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Family: Pantodontidae

Common Name: African Butterfly Fish

Origin and Habitat: They are found in the river systems in West and Central Africa, inhabiting slow-moving and still waters having dense aquatic and/or overhanging vegetation.

Compatibility/Temperament: Peaceful but predatory, they are generally a good community fish with appropriate tankmates. They will eat small fish that approach the surface. Should not be maintained with other surface dwelling fish. Fish in the lower levels of the aquarium must be peaceful. Any fish prone to nip fins must be avoided. A pair will do well in a 24-30 inch tank, or a small group in larger quarters.

African Butterfly Fish Diet

In the wild this fish is primarily an insectivore. In the aquarium, they will therefore relish live insects (flies, beetles, spiders)but they will also appreciate freeze-dried, frozen and flake food once accustomed. They eat best when the food floats past their eye. Sinking foods will be ignored. Any small fish near the surface will usually be snapped up quickly.


The African Butterfly Fish generally get up to 4 inches (10 cm) in the aquarium.

Minimum Tank Suggestion

24-30 inches in length.

Ideal water parameters for African Butterfly Fish

Soft (hardness < 15 dGH), acidic to slightly basic (pH 6 to 7, some sources indicating 7.5 the upper limit), temperature 23-30C/73-86F. Optimum temperature 25-27C/77-80F.


Pantodon buchholzi is indeed a remarkable species. There are two distinct populations known in the wild, one in the Niger River basin and one in the basin of the Congo River, and only recently have these been shown to have significant genetic differences that have existed for at least 57.2 million years. In spite of this, the species is an example of what is termed "morphological stasis," which means that the morphology (the form or shape) has remained virtually unchanged throughout the species' existance. This constancy is believed to be greater than that of all vertebrate examples in fossil records (Lavoue, et al, 2011; cited in Dawes, 2011). Further study may determine that these are in fact two distinct species; the genetic differences between the two populations are so wide that "they might even be reproductively isolated owing to genetic incompatibilities." (Dawes, 2011).

This very unique fish will spend all of its time at the surface, frequently motionless among the floating or overhanging plants, lying in wait for food. At any sign of insects, small fish at the surface or prepared foods, it springs into action remarkably quick. Its mouth is very large.

This fish is capable of aerial respiration using the swim bladder. And the eyes are designed so that the fish can simultaneously see above and below the surface of the water. This is of particular importance when one considers that this fish has over-sized pectoral fins which are used to propel them out of the water, in the manner of the freshwater hatchetfishes, to catch flying insects and they can glide several feet. A good secure cover to the tank is strictly necessary and all holes for the filtration systems, air hoses, heaters, etc. must be very small.

The tank should be sparsely planted, with a few floating plants for hiding and to feel at home. Water movement should be minimal, replicating the fish's natural habitats. The tank should be dimly lit, and a dark substrate will be appreciated.

Spawning is not too difficult, and may be initiated by lowering the water level to just a few inches for a few weeks. Males have their anal fin curved with an even cleft whereas females have a straight-edged anal fin.

The appearance of the fish from above gave rise to the common name; this species bears no relationship to the true marine butterfly fishes.

This fish was described by W.C.H. Peters in 1876. It is the only species in the genus, and there are no other genera in the family. The name Pantodontidae is derived from the Greek pan [= all] and odous [= tooth, teeth]. The species epithet honours a Professor Buchholz who discovered this species. Two sub-species described by C. Bruning in 1911 were determined by Gosse (1984) to be conspecific with the subject species.

Pantodontidae is closely related to the family Osteoglossidae (Arowana) and these along with five other families that include the Arapaima, Elephantnoses and Knifefishes, belong to the Order Osteoglossiformes. The name derives from the Greek osteon [= bone] and glossa [= tongue] plus the Latin forma [= shape], and in English these fishes are referred to as the bony tongues. This is a very primitive order, with fossil records as far back as the late Jurassic period (roughly 161 to 145 million years ago). To put this into perspective, this was the period when the supercontinent Pangaea broke up into the two supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana, which in time further divided into the continents as we know them today.


Dawes, John (2011), "Remarkable Butterfly," Aqualog News, No. 98, pp. 17-19. Available online at

Lavoue, Sebastien, Masaki Miya, Matthew E. Arnegard, Peter B. McIntyre, Victor Mamonekene and Mutsimi Nishida (2011), "Remarkable morphological stasis in an extant vertebrate despite tens of millions of years of divergence," Proceedings of the Royal Society (2011), No. 278, pp. 1003-1008.

Contributing Members

The following members have contributed to this profile: Gerardo756, Byron

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