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Snakeheads in the Aquarium
Snakeheads in the Aquarium
Many people do not consider snakeheads as aquarium fish and the prejudices against the fish are unjustified. Sadly too many people have made bad experiences with snakeheads, mostly with Channa micropeltis. It is hard to believe that the little red striped fish will grow into a "monster" that will eat all the other fish in your tank
Where it is correct that many snakeheads are not suited to the average sized aquarium, there are still many smaller species that can be kept in the average sized tank.
Even the medium sized and larger Channa can be successfully kept if certain rules are followed.
Firstly anyone thinking of keeping snakeheads should be aware off the fact that keeping the fish in a community tank is out of the question. These fish are predators and will eventually consume most of the other fish.
Snakeheads are fish belonging to the family of Channidae and comprise of two genera.
Channa from Asia and Parachanna from Africa. The fish are split into this two different species due to the Parachanna more simple design of the suprabranchial organ.

What is a suprabranchial organ?
The suprabranchial organ is a chamber above the gills, similar but more primitive than the labyrinth organ of the anabantoid. A membrane that absorbs oxygen from atmospheric air and supplies it to the blood stream covers this chamber. This adaptation enables the snakehead to survive in the most adverse conditions it encounters in its natural environment. The fish master low oxygen levels, poor water and living conditions, which most fish could not survive in, with ease. This adaptation also enables the snakehead to "walk" over land to another body of water, if the need should arise. Snakeheads need to breathe air at regular intervals to survive. Should access to the surface not be granted the fish would drown, just like their cousins the anabantoids It is widely accepted that both genera of Channa decent from a common ancestor that made their way from Africa to Asia or vice versa. Africa and Asia where once connected through a land bridge over 25 to 20 million years ago. I suppose this makes snakeheads Jurassic fish.
From where the fish originally emigrated from is not clear. The more primitive design of the African Channa draws the conclusion that the Asian Channa originate from African ancestors whereas the limited amount of Channa species in Africa would point to a different conclusion.
Snakeheads are widely distributed in tropical Africa and Asia as well as the subtropical foothills of the Himalayas in Assam and northern Bengal in the Brahmaputra river basin. Fast lowing jungle streams to rice fields and ponds, as well as canals, rivers and backwaters are all typical habitats of snakeheads. The diversity of habitats for snakeheads is very wide.
Channa species Assam, also known as the blue bleheri, lives in a biotope where one would never assume a fish would live at all. Another species of snakehead, channa Argus, lives as far as Siberia in the Amur River and has been known to survive under ice if provided with a breathing hole.
(A licence is needed to keep Channa argus in the UK)
The ideal snakehead aquarium would be densely planted and structured with robust plants and bogwood. Stones and slate are also a good option to add extra structure. This is important to provide the weaker fish in the group, in a pair usually the female, with areas of shelter where they can retreat. With the larger Channa a densely planted tank is not an option. A big Channa micropeltis for example would make short work of any dense plant cover due to his enormous body size.
These fish are best kept alone with only a few solitary hardy plants and some larger pieces of bogwood. Alternatively you could use artificial plants for your big snakeheads.
My big Channa marulioides lives in a tank with artificial plants. I bought these at a well-known specialist aquatic retailer. Iím not sure who makes them but the quality is outstanding and the size is much larger then the usual artificial plants offered.
Also it is important to make sure that the tank is securely covered, as snakeheads are real escape artists. Iím always amazed how small a gap the fish use to escape the tank. On several occasions I have found snakeheads on the floor of my fish house due to my own fold. A small opening in the cover is all that is needed to escape. Especially channa bleheri are real escape artists. I like to call them Houdini snakeheads much to the amusement of my daughter. Fortunately if found in time the fish can be placed back in the tank and will survive their ordeal. It is amazing how a fish that seemed dead for certain all over a sudden starts to move about again. Usually they will be in a terrible state for a few days until the fish start to heal again.
Escaping an inhospitable body of water is a natural behaviour to a snakehead. If the fish cannot avoid a dominant male or pair, their instinct is to leave and look for a new water to make their home. For this reason even channa that do not originate from a heavily planted environment need a planted tank in captivity to avoid constant bullying. Bigger fish need to be kept in pairs or single for the same reasons
Snakeheads can be divided into three general groups: Dwarfs, medium and big.
All three of these groups can also be split into tropical and subtropical.
I find it important to provide the correct set-up. As most channa are still wild caught specimen keeping them at the wrong temperatures can have fatal results.
Dwarf Channa can be kept in groups, in tanks starting from 90-120x37x45cm/36-48x15x18"
Medium sized Channa as pairs in tank sizes starting from 120-150x45x60cm/48-60x18x24" with the exception of Channa pleurophthalma, who can live in groups.
Large snakeheads in tanks starting from 180x60x60cm/6x2x2í with no limits on how big a tank you want to set up for your fish
Snakeheads have the reputation of being one of the hardiest fish around. However many hobbyist have lost snakeheads over the years not knowing why? Channa can live in water most other fish would surely perish. So why are they dying on us. The answer is simple. Whereas most other fish will appreciate a large water change, snakeheads on the other hand will not. Also snakeheads seem to be very intolerant of chlorine and heavy metals that our tab water do contain in sometimes large proportions
Changing the water chemistry in such a rapid way is the possibly most common reason snakeheads die. Almost all snakeheads will react badly to too much fresh tab water. This seems to be especially the case with juvenile specimen. If a large water change is needed it is best to use well aged water which brings with it the problem of storing it
This means that smaller water changes more often using a dechlorinator and an adequate filter are the answer.
Most commonly available filters will be adequate to filter a snakehead tank. However I believe that a large volume as provided by canister filters helps to improve the water quality. Air driven sponge filters are also a good option if the sponge is large enough to contain vast amounts of biological filter bacteria
We should all point our efforts into breeding the fish we keep.
Many of the commonly available Snakeheads have been bred in the aquarium. A harmonising pair is essential for a successful breeding. A pair will usually find itself from a group of snakeheads.
Buying a male and a female if the sexes are known does not result in a harmonising pair!
Many snakehead keepers have found that only a pair found from a group of channa reproduces successfully. It has now been proven that the females feed the young with feeder eggs after the yolk sacs have been absorbed. Removing the parents from the young at this stage will lead to a slower development of the fry. Young taken from their parents at this stage and raised separately did not develop as fast as their siblings staying with the parents. Due to the nurturing proteins in the feeder eggs released by the female the young grow at an astonishing rate
I recommend a minimum of six fish to be kept in a planted and well-structured tank. Sometimes the fish will pair off leaving the others in general peace until breeding time. Unfortunately in a lot of cases, getting snakeheads to pair from a group can result in the death of some individuals. Catching a snakehead in a proper snakehead tank is not an easy task and fish traps will result in the fish drowning, as they cannot reach the surface to breath. The alternative would be to raise the fish from juveniles in a grow out tank and provide the proper set up only once a pair has been established. For this purpose java fern and anubias attached to bogwood are the perfect plants to furnish the grow-out tank. Amazon sword planted in pots and floating plants such as India fern are also a good choice as well as beech leaves covering the floor of the tank. Slate is the best stone material to use for providing screens in the tank. This means that the whole tank can easily be emptied to catch an individual fish and then be just as easily refurnished.
A bare tank for growing and pairing up snakeheads is not appropriate!
Once the fish have paired up they will remain mates for the rest of their lives.
Feeding snakeheads is easy, as most snakeheads will readily take food on their first day in the aquarium. Sometimes patience is required if you buy an adult fish, that in some cases, will react to the change in its environment by refusing food. Usually these periods do not last very long. The longest it took me to get a snakehead feeding was 3 weeks. The fish came from a friend that had lost the male and didnít want a single female. Widowed snakeheads pine for their partners and can refuse food for long periods of time.
When feeding, the snakehead will strike forward at his "prey and release all the air in the suprabranchial organ at once thru the gills. This creates a vacuum that literally sucks the food or prey into its mouth. Larger snakeheads are known to take preys near enough as big as themselves
The prey will get stalked and the fish will move itself into the right position. Then it will bend into a S-shape and lunge forward. Once the fish is ready to strike things are usually over in seconds.
Sadly this behaviour is not observed if the fish are feed on frozen food. In that case the fish will just lunge forward and swallow the prey whole in one straight motion. I can only advise not to feed live food, as it is unethical and morally wrong. We are fish keepers and not fish killers
Ideal foods for snakeheads are; prawns of all sizes, mussels, cockles, fish (whitebait), garden worms and most of the going frozen foods offered at the local tropical fish shop. Beware of buying worms from your local tackle shop. Some of the worms have yellow stripes you can just notice between the individual sections of the body. I have found that most fish will not eat this worm. I have been told that the worm taste bad to the fish. It would explain why they do spit them out straight away.
Only my giant red fin gourami has ever eaten this worm but then she would eat anything I offer her
Small juvenile snakeheads should be fed everyday on a variety of foods suited to their size. Small Channa of the dwarf species are best started on bloodworm, artemia and large mysis. The medium and larger species are usually large enough to take cockle, prawn and fish by the time they are sold in the shops. Once the fish have reached a certain size food should only be offered three to four times a week to cut down on the waist products and reduce the organically pollution of the tank
These sizes are 2/3rds of total body length for the dwarf species, half the body length for the medium and 1/3 of body length for the giants.
All in all snakeheads will make an excellent aquarium fish if a few points are taken into consideration and the appropriate set up is provided for the fish. Not only is their predatory nature one of the big appeals for the fishes growing popularity but also their complex behaviour and the care of their young make them one of the most interesting fish to observe in the aquarium

Ulrich Alsfasser


This Article was published in a shortened version by Practical Fishkeeping

if you like what you read here and want to know more please go to SnakeheadUK where you will find more articles on Channa

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