Ornate Bichir 101: Care, Diet, Tank Size, Tank Mates & More

The Ornate Bichir (Polypterus ornatipinnis) is a large fish with peaceful behavior. They are carnivorous and primitive fish, which require large-volume aquariums. Ideal for community aquariums, mainly for their unique appearance and rusticity. They are found over a wide area comprising several countries in Africa.

Ornate Birchir. Photo by ばぶじ~, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In this article, all issues involving this species and its maintenance in aquariums will be addressed and explained.

Species Summary

Ornate Bichir is a widely distributed species on the African continent. They can be found in the Congo River basin in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and the Republic of Congo. They are also reported from the Lake Rukwa drainage and Lake Tanganyika basin. 

Ornate Bichir is a species of tropical freshwater Bichir belonging to the Polypteridae family. 

Mainly found in rivers, ponds, marshes, and lakes. These fish reach large sizes, making them “monster fish” and inhabit large-volume aquariums or lakes. 

A species well sought after by keepers of large fish species, they are relatively rare in domestic aquariums and an excellent species for beginners in this field of the aquarium hobby.

In general, Ornate Bichir is a resistant fish with a relatively peaceful behavior, making it an excellent choice for aquarists who want to get started in the world of “monster fish.”

Care Guide

These fish are very adaptable and can live in community aquariums with other fish without too many problems. Like some other monster fish, this animal should be kept together with other large fish species, with a temperament similar to theirs – peaceful to semi-aggressive.

Ornate Bichir is a beautiful fish when well cared for. They will show their best colors when given a balanced diet and in a suitable aquarium.

It is a resistant and easy-to-care fish, but that does not exclude knowing the species, habits, and behaviors in-depth. Like any other species, Ornate Bichir has its peculiarities, addressed and detailed in the following topics.

Tank Size

Ornate Bichir is a slow swimming species and not a very active fish. 

It is a large species, so they must inhabit large aquariums above 180 gallons, with dimensions starting at 74″ x 24″ x 24″. This size accommodates a specimen well, always remembering that the more space available, the better the welfare of the fish.


As they are relatively peaceful fish and coexist without problems with other fish of similar size and behavior, they can live with countless other fish species in a large aquarium or community lake.

Avoid overly aggressive and larger species that could injure the Ornate Bichir, or that will compete directly for food. Likewise, avoid smaller species that will definitely become food for the animal.

Same Species Tanks

They are often used as a single species in large aquarium settings or in biotope-type aquariums where the original location of the species is imitated.

It is a great species to be kept in groups in a large aquarium with wide-open spaces.

Water Parameters

They are hardy fish that support a safe range of parameters.

This Bichir can live with outstanding quality in different parameters; the perfect temperature for its maintenance is 77 to 82 F. The ideal pH range is between 6.0 to 8.0 and hardness from 5 to 25° H.

It is a highly suitable fish for beginner aquarists due to its rusticity.

This difference between hardness and pH is related to the region of origin of the specimen and demonstrates the oscillation of parameters during the dry and rainy seasons.

What to Put in Their Tank

As for any other aquatic animal, an aquarium heater and a filtering system are essential to keep the tank with Ornate Bichir healthy. These fish are fantastic jumpers, so the lid should be appropriately fixed.

The ideal is to try to represent the natural habitat of the species. However, the aquarium’s decoration is not critical to guarantee success in the maintenance of the species. 

Even being a not very active species, given its large size, you should leave a wide-open space for them to stay, especially at the bottom of the tank.

A pond with soft sand substrate and a few logs or rocks forming hiding places and caves is enough for the species to live well.

Common Diseases

They are remarkably disease-resistant fish. Keeping the quality of the water and the pond always in excellent condition and high-quality food, your fish, should not present any problems.

Food and Diet

This species, like other bichirs, is strictly carnivorous, feeding on anything of animal origin that fits in its mouth.

Its primary diet is based on foods of animal origin, mainly fish and crustaceans in its natural environment. 

The Ornate Bichir may have difficulty eating commercial foods in aquariums, so you must be patient and persistent during the transition.

Dry, live, and fresh foods such as crickets, bloodworms, small fish, shrimp, and others are incredibly beneficial to fish and should be offered regularly.

Providing a varied and balanced diet is essential for demonstrating its full potential. These are usually fish that are always hungry.


In an aquarium with all the correct parameters kept stable and with an ideal diet, this animal can live for up to 20 years, with the most common being around 10 to 15 years.

In nature, these animals are prone to live less, as they are predisposed to diseases, attacks from other animals, and environmental challenges.


The Ornate Bichir is an attractive prehistoric fish, with an elongated appearance that resembles a snake with small rounded legs and large, paddle-shaped pectoral fins. 

They have a remarkable black and yellow lattice pattern that extends to the ends when juveniles have a beautiful colored marbled design that will fade over time.


The Ornate Bichir fish can quickly grow to 24 inches in length when well cared for and fed, but the typical size is around 20 inches.

Behavior and Temperament

The Ornate Bichir is a less aggressive species among themselves and other species as well.

Because it is a robust fish, it can quickly kill other fish.

Although one of the most active Bichir, Ornate are animals with calm swimming and slow movements. They can be seen standing next to the substrate most of the time.


In nature, its reproductive period follows the rhythm of floods, with the change in water chemistry being one of the main factors triggering the reproductive process. 

Captive breeding does not occur very often. However, even being a fish with difficult reproduction, we find reports of success in its breeding. Commercially speaking, these are still under-produced fish, usually using hormones to induce eggs.

It is an oviparous species, where the female releases eggs, which are “embraced” and fertilized by the male, and then dispersed in the environment. Cutting behavior occurs through repetitive male movements. For tremendous success and protection of the litter, you should use spawning mops or vegetation. 

Parents do not exhibit any parental care.

Embryos emerge from eggs in three to four days, becoming free-swimming within three days.

Gender Differences: Male vs. Female

There is apparent sexual dimorphism in adult animals. The male has a thicker anal fin, about twice as wide as the female anal fin. The anal fin is the only reliable way to sex Ornate Bichir specimens. 

The differences appear only once they are 15-20 cm in length. Females are larger than males, with a slightly larger head.

Ornate Bichir Fun Facts

  • An ideal fish for beginners in keeping large fish in aquariums and found in virtually any retail store around the planet.
  • They are primitive fish and have a modified swim bladder, enabling them to survive a specific period out of water.
  • This species is a direct descendant of the first fish species.
  • They are animals specialized in nocturnal hunting, but as they have very little visual ability, they have a very refined sense of smell and use it in hunting.
  • Bichir generally lives in water but has lungs (and gills adapted) to breathe air and can more or less walk; it can step and glide. These characteristics made the genus Polypterus the object of study by scientists to understand how animals left the water and adapted to terrestrial life.
  • The vast majority of individuals found for sale come from the wild collection.