The African butterfly fish is truly unlike any kind of fish you’ve probably seen before. These odd-looking carnivorous fish will need slightly more attention than most other tropical freshwater fish, and they will do their best in a tank that is planned and arranged around them.
Keeping reading to find out everything you need to know about African butterfly fish care and keeping these fish in your own aquarium!
Pantodon buchholzi is commonly known as the African butterfly fish or simply as the freshwater butterfly fish. Pantodon buchholzi is so unique that it is the only member in its genus and in the whole Pantodontidae family.
While they share the same common name, this freshwater butterfly fish (Pantodon buchholzi) is not related to any saltwater butterfly fish in the Chaetodontidae family. Pantodon buchholzi is actually more closely related to arrowana in the Osteoglossidae family.
These freshwater fish can be found just below the surface of slow-moving streams, lakes, and swamps, in parts of West Africa, including Sierra Leone, the Republic of Congo, Chad, Niger, and several other countries. These bodies of water usually have dense overhanging and submerged vegetation.
African butterfly fish are ambush predators, meaning they wait for the perfect moment to sneak attack their prey. Their unique body structure and natural camouflage allow them to hide just below the water’s surface where they will wait for insects or other small prey to land. These fish are also excellent jumpers and will actually leap out of the water for an insect sitting on a leaf or piece of wood.
If you’re at the pet store and see a fish and immediately think “What is that thing?!,” there’s a good chance that you’re looking at an African butterfly fish. These fish are actually pretty common to come across in your local fish store, and even easier to purchase online. There are only one species, so you don’t need to worry about misidentification!
While effective carnivores, these fish stay relatively small, only reaching about 5 inches (12.7 cm) when fully grown. These fish are cleverly patterned with a black and brown body with a lighter underbelly. From above, these fish blend in with the murky waters and make it difficult for birds and other predators to see them. From below, their lighter bellies resemble the natural light that penetrates the surface of the water, also making it difficult for larger fish and predators to detect them.
Because these fish prey on things that touch the surface, they have a relatively large mouth that points upwards, similar to the arrowana. Their contrasting orange eyes are also positioned higher on their head to make viewing prey easier.
The most noticeable feature of these fish though–and the reason they’re named after the flying insect–are their pectoral fins. Their pectoral fins fan away from their body, resembling that of a butterfly, allowing them to easily and motionlessly suspend themselves in the water; these fins also make them look like floating plants or other foliage, deterring predators from taking a taste. Their ventral fins are thread-like, most likely for further stabilization and possibly for detecting vibrations in the water. Their thick caudal fin and anal fin help to propel themselves through and out of the water.
Surprisingly, it is actually possible to tell your fish apart! Females will have a straight edge to their anal fin, while males will have a convex edge.
Is the African butterfly fish poisonous or venomous?
First, it is important to understand the difference between something being poisonous versus being venomous. Poisonous species need to be physically touched, inhaled, or ingested; for example, poison dart frogs have poison in their skin that makes them dangerous to touch or eat. Venomous species need to have their venom directly injected; for example, snakes need to bite their prey to administer their venom.
This means that an African butterfly would need to either be dangerous to eat and/or touch or has the ability to eject venom. The good news is that these fish are not dangerous at all (as long as you’re not a small fish that could be readily eaten)! They do not contain any known toxins or otherwise venom.
African butterfly fish tank requirements
Even though they’re relatively small fish, the African butterfly needs a decently sized tank that is at least 30 gallons (113.5 L); more space will be needed if you plan on keeping anything else with your fish.
These fish need little to no water movement so that they don’t get pushed around. They will greatly appreciate tall plants that grow to the surface of the water, as well as additional floating plants for added coverage. Make sure that you have a secure aquarium hood that completely covers the surface of the water; these fish are excellent jumpers and you don’t want to find that one has escaped because it will usually be too late.
Water temperature should be stable between 73-86°F (23-30°C) with pH between 6.0-7.5.
If you are new to keeping floating plants, make sure to check out our guide here.
African butterfly fish tank mates
African butterfly fish seem to do best with their own species, however, hobbyists have had success keeping them with other small fish; they do especially well with species that tend to stay towards the bottom of the tank, away from the surface domain of the African butterfly.
Hobbyists have been able to keep the following fish as tank mates with Pantodon buchholzi:
It is important to keep in mind that not every fish has the same temperament; while neon tetras may be able to be kept peacefully in some tanks, they might become a quick snack in others. There are three main ways to increase your chances of being able to keep smaller fish with your African butterfly: tank size, coverage, and diet.
At the minimum, African butterfly fish require 30 gallons (113.5 L) to themselves. If you plan on keeping small fish with them, we recommend at least 50 gallons (189 L) to allow for those fish to school and for better water column distribution.
The tank should be filled with as many plants as you can manage. This will help small fish retreat to areas where your African butterfly fish can’t easily reach. The plants should be kept to the back of the tank to ensure that all fish have enough swimming space in the front.
Lastly, it is important to keep your African butterfly fish happily fed. For the most part, they will hover just below the surface of the water, remaining motionless for hours. If your fish seems distressed and is swimming more in the upper and middle water column, it may be trying to find something to eat. For such small fish, they can actually grow quite the gut when fed properly!
They should not be kept with fish that are prone to fin-nipping, as the African butterfly definitely has a lot of that going on!
Can African butterfly fish live together?
African butterfly fish are relatively peaceful fish and can be kept together if conditions are right. Tank size should allow for each fish to be able to establish their own territory at the surface of the water; plants will help further allow them to set up these areas and retreat to cover if needed.
For the most part, your fish won’t actively become aggressive towards each other. Males may become territorial towards each other during spawning periods, but these displays usually never end up in serious injury. If you’re worried about potential fighting, try to avoid purchasing two males by looking at the anal fins.
Will African butterfly fish eat guppies?
As they like to swim towards the surface of the water and are a small delectable size, guppies will almost certainly be eaten by an African butterfly fish. Try to go with species that are native to the same areas where Pantodon buchholzi is naturally found and choose middle and lower water column swimmers.
African butterfly fish behavior
African butterfly fish are very docile fish for the most part. They can and will spend hours in the same area of your tank, right below the surface.
It is actually concerning when these fish stray from their usual place and start to become active in other areas of the tank; this could mean that water parameters have shifted or the fish is looking for food. If you have other fish in your aquarium, this is definitely something to watch out for as they will not hesitate to eat smaller fish. These fish tend to be the most active right before nightfall as this is when they hunt in the wild.
If you have more than one African butterfly in your tank, they may occasionally become territorial towards each other. However, this will usually only result in your fish gently pushing the other away.
African butterfly fish diet
Interestingly, these fish are mainly insectivores; this means that they get most of their dietary needs through insects! This is definitely something you need to consider before purchasing these fish as supplying live insects is an additional cost as opposed to other typical tropical fish. African butterfly fish will readily eat spiders, flies, crickets, and mealworms.
However, these fish will also accept most frozen and live foods, like brine shrimp and bloodworms. Some hobbyists have even had luck adjusting their African butterfly to regular flake and pellet foods, though these should never be the basis of your fish’s diet.
Remember that these fish feed on the surface, and will not travel the height of the tank for food. It is best to teach these fish to eat from your hand or from tongs to make sure they are getting enough food.
Breeding African butterfly fish
If you’re really fascinated by this species, you might want to try your hand at breeding. While Pantodon buchholzi is not the easiest aquarium species to successfully breed and raise, it is definitely possible.
These fish are egg-scatterers and it is best to move them to a separate breeding tank with lots of floating plants and surface area. To start the spawning process, remove water from the tank until only a few inches remain. Leave the tank like this for a couple of weeks, supplementing high-quality food in the meantime. After this time has passed, the tank should then be refilled with soft, acidic water.
If successful, the fish will then spawn for the next few days, depositing up to 100 eggs per day. These eggs will float to the surface and should be moved to another tank with similar parameters or the parents will eat them. These will hatch in about 4 days.
While breeding is easy, raising juveniles is hard. The fry is not very good hunters and needs very small live food, like newly hatched brine shrimp. They also require incredibly stable water parameters and will need many small and frequent water changes. If your fry manages to survive, you can start supplementing larger food as they grow bigger.
The African butterfly fish is definitely not the fish that many beginners set up a fish tank for and dream of having, but is surely one that they don’t regret getting. They thrive in planted aquariums with little water movement and can be kept with more tropical species if conditions are right.
If you have any questions about Pantodon buchholzi care or have kept these amazing fish in your own aquarium, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!