South American tetras are among the most popular aquarium fish. Almost every serious freshwater hobbyist has kept the South American cardinal tetras, bleeding hearts or black tetras in their aquariums. But characins are not just found in South America – many species live in Africa. Only a single African characin species is well-known to most people in our hobby: the Congo tetra (Phenacogrammus interruptus). Africa, of course, has much more to offer than the Congo tetra. Africa has some rare and unusual fish to offer – even if they are not often seen in our hobby.
African characins are exported from three main countries: Cameroon, Nigeria and Congo. African characins are notoriously difficult to ship. Their fine scales easily come off the body, causing hemorrhaging and bacterial disease. This is one of the major reasons many species are uncommon in the hobby. Both suppliers and importers shy away from African characin species, instead shipping hardier cichlids and oddballs. Shipping costs from Africa are increasingly high, so sensitive species present too much risk.
Most Common African Tetra
The blue Congo tetra (Phenacogrammus interruptus) is the only African characin that is easy to find in stores, and it is the only species bred commercially on a regular basis. When wild-caught, they are sensitive fish that easily die from infections if their large scales are damaged in transport or catching. Tank-raised Congo tetras seem to be less prone to disease (perhaps they do not have bacteria on their skin that infect damaged areas) and can be described as hardy but nervous fish. Congos can take years to become the spectacular rainbow-colored fish pictured in books. The water conditions for Congos are ideally soft, slightly acidic and warm (79 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit). More importantly, the water should be changed frequently (50-percent weekly) and have a strong current.
The food for all African characins should be as diverse as possible. These fish like to feed from the surface, so feed them freeze-dried foods, frozen bloodworms and brine shrimp. Some live foods, such as Daphnia and blackworms, will also be appreciated.
The only other fish from this group that is occasionally seen in stores is the yellow Congo tetra (Alestopetersius caudalis). This shy fish needs time, nonaggressive tankmates and some skill from the aquarist to show its full colors. Tank-raised yellow Congo tetras are occasionally available, but they lack most of the colors of the wild fish. Adults of this species measure a little more than 2.5 inches. The tiny scales of this species are even more fragile and prone to hemorrhaging if they are not carefully handled. Ideally, all Congo tetras should be caught with a large soft net and then scooped from the net with a bag. This helps keep their slime coat from getting damaged and causing problems later on.
Most Beautiful African Tetras
Perhaps the best-looking African fish are found in the genera Alestopetersius and Bathyaethiops. The scarlet Congo tetra (Alestopetersius brichardi) is one of the most attractive characins, even compared to South American species. The species has bright red fins and a metallic purple and blue shine in the upper portion of the body. Too bad this fish rarely has been imported from its habitat near Mbandaka, Congo.
Bathyaethiops breuseghemi and B. caudomaculatus, often called the African moon tetras, are smaller than most of the other species in this group, growing to about 2 inches maximum. Like other species in this group, they can be nervous in brightly lit bare tanks, but they thrive in larger groups housed in densely planted aquariums. Smaller tanks (30 gallons) should be large enough for groups of 15 to 20 individuals.
To grow these larger fish, aquariums of 40 to 120 gallons should be used to allow room for larger groups of eight to 20 fish. In smaller groups, only one male will develop the attractive fins because stress on the subordinate males is too great. Paint the back and sides of the aquarium to reduce reflections and to make the fish less prone to running into the glass, which damages their sensitive mouths and fins.
Small African Tetras
Neolebias ansorgii is often referred to as the African neon tetra, but it also looks similar to the cherry barb from Asia. These tiny characins are constantly sparring for their small territories by flaring their fins and gills. The other species of Neolebias resemble various types of South American pencilfishes of the genus Nannostomus. Their tiny mouths can make feeding a challenge when the fish are first imported. They prefer tiny foods, such as Daphnia, Artemia and other microfoods. As the fish settle in, they learn to accept flakes and do well in a community aquarium, usually occupying a dense growth of plants, such as Anubias and Bolbitis. A notable exception is the smallest member of the genus: Neolebias powelli. This fish is perhaps the smallest of the African characins (less than half an inch in adult size), while other members of the genus will attain lengths of around 1.5 inches. Neolebias are found from Nigeria to Cameroon and the Congo, but they are exported very rarely. This is unfortunate because these tiny fish are well-suited for nano aquariums. All of the small African tetras do best when kept in groups of six to 12.
Nannocharax are gobylike fish similar to the South American Characidium. They have a reduced swim bladder adapted to life in fast-flowing streams and rivers. These characins are occasionally imported with killifish and cichlids from Africa. They also have small mouths and need to be acclimated in well-established aquariums with plenty of algae and detritus for food. Like Neolebias, these small fish are not difficult, but they require enough food and good water quality to live in an aquarium long-term.
The similar but not-bottom-bound Hemigrammocharax has been imported only occasionally, so keep a lookout for this small characin from the central Congo. Two other tiny African tetras are exported from the country of Guinea. Lepidarchus adonis and Ladigesia roloffi are tiny fish growing to 1 and 2 inches, respectively. Unless their tankmates are equally small, these tiny fish are sensitive and not good for a community tank.
Large African Tetras
For larger aquariums with active and aggressive tankmates, the larger species, such as Alestes, Brycinus and Bryconaethiops, are good aquarium fish. Bryconaethiops boulengeri is especially striking as a large schooling fish. The school stays in the middle waters, but individuals are constantly sparring for position. It is a great-looking fish for an aquarium with more aggressive and medium-sized cichlids, such as Tilapia, Hemichromis and the larger Pelvicachromis. It is best to keep the larger African characins in schools of at least eight. In smaller groups, the aggression between the individuals will often get out of hand, and the smallest member may not be allowed to eat.
The larger African characins, especially those of the genus Distichodus, require larger aquariums, sturdy tankmates and most importantly, no plants. Distichodus species can even eat sturdy plants, such as Anubias and Java moss. In an aquarium without plants, the smaller species of Distichodus can be compatible tankmates with other African characins. The characin best-suited for such a situation is the diminutive D. decemmaculatus from the Congo. Unfortunately, the smallest Distichodus is rarely seen in the trade. More common are the medium-sized species, such as Distichodus noboli, which make good tankmates for the larger characins. As attractive as juvenile D. sexfasciatus can be, keep in mind that these beautiful and colorful little fish easily grow to more than 18 inches in length and will dominate most other fish in the aquarium. Unless you keep other larger fish with similar temperaments, this is not the best fish for a community aquarium.
An African Characin Aquarium
Setting up an aquarium with wild-caught African characins can be a true challenge that may take some months to complete. An aquarium with several rare species of unusual fish can be a spectacular sight, especially considering the far-away wild places that the fish come from.
An aquarium of 120 gallons is ideal. If Phenacogrammus or Alestopetersius is the center focus of the aquarium, some room is needed for these fish to move and display their full beauty and colors. Smaller, more cryptic fish, such as Neolebias, require hiding places, and dwarf cichlids, bushfishes, catfishes and shrimp will make the tank more lively. African characins can be nervous if the tank does not have enough cover, and slow-moving gregarious fish will help draw them out. Fearless surface fish, such as a pair of dwarf or thicklip gouramis, can also help draw out and calm schools of African characins that may be nervous in a new environment. The tank is best placed in a low-traffic area and higher off the ground, but after some time, the fish will get used to the usual movements around the aquarium and be less nervous.
Allow the larger characins the space needed to move around, and break up the territories with rocks and large pieces of driftwood so that several males can develop their full color. The substrate should be fine sand or gravel, ideally in a neutral color to allow the subtle colors of the characins to dominate against the dark green plants.
African characins like warm, soft water that is well-oxygenated, so the filter should be oversized for the aquarium, and an additional powerhead will generate the current to make sure Bolbitis and Crinum plants thrive in the tank. Bolbitis /freshwater-aquariums/planted-tank/beautiful-and-easy-to-keep.aspx and Anubias grow best when planted on driftwood, and they will quickly reach the surface and provide shaded areas for the shy fish. Water changes should be weekly and up to 50 percent of the tank’s volume.
A 120-gallon tank is large enough to allow any cichlids in the tank to raise young without disrupting the community too much. A number of the cichlid fry could be eaten by the characins and more likely by orange bushfish.
Although the African tetras aren’t as common in the hobby as their South American counterparts, they make an interesting display aquarium. Keep an eye out for these great fish, so you can create your own unique display of African characins. AFI
Oliver Lucanus has collected, filmed and photographed fish in many countries. He has been a tropical fish wholesaler for more than 15 years, and he has published several books and more than 100 articles on fish husbandry and habitats.