This hardy fish species fascinates freshwater fish keepers all over the world. Its snake-like body shape and interesting behaviour make it a very popular aquarium fish. If the idea of adding this fascinating species from West Africa, this article is for you.

General characteristics

Erpetoichthys calabaricus, commonly known as the African rope fish or Reedfish, belongs to the very old evolutionary genus Erpetoichthys. It gets the name African rope fish or a snake fish due to looking very similar to a snake or piece of rope.

These long fish look like a snake in their entirety. Having singular pectoral fins and caudal fins. The dorsal fin is heavily reduced to tiny spines and there are no pelvic fins at all. Many fishkeepers are drawn to them because of their intricate diamond shaped scales and primarily nocturnal behaviour.

Rope fish have a maximum length of 30 cm. While there are reports of large individuals, this is rare. As far as freshwater species go, it’s not a large fish but, within the aquarium setting, 30 cm is quite a lot, especially for a fish that will eat anything it can fit in its mouth. That being said, the rope reedfish is generally a peaceful species and can even be kept in small groups in the same tank.

Once upon a time, the aquarium hobby was flooded with this interesting fish and lots of fishkeepers were keeping rope fish. Today it is not so popular due to its tendency to eat small fish. It turned out that the dwarf loach is more practical. Read on and learn about rope fish care.

Rope fish in nature

Erpetoichthys calabaricus comes from western africa. In Nigeria, steps are being taken to protect the rope fish by preventing damage to their natural habitat in the Oramiriukwa River caused by agricultural and urban developments. In Africa, rivers dry up a lot and the existing large reservoirs are becoming streams. Let’s hope that in this case, the aquarium hobby will not become the only place the rope fish exists.

With fewer fish, groups of people near the shores catch many more of them, so entire ecosystems are on the brink of collapse. The amount of waste a river could absorb in the past is very different from what it can absorb when it is shrinking into it sandy substrate.

Thanks to pollution, the reed fish are running out of oxygen, and although reed fish can cope because it breathes the atmospheric air from the waters surface, their food remains less and less. This predator will also withstand high temperatures and poor water quality in order to find food. Young reed fish actually have external gills, which over time, they lose.

The current of the river is quite strong there, but the rope fish stay in more calm areas such as Wetland drainage areas and flooded fields during the rainy season. The rope fish lives a bit like the wels catfish, lurking in a chosen hiding place during the day. The water is slightly acidic with a pH of 6-6.5 and soft. There is a sandy substrate with lots of sediment dragged downstream.

Rope fish in the aquarium

Despite the fact that the reed fish grows quite large, they do not require much in the way of floor space. A tank size of 100cm in length is sufficient. Provided we don’t overstock the fish tank with very small fish even if the temptation is great because the rope fish is not one of the most social creatures.

All the rope fish needs is a hiding place and a smooth sandy substrate because the rope fish can feel a lot with the whiskers at the front of his mouth. It is vital to fully cover the aquarium because if given a chance, the rope fish is likely to escape. However, you need to leave space for free airflow, because they will come to the surface to get oxygen. Like gourami or betta splendens. The tank conditions should be monitored regularly due to the excess waste and potential for unwanted algae blooms.

The reef fish is a hardy species and can withstand a variety of water conditions. However, due to their feeding habits and like most species of this size, they produce a lot of waste that can quickly affect the other fish species in the tank.

Rope fish with other fish

The rope fish’s relationship with fish is similar to that of other predator fish. Basically, anything that fits in their mouth is food. Often, when fish begin to go missing in community aquariums, fishkeepers don’t suspect the reedfish due to its peaceful behaviour. It is only when they begin feeding through the night, that the truth emerges.

The problem is that they are quiet during the day, but at night while their tank mates are asleep, the reed fish awakes. Feeding time begins. When kept with smaller fish species, feeding time can resemble a hungry customer in a buffet. Don’t let his innocent smile fool anyone (seriously, the snake fish looks like it’s smiling). Its lower and upper jaw are equipped with a series of teeth that a piranha would not be ashamed of. The rope fish is safe until the length imbalance becomes dangerously large. Therefore, you should not hand-feed this fish.


Reed fish do not know where the food begins and where our hand end thanks to poor eyesight, so it is better not to risk it, which can end up in a very unpleasant and dangerous bacterial infection. We feed the rope fish with live earthworms, insect larvae, krill, mysis shrimp, small shrimp. Wild-caught fish species are always best fed live foods however the reed fish will eat meaty frozen foods and some species may eventually eat pellet foods. Meaty foods are essential in providing the best rope fish care.

Night life

Erpetoichthys calabaricus is a nocturnal species. During the day, the rope fish sits in a hiding place, and at night it starts looking for food. You can install soft night lighting to watch it. Rope fish is also very skittish. When the rope fish sees that someone is approaching, it prefers to observe the situation from hiding.

Therefore, it is rare to see the rope fish hunting unless it gets hungry and desperate. It is hard to say that it is calm since it sleeps during the day, but at least it does not chase away fish. It hides a lot, so the presence of plants is strongly recommended.

Tall plants such as Vallisneria are ideal because they will provide the rope fish with a hiding place and will clean the bottom a bit. The Amazon sword will cover the surface and give the tank an interesting atmosphere. We can forget about delicate plants with this large snake fish in the tank. It won’t eat them but will break them often.


In terms of health, rope fish are fantastic. Like other predators of this type, they get sick very rarely and you really need to be unlucky enough to let the rope fish die. Compared to other species (e.g. guppies) it is virtually trouble-free.

Most often, when aquarists find out what they have bought, they hope that the fish will go away quickly and not grow large, but they do not have what to count on. Such predators, like snakeheads, macropodus and mystus, will live long and eat a lot of smaller fish.

Always check the size of the fish before buying it. In large predators, even wounds are rarely infected and heal very quickly. The tolerance for unstable water quality is also higher in rope fish as they breathe the atmospheric air straight from the water surface. When the other fish are dead for a long time, the rope fish swims as if nothing had happened.


The rope fish is a wonderful aquarium fish that is a treat for every aquarist. If, of course, he knows what he is buying. Its companionship should be chosen wisely, taking into account his messy tendencies. Housing him with other bottom fish (such as a dwarf loach) may be unfortunate for him or them.

Like any bottom dwellers, it lifts up the organic waste, and in larger amounts, it can cause the growth of unwelcome algae. Therefore, a large amount of live plants is very important along with a very effective canister filter.

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