In habits, appearance, and evolutionary history, the African Butterfly Fish, Pantodon buchholzi, is one of the most unusual of all aquarium species. Yet despite having been in the trade for over 100 years, this “freshwater flying fish” (a misnomer, see below) gets little attention. Captive breeding is challenging but possible, and its fantastic hunting behaviors are thrilling to observe. I helped to set up an African Butterfly Fish exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and was not at all surprised when it became a great favorite. Most of the visitors I spoke with were astonished to learn that such an “exotic” creature, worthy of a large zoo exhibit, was available at many pet stores!
The yellowish-green to silvery-tan body is marked with an intricate pattern of speckles and lines. The huge pectoral fins, reminiscent of those of marine flying fishes, lend an uncanny resemblance to a dead, floating leaf when viewed from above. Long rays extending from the tail and the pelvic fin add to its remarkable camouflage.
The African Butterfly Fish’s mouth is noticeably upturned, an adaptation for feeding on insects at and above the water’s surface. Less noticeable is the mouth’s large size and the many teeth it bears; although it tops out at 5 ½ inches, this specialized predator can take quite sizable insects and fishes.
Utilizing its wing-like pectoral fins and unique musculature, the African Butterfly Fish can explode from the water’s surface to snatch low-flying dragonflies, moths and other insects, and to escape predators. It does not, as far as we know, glide above the water as do marine Flying Fishes (please see photo).
This species is one of only a very few with eyes that can simultaneously scan both water and air for predators and prey. Others include the Four-Eyed Fish and the Whirligig Beetle.
The African Butterfly Fish evolved long before most other fishes, and is one of the oldest species still surviving today. In common with several other ancient species, its air bladder can absorb atmospheric oxygen. This unique creature is the sole member of its genus and family (Panthodiontidae). Its closest living relative may be the Arowana.
Range and Habitat
The African Butterfly Fish lives in habitats that are difficult to survey, and its range is not well known. It is endemic to western and central Africa, where it seems most common in the basins of the Congo and Niger Rivers.
The preferred habitat is still or slow-moving, heavily-vegetated water with overhanging shoreline trees. It is most often found in swamps, creeks and river backwaters (please see photo).
This relatively inactive fish spends its entire life floating at the water’s surface, and is therefore best kept in shallow “long-style” aquariums. Floating live or plastic plants and subdued lighting will provide the security it needs in order to thrive.
The water should be soft and slightly acidic (pH 6.4 – 6.8). Temperatures of 77-84 F are fine; those at the Bronx Zoo thrived at 82-85 F.
The filter’s outflow should be gentle or diverted, as African Butterfly Fishes cannot abide strong currents. The tank, including places where filter tubes and wires exit the aquarium, must be well-covered to ensure that these talented jumpers remain confined.
Although aggression is reported, I’ve had no problem with groups of 6-8 in a well-planted 55 gallon aquarium. Surface cover (I used live Pothos plants) is important in providing sight barriers and cover when several are housed together.
African Butterfly Fishes have difficulty competing with active, surface feeding-fishes, and their long fin rays tempt fin-nippers. Fishes up to one-half their size, or even larger, will be consumed.
I have successfully kept them with Elephant Nosed Fishes and Giant African Fan Shrimp, which makes for an interesting tank. Please see the article linked below.
African Butterfly Fishes are surface-feeding specialists and will not dive for food. While some individuals will accept dry foods, they will not remain in top condition without live insects. Crickets, newly molted (white) mealworms, roaches, wax worms, earthworms and other commercially bred invertebrates are readily accepted, as are guppies and minnows. Insects that do not float should be offered via forceps.
Wild caught moths, ants, crane flies, beetles, and the like will elicit a very enthusiastic feeding response. The Zoo Med Bug Napper is an excellent flying insect trap that can be used to supplement the diets of all types of aquarium fishes. Please see the article below for more information on collecting insects for your fishes.
Males may be distinguished by the indentation in the rear of the anal fin; individual rays in this area may appear to form a tube-like shape.
I’ve observed spontaneous spawning, but success is more likely if you allow the water level to drop several inches over a 2-3 week period while raising the temperature to 86 F. Some success has been had with water depths of 5-6 inches, but it is not known if this is essential. In the native habitat, the water’s pH likely becomes increasingly acidic during the dry season, so a slight drop in pH may help to bring your fishes into breeding condition. After holding them in shallow water for several weeks, the tank should be topped off to its former level.
Females will deposit several hundred floating eggs over a period of several days. The eggs, which gather about floating plants, should be removed lest they be consumed by the parents. Incubation time is 3-4 days.
The tiny fry must be literally surrounded by live, floating invertebrates, as they will not chase their food. Springtails – primitive insects that may be purchased or collected (please see this article ) – are the standard diet. A colleague of mine also had some success using flightless fruit flies, and if I spawn this species in the future I plan to try mosquito larvae, hatchling mantids, and Daphnia