African Butterflyfish Stats InfographicThe African butterfly fish is also known as Freshwater butterflyfish, African butterflyfish or Pantodon buchholzi. This species is a fascinating freshwater fish from West Africa.

Scientists refer to the Freshwater butterflyfish, which has survived unchanged for 100 million years, as an actual living fossil. Experienced aquarists love this ornamental fish that makes an exciting addition to their tank.

The African Butterfly fish are pretty particular about their care requirements. Since this unusual species needs more attention than many other tropical freshwater fish, this guide will help you prepare the tank before you bring them home.

African Butterfly Fish Stats

Scientific name Pantodon buchholzi
Common names(s) African butterfly fish; Freshwater butterflyfish; African butterflyfish
Habitat West Africa
Diet  Insectivore; carnivore
Minimum Tank Size 40 gallons – The aquarium must be long, wide, and shallow
Substrate Type Any
Lighting Needs Low – subdued lighting
Breeding Temperature 80 F
Water Movement Gentle

Habitat and Distribution of the African Butterfly fish

The African Butterflyfish, Pantodon buchholzi, described by Peters in 1876, is named after the man who discovered it, Professor R. W. Buchholz.

The Freshwater Butterflyfish’s natural habitat is the acidic waters of West Africa. They are indigenous to several countries such as Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Ogooue, Lake Chad, the Republic of Congo, Lower Niger, and the Upper Zambezi. You can also find them in the Lower Ogun and Lower Cross Rivers and the Niger Delta but in smaller numbers.

African butterfly fish careThese freshwater fish prefer to live in marshes and flooded swamps, quiet ponds, and the calm backwaters of streams and rivers. They like water with either a very gentle current or none. The African Butterflyfish likes dense overhanging and floating foliage since they can find their prey in the stems and leaves. The thick plants also offer shade and protection from predatory birds.

The African Butterfly Fish Appearance

The African Butterflyfish look like butterflies when you see them from above because of their large, widespread pectoral fins.

This breed has a flat head with a blunt face and a wide, upturned lizard-like mouth on top that helps it catch all kinds of insects. Their large orange eyes are placed high on their heads, enabling them to see their prey easily.

These fish have a mottled black or gray and brown coloring. The back is a light brown or green with a silvery shimmer, while the belly is light.

– Lifespan

The African Butterfly Fish typically lives for five to six years. If you look after it, feed it a balanced diet, and ensure suitable water conditions, it can live even longer.

– Size

The African Butterfly Fish is usually 5 inches long in the wild, but they tend to be smaller in captivity, only growing to about 4 inches. Many fish hobbyists are surprised when they see this fish in a tank because pictures are deceptive and make them seem much larger.

– Unusual Features Of The African Butterfly Fish

The Freshwater Butterfly Fish is a carnivorous predator, and its unique features help it hunt its prey at the water’s surface. This extraordinary breed has survived for millions of years without adapting or modifying its build to environmental changes.

This little fish, which is only 5 inches long, looks like a butterfly if you’re standing above it. Its widespread silvery, brownish-green pectoral fins with dark markings look just like beautiful butterfly wings. These fins are not merely decorative. They enable the African Butterflyfish to leap out of the water and seize its prey. Spreading these large fins allows this fish to glide short distances across the water’s surface to escape predators.

The Freshwater Butterfly fish’s mottled green and brown pattern is also an excellent camouflage, as the fish looks like dead leaves floating on the water. Their lighter bellies appear to be the natural light on the water’s surface, making it difficult for larger fish and other predators to notice them.

Another peculiar feature is the thread-like ventral fins that hang below the fish. These fins provide balance and detect vibrations in the water. The large anal fin and the broad caudal fin enable the fish to jump out of the water and capture insects flying above the water.

The African Butterfly fish is a skillful predator. They will lie motionless at the water’s surface, waiting for their unsuspecting prey. They use their powerful swim bladders for breathing surface air as well as to remain afloat. Their eyes are placed on the top of their head to help them see everything above them, and their brains have extra clusters of neurons to process more information.

The Butterflyfish also have sensors in their skin that detect small waves caused by insects hitting the water, which aids this clever hunter to catch aquatic insects and smaller fishes.

African Butterfly Fish Behavior

African Butterfly Fish are like ornaments in your aquarium. This breed is generally relatively calm, and you will see them just floating near the surface most of the time. They can spend hours in the same spot because this is their usual behavior in the wild. Any movement might alert the insects and small fish that are their prey.

However, things change when it comes to feeding time! You get to see these powerful swimmers in action. These little fish will dart after their food and gobble it down.

The African butterfly fish can be pretty aggressive when protecting their territory. They consider the top of the tank as theirs, and any other fish could be competing with them for food. They will fight to keep intruders away.

This species may also eat the smaller fish in your aquarium. They are not aggressive towards other fish: they are predators.

If these fish move from the top of the tank and swim in other areas, it can be a matter of concern. They may be searching for food if they are hungry. It is also possible that there is a change in the water chemistry.

African butterflyfish may become aggressive if you have more than one in your aquarium. However, this species is docile on the whole and will gently push the other away.

This breed also becomes very tame and will accept food from your hand.

African Butterfly Fish Care

The Freshwater Butterflyfish are not suitable for novice fish hobbyists as they have rather special requirements. Butterflyfish do not tolerate fluctuations in the water chemistry, so you will need to monitor the water parameters consistently.

Caring for the African Butterflyfish means providing them with the ideal conditions and the best possible care.

– Tank Size For African Butterfly Fish

The African Butterflyfish stays at the top of a fish tank since they float just under the water’s surface in their natural habitat. Therefore, the length and width of the tank are of greater importance than the depth.

We suggest a minimum tank size of 40 gallons for this species. It’s imperative to get a long tank instead of a tall one. The tank should be at least 35 x 12 inches and only about six to eight inches deep. A wide shallow tank will give the African Butterfly fish a large surface area.

Please make sure to get a tight-fitting lid for the aquarium. The African butterflyfish can use their long tail fin to jump out of the water. They can also glide quite far due to their powerful pectoral fins. If you leave the tank uncovered, your fish may jump out of the tank and die by the time you find them.

– Water Parameters

One of the essential aspects of looking after your African Butterfly Fish is water chemistry. It would help if you kept the water conditions as stable and consistent as possible for your fish to thrive.

  • Water temperature: 75 F to 86 F
  • pH levels: 6.5 to 7 – This is vital.
  • Water hardness: 1-10 KH

It’s crucial to closely monitor the water chemistry levels since this species is sensitive to the parameters in their tank. We suggest setting up a test schedule and getting a reliable testing kit. It may be advisable to test the water every two or three days.

– African Butterfly Fish Tank Setup

Freshwater Butterfly Fish need a well-planned tank. Plants are essential to their habitat. These fish are used to living in areas with abundant foliage, as they like to hide in them. Since this breed spends most of their time floating just under or near the surface, some floating aquarium plants are a good idea.

Plants will also provide shade, making these fish more comfortable. They will appreciate tall plants that grow to the surface of the water. Low-light plants such as Anubias, Bolbitis, and Cryptocoryne are the most suitable. Make sure to leave plenty of space so that the African Butterfly Fish can reach the surface.

The substrate and things like rocks, caves, and driftwood are not significant since the African Butterfly Fish doesn’t spend time at the bottom of the tank. Get these to suit the other fish in the tank.

These fish need little to no water movement since they live in calm waters. Hence, it is crucial to ensure you don’t have a current in their tank. We suggest you look for a filtration system and pumps that you can run in the lower level without creating movement.

– African Butterfly Fish Tank Mates

African butterfly fish tank matesThe African Butterfly Fish is a good community fish. However, when you’re considering the most suitable tank mates for your African Butterfly Fish, you need to consider some factors.

These species are predators. If you buy small breeds that like to swim at the surface, they’ll get eaten. It is not a good idea to get any fish that occupy the surface of the tank. The African Butterfly Fish are very possessive of their space and will likely fight any species they see as invaders. This fish also nips the fins of tank mates.

It is advisable to keep them with fish that prefer the middle and bottom areas of the tank. Though butterflyfish are not efficient fish predators, they will eat small fish that come too close.

Larger tetras and barbs, small bottom-oriented cichlids, catfish, Ctenopoma species, and mormyrids will make excellent tank mates. However, it would be best to avoid fin-nippers since they will be tempted by the long, flowing fins of the butterflyfish.

– African Butterfly Fish Diet

The African Butterfly Fish are predators that search for small insects and fish on the water’s surface.

These fish are mainly insectivores, so you will need to consider this additional cost before adding the Freshwater Butterflyfish to your aquarium. It is more expensive to buy live insects than typical tropical fish.

The African Butterfly fish can be picky. However, these fish will readily eat most live and frozen and live foods, and you can train them to eat regular flake and pellet foods. Use fish pellets and flakes as an occasional treat, not as your fish’s primary diet, because they don’t have sufficient nutritional value for this species.

You will need to feed them a lot of meaty live food. They will relish crickets, spiders and mealworms. Frozen bloodworms and brine shrimp are also suitable.

We suggest you feed your African Butterfly Fish two to four times a day. These fish only eat on the surface, so you must remember to get floating pellets. You can also train these fish to eat from your hand or tongs. Be careful not to overfeed them!

Breeding African Butterfly Fish

You can successfully breed African Butterfly Fish in a home aquarium if you ensure the proper water conditions and set up the habitat correctly.

Butterflyfish are not generally aggressive with each other except while courting and spawning. Sexing the male and female African Butterfly fish is easy. The female’s anal fin is broad and straight, while the male’s fin is divided into two sections. Females also grow bigger and are heavier than the male.

These fish are egg-scatterers, so it would be best to move them to a separate breeding tank. We suggest a tank with a lot of surface area and some floating plants. Although these are a part of their typical habitat, it becomes essential during the breeding process.

Start the spawning process by removing water from the tank, leaving only a few inches. Condition the fish by feeding them high-quality food. After two weeks, refill the tank with soft, acidic water.

Once the breeding is successful, the female will spawn for the next few days, depositing up to 100 eggs per day. The opaque white eggs immediately rise to the water surface, where the parents will use any floating plants near the water’s surface to hide the eggs and protect them. The eggs turn dark after 24 hours and start to sink. These large eggs take about four to seven days to hatch.

It’s vital to remove these eggs and put them in a separate tank with similar water parameters; otherwise, the parents will eat them.

– Raising African Butterfly Fish Fry

Caring for the fry is very challenging. The fry needs tiny live food, like newly hatched brine shrimp. It is also essential to maintain stable water parameters and make many small and frequent water changes.

The most challenging part of raising the babies is feeding them since they are too small to eat insects like wingless fruit flies or pinhead crickets. At this stage, Daphnia is more suitable than baby brine shrimp.

The fry will grow fast once they start to eat. The distinctive pectoral fins of the young African Butterflyfish begin to grow when they are about two weeks old. At this point, they will be half an inch long. You can feed them with wingless fruit flies and pinhead crickets along with baby brine shrimp and Daphnia.

At six weeks, when the fry measures one inch, you can train them to eat small floating pellets and freeze-dried foods by mixing pinhead crickets or fruit flies along with the pellets. As the young African Butterfly Fish eagerly gobble the live food, they will eat some pellets too.

A 12-week-old juvenile African Butterfly fish looks like a miniature adult; however, it is advisable to put them in the main aquarium after a few months.


The African Butterfly fish is an unusual freshwater fish from West Africa. Since they have unique care requirements, let’s look at this quick guide to help you with their care.

  • African butterfly fishThe African Butterfly Fish needs a long, shallow and well-planned aquarium
  • The tank must have a tight-fitting lid as these fish can glide quite far
  • The African Butterflyfish are mainly insectivores, incurring an additional cost
  • These small fish float at the yop of the tank and are aggressive about their territory
  • The opaque white eggs rise to the water surface, so floating plants are essential
  • The water chemistry needs to be as stable and consistent as possible
  • These fish can learn to eat from your hand

You will enjoy getting the African Butterfly Fish for your aquarium. Although they are challenging for beginner hobbyists, experienced aquarists will find caring for this unique fish a fulfilling experience.

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