Life's a Birchir

Posted by Aquatropic Staff on July 2, 2021

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The Senegal Bichir (Polypterus senegalus) is sometimes called a dinosaur eel due to its long, slender body and the fact that its ancestry can be traced back hundreds of millions of years! The Senegal Bichir is easy to identify as it has no markings on its body and is simply a grayish/white color. Color in Polypterids is also heavily influenced by substrate and environment, so many experts suggest a dark or red substrate for the richest colorations. Their size is small compared to the other fish in their genus, reaching only 15” or so in captivity, making them one of the easiest bichirs to keep for life!

The Senegal Bichir is a hardy, air-breathing fish! While they do have gills, these fish can survive in less than ideal situations with the ability to come to the surface and breath air. They are widespread throughout Africa from Senegal in the West to Egypt in the North, and as far south as Zambia. Some Senegal Bichir have even been found living in Saharan oases, but most will be found living in sheltered swampy areas of rivers or lakes. While the wild populations are healthy almost all fish in the trade today are captive bred, which has resulted in some color variants being available such as our albinos.

Since many Senegal Bichirs are captive bred, they are generally very hardy. Coming from weedy, swampy shallows, a display with large hardy plants and driftwood would create a similar habitat. Riparium tanks where plants grow emerged (up from the water and then above the waters surface) would provide excellent habitat for any bichir, leaving the bottom open for them to lounge around while creating the type of cover that they naturally associate with. Footprint is what matters most when determining tank suitability, with a 40 gallon “breeder” tank probably being the smallest one could be kept in for life, better yet a 75 or 90 gallon aquarium could house a few. These bottom dwellers are powerful suction feeders so it's best to house them in a bare bottom tank or with fine substrate – this way if they ingest some it won't be harmful. An air gap at the water's surface is important and above that a tight fitting lid – if startled near the surface can easily launch themselves clear of the tank! The Senegal Bichir can be housed with other fish, but make sure those tankmates are either too big or too quick to get bitten by someone looking for an opportunistic meal!

In the wild P. senegalus is mostly an insectivore – eating bugs and crustaceans mainly. Being captive raised, these fish should take any larger meaty food or pellets designed for predators. They can be slow and messy feeders so tankmates shouldn’t be so boisterous as to prevent them from being able to eat.

The Senegal Bichir is one of the easiest species of bichir to spawn in captivity. If you have provided a good habitat, food, and suitable mates, you will probably witness spawning activity! If they actually spawn, they will scatter eggs (usually deposited in/on vegetation in the wild) so offering them a variety of spawning mops or something similar may help. The young will be born with external gills making them almost look like axolotls! The young are highly cannibalistic so keep them well fed and start to separate them as they grow! In the wild there is some parental care after birth with the young staying close to the adults after birth.

Whether you are an experienced hobbyist looking for another gorgeous fish to add, or a novice looking for a first time Bichir, you can't go wrong with the Senegalus. Give them enough space, a high quality food, and thoughtful choices for tank mates and you'll get a fascinating living fossil for many years to come!