These oddball fish make interesting aquarium inhabitants. Here’s what you need to know before you bring an African butterfly fish home.
True to their name, African butterfly fish (Pantodon buchholzi) resemble flying insects more than they do fish. Their insect-like pectoral fins help camouflage them in nature, making them resemble dead leaves floating on the water. It is this strange appearance that usually entices an aquarist to purchase this fish in the first place. These fish have been in the hobby for at least 90 years, with some speculation that they could have been kept in bowls as long as 4000 years ago! People all throughout history have found the butterfly an interesting enough fish to keep as a pet.
These butterfly fish can grow to be 10 cm (4″) long. Mottled brown in appearance, African butterflies stay primarily at the surface of the water, rarely venturing to the lower depths of the tank. They have been known to live up to 5 years in captivity.
African butterfly fish are fairly hardy and easy to care for. They prefer temperatures from 23-30ª C (73-86ª F) and softer water with a ph value of 6 – 6.5. These fish come from still waters, so the filtration should not be overly strong.
As they stay primarily at the top of a fish tank, the length and width of the aquarium is more important than how many gallons or liters it is. As such, the tank should be at least 90 x 30 cm (usually a 30 gal. or 80 L aquarium), but the wider the better. A piece of driftwood and some plants that reach to the surface of the water will make the African butterfly fish feel at home, as these decorations will make the fish feel as if it is camouflaged.
Make sure the lid of the aquarium fits tightly. The African butterfly fish uses its long tail fin to propel itself right out of the water and then glides on its pectoral fins to surprising distances. If you leave the tank uncovered, you will almost certainly find your African dried up on the floor.
The mouth of an African Butterflyfish is huge. It is like a trapdoor that sucks up anything that will fit in it. In its natural habitat, the fish is carnivorous, eating insects at the surface of the water. Crickets and mealworms from the pet store will be eaten with relish, as will a spider or moth you catch in your home. These fish are not that picky though and will eat flake and floating pellets. Feeding them frozen bloodworms and brine shrimp is good for them as well.
The large mouth of the African means that it will eat small fish. Except with other surface dwellers, the African is quite peaceful, so only add fish that stay at the middle or bottom of the tank. Fish that are boisterous and tend to nip cannot resist the long fins of the butterfly, so only keep it with very peaceful fish of similar size.
There are actually two different species of African butterfly fish, yet they look identical. The 2 different species come from different parts of Africa. Scientists found that there is a 15% genetic variance between these 2 species, which is astounding, because usually there is only a 2% to 3% genetic variance amongst species, as in humans and chimpanzees. Even though the 2 species look identical, they probably could not breed with one another.
Scientists found that the 2 species split from each other about 57 million years ago. They refer to the African butterfly fish as a “living fossil,” much like the coelacanth and other prehistoric fish. So if you decide to keep this fish, you are not just adding a cool looking fish to your tank, but a piece of natural history!
Riehl, Dr. Rüdiger, and Hans A. Baensch. Aquarium Atlas. Germany: MERGUS 2001.
Sandford, Gina. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aquarium Fish. London: New Burlington Books 2005.