Now, here comes one the tricky parts. The African butterfly fish cannot survive in perfectly neutral water. The optimum pH for water should range between 6.5 and 7. In other means, the water should have a little bit of acidity to it.

African Butterfly Fish Tank Mates

Most of the times, the African butterfly fish can coexist in peace with many other fish. They would remain near the water surface and leave the rest of the aquarium to the others. However, make sure to put them with fish that like staying in the middle or bottom of the aquarium.

The African butterfly fish are not 100% peaceful and can grow intolerant of other fish that share the same surface with them. Thus, they will get very aggressive and fight with them.

They can be nice to each other in a large tank. You should keep them away from fin rippers. The fin rippers intimidate the African butterfly fish and cause them discomfort. The reason is that the African butterfly fish have long tentacle type fins that dangle below them. So, fin rippers are a great source of danger for them.

In the wild, crustaceans, such as shrimps and snails are one of the natural preys for the African butterfly fish. However, it is safe to presume that the aquarium won’t be a warfare between the crustaceans and the African butterfly fish.

The most suitable tank mates for the African butterfly fish are the Congo tetras, elephant nose fish, catfish, Knife fish, and medium sized West African Cichlids.

Feeding African Butterfly Fish

The African butterfly fish are naturally carnivores. It is not the smartest idea to feed them flakes or frozen food. They need all the protein they can get. In the wild, these fish are surface hunters. Their primary food are terrestrial insects, nymphs of insects and aquatic larvae. Also, they have no problem with feeding on crustaceans and smaller fish they found near the water surface.

They are demanding eaters that need to be fed regularly. Make sure the food you’ll give them floats because they won’t eat anything that sinks to the bottom. Also, be careful when you feed them; these little suckers will bite and swallow anything that can fit in their mouths.

You can feed them live food, such as feed flies, small spiders, worms, small fish, brine shrimp, small prawns and mosquito larvae. From time to time you can feed them flakes. But don’t forget that their essential diet is protein coming from live insects.

African Butterfly Fish Diseases

It is only natural that anything you add to the tank, even dirty water or other fish can bring diseases to your fish. Possible diseases that the African butterfly fish could catch include skin flukes, parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms and others), ichthyobodo infection, bacterial infections, and bacterial disease.

These diseases mainly come from any external element added to the aquarium. The plants and substrate can bring bacterial infections if they carry dirt along with them. Therefore, you should always check and ensure that you clean them well enough before adding them to the aquarium.

The resilience of the aquatic butterfly fish is certainly impressive. So, the infection isn’t immediate and can be stopped before it reaches all the fish. If you notice that one or two fish show any signs of diseases, extract them immediately from the aquarium and put them away from the rest.

Get the rest out of the tank temporarily until you change the water of the entire tank. If you’re housing sensitive fish with the African butterfly fish, they will die even before you notice any symptoms.

The best way to keep your fish away from any possible disease is to take care of their environment. Provide them with a clean, healthy aquarium. Feed them properly and regularly. Also, maintain the required physical conditions of the water.

Breeding African Butterfly Fish

Distinguishing between the males and the females of this species is really tricky. Not everyone will be able to notice the differences between them. The males tend to be slightly slimmer than the females.

The reproductive male organ is a small tube formed by the fin rays on a convex curve which is present on the rear edge of the anal fin. The females have a straight edge on the anal fin.

Breeding between males and females of this species is very difficult. For that to happen, special requirements must be met.

First, the water must be perfectly filtered. Second, the water must have a temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit sharp. Third, you must feed them various types of live food.

Once spawning is induced, at each pass the female produces from three to seven eggs. It will continue to drop 80-200 eggs per day.

The eggs will float to the surface and must be taken to another aquarium with the same water conditions. Or else, other fish might see them as food.

The baby fish will hatch after about 36 hours. One of the problems of housing African butterfly fish is that the babies must have their food directly in front of their mouths. This is a difficult, tiring process.

Now, after you have understood the nature and characteristics of the African butterfly fish, you must have understood that they are a handful. Raising and housing them demands that you put in a lot of effort. If you’re a newbie, these aren’t the perfect fish for you.

Now then, let’s take a look at some of the questions that people tend to ask about the African butterfly fish.

Are African Butterfly Fish Aggressive?

The African butterfly fish are natural carnivores. So, it’s normal for them to show aggression. However, they can peacefully coexist with some fish, as long as they are not fin nippers or they stay for a long time near the water surface.

Do not put smaller fish in the same tank with them, as they tend to eat small fish. Generally, try not to house many of them in the same aquarium. The reason is that in some cases, they can be aggressive and violent to one another.

Do African Butterfly Fish Need a Filter?

It is necessary that the aquarium has an efficient, powerful filtration system to keep the water clean and help with removing ammonia and nitrates.

African butterfly fish require clean water and are very sensitive to ammonia spikes. So if you want to keep your fish healthy, you need to have a good filtration.

Do African Butterfly Fish need a Heater?

The optimum water temperature for the African butterfly fish is 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also the suitable temperature for them to breed. Since the faucet water is not guaranteed to have this temperature, a heater is needed. Before placing the fish in the aquarium, adjust the heater to this temperature and wait till the entire aquarium has the same temperature.

Although these fish look beautiful and their pectoral fins have magnificent colors, housing them is very hard. If you’re willing to do it, keep in mind that this is a responsibility. You must be up to the task. In the end, we hope that this article gave you the right amount of information you’ll need on the African butterfly fish.

Author Image Fabian
I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.
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