Bichir 101: Tank Size, Tank Mates, Care, Diet & More!

Now here’s a fish you’ve probably never heard of before. Clue: it has a distinctly one-of-a-kind, jurassic-esque look. 

While this unique fish may not be a conventional beauty, it’s guaranteed to take your breath away. Meet the Bichir: prehistoric, unique, and comes with a pair of lungs! 

This guide will take you step-by-step and tell you everything you’ll ever need to know about this fascinating living fossil.

The table below gives a quick overview of the Bichir profile:

Profile AttributeValue
Care DifficultyEasy-Moderate
LifespanAverage of 10-15 years/up to 20 years in the wild
DietCarnivorous
Color(s)Various (Black, green, yellow, white)
TemperamentSlightly aggressive
Maximum Size30 inches 
Minimum Tank Size90 gallons
Tank SetupFreshwater/Sand substrate
FamilyPolypteridae
CompatibilitySelective

Below is our Bichir care guide, keep reading to find out more about its Appearance, Diet, Breeding and more.

Overview

What we know as Bichir fish (Polypterus sp.) are actually different species of the genus Polypterus, with varying characteristics. Bichir fish are part of the family Polypteridae, a group of ancient Lobe-finned Pike fishes. All members of this family have unique evolutionary traits such as possessing an Ampullae of Lorenzini and a pair of lungs. There are Nile Bichirs, Dinosaur Bichirs, Albino Bichirs, Ornate Bichirs, etc. All of these cool-sounding species are in fact considered ‘Bichir fish’. 

Bichir fish have the looks of a prehistoric eel, and were originally found distributed along Westen and Central Africa as well as the Nile River system. They are freshwater fish that favor swampy, murky and shallow waters so naturally they’ve also evolved for these environmental conditions. Bichir fish are known to even survive for some time with no water; made possible by their impressive lungs.

While hardy fish, more experienced aquarists are probably best for these ancient aquarium fish. Their carnivorous diet, slightly aggressive nature, and steep price tag might be too much for a beginner. 

Appearance

Probably one of the most interesting things about the Bichir is its striking, dragon-like appearance. Indeed, they look as if they stepped out of either the Jurassic period, or the Jurassic film saga. In reality, Bichirs are both prehistoric, and prehistoric-looking. They’ve been around for millions of years, and mostly kept the same features throughout that timespan. 

While different Bichir species have unique colorations and patterns, there are still generally similar features they share with each other. All Bichir fish have elongated, eel-like bodies with thick scales and an array of spiny dorsal fins along their back. These ‘spines’ extend down to their tails, and then spread out like fans. Two pectoral fins on their sides are responsible for almost all movement.

Senegal or Gray Bichirs are usually gray or beige, with dark blotches or patterns. Uniquely, their pectoral fins can actually help them move on land. Senegal or Gray Bichirs grow to sizes of around 12-18 inches.

Albino Bichirs are in fact, just the Senegal Bichir with Albinism. These Bichirs are predictably a pristine white with red piercing eyes. Many people prefer this variant of Senegal Bichir due to their otherworldly appearance. 

Ornate Bichirs have a tan body color and are probably one of the most popular species of Bichir. They can also possess an intricate black pattern over their yellow bodies that make them even more eye-catching. 

Endlicheri (Saddled) Bichirs are humongous Bichirs. In fact, they are the largest of the genus Polyptera. They can grow up to 23-30 inches and weigh an astounding 10 lbs! Endlicheri Bichirs are mainly yellow with black stripes along their bodies.

Lapradei, aka ‘Faranah’ Bichirs have an apparent lower jaw that protrudes over their upper lips. These are also relatively large Bichirs that can reach a length of 24 inches upon maturity.

Average Size

Bichirs are generally large-sized fish. Some species are reported to attain lengths of up to 30 inches (2.5 ft.) and weigh up to 10 lbs, especially in the wild. Naturally, the size range varies among different species and will be affected by the care they are shown in captivity. The average Bichir lengths play around 1-2.5 feet, upon reaching adulthood. 

Lifespan

These prehistoric relics are very long-lived. In the wild, Bichirs have a life expectancy of up to 20 happy years. In captivity, this generous lifespan is only around 10-15 years. This is still a long time, however, and will ultimately depend not just on their genetics, but the quality of care you provide them. 

Bichir Care Guide

Bichir fishes may look intimidating, and as if they might breathe fire or spew acid on you, but they’re actually not (entirely) aggressive. These living fossils are a mix of being easy and hard to care for, with straightforward requirements. Ultimately, anyone with the determination and passion can care for these one-of-a-kind fishes.

Tank Size

Being fairly large fishes themselves, Bichirs need a lot of space. Some owners recommend a tank not smaller than 55 gallons per Bichir. However, these are active fishes (nocturnal) so we feel better about a minimum tank size of around 90 gallons.

Water Parameters

These ancient fishes have been around for millions of years, so being natural survivors should come as no surprise. Bichirs can tolerate a wide range of water conditions or parameters. Despite that, we should aim to accommodate their most ideal preferences to keep them happy with their lives in captivity. 

  • 74°F-82°F (slightly tropical temperature)
  • 6.2-7.8 pH (largely neutral)
  • 5-20 dKH (soft water)

Since these parameters don’t seem very strict, many people end up neglecting their Bichirs’ water requirements. Additionally, Bichirs are capable of breathing air from the surface every now and then. You should never neglect changing out their water however, with occasional testing of temperature, pH, and hardness. This is the best way to ensure a long, healthy, and happy life for your little Bichirs.

Tank Setup

Another thing we love about these hardy Bichirs, is that they’re not very fussy with tank ornaments or decorations. Tank setups are straightforward and minimalistic with these ancient fishes, and you’ll have an easy and enjoyable time with aquascaping. You can choose to have a well-decorated tank, or even a sparse one; Bichirs are fine with either. 

While you have artistic freedom, there is a non-negotiable with the Bichirs’ glass home. One of those is the choice of substrate. These guys are bottom-feeders, so they primarily stay down your tank and rifle through the substrate for food particles. Therefore, a sand substrate would be ideal for them instead of gravel. Having a gravel substrate can pose risks to your Bichir, as they can end up ingesting gravel when they eat.

If you want to further enrich your Bichir’s lives, you can fill your aquarium with hiding spaces out of rocks or cave-like structures. Bichirs love hiding out in nooks and crannies, so they’ll definitely appreciate a couple of crevices in their tank. 

Common Diseases

Thankfully, there are no species-specific diseases for the Bichir. That being said, they are still susceptible to the more common fish illnesses. Ich, or Fish Ich, remains a common problem for fishes and that includes the Bichir. Ich is caused by protozoa, and will give unbearable itch to your pet. You can watch out for symptoms of Ich such as your fish rubbing itself on ornaments, and obvious white spots all over their bodies. 

Cloudy eye is another disease known to ail the tropical fishes like the Bichir. Cloudy eyes can be caused by parasites, stress, malnutrition, or poor water conditions in the tank. Symptoms of Cloudy eye are of course, cloudy or milky-looking fish eyes. If left untreated, this can cause blindness to your poor fish. 

The thing to remember is to always monitor both your Bichir, and the water quality of their tank. Diseases that can affect Bichir are mostly curable through medication, but there is no replacement for early detection, and prevention. Bichirs are naturally hardy, so doing your part to keep them healthy is very easy. Make sure the water parameters are always optimal, conduct regular water changes and  give them a proper diet. 

Food & Diet

Bichir fishes are not the not really exactly the most voracious eaters. They are, however, carnivorous bottom-feeders. Bichirs typically lie in wait for prey at the bottom of your tank and are not the most proactive predators. This can pose a bit of a difficulty, because tank mates usually get their food before it drops down to them. 

These reptilian-looking bottom feeders are also nocturnal. They are mainly active at night, and as such, also expect their meals at night. It’s best to accommodate their schedule and just feed them once before you go to bed, or very early in the morning. 

Their meals must be incredibly protein-rich as well, since they are carnivores. Consistently feeding them pellets or flakes won’t do for these ancient fishes, and will likely make them unhealthy. They need their meaty meals, so it is imperative you spend a little more time-and costs-on their diet. 

Bichir suitable food includes:

  • Ox heart
  • Bloodworms
  • Silversides
  • Krill
  • Freeze-dried tubifex
  • Mosquito larvae
  • Shrimps and mussels
  • Nightcrawlers
Tip: Make sure your top and mid-level swimming fishes get their food before you give your Bichirs theirs. This prevents them from eating the food meant for your Bichir.

Temperament & Behavior

As previously mentioned, the ancient Bichir is a nocturnal fish. They are mostly awake and active at nighttime. In fact, you probably won’t see them doing much during the day. Being naturally predatory, Bichirs also have an aggressive streak in them. They don’t take kindly to other aggressive or territorial fish, and will often get in squabbles with other Bichirs. Some insist that Bichirs are not really aggressive however, and are actually quite skittish. They frequently hide in crevices, and are only deemed hostile because they tend to eat smaller tank mates.

Apart from this well-debated semi-aggressive temperament, Bichirs are also blind as a bat. Well, technically, they just have really, really, bad eyesight. Living in mostly muddy and swampy waters, eyesight is basically useless. Instead, Bichirs have adapted by using other senses such as their Ampullae of Lorenzini. The Bichirs’ Ampullae of Lorenzini enable them to detect electrical fields and thereby catch prey. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? The marvels of this fish don’t stop there either; Bichirs are also one of the few fish to possess a pair of lungs. 

Because of these lungs, Bichirs can survive for periods without an ounce of water. In fact, even when there’s water, Bichirs will still occasionally rise to the surface to take a breath of air. They jump around when doing this, so unless you want your dragon-like friend squirming in the living room, keep a lid on your tank!

Bichir Tank Mates

These prehistoric-looking fishes are classified as ‘semi-aggressive’ by most aquarists. A major reason for this is because they are a bit selective when it comes to getting along with other fishes. They are predatory, and will most definitely eat any smaller fish you place in a tank with them. 

Putting other aggressive or territorial fish would spell disaster for your Bichir; even the larger-sized ones. The best option would be to stick them with similarly sized fish, with peaceful or passive temperaments.

Tank Mates suitable with Bichir are:

  • Oscar fish
  • Peacock bass
  • African knife
  • Clown loaches
  • Black Ghost Knife
  • Elephant-nose fish
  • Blind Cave Tetra 
  • African Butterfly fish
  • Hoplo Catfish
Tip: Most of the ideal tank mates for Bichirs are on the large size of the fish spectrum. It only follows that you’ll need a bigger tank with each tank mate that you add. If you’re planning on a community aquarium, each fish needs their happy space (so they won’t fight to the death).

Bichir Breeding Behavior

Regrettably, breeding Bichirs in your home tank is a near-impossible task. There are many reasons for this, the first one being that Bichirs are hard to sex. At a glance, you can’t tell the males from the females. Another is that there are hardly any detailed processes on how to breed Bichirs in captivity. As a matter of fact, most Bichirs are caught directly from the wild and then sold at choke-inducing prices. 

On a more positive note, there are a few guidelines you can try to breed these reptilian beauties. For Senegals, the male is differentiated from the female by its slightly larger anal fin. It’s also believed that a cooler water temperature can induce them into a breeding mood. Set the water temperature at a cooler than normal range, and manipulate the pH to slightly acidic. If lady luck smiles down on you, then your Bichirs will begin mating.

During the mating rituals of the Bichir, the male is usually seen hankering after the female. They are seen to be ‘flirting’ with each other during this time. This goes on for a few days. As this is happening, the male Bichir nudges the female with his nose as if demanding for her eggs. Soon, the female  has had enough and is ready to spawn. The male Bichir then embraces her with his anal and caudal fins. Once the female releases her eggs, the male fertilizes them and scatters them among the plants of the tank.

Bichir eggs can be as much as 100 to 300, squeezed out by the female within several days. Once the eggs are fertilized and scattered among the vegetation, it’s best to remove the mom and dad. Bichirs are not great parents and will in actuality, eat these eggs even after all that effort. 

Conclusion

Without a doubt, the Bichir is an interesting fish like no other. Keeping this air-breathing prehistoric fish in your tank will not only be eye-catching, but also amusing. Bichirs are active bottom-feeders guaranteed to keep you amused the whole time you have them. With proper care, they’ll be living long and happy lives in your tank.

Sure, you might pay a pretty penny for them and their carnivorous diet, but they are truly worth every single coin. 

Note: Please consider the environment before printing this Bichir care sheet.

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