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Title Polypterus: The Dinosaur Fish

Chris Deer

Last Updated



Polypterus – The Dinosaur Fish
Chris Deer

Polypterus palmus with its dorsal spines erect
Polypterus species, commonly sold as Dinosaur eels are actually not eels at all but true fish possessing gills and fins. These freshwater fish originate from Africa and are quite hardy if they arrive in good condition from being collected. Newly imported specimens should always be held by the dealer for at least a week to ensure that the fish
do not develop skin or parasite infections from the stress of collection and shipping (common in this species).

The name Polypterus is derived from “poly” meaning “many” and “terus” meaning “finned”. All of the Polypterus have pectoral fins that

Polypterus senegalus is the most common species

The beautiful Polypterus ornatipinnus
they use to “walk” along the bottom of the substrate. When alerted to food or when spooked, these fish have numerous dorsal spines that rise up all at once giving the fish a dragon- like appearance. The tail is broad and powerful allowing this species to suddenly dart toward prey or away from predators. When sexing Polypterus species one should look at the anal fins. The
males anal fin is wide while the females is more slender and pointed (in adult specimens).

Polypterus species can survive even waters low in oxygen. They have a modified “lung” that allows them to take in oxygen from the surface. This can also allow these fish to move out of water over

Polypterus endlicheri pictured here
small distances in search of food. These fish are jumpers and should only be kept in aquariums that are fully covered to prevent them from leaping to their death.

In the aquarium most Polypterus species can reach 12”-15” in length. Though these fish will eat small to medium sized slender-bodied fish, they can be out-competed for food by more aggressive fish like large cichlids. Instead, we suggest placing Polypterus in aquarium that contain larger species like large Geophagus, Severums, Irridescent Shark, Large Bala Sharks, Silver Dollars, freshwater rays and similarly mannered species.
Though Polypterus will eat fish that fit into their powerful mouths, they readily accept all types of meaty frozen and dried foods. Flake foods are completely unsuitable for keeping a Polypterus healthy. Meaty pelleted foods, chopped frozen foods (shrimp, squid, krill, etc) and sinking meaty wafer-type foods are
readily eaten. Though Polypterus have a poor sense of sight, their sense of smell using their external nostrils makes them quite capable of finding food. These fish can also temporarily grab the fins of larger fish mistaking them for nearby food choices added to the aquarium.

If you are looking for that unusual addition to your aquarium of larger fish, consider one of the Polypterus species available to the hobby. They live up to 15 years in captivity, survive in a pH of 6.0-7.5, temperature range of 85-85 degrees in aquariums with soft to medium- hard water. Though somewhat shy at first, these fish quickly adapt to captivity and will be out searching for a meal every time you feed the aquarium!

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