My favorite fish in my 20-gallon freshwater aquarium is Tard, an African butterfly fish, who I have had for eight months. I named him Tard after the famed “Grumpy Cat” because his big trap-door mouth makes him look like he’s always frowning unpleasantly. These beautiful fish don’t get enough credit or attention, but I think they deserve a better, stronger spot on the radar of aquarists!
African butterfly fish get their name from their beautiful, ornate finnage, which, in the wild, helps them to blend into leaves and debris in slow-moving water so they can sneak up on their prey. These guys are natural predators and tend to rest still on the water’s surface until a fly or small fish comes nearby, and then — snap! In one quick gulp, they consume their prey.
African butterfly fish can use their beautiful fins to “fly” like more famous species of saltwater “flying fish.” They glide easily over the surface of the water. That’s a reason to keep a lid securely on your tank at all times, because these guys can and will leap out of the tank!
These predators are smart, as far as fish go, so they can be trained to accept flake, frozen, and freeze-dried food, although they prefer live fish and love crickets. Tard ate only crickets and feeder minnows for a while, until I gradually weaned him to pre-killed, then frozen, then freeze-dried, then flake food. Now, he won’t eat live food even when it’s offered because he’s gotten so used to his current diet.
The beautiful African butterfly fish isn’t ideal for beginners since it’s finicky about both its diet and environment. They like lots of loose plants and water that doesn’t move too fast. You’ll usually see them hanging out at the very top of the tank among clusters of plants, waiting for their “prey” to eventually show up.
Ideally, the water for an African butterfly fish should be soft and slightly acidic, but neutral water parameters are also acceptable. A heated tank is a requirement, not an option, for these guys. I keep Tard’s tank at 78 degrees. They can be a little sensitive to nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia, so make sure you’re doing regular water changes and keeping your tank clean.
As far as tank mates go, it’s amazing how much butterfly fish vary in what they’ll tolerate. Tard couldn’t have had many small tank mates when I first got him because he loved eating any fish small enough to fit in his huge mouth, but once he got started on flake and freeze-dried food, he started tolerating little fish with no problems. He’s been living for three months with a school of neon tetras and doesn’t bother them at all, although I know this would have been impossible months ago.
Tank mates for African butterfly fish can be hard to choose. If your butterfly fish is into live foods, don’t keep him with any fish smaller than one inch who might venture near the top of the tank. Ideally, stock the tank with middle- and bottom-water feeders so your African butterfly fish won’t have to compete for territory at the top of the tank. Avoid fin-nipping fish like tiger barbs, as they will tear the butterfly fish’s sensitive fins apart. Some ideal tank mates that enjoy the same water parameters include Congo tetras, dwarf gourami, ram cichlids, elephant nose fish, knifefish, angelfish, and discus fish.
The African butterfly fish is not a particularly low-maintenance fish, but it pays for its high-maintenance nature with unsurpassed beauty and fascinating behavior. I highly recommend getting an African butterfly fish if you have a freshwater aquarium and want a unique centerpiece for your tank.