African Arowana (Heterotis niloticus): Ultimate Care Guide

Common Name(s)African Arowana, Boneytongue
Scientific NameHeterotis niloticus
OriginWatersheds throughout Africa
Temperature78F to 82F
SizeUp to 3.3 ft and 22 lbs
Minimum Tank Size300 gallon
Food & Dietsmall live food such as tiny fish and worms or shrimp
Lifespan20+ years
Water pH6.5-7.5
Tank MatesCichlids, xenomystus, synodontis, astronotus, Oscars, and channel catfish
BreedingMouth brooders
Common DiseaseCloudy eye, Protruding scales disease, anchor worm, fish lice

African Arowanas are long-bodied fish with prominent shimmery scales, similar to other types of arowana.  Its anal and dorsal fin are set far back on its body.  The African Arowana has a rounded tail. The nose of the African Arowana is rounded to be used as a shovel to dig up small creatures to ingest.  They can be grey, brown, or bronze.  In adulthood African Arowana are consistent in color along their entire body, juvenile fish however may have dark stripes that run the length of their anatomy.

African Arowana is a freshwater fish and can naturally be found in watersheds throughout Africa including the Nile River, Lake Chad, and Lake Turkana. It has been fished as a food source and harvested for the aquarium trade.

Something particularly fascinating about African Arowana is that they have air breathing capabilities and use this to survive in oxygen depleted water.

Heterotis niloticus is the scientific name of African Arowana, and it also goes by boneytongues.  They belong to the family Osteoglossomorphs and are considered the most primitive member of that family.

African Arowana (Heterotis niloticus)
African Arowana (Heterotis niloticus). Edited. Brent Tibbatts, CC BY 3.0

African Arowana Care

African Arowana is not easy to care for. Some sources say it is one of the most difficult fish to have in an aquarium.  They can only be kept in a tank when they are young and small. After that, a plan must be made for their care in either a backyard pond or a commercial sized aquarium.  Their feeding habits, especially once they get to a certain size are tough to maintain.


78 degrees Fahrenheit to 82 degrees Fahrenheit is the best temperature for African Arowana.

Water pH

The optimum water pH for African Arowana is 6.5-7.5.

African Arowana Size

African Arowana are often caught to be eaten in their native habitat.  They are a big fish. There have been reports of African Arowana measuring 3.3 feet long and weighing up to 22 lbs. They are no longer aquarium fish long before that point.

Food and Diet

In the wild African Arowana are known as filter feeders and will sift the bottom of lakes and rivers to eat worms, insect larvae, adult insects, phytoplankton, and small crustaceans in their juvenile stage.  As they age and grow they eat other water creatures that they can swallow.  African Arowana has a unique eating ritual of using their tongue in combination with their teeth to break down their food before swallowing it.

In captivity, African Arowana requires small live food such as tiny fish and worms or shrimp. Lobster eggs, krill, mosquito larvae, and algae wafers are all suitable food for African Arowana.

Because African Arowana is constantly on the hunt for food it is a good idea to provide plenty of small morsels for them to find and eat.

African Arowana Lifespan

As a primitive fish species, African Arowana can live twenty years or more. This doesn’t usually happen in captivity as not many regular people have a tank big enough to house an adult African Arowana. 

African Arowana Tank Size

Juvenile African Arowana can be kept in a 300 to 500 gallon tank.  Adult African Arowana needs a maintained pond (don’t dump your fish into local lakes and streams when it gets too big for your tank), or a commercial size aquarium to accommodate its large size.

Tank Setup

Lower the water in your tank and provide a water plant canopy.  African Arowana are jumpers and have been known to bash and smash aquarium lids causing damage to the tank and injury or possible death to the fish if it escapes the water and lands outside of the aquarium.

Use a sandy substrate on the bottom of the tank as African Arowana likes to dig around in it in search of food.

African Arowana needs a lot of swimming space so don’t over decorate the tank.  A few pieces of interesting rock or some driftwood are just fine.

African Arowana Breeding

When a mating pair has been established the couple will sometimes travel to flood plains to spawn, but there is no observable consistent migration pattern. The male will create a crude nest and the female will lay between thirty and eighty eggs. The male African Arowana will then scoop up the eggs in his mouth and incubate them for up to 50 days until they hatch. The small fry will then stay with their father for five weeks staying close to his head.  It is thought that the male African Arowana’s head provides some camouflage for his offspring.

If you are planning to breed your African Arowana in a tank it will definitely be an uphill battle. The first challenge will be that African Arowana is a picky fish and trying to force a male and female to partner up will likely lead to aggression and death.  A group of at least six fish is necessary to help them choose their mate.  That means having an enormous tank to house them all in.

African Arowana has a very long dating phase before they ever get to the nest. They also take 4-5 years to mature and in that time fighting and hostility will probably kill off a good portion of your fish before any mating connections can happen.

Male and Female African Arowana

The male African Arowana is usually longer and more slender. The female is wider and shorter.

African Arowana Disease

Cloudy eye is a disease that stems from a combination of eye injury and water contamination. In the beginning stages, one eye will appear cloudy and then will become moldy.  If you’ve caught it early start treatment by changing one-third of the water in the tank, adding salt, and raising the temperature to between 86 degrees Fahrenheit and 91 degrees Fahrenheit.

If your fish’s eye(s) appears to be improving, monitor it and change a quarter of the tank water every three days.

If there isn’t significant enough improvement medication may be necessary. Follow the direction on the medication.

Protruding scales disease most commonly affects African Arowana when they are young. It is rare for adult fish to contract it. It’s caused by extreme temperature fluctuation and contaminated water. In the beginning stages, the scales tilt at about every fifth to eighth scale. Small traces of blood may be present at the root of the scales. If the fish is not treated at this stage, the scales will get to a point of no return where they will fall off and the fish’s body will be attacked by bacteria and will die.

To treat protruding scale disease add salt to the water and raise the temperature to between ninety degrees Fahrenheit and Ninety-three degrees Fahrenheit. Also, increase the oxygen in the water. Change a quarter of the water in the aquarium every three to four days. Make sure the water you are putting in matches the temperature of the water already in your tank.

You may need to add copper sulfate medication to the water.

Two common parasites that invade African Arowana are fish lice and anchor worms.  They enter the tank through live food.

Fish lice are tiny and can be seen without assistance. They are about 3-5mm in length and have a needle like nose that they use to suck fluids out of the fish. Signs of a fish lice invasion are that your fish has lice on it, your fish is losing its luster and your fish is rubbing up against the sides and décor in the aquarium.

Anchor worm is about 1cm long and has a forked head that it uses to suck the nutrients from the fish. They like to make camp on the fins or body of the fish. The site of their attack is often red, swollen, and can have traces of blood on it.

The most common way to kill parasites is with a copper sulfate medication. Follow the instructions on the package.

African Arowana Tanks Mates

Having your African Arowana as a solitary species is a really good idea considering how much swimming space they require. However, if you do decide to have other fish move into the tank with your African Arowana make sure they are peaceful tank mates of similar size.

Cichlids, xenomystus, synodontis, astronotus, Oscars, and channel catfish are all suitable tank mates for African Arowana.

Any cichlid tank mates should not be larger than your African Arowana since aggression will cause fights and injury or death.

Where can I find African Arowana for sale?

African Arowana can be purchased from online aquarium stores. The price of African Arowana is dependent on size and ranges from 52 USD to 220 USD.