About 10 years ago, no one cared; after all, at about that time, the only Bichir species available in the Philippine aquarium trade were the Polypterus senegalus, which Filipino fish hobbyists fondly called the Dragonfin (which incidentally is a Filipinized term since it is only in the Philippines that fish from the genus Polypterus are called thus; elsewhere in the world, fishkeepers refer to these fishes as “Bichirs”); and the P. ornatipinnis or what we Pinoys love to call the “Ornate Dragonfin.”

Birchirs in the Philippines

Bichir keeping was at that time rather basic. They were simply kept in a community aquarium of fishes not small enough to be eaten. The tank was kept covered at all times, and you got yourself a community tank with Dragonfins. It didn’t matter if you had substrate or not; so long as you had them alive in your tank, then you would have a Dragonfin tank to be proud of.

About 6 or 7 years ago, the worldwide interest in Bichirs also started to grow as more Polypterus species became available in the international market. I remember a time when Filipino Bichir keepers were simply envious of the collections our foreign counterparts had.

But with communications with foreign fish hobbyists made easier by modern technology, Filipino fish hobbyists were slowly introduced to the Bichir keeping ways of fish hobbyists in other nations. The exchange of ideas resulted in Filipinos wanting more Bichirs.

Soon, more Bichir species were slowly introduced to Filipino fish hobbyists. Presently, there are about 15 recognized Bichir species and about another 5 or 6 more undescribed Bichir species, all of which have made their way to the aquariums of a select few Filipino Bichir collectors.

Red Sand, Black Sand

One of the most glaring envy points we had was the red sand that foreign hobbyists had. For some reason it was fashionable for them to use red sand because it brought out the intense (in relation to Bichirs) coloration of their Bichirs. On this side of the world, we didn’t have red sand available and our Bichirs did not show the same coloration theirs had.

So early Filipino Bichir keepers tried their luck by smashing, grinding, and sifting through the rubble of lava rocks just to produce a version of the red sand. Yet all their hard efforts did not have the same results.

A few years later, the importation of red sand made life easier for the Filipino Bichir keeper. Nowadays, the first choice of sand for Bichir tanks is red. This brings out the markings in all species. The bands of the P. endlicheri endlicheri, P. endlicheri congicus, P. bichir bichir, P. bichir lapradei, P. ansorgii, P. weeksii, P. delhezi, and P. palmas palmas are more visible against the lighter base body color. The markings on the P. ornatipinnis, P. teugelsi, P. palmas polli, P. palmas buettikoferi, P. retropinnis, and P. mokelembembe are likewise highlighted by red sand. The red sand causes light base body coloration to stand out while it intensifies the markings.

Keeping these Bichirs on black sand generally resulted in a Bichir with dark body base color. Thus the markings do not stand out since the base body color does not provide a good contrast. In fact, with P. endlicheri congicus, the markings are sometimes lost, resulting in a huge fish with unclear patterns.

However, some of those who kept Bichirs in dark sand noticed a green hue that dominated some of their Bichirs. Among avid Bichir keepers, they would attest that P. delhezi, P. palmas palmas, P. palmas polli, P. palmas buettikoferi, P. weeksii, P. retropinnis, P. mokelembembe, P. lapradei, P. bichir, and even the plain colored P. senegalus developed a green shade that starts from the head and extends through the body if they are kept in dark sand with old, aged water.

This green color is not instant and may only be observed after about six months or so. I personally believe old water has something to do with this, since I do not observe this in newly set up tanks. You only notice the color change after a considerable amount of time.

Together with other Bichir fanatics, I have had some with magnificent green hues on these species mentioned. This makes your Bichir quite unique since not all Bichir keepers are able to get the green hue. After a while, it too became fashionable to keep some species in black or dark sand.

If the hobbyist prefers to have a bare tank and to avoid having sand in it because of the hassles of maintaining a clean tank, I have observed the same reactions achieved by coloring the tank bottom red or black. The choices are either to paint the outside of the base or use sticker backgrounds.

If an alternative to red sand is preferred, I suggest painting the base panel red or using a red sticker background. The rear panel, however, I prefer to keep black as a red background will be an eyesore. If an alternative to black sand is preferred, then painting the base and rear panels black is recommended. Personally, I think a black sticker background for both panels is a better choice.

I am often asked by Bichir keepers what color of substrate to use. Having discussed the above, I instantly recommend red sand because you will never go wrong. Whatever Bichir you keep, their true colors will show against red sand.

However, if they desire the green coloration in their Bichirs―and provided they keep only the species mentioned above―then go for the black sand. And you may be rewarded with magnificently colored Bichirs you have never seen before.

But if you are a certified 100% Bichir fanatic, chances are you will have a collection of at least 10 species of Bichirs. Then why not set up one tank with red sand and another with black sand? Keep the lower jaw (lower jaw protrudes past the upper jaw) Bichirs (the P. endlicheri endlicheri, P. endlicheri congicus, P. bichir bichir, P. bichir lapradei, and P. ansorgii) in red sand, and keep the upper jaw Bichirs (P. senegalus, P. ornatipinnis, P. teugelsi, P. delhezi, P. palmas palmas, P. palmas polli, P. palmas buettikoferi, P. weeksii, P. retropinnis, and P. mokelembembe) in black sand. This way, you will have the best of both worlds!

This appeared in Animal Scene’s May 2015 issue.