Get to know the monster profile and explore what’s behind the dragon-like appearance of Bichirs. 

Fish from the genus Polypterus, often called ‘Bichirs’, are also commonly known as ‘Dragon Fins’ due to its dragon-like appearance and familiar-looking set of dorsal fins. Its fossils date way back to Cretaceous period when dinosaurs roamed the face of the earth.

All of the known species of this genus originated from the fresh waters of Africa and are usually found in shallow rivers and swamps. They are covered with armor-like scales called ‘ganoids’, which makes it tougher for parasites and other aggressive fish to prey on them. Bichirs are very resilient fish, able to live in low oxygenated swamps and rivers. Over years of evolution, they developed a lung-like organ that enables them to breathe air directly from the surface of the water.

They are categorized by their jaw protrusion and classified into two groups: the ‘upper jaws’ and the ‘lower jaws’. Most upper jaw species only reach a maximum size of 14’ (inches), with the exception of Polypterus Ornatipinnis, Polypterus Weeksii, Polypterus Teugelsi, and Polypterus Palmas Palmas, which can grow bigger.

On the other hand, the lower-jaw bichirs, which are known to reach sizes of 29’ to 36’, consist of the ever-popular Endlicheri Bichir and the rare Polypterus Bichir Bichir (PBB). Bichirs habitually stay at the bottom part of their tanks, and they are known to be ambush nocturnal predators. Their diet in the wild consists mostly of fish and shrimp.

Common setups featuring bichirs have sand, stones, and driftwood to offer hiding places since Bichirs tend to hide themselves during the daytime. A standard 75 gallon tank is generally enough to house these fish. However, filtration is a must since they are a carnivorous species and produce a lot of waste. Because they are a resilient type of fish, common overhead filters are acceptable. Be careful, though, in selecting tankmates. Keep in mind: “If it fits in the mouth, it’s food!” Top and middle dwelling fish make the best tankmates for bichirs. These are fish like the Arowana and Datnoids. Fish to avoid would be aggressive Cichlids since they tend to nip others.

Bichirs are one of the most interesting fish to keep due to their distinct features and the fact that it is quite challenging to collect all known species. Besides, they are one of the closest things to having a dinosaur-like pet in your tank!

This story appeared in Animal Scene’s January 2016 issue.