Common Names: Bala Shark, Tricolor Shark
Scientific Name: Balantiocheilus melanopterus
Minimum Tank Size: 95 Gallons
Care Level: Moderate
Max Size: Up to 14 inches
Temperature: 72-82 F
Tank Level: All, but mostly middle
Colors: Silver, Black, White with hints of Orange to Yellow
- By Lerdsuwa [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Despite the name, bala sharks aren’t real sharks. However, their elongated appearance and large upper and rear fins make them look rather sharklike, which can be a stylish addition to many tanks.
Bala sharks are comparatively easy to care for, although owners should have at least a little experience raising fish first. They’re currently popular for several reasons, including their appearance, willingness to eat different things, and the fact that they do well in groups of their kind.
The most obvious distinguishing features of the bala shark are the triangular dorsal fin up top and their long bodies, both of which are similar to many shark species.
Bala sharks also have a shiny and metallic body, generally silver-hued, with a yellow-tinged tail. Their fins tend to have black areas along the outside, prompting some people to call this the tri-color shark instead.
Bala sharks are native to Southeast Asia, especially in rivers and some lakes. They prefer areas that have higher concentrations of phytoplankton, insects, rotifers, and smaller crustaceans, which are their primary food source out in the wild.
Their native environments are predominantly freshwater and tend to feature a lot of sediment along the bottoms of areas they traverse. They also populate areas with pebbly bottoms. They typically avoid the bottom of tanks and don’t dig into the bottom, but darker substrates are closer to their natural habitat.
Rivers in their native areas can be cloudy, but bala sharks will thrive in clear water.
Bala sharks grow unusually big for aquarium fish. Both males and females can reach about 12 inches long in a tank, making them something of a giant compared to most of their friends. This is slightly smaller than the 14 inches they can reach in the wild, but it means you’ll need a well-sized tank if you want to enjoy them to the fullest.
The important thing to remember is that the small, three to four-inch bala sharks you may see in stores are juveniles and will get considerably larger if allowed time and space to grow.
Bala sharks live for eight to ten years in an optimal environment, which includes having enough space to swim and move around.
Male and female bala sharks have minimal differences most of the time, so only close examination by a professional may be able to tell them apart from each other.
However, it is easier to tell them apart when breeding season comes around because the females tend to develop a sizable, rounded underbelly.
Bala sharks are generally peaceful fish, to the point that some owners refer to them as gentle giants. Balas do best in groups of six, where their numbers can keep them comfortable and calm. Four is the minimum number to keep their personalities under control.
Bala sharks tend to be timid when alone and are more aggressive when there are just two or three in the tank.
Though they are peaceful compared to many other fish, they’re also energetic and may frighten tank mates that are too placid. Bala sharks may also eat very small fish, but can get along well with most medium and large tankmates.
Bala sharks jump when they’re scared, so it’s crucial to have a lid atop your tank instead of leaving it open.
Males and females are not known to have any notable differences in temperament.
Here are the basic parameters for a tank if you want to raise bala sharks that thrive.
Minimum Tank Size
The absolute minimum tank size for raising bala sharks is 125 gallons and is about five feet long. However, as these fish grow quite large, the ideal environment is closer to 300 gallons and ten feet long. This is significantly greater than many home aquariums.
Many owners return large bala sharks to fish stores instead of getting a tank big enough to support their full size.
Bala sharks enjoy swimming around and exploring, with long tanks giving them more room to flit about. Having enough space to move keeps them happier and helps them reach their full potential.
Alternatively, it’s possible to raise bala sharks in ponds. Many owners use tanks, but if you live in a warmer environment, then outdoor ponds can be suitable. Just remember that bala sharks can be sensitive to water conditions, so having a temperature control system for the pond can help ensure their overall health.
Just like tanks, bigger is generally better for bala sharks because they’ll quickly outgrow a regular pond.
Here are the main parameters for water if you want to raise bala sharks.
The best temperature for raising bala sharks is 77 degrees. They can thrive in a range of 72 to 82, but keeping the tank in the middle of that will give you the most flexibility should you have a problem with your control systems.
Bala sharks can handle a pH level of 6.5 to 8.0. Like the temperature, it’s good to keep things close to the middle of their range, so trying to maintain a pH of 7.0 to 7.2 gives you the widest margin of error. However, you may want to adjust this slightly to account for the needs of other fish.
Bala sharks are freshwater fish, so they prefer a salinity of 0 ppt.
Here are some considerations for setting up a tank.
Balas don’t spend much time near the bottom of a tank and likely won’t particularly care about the substrate. You can adjust this to suit the needs of other fish in your tank. Otherwise, a substrate of darker pebbles matches their natural environment.
Balas don’t often use decorations for hiding. Given that, it’s best to keep decorations down on the bottom, or at the very edges of the tank. Try to avoid putting decorations in the middle of the tank as bala sharks like to have lots of space for moving around.
The best plants for a tank with bala sharks are floating plants. Common options like java moss and duckweed help discourage the bala shark’s tendency for jumping, and that’s especially important if you can’t put a lid on your tank.
A few anubias nana planted near the outside of the tank may also help. These plants provide a resting spot for balas if they get scared, but aren’t necessary.
Bala sharks should get about eight hours of light a day from a standard freshwater lamp. You don’t need anything fancy but try to maintain a regular schedule and automate the lighting cycle if possible. Keep the tank relatively dim otherwise.
Like most freshwater fish, bala sharks don’t do well in poorly-filtered water. Try to keep the water consistently clean.
Consider using a sponge-type filter instead of a regular system, especially if you want to breed Bala sharks. Sponges can help stop small fish and bits of food from getting sucked in, ensuring your bala sharks have access to everything you drop in.
As mentioned above, bala sharks prefer water that’s about 77 degrees, with a few degrees of variation on either side. A good tank should have a heater that automatically keeps the water at the right temperature.
One thing to remember here is that balas do best when they have a lot of space, so you need an abnormally large tank to raise them to maturity. Some tank heaters can’t handle 200+ gallons, especially when it’s better to keep the water at a constant temperature instead of having it fluctuate up and down.
In other words, make sure your heater is suitable for your tank’s size.
Bala sharks are omnivorous, with a natural diet consisting of a mix of insects, crustaceans, algae, and larvae. They’ll happily eat almost any kind of fish food you put into a tank, but the best options are usually high-quality dried options.
While pellets or flakes are a good base, bala sharks can also eat things like bloodworms, plankton, or diced fruit and spinach. These provide a little more variety in their diet.
Finally, if you want them to reach their full size, consider giving them protein-rich food like shrimp as supplements to their diets. Balas grow much bigger than most other aquarium fish, so they require significantly more protein.
Overall, bala sharks do not need special foods. A well-balanced mix of quality ingredients is more than enough to keep them in good shape throughout their lives.
Breeding bala sharks is moderately challenging, especially for beginners. It’s usually easier to buy them from a supplier, especially because the triggers for breeding in the wild remain relatively unknown.
If you want bala sharks to breed, there are several steps to the process. First, and most obviously, you need to ensure you have at least one bala shark of each gender. Balas typically live in groups of six, so getting three of each is a good start. Try to mark them somehow when you first get them.
Once you have the fish, you need to wait until they reach maturity. A bala shark needs to be at least three years old and five inches long before it’s ready to breed. It’s better to keep them in a tank with only others of their kind, too, which will help minimize distractions.
Like most captive fish, bala sharks rarely breed on their own initiative, even if you create an optimal environment. That is why you’ll need to buy and use hormone injections, which stimulate their reproductive urges. You may also want to raise the water temperature a little.
Bala typically spawn in the morning. If you see fertilization occur, you can move the parent fish to another tank, and the eggs will hatch into fry within a few days.
Bala sharks are not especially prone to diseases as long as you give them clean water, decent food, and enough space to swim around. However, a poor environment may lead to some issues, such as.
Dropsy, also known as bloat, occurs mainly from parasitic or bacterial infection and may be exacerbated by water temperature. It’s more common when you give fish lower-quality food that may have contaminants. Using high-quality food minimizes the risk of your fish developing dropsy.
Ich is another sickness that tank-held fish may face. This parasite is a protozoan common throughout the world, and finding it requires immediate treatment for all fish in your tank. Make sure to quarantine new fish and check them for infections before adding them to a tank with your other fish.
Stress is most common if bala sharks are in a poor environment or don’t have a large enough school. When stressed, they tend to eat significantly less than usual, and that can lead them to develop other diseases.
Managing a bala shark’s stress is relatively easy. As long as they have companions, food, clean water, and enough space to swim around, they’re generally satisfied. However, they may not enjoy being with aggressive species, so make sure to keep that in mind.
Potential Tank Mates
Bala sharks do well with most other fish species. They’re much too large to be prey for others, but their relaxed (if active) personalities mean they don’t cause too much trouble as long as the other species are okay with having energetic tankmates.
Balas don’t do well with small and sleek fish, though, because they may see these as food. A neon tetra, for example, is probably going to get eaten sooner or later. Similarly, bala sharks will eat invertebrate tank mates like snails and shrimp, so don’t add those unless you want them to become food.
Here are some specific species that work as tank mates.
Clown loaches are a type of catfish with a distinctive yellow-and-black color scheme. They can grow up to 12 inches long—the same as bala sharks—but often gather at the bottom of tanks instead of swimming around the middle.
Since they don’t stay in the same areas, clown loaches tend to get along with bala sharks and the two will likely leave each other alone. They do best in schools of at least five fish but otherwise have similar lifespan expectations.
Clown loaches do prefer slightly warmer water, however, so you may want to set a tank closer to 78 or 79 degrees if you add these. They like stronger currents, clean water, hiding places, and subdued lighting near plants.
Corydoras are another member of the catfish family, coming in a wide variety of colors. These fish do best in schools of about six, with sweet personalities that stop them from bothering other fish in the tank too much.
Corys reach about 2.5 inches when fully grown, which is large enough to keep bala sharks from treating them as food. Juvenile corys may be edible, though, so keep them separated until they’re grown.
Corys love having plants, so a well-decorated aquarium keeps them happy. However, they flourish in water whose hardness is between 3 and 10 dH. Bala sharks like 10 to 13, so you’ll need to keep this as exact as possible if you want to have both of these species. Corydoras also benefit from slightly colder water, so it’s hard to raise both these and clown loaches in one tank.
Frontosa Cichlids are relatively large fish, making their original home in the enormous Lake Tanganyika. They come with bold vertical stripes, and some have particularly prominent humps on the front of their head.
Female frontosa can grow up to ten inches, while males can get up to 15 inches. They’re long-lived companions in fish tanks, with most living between fifteen and twenty years in captivity. Frontosa are usually put in schools of eight to 12 members while in captivity.
Although not normally aggressive, males can fight each other if they don’t like the distribution. To minimize this, you can get a single male and get at least three more females, more if possible. They require a good amount of space, so frontosa are ideal companions if you want to have at least a 300-gallon tank.
Make sure to keep the oxygen levels high. Also, consider focusing your lighting for the bala sharks on one side of the tank. Frontosa prefer darker waters, so you may stress them out if you light the entire tank.
Frontosa do well in the same temperature range as bala sharks, so keeping it about 77 degrees will work fine. They require slightly more alkaline water than bala sharks, with their sweet spot being 8.0 to 8.5 pH. While they can tolerate 7.0, if you’re raising both, it’s better to keep the water around 7.5.
Despite their size, frontosa are much more relaxed than bala sharks. You can expect them to stay still most of the time, and a large tank will ensure they have space to feel comfortable while the balas are moving around.
Also, frontosa tend to redecorate their tanks and adjust things to their liking. Expect some movement in anything you put on the ground.
Gourami are peaceful and easy to raise, making them a popular choice for many aquariums. They also tend to spend a lot of the time near the surface of the water to get air, which is a worrying behavior in some other species but normal for gourami.
Since they often like the upper areas of a tank, gourami won’t compete for the same space as Bala sharks and clown loaches, adding to the ease of raising them.
Exact preferences vary by species, but gourami can tolerate the bala’s ideal temperatures of 77 degrees, with most species allowing a few degrees of variance on either side. Water acidity and hardness are a little harder to match.
The honey, kissing, licorice, paradise, pearl, snakeskin, and three-spot gourami are good choices, with needs that match the bala sharks closely enough to keep them in the same rank. Some of these species may go out of favor if you have other fish in the tank, though, so be sure to check compatibility before buying them.
Tinfoil barbs are a relatively close companion to the bala shark, to the point that some people mistake one for the other. However, these bright fish tend to have more coloration, including red or yellow, and their fins are smaller than bala sharks. Their scales are quite metallic and reflective, making these some of the brighter fish you may have.
Tinfoil barbs can grow to about 14 inches when adults, and like schools with at least seven members total. More is better, so going above the minimum of seven is great if your tank allows it.
Tinfoil barbs are generally peaceful and docile, so they get along particularly well with balas and shouldn’t have any issues being together. Both fish are active and energetic swimmers, but having both of them in a tank could be negative for any fish that are too leisurely.
Tinfoil barbs enjoy faster currents, so having at least some area where the water is fast is good. They’re jumpers, too, so having a lid on top will help keep them within the water.
These fish enjoy water that’s between 72 and 80 degrees. This is a slightly cooler range than the bala shark likes, but staying around 76 or 77 will keep both species happy. Tinfoil barbs prefer an acidity of 6.0 to 7.5, so they’ll tolerate the bala’s 7.0 with no trouble. They don’t like as much water hardness, though, so try to keep it as close to 10 as possible.
Tinfoil barbs aren’t a good pair with frontosa because the frontosa will need noticeably more alkaline water and their ranges don’t overlap. You can keep them with clown loaches, but the temperature will have to stay within a narrow range to keep all of the fish happy.