Bichir Complete Care Guide: Varieties, Tank Mates and More…

Bichirs have long eel-like bodies that will add a peculiar appearance to your tank.

They are very popular in the aquarium trade for their truly unique look and their bright coloration. You can even get albino variations, with bright red eyes and completely white skin.

These hardy fish might not be the easiest fish to care for, however nothing beats having living fossils that look as old at the fish from the beginning of time, in your aquarium.

In this article you will learn how to care for this fish including: the best way to set up you tank, feeding habits and much more…

Category Rating
Care Level: Intermediate
Temperament: Semi-aggressive
Color Form: Species dependent
Lifespan: 15-20 Years
Size: 10-30 Inches
Diet: Carnivore
Family: Polypteridae
Minimum Tank Size: 90 Gallons
Tank Set-Up: Freshwater
Compatibility: Large cichlids and catfish

Overview

Ornate Bichir

Bichirs are living fossils belonging to the Polypteridae family. They are a sister family of ray-finned fishes that have developed similar characteristics such as a pair of functional lungs and the Ampullae of Lorenzini (organs that can sense electricity, also known as electroreceptors).

They belongs to the genus Polypterus, which means ‘many wings’ – given due to their look. There are about 12 species in this genus recognized as Bichirs all from freshwater systems of tropical Africa.

These are quite large and aggressive fish that requires large tanks.

They are recommended for experienced aquarists as they require special attention with their carnivorous diet and tank conditions.

Most of he specimens you find available are caught in the wild – they are not commercially bred.

You should expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $110 for a good specimen. If you are buying juveniles it is impossible to distinguish between a male and female.

Typical Behavior

Bichirs are predatory fish, with a moderately aggressive temperament. They are problematic when kept with smaller size fish, as they will nip at their fins or even eat them. However, they seem to have no problems sharing their tank with larger fish.

These fish are bottom-dwellers, and will spend most of their time near the bottom of the tank. They are nocturnal animals and prefer feeding during the night. They have poor eyesight and rely mainly on their other senses to find food.

They are peculiar looking fish that can breathe air. They have paired lungs which help gas exchange in poorly oxygenated environments. They have two small openings on the top of their head called spiracles which they breath through.

Another peculiar characteristic is that you will see them walking around on the substrate of your tank. Yes, you read correctly, they can walk! They can use their pectoral fins and tail to move around.

Interestingly, this has led to scientists trying to grow Bichirs on land which successfully adapted to ‘land-life’ giving insights on the first evolutionary steps of prehistoric animals living on land.

Bichir Appearance

Senegal Bichir

Bichirs are living fossils that resemble ancient looking fish. They are one of the oldest living lineages leading to the bony fishes we know today and are the sister group of ray-finned fishes.

They have about 60 million years of independent evolution, retaining different characteristics from the common ancestor of all ray-finned fishes: lungfish and tetrapods.

An example of a common characteristic that these fish retained is their functional lungs but they also have developed some unique features such as the row of dorsal fins and scales.

There are 12 species of Bichirs in the Polypterus genus, all with similar characteristics. They have a slender snake-like body with multiple dorsal spines and fins. They also have visible nostrils with large paddle-shape pectoral fins which are occasionally used to move around.

To compensate for their bad eyesight, they have protruding nostrils that can be directed around to help them pinpoint the source of smell.

Whilst the difference between males and females is slim – females are usually larger in size while males have wider and thicker anal and dorsal fins.

  • The Dinosaur Bichir, also known as the Senegal or the grey Bichir, is among the smallest species (reaching about 14 inches). They have a long cylindrical grey-ish body with serrated dorsal fins and large pectoral fins used for locomotion. You will also find it with white, blue or pink shades.
  • The Ornate Bichir, also known as Polypterus ornatipinnis, has yellow pattern colorings on its back, body, fins and head. Its base colorings can vary from dark brown to grey. This is one of the most popular and also one of the largest (24 inches in length).
  • The Delhezi Bichir, also known as Polypterus delhezi has grey coloration with green or yellow spots. Its coloration makes it very popular.
  • The Saddled Bichir, (Polypterus endlicheri) is one of the largest reaching up to 30 inches. This species has a lower jaw longer than the upper jaw, a characteristic that defines the different Polypterus species. They are whitish-yellow colored with dark vertical bands along the body.
  • The Albino Bichir, is just an albino variety of the Dinosaur Bichir. They have white bodies, with red eyes.

Habitat and Tank Conditions

Saddled Bichir

Bichirs are mainly found across freshwater environments in tropical Africa and the Nile River systems. They live in estuaries and floodplains with muddy waters and silted substrates.

As they have a good pair of functional lungs, they are very good at surviving in very poor oxygen conditions and low water habitats.

They can live in bogs and in low visibility habitats as they have a great sense of smell.

Tank Setup

They are quite large and sturdy fish that require specific water parameters and large tanks.

  • They prefer softer waters
  • Temperature 72-82°F
  • Neutral pH (between 6.5-7.5)

Tank substrate is an important choice. Gravel can be an option, however, is not usually found in their natural environment. Sand is the best option.

They are not too fused about tank decoration, so you can add anything you prefer. Plants can be very useful, as they provide cover from light.

You should leave some air space above the water at the top of the tank to allow your fish to breathe. As they can survive in low oxygenated water quite easily, they don’t have specific filtration or aeration requirements. However just like any other tank they still need a good filtration system to get rid of the toxic chemicals produced from leftover food.

Don’t forget to put a tight cover on your aquarium as they will probably jump or crawl out of your tank.

Make sure to double check the water parameters for the exact species you decide to keep as different species have different water requirements.

What Size Aquarium Do They Need?

Bichirs are quite large fish and require at least a 90 gallon aquarium for an adult specimen.

Bichir Tank Mates

These fish are quite good tank mates providing the fish you put in the tank don’t fit into their mouth!

They usually do well with larger peaceful fish, so think Oscars, Blood Parrots, Flowerhorns, large Barbs, Knifefish, medium and large Catfish and large peaceful African cichlids.

Bichirs are quite slow-moving, so can have some problems with fast active tank mates stealing their food. As bottom dwelling fish, they might starve as other fish can steal their food before reaching the bottom of the tank.

Remember though, they are predatory fish. So smaller fish and other non-fish inhabitants are discouraged as they will be eaten. They tend to hunt at night and by morning you might notice some of your smaller fish are missing.

Keeping Bichir Together

Keeping the same species together is not a good idea. They are aggressive and very territorial and will definitely attack each other for tank space.

Only keep one per tank.

Bichir Care Guide

Delhezi Bichir

Bichirs are quite hardy fish and will not present many troubles. Try to provide the best environment possible and you will have happy and healthy fish.

They are susceptible to a few parasites such as internal flukes.

Skin and gills flukes are quite common, for example Macrogyrodactylus polyptery which resembles fine threads on their skin. The fish might start rubbing and rolling around and can be treated using some medication.

Tapeworms are also quite common in wild-caught specimen as well as parasitic crustaceans, fungus and bacterial infections.

Here the parasite lays eggs in the intestine of the host and they are eventually pushed out into the water.

The eggs are usually eaten by other crustacean in turn and the process continues. As most fish you find in the aquarium trade are wild caught always quarantine your fish for at least 4 weeks before you add them to the main tank.

Diet

Bichirs are nocturnal predators. They are carnivorous fish and enjoy eating small vertebrates, crustaceans, insects and other small fishes.

It is better to feed them with live food rather than pellets or artificial food.

Feeding them live food will bring out their natural predatory behaviors. They are slow eaters and you can feed them bloodworms, frozen shrimps, small fishes and small pieces of meat such as ox heart, or earthworms.

They are nocturnal animal and prefer to be fed at night or when the lights are off. Let the baitfish sink to the bottom of the tank on the tank substrate.

Make sure that other tank mates don’t steal their food and starve them. If you decide to use sinking pellets or flakes, make sure there are high quality to reduce the risk of introducing potential sources of infection in the tank.

Even though they have bad eyesight, they are good predators relying on their sense of smell and their ability to sense electricity emitted from other object/animals around them.

Breeding

Not much is known about breeding these fish in captivity. Generally, breeding Bichir is very difficult as different species require different water conditions, and these conditions are mostly unknown.

Some species (Polypterus delhezi and Polypterus senegalus) have been bred successfully, however not much is known about the conditions needed to induce spawning.

It is also very difficult to distinguish between males and females and almost impossible to distinguish with juveniles.

Are Bichirs Suitable For Your Aquarium? (Summary)

Bichirs are old looking fish that could make a great addition to your tank. These fish are literally living fossils that can adapt to live on land.

They are not fish for beginners as they require certain attention to their care. They are nocturnal animals and quite hardy. If well cared for they can live for around 20 years.

There are about 10 species in this family. All are similar, though they each have slight differences between one another.

Did you know that certain fish can adapt to live on land? Leave a comment below…

Robert Woods Portrait
Robert Woods is the creator of FishKeeping World, a third generation fish keeper and a graduate in animal welfare and behavior. He is also a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America and the Nature Conservancy.

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