It is astonishing to view African Butterflyfish, a winged creature inside the water, which seems to fly with its spread-out fins.

Since they are primarily seen in the tropical freshwater region, they are, hence also known as freshwater butterflyfish.

The large protruding ventral fins with very distinctive markings are an apparent reason for giving them the deserving title “butterflyfish.”

They can remain afloat near the surface for a long time and hold the unique ability to breathe oxygen from the air like mammals.

This fish requires extra care, and beginner aquarists should follow the below-given care instructions regarding food, health, breeding, and tank setup with potential mates to keep it healthy.

Fact: The African butterflyfish is considered among the oldest existing species and hasn’t changed its form for more than 100 million years.

Brief Review of the Species

Quick Species Facts
Scientific Name Pantodon buchholzi
Other Common Names African Butterflyfish, Butterfly Fish, Freshwater Butterflyfish
Family Pantodontidae
Origin West and Central Africa
Lifespan 5-6 years
Max. Length 11.9 cm
Type Freshwater

Habitat And Origin

African Butterfly fish are mostly seen inhabiting shallow marshes, creeks, ponds, and stagnant-to-slow moving rivers in West & Central Africa.

They stay around overhanging, dense foliage spots in these water bodies and easily find their prey among the vegetation. The temperature in such a region remains stable between 20 – 23 degrees Celsius.

They are native to Benin, Cameroon, Congo & Democratic Republic of the Congo basins, Gabon, Chad (Lake Chad), Upper Zambezi, Ogooue, Sierra Leone, Niger Delta (Nigeria), and Ogun.

How big do African Butterflyfish get?

In the wild, they have been seen to grow to a length of 4.7 – 5 inches at the max. But even the most experienced aquarists failed to achieve that size. This could be unfavorable for the fish in the tank.

In captivity, they seem to grow up to 4 inches only. Many have concluded that it is pretty hard to achieve that length even with proper care and optimal conditions in an artificial environment.

How do They Look?

Morphological Features

  • Freshwater Butterflyfish have a very unusual appearance. They have a flat head and upper body with large pectoral fins.
  • They have a tiny dorsal fin that stays retracted most of the time so that the fish doesn’t scare away its prey when moving underwater.
  • The ventral fins are abnormally long, threaded, and appear as whiskers similar to a catfish. It works as an antenna and detects slight vibrations or disturbances when a potential prey falls into the water body.
  • Their mouth is upwards with a curved bottom lip, and their eyes are also positioned in the above direction, which enables them to locate prey at the water’s surface.
  • They have specialized swim bladders, which help them control buoyancy and exchange of gases, enabling them to remain afloat or glide on the water surface escaping from attackers.


  • Each African butterflyfish has a different body color that mainly revolves around the shades of gray, brown, dark brown to bottle green. They also have light brown spots but may be absent in some individuals.
  • The color patterns help them in camouflaging. It gives them an appearance of a dead leaf to the predators like birds, and the insects that the African Butterfly fish prey on.
  • They have lighter shades and makings in the underbelly portion, which also help them to blend in and protect themselves from the bigger predators that lurk in deeper waters.

What’s Their Life Expectancy?

Author Note: Genes of the fish also play a significant role in their life span. If the genetic characteristics are reasonable, it will survive for a long time; otherwise, it may suffer from genetic disorders that are primarily untreatable.

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They have an average life expectancy of 5 to 6 years, both in the wild and in captivity. However, it can be extended if good care and diet are provided when paired with optimal tank conditions.

Gender Dimorphism

Although both male and female African Butterflyfish have similar appearances, they can be distinguished based on the appearance of their anal fins.

  • The back edge of the anal fins in males is rounded, whereas the females have a straighter back edge.
  • The male anal fins are divided into two sections, the lower part being longer than the other. In the case of the female, it is not sectioned and is bigger comparatively.
  • Mature females look bigger than males.

Availability & Price

You won’t find the African Butterflyfish commonly in local aquarium shops as caring for them is difficult, and their feed is not affordable for many fish lovers.

They generally have a price range between $20 and $60, and the value depends upon their size and color. Brighter colors and contrasting marks tend to have a higher price.

Complete Care Guide

Quick Care Facts
Care Level Advanced
Breeding Easy
Social Temperament Semi- Aggressive
Diet Carnivorous
Hardiness Moderate

Best Food for Them

In the wild, African Butterflyfish eat larvae and small insects flying above the water surface, resting on branches or leaves, or fall inside. It also preys on small fishes that dwell near the surface.

You must ensure that they get enough nitrogen in their diet. Simple fish food like pellets or flakes won’t be enough for them.

You may combine it with fish food to avoid over cost due to an expensive insect diet.

Here is a list of food that can be given to them in captivity:

  • Small bugs- Crickets, Spiders, etc.
  • Larvae- Mosquito, Housefly, etc.
  • Worms- Bloodworms, Earthworms
  • Small Fish
  • Crustaceans- fresh/brined shrimps, small prawns, krill
  • Flakes and Pellets
  • Meaty food 

Quick Tip: It is suggested to feed them insects mainly, 3-4 times a day, just like how they would eat in the wild. Be careful not to overfeed them, as it can cause the water to become too murky and polluted.


African Butterflyfish show aggressive behavior, but it is situational. They prefer staying at the top area of the tank.

You will see them idle, with little to no movement, and instinctively wait for the prey to fall on the water or lunge out to catch them.

They will live peacefully with fishes that dwell near the middle or bottom area of the tank. If there are any fishes near the top, they will show hostility towards them.

The anguish level is high when put in with another one of their species, especially males. It would be best to choose a bigger tank with lots of plants to keep these species together peacefully.


Breeding isn’t so tricky in African Butterflyfish. If you find a suitable, mature pair and maintain proper conditions like slight acidic soft water (6.0 – 6.5 pH), they will automatically initialize their mating process with appropriate temperatures.


Use a tank with a low water level and a wider area. During the breeding period, the male is relatively peaceful.

If more than one male is in the tank, they will split up and choose their own space to spawn with the female.

When the male and female get together, the male chases the female, stimulating her to spawn the eggs.

It may take a few days, and around80-200eggs are spawned, about 1.5mm in diameter.

The eggs are spawned on the water surface and left afloat with minor parental care. They appear glassy at first but soon become dark and slowly sink to the bottom.

Eggs Hatching

If the conditions are optimal, like a dark environment and water temperature being around 80 degrees F, the eggs will start to hatch in 2 – 7 days.

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The sac-fry doesn’t look like their parents at all. They have similar appearances to a tadpole, having under-developed fins and tails.

Rearing of Juveniles

The sac-fry requires special care as it cannot hunt for food. During this period, it is advised to give live, fresh food or critters so that they grow strong and healthy.

You can also feed them with brine shrimps such as Artemia and Nauplii or small crustaceans like Daphnia and Moina. Even small fly larvae and earthworms can be provided to them.

Try to keep them at low water depth, like 1-2 inches deep, so they can easily find their food even if it sinks after some time.

It takes about 10 – 12 weeks for juveniles to become adolescents, after which they can join the adults.

Pro Tip: Separate the adults into a different tank as they can eat the eggs and may even prey upon their sac-fry.

Common Diseases

African Butterflyfish are resilient when it comes to diseases. They have an excellent immune system, but no fish can survive unhygienic conditions for long.

You can perform a few steps to maintain a clean tank.

  • Changing and replenishing water at regular intervals (every two weeks is good)
  • Providing live fresh food to them
  • Keep checking the water parameters of the tank
  • Isolate them if other fish gets sick
  • Avoid overfeeding them

Even after all this, they are still not invulnerable to diseases and disorders. A few common conditions observed in African butterflyfish are listed below.

  • Monogenean trematodes cause skin flukes. You can treat it with formalin, bath salts, organophosphates, and mebendazole.
  • Ichthyobodo infection occurs in the skin and gill. It is curable by using Potassium permanganate, copper sulfate, or formalin.
  • Bacterial infections can lead to Dropsy, tail and fin rot disease, and Columnar is (F. Columnar). Specific antibiotics can treat it.
  • Fungal infections lead to cottony-like growth in fish. You can get it cured with the help of various salts and anti-fungal medication.

Tank Recommendations

Quick Tank Facts
Water Temperature 22 – 30 degrees Celsius
Minimum Size 150 liters
Water Hardness 8 – 12 dGH
pH Level 6.0 – 7.5
Nitrate Content < 30ppm

Tank Size Requirements

African Butterflyfish require a tank with at least 40 gallons of capacity, which will suffice for one fish. For more companions, you must increase the tank volume accordingly.

You should also note that whatever the size of the tank is, the depth does not matter much to this fish, as they usually stay near the top. Therefore tanks with a higher surface area would be a better choice.

Setting Up a Tank


In the wild, they dwell under the leaves and roots of the floating foliage to hide themselves. So, you can put floating plants to simulate their natural environment.

Rooted plants in the substrate will only fulfill the decorative purpose, as it would not serve any benefit to them.

  • Plants like Anubis and Cryptocoryne are considered good plants for any aquarium. They can grow in any light conditions.
  • Duckweed or Java Moss are commonly found in local stores and are easy to maintain. They serve as good floating plants.

Pro Tip: Remember not to plant too much floating foliage in the aquarium as they will also grow there as time passes. Too much density will disrupt the natural feeling and make the tank too dark.  

Rotala Indica, Hornwort, and plants in the family of Water Lettuce are also good choices for the tank.


African Butterflyfish prefer subdued lighting. The floating plants in the wild naturally provide cover and dark areas for them. So, you should use dim light, preferably LEDs, to fulfill the lighting requirement.

Also, if possible, try to put the lights under some cover as they might splash water onto them because they tend to jump out of the water.


Irrespective of which substrate you use, it won’t concern them. You can put sand, aqua soil, gravel, or even small pebbles in the tank.

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It is a matter of preference of what kind of decoration one decides to put in the tank even though it won’t matter to the fish because most of its time is spent near the surface.

You can use natural decorations such as driftwood, big rocks, or even plastic decorations as long as it doesn’t disrupt their peace.

Tank Apparatus

African Butterflyfish are strictly freshwater fish, and they require pure and clean water for healthy survival. So, using strong filters is a must.

Be sure to use filters that don’t produce currents in the water. They love still waters, so ripples and currents would disturb their natural behavior.

The use of air stones is also advised as it helps to maintain the oxygen-rich environment, which the fish highly favor.

Water Parameters

African Butterflyfish can tolerate up to some variations of their recommended water parameters, but keeping it at optimum level ensures good health and helps to keep the diseases at bay.

  • A suitable range of temperature for them is between 77.0 to 82.0° F, but at 80° F, they feel most comfortable.
  • Water pH should be between 6.0 to 7.5. They can thrive in neutral waters, but they love slightly acidic (close to 6.5), which is near their habitat’s pH.
  • The water hardness should be kept between 8 and 12 dGH.
  • Nitrate content should be maintained at 0 ppm and not exceed 30 ppm. This might be somewhat difficult for the keepers since most fish diet consists of nitrogen-rich food.

It could be a good idea to install monitoring systems to help beginner aquarists maintain the tank’s parameters.

Suitable Tank Mates

When putting them in a community tank, make sure to pick the aquatics that do not occupy the top area of the tank.

The African butterflyfish are peaceful while enjoying their space, and any invading creature would trigger aggression in them.

Be careful while putting small fishes like mollies and zebrafish in the tank, as they could fall prey.

Here is a list of suitable tank mates that can be peacefully kept with them.

  • Larger Tetras (Congo and Emperor Tetras)
  • Larger Barbs (Denison Barbs, Tinfoil Barbs)
  • Cichlids (West African Cichlids, Peacock Cichlids, and Fire mouth Cichlids)
  • Corydoras Catfish
  • Royal Pleco
  • Bristlenose Pleco
  • Botia Loaches
  • Mormyrids
  • Rope fish (if you have a big tank)
  • Ornamental shrimps (can fall prey to them)
  • Nerites (Snails)
  • Kuhli Loaches
  • Ctenopoma species
  • Elephant Nose fish
  • Gouramis
  • Angelfish
  • African Knife fish

Helpful Tip: Be cautious while keeping larger tetra species with them. Tetras have a habit of nipping large flowing fins of slow fishes so that they can nip on fins of butterflyfish as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is African Butterflyfish poisonous?

Even Though they have a vicious look, but are not poisonous and have barb-like ventral fins, which only look dangerous due to being overgrown.

Are African butterflies Hardy?

Yes, African Butterfly fish are somewhat hardy. But just like every other freshwater fish, they are sensitive to water parameters and won’t survive long in adverse conditions. They are also susceptible to pH and must get slightly acidic waters for healthy living.

Do they need groups to live?

These are not schooling fish and live unaccompanied in the wild. They don’t appreciate other surface-dwelling guests, especially if it is another male African butterfly fish.

How many African butterfly fish can be kept in a 20 – gallon tank?

It is recommended to get at least a 40 – gallon tank to keep one, but a 20 – gallon can also be used, though it won’t provide enough roaming space to keep the fish happy.

Do they eat guppies?

It is a possibility that they may eat guppies. Guppies, in general, are tiny fish, and considering the predatory nature of the African Butterfly fish, there is a big chance that they may get eaten.

Final Thoughts: Should You Get Them?

They are worth getting, although it may take some time and patience to learn about their care and habits.

It is not a fish for owners who have a tight budget for fish food. But if you can manage to forage enough insects for them every day, it might be worth getting one.

Suppose you can add a terrarium to your aquarium, providing a spot for bugs to hang around branches and leaves near the water. In that case, you might even witness the adventurous African butterflyfish jumping out of the water and hunting them.

About the Author

Shelby Crosby

Shelby is a passionate fishkeeper who has been writing about fish for over 5 years. She is a pro aquarist and holds a BSc Honors Degree in Wildlife and Fisheries. She creates her own beautiful aquarium layouts and loves to share her knowledge of tropical fish with other hobbyists.

Career Highlights:

  • Has worked with several aquarium manufacturers as a consultant
  • Organized and hosted workshops on freshwater fish keeping at retail stores, educational facilities, and libraries
  • Released content for the amphibian community through her writings

Educational Highlights:

  • BSc Honors in Wildlife and Fisheries in 2011 (University of Northern British Columbia)
  • Completed her undergraduate thesis on the effects of zoochlorella supplementation on the growth and health of fish.

Writing Experience

Miss Crosby is a Freelance blogger; many of her articles are posted online on various blogs. She has also written a few short articles for "Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine" in the past. She is a regular contributor to Her education, first-hand experience with fishkeeping, and in-depth knowledge in aquaculture make her one of the most competent writers in the industry.

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