Rope Fish (Erpetoichthys calabaricus): Species Profile & Care

Rope Fish (Erpetoichthys calabaricus)

The Rope Fish (Erpetoichthys calabaricus) is a fascinating species that resides in the waters of West and Central Africa, particularly around the Congo River Basin and Nigeria. This prehistoric-looking fish is part of the Bichir family and is notable for its elongated, serpentine body, which can grow up to 15 inches (38 cm) in length. Its body is covered in scales that resemble those of a reptile, contributing to its unique appearance. 

Rope Fish possess a series of dorsal finlets that run along their back rather than a single continuous dorsal fin, and they are equipped with a pair of lung-like organs that allow them to breathe atmospheric air, enabling them to survive in oxygen-poor waters. Interestingly, Rope Fish are nocturnal and exhibit social behavior, often seen forming small groups. They have a reputation for being escape artists, capable of slithering out of aquariums if not properly secured, highlighting their adaptability and the importance of providing a suitable environment for them in captivity.

Common Name(s)Rope Fish, Reed Fish, Snake Fish
Scientific NameErpetoichthys calabaricus
OriginWest Africa, specifically found in waters ranging from Nigeria to the Congo basin.
Temperature75-82°F (24-28°C)
SizeUp to 15 inches (38 cm)
Minimum Tank Size55 gallons (208 liters) for one, larger for groups as they enjoy space to roam.
Food & DietCarnivorous – prefers live or frozen foods like bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small fish.
Lifespan8-15 years with proper care.
Water pH6.0-7.5
Tank MatesBest kept with larger, peaceful fish. Avoid small fish that could be seen as prey.
BreedingVery difficult in aquarium settings. There’s little documented success with breeding them.
Common DiseasesNot particularly prone to any specific diseases, but can be susceptible to common fish ailments if water quality is poor.

Rope Fish Care

Rope Fish are unique and fascinating creatures native to West and Central Africa. They require a specific set of conditions to thrive but are considered relatively hardy when these conditions are met. Rope Fish prefer a large aquarium with plenty of hiding spots and a tightly fitting lid, as they are known escape artists. They thrive in a water temperature range of 75-82°F (24-28°C), with a slightly acidic to neutral pH (6.0-7.5). 

They are carnivorous, requiring a diet rich in meaty foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small fish. Although Rope Fish can adapt to various water conditions and are resistant to many common fish diseases, their need for a specific diet and their ability to escape from tanks can make them challenging for beginners. However, for aquarists willing to meet their needs, Rope Fish can be a hardy and rewarding pet.

Food & Diet

Rope fish are unique and interesting creatures that require specific care to thrive in an aquarium setting, including a diet that meets their nutritional needs. Here’s an overview of the food and diet considerations for rope fish:

Natural Diet

In the wild, rope fish are carnivorous and primarily nocturnal hunters. They feed on a variety of prey including worms, small fish, and crustaceans. Their natural diet suggests they require a diet high in protein to stay healthy in captivity.

Suitable Foods for Rope Fish in Captivity

  • Live Foods: To mimic their natural diet, live foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, earthworms, and small feeder fish can be provided. These not only fulfill their nutritional needs but also encourage their natural hunting behaviors.
  • Frozen Foods: Frozen variants of the live foods mentioned above are a good alternative, especially if live foods are not readily available. Ensure they are thawed properly before feeding.
  • Pellets and Flakes: There are specially formulated carnivorous fish pellets and flakes that can supplement their diet. However, rope fish might not always take to them readily since they prefer live or moving foods.
  • Meaty Foods: Pieces of fish, shrimp, and other meaty foods can be offered occasionally. Make sure they are cut into appropriate sizes for the rope fish to ingest.

Feeding Guidelines

  • Frequency: Rope fish should be fed once or twice a day during the evening or night, aligning with their nocturnal nature.
  • Amount: Offer enough food that can be consumed in a few minutes. Overfeeding can lead to water quality issues and health problems for the fish.
  • Observation: It’s essential to observe their eating habits and adjust the type and amount of food based on their needs and preferences. Some rope fish might be pickier eaters than others.


  • Water Quality: Ensure the aquarium water is kept clean and at appropriate parameters, as poor water quality can affect their appetite and overall health.
  • Tank Mates: Be cautious with tank mates that might compete for food or become food for the rope fish due to their carnivorous nature and size.

Rope fish are fascinating creatures that, with the right diet and care, can be a delightful addition to a suitable aquarium. Always source their food from reputable suppliers to avoid the risk of disease and parasites.

Temperature & Water Parameters

Rope fish are unique and fascinating creatures that require specific conditions to thrive in an aquarium setting. Here’s a summary of the ideal temperature and water parameters for rope fish:

  • Temperature: The ideal temperature range for rope fish is between 75°F and 82°F (24°C to 28°C). This tropical range is crucial for their health and well-being, as it closely mimics their natural habitat conditions.
  • pH Level: Rope fish prefer a slightly acidic to neutral pH range, typically between 6.0 and 7.5. It’s important to maintain stable pH levels to avoid stressing the fish.
  • Water Hardness: They thrive in soft to moderately hard water, with a general hardness (GH) level of 5-12 dGH. This parameter is important for their osmoregulation and overall health.

Regarding water quality, clean, well-oxygenated water is essential for rope fish. Regular water changes (about 25-30% weekly) are recommended to maintain high water quality, reducing the accumulation of harmful toxins like ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.

Regarding filtration and aeration, a powerful filtration system that does not create excessive water flow is ideal, as rope fish enjoy calm waters. Adequate aeration is also necessary to ensure a well-oxygenated environment.

It’s essential to regularly test the water parameters using a reliable aquarium test kit to ensure they remain within the ideal range for rope fish. Sudden changes in water conditions can be detrimental to their health, so adjustments should be made gradually. By maintaining these conditions, you can provide a healthy and comfortable environment for your rope fish.

Tank Size & Tank Setup

Rope fish are unique and fascinating creatures that require specific care and tank setups to thrive. Here’s a comprehensive guide on the appropriate tank size and setup for rope fish:

Tank Size

  • Minimum Tank Size: Rope fish are relatively large and highly active swimmers. The absolute minimum tank size for a single rope fish should be at least 55 gallons (about 208 liters), but larger is always better. This provides enough space for swimming and exploration.
  • For Multiple Rope Fish: If you plan to keep more than one rope fish, you should increase the tank size accordingly. A general rule is to add an additional 20-30 gallons (about 75-113 liters) for each additional rope fish. This is because rope fish are social creatures and like to live in groups, but they also need enough personal space to prevent stress and aggression.

Tank Setup

  • Water Conditions: Rope fish thrive in warm, slightly acidic to neutral water with temperatures ranging from 75°F to 82°F (24°C to 28°C), pH levels between 6.5 and 7.5, and moderate hardness. Regular water changes and a good filtration system are essential to maintain water quality and remove toxins.
  • Substrate and Decor: A soft, sandy substrate is ideal for rope fish as they like to dig and can be sensitive to rough surfaces. Provide plenty of hiding spots and tunnels using driftwood, rocks, and cave formations. This mimics their natural habitat and offers security. Avoid sharp objects that could harm their delicate skin.
  • Plants: Live plants are not only beneficial for water quality but also provide additional hiding spots and enrich the environment for your rope fish. Choose hardy plants that can tolerate the conditions in the tank.
  • Lighting: Rope fish do not require intense lighting; moderate to low lighting is sufficient, as it simulates their natural environment and encourages them to be more active and visible.
  • Tank Mates: Rope fish are generally peaceful but can prey on smaller fish. Suitable tank mates include other similarly sized, peaceful species that prefer similar water conditions. Avoid very small fish that might be considered prey.
  • Lid: A secure lid is crucial for a rope fish tank because these fish are known escape artists. Ensure there are no gaps or openings through which the fish could escape.

Regular monitoring and maintenance of the tank conditions are vital to keep rope fish healthy. Proper setup and care will ensure your rope fish live a long and happy life in your aquarium.

Behavior & Temperament

The Rope Fish is a fascinating and unique species of freshwater fish that originates from West and Central Africa. Here’s a detailed look at their behavior and temperament:

Social Behavior

  • Community Friendly: Rope Fish are generally peaceful and can be kept in a community tank with other species of similar size and temperament. They are not aggressive towards other fish but may eat smaller fish that can fit into their mouths.
  • Social Creatures: They enjoy the company of their own kind and are best kept in groups if the tank size allows. Keeping them in groups can help reduce stress and encourage more natural behavior.
  • Nocturnal: Rope Fish are nocturnal and are more active during the night. During the day, they tend to hide in caves, plants, or other decorations within the aquarium.


  • Curious and Intelligent: Rope Fish are known for their intelligence and curiosity. They often explore their surroundings and can learn to recognize their owners.
  • Escape Artists: Due to their slender body and ability to slither, they are skilled at escaping from aquariums. A well-secured tank with a tight-fitting lid is essential to prevent them from jumping out.
  • Non-aggressive: They are not known to be aggressive and generally do not show territorial behavior towards other fish or members of their own species.


  • Handling: While they can become accustomed to human interaction, it’s not advised to handle them frequently as their skin is delicate and they might get stressed.
  • Feeding Behavior: Rope Fish are carnivorous and prefer live or frozen food such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small fish. They have poor eyesight and rely on their sense of smell to locate food, which makes feeding them an interesting sight.


  • Hiding Places: They require an aquarium with plenty of hiding spots, such as caves, rocks, and dense vegetation, to mimic their natural habitat and provide a sense of security.
  • Space: These fish can grow up to 15 inches in length, so a large tank (at least 55 gallons for a group) is necessary to accommodate their size and allow for adequate swimming space.

Rope Fish are intriguing and rewarding pets for the experienced aquarium enthusiast. Their unique appearance, peaceful nature, and interesting behaviors make them a fascinating addition to a suitable community tank. However, their care requires attention to detail, especially regarding tank security and environmental enrichment, to keep them healthy and thriving.

Will Rope Fish eat other fish?

In terms of their behavior with other fish, rope fish can eat smaller fish if the opportunity arises, as they are predators by nature. They have a mouth large enough to consume smaller fish and other small aquatic creatures. Therefore, it’s important to be cautious when selecting tank mates for rope fish. Ideal tank mates should be of similar size to prevent the rope fish from viewing them as potential food. Smaller fish might be at risk if kept in the same tank as rope fish, especially if the rope fish are not well-fed or if the smaller fish are small enough to fit into the rope fish’s mouth.

It’s also worth noting that rope fish are skilled escape artists with a tendency to explore and potentially slip out of aquariums if not properly secured. This behavior is important to consider when setting up their environment to ensure they are kept safely and comfortably without posing a risk to themselves or other inhabitants of the tank.

Tank Mates

Rope fish are generally peaceful, nocturnal fish that require specific tank conditions and compatible tank mates to thrive. When choosing tank mates for rope fish, there are several factors to consider:

  • Size and Temperament: Tank mates should be large enough not to be considered prey by the rope fish, as rope fish can eat smaller fish. Ideal tank mates are peaceful or semi-aggressive species that won’t harass or outcompete the rope fish for food.
  • Water Conditions: The chosen tank mates should thrive in similar water conditions as rope fish, which prefer a temperature range of 75-82°F (24-28°C), a pH of 6.0-7.5, and a water hardness of 5-12 dGH.
  • Habitat Requirements: Rope fish enjoy heavily planted tanks with plenty of hiding spots. Tank mates that also enjoy such an environment, or at least do not disrupt it, are preferable.

Considering these factors, here are some suitable tank mates for rope fish:

  • Large Tetras: Species like Congo tetras can be good companions due to their size and peaceful nature.
  • Bichirs: Being from similar environments and having similar requirements, bichirs can coexist well with rope fish.
  • Cichlids: Some African cichlids can be suitable, but it’s essential to choose species that are not overly aggressive or territorial.
  • Gouramis: Larger gouramis are peaceful and can share the upper parts of the tank, leaving the bottom for the rope fish.
  • Catfish: Many catfish species, especially larger ones like the Synodontis, can be good tank mates due to their peaceful nature and bottom-dwelling habits.
  • Rainbowfish: They are active and peaceful, occupying the middle and upper layers of the tank, which complements the bottom-dwelling rope fish.

It’s important to monitor the tank closely after introducing new species to ensure compatibility and to prevent any potential issues. Providing a spacious and well-structured aquarium environment can help minimize territorial behavior and stress among the inhabitants.

Common Disease & Health Issues

While Rope fish make interesting pets, they do have specific care requirements and are prone to certain health issues. Here are some of the most common diseases and health problems that can affect rope fish:

Skin Infections and Parasites:

  • Cause: Poor water quality, overcrowding, and stress can make rope fish susceptible to skin infections and parasites.
  • Symptoms: Visible spots, ulcers, or lesions on the skin; the fish may also rub itself against objects to relieve itching.
  • Prevention/Treatment: Maintaining good water quality and a stress-free environment is crucial. Treatment may include antiparasitic medications or antibiotics, depending on the cause.

Fungal Infections:

  • Cause: Fungal spores are present in most aquariums but only infect fish if the fish is stressed or has compromised skin.
  • Symptoms: Cotton-like growths on the skin, gills, or mouth.
  • Prevention/Treatment: Improve water quality and reduce stress. Fungal infections are treated with antifungal medications.

Bacterial Infections:

  • Cause: Poor water conditions, injuries, or stress can lead to bacterial infections.
  • Symptoms: Red streaks or spots, swollen abdomen, ulcers, and rapid breathing.
  • Prevention/Treatment: Good aquarium maintenance and prompt treatment of injuries can prevent bacterial infections. Antibiotics may be used for treatment.

Ichthyophthirius Multifiliis (Ich):

  • Cause: A common parasitic infection, often referred to as “white spot disease.”
  • Symptoms: White, salt-like spots covering the body and gills, fish may become lethargic or rub against objects.
  • Prevention/Treatment: Quarantine new fish to prevent introduction. Raise water temperature and treat with copper-based medications or salt baths.

Oxygen Deprivation: 

  • Cause: Rope fish require well-oxygenated water. Poorly oxygenated environments can lead to oxygen deprivation.
  • Symptoms: Gasping at the surface, lethargy.
  • Prevention/Treatment: Ensure adequate water movement and aeration in the aquarium. Avoid overcrowding.

Nutritional Deficiencies: 

  • Cause: An improper diet that lacks variety or essential nutrients.
  • Symptoms: Lethargy, loss of appetite, faded coloration.
  • Prevention/Treatment: Offer a varied diet that includes live, frozen, and specially formulated foods rich in nutrients necessary for their health.

Preventive Measures

  • Regular Water Changes: Essential to maintain water quality.
  • Proper Filtration: Necessary to remove waste and keep the water clean.
  • Quarantine New Fish: Helps prevent the spread of diseases to your aquarium.
  • Regular Observation: Early detection of any abnormal behavior or appearance can help in the timely treatment of diseases.

Proper care, including maintaining the correct water parameters, providing a well-balanced diet, and ensuring a stress-free environment, is crucial to keeping rope fish healthy and minimizing the risk of these common health issues.


Understanding mating behavior of Rope fish and the conditions required for breeding them in captivity can be challenging due to their secretive nature and specific environmental needs.

Mating Behavior

In the wild, rope fish are known to live in slow-moving or standing waters, such as swamps, marshes, and river estuaries, where they can find shelter among vegetation and other hiding spots. However, detailed observations of their natural mating behaviors are scarce due to their elusive nature and the difficulty of observing them in their natural habitat.

In captivity, replicating the exact conditions for mating can be challenging. Rope fish are nocturnal and are most active at night, which is when mating is presumed to occur. They are social creatures and prefer to live in groups, which may stimulate their natural breeding behaviors.

Breeding Conditions

  • Water Conditions: To encourage breeding, the water in the aquarium should be clean, well-oxygenated, and maintained at a temperature ranging from 25°C to 28°C (77°F to 82°F). The pH level should be slightly acidic to neutral (about 6.5 to 7.5), which mimics their natural water conditions.
  • Tank Setup: A large tank is necessary because rope fish can grow up to 15 inches (38 cm) in length. Provide plenty of hiding places with caves, plants, and driftwood to mimic their natural environment and make them feel secure. A soft substrate is also recommended.
  • Diet: A varied diet rich in nutrients is essential for conditioning the fish for breeding. Their diet should include live or frozen foods, such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and earthworms, which can help induce spawning.
  • Social Structure: Keeping rope fish in groups may encourage their natural social and possibly breeding behaviors. However, distinguishing males from females is difficult, making planned breeding a challenge.

Breeding Process

The actual process of breeding rope fish in captivity is rarely documented and can be considered quite difficult. They are believed to scatter their eggs among vegetation, where the eggs then adhere to plants or other surfaces. If breeding is successful, providing a safe environment for the eggs and later, the fry, is crucial. This may involve transferring eggs to a separate breeding tank to protect them from being eaten.


Breeding rope fish in an aquarium setting is rarely achieved due to their specific environmental requirements and the difficulty in identifying sexes and ensuring a proper mating pair. Most rope fish available in the aquarium trade are wild-caught rather than captive-bred.


While breeding rope fish in captivity is challenging and not commonly reported, creating an environment that closely mimics their natural habitat can increase the chances of success. This includes maintaining appropriate water conditions, providing a rich diet, and ensuring a comfortable and secure environment. However, given the complexities involved, breeding rope fish is typically undertaken by experienced fish keepers and professionals.

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