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The Freshwater African Butterfly Fish – Care, Breeding, Behavior

 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.

FW Butterfly Fish

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Toniher

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). Read More »