About a decade ago, a good friend invited me over to his place to check out his fish collection. Being an avid fish collector, I immediately took off because I knew he had one of the best fish collections in the country. Naturally I was mesmerized by his collection of rare and unique fishes.

One fish that stood out was an Albino Clown Knifefish (Chitala ornata ‘Albino’). And believe me, it sent shivers up the spine when I saw it because it was the first time I ever saw one—actually, he had three in a tank!

 

Well, this was about ten years ago, a time when no one had an Albino Clown Knifefish in the country just about yet. My friend was able to get his in Hong Kong and he had them shipped to the country. It cost him well over R20,000 each for his three Albino Clown Knifefish. They commanded a very high price because back then, they were so rare.

Of course, years later, the price of the Albino Clown Knifefish went down to more affordable levels. As always, when supply is abundant, the price of a fish goes down. Nowadays, the Albino Clown Knifefish is available at almost any fish shop as it is now deemed common, with supply very much available all year round. From a mind boggling R20,000, an Albino Clown Knifefish can now be purchased for just a few hundred pesos each.

Thus when an importer friend of mine texted me and said he had some Albino Knifefish, I wasn’t particularly thrilled; after all, it has been ten years since I first saw one and it is really very common nowadays. When I asked the price and he texted back that they were R2,000 each, I nearly fell from my seat. I called him and asked how could an Albino Knife sell for R2,000.00 when other fish importers sell them for just a tenth of his price? This, of course, broke his heart because he could not imagine how such a unique fish can sell for so cheaply.

Very Different

Upon further scrutiny, I noticed his Albino Knifefish was quite different. It didn’t have the usual rings that the Clown Knifefish has on the flanks. The head shape seemed different as it wasn’t as pointed as that of the Knifefish we are familiar with. The body shape likewise looked odd for a Clown Knifefish. Lastly, this Albino Knifefish didn’t look as scary as a Clown Knifefish. It looked meek and nice and seemed to have a nice disposition—which of course I will never believe as Knifefish are known to be top ranked predators.

Then it dawned on me that the reason it looked different is because it was a different fish! So without hesitation, I got myself some and paid quite a sum of money.

With the few pieces I had on hand, I was able to take pictures so I could research what species of Knifefish it was. Initially I thought it was the albino version of the African Brown Knifefish (Xenomystus nigri). It looked very similar except for one thing: the X. nigri does not have a dorsal fin while this one did.

After some more research, I became sure that this fish was the albino variant of the Bronze Featherback, or Notopterus notopterus.

The Basics

  1. notopterus is an Asian Knifefish that is found in clear freshwater streams and brackish waters in the Indus, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Krishna, Cauvery, and other river basins in southern India; Irrawaddy, and Salween; Meklong, Chao Phraya, and Mekong; and virtually all coastal river basins of peninsular Thailand and Malaysia, Sumatra, and Java.

It is found in both freshwater and brackish water; therefore, it should be comfortable with a little salt in the water, though this is not necessary. This fish is not very demanding about its water parameter needs. It prefers slightly acidic to alkaline water with a pH range of 6.0-8.0. It also prefers water hardness of 36-268 ppm and water temperature of 24°C-28°C.

It is a medium sized Knifefish with a maximum size of 24 inches or 60 cm in the wild but is much smaller in captivity. The N. notopterus is not as readily available in the Philippine aquarium fish market compared to other Asian Knifefishes like the Clown Knifefish (Chitala ornata), which actually have invaded our waters, specifically Laguna de Bay; and the Royal Knifefish (Chitala blanci). Therefore, it is rarely seen in the aquariums of Filipino fishkeepers. But once in a while we do see some available for sale.

Asian Knifefishes share common features like the knife-like body shape, connected anal and caudal fin which it undulates for movement, and small dorsal and ventral fins. But they differ with regards to body pattern. The C. ornate has spots; the C. blanci has stripes; and the N. notopterus has none.

The common variant of the N. notopterus is colored silvery to brown, hence the common name “Bronze Featherback.” The body color of the albino variant is pinkish white to creamy yellow. Another key distinct feature (KDF) of the albino variant is its pink to red eyes.

In the aquarium, the N. notopterus is quite shy and would prefer a dimly lit aquarium to one that is brightly lit. It will find a territory in the tank where it can shelter; usually, it nestles near driftwood, rocks, or other décor in the tank, filter, or powerhead. It behaves this way since it is a nocturnal fish and will be more active at night than in the daytime. Thus it would be wise to leave food in the tank at night when you call it a day and let the N. notopterus eat in the dark.

Feeding the N. notopterus does not pose a problem. In the wild, it feeds on insects, fish, crustaceans, and some young roots of aquatic plants. In captivity, it feeds well on live feeder fish and shrimp, and tubifex worms and earthworms. It will readily eat non-live food as well, like bits of fish and shrimp, frozen bloodworms, etc. They, however, do not take commercial dried fish food.

Tank Companionship

Since the N. notopterus may potentially grow to a modest size, a tank of at least 75 gallons should be its minimum tank size. Provide a good filter that can adequately process the amount of waste a big fish can produce. Overhead filters, trickle filters, or sump should be your choices. Hand in hand with the strong filter system, regular water change of about 50 to 70% weekly should go a long way in keeping your tank water in top quality.

  1. notopterus should do well in a tank with some decoration. Some driftwood which it can treat as its territory will keep it relaxed and settled in the tank. It can swim in and around the branches and will be “parked” most of the time near the driftwood. Once in a while, it will swim around the tank, but it will always retire to its little kingdom.

As with other Knifefishes, N. notopterus does well in a community tank; however, a little planning is required since it is quite aggressive. Keep tankmates limited to medium sized fishes or bigger as smaller ones may be seen as prey. Tankmates should also be hardy as meek ones like goldfishes and live bearers will be killed. Bigger, more robust fishes are the best tankmates for N. notopterus.

The best thing with having an albino N. notopterus is you can have a monster fish tank featuring albino fishes. Imagine a huge tank with the different albino fish we have in the country, like the Silver Arowana (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum), Senegal Bichir (Polypterus senegalus), Giant Gourami (Osphronemus goramy), Wels Catfish (Silurus glanis), Red Pacu (Piaractus brachypomus), Clown Knifefish (Chitala ornate), Oscar (Astronotus ocellatus), Sailfin Pleco (Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps), and Tinfoil Barb (Barbonymus schwanenfeldii). Of course, this is true only if their sizes are compatible because some of these in the list grow so much bigger. Nevertheless, the Albino N. notopterus should hold its own in such a community.

 

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s January 2018 issue.