Elephant Nose Fish Care: Feeding, Breeding, and Tank Mates

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The Elephant Nose Fish is a fascinating creature, with a long proboscis that gives it the elephant fish name. These fish aren’t the easiest to keep, but most experienced keepers shouldn’t find it too difficult. It’s just a matter of what you do and don’t know about Elephant Nose Fish care.

So, let’s dive right in with some quick facts, and then we’ll further discuss some practical solutions to the problems with keeping this species.

elephant nose fish

Elephant Nose Fish Quick Care Sheet

  • Common Name: Elephant Nose Fish
  • Alternate Common Name(s): Peter’s Elephant Nose Fish, Long-nosed Elephantfish, Ubangi Morymid 
  • Latin Name: Gnathonemus petersii
  • Care Level: Advanced
  • Tank Size: 55+ Gallon
  • Size: 9”-12”
  • Diet: Carnivorous, see below
  • Behavior: Reclusive
  • Lifespan: 6-10 Years
  • Reproduction Type: Unknown, see below
  • Water Temperature: 79–82°F (26–28°C)
  • pH: 6.8-7.2
  • Water Hardness: 5-15 dKh

Origins of the Elephant Nose Fish

The Elephant Nose Fish is a rather distinguished, and unique, looking fish. With a long proboscis attached to the front, resembling it’s namesake, and a dark body with lighter stripes at the rear, it’s immediately recognizable. The Elephant Nose Fish presents unique, but not insurmountable, challenges when it comes to care.

These fish are all wild-caught. I’ll go into more detail below, but breeding in captivity hasn’t been accomplished. And, unlike many “unbreedable” fish, I haven’t been able to find a single report in a magazine, research paper, or forum that indicates it’s ever happened in captivity.

The fish are considered a species of Least Concern in their natural habitat, so the trade hasn’t impacted them too much. It’s still one thing to be aware of and it can explain some of the fish’s quirks.

The long “trunk” at the front of the fish is actually an extension of its mouth. It’s used to eat, for self-defense, and it’s an integral part of their sense of electrolocation. It’s referred to as the Schnauzenorgan. Yes, really.

The Schnauzenorgan is covered in electroreceptors, which can give feedback for the minute bits of electricity released from an organ near the fish’s tail. In the wild, this is crucial for them to find their prey.

While these fish are often described as blind, it turns out they have very good vision. They’re able to activate both the cones and rods in their retina, making them adept at moving through their murky native environments. They appear to have superior reactions to visual stimuli than other fish, such as goldfish, in controlled studies.

The Elephant Nose Fish eats small worms and insect larvae, often contained in the substrate of their natural environment. This does mean they’re a bit picky about their substrate, and you’ll need something with small enough particles to be “soft” and avoid damaging them.

These fish are found in Western Africa, particularly in the Congo River Basin and the Niger River. These waters are close to neutral, clean, and often murky. Here the fish hide in the water column until night falls, allowing them to use their electrolocation to their best advantage while their predators are asleep.

Mimicking their natural environment as closely as possible is the best way to bring these shy fish out of hiding. This means low flow, clean water, and plenty of plant life should be spread through the tank. You’ll want to avoid high lighting as well, limiting your plant choices a bit but allowing you to create an atmospheric tank for your Elephant Nose Fish.

Indeed, they’re so sensitive to things like ammonia that they’re actually used by water departments in a few countries. It’s the same principle as canaries in mines: the fish is more sensitive to adverse conditions than we are, so gauging their reaction gives an early warning about problems with the water.

One note: I’ve seen people describe keeping these fish in groups in a few different places.

Don’t do that. A tank housing two Elephant Nose Fish would need to be over 200 gallons to have a chance of them not becoming aggressive with each other. These are strictly a single specimen per tank sort of fish.

Overall, the Elephant Nose Fish is a large-ish, slow-moving carnivore that has to be caught in the wild. This makes them vulnerable to water conditions, so taking care of your water column is the first priority when you have one of these fish.

The Elephant Nose Fish’s Role in ScienceThe Elephant Nose Fish isn’t just kept by fans of oddball fish, they also frequently find their way into labs. Because of this, we know quite a bit more about them than we do about many of the oddballs that find their way into the fish trade.

For instance, Elephant Nose Fishes have the largest brain-to-bodyweight ratio of any freshwater fish. They’ve got huge brains (compared to their size) that take care of their enhanced vision and electrolocation abilities. Oddly, despite the fact that they still have a relatively simple fish brain these fish appear to be able to perform complex actions when it comes to switching their senses. High-level sensory discrimination is rare in animals other than mammals.

That brain is also used to filter out its own electrical interference so it can get a clearer picture of what’s going on around them. This makes them remarkably effective hunters of their preferred prey despite their odd appearance.

Their electrolocation has been used as a template to model cameras meant for murky water, creating digital images despite the fact that the water obscures vision.

These fish continue to impress in lab environments, and their study is sure to uncover further secrets that they contain.

Ideal Tank Setup

While we’re not approaching Mandarinfish levels of complexity, keeping an Elephant Nose Fish isn’t the easiest thing to do. Whether or not you’ll enjoy long-term success begins as soon as you start the tank, which should be a few weeks before you get the fish for reasons you’ll see below.

Equipment

You’ll need the usual equipment for these fish, but some suggestions can make things easier.

  • Aquarium- At least a 55G long aquarium is required, but a bit bigger is better. These fish reach a considerable size and need a bit of extra room.
  • Canister Filter Since these fish need to be kept in a larger tank and prefer lower flow, a canister filter is ideal for their care. Aqueon and Fluval are both solid choices for the brand.
  • Heater- Sized appropriately for the tank and reliable. The only real flaw with heaters is when they run away or stop working entirely, both of which can be fatal for these sensitive fish so use a reputable brand.
  • Light- As low as you think you can get away with and keep your plants healthy. This is a much better option than trying to keep the tank “murky” like you would with a blackwater tank since the Elephant Nose Fish won’t react well to the low pH brought on by tannins.
  • Substrate- Something soft is ideal for the bottom of the tank. Play sand is inert and very soft, and the Elephant Nose Fish won’t mind the small amount of cloudiness that it produces when you add water.
  • Test Kit- You need a full test kit for any tank, but it’s even more important here since we’ll need to regularly review the water quality to keep the fish healthy.
  • Plants- Suitable low-light plants are a good idea. See the list below.
  • Hardscape– Rocks, driftwood, and other decorations are required. You need to make at least one hiding space large enough for an adult Elephant Nose Fish in your tank, preferably a few. Pipes can be used to provide caves if you’re worried about collapse.

You may need access to RO/DI water as well, depending on your local municipal supply. The low nitrate requirements of the elephant nose fish can sometimes be exceeded by the water coming out of the tap.

See if you can find your local water right here. The consumer confidence reports are publicly available.

Picking the Right Plants

The plants you use can take some thought. Ideally, you need plants in all three zones of the aquarium: upper, middle, and lower.

The upper is relatively easy to take care of. You’ll want some sort of surface-floating plant to help shade the tank, but it shouldn’t have an overly complex root system. Giant Duckweed is a great example, but it can sometimes overgrow a tank. Another option is to use Amazon Frogbit. 

The middle can be taken care of with low-light-friendly stem or rhizome plants. Cryptocoryne wenditii, especially the green version, grows well in low lighting and produces a thick jungle 4-6” tall in most tanks.

The lower can be handled with plants like Anubias sp. or one of the various species of Java Fern. Your only other real option is to use Dwarf Saggitaria, which grows decently in low lighting but will still end up sparse.

The important thing is to make sure there’s enough extra cover in all three zones. The floating and low plants are the most important, so cover those and you’ll find that an option for populating parts of the middle of the water column will be much easier.

Caves

Having a cave is an important part of keeping one of these fish since it allows them somewhere to retreat when they don’t want any interaction. It’s doubly important if you’re planning on keeping the fish in a community tank.

You can dig out a spot underneath a rock or piece of driftwood. It’ll need to be quite long since these fish reach a large size. I prefer other ways to create caves for any fish larger than a couple of inches since substrates can shift and collapse the cave. Which can take your fish with it if you’re unlucky.

Instead, try using a piece of PVC piping. A 12” length of 3” PVC pipe is suitable for most, although you may want to make it larger. Hide the cave during the setup process by stacking substrate and hardscape elements over it.

You can’t use clear tubing, unlike when you have a fish like a Black Ghost Knife, since they’re not actually blind. You’ll just have to deal with not being able to see the fish for some part of the day until it’s well acquainted with its new home.

Regardless of the method, you should make some effort to establish a personal cave for the Elephant Nose Fish. Counterintuitively it will actually let you view the fish more during the day, since it has somewhere to retreat, and it will keep down stress on the fish overall.

Substrate and Lighting

The substrate of the tank needs to be soft. I don’t recommend going for a low-tech approach (ie: play sand layered over potting soil) with these fish if you want to root plants in the substrate. Instead, buy purpose-made nutritious sand or simply use root tab fertilizers generously to give the plant what it needs.

A harsh substrate can damage the fish’s sensitive “trunk.”

Lighting should be on the lower end of the scale, even if you have a lot of plants. If you buy a tank kit the stock light for a 55-gallon or larger tank is usually in the right range. Something under 1W/gallon or roughly 60 Lumens/gallon should put you in the right spot.

Brighter lighting should be mitigated with a lot of floating plants, but it’s generally easier to just use a weaker light in the first place.

Cycling Instructions

You cannot place an Elephant Nose Fish in an uncycled aquarium.

You just… can’t. The fish will die as soon as ammonia begins to make its way into the water column from rotting food and waste matter. They’re notoriously sensitive in this regard, even a hint of nitrites or ammonia can kill them.

Likewise, you want lower nitrates. Anywhere underneath 15ppm is good, but <10ppm is what I would shoot for. This allows you a bit of wiggle room to catch things before they get out of hand in case something happens.

Cycling a tank is easy enough:

  1. Set up the tank as normal, including substrate, hardscape, caves, plants, and equipment.
  2. Add a pinch of food daily.
  3. Test for ammonia. It should show up after 2-3 days. Continue to test daily until the water no longer reads positive for it.
  4. Begin testing for nitrite, which should appear after another 3-5 days.
  5. When nitrite is no longer showing up, it’s time to switch to nitrate testing.
  6. Continue testing for nitrates until they’re in an acceptable range, ideally less than 10ppm.
  7. When nitrates are acceptable add the Elephant Nose Fish.

This makes sure that your bacterial population is already established and ready to begin processing the fish’s waste.

You should always add fish incrementally, but I advise going even slower when an Elephant Nose Fish is present in the tank. 4-6” of fish per week is about the maximum I recommend. Don’t “eyeball it” with an Elephant Nose in the tank, begin testing for ammonia again to ensure there’s no spike in water conditions.

If you’re having trouble wrangling your nitrates then you should check your municipal water supply. If that’s fine, then you may want to add more plants to the tank to help soak up the nitrates.

You don’t stop testing their water just because you’re done cycling. Continue to test for nitrates regularly and take action when they reach above an acceptable parameter.

Specialized Care Requirements

The Elephant Nose Fish requires a bit of specialized care, but nothing which should put an experienced aquarium keeper off-balance for long. Be careful of the following things and the fish will thrive.

Water Changes Aren’t Optional

Water changes can become somewhat optional in many tanks. In established tanks, I’ll often let them go as long as the nitrates in the tank are low enough. It’s laziness in any case, but it can be fatal for sensitive fish in the long run.

You should be doing at least a 25% water change weekly. This helps ensure the mineral balance in the water and removes some portion of nitrates from the water column, allowing you to keep the water cleaner.

Don’t top off the water with tap water either, this can result in the water becoming harder over time as more and more minerals end up dissolved. While this is rarely a problem, we want to maintain constant conditions for these fish, and altering water hardness isn’t a great idea.

The key is just to maintain consistent water changes and to test the water a couple of times per week.

Slower Acclimation

I’m not a terrible stickler for drip acclimation with most fish. I’ve found floating the bag to work just fine as long as the fish was healthy initially.

In this case, we want to do a slower drip acclimation process. It’s not necessarily the conditions of the water that can kill these fish, but the shock of rapid changes. Unless your LFS has water identical to your own the best way to stop them from being harmed is a slow drip.

There are kits pre-made for this but they’re not too hard to rig at home. The second method located here is an ideal way to ensure no harm comes to the fish when you place them in the water.

Feeding Time

You may end up having to raise live food if you decide to keep one of these fish. I wouldn’t be surprised if the most common fate of those in captivity is starvation, not because people are neglectful but simply because they don’t know what to feed them.

Live brine shrimp and/or bloodworms are the ideal food to introduce them to. Since they’re all wild-caught fish they may not ever accept frozen or flake foods.

Raising brine shrimp is easy and the cleaner option of the two. Most worms are a little bit more complicated and die-offs can cause horrific smells in no time. There are some tips and tricks to maintaining the colony long-term that you can try out.

You may want to see if your fish will accept frozen foods or pellets as well since these will simplify dietary issues. Just don’t expect it, I recommend having some food ready to go by the time you introduce the fish to the tank.

This is the most common cause of problems that I’ve seen, at least among those who understand the importance of clean water to the Elephant Nose Fish’s health. There is one way to make this easier on yourself.

Choose the Right Fish From the Right Shop

While Elephant Nose Fish aren’t the most common specimen, you’ll see them in shops occasionally. Like any fish, you’ll want to do your own assessment when viewing them. You may need to go a bit further than normal.

The following observations and questions will all help you select a fish that will survive in the long term:

  • Skinny fish aren’t eating. This may be due to stress for new fish, or even just the shop not knowing what to feed them. Make sure to ask questions about what they’re being fed.
  • Ask to see the fish fed if the fish are skinny and supposedly taking food. Some fish may be far enough along into starvation that they’ll stop eating entirely and may be impossible to coax back to health.
  • Check for any sort of fin rot or other evidence of illness like normal. I will sometimes ignore minor cases with other fish but do not buy an Elephant Nose Fish that shows any sign of illness.
  • Check thoroughly for ich. In both the Elephant Nose Fish’s tank and any surrounding tanks using the same water system. You won’t be able to use the normal cures on a tank with Elephant Nose Fish inside.

If you check on the above the specimen should be fine in the long run, but it’s best to be certain when you get them.

Medications and Salt

Medications and salt are both big problems for the Elephant Nose Fish. Elephant Noses do not tolerate salt well, which makes curing some diseases (ie: ich) much more difficult. 

For even more fun, they’re also very sensitive to many of the common fish medications so keeping them alive when they’re sick can be dicey.

The best way to avoid problems is to not let them get sick in the first place.

After that, you’ll have to look into medications individually. Most medications that are meant for scaleless fish should work fine with an Elephant Nose. 

There’s a lot of hit-and-miss here, but the good news for those who are research-literate is that there are a number of papers studying these fish due to their electrolocation abilities.

Suitable Tankmates

Suitable tankmates for these fish are pretty easy as long as you avoid two big mistakes that most people make with them.

  1. Do not keep these fish with other electric fish like Black Ghost Knives. They’ll interfere with each other and they may become aggressive.
  2. Do not keep these fish in pairs or trios, if you want to keep a group you’ll need at least 5 and a tank over 225 gallons.

The latter point has led many people to assume these fish are solitary since they’ll inevitably kill each other if there are only two or three in a tank. Most people keep them as a single specimen per tank, the size requirements are rather prohibitive if you want to keep a school.

I recommend keeping them as a planted tank’s feature animal, with a school of Neon Tetra, Cherry Barbs, or another peaceful schooling fish. While the size disparity is large the mouth of the Elephant Nose is small enough it rarely poses a threat to these small fish.

Members of their own species aside, these fish are very non-aggressive most of the day. They can get excited during feedings and may push other fish out of the way.

It’s also important to be aware of which fish use their own electrical systems to find prey or stun prey. This includes the following:

  • Electric Eel
  • Arowana
  • African Knifefish
  • Electric Catfish

The electrical clashing of these fish isn’t to anyone’s benefit and will result in the fish attacking each other in most cases. You may want to double-check that any new species doesn’t have any sort of passive electrolocation either. A good example is the Glass Catfish, which can detect electrical fields and will find any stay with an Elephant Nose Fish a bit disconcerting.

Larger, aggressive fish shouldn’t share a tank with these fish. These include the big predators like Piranha and less high-profile examples like the various species of cichlid kept in tanks.

I would avoid housing them with any other oddball as well. Things like bichir and eels are amazing creatures, but you may run into problems when they’re kept together.

And, of course, these guys will munch on any freshwater shrimp they can find in the tank and fit in their mouths. That includes Cherry Shrimp and Red Crystal Shrimp, both of which will end up as prey animals.

That still leaves us with a long list of showpiece fish that are suitable for shared housing such as gourami or angelfish. Discus are incompatible, unfortunately, due to the fact that they require acidic water to thrive.

For the most part, smaller schooling fish are the best companions. You can even use some of the more aggressive species such as Tiger Barbs since the Elephant Nose Fish reaches a large enough size they’ll be unable to do any damage.

Quarantine All Tankmates

Since these fish don’t tolerate salt and may require specialized medicines, you want to minimize the risk of introducing any sort of disease into the tank.

Quarantine all tank mates for 7-14 days in a cycled tank before moving them into the main tank. Quarantining is another one of those common-sense threat mitigation factors that experienced fishkeepers are often tempted to ignore.

In this case? Quarantine all new fish and invertebrates in another tank before you add them. It’s not a bad idea to consider throwing your plants in there for a week or so either. Plants often host small creatures that can be carriers for bacteria and parasites.

It is much better to be safe than sorry in this case.

Breeding Elephant Nose Fish

Breeding these fish in captivity just doesn’t seem to be a thing. In the wild, these fish exist in very large groups with wide territories. Combined with their incredible brainpower and electric senses we’re not even sure what variables would need to be adjusted to begin working in that direction.

In addition to the variables, these fish are indistinguishable by sex and fight amongst themselves readily in smaller groups.

It appears, based on a few studies, that sexing these fish can be done by reading the electrical impulses that they put into the water. It’s not something most people are going to be doing at home since it requires specialized equipment.

The only other way to sex them is through a post-mortem dissection to discover the gonads. You can’t breed dead fish, so sexing them that way is a non-starter for breeding purposes. The bottom line is that there we’re not even sure what we don’t know about triggering breeding in the Elephant Nose Fish.

Breeding in captivity just doesn’t appear to happen, which means we’re missing something considering they’ve been kept in captivity for so long.

Big Brains Need Clean Water

The main obstacle to keeping an Elephant Nose Fish healthy is water quality, with the secondary one being food. If you can surmount these obstacles then you’re likely to be able to enjoy these fish for their full lifespan, but it’s not something to be taken lightly. These are intelligent, sensitive animals and I advise against keeping them unless you’re 100% sure you can meet their requirements.

So, what’s your game plan before you bring your Elephant Nose Fish home?