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Polypterus ornatipinnis- Living With A Living Fossil

Updated on January 17, 2015
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Leopard Senegal Bichir

My Leopard Senegal Bichir on a rare outing
My Leopard Senegal Bichir on a rare outing | Source

Love at first sight

Let me confess...it was love at first sight...with my wife exclaiming ' what an ugly creature' and I exclaiming ' what a beautiful creature' at the same time! That just about sums it up and it might as well have been what my wife and I said when we saw each other for the first time...but that wasn't the case here. We were starring at this beautiful greyish brown Ornate Bichir,which the LFS owner was fondly referring to as a 'Leopard Bichir'.

Ornate Bichir feeding time

The Bichir soon found a place in my prized six foot planted aquarium.Conventional wisdom tells me that I should be moving him to a separate tank of his own,but so far I have resisted that voice as having him in the main tank gives me plenty of opportunity to observe his behaviors.

About the Ornate Bichir...A Living Fossil

The Ornate Bichir (Polypterus ornatipinnis) is a bony fish that lives in Lake Tanganyika and the Congo River basin in Central and East Africa.

P. ornatipinnis has black and yellow patterning on its body, head, and fins, with 9 to 11 dorsal spines. It is the largest of the Polypterus species with a protruding upper jaw, reaching 24 inches (61 cm) in length. This fish can range colours from dark brown to brownish grey and is a bit rare to come across unlike many other bichirs.

The Ornate Bichir is rather “eel like” in shape, with a single lobe tail having a striking black and yellow coloration, with scales and a dorsal fin divided in many “finlets” (about nine to eleven). All finlets can be hidden in a sac on the back of the fish; allowing the fish to swim backwards out of tight holes and crevices.That's another adaptation that has helped us survive the ages.

Similarly the pectoral fins of this fish are more like hands,enabling the Bichir to move on the ground from one body of water to another.Combined with their ability to breathe out of water through their primitive lungs,this makes the Bichir a survivor of sorts,little wonder then that they have been around since the Jurassic era.

The descriptive plate outside the Bichir exhibit at KLCC Aquaria

The description outside the Bichir exhibit at the KLCC Aquaria,mentioning that Bichirs have been in existence for over 395 million years.
The description outside the Bichir exhibit at the KLCC Aquaria,mentioning that Bichirs have been in existence for over 395 million years. | Source
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An ambush predator

While this fish has a reputation of being a great escape artist, I have so far been lucky with my open planted nature aquarium. I have spotted the Bichir occasionally resting on the Crispus aponogeton leaves,though I haven't seen him try to get out of the aquarium yet.

He is definitely a ambush predator. He can lie perfectly still amongst the driftwood,with only his head peeking out,waiting for an unsuspecting fish to pass by. I have seen him try to snap at some of the cardinals,but so far they have been quite agile.Though I do suspect that he has been on the prowl,as I am missing two of my juvenile bristle nose suckers that were introduced just before him.

He definitely has a strong sense of smell,given that he has two short sense receptors allowing him to smell food kept in any corner of the aquarium. The adjoining video clipping will give you an idea of what I mean. See him appear from nowhere,once I placed the dry tubifex cube on the glass,do a recce and then grab it and dissapear in to his lair. This is an oft repeated manouvere.

Initially,for the first few days,he was extremely shy,rarely stepping out of his lair in the driftwood. However, of late he has become quite bold and comes out as soon as he smells the food. While I have been feeding him dry tubifex cubes,I have seen him eat boiled chicken meat,liver,sausage crumbs and even tetrabits.Not a fussy eater.

Strong sense of smell combined with the ability to swim backwards


The more I watch him,the more I am fascinated with his behavior. Definitely a fish with a strong personality.

I think my experience with this wonderful living fossil is just beginning,what with a lifespan of over 30 years...I guess this is going to be one 'ever active' hub!

The only good reference book you can get on Bichirs

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    • jrueff profile image

      Joshua Rueff 4 years ago from Kansas City

      Voted up, very interesting article! I love Bichirs - do you know if they would be compatible with piranhas?

      When I build my tank, I'd like to have a school of red bellied piranha with an Ornate, Nile, and probably a Congo Bichir as well. An all predator tank with a ton of jungle weeds as cover. Anyway, that's more information than I planned to write, just really enjoy these species!

      Also: That is a really good looking Bichir, but I'm confused - is it a Senegalus or an Ornate?

    • TropiCoaqua profile image
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      Amar Salvi 4 years ago from India

      Thanks,Jruff. Bichirs will be compatible with Piranhas,as long as they are roughly the same size. Piranhas being pack hunters, a small sized bichir may be at risk of being hassled.

      This one is an Ornate Bichir,though the local pet shops like to call them leopard senegals. Do share your tank pics once done,would love to see it. Take care to provide plenty hiding places as these like to hide between rocks and driftwood.

    • jrueff profile image

      Joshua Rueff 4 years ago from Kansas City

      Gotcha, thanks for the advice! And although it may be a while before I'm able to get my dream tank up and running, I definitely will post the progress here.

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