How do I keep these African oddballs?

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What is the best way to set up a tank for African butterfly fish, and what’s the best way to feed them? A reader asks…

I would like to keep some African butterfly fish in a 120cm-long tank but I'm not totally sure how best to set it up. Please could you advise? What’s the best way to feed them, and what can I keep with them?

NEVILLE YOUNG, VIA EMAIL

Neale replies: The African butterfly fish, Pantodon buchholzi, is one of the easier ‘oddball’ fish out there, but still places a few demands on its keeper.

While moderately adaptable, it won’t do well in very hard water. I’d be aiming for a general hardness between 5–10˚H. The pH isn’t critical, so long as the hardness isn’t too high. Given that the fish comes from sluggish streams and ponds, water movement should be minimal. Air-powered filtration is perhaps ideal, but failing that, a small internal or external canister filter will do the trick, but ensure the outflow is spread out using a spray bar. What these fish do not like are strong currents pushing them about. Floating plants are a must, not just because they replicate the habitat butterfly fish come from, but also because they inhibit the tendency of these fish to jump when alarmed.

Feeding is probably the biggest hurdle. They much prefer live foods, such as wingless fruit flies and small crickets, but will also consume frozen foods such as bloodworms — so long as they can get to them. It’s not that they’re dumb or even particularly shy, but they are slow feeders and their vision system is peculiarly evolved to detect moving prey close to their head. If kept with more boisterous species, such as large danios, these will tend to hog the food. Flake foods are sometimes taken, but it rather depends on the quality of the food, so you might need to experiment a little here. The flip side, of course, is that butterfly fish are opportunistic predators. Wild fish mostly eat insects, but small surface-swimming fish will be viewed as food. Choose tankmates accordingly, and avoid anything obviously bite-sized!

While we’re thinking about tankmates, you need to avoid anything likely to peck at their long, trailing fins. Your best bets are things that stay at the bottom of the tank, such as mid-sized Corydoras. These won’t compete for food and won’t be registered as potential prey. Climbing perch can work too, with Ctenopoma acutirostre being particularly good in terms of size and temperament. Cichlids are a bit of a mixed bag, African butterfly fish handling territorial aggression poorly, and will try to jump out of the tank if they’re chased. Angelfish work surprisingly well, however, feeding at lower levels of the tank than the butterfly fish. I’d guess you could have three specimens in a tank of your size, assuming it’s a wide rather than deep design. There’s no point keeping these fish in deep tanks as they rarely dive below the top few centimetres of water.