African Butterfly Fish – Pantodon buchholzi

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The exotic appearance of the African Butterfly Fish has made it an aquarium favorite since its introduction to the hobby in 1905. One of its most obvious characteristics is the broad span of the enormous pectoral fins which resemble the wings of a butterfly (and from which it gets its name).

Scientific Name: Pantodon buchholzi Peters
Synonyms: None
Common Names: African Butterfly Fish
Region: West and Central Africa
Maximum Size: 15cm (5.9 inches) TL
pH Range and Hardness: tolerant of a range of pH and hardness; prefers neutral to slightly acidic water
Temperature Range: Decidedly tropical; between 74 – 84 degrees Fahrenheit

Pantodon buchholzi is the only member of the Family Pantodontidae which is included in the Order Osteoglossiformes. The Osteoglossids are a group of ‘primitive’ fish which are represented by the Arowanas, the Gymnarchid Knife Fish (Aba Aba), the Mormyrids (Elephant Noses), the Notopterid Knife Fish and the Arapaima (one of the largest of all freshwater fish).

Habitat and Niche

The African Butterfly Fish is an inhabitant of ponds, lakes, swamps and the slow-moving parts of rivers. It is strictly a surface dweller and feeder and has an amazing capacity for jumping. The primary food of P. buchholzi is insects, though it will consume smaller fish that it finds at the water’s surface.


The exotic appearance of the African Butterfly Fish has made it an aquarium favorite since its introduction to the hobby in 1905. One of its most obvious characteristics is the broad span of the enormous pectoral fins which resemble the wings of a butterfly (and from which it gets its name). The dorsal coloration is olive to light brown, frequently with a camouflage pattern of darker brown spots or lines. The ventral color is silvery-white to yellowish-white, often with darker bands and spots. The pelvic fins are filamentous and are often brick-red to carmine at the base. The dorsal and anal fins are set far back on the body. The caudal fin (tail) has a ragged appearance with the two center fin rays being the longest. The head of P. buchholzi is very similar in appearance to that of the South American Arowanas, with prominent eyes, a large toothy mouth and tube-shaped nostrils.

The African Butterfly Fish admiring its reflection at the surface. This fish is a young male

Breeding the African Butterfly Fish

While breeding the African Butterfly Fish is not a common occurrence in the aquarium, it has been done. The male fish is distinguished by its larger pectoral fins in relation to its body and the appearance of its anal fin which has an uneven trailing edge. The female’s anal fin, by comparison, has a nearly straight trailing edge. If the fish are viewed from above, the difference in the size of the pectoral fins becomes more obvious.

I have had success in breeding these fish only once and then strictly by accident. The pair was housed in a 20 gallon Long aquarium with slightly acidic water at a temperature of about 78 degrees F. I did not observe the courtship behavior but they scattered a number of pale yellowish-colored eggs in some plants at the water’s surface. The eggs took a week to hatch and I successfully raised ten of the babies.

Personal Experiences With Pantodon buchholzi

I have kept African Butterfly Fish on numerous occasions over the years and have found them to be fascinating fish. While not highly active except at feeding time, their unusual appearance and surface-dwelling habits make them very interesting to watch. Male Pantodon buchholzi can be quite territorial and will often fight with or harrass other surface-dwelling fish (including other African Butterfly Fish) that are too large for them to swallow. A special precaution to take with these fish is to be sure that their aquarium is completely covered. They are extremely accomplished jumpers (though not gliders in spite of their wing-like pectoral fins) and can manage leaps well over a meter (39 inches) straight out of the water.

Feeding P. buchholzi can be problemmatical because they will not take any food item that sinks even a few millimeters below their mouth. I have had considerable success with freeze-dried ‘plankton’ which floats for quite some time. Some individuals will eat flake food as long as it floats. I also occasionally feed small live crickets and the occasional swatted fly. I have had a few African Butterfly Fish that will take frozen bloodworms and small pieces of beef heart ( both thawed first) from my fingertips. Small fish that come to the surface are fair game for Pantodon. African Butterfly Fish are amazingly fast when it comes to taking their food, which disappears with a quick snap of their enormous mouth.

As far as tank-mates are concerned, I have kept African Butterfly Fish with a number of other African river fish, including: Ctenopoma and Microctenopoma species (the ‘Bush Fish’), various species of Bichirs (Polypterus and Erpetoichthys), Congo Tetras (Phenacogrammus interruptus), African Knife Fish (Xenomystus nigri), ‘kribensis-type’ cichlids (Pelvicachromis) and various Synodontis catfish. Overly aggressive tank-mates or fish that will find the long, filamentous pelvic fins to be irresistable should be avoided as should any fish small enough to be eaten. Other surface-dwelling fish are not recommended (Arowanas, Hatchet Fish, Killifish, etc.).

The minimum tank size I recommend for housing a pair of adult Pantodon buchholzi is a 20 gallon Long, though they can do nicely in a 10 gallon for a while. Surface area is far more important for these fish than is tank depth, since they rarely venture more than an inch or so from the surface of the water. I generally include some sort of floating plants in the aquarium (often Water Sprite) because the fish like to rest in them, but the African Butterfly Fish needs some open surface area for swimming and hunting so I do not allow the floating plants to take over the entire top of the tank. In addition, they do not appreciate excessive current though they will often swim in the flow of a filter, waiting for some tender morsel to come floating by.


The African Butterfly Fish, Pantodon buchholzi, is a fascinating surface-dwelling fish. They can occasionally be difficult to feed and will often not tolerate other surface-dwelling fish. Given the proper circumstances, however, they will make a wonderful addition to your aquarium.


Herbert Axelrod, Warren Burgess, et al., 1985. Dr. Axelrod’s Atlas of Freshwater Aquarium Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, New Jersey.

Haruto Kodera, et al., 1994. Jurassic Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, New Jersey.

William T. Innes, 1966. Exotic Aquarium Fishes – 19th Edition Revised. Metaframe Corporation, New Jersey.

Article on Pantodon buchholzi from

Last update: 2006-02-06 09:58
Author: Fruitbat

Filed under Fish Profiles, Freshwater.