The African Butterfly Fish (aka Freshwater Butterfly Fish) is a very interesting looking species that many aquarists love. You can find this fish in a number of tanks all over the world, and their popularity seems to be on the rise in recent years.

But for some reason, there seems to be a bit of misinformation floating around online when it comes to these fish. This is likely because this species is a bit unique and has some interesting habitat requirements if you plan on keeping them in a home aquarium.

That’s where this guide comes in. We go over all the essentials of African Butterfly Fish care, as well as other info that’ll come in handy.

By the time you’re done reading it, you’ll be an expert!

Species Summary

The African Butterfly Fish (Pantodon buchholzi) is a freshwater species that has been around for quite some time. Another common name for this animal is the Freshwater Butterfly Fish.

Author Note: People commonly confuse this species with saltwater butterflyfishes. This only happens in writing though because they look absolutely nothing alike!

This fish comes from various large bodies of water in West Africa. They’re usually found in water with either no current or very little. This is evident by their tank behavior (more on that later).

One of the most interesting things about the African Butterfly Fish is their ability to jump through the air. While many fish can break the surface of the water if they want to, this species can actually glide!

This is made possible by their large pectoral fins that resemble butterfly wings. When they’re in the air they’ll fan these out to get as much surface area as possible so they can stay airborne longer. They rely on this handy trick as a way of escaping predators in the wild.

Because their build allows them to be efficient hunters and avoid being eaten, they have remained largely unchanged for millions of years. 

Lifespan

The typical lifespan of an African Butterfly Fish is around 5-6 years when given a good diet and proper conditions. If you get a specimen with great genetics and you take good care of them, it’s entirely possible to exceed this lifespan.

Appearance

The appearance of the Freshwater Butterfly Fish is a big part of what makes it so unique. Like we said earlier, the design of this fish has mostly been unchanged for millions of years. It just works!

Everything about this fish is geared toward their ability to hunt and thrive at the surface. Their eyes are upward-facing and their body is mostly flat on the top as well.

Their mouth is positioned at an upward angle too. This allows the fish to easily scarf down any small prey it finds and breathe air from the surface (they have a swim bladder).

The African Butterfly Fish has a series of large fanlike fins that typically point away from the surface so they don’t scare away prey. Their name comes from the look of their pectoral fins when viewing them from the surface.

Pantodon buchholzi from above

Their dorsal and anal fins are average in size, but their caudal fin is rather large. All of these fins are partially translucent with evenly spaced darker lines.

The ventral fins on this fish are quite interesting. They look a lot like thin barbels and don’t serve much of a purpose in terms of mobility, but likely aid them in their ability to feel for danger below.

African Butterfly Fish are usually brown or grey and have some very small dots that cover the lighter parts of their body. The primary coloration can change a bit depending on the specimen.

Size

The average African Butterfly Fish size is about 5 inches in length. For some reason, a lot of people are surprised to hear this if they’ve only seen pictures of them online.

Apparently there’s something about the look of this fish that makes them seem larger than they really are!

Author Note: We know a few aquarists who’ve had their Freshwater Butterfly Fish exceed the average length by about an inch. In all instances, the fish were purchased from a great breeder and the level of care was top-notch.

African Butterfly Fish Care

African Butterfly Fish care is all about providing them with an ideal habitat. These fish have very particular needs when it comes to water and tank conditions, so it’s important to be mindful of them before getting one for yourself.

Tank Size

The minimum recommended tank size for an African Butterfly Fish is 40 gallons. However, that’s only part of the equation.

It’s very important to get a long tank instead of a tall one. These fish will spend almost all of their time near the surface of the water, so any space below them won’t get much use.

This means a 40-gallon aquarium that’s deep will give them much less usable space than a shallow and wide tank that holds the same amount of water.

Water Parameters

Maintaining the proper water parameters is one of the most important aspects of African Butterfly Fish care. This species can only thrive in very specific conditions that need to be as stable and consistent as possible.

This is the area where most owners struggle (if they’re not prepared), so make sure you’re comfortable with the idea of operating within smaller windows than other freshwater fish.

  • Water temperature: 75°F to 86°F
  • pH levels: 6.5 to 7 (this is where you should pay the most attention) 
  • Water hardness: 1-10 KH

Since this species can be very sensitive to the parameters in their tank, it’s important to monitor these levels closely. This isn’t a fish where you can check in whenever you feel like it.

Instead, have a schedule and test these parameters consistently. Get a reliable testing kit that will give you accurate readings and use it regularly (we like doing this every two days).

What To Put In Their Habitat

Freshwater Butterfly Fish need a well-designed environment to feel comfortable. This means you need to be very intentional with the items that will impact their area of the tank.

Plants are a very important piece of the puzzle when it comes to their habitat. These fish are used to areas with a significant amount of vegetation, and they spend a lot of time using these plants to hide.

A few African Butterfly Fish swimming near the top of the aquarium

Some floating aquarium plants are a good choice for this. Anything that grows mostly at the bottom of their tank won’t be used very much since these fish spend most of their time near the surface.

Make sure you don’t go overboard with plants though. African Butterfly Fish need some room to access the surface!

Plants will also do a good job of keeping things a bit on the dimmer side. These fish come from shady areas and will feel uncomfortable if things are too bright.

Since they don’t visit the bottom very often you can be a lot less picky when it comes to their substrate. Deferring to other fish and plants in your tank is fine.

When it comes to additional items like rocks, caves, and driftwood there’s really not much to consider as well. As long as they don’t obstruct the top portion of the tank everything should be fine.

It’s important to make sure you don’t have a current in their tank as well. Find filtration and pumps that allow you to run what you need without stirring up the water. African Butterfly Fish like their water to be calm!

Author Note: It’s absolutely essential to have some kind of lid to prevent these fish from jumping out. There’s basically a 100% chance of them attempting this at some point, so protect them from themselves!

Disease Potential

There aren’t any particular diseases that impact this species specifically. While this is obviously good news, there are a ton of common diseases they can get.

Various infections, skin flukes, and parasites are all things to look out for. African Butterfly Fish can get these just like any other species.

Where you need to be especially careful is with the water quality and parameters of the tank. These fish are picky when it comes to their habitat and have a significantly higher chance of getting sick when living in suboptimal conditions.

Fortunately, this means you have a lot of control over their likelihood of getting a freshwater disease. If you’re consistent and dedicated to providing them with the best care possible, the chance of them getting sick goes way down!

Author Note: Don’t forget the impact that general stress can have on the health of your fish. If your Freshwater Butterfly Fish spends its time in a habitat where it doesn’t feel comfortable, there’s a higher chance of them getting a common disease in the future.

Diet & Food Recommendations

The ideal African Butterfly Fish diet should be geared around their nature as a predator. In the wild, these fish spend their time patrolling the surface and looking for small insects and fish to eat.

If you want them to be as healthy as possible you’ll need to mimic this diet.

You can’t rely on flakes and pellets like you can with other species. It’s quite common for these fish to refuse this kind of food. Even if yours accepts these, they don’t have the nutritional values this species requires to be anything more than a different treat.

This means you need to feed them a lot of meaty live food. Crickets seem to be their favorite (many experienced owners swear by this) but you can also give them other insects and even feeder fish.

The best feeding schedule for African Butterfly Fish is 2-4 times a day. We prefer to aim for the higher end of that range because it provides them with extra stimulation and mimics their natural eating pattern. Don’t overfeed them though!

Behavior & Temperament

When it comes to behavior, African Butterfly Fish are interesting. A lot of the time you’ll see these fish floating near the surface not doing much of anything (they’re basically ornaments).

A Freshwater Butterfly Fish

This is how they hunt in the wild because moving too much will cause insects and small fish to avoid them.

But when it comes to feeding time, things change. They’ll scarf down their target and dart away to eat. These are really powerful swimmers!

Author Note: This is one of the advantages of feeding them a few times each day. It’s a great chance to observe these fish in action!

As far as their temperament is concerned, this species definitely has the potential to be aggressive. They view the top area of the tank as theirs (anything else could be competing with them for food) and will fight to make sure it stays that way.

They might also eat smaller fish in your tank if you pair them with a tank mate that isn’t compatible. We technically wouldn’t consider this to be aggression though since they’re just behaving like normal predators.

African Butterfly Fish Tank Mates

When it comes to picking the best African Butterfly Fish tank mates there are a few things you need to be aware of first.

These fish are predators (as we’ve mentioned throughout this care guide). This means if you place them with small tank mates who visit the surface there’s a good chance they’ll get eaten.

Fish that occupy the surface of the tank aren’t a good idea at all really. African Butterfly Fish are very protective of their space at the top of the aquarium and will likely fight any species they deem as competition (no matter the size).

Obviously you can buy yourself a little bit of leeway if you have a very large tank, but those are the general rules you’ll want to follow when it comes to compatibility.

Here are some African Butterfly Fish tank mates that tend to work well:

Author Note: Steer clear of any fin-nipping fish too. The long dangling fins of a Freshwater Butterfly Fish make very tempting targets!

Breeding

Despite what you may have heard, it’s entirely possible to breed African Butterfly Fish in a home aquarium. While it’s not a walk in the park, if you have their normal water conditions and habitat set up properly you can definitely find success.

You’ll want to make sure you have a tank with a lot of surface area and some floating plants in the mix as well. These should be part of their normal habitat anyway, but it becomes especially important during the breeding process.

Assuming their habitat is all set up, the next thing to think about is water temperature. A lot of aquarists swear by the process of cooling things off a little bit, but there are others who just leave it the same.

Decreasing the water level a little bit seems to be more of an impactful change that is easy to implement.

Once the breeding process has occurred the floating eggs will be laid. These fish will use any plants near the surface as a place to hide and protect the eggs (this is why they’re so important for breeding).

It’s important to remove these eggs and bring them to a separate tank so the parents don’t eat them. This is a problem in captivity. After about a week the eggs will hatch.

Once the fry are ready to be fed you’ll need to start feeding them in order to facilitate proper growth. While a lot of aquarists try brine shrimp, Daphnia is an even better fit.

Conclusion

African Butterfly Fish care is rewarding on so many levels. These unique fish are a joy to observe and will stand out in any home aquarium.

Despite the fact that they’re not as beginner-friendly as some other freshwater species, we think that just adds to the fun. There’s something fulfilling about taking care of a fish where you have to pay closer attention to what you’re doing.

It makes you a better aquarist and will improve your skills for any future species you own in the future.

If you have any stories about your Freshwater Butterfly Fish that you’d like us to include in our guide feel free to send them our way! We’d love to hear from you.

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