For the purpose of this article, discussions will be limited to species that are regularly found in the Philippine market and are imported from Indonesia. Specifically, these are the Upper Jaw Bichir species: P senegalus, P ornatipinnis, P delhezi, and P teugelsi; and the following Lower Jaw Bichir species: P endlicheri, P congicus, P lapradei, and P ansorgii.
I will also share my opinion based on 20 to 25 years of Bichir keeping experience and not any scientific studies. I am a fishkeeper and not an ichthyologist. But I have experienced keeping Bichirs back when only wild caught specimens were available in the country, and now, when captive bred specimens are also available. Through the years a select few of my fellow Bichir enthusiasts and I have been sharing these observations among ourselves. This article is generally a summary of what we have observed.
Lower Jaw Species
For the Lower Jaw Bichir species P endlicheri, P congicus, P lapradei, and P ansorgii, some of the glaring traits captive bred species have are:
Shorter Heads: The head of captive bred specimens is not as long as those of the wild caught ones. The distance between the tip of the snout until the tip of the operculum (gill plate) is shorter in captive bred specimens. A more observable basis for this is the distance between the tip of the snout to the eyes. This distance is shorter with captive bred lower jaw Bichir species than with wild caught ones.
Shorter Body: Captive bred Bichirs do not grow as long as wild caught ones and the body shape is rounder. They are short and plump while wild caught ones are long and slim.
Round Heads: Looking at the general shape of the head from the side will reveal that captive bred specimens have head that appear roundish compared to squarish head shape of wild caught specimens.
Frog-Eyed: This term refers to eyes that are set higher in the head among captive bred specimens; sometimes, the eyes also bulge. This gives the captive bred Bichir a “froggy” look. You may need a little creativity to see this, but once you are able to distinguish this trait of captive bred Lower Jaw Bichirs, it is easier to determine a captive bred Bichir from a wild caught one.
Pattern: Looking at the pattern may not be a valid criterion to justify if the specimen is captive bred or wild caught. After all, patterns in a P endlicheri, for example, can vary from specimen to specimen. But it can cause some speculations and doubts when you see patterns of two Bichir species in one specimen. This brings out assumptions that captive bred specimens may also be crossbred with other Bichir species in fish farms.
I experienced this myself when I purchased Bichir under the trade name Polypterus sp ‘Koliba’ from Indonesia. When I got the stocks, they bore traits of both P endlicheri and P lapradei, but none of the traits of a still undescribed species, P sp ‘Koliba’. This made me suspect that it might be a cross between P endlicheri and P lapradei, which should be highly probable with fish farms using artificial spawning technology.
They might have gotten away with this if they had called it P sp ‘Dabola’, another undescribed Bichir species said to be a natural cross between a P endlicheri and a P lapradei (or this may be just an urban legend). To make light of the situation, I got myself a Bichir I fondly called P sp ‘Nabola’ for believing that Indonesia has produced captive specimens of P sp ‘Koliba’ but instead got a crossbred one. Will I ever know? Never; it is merely my assumption because I never bred it and will never know the truth. But I kept one for myself because I like how it looks.
Upper Jaw Species
Among Upper Jaw Bichir species, the differences are more subtle.
P senegalus and P ornatipinnis
These specimens in the Philippines are generally 99.99% captive bred since they have been breeding these species since the 1970s. In fact, there are only one or two occasions in the past 5 years that I know of in which one importer purchased some from Africa, and only because there was, surprisingly, a shortage of captive bred species at that time. That was a gamble on his part since his costs were high. From the little experience I have with wild caught P senegalus and P ornatipinnis, the only differences we observed were:
Round Heads: The heads of captive breds of these species are round compared to the flat heads of wild caught specimens.
Shorter Bodies: The body appears shorter and plumper in captive bred specimens compared to those of wild caught species.
For P delhezi, it is highly probable that what is available in the market is 99.99% captive bred. Again, this species has been bred since as early as the 1990s. As captive bred specimens are readily available, importers buy from farm bred stocks because they are cheaper and always available. Only a select few sellers will buy wild caught specimens for purposes of variety, or because they specialize in wild caught fishes despite the high price. Captive bred specimens of P delhezi may be distinguished from wild caught ones based on the following traits:
Pattern: This can be confusing because captive bred P delhezi have a very wide range of patterns, from no bands at all (which I find totally ugly because P delhezi is called the ‘Banded Bichir’, yet some do not have bands at all), to some with little smudges normally on the dorsal portion that are not even reminiscent of bands, thick banded, blotted. There are all probable patterns, but surprisingly not the same as bands of wild caught specimens bearing fine, thin, evenly distributed, symmetrical bands that extend to the belly or anal area.
Base Body Color: The base body color of captive bred specimen is grey and two-toned: grey and mottled on top, lighter and plain on the bottom half. In wild caught P delhezi, the base color is light to beige and it appears to be a single color throughout the body.
Shorter Body: All captive bred P delhezi look like short body Bichirs, being short and fat, compared to wild caught specimen that are long and slim.
The P teugelsi
This is one of the newly described Bichir species, having been first described only in 2004. By 2012 or 2013, the species available for sale were captive bred ones from Indonesia. Previous importations of wild caught specimens were very rare because they were well over US$ 500 each, and that didn’t include shipping expenses. Traits of captive bred P teugelsi may be summarized as follows:
Head Shape: Captive bred specimens seem to have blunt heads, with the distance between the tip of the snout and the eyes shorter. Wild caught specimens have a longer and flatter head shape.
Pattern: The base body color of P teugelsi is two-toned. In captive bred specimens, the top side is speckled, with dark markings looking like spots. In wild caught specimens, the markings are bigger and do not look like spots but are more like blotches, similar to those of P palmas palmas.
Shorter Body: Next to the Ropefish, the P teugelsi is the most snakelike in appearance. It is long and slim. Of course P ansorgii, P congicus, and P bichir bichir grow over 36 inches, but they are long and thick. The P teugelsi is long and thin. But captive bred specimens of P teugelsi are shorter than wild caught ones. In fact, they share the same body proportions with P ornatipinnis, which are generally longer than most Bichirs but not as long as wild caught P teugelsi. I tend to suspect that captive bred ones were crossed with P ornatipinnis.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s April 2018 issue.