Elephant nose fish are one of the classic ‘oddball fish’ of the aquarium trade. Hailing from the murky waters of African rivers, they use electrical signals and their iconic long ‘nose’ to navigate, find food, and communicate.
But be warned that elephant noses are very intelligent fish with highly specialized requirements. Their tank mates, tank setup, and feeding regime all need crafting very carefully, meaning this a fish for the highly experienced fish keeper only!
Elephant Nose Fish at a Glance
|Elephant Nose Fish Info
|Gnathonemus petersii, Gnathonemus brevicaudatus, G. histrio, Mormyrus petersii
|Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Zambia.
|Maximum Size in Aquarium:
|76°F to 82°F
|PH: 6.0-7.5 / dGH: 5 -18 degrees
|Territorial but fairly peaceful with other fish
|Medium to large, peaceful, surface and mid-layer fish
|10 years+ possible when happy
|Frozen and live foods
|Never bred in captivity
Origin and Background
Elephant nose fish (aka. long-nosed elephant fish, Peter’s elephant nose fish) is perhaps the best-known member of the Mormyridae family – the freshwater elephantfish family.
Members of this African family are famous for charging the water with electric signals to locate their prey and one another amidst muddy water. They also have one of the largest brain-to-body ratios of any animal, making them highly intelligent fish.
Some members of the family, like the elephant nose fish, also have a long extension to the bottom jaw, assisting the fish to probe for and electro-locate their prey.
The elephant nose fish is the best-known aquarium species from the family, partly because they grow to a smaller size than many of their relatives.
Size and Appearance
Elephant noses are extraordinary-looking fish! Their iconic ‘trunk’ makes it obvious how they got their name, but this is more akin to a long bottom lip in reality.
Elephant noses can be brown, black, or dark purple in color with two white bands radiating down from their dorsal fins. Their laterally compressed bodies are scaleless, and their dorsal fin is located opposite their anal fin, giving them a very singular shape.
In their natural habitat, elephant nose fish can reach 10 inches long, but in aquariums, they normally only grow to 6-8 inches in length.
Elephant Nose Fish Care Guide
Because they’re fairly large, territorial fish, elephant noses need a large aquarium. While some guides suggest a 50-gallon tank is large enough, I’d urge you to go for at least a 90-gallon tank for a single fish.
To keep a school of 6 elephant fish peacefully, you’d need a huge aquarium of 300 gallons or more.
Elephant noses in aquarium stores always come from the wild, so for them to feel at home, you must try to recreate their natural environment in the fish tank as closely as possible.
Firstly, elephant noses are naturally bottom feeders that like to dig their ‘trunks’ into sandy or silty substrates in search of food. Therefore, it’s essential to provide them with aquarium sand so they can do the same in your aquarium. Gravel is simply not an option, as the rough texture could damage their sensitive, scaleless bodies.
Secondly, elephant noses come from African rivers that are crammed full of aquatic plants, caves, and abundant hiding places. These nocturnal fish rely on hiding spots to shield them from the bright lights of the day, so plenty of rocky caves, tangled pieces of driftwood, and dense aquarium plants will work wonders to help them feel at home.
Because they come from murky water that is full of plants, elephant noses are accustomed to dim lighting and may find bright lighting quite stressful.
Try then, to choose an aquarium light that’s not too bright or use floating plants such as Amazon frogbit or water sprite to create a dappled shading effect.
Because they’re chiefly nocturnal fish, you might not see a lot of your elephant nose fish while the main aquarium lights are on.
But some crafty fish keepers have found an elegant way to observe nocturnal fish each evening. By choosing tank lighting that can be adjusted to a ‘blue moon light’ setting, you can create conditions where it’s dark enough for your fish to come out, but light enough to observe them clearly.
Elephant Nose Fish are tropical fish that require a reliable aquarium heater. They prefer water temperatures from 76-82°F – a similar range to many tropical species.
Like most fish, elephant nose fish are sensitive to sudden changes in water temperature, so acclimatizing them properly in a new tank is essential to avoid thermal shock.
It’s normally advised to keep elephant noses in soft, acidic water.
However, I’ve also read reports of people keeping them successfully in alkaline water. Because these fish have a large native range, it may depend on the water chemistry where they were caught.
Since it’s difficult to determine where your particular elephant nose fish came from, I’d advise keeping them in water that’s close to neutral. Aim for a pH between 6.2 – 7.5 and a hardness of between 5-18 dGH.
Elephant noses demand high-quality water conditions, so a reliable, efficient aquarium filter for a larger tank is essential.
Only the most powerful hang-on-back filters and internal power filters are strong enough to clean a 90-gallon tank. Your other option is a canister filter, the Rolls-Royce of aquarium filters.
Take care, however, not to overwhelm elephant noses with a very strong current. Some filters allow you to manually adjust the flow rate. On other models, you can reduce the water current by using an aquarium spray bar, or lily pipe.
One of the most crucial care aspects for elephant nose fish is their feeding regime. Sadly many elephant noses have died because they weren’t fed properly, so here are some well-researched tips on what to feed them, and how:
Don’t Feed Elephant Nose Fish Flake Foods and Fish Pellets!
Because the elephant noses you find in the shops always come from wild stocks, they’re less domesticated than fish species that are raised in captivity.
This means that elephant noses may not recognize commercial fish foods as food at all, and simply ignore them. Some have even starved to death because they simply didn’t see dried foods as something they could eat.
Although they may eventually learn to accept flake foods and fish pellets, you’ll need to begin by feeding your elephant noses with live foods. If they’ll accept them, frozen foods can be offered, too.
Meaty foods such as tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, and mosquito larvae are all good choices, and some aquarists have reported that their elephant noses especially relish bloodworms! Try to diversify their diet to ensure they’re getting a balanced range of nutrients.
Elephant Nose Fish May Need Target Feeding!
The other issue with feeding elephant nose fish is that they’re incredibly slow to find food compared to other fish. In a community tank, their tank mates will usually demolish the food before the elephant noses have even realized it’s feeding time.
Neale Monks, a specialist fish-keeping guru, outlines these three strategies for feeding them effectively:
- Avoid keeping elephant noses with other bottom feeders, such as loaches and catfish, since they’ll always find the food and eat it first. Instead, choose surface feeders and mid-water feeding tank mates.
- If you don’t have any other nocturnal fish, you could try feeding after the aquarium lights go out. With your other fish resting, the food has a better chance of reaching the bottom of the tank where your elephant noses will find it.
- If this doesn’t work, try target-feeding your elephant noses with a turkey baster. Deposit the food right in front of them or in front of their cave. If they don’t accept frozen foods, you’ll have to give them live foods.
Should You Keep Elephant Nose Fish Alone or in a School?
Unless you have an enormous fish tank, elephant noses need to be kept alone. Although in the wild they’re schooling fish, the confines of an aquarium make them highly territorial.
If they’re kept in groups of less than six individuals, the strongest member of the group will bully and often kill the weaker members. In groups of 6 or more, the aggression is dispersed, but they’ll still need a 300-gallon aquarium in order for each fish to assert its own hiding place.
Because they’re highly intelligent, social fish, some people consider keeping them alone to be cruel – an important point to contemplate before you buy one.
Compatible Tank Mates
Although they’re fairly aggressive towards one another, elephant noses are usually more peaceful with other species of aquarium fish.
Still, you need to avoid tank mates like loaches and catfish that will compete for territories and food at the bottom of the tank. Tiny or delicate tank mates like neon tetra, guppies, and betta fish are also unsuitable as they could get attacked or eaten.
Robust mid-water and surface-dwelling species like gouramis, barbs, rainbow fish, and relatively peaceful cichlids like angelfish and severums are good choices.
Larger tetras, rasboras, and danios like congo tetra, black skirt tetra, bleeding heart tetra, scissortail rasboras, and giant danios are all good schooling fish to keep with them, too.
Health and Disease
Elephant nose fish need to be kept in excellent water quality to avoid them getting sick. These fish are very sensitive to ammonia and nitrite spikes and need regular water changes to keep them in good health.
Because elephant noses are classed as ‘scaleless fish,’ they can be especially susceptible to skin infections. If water quality plummets, elephant noses are prone to many of the same ailments affecting other fish.
Ich, velvet, and flukes are all common parasitic diseases that can lie dormant in an aquarium for years until a weakened fish or very poor water quality offers them a chance to strike.
Similarly, bacterial and fungal infections like columnaris and water molds only tend to affect fish that are already in a vulnerable state.
It’s especially critical to avoid such infections with elephant noses because they seem to be extremely averse to most medications. Neale Monks advises that most standard medications that contain things like copper and formalin will kill them.
If you do need to medicate your tank, ask for medications that are safe for the mormyrid family, or medicines that are safe for reef invertebrates and stingrays since they’re similar in sensitivity.
As a vulnerable species, some aquarists choose to run the water through a UV sterilizer to help kill pathogens and reduce the chances of needing medication.
Elephant noses are very difficult, if not impossible, to sex by their external appearance. While some scientists have postulated that the electrical waveforms emitted by these fish differ between males and females, a study from the UK in 1985 found no such evidence.
In 2005, another scientific study published in the International Journal of Fish Biology found a more reliable way to sex elephant noses was to compare their structures on a radiograph. According to their findings, male elephant nose fish exhibit an “anal-fin ray bone expansion” which is lacking in females.
Sadly, for the average home aquarist, it remains near impossible to tell male and female elephant nose fish apart!
Elephant noses have never been bred in captivity, and aquarium enthusiasts are still trying to understand why.
One explanation is that the electrical organ that elephant noses use during courtship works very differently within an aquarium, preventing them from coupling and mating.
When they’re well-looked after, elephant noses are renowned for living long lives. Advanced aquarists often achieve lifespans of 10 years with these fish, and I’ve read reports from fish keepers of elephant fish that are 18 years old!
Sadly, a large number of elephant noses die prematurely at the hands of ill-experienced fish keepers who bought the fish out of curiosity.
To reach a decent lifespan, their diet, water quality, and quality of care must all be of the highest order.
Elephant Nose Fish Tank Maintenance
Some top tips for keeping your elephant nose fish in tip-top condition!
- Get yourself an efficient aquarium filter and clean it every 2-3 weeks.
- Vacuum your substrate and make partial water changes of 20-35% every 1-2 weeks, with treated water of matching temperature.
- Get yourself a reliable heater and thermometer. Make daily checks to ensure the temperature is within the ideal range for all of your fish.
- Observe your fish closely every day to ensure they are in good health and interacting peacefully with each other.
- Test your aquarium’s water every two weeks, or any time your fish seem unwell.
As previously mentioned, elephant nose fish aren’t bred in captivity but are harvested from the wild.
After a long and perhaps traumatic voyage from Africa, they may be stressed and suffering from a weakened immune system.
Be careful, therefore, to only buy elephant nose fish that look active and healthy, with bright eyes and shiny-looking bodies and fins. If you’re buying from an online store, always choose a reputable merchant with robust reviews.
Because they’re highly intelligent fish that can live a long time, always think long and hard before buying an elephant nose. These fish may be fascinating, but they’re also very tricky to keep and should be left to committed, advanced fish keepers only.
Prices for elephant nose fish vary wildly from anything between $10-70 in 2023.
- The electroreceptors that receive electrical impulses are distributed throughout the elephant nose’s body – including their ‘trunk.’
- Elephant nose fish are one of the few animals to have a higher brain-to-body ratio than humans. Using around 60% of their total energy to fuel their brains, they have the highest brain energy consumption of any known animal on earth!
Elephant nose fish are surely one of the most fascinating freshwater fish in the world. It’s important to realize, however, that they’re also one of the most challenging fish to keep.
Far too many of these intelligent, social fish die prematurely at the hands of inexperienced fish keepers, so make sure you have the high-level knowledge and commitment that you need before buying one.