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Rope Fish Care Tips Every Owner Should Know

Rope fish, also known as reed fish or snake fish, are fascinating creatures that captivate the interest of many aquarium hobbyists. Their snake like appearance and intriguing behavior make them a popular choice for both novice and experienced fish keepers. Originating from West and Central Africa, rope fish bring a touch of the exotic to any aquarium setup.

Quick Facts

Scientific NameErpetoichthys calabaricus
Common NamesRope fish, Reed fish, Snake fish, Rope snake fish, Rope eel fish
OriginWest and Central Africa
Adult SizeUp to 36 inches in the wild, typically 24 inches in captivity
Lifespan15-20 years in captivity
Tank SizeMinimum 55 gallons
Water Temperature75°F – 82°F
pH Level6.0 – 7.5
DietCarnivorous (small fish, insects, crustaceans)
Activity LevelNocturnal
Social BehaviorGenerally peaceful, can be kept with non-aggressive fish of similar size
Breeding MethodEgg layer. Hatching not reported in captivity.
Special AdaptationLabyrinth organ for breathing atmospheric air

Physical Characteristics

Rope fish have an elongated, eel-like body that can grow up to 36 inches in the wild, though they typically reach about 24 inches in captivity. Their bodies are covered with smooth, scale-like skin that ranges from olive green to brown, blending seamlessly into their natural habitats. They possess small, rounded pectoral fins and a dorsal fin that runs along the length of their bodies, giving them a snakelike appearance.

Natural Habitat

In the wild, these fish inhabit slow-moving rivers, swamps, and floodplains. They thrive in warm, murky waters with dense vegetation, which provides ample hiding spots and hunting grounds. The water in these environments is often slightly acidic to neutral, with temperatures ranging from 75°F to 82°F. These conditions are crucial for their well-being, both in nature and in captivity.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Rope fish are carnivorous and primarily feed on small fish, insects, and crustaceans in the wild. In an aquarium setting, they enjoy a diet of live or frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small pieces of fish. They may also accept high-quality sinking pellets. It’s essential to provide a varied diet to ensure they receive all the necessary nutrients for optimal health.

Behavior and Social Structure

Reed fish are known for their nocturnal habits, often becoming more active during the evening and night. They are generally peaceful and can be kept with other non-aggressive fish of similar size. However, they can be shy and require plenty of hiding places to feel secure. Their social structure is relatively simple, and while they can be kept alone, they often do well in groups.

Keeping them in Aquarium

Rope fish can make a fascinating addition to your aquarium, but they do have specific needs that must be met to ensure their health and happiness. These unique fish require a well-thought-out environment that mimics their natural habitat as closely as possible.

Tank Size

When it comes to housing these fish, providing ample space is crucial. A minimum tank size of 55 gallons is recommended for one rope fish. This generous amount of space ensures they have enough room to swim and explore, which is vital for their physical and mental well-being. If you plan to keep more than one reed fish or other tank mates, consider upgrading to a larger tank, such as 75 gallons or more.

Tank Setup

These unique fish are known to be escape artists, so it’s essential to have a tank with a tight-fitting lid. They can squeeze through surprisingly small gaps, so ensure all openings are securely covered. Additionally, the tank should have plenty of hiding spots created with plants, driftwood, and rocks to mimic their natural habitat. This setup not only makes them feel secure but also helps reduce stress and promotes natural behaviors.

Water Parameters

Maintaining the correct water parameters is essential for the health and well-being of your rope fish. These fish thrive in specific water conditions that mimic their natural habitat, so careful monitoring and maintenance are crucial.

Temperature: They prefer warm water, with an ideal temperature range between 75°F and 82°F. Keeping the water within this range helps to ensure their metabolic processes function properly and reduces stress. Using a reliable aquarium heater with a thermostat can help maintain a stable temperature.

pH Level: The pH level of the water should be slightly acidic to neutral, typically between 6.0 and 7.5. Regularly testing the pH levels with a quality test kit is important to ensure the water remains within this range. Sudden changes in pH can stress the fish and make them more susceptible to diseases.

Water Hardness: Water hardness is another factor to consider, with these fish preferring soft to moderately hard water. Aim for a general hardness (GH) between 5-15 dGH. Again, using a test kit can help you monitor and adjust the hardness levels as needed.

Water Quality: They also require clean water with low levels of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. Ammonia and nitrites should be at zero, while nitrates should be kept below 20 ppm. Regular water changes, along with efficient filtration, are essential to maintain these conditions. A high-quality filter will help remove waste and keep the water clean, while regular water changes help to dilute any buildup of harmful substances.

Aeration: Providing adequate aeration and water movement is also beneficial. While this eel like fish can breathe atmospheric air due to their labyrinth organ, good water oxygenation is still important for their overall health.

By maintaining these water parameters, you create a stable and healthy environment for your rope fish, allowing them to thrive and display their natural behaviors. Regular monitoring and adjustments ensure that their habitat remains optimal, promoting a long and healthy life.

Tank Mates

Choosing the right tank mates for your rope eel is essential for maintaining a peaceful and harmonious aquarium. Rope fish are generally peaceful and can coexist with a variety of other fish, but there are a few key considerations to keep in mind when selecting their companions.

Size Compatibility: They can grow up to 24 inches in captivity, so it’s crucial to avoid keeping them with very small fish that they might see as prey. Ideal tank mates are those that are similar in size or slightly larger, reducing the risk of smaller fish being mistaken for food.

Temperament: Opt for non-aggressive, peaceful fish that won’t stress or harm your rope fish. Good choices include species such as angelfish, larger tetras, gouramis, and some catfish like the Corydoras or certain types of plecos. These fish generally have calm dispositions and can share the space without causing trouble.

Activity Level: Rope fish are nocturnal and prefer a calm environment. Avoid very active or hyper fish that might disturb them, especially during the day when rope fish are less active. Slow-moving or moderately active fish are better suited to share the tank.

Habitat Preferences: Ensure that the habitat preferences of the tank mates are compatible with those of the rope fish. Both should thrive in similar water conditions, such as temperature and pH levels, to maintain a healthy environment. They prefer a well-planted tank with plenty of hiding spots, so tank mates that also appreciate such an environment are ideal.

Social Behavior: While reed fish can be kept alone, they often do well in groups of their own kind. If you choose to keep multiple reed fish, ensure the tank is large enough to accommodate them comfortably. They can form a loosely social group, which can be interesting to observe.

Avoiding Aggressive Species: Steer clear of aggressive or territorial fish such as cichlids (with a few exceptions), large barbs, or other fish known for bullying behavior. These types of fish can cause stress, injuries, or even death to your snakefish.

By carefully selecting compatible tank mates, you can create a balanced and peaceful aquarium environment where your rope fish and their companions can thrive. This thoughtful approach ensures that all inhabitants can live comfortably and display their natural behaviors, contributing to a harmonious and visually appealing tank.

Health and Care Requirements

Taking proper care of your ropefish involves understanding their specific health needs and maintaining a suitable environment to prevent common health issues. With the right care, they can thrive and live long, healthy lives in your aquarium.

Water Quality: As discussed above, maintaining high water quality is crucial for the health of rope fish. Regular water changes and efficient filtration are essential to keep ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates at safe levels. Ammonia and nitrites should be at zero, while nitrates should be kept below 20 ppm. Using a high-quality filter and performing regular water changes will help achieve these conditions.

Diet: Providing a balanced and varied diet is key to keeping rope fish healthy. They are carnivorous and thrive on live or frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small pieces of fish. High-quality sinking pellets can also be included in their diet. Feeding them in the evening, when they are most active, helps ensure they get the nutrition they need.

Observation: Regularly observing your rope fish for any signs of illness or unusual behavior is important. Symptoms such as loss of appetite, lethargy, unusual spots or lesions, and erratic swimming can indicate health issues. Early detection and treatment are crucial to prevent the spread of disease and ensure the well-being of your fish.

Common Health Issues: Rope fish can be susceptible to common fish diseases such as ich, bacterial infections, and parasitic infestations. Ich, also known as white spot disease, presents as small white spots on the fish’s body and fins. Bacterial infections may cause redness, ulcers, or fin rot. Parasites can lead to scratching against objects, weight loss, and other symptoms. Treating these conditions promptly with appropriate medications and maintaining good water quality can help prevent and manage these issues.

Quarantine New Additions: Quarantining new fish before adding them to your main tank is an effective way to prevent the introduction of diseases. Keeping new fish in a separate quarantine tank for a few weeks allows you to observe them for any signs of illness and treat them if necessary before introducing them to your established tank.

Stress Reduction: Minimizing stress is important for the overall health of these shy fish. Providing plenty of hiding spots with plants, driftwood, and rocks can help them feel secure. Maintaining stable water conditions and avoiding sudden changes in temperature or pH also reduces stress.

Special Adaptations: Rope fish have a labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe atmospheric air, which helps them survive in low-oxygen environments. Ensure they have easy access to the water surface so they can use this adaptation when needed.

Breeding Rope Fish

Breeding rope fish in captivity can be a challenging experience as all rope fish in captivity are caught from their wild habitat. These unique fish have specific requirements that need to be met to encourage successful breeding. Here are the key aspects to consider when attempting to breed these species.

Creating the right environment is crucial for breeding rope fish. A separate breeding tank is often necessary to control conditions more effectively and provide a safe space for the eggs and fry. The breeding tank should mimic their natural habitat with plenty of plants, driftwood, and hiding spots. Ensure the water temperature is consistently warm, between 75°F and 82°F, and maintain a pH level between 6.0 and 7.5.

Before attempting to breed this amazing fish, it’s important to condition both the male and female reed fish. This involves feeding them a high-quality diet rich in live or frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small pieces of fish. A well-nourished diet helps to enhance their health and readiness for breeding.

Distinguishing between male and female fish can be difficult, as they do not have significant external differences. However, during the breeding season, females may appear slightly plumper due to the presence of eggs. Observing their behavior can also give clues, as males might become more active and display courtship behaviors.

Rope fish are egg layers, and during breeding, the female will scatter eggs among plants and other surfaces in the tank. Providing plenty of fine-leaved plants or spawning mops can give the eggs a better chance of survival. The male will fertilize the eggs as they are laid.

Once the eggs are laid and fertilized, it’s essential to protect them from being eaten by the adult fish. In some cases, it may be necessary to remove the adult fish from the breeding tank. The eggs will typically hatch within a few days, depending on the water temperature.

After hatching, the fry are tiny and delicate. They will initially feed on their yolk sacs, but once these are absorbed, they require small, nutritious foods such as infusoria or commercially available fry food. As they grow, you can gradually introduce larger foods like baby brine shrimp. Ensure the water quality remains high, as the fry are particularly sensitive to poor conditions.

Breeding rope fish is not commonly reported, which suggests it can be quite challenging. Factors such as water quality, tank setup, and the health of the breeding pair all play significant roles in the success of breeding attempts.

Interesting Facts

Rope fish have a unique respiratory system that allows them to breathe atmospheric air, thanks to a specialized organ called the labyrinth organ. This adaptation helps them survive in low-oxygen environments. Additionally, they have a keen sense of smell, aiding them in hunting for food in murky waters. Their prehistoric appearance and behavior make them a living link to ancient fish species.


Rope fish are truly remarkable creatures that can add a touch of the exotic to any aquarium. Their unique appearance, interesting behaviors, and relatively easy care requirements make them a favorite among fish enthusiasts. By understanding their needs and providing a suitable environment, you can enjoy the company of these fascinating fish for many years.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is rope a fish? 

Yes, the rope fish, also known as reed fish or snake fish, is indeed a type of fish. Its scientific name is Erpetoichthys calabaricus, and it belongs to the family Polypteridae.

What do rope fish eat? 

Rope fish are carnivorous and primarily eat small fish, insects, and crustaceans. In captivity, they enjoy live or frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small pieces of fish. High-quality sinking pellets can also be included in their diet.

How big do rope fish get? 

Rope fish can grow up to 36 inches in the wild, but they typically reach about 24 inches in captivity.

Will rope fish eat guppies? 

Yes, rope fish may eat guppies, especially if the guppies are small enough to fit in their mouths. It’s best to avoid keeping them with very small fish to prevent this.

Are rope fish aggressive? 

Rope fish are generally peaceful and are not considered aggressive. However, they may prey on smaller fish that can fit into their mouths.

Can rope fish live with cichlids? 

Rope fish can live with some species of cichlids, provided the cichlids are not overly aggressive. It’s important to choose cichlid species known for their more peaceful nature.

Do rope fish bite? 

Rope fish do not typically bite humans. They are generally shy and prefer to hide rather than confront.

Do rope fish eat other fish? 

Yes, rope fish can eat other fish, particularly those that are small enough to fit in their mouths. It’s important to choose tank mates of appropriate size to avoid this.

Do rope fish have teeth? 

Yes, rope fish have small, sharp teeth that they use to grasp and eat their prey.

How long can rope fish survive out of water? 

Rope fish have a labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe atmospheric air, but they cannot survive out of water for long. They should be returned to the water as quickly as possible if they escape.

How long do rope fish live? 

Rope fish can live for 15-20 years in captivity with proper care.

Will rope fish eat neon tetras? 

Yes, rope fish may eat neon tetras, especially if the tetras are small enough to be considered prey.

Will rope fish eat shrimp? 

Yes, rope fish may eat shrimp, particularly smaller species. It’s best to avoid keeping them with small shrimp to prevent this.

Can rope fish live with goldfish? 

It’s generally not recommended to keep rope fish with goldfish. Goldfish prefer cooler water temperatures, while rope fish need warmer water, making their habitat requirements incompatible.