The Rope Fish also known as Reedfish, Snakefish, or erpetoichthys calabaricus, is one of the unique species you can keep in an aquarium. Combining aspects of fish, eels, and snakes, nothing else looks or behaves like it. The Rope Fish is one of a few fish species that has a set of lungs in addition to gills, giving it the ability to live in and out of water.

Native to the inner curve of western Africa from Benin to the Republic of the Congo, the African Rope Fish is commonly found in the warm, sluggish waters of rivers such as the Ogun and the Chiloango. These waters are usually low in oxygen and home to only the hardiest species.

The ability to live in water and on land gives the Rope Fish a broad territory to live and hunt. Though considered a freshwater species, the Rope Fish has been found in brackish water, showing the resilience of this amazing fish.

In most aquariums, you will not see the Rope Fish surface to breathe because the water contains adequate oxygen. They are mostly nocturnal but will roam often, especially in tanks that are dim as opposed to brightly lit.

Rope Fish Stats

Listed tank sizes are the minimum
Size: Up to 35″ (90cm) Total Length
Tank: 55+ gallons
Strata: Bottom
PH: 6.0 to 7.5
Hardness: Soft to hard. dH range: to 22.0
Temperature: 79°F to 86°F (26-30°C)

Classification:

Family: Polypteridae
Order: Polypteriformes
Class: Actinopterygii
Genera: Erpetoichthys
Species: Calabaricus

Size and Appearance

The Rope Fish is one of the larger African freshwater species you can collect. Well-kept in large aquariums, it can easily reach a length of up to 15 to 20 inches.

The Rope Fish max size, however, is 36 inches. When combined with its powerful leaping abilities, it can create challenges for safekeeping. The body is long, muscular, and slender with no ventral fins.

It is not a particularly colorful fish. The main body color is green with an attractive armor-like pattern to its scales.

Some Rope Fish will have a yellow belly but all have a black spot on their pectoral fins. Variations of color occur in some fish having a gray body and yellow belly.

The Rope Fish does have a dorsal fin, but it is segmented into 10 to 12 small finlets, which can appear as small bumps along its back. The anal fin is soft-rayed and is close to its body.

The tail of the Rope Fish is designed to enhance its snake-like, sinuous motion of swimming, climbing, and walking. It is shaped much like a canoe paddle to give purchase in water and on land.

Populations of Rope Fish in Africa are impacted by degradation and loss of habitat from wetland drainage for agricultural and urban developments. The Rope Fish is currently classified as Near Threatened in its native habitats by the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (1)

In captivity, the Rope Fish has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, so you can become quite good friends with them. The Rope Fish behavior is quite peaceful. They make excellent tank mates for many species.

Rope Fish Care Guide

The hardy nature of Rope Fish makes them easy to care for in a variety of freshwater environments. The two main factors in providing for their well-being are to have a tank large enough to accommodate their size and to have water that is warm and consistently balanced.

Rope Fish need large tanks to reach their full size. Because of their potential to grow very long, the minimum Rope Fish tank size for a pair of fish is 55 gallons. For each Rope Fish, you want to consider increasing the aquarium size by 10 gallons.

Purchase aquariums that are horizontal in format to help discourage them from leaping.

This is a species where the lid must be securely fastened to the aquarium and every tube portals sealed.

The Rope Fish is an excellent jumper with the ability to dislodge aquarium lids, escape and live for several hours outside of the tank.

African Rope Fish are inquisitive, and if they can find an opening to escape through, they will take it. Rope Fish will also try to climb plants and hoses. Keeping them sealed will help keep your fish secure.

This is a species where precautions should be taken while cleaning the tank to keep them from escaping. Many keepers transfer fish to a bucket when cleaning the aquarium. Even smaller Rope Fish can easily leap from a bucket or make a surprise leap for an opening in the lid when you are cleaning.

While Rope Fish do come from sluggish, low oxygen backwaters, they do best in clean aquariums with adequate filtration and water flow. Rope Fish are bottom dwellers and can dirty up a tank quickly.

A filter that can handle heavier amounts of fish waste is needed. A canister filter is ideal for this situation. Do take time to clean the tank regularly and keep it from getting too green with algae.

Consistent water quality is one of the most critical factors in keeping Rope Fish. They do best in water with a pH level of 6.0 to 7.5 and a hardness of up to 22.0. Rope Fish like warmer water between 79°F to 86°F (26-30°C).

Allowing water quality or temperature to fall outside this range can quickly stress your Rope Fish and lead to illness and death.

Signs that your tank is out of range and your Rope Fish are not doing well include:

  • Sudden loss of appetite
  • Reduced swimming and movement
  • Development of odd markings
  • Open wounds or sores
  • Changes in coloration

If this occurs, consult a veterinarian for the proper recommended treatment for your Rope Fish and tank mates.

When designing aquarium interiors for most species you start at the top. With Rope Fish, you start at the bottom. This is a species that needs places where long, growing fish can hide and maneuver.

Their native habitat consists of mud and sand so soft substrates like fine sand or coral sand are ideal. They keep the Rope Fish from getting scratched or injured.

Ornamentation can include rocks, roots, clay pots, and anything else Rope Fish can swim and slither around. Picture the structure from the top down and design so that the Rope Fish has objects to hide behind or partially underneath.

Rope Fish will not bother vegetation and will use it for concealment. Try to avoid plant species that reach the top or climb out of the tank, such as Pothos as the Rope Fish will use it for an adventure.

As a nocturnal species, Rope Fish do well in low light or day/night cycle aquariums. In either case, you will find them the most active when the lighting is subdued, and they are less timid.

Sometimes they will leave the bottom and move through the mid and upper levels of the aquarium. If this happens when the tank is well lit, evaluate your feeding schedules to make sure you are not leaving them hungry and hunting.

Tank Mates

Rope Fish are among the most peaceful species you can keep in an aquarium. They are not aggressive toward their own or other species and do well with other species if the tank is not overcrowded.

Almost any fish that is peaceful in nature and adaptable to the water quality of the aquarium will make great tank mates for Rope Fish. As a guideline, you should increase the size of tank mates as the Rope Fish grows so that they are not small enough to easily be considered dinner.

Ideal tankmates for a Rope Fish are as follows:

  • Clown Loach: One of the most ideal tank mates for Rope Fish. The Clown Loach is a large, brightly colored aquarium favorite that can live up to 10 years and grow up to 12 inches long.
  • Glass Catfish: The translucent and beautiful Glass Catfish is very peaceful and makes a great tank mate for Rope Fish. They live up to 8 years and will reach 6 inches in length.
  • Bala Shark: The Bala Shark is a very gentle species that can grow up to 12 inches long. Known for its dramatic fin markings, the Bala Shark likes some movement to the water and will live up to 10 years.
  • Pictus Catfish: This beautiful silver spotted bottom-dweller is gentle and a perfect tank mate for Rope Fish. In dim lighting, the Pictus Catfish can look very radiant. Grows up to 6 inches and lives up to 8 years.

Large or even medium-sized aggressive species such as cichlid make poor tank mates for Rope Fish. The Rope Fish is easily bullied and stressed.

Peaceful non-fish species such as shrimp may seem like a good idea until the Rope Fish eat them up. Similarly, snails and other small invertebrates will wind up on the Rope Fish dinner menu and should not be included in the tank.

Breeding

All Rope Fish currently sold around the world are wild-caught. It is extremely difficult to breed Rope Fish in captivity for several reasons. One of them is the difficulty in telling male and female specimens apart.

The conditions in which they breed are known but what encourages them to breed is not. If by chance you do have male and female Rope Fish in your aquarium, you might find eggs adhered to the vegetation you have growing in your tank.

The Rope Fish eggs hatch in about 70 hours. If you do get Rope Fish young, try to isolate them from other fish so that they do not get eaten. They will begin feeding on their own in about three weeks once the egg sac has been absorbed.

While we won’t say it will never happen to you, your chance of having the Rope Fish breed is quite rare.

Diet

Keeping Rope Fish fed is easy as long as you follow their nature. They are Carnivorous. In the wild Rope, Fish like to hunt their own food and regularly dine on prey such as insects, amphibians, crustaceans, and similar meaty fare.

An ideal diet for a Rope Fish can consist of any of the following items:

  • Earthworms
  • Live insects such as crickets
  • Small shrimp
  • Chopped Meat
  • Brine or Mysis Shrimp
  • Frogs

Food should be sized to your Rope Fish. Feeding smaller meals twice a day is preferred. This also helps keep hunger levels down and will minimize attempts to snack on any small fish in the aquarium.

Try to avoid pelletized and flaked foods. Rope Fish do not take to them.

It is recommended to feed them just before turning off the light, so they feel comfortable to move about. This will ensure that they don’t starve themselves.

Although they can survive without food for long periods in the wild, we advise not to practice that in an aquarium since the dynamics of the natural environment and captive environment are not the same.

You can feed them small portions of food every day or feed them a large portion of food every other day. Ideally, adults should be fed every day or two, while juveniles should be fed twice daily.

Summary

  • Rope Fish can grow up to 35 inches and live up to 15 years.
  • They have both gills and lungs and can live on land for short durations.
  • 55 gallons is the minimum aquarium size for keeping one or two Rope Fish.
  • Keep aquarium lids tightly sealed so that your fish do not leap to their escape.
  • erpetoichthys calabaricus does best in clean, well-maintained water.
  • Your Rope Fish will be most active in dim or low light.
  • Rope Fish are very gentle and make great tank mates.
  • Keep tank mates on the larger side, 6 inches or larger.
  • Feed your Rope Fish meaty foods.
  • They are carnivores and like to hunt their food.

If you want to care for a species that is unique in appearance and will provide you with years of enjoyment, consider getting a large Rope Fish Aquarium. Your display will be beautiful, and your friends will be asking if your Rope Fish are eels, snakes, or fish.

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