Butterflyfish: Species Overview

Category: Butterflyfish

Common Names: African Butterflyfish

Scientific Name: Pantodon buchholzi

Family: Pantodontidae

Minimum Tank Size: 30 Gallons

Care Level: Moderate

Temperament: Aggressive

Max Size: 4 Inches

Temperature: 75-85 F

pH: 6.5-7.5

Tank Level: Top

Colors: Tan, Black

Diet: Carnivore

Breeding: Moderate

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African Butterflyfish Species Overview

The African butterflyfish (Pantodon buchholzi) is an odd-looking freshwater fish that thrives in slow-flowing rivers, lakes, and swamps. Also known as the freshwater butterflyfish, the African butterflyfish is popular among aquarists due to its impressive survivability in tanks with still water.

This fish species is common in water bodies with little or no current. The fish can be easily seen floating below the water surface much of the time. Its pectoral fins and predatory nature has allowed it to remain unchanged in the wild for millions of years.

Enthusiastic aquarists interested in keeping this fish should consider the water and tank condition and ways of feeding it.

African butterflyfish is a notorious tank jumper, thanks to its pectoral fins. It also preys on smaller fish species.

Before installing a tank to keep this fish species, it’s advisable to create a barrier on top to prevent them from escaping.

The water pH and temperature can be an issue if not checked. Monitor them for the first few weeks because they’re sensitive to water pH and temperature.

Distinguishing Features

African butterflyfish is a uniquefreshwater fish with features that have enabled it to survive millions of years.

Below are some distinguishing features you’ll find in the African butterflyfish.

Pectoral Fins

The African butterflyfish has broad pectoral fins, similar to a butterfly’s wings. These fins allow them to jump out of the water and glide above the surface to escape predators or catch prey.

Their enlarged pectoral muscles help them wiggle their pectoral fins and glide for smaller distances above the surface.

They also have large caudal fins and average-sized dorsal and anal fins, making themexcellent swimmers.

Male African butterflyfishes have segmented anal fins, while females have singular anal fins. The males’ anal fins have a large lower convex and a small upper region, while the females’ anal fins have a straight lower edge.


African butterflyfish are either brown or gray with tiny dots to help them camouflage in nature.

Their decorative pectoral fins give them a butterfly-like resemblance. Their caudal, dorsal, and anal fins are translucent with visible, darker lines.

Mouth and Eyes

The mouth and eyes of this fish species are angled upwards. This upward angle helps the fish easily see and capture small prey floating on the surface.

The mouth position allows them easily breathe from the surface.

African Butterflyfish Origin

Freshwater butterflyfish are common in still and slow-moving rivers, lakes, and swamps in West Africa. You’re likely to find them in the Congo Basin, Lake Chad, Cameroon, Ogooue, Lower Niger, Niger Delta, Lower Ogun, Upper Zambezi rivers, and Lower Cross rivers.

The freshwater bodies in these regions have submerged and dense overhanging vegetation. The African butterflyfish prefer floating vegetation to hide from predators and ambush their prey. The little or no current allows them to move slowly and deliberately to avoid detection by prey or predators.


On average, the size of an adult freshwater butterflyfish is five inches (12.7 cm) in length. The size of an adult fish varies depending on its natural habitat.

An African butterflyfish in the wild can grow up to 5.1 inches (13 cm), while in a tank, it will grow up to four inches (10.16 cm).

Females grow heavier and longer than males. The anal fish of a female African butterflyfish is broad and unbroken compared to the male’s anal fin, separated into two sections. The lower section of the anal fin of a male fish is longer than its upper section.


The average lifespan of the freshwater butterflyfish is five years. However, aquarists can exceed their lifespan up to 10 years by finding great genetics, a good diet, and the right tank conditions.


Adult female African butterflyfish are longer and heavier than males. Their anal fins are easy to tell apart as females have singular anal fins while males have separated anal fins.

The female’s anal fins are broad with a straight edge on the lower side. Conversely, the male’s anal fins have a small upper section and a large lower section.


African butterflyfish are aggressive predatory fish species that prefer dominating their spaces. They spend much of their time floating near the surface. Hovering and doing nothing for long helps them avoid scaring their prey away or attracting the attention of predators.

When it comes to feeding time, they can dart away to capture prey and scarf them down. They are aggressive to big fish species competing for space near the surface. It’s common to find African butterflyfish fighting different species competing for space and food near the surface.

Paring females with smaller incompatible males in a tank may not be advisable. Females are generally longer and heavier and will fight or eat smaller males.

African butterflyfish can only coexist with other fish if they don’t nip their fins. And because they prefer dominating the surface of the water, you can match African butterflyfish with other species that won’t spend much time near the surface.

Additionally, housing many freshwater butterflyfish in the same aquarium can increase their aggressiveness toward each other.

African Butterflyfish in Aquarium

Tank Parameters

Since this fish is susceptible to water pH, temperature, and water flow, a good idea is to consider the tank parameters when installing one.

Your goal is to establish an ideal habitat that will allow your fish to thrive. Tank size, setup, and water parameters are some factors to consider when installing a tank.

Minimum Tank Size

The minimum tank size for a freshwater butterflyfish is 40 gallons. Since this fish spends most of its time floating near the water surface, the depth of your tank may not matter more than its size.

Putting 40 gallons of water in a deep but narrow tank won’t help much. The goal is to create a tank that allows your fish to feel like they’re in their natural habitat. When installing a tank, ensure it is spacious enough with more width and length.

Creating enough space provides African butterflyfishes with the room they need to float and roam around. When installing a tank, ensure it’ll hold 40 gallons of water and create a vast space near the water’s surface.

Water Parameters

Providing ideal water parameters for African butterflyfish might be intimidating to most aquarists. The African butterflyfish requires stable and consistent water conditions to thrive in tanks.

Below are the water parameters to consider:

  • Temperature: African butterflyfish prefer to stay in the water with a moderate temperature, ranging between 73 to 86°F (23 to 28°C).
  • pH:Water pH is where you should pay much attention. The African butterflyfish can’t survive in highly acidic or perfectly neutral water. The optimum pH level should range between 6.9 and 7.1.
  • Salinity: The African butterflyfish thrives inKH of 1-10.

Tank Setup

When installing a tank, it’s a good idea to consider how to set it up and what to include so your fish can thrive well.

Here are factors to consider in your tank setup.


African butterflyfish rarely visit the bottom and spend a lot of time floating near the water’s surface. As a result, you may not need to worry about which items to add to the bottom of your tank. The best natural habitat for your fish should be near the water surface.

The substrate provides natural habitats for fish at the bottom of your tank. Since African butterflyfish rarely visit the bottom, any rocks, caves, and driftwoods will work just fine, as long as they don’t interfere with the condition of the water near the surface.


Adding decorations to the tank can work against your fish. African butterflyfish are naturally suspicious and will remain frightened if the aquarium doesn’t resemble their natural habitats in the wild.

Colorful decorations at the bottom, sides, or surface can easily scare the African butterflyfish. When scared, your fish can jump and fly out of the tank or refuse to feed and mate.


African butterflyfish are used to water bodies with floating plants where they spend much of their time hiding. When choosing floating plants for your tank, choose one that won’t take up the entire surface of the water.

Your fish will require enough room near the water surface when floating and floating plants to hide from their predators and prey.

Here are some floating plants to consider:

  • Java moss
  • Duckweed
  • Hornwort
  • Amazon frogbit
  • Red root floater
  • Water wisteria
  • Brazilian pennywort
  • Water sprite
  • Dwarf water lettuce

Plants growing at the bottom of the tank won’t be of much help because the fish will rarely visit the bottom of your tank.


The freshwater butterflyfish feels uncomfortable when the tank is too bright. Adding floating plants creates a shady environment, making them feel like they’re in the wild.

If you’re installing your tank with high light intensity, floating plants will cover the light and create a dimmer environment.


Water filtration is significant in keeping the water in your tank pure and fresh. However, the filtration process can be stressful to African butterflyfish if not done correctly. Remember, these fish prefer slow-moving water. The current and water coming from the filtration unit can disturb the fish.

The best place to install your filter is at the bottom, where current and water movement won’t disturb your fish floating on the surface. Also, avoid changing the high amount of water regularly because water movement will stress your fish.


The tank’s water temperature should remain at 73 to 86°F. When lower than the recommended temperature, it’s advisable to introduce warm water while monitoring the temperature.


Freshwater butterflyfish are predatory, and when in the wild, they prefer feeding on aquatic insects, larvae, and other smaller fish species. When feeding this fish, it’s advisable to provide a diet that mimics what they feed in the wild.

Introduce small insects such as crickets, flies, worms, tiny spiders, or feeder fish to ensure they feel like they’re in their natural habitat. Unlike other fish species, pellets and flakes are not African butterflyfish’s favorite. Though reluctantly, they may eat them but won’t get the nutrients they need to grow big.

Feed your African butterflyfish two to four times daily to ensure they have enough throughout the day. However, avoid overfeeding them.


For breeding to occur, you should introduce ideal habitat and water parameters. Some aquarists prefer reducing water temperature, feeding the pair live foods, and lowering the water level by a few inches.

After breeding, females lay eggs and hide them under the leaves of plants growing near the water’s surface. Remove all eggs, then place them in a separate tank because parents might eat them. The eggs will hatch within a week.

Feed the fry to facilitate quick growth. The best feed for fry is brine shrimp or Daphnia. Remove uneaten food that has settled on the bottom of the tank. You don’t want your fry to eat food that has deteriorated.

Common Diseases

African butterflyfish are not prone to any particular diseases. However, infections, parasites, and skin flukes can be major threats to your fish.

Parasites, skin flukes, and infections come from external elements such as water, food, plants, and substrate added to your tank.

These external elements may bring dirt, parasites, and bacterial infections. It’s, therefore, advisable to check and ensure anything you’re adding into the tank is clean and healthy.

The best way to maintain the health of your freshwater butterflyfish is by feeding them properly and ensuring their environment has the required conditions.

Potential Tank Mates

If you’re looking for potential tank mates for the African butterflyfish, consider its aggressiveness and predatory nature. Placing smaller fish that regularly visit the surface can provoke your African butterflyfish.

This fish prefers dominating its space near the water surface and will attack any fish that visit its territories. The best tank mates should be those spending most of their time in the middle or at the bottom of the tank.

Fin nippers are a bad pair because they intimidate African butterflyfish. The best tank mates for your African butterflyfish include Congo tetras, knife fish, elephant nose fish, nerite snails, cory catfish, rope fish, kuhli loach, and medium-sized West African cichlid.

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