Reed Fish
Reed Fish

Reed Fish

Erpetoichthys calabaricus
SynonymsCalamoichthys calabaricus, Erpetoichthys robbianus, Herpetoichthys calabaricus.
DistributionWest Africa: Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria.
Sexual DimorphismWhen in breeding condition, the anal fin of the male thickens and becomes more muscular. The base of the anal fin is also slightly longer in males than it is in females.
Maximum Size50cm (20”)
Water ParametersNeutral to moderately hard, alkaline conditions preferred. pH: 6.8-8.0, dH: up to 20 deg. Has been known to inhabit brackish waters.
Temperature22-28 deg C (72-82 deg F)
CompatibilityCommunity of medium-sized peaceful fish only


The Reed Fish is a snake-like species that is consistently popular with many oddball enthusiasts. These elongated fish are known from slow flowing rivers and even standing waters with relatively low oxygen content, where they live amongst labyrinthine reedy habitats. In addition to moving snake-wise over the substrate, they can also side-wind through the water column at a fairly rapid pace. As a nocturnal species, Reed Fish are most active during the night when they will spend time searching for and feeding on crustaceans, insects, and worms. An aquarium that houses this species should be spacious - ideally at least 5ft x 2ft x 2ft for adult specimens - and very well covered, as these fish are great escape artists. Ensure that any gaps where wires feed in to the aquarium are plugged securely with filter foam or mesh glued into place. The lid of the aquarium may also need to be weighted down. Reed Fish have the ability to breathe atmospheric air via their modified swim bladders (part of which functions as an accessory breathing organ to allow them to survive out of water for a time), so a small gap MUST be left between the surface of the water and the cover slides in order for the fish to come up to the surface and take air in. If the fish are denied regular access to air above the surface of the water, they may actually drown, so always run the tank with a dropped waterline. The substrate should consist of soft sand as these fish spend a lot of time foraging about on the bottom of the tank, and may even submerge themselves completely beneath it if startled. Smooth water worn rocks and spindly driftwood can be used to create shady caves and there should be areas of dense planting with tall, hardy species such as Vallisneria and large Anubias or Aponogeton spp. Illumination should not be too bright, or if it is, it should be diffused via heavy planting. A blue moon light timed to come on just before the main lights switch off will allow you to view the night-time antics of these fascinating fish. The water should be filtered efficiently but gently, so that the fish do not have to contend with an overwhelming current. The Reed Fish is the sole representative of the Erpetoichthys genus, and is closely related to the Polypterus genus, both of which are considered to be the last surviving relatives of some very ancient, primitive species. As their eyesight is quite poor, Reed Fish rely on their excellent sense of smell in order to locate food items, and although carnivorous by nature, they are generally very peaceful, and can be kept successfully alongside other medium sized peaceable species. Avoid any tankmates which are small enough to fit into their mouths, as they will be predated upon overnight. Good companions could include some of the medium sized, relatively peaceful cichlid species such as Angelfish, Severums or Festivums, or large Trichogaster gouramis, and Synodontis catfish. Avoid any really boisterous species though, as otherwise they may outcompete your Reed Fish at feeding times. Gregarious by nature, keep Reed Fish in good sized groups. There are reports of a monster 90cm specimen having once been seen, but this has never been substantiated, a maximum length of 50cm being much more typical. Be aware that although Reed Fish are considered quite hardy and will acclimatise to a wide range of conditions, they do not handle swings in pH well at all. Likewise, nitrates should not be allowed to creep up, so ensure that small partial water changes are carried out on a regular basis. This species is recommended for advanced aquarists only. May also be seen on sale as the Rope Fish.


These carnivores rarely take dried foods in captivity, so you must be prepared to offer them various meaty frozen foods. Smaller specimens will enjoy bloodworm, white mosquito larvae, vitamin-enriched brineshrimp etc. whereas larger specimens will take bigger foods such as Mysis shrimp, chopped krill/prawns/mussels, earthworms etc. Occasional specimens have been known to take sinking carnivore pellets (pre-soaked in aquarium water to prevent choking – Reed Fish are notorious for gulping food down), but this is not the norm. Always try and feed just before lights out, as this is when these fish are naturally most active.


Challenging - would make an excellent breeding project for the serious, dedicated hobbyist. Until fairly recently, little was known about the reproductive habits of Reed Fish. However, an established group of fish spawned successfully in captivity during the 1990s. These fish were estimated to be around 15 years old, so it seems that this species may take some time to reach sexual maturity. During courtship, the male and female swim parallel to one another, in a graceful fashion, usually through clumps of plants. The male will make jerking sideways movements with his head, towards the female’s body. If she is ready to spawn, she will stop swimming and the male will wrap his anal fin around her genital opening. Both fish will remain motionless whilst a few eggs are deposited in a cup formed by the male’s anal fin, and there they will be fertilised before being dispersed by powerful movements of his tail. The eggs, 2.1-2.6mm in diameter, are adhesive and will stick to the plants. This procedure is repeated many times until the female is spent of eggs. The adults exhibit no parental care. Larvae hatch after approximately 70 hours, but remain attached to the vegetation whilst they absorb their yolk sacs. Some 2.5-3 weeks later they will begin feeding. At this stage they have external gills with many branches and resemble salamander larvae (these external gills are lost as the fish grows). In the wild, these fish are known to spawn throughout the year, but with a peak of heightened activity once during the year.

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