Oh, snakeheads - What was in MY head?

Jennafur -

What was I thinking! What was in my head? I just bought a pair of snakeheads! Gosh, shouldn't I have known better? I know all about those neat looking snakelike fish in dealers tanks with the bright red stripe along their sides... they grow to become two foot long monsters who eat everything in their path...in or out of the water. Why did I succumb? What possessed me? I'm still not sure.

There I was, at an aquarium society club auction, trying not to buy anything (sue). I had seen some interesting fish but my interest is in cichlids, predominantly African cichlids, although just about any cichlid will do. So far I had been really good. I had only purchased a pair of Cichlasoma septemfasciatum. I had never seen these for sale anywhere before so naturally I had to have them. Then there were the red form Cichlasoma sajica, got them for my brother-inlaw. Uhuh.

Next thing I know, I'm looking at a large bag (the word Breeders on the bag got my attention) and the tag says these fish are mouthbrooders. I read on. The tag said these snakeheads would only grow to a maximum of eight inches and they were already there. It also said they would eat prepared and frozen food. To top it off there was also a bag of their fry in the auction so there was proof they were Breeders.

All right, this was the strategy. I'd bid on the fry first, that way if they ate too much or became otherwise too offensive in my cichlid tanks, I could sell them at the next auction without too much trouble. If I didn't get the fry I'd bid on the adult Breeders (sometimes that word gives me chills!). But these were snakeheads, I had read other hobbyist stories about them and they all centered on how much they ate. Tankmates who were not immediately devoured became complacent until the snakehead grew large enough to swallow them in one gulp. I should've known better but I bid anyway. What's worse I got them. Fry and adults! I never know when to quit. Maybe I should book an appointment with a local shrink...nah, not yet anyway.

OK, so I got them home and into a thirty-gallon tank with just a plecostomus that they couldn't possibly swallow. I provided them with some rocks and decorations designed to provide hiding places and they seemed right at home within minutes. I'm looking at them in the tank to study their form, colour, temperment. etc. I'm trying to find something nice about them but you know what? These are not just snakeheads; these are the ugliest fish I've ever seen! I'm not kidding. Dull olive green overall with some darker green and brown markings on the sides. The only highlights were blue and green iridescent stripes on the dorsal and caudal fin rays. Oh, did I mention the real cute bulldog face and eyes that looked at you as if sizing you up for dinner at some later stage?

The auction tag said I could feed them frozen food so they got plankton and shrimp. Good size chunks were thrown in from a distance (those eyes give me the creeps). They never rush into anything, including eating, so I never saw them open their cavernous mouths, probably just as well. I thought to myself, if I have them, I better breed them, get my Breeders Award Program points and then pass them along to some unsupecting fellow club member (I'm not usually so devious). These fish were not in the best of shape when I aquired them and to get them into breeding condition I thought they just might benefit from live food. Quit laughting, let me finish. I started buying feeder guppies. I put in a dozen and the Snakeheads didn't give them a second look. Next morning a few guppies were missing and by weekend all were gone. These are big fish and I was feeding plankton and shrimp also. Guppies were provided for a few weeks but I couldn't help thinking these guys probably needed more. So next time I was in the pet shop I asked what else I could feed them. The answer was rosy reds, which I think are minnows. The rosy reds are 2 to 2.5 inches long and are much fuller bodied than the guppies. I bought 10 rosy reds for the Snakeheads. Again, no apparent interest let alone a nod of thanks. Morning came and no rosy reds to be found! Seems they like to hunt at night...get'em while they're sleeping strategy.

I began to research their habits, requirements and breeding behaviour. Axelrod's Atlas has a picture and of course those cryptic little icons at the bottom of each picture...te ones I have to look up each time to figure out what they mean. Well, indeed they only grow up to 8 inches and the picture confirms it, they're ugly, it isn't just my pair. But wait a minute, that little icon says they are egg scatterers and not mouthbrooders! Did I get bamboozled or what? The only reason I bought them was because they were mouthbrooders. The fellow aquarist who previously owned these fish is above reproach so the Atlas had to be wrong, I was sure of that.

These fish come from southeast Asia and are small cousins of the larger varieties belonging to the Ophicephalidae family. Snakeheads have long, cyindrical and somewhat compressed bodies with deeply cleft mouths possessing complete dentation. They are predators, able to eat fish as long as themselves. "As Grobe (1956) has very nicely shown, only small prey are sized at random: in the case of larger fishes the predators approach stealthily from in front, bend themselves into an S-shape and seize their prey with a sudden jerk". Two quotes from Herbert R. Axelrod give you some indication of what snakeheads are like... "The snakehead can scarcely be classified as an aquarium fish" and 'The genus Ophiocephalus is a relatively large genus, closely allied to the genus, Channa, containing elongated, primitive fishes possessing auxiliary breathing organs. They are large, mean fishes and not suitable to home aquariums, except where kept alone as oddities or display specimens".

To be fair the Channa orientalis is the smallest of the snakeheads and sizewise quite suitable to aquaria. These are hearty fish, not demanding except maybe for their volume of food requirements and are active jumpers. I kept a lid on the adult tank from the beginning. I had no lid on the fry tank but did keep the water level 2 inches below the top. Even so, I lost most of the fry in what must have been a juvenile jumping contest one-day. I salvaged a few jumpers. Due to their auxiliary breathing organs they can be out of water until quite dry and still survive.

After a few weeks of munching live food I noticed the smaller of the two fish with a bulging throat area. As I was familiar with mouthbrooding cichlids, the extra bulge was quite easy to detect. The female hid most of the brooding period and I suspect did not eat anything during the three weeks she held the fry. While I don't have an accurate count there appear to be 130 - 150 fry and both parents seem to provide protection. Maybe these fish aren't so primitive after all. But they're still ugly.

By the way, if you ever encounter a bag of Channa orientalis at an auction, I recommend that you grab them at any cost. After all, they may be mine. If you do aquire some, all the best, your pocketbook has my sympathy.


Freshwater Fishes of the World, Günther Sterba. The Pet Library, ltd. New York 1967

Encyclopaedia of Tropical Fishes, Herbert R. Axelrod and William Vorderwinkler. Sterling Publishing Co., New York 1961

Exotic Tropical Fishes, Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod, Dr. Cliff W. Emmens and others. TFH Publications Inc., New Jersey 1962

Article was originally published the March 2000 issue of "The Bulletin" by Hamilton and District Aquarium Society. The author gave kind permissions. Jennafur told us that she would be happy about contact with snakeheads minded Canadians. Please send her an email whose address is above.

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