The Freshwater Butterflyfish has pectoral fins that are prettily patterned and look just like butterfly wings!

The African Butterflyfish Pantodon buchholzi is a unique and fascinating freshwater fish from Africa. It is also known as the Freshwater Butterflyfish. The Butterfly fish was Introduced to European aquarists in 1905 and is the only member of its species, and its family. They are predator type fish, found in weedy pools of slow moving waters. There they will lie at the surface,almost motionless, waiting for unsuspecting prey to pass by.

The Freshwater Butterflyfish is called a “Butterfly fish” because when seen from above, its widespread pectoral fins look just like the decorative wings of a butterfly. These fins are a silvery brownish green and patterned with dark markings. They are very pretty, but are also a wonderful feature for this fish. Theyhelp this fish leap from the waterto capture terrestrial insects from above the surface. When these large fins are spread out, they allow this fish to glide short distances across the surface of the water. This is very much in the same manner as the saltwater flying fish.

The Butterfly Fish is an ancient and unchanged fish, and is referred to a true living fossil. These fish are said to have survived unchanged for 100 million years! They have not been modified with any environmental changesyet still have survived. These fish are designed to almost fly as they jump out of the water to capture prey and glide to avoid predators. They use their swim bladders to breath surface air as well as maintain buoyancy. Their eyes are on the top of their head so they can view everything above them andtheir brains have extra clusters of neurons to process more. Butterfly fish also uses sensors in their skin that detect small waves in the water caused by insects hitting the water making this stealthy hunter very successful.

Freshwater Butterfly fish are suggested for a more experienced aquarist as they are somewhat fussy about their habitat and care. A shady, shallow aquarium is best, one that’s only about 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) deep and loosely planted. They are happiest with more length and width to the tank, rather than depth. This gives them the large surface area where they naturally like to reside. They also like some floating plant cover to lurk under. Be sure you have a good cover on the aquarium as this fish is an excellent jumper.

The African Butterfly Fish is generally a good community fish. However they can be a bit intolerant of other surface swimming fish and have been known to nip fins. So for compatibility, it is best to keep them with other fish that primarily inhabit the middle and bottom regions of the tank. They are a predator and will eat fish small enough to fit in their mouths. But on a positive note, they also become quite tame and will eat food from your fingers.

Scientific Classification


African Butterflyfish – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Advanced
Aquarium Hardiness:Moderately Difficult
Minimum Tank Size:40 gal (151 L)
Size of fish – inches5.1 inches (12.95 cm)
Temperature:77.0 to 82.0° F (25.0 to 27.8&deg C)

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The African Butterfly fish Pantodon buchholzi was described by Peters in 1876. They are found in West Africa, Nigeria, Cameroons, Zaire. The genus name, Pantodon, is derived from the Greek terms “pan” meaning “all” and “odon” meaning “teeth”, so together this literally means “all tooth”. The species name “buchholzi” is a patronym. This fish species was named after the man who discovered it, Professor R. W. Buchholz. Other common names it is known by are Freshwater Butterflyfish, Butterfly Fish, African Butterfly Fish, and Butterflyfish. The species is not listed on the IUCN Red List.

Freshwater Butterflyfish live in the acidic waters of West Africa and are common in Lake Chad, Congo Basin, Lower Niger, Cameroon, Ogooue, and Upper Zambezi. They can be found in smaller numbers in the Niger Delta, Lower Ogun and Lower Cross Rivers. They inhabit areas with slow to no current, butwith a dense amount of surface floating vegetation. In nature these fish are surface hunters. They primarily feed on terrestrial insects, aquatic larvae and nymphs of insects, but will also feed on crustaceans and fish.

  • Scientific Name: Pantodon buchholzi
  • Social Grouping: Pairs – They can be found singly or in pairs in the wild.
  • IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed


The Butterflyfish got their name from their appearance when viewed from the surface. Their large pectoral fins give them a butterfly like appearance. They normally grow no larger then 5 inches in length, though usually smaller in the aquarium reaching about 4 inches (10 cm). Most of the Butterfly Fish that we have seen are full grown or close to it. A Butterfly fish has a flat head and back that is a light brown or greenish color with a silver sheen and has dark markings on the fins and underside.

The large pectoral fins of the Freshwater Butterflyfish are widespread and it uses them to glide over short distances. The wide lizard-like mouth is upturned at the top of the body, and true to form it eats all manner of surface insects. This fish will normally be found at the surface hoover for prey. It has a unique ability to breath surface air and its swim bladder not only regulates buoyancy but also helps with gas exchange while breathing surface air.

  • Size of fish – inches: 5.1 inches (12.95 cm) – The African Butterflyfish generally only gets up to about 4 inches (10 cm) in the aquarium.
  • Lifespan: 5 years

Fish Keeping Difficulty

Freshwater Butterflyfish are not suggested for beginners as they have rather specialized needs. Butterfly fish are not very tolerant of water condition changes and close monitoring practices should be in place. You do want to make sure the filter is not producing too much surface current. If using a powerful filter try to have it come out low in the tank.

These fish can be somewhat demanding eaters and will usually not eat flake or other processed foods. Stick to nature and feed live foods or insects. Care needs to be taken when feeding because they will swallow anything they think will fit in their mouth. When scared these fish can glide out of the tank so make every effort not to surprise this fish, and it is very important to have a secure top.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately Difficult
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced – As they have very specialized needs, Freshwater Butterfly fish are best kept by a more advanced hobbyist.

Foods and Feeding

Since they are carnivores, the African Butterflyfish will eat all types of protein foods. They especially like live insects. Feed flies, mosquito larvae, small spiders, worms, small fish, brine shrimp, small prawns, and large flake food. We have had good success feeding them small crickets. They are surface eaters, so anything that falls to the bottom will not be consumed by the Butterflyfish.

  • Diet Type: Carnivore – They are a surface hunter primarily feeding on insects, but will also feed on crustaceans and other fish.
  • Flake Food: Occasionally – Can offer large flake occasionally, but not as their main diet.
  • Tablet / Pellet: Occasionally
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Most of Diet – Insects are a huge part of their diet, but will eat small fish and worms too.
  • Meaty Food: All of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day

Aquarium Care

The Butterflyfishtank needs to suit their specialized needs. The aquariumneeds a high quality filter but this fish does not like any current. It is important make sure the filter is not producing to much of a current at the surface or middle of the tank. Frequent small water changes will help to maintain the stabile waterchemistry they need. A weekly water change of 15-20% is the standard recommendation.

  • Water Changes: Weekly – Water change should be 15-20% weekly.

Aquarium Setup

The Freshwater Butteflyfish is rather particular about its habitat. They like a shady, shallow aquarium with a lot of surface area and loosely planted. They need an aquarium that is at least 40 gallons, and prefer one that’s only about 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) deep. They are happiest with more length and width to the tank, rather than depth. This provides the large surface area they require. Column tanks are not suitable for these fish. This fish only really uses the top of the tank, occasionally visiting the middle.

The Butterflyfish does best in slightly acidic, soft water. Water movement should be kept to a minimum and lighting should be dim. There should be a good amount of floating plants to help subdue the lighting and give natural cover so the Butterfly can exhibit its natural behavior. A tight lid it necessary to prevent the fish from “flying” out of the tank.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gal (151 L) – The aquarium needs more length and width to the tank, rather than depth. No column tanks.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Substrate Type: Any
  • Lighting Needs: Low – subdued lighting
  • Temperature: 77.0 to 82.0° F (25.0 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: 80.0° F
  • Range ph: 6.5-7.0
  • Hardness Range: 8 – 12 dGH
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Weak
  • Water Region: Top – These fish will swim in the top of the aquarium.

Social Behaviors

They are generally a good community fish although they may eat small fish. These fish will swim in the top of the aquarium. It is best to keep it with other fish that swim in the middle or bottom of the aquarium. They can be intolerant of other fish that use the top of the tank and can become very aggressive.

In a large enough tank they can do ok with other Butterflyfish. Take caution with tank mates that are fin nippers as these with will stress the Butterflyfish as they have long tentacle type fins that dangle below them. The Butterfly fish does well with Congo tetras, elephant nose fish, catfish, Knife fish, and medium sized West African Cichlids.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive – Aggressive toward other top dwellers and small fish that are perceived as food.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Sometimes – In a big enough tank they can be grouped. Tank must be large enough for each to have their own space or they will become aggressive.
    • Peaceful fish (): Safe – They are peaceful with other fish that swim in the middle or bottom of the aquarium.
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Safe
    • Aggressive (): Monitor
    • Monitor
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: May be aggressive – Generally safe as these fish inhabit the top area of the water, but in the wild these fish do occasionally eat crustaceans.
    • Plants: Safe

Sexual differences

The male is slimmer than the female, though that is hard to distinguish unless the female is fat due to carrying eggs. The rear edge of the anal fin of the male describes a convex curve and the fin rays form a tube (which is the genital organ). The rear edge of the female anal fin is straight.

Breeding / Reproduction

These fish are rather difficult to breed and peat filtration is recommended. The water conditions given above are the recommended breeding conditions. Feed a pair with a large variety of live foods to induce spawning. Once spawning begins, 3 to 7 eggs will be produced at each pass. The eggs will float to the surface where you can use a spoon to transfer them to another aquarium. The pairing will continue for some time with a total of 80 to 200 eggs dropped per day. The eggs will hatch in about 36 hours. The fry are difficult to raise as they will only eat foods that float directly in front of their mouths. Some ideas on what to feed them can be found in Live Fish Foods, Foods for fish fry.

  • Ease of Breeding: Difficult

Fish Diseases

As with most fish the Butterflyfish are prone to skin flukes, parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), ichthyobodo infection, parasitic infestations (protozoa, worms, etc.), bacterial infections (general), and bacterial disease. Anything you add to your tank has the possibility of bringing disease to your tank. Not only other fish but plants, substrate, and decorations can harbor bacteria. Take great care and make sure to properly clean or quarantine anything that you add to an established tank so not to upset the balance.

Butterflyfish are hardy and disease is not usually a problem in a well maintained aquarium. That being said there is no guarantee that you won’t have to deal with health problems or disease. A good thing about Butterflyfish is that due to their resilience, an outbreak of disease can often be limited to just one or a few fishes if you deal with it at an early stage. When keeping more sensitive types of fish, it is common for all fishes to be infected even before the first warning signs can be noticed. The best way to proactively prevent disease is to give your fish the proper environment and give them a well balanced diet. The closer to their natural habitat the less stress the fish will have, making them healthier and happy. A stressed fish will is more likely to acquire disease.

It is recommended to read up on the common tank diseases. Knowing the signs and catching and treating them early makes a huge difference. For information about freshwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.


The Freshwater Butterflyfish or African Butterflyfish is usually available, though slightly higher in price than many other common freshwater fish.



Featured Image Credit: Roberto Dani, Shutterstock