Breeding the Ceylon snakehead, Channa orientalis


Colin Dunlop had to defy convention to breed the Ceylon snakehead for the first time — but a whisper in his ear certainly worked.

Many fish protect their fry in theIr mouths, notably the mouthbrooding cichlids, but some species of snakehead even feed their young unfertilised eggs. This year I bred my first snakehead, Channa orientalis — at a manageable10cm/4” it is a   dwarf among several giants of the species.

These come from the Kottawa Forest in south-western Sri Lanka and there are a few variants, mine being ‘Kottawa Forest A’. There’s also ‘Kottawa Forest B’ and, if you have both, keep them separate.

Natural habitat is slow moving streams and blackwaters and C. orientalis can survive in quite harsh conditions. Like other members of the genus they are able to cross damp land in search of new water, breathing atmospheric air through an organ called a labyrinth.

I got my original eight from Paul Jordan, a fellow member of the Anabantoid Association of Great Britain (AAGB) when they were around 4-5cm/1.6-2” in length. They were housed in a 60 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12” tank, with some clay pipes, plastic plants and coconut-shell caves, and filtration was via an air-operated sponge filter.

The water parameters seemed fairly unimportant and could range from pH 5-7 without posing any problem. The fish were given a temperature of about 24- 25°C/72-77°F as, unlike other members of the genus, C. orientalis are a true tropical species.

Cover the aquarium as all Channa can jump out of any gap.

My fish were fed a variety of food, including a staple diet of granule fish-food supplemented with frozen bloodworms, Grindalworms and earthworms. They grew quickly and with regular water changes got near breeding size within months.

Aggro with age
By the time the largest got to 8cm/3.1” they started to show nice blue colours across the fins and became more aggressive towards each other. Up to this point, however, they had been very peaceful.

I couldn’t see any sexual dimorphism yet, but soon they started to solve the problem for me and twice a fish that was perfectly healthy one day was dead the next.

This apparently meant a pair had started to form and the couple could be seen embracing in an ‘S’ shape. I eventually caught them together and put them in their own tank, leaving the rest to hopefully sort another. The new tank was again 60 x 30 x 30cm/ 24 x 12 x 12” and decorated with pipes and caves and a thin layer of fine sand for the substrate. Yet nothing more happened!

A visit from Paul sorted me out. He told me told that my tanks were all too clean! He decided that all my water changes were putting them off breeding. I was very sceptical at first and everything I did next just seemed to be so against the grain of ‘normal’ fishkeeping.

Clean no more…
Firstly, I added some garden soil. I have a fairly organic garden, so threw in four handfuls of soil and removed the filter. I left  the temperature as it was and within a day the clay-heavy soil settled to the bottom, creating quite a pleasing effect as it looked like a natural pond substrate.

The fish seemed contented rooting in the soil, even if I was worrying about what might be happening to water chemistry. However, there was barely any register of ammonia on a test kit, despite the sudden addition of organic material.

Within days the fish were embracing again and after a week the male appeared from a cave with a bulging throat, which meant he was brooding some eggs. Unfortunately he ate this batch — then the second, third and fourth broods as well. Eventually patience prevailed and he held full-term.

The incubation period of eggs and fry held seems to vary. These fish can eject fry after three or four days or hold  them for ten.

The female feeds fry by circling over them and laying eggs, which shower them with a meal. With this first brood I removed the fry from the tank as soon as they were looking for food by themselves and I got 11 youngsters. The fry were fed the same food as their parents from about 15mm/0.6”.

When I noticed the male was brooding again he started to release fry via his gills. I counted more than 50, but three days later could see he had another bulging throat. I assumed the adults had spawned again and tried to catch some free swimmers in case the adults turned on them. After a couple of days the male’s throat was back to normal and many large babies were in the tank. He must have collected lots in his mouth and kept them for a few more days.

Although the fry removed early have been fed well, they are some 25% smaller than siblings still with the adults. I put this down to the fact that babies with parents are being fed by the female’s infertile eggs. In future I will leave the fry with the parents until 3-4 cm/1.2-1.6 in length.

Expert Q and A
Colin Dunlop answers some of your most frequently asked questions on Channa orientalis.

Can these fish be kept in a community tank?
You can as long as the tank is large enough and other fish are too large to be eaten. However, if a pair forms and they want to breed they may be more aggressive.

Are they easy to find in the hobby?
Unfortunately not, but join groups such as The Anabantoid Association of Great Britain (AAGB) or online group The Snakehead Forum for some guidance.

Do I need a filter to keep these fish?
Assuming you only have C. orientalis and a large enough tank then no. It would seem that many species in the Channa genus do not like regular partial water changes or water too clean. The best method seems to use a heavily planted tank that has little or no filtration.

Are there other small species of snakeheads available?
Yes, although not as small as C. orientalis, there are others to look for, such as gachua, pulchra, ornatipinnis, and bleheri, but these are sub-tropical species and should not be kept for the long term in any tropical aquariums.

Do many people keep snakeheads?
They have a steady following of enthusiasts and many are members of a group called Study Group Channidae which next meets in Meppel in the Netherlands on November 20-22.

Members will travel from several European countries, including quite a few from the UK.
The programme will include lectures from experienced Channa keepers, a shoptour of the region and an opportunity to buy and swap specimens.

This article was first published in the December 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping. It may not be reproduced without written permission.