The African butterflyfish is an insectivore and has sensors that detect small waves in the water caused by insects hitting the water's surface.
  • Size

    2-4 inches (5-10 cm)
  • Diet

    Terrestrial insects, aquatic larvae, crustaceans and fish
  • Range

  • Habitat

    Upper surface of open water

Physical Characteristics

  • The body is compressed with a large, upward-facing mouth with a prominent lower jaw and numerous teeth. Large, flat eyes sit high on the head.
    • Eye placement allows the African butterfly to see both above and below the water’s surface at the same time.
  • Enlarged pectoral fins that extend outward. Ventral fins are thread-like and project down below the body while the caudal and anal fins are large and broad.
  • Coloration consists of brown, gray or olive, all with a silver sheen.
    • Often have dark markings on their fins and underside.
    • Average size is 2-4 inches (5-10 cm). Maximum recorded length of 5.9 inches (15 cm).

Animal Fact

The African butterflyfish is a powerful jumper and is known to jump out of the water to catch insects or to escape predators.

Diet / Feeding

  • Insectivore; diet consists of on terrestrial insects, aquatic larvae, nymphs of insects, crustaceans and fish.
  • Efficient ambush predator.
  • Known to eat terrestrial insects that fall to the surface of the water or are situated on low branches or leaves.
  • Powerful jumper. Known to jump out of the water to catch insects or to escape predators.
    • Uses its large, broad caudal fin to propel itself out of the water.

Range / Habitat

  • Occurs in western, central and eastern Africa.
    • Western and central Africa includes Nigeria, Lake Chad, Cameroon, Ogowe basin, Congo basin and upper Zambezi River.
    • Eastern Africa includes the Ouémé River in Benin.
  • Inhabits the upper strata of open water in swamps, creeks, ponds and backwaters of streams and rivers with dense amounts of surface floating vegetation.

Reproduction & Growth

  • Oviparous; egg-laying species that are egg-scatterers.
    • Eggs are opaque white and immediately rise to the water surface. After 24 hours, they turn dark and start to sink.
    • Eggs take several days to hatch.
  • Spawning occurs after much chasing of the female by the male.
  • Spawning will precede over a period of several days in which typically over 100 eggs per day are released and fertilized.
  • No parental care for the fry.
  • When first born, the fry are not very mobile and are not good hunters but once they learn to find food, they grow quickly.

Conservation Status

  • Listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List.

Additional Information

  • Also known as the “Freshwater Butterflyfish.”
  • The “butterfly” in its name comes from what it looks like from above; the widespread pectoral fins resemble butterfly wings.
    • These butterfly-like pectoral fins help with camouflage, making the fish look like a dead leaf floating on the water’s surface.
  • Potamodromous; migrates within fresh water.
  • Top-dwelling species that swims just beneath the water’s surface.
  • Have sensors that detect small waves in the water caused by insects hitting the water’s surface.
  • Commonly rest with the top of the head and large pectoral fins touching the surface, while the long strands of pelvic fin hang down perpendicularly.
  • Ability to breathe atmospheric air.
  • Seek out floating structures, particularly plants, as they may harbor prey and can also serve as protection from birds.
  • Movements are usually slow and deliberate to avoid detection by predators or prey, but they do have the ability to move quickly when attacking prey.
  • Said to have survived, unchanged, for 100 million years giving them the nickname “living fossils.”
  • Often found individually or in a pair.
  • Harmless to humans.


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