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.
Canned insects and frozen insects provide a convenient means of increasing dietary variety.
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
I’d like to keep a male and a female in a 55 Gallon paludarium (about 5 inches deep) is this too shallow for them long term?
There would be sufficient planting to keep separate territories and break up line of sight.
In the above water sections I’d like to keep some kind of edible insect for the butterfly fish to feed on. Any suggestions?
Alternatively I’d like to put a single butterfly fish in my 26 gallon niger biotope with my P. pulcher breeding pair + juveniles. Would it eat the kribs? The parents are only 2 inches long and the juveniles are an inch.
Five inches should be fine, assuming good filtration. It’s generally easiest to release small crickets into the area at feeding time..however, they will often breed in the tank, although adults will eat many plant species. Lab cultures of flightless houseflies also make for interesting hunting opportunities.
The butterfly fish would likely be a source of stress to the Kribensis pair…they may attack it, and the butterfly would eat any fry it could catch. P. pulcher can also refer to a Latin American arboreal tarantula, …not a bad idea to house above a butterfly fish, perhaps! Enjoy, Frank
I am playing around with a windowsill aquaponics system, which I have added a few African butterflies to…in hopes of breeding them.
How big are the fry? I hear different thing as to whether they can take fruitflies or not at hatching. Maybe harvesting mosquito eggs rafts and stockpiling them in the fridge would work as well?
Their are a few white cloud mountain minnows in there…which so far have not been eaten. The butterflyfish seem so surface oriented I can’t imagine them attacking anything which isn’t at the surface. I suppose they will eventually grab the white clouds during feeding time-but have you observed them hunt down fish in the middle-lower levels of the tank?
All the Best
Hello Joseph, Frank is no longer with our blog but I’d be happy to help you out. The eggs are typically about 1.5mm in diameter and the fry should typically reach about 5mm after a couple days. After about 2 weeks, they should be about half an inch and start developing their longer adult fins. Butterflyfish at all stages should have floating foods; they won’t typically go after anything sinking. Adults will usually leave most mid-level fish alone, with the exception of possibly some smaller fry. I wouldn’t expect them to go after fish like White Clouds, especially if they are being well-fed on proper floating foods.
My African butterfly fish love white clouds and sneak in behind them during feeding to catch them while they’re distracted…and they’re very well fed on crickets and other insects. They won’t bother full adults but the juvie-sized specimens you find at most shops are easy pickings.
My butterfly fish is appearing very lifeless he is resting half way down the tank had him a year usually lives on top of tank and quite active but now doesn’t seem himself about 2 weeks been like this still feeding any ideas be welcome thnx
Hi William, Some more information about your tank would be helpful…tank size, other fish in the tank, water parameters (pH, temperature, Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate), and what you’ve been feeding it just to start with. If you’d like, you can also contact our Fish Room staff at 717-299-5691 so we can discuss the issue with you in more detail.
I wonder why my butterfly fish is bottom dwelling? When I purchased him, the owners said they preferred to burrow in the gravel…that doesn’t sound right.? Water parameters are as suggested they should be…nitrites are 0. He just looks dead at the bottom but moves if touched.
Hello Kathryn, What are the rest of your water parameters? You mentioned your Nitrite are zero…what about Ammonia, Nitrate, pH, temperature? How large is the aquarium and what else is in it? “Butterflyfish” could refer to a number of different fish but the ones discussed in their article are certainly surface-dwellers and any “burrowing” behaviors or sitting at the bottom isn’t normal.
Hi- we are new to this species and am having trouble getting it to eat. It’s in a community tank with live plants, though none are floating on the surface. We’re trying to figure out how to do that without shading out the bottom plants and killing them. It’s a new 20 gallon, still trying to establish and is kept at 82 right now due to ick. We’re treating with a salt regimen currently. We have had the fish for a week and haven’t seen it eat anything at all. It spit out a Cichlid Bug Bite the first day and no activity towards food since. We’ve used like black worms, live crickets, freeze dried krill, frozen blood worms, cichlid pellets, and flakes. We’ve tried with the light on and off, different times of day, leaving it dangling in the water, dropping it in… nothing! Usually the food just floats into it’s face and it swims off. Otherwise it doesn’t seem stressed- it hangs out in the top corner, will swim around the surface, and dive down occasionally. It has also jumped out of the water when spooked so it does have energy. Any advice would be hugely appreciated!
Hello Karen, If the tank is new and has a health issue, both of these can contribute to the fish being stressed. If it is stressed, it may not be interested in eating. African Butterfly Fish do need floating foods so food like flakes or floating pellets would be suitable.
WARNING ABOUT THIS FISH!!!! Make sure to have a tight fitting lid, they will and can slither out! Just lost one this morning because it crawled through 1 foot of netting over the side in my pond! These fish do not make good pond fish unless you have a locked down cover over the pond.