Rope fish: Complete care, price, tank size and mates

The rope fish with its eel-like look attracts those who want a change from ‘normal’ fish. 

They ‘re peaceful carnivores with other large, peaceful fish getting on well. That makes them great for only tanks and community aquariums of both species. 

Though not the most colorful species, adding rope fish changes a tank ‘s dynamics with its unique appearance and behaviors. 

Their appearance can scare people away on the assumption that they must be difficult to care for. It is not true.

While some experience is useful, this is an undemanding species that is relatively easy to care for.

The reedfish, ropefish (most commonly used in the United States), or snakefish, Erpetoichthys calabaricus, is a freshwater fish species within the family and order of bichirs.

It is the sole member of the Erpetoichthys genus. It is native to central and western Africa. In addition to gills, the reedfish possesses a pair of lungs, allowing it to survive in extremely oxygen-poor water.

Habitat loss threatens it through palm oil plantations, other farming, deforestation, and urban development.


Rope fish are known by a few different names, including Reed Fish, Snake Fish, African Rope Fish, and Erpetoichthys calabaricus, a Latin name.

They belong to the family Polypteridae and are a species of freshwater living in slow-moving rivers across western and central Africa. 

They are found in Benin, Cameroon, the Congo Republic and Nigeria. 

As you can imagine from its name, this fish has a long body that resembles an eel. This attracts people who are looking for more exotic pets, as this body is not shared by many fish. 

But they’re not to be kept lightly. People often don’t realize they can live in captivity for 15-20 years, far longer than most species in the aquarium trade. 

If you properly design their environment and keep it clean, then they are fairly easy to maintain and care for.

Choosing the right mates for the tank is crucial as rope fish are predators and will probably eat smaller fish (more on this later). 

The reedfish reaches a total maximum length of 37 cm (15 in). It has an elongated eel-like body, with no trace of a ventral fin.

The long dorsal fin consists of a series of well-separated spines, each with one or more articulated rays and membrane support. The reedfish has a pair of lungs that allows it to breathe air.

This enables the species to survive with low dissolved oxygen content in water and to survive out of water for an intermediate amount of time.

Larvae have conspicuous outer gills that make them resemble larvae of salamanders.


Here is the scientific classification of Rope fish

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Polypteriformes
Family: Polypteridae
Genus: Erpetoichthys
J. A. Smith, 1865
E. calabaricus
Binomial name
Erpetoichthys calabaricus


The reedfish is nocturnal and feed on worms, crustaceans and insects that have been annelid. When moving slowly through the water, it tends to use its pectoral fins, transforming it into an eel-like form of swimming (making greater use of full-body movements and caudal fin) when moving fast.

Reedfish are known to explore the land in both the wild and in captivity, if given the opportunity, slithering along like a snake and also taking food items on the ground.

Repeatedly, The females deposit small batches of eggs between the male’s anal fins where they are fertilized.

The male reedfish then scatters the eggs among the aquatic vegetation, sticking to the plants and substrating them.

Larvae hatch quickly (after 70 hours) but remain attached to the vegetation; they become independent and begin feeding after ~22 days when the yolk sac of the egg has been consumed.

Typical Behaviour

You may find they are more active at night as they would be hunting in the wild at night and sneaking up on their prey.

If you feed them during the daytime, however, they will eventually become more active throughout the day. 

They spend the majority of their time in aquarium lower levels. They may head up to the surface to breathe, as both gills and primitive lungs are present. In oxygen-poor environments, you tend to see that behavior only. 

Watching them move around the tank is interesting. Their body bends like an eel into waves, creating thrust that helps them move. 

Rope fish aren’t an aggressive species and you don’t see them attacking tank mates in general. The only exception is possibly eating smaller fish after being mistaken for food

One thing to watch out for is their jumping skills.

Rope fish Appearance

rope fish appearance
Image by Citron from Commons Wikimedia

How does rope fish look with its appearance? They look like ropes, snakes and reeds, which is why they didn’t need to be too imaginative about their names. 

It’s their distinct look that makes them such an exotic fish. 

They have a long, cylindrical body that reaches up to 15 inches in length. If you haven’t done your research, your size may surprise you, so make sure that your tank is large enough. 

Their entire body is covered with a brown/green color in diamond-shaped scales; this helps them to mix into dark areas. 

Fins are either lowered or not present. They aren’t too important for movement as their bodies can be manipulated for a thrust into waves. These waves even allow terrestrial movement, like a snake.

The pectoral fins, relative to the body, are small. They look a bit out of place because they are yellow and just behind the head. There is a dorsal fin but it can be difficult to spot. It has 9-14 rays but normally flat against the body. 

Ventral and caudal fins are essentially non-existent, though you might argue that a giant caudal fin is a body. 

Males and females look similar so when you try to match them, you’ll struggle to tell them apart. It was suggested males would have more rays on their dorsal fin.

That’s not very reliable though, because first of all, it’s hard to count the rays.

In the aquarium

Reedfish also known as rope fish is sometimes shown in aquaria. All fish in the aquarium are caught wild; they have not yet been bred successfully in captivity.

Spawning and hatching were observed in captivity, but no hatchlings were reported to survive at adulthood. 

They are curious, peaceful, and they have some “personality” Reedfish sometimes come out during the day, though nocturnal.

Because they are peaceful in nature, other fish may “bully” a reedfish, despite its large size, particularly in food or space competition.

Some reedfish are also inclined to stay close to the surface of the water, where they will be safe from other fish and sometimes even allow most of their bodies to leave the water. 

They can be hard to keep; they will jump into pumps to escape tanks and often die as a result and may be sensitive to pH swings and nitrogen chemistry.

When given the opportunity, they will frequently consume other smaller fish. Small feeder goldfish and minnows are often eaten instead of bloodworms or nightcrawlers, and other live fish foods which are commercially available.

Habitat and Condition

Rope fish
Image by Daiju Azuma from Commons Wikimedia

Although they look very different from most fish, rope fish live like other common fish species in similar environments.

Brackish/freshwater in tropical areas would be the natural habitat of rope fish. They ‘re usually found in Nigeria ‘s rivers like the Ogun River. 

These areas have warm water, possibly slightly alkaline, with neutral pH. Water movement would be low but there would be plenty of light there. 

You ‘d find a lot of debris along the riverbed, like rocks and bogwood. These create crevices between which the fish can hide until night. 

They are found in low oxygen environments, too; because of their primitive lungs, they can survive here.

Tank setup

Let’s set up your tank now! Setting up a perfect tank for your rope fish shouldn’t be a challenge. 

Use a layer of the sandy substrate to cover the aquarium bottom. The fine grains will ensure the fish are not scratching themselves. 

It is important to place a few decorations above that layer. Use the rocks to form some shelter caves.

They ‘re going to spend a lot of time hiding here, especially in the daytime when they’re not used to feeding day. 

Since the rope fish are carnivorous, plants can be added safely without eating them. They prefer well-planted aquariums so Java Fern and Amazon Swords can be included. 

To maintain the water between 72-82°F a heater is needed. The pH should be between 6.7-7.8 and the hardness should be between 4-18dH.

They can live in brackish water with no stress. If you decide to keep them in saltwater, limit the salinity to 1.020. 

This predator can create a lot of organic waste so it is ideal to have a canister filter and regular clean. In order to keep the water moving, you don’t need to add an air pump; these fish are used to slow tropical rivers. 

Make sure your tank has an adjustable lid. If you give them the chance to jump out, those fish will try to escape.

What tank size do they need?

Now Let’s talk about Rope fish tank size! A rope fish must have a tank of at least 45 gallons. A bigger one will need an even bigger tank, so a 50 + gallon tank is safer to use. 

Try choosing a tank that has as much floor space as possible, rather than a really tall one. 

Every additional rope fish that you add will require around 10 gallons.

Rope fish Tank mates

Rope fish is a peaceful species so when selecting some tank mates there are plenty of options. Just a few things you need to keep in mind. 

Firstly, being a predator means that if they are hungry they will eat fish, even though this is not their main source of food in the wild.

They won’t be able to distinguish between the food you ‘re giving them and any mates in the snack tank. 

Small fish like tetras, danios, and harlequins are about to begin to disappear. Any fish that you keep must be larger than the mouth of a rope fish so that it can not be eaten.

Some good examples include:

The temperament of the tank mates is another matter to consider. The rope fish will be harassed by aggressive, territorial species It is important to avoid aggressive cichlids (such as convicts and Oscars) 

Also, you should not add invertebrates. Small species of shrimp and snail are to be treated as food. Indeed some people choose to add these to the tank as part of their diet (more on this later).

Keeping the fish rope together? 

You can either keep those fish on your own or in a group. Some people think they are more active in small groups, but a group takes up more space so make sure you can fit a group in your tank comfortably before you buy.

Rope fish temperature

Maintaining adequate temperature for your rope fish is very much essential. Maintaining the temperature of water between 72-82°F is necessary. However, a heater is needed to maintain the temperature range.

Feeding your Rope fish

This is a very common question among aquarists! What do rope fish eat? The rope is carnivorous. They would consume crustaceans, insects, and worms in the wild. They eat fish too, but usually, this is the last choice. 

This means they will eat small fish in your tank, so you have to be careful with your choice of tank mate. 

They are creatures of the night, resting in the daytime and feeding in the night. They will learn your feeding routines quickly though, and they can begin feeding during the daytime. 

Although they do not eat vegetation, you can still feed them on lots. 

The easiest options are usually store-bought flake and pellet foods, but this species does not accept dried foods at all.

The best choice are meaty, frozen foods. Smaller fish will gladly eat bloodworms, shrimp brine and larvae of mosquitoes.

You can move onto larger shrimps (like Mysis Shrimp), prawns, and even earthworms once they are a little bigger. 

They can also introduce live foods. For your rope fish they ‘re a little more engaging and they encourage some natural behaviors. 

For finding food they rely heavily on their sense of smell. That sometimes means that if they are in a tank with other meat-eating fish, they go hungry. 

Feed them, just before their light turns out.

They can go on long periods without food in the wild but in captivity they should have a steady diet. Every day, you might choose to give them a little food (e.g. 1-2 shrimps) or give them larger portions (e.g. 2-4 shrimps) each other.

Here are a few articles you might like:

Vampire crab: Complete care, tank mates, size and setup

Ember tetra: Complete care, lifespan, tank size and mates

Rope fish Care

Here in this section, Let’s talk about caring for your Rope fish! Purchasing a fish such as this can be daunting. They look different from ‘normal’ fish so you might think it’s hard to care for them.

This is not true; we already talked about how they have similar needs to most species. A tank that’s set up well should keep them healthy. 

They are a hardy species that accommodates a variety of conditions and proves resistant to disease. 

However, they don’t handle changes in water conditions well, once they ‘re acclimatized to your tank you’ll need to maintain their environment. 

There are usually a lot of ways to spot disease in your rope fish, symptoms will vary depending on the disease, but some common ones are present.

Behavioral changes (such as loss of appetite or reduced movement) begin as control of the disease takes hold. Changes in color or strange markings and wounds may also indicate illness. 

Ich is a common problem, this shows up on the scales as white spots. 

Salt is added to the aquarium to reduce infections. You need to add a quantity of salt so you have two spoonfuls of water per five gallons.

The key to doing this is to slowly add the salt over a period of 1.5-2 weeks so you don’t shock your fish. There are many treatments for various diseases that you can buy from stores including Ich.

Breeding of Rope fish

Successful breeding of this species in captivity is almost unheard of and unlikely to occur without injections of hormones. 

If you are going to try this out, then slightly raising the temperature and adding more tall plants (such as Water Wisteria) may help to encourage breeding. 

A male and a female swim around the tank together for court. Once the female is ready they will sit motionless while fertilizing the eggs.

The eggs are adhesive and will remain adhesive to plants and decorations. 

After 70 hours the juveniles have hatched. They ‘re not feeding until they’re three weeks old; they ‘re hatching with a yolk sac to feed them up to then.

If you manage to get to this stage, it is probably best to separate the juveniles in order not to eat them.

Rope fish price

The price of rope fish varies widely, Young juveniles are available for $10, with bigger adults costing $20 or more. 


You can’t add these fish into any old tank, there are a couple of things to consider. 

Tank mates are the principal limitations. If you’ve got small fish they’ll be eaten soon. Rope fish need large, peaceful tank mates who will not fit like a snack into their mouth. 

They can be found in the wild in African rivers which contain lots of other tropical species of fish. The rope fish, therefore, prefer water conditions that are typical of other popular aquarium fish too.

If you find you can’t add them to your pre-existing tank, designing a new one around them won’t be difficult, as they have similar needs to other species. 

You will be entertained as you watch them slither around the bottom of your tank, it’s worth trying to keep those fish.

You may contact us here. We at Planet fish value your feedback and suggestions.

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