Dinosaur Bichir: Species Profile, Care Guide & Facts

Dinosaur bichir side view

Dinosaur bichirs are arguably among the coolest fish species you can add to your aquarium. True to their name, these fish look like prehistoric creatures with their armored dragon-like bodies!

Join us as we uncover the facts about dinosaur bichirs. This guide covers everything about these ancient fish, from their taxonomical classification and appearance to their behavior and maintenance. Let’s begin.

Dinosaur Bichir Quick Facts

Scientific Name:Polypterus senegalus
Common Names:Dinosaur bichir, Senegal bichir, Cuvier’s bichir, gray bichir, dinosaur eel, dragon fish
Unique Traits:Prehistoric appearance with thick, armor-like scales and an eel-like long body; distinctive finlets on back; long, protruding nostrils for prey detection; scale colors: gray, beige, blue, pink, white, enhancing dinosaur-like mystique.
Distribution:Widely distributed in freshwater environments across Africa
Lifespan:10–15 years
Adult Size:12–20 in (30–50 cm)
Temperament:Semi-aggressive; peaceful with larger tank mates but predatory towards smaller fish​
Tank Size:50–90 gal
Temperature:75–82°F (24–28°C)
pH Level:6.5–7.5
Hardness:5–19 dH (2.8–10.64 dKH)
Care Level:Intermediate
BreedingWild-caught: breeding in captivity is not well documented
Price Range:$20–$50
Recommended Tankmates:Larger fish species that are not small enough to be preyed upon, such as catfish, datnoids, arowanas, large barbs, bass​, and other bichir species

What Is a Dinosaur Bichir?

Dinosaur bichir floating in water

The dinosaur bichir, Polypterus senegalus, is part of the Polypteridae family. These fish are known for their long bodies and thick scales that give them a prehistoric appearance, hence the name. These fish are also called Senegal bichir, Cuvier’s bichir, gray bichir, dragon fish, and dinosaur eel.

The genus Polypterus, where dinosaur bichirs (pronounced as BEE-shir or BE-shir) belong, comes from Greek, where poly means “many” and pterus means “wing” or “fin.”

This name refers to the fish’s distinctive feature of having numerous finlets along their back, resembling a series of small fins rather than a single continuous fin.

They originate from tropical African freshwater habitats and exhibit unique features, including a specialized respiratory system allowing them to gulp air.

This species’ resilience and distinctive appearance have made it a subject of interest for scientific study and among aquarium enthusiasts.

Fun Fact: The strikingly prehistoric appearance of bichirs is no coincidence — they are part of the Polypterus genus, recognized as one of the earliest branches in the evolutionary tree of ray-finned fishes!

Dinosaur Bichir Origin and Natural Habitat

Two dinosaur bichirs swimming in a tank

Dinosaur bichirs are native to the diverse freshwater ecosystems of Africa. These fish are mainly found in slow-flowing rivers, swampy areas, and lakes rich in habitats that offer dense vegetation and soft, muddy substrates.

Their distribution spans from the expansive Nile Basin through to the various waterways of West and Central Africa.

The unique anatomical features of these fish allow them to thrive in various habitats, even in oxygen-scarce environments.

These fish rely heavily on their developed keen sense of smell to hunt, navigating their habitats, which often have poor visibility, in search of prey like small fish and invertebrates.

Dinosaur Bichir Appearance

Dinosaur bichir amongst vibrant plants

Dinosaur bichirs captivate with their unique anatomy and appearance. These fish’s elongated bodies are adorned with hard rhomboid-shaped scales that give them their dragon-like prehistoric look.

Their scales can vary in color, including shades of grey, beige, and occasionally white, pink, or blue, depending on the individual and the environment.

One of the most striking features of dinosaur bichirs is their dorsal fin, which, unlike most fish with a continuous fin, comprises separate finlets that run along the back to the tail.

Their serrated dorsal and pectoral fins, situated just behind and below the gill openings, allow them to swim gracefully and deliberately.

Their head is equipped with protruding nostrils, which is crucial for their survival as it enhances their ability to detect prey through scent, especially since they have relatively poor eyesight.

Their mouth, large and gives off a smiling appearance, have rows of sharp teeth designed for a carnivorous diet.

Generally, they can grow about 12 to 20 inches, with wild dinosaur bichirs growing larger than captive ones.

Notably, they can also breathe air using a specialized organ evolved from the swim bladder, which other fish typically use to maintain buoyancy. This adaptation is crucial for survival in their native, low-oxygen floodplains across Africa.

Moreover, unlike most fish, dinosaur bichirs can survive out of water for short periods as long as their skin remains moist.

Dinosaur Bichir Temperament and Behavior

Dinosaur bichir on white sand

Dinosaur bichirs are calm and solitary, typically engaging in nocturnal activities. This behavior aligns with the conditions of their natural habitat, where they navigate and hunt in dimly lit waters.

Their unique physiological trait allows them to surface for air, a fascinating behavior to observe in an aquarium.

These fish display a similar behavior pattern in captivity, thriving best in environments that mimic their natural settings with ample hiding places.

Though peaceful towards larger species, their predatory nature means smaller fish might be at risk. Thus, choosing tank mates for the dinosaur bichirs requires careful consideration to ensure harmony within a community tank.

Flaring is also a common behavior observed in dinosaur bichirs, where they erect their dorsal fins. Presumably, they do this to show aggression or intimidation, especially when they feel threatened.

During my visit to an aquarium exhibit, I witnessed a fascinating bichir behavior that only a few fish species do — breaching. This is when a fish jumps out of the water.

According to the expert aquarist I talked to in the exhibit, for dinosaur bichirs, breaching is a part of their courtship display before mating. 

It was amusing to know that these prehistoric-looking fish have a fancy for acrobatic courtship.

Tankmates for Dinosaur Bichirs

Dinosaur bichir swimming among various fish

Choosing tank mates for dinosaur bichirs requires careful consideration of species that share similar environmental preferences and have compatible temperaments.

Suitable companions include larger, peaceful fish that can coexist without falling prey to the bichir’s predatory nature.

These include various types of catfish, datnoids, arowanas, and large barbs, which share similar size and environmental requirements without competing directly for resources or space.

Including other bichir species can also enrich the environment, offering social interaction among similar kinds without the risk of predation. They can also live peacefully with freshwater stingrays.

When introducing new species to a tank with a dinosaur bichir, closely monitoring interactions is important. You should ensure all fish have ample space, hiding spots, and access to food without competition.

Dinosaur Bichir Care Guide

Dinosaur bichir hidden among plants

Caring for dinosaur bichirs involves understanding their needs and creating an environment that mimics their natural habitat as closely as possible.

Here are the things you need to consider when owning a dinosaur bichirs:

Tank Requirements

For dinosaur bichirs, a spacious environment is crucial due to their size. They need a 50- to 90-gallon tank to accommodate their potential growth and active behavior.

The tank should have a tightly fitting lid to prevent escapes, as these fish are known for their jumping abilities.

A substrate of soft sand is preferred to protect their delicate undersides, and the tank should include plenty of hiding places, such as rocks, caves, and driftwood.

Lighting should be kept dim to reduce stress but enough to support any plant life and simulate a natural day and night cycle.

The water temperature should be maintained between 75°F and 82°F, with a pH level ranging from 6.5 to 7.5, and water hardness between 5 and 19 dH.

A powerful filtration system is also recommended to keep the water clean and well-oxygenated.

Diet and Feeding

Dinosaur bichirs are carnivorous, requiring a diet rich in protein. They should be fed a variety of live, frozen, or freeze-dried foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, krill, and earthworms.

While they may also accept high-quality carnivorous pellets, offering a diverse diet is important to ensure they receive all the necessary nutrients.

Feeding should occur once or twice daily, with care taken to avoid overfeeding and ensure all food is consumed to maintain water quality.

Since dinosaur bichirs are nocturnal, they should be fed at night or when the lights are off.

Lifespan and Health

Dinosaur bichirs are known for their longevity, often living 10 to 15 years in captivity with proper care. Their health is robust, making them resistant to many common fish diseases.

However, maintaining clean water and a stress-free environment is key to preventing issues like ich, fin rot, and dropsy. A well-maintained tank and a balanced diet can help them achieve their maximum lifespan.

I always quarantine any addition to my community tank to avoid introducing parasites and diseases. Like other fishes, dinosaur bichirs can also carry worms that could infect the tank.

The plants and fishes I add to my community stay in a quarantine tank for four weeks before I move them to the main aquarium. This prevents infection and helps the fish acclimate to their new environment.

Breeding Dinosaur Bichirs

Breeding dinosaur bichirs in captivity is uncommon. They are also not sexually dimorphic, making it difficult to distinguish males from females.

But if you want to try your luck in breeding, you should provide ideal breeding conditions, including a spacious tank with numerous hiding spots, clean, well-oxygenated water, and a slight increase in water temperature.

The breeding process involves the male chasing the female and nudging her abdomen to stimulate egg-laying. According to various accounts, after the male fertilizes the eggs externally, they hatch in about 4 to 7 days.

What this video to learn more tips about dinosaur bichirs care:

Senegal Bichir Care Guide - Feeding, Care, Tank Set Up and Breeding Dinosaur Bichir Fish

How Much Does a Dinosaur Bichir Cost?

Dinosaur bichir isolated against a black background

The price of a dinosaur bichir can vary significantly depending on its size and where you buy it. Typically, young, smaller bichirs might cost you around $20 to $50.

However, for larger or more exotic varieties, expect to pay upwards of $100 or even more. These prices fluctuate based on the rarity, location, and specific breed of the dinosaur bichir you’re interested in.

You can find dinosaur bichirs at various places, from local fish stores specializing in exotic aquarium species.

Additionally, there are numerous online retailers and fish hobbyist forums where breeders and sellers might list these unique fish for sale.

Nonetheless, when purchasing a dinosaur bichir, it’s crucial to consider the seller’s reputation and the fish’s health.

Other Bichir Species

Dinosaur bichir amongst green leaves

Besides the popular dinosaur bichir, the Polypteridae family showcases various unique and ancient fish species. Each bichir species has its distinct characteristics and behavior.

Here are five noteworthy bichir species you should know:

  • Ornate bichir (Polypterus ornatipinnis): The ornate bichir is admired for its striking pattern of black spots and stripes against a lighter background. They are one of the more visually appealing species, known for their activeness and ability to grow up to 24 inches.
  • Delhezi bichir (Polypterus delhezi): The delhezi bichir is a medium-sized, captivating species with a bold, barred pattern. They are a hardy species that adapt well to life in a home aquarium, growing up to 14 inches long.
  • Saddled bichir (Polypterus endlicheri): This species can be recognized by its large size and distinctive saddle-like markings. They are one of the larger species within the family, capable of growing to lengths of up to 30 inches.
  • Palmas bichir (Polypterus palmas): The palmas bichir is smaller, reaching around 12 inches. They feature a slender body with dark bands or spots. Their dorsal finlets also have irregular spots.
  • Nile bichir (Polypterus bichir): This species inhabits the Nile and its tributaries in Africa. They are characterized by a dark grayish color with distinct vertical markings that become less pronounced as they mature.

Each of these bichir species requires specific care to thrive in captivity. They all share a preference for carnivorous diets, ample space to explore, and properly maintained water conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Dinosaur bichir on black backdrop

Are Dinosaur Bichirs Aggressive?

Dinosaur bichirs are not inherently aggressive toward other large fish, making them suitable for community tanks with similarly sized species.

However, their predatory nature means they may view smaller fish as food. It’s crucial to select tank mates wisely to avoid potential issues.

Are Dinosaur Bichirs Hard to Keep?

Dinosaur bichir care is considered to be intermediate. Keeping them will be relatively easy for those familiar with aquarium care. However, they require attention to their specific needs.

They need a large tank, proper water conditions, and a protein-rich diet. As long as their environment is well-maintained and their dietary needs are met, dinosaur bichirs can thrive in home aquariums.

Can You Have Two Dinosaur Bichirs Together?

Yes, you can keep two dinosaur bichirs together in the same aquarium. However, it is essential to provide a spacious tank with enough room for both to roam and establish their own territories comfortably.

Dinosaur bichirs can be great additions to community tanks with large species. Besides their aesthetic appeal, they are generally peaceful, especially when paired with suitable tankmates.

If you have other questions or useful tips about caring for dinosaur bichirs, leave a comment below! We’d love to hear from you.

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