The Mysterious African Leaf Fish

The African leaf fish is a unique species not often seen in the hobby.

Generally, it is only dedicated enthusiasts that dare to keep this fish. As a result, only a few are able to enjoy its fascinating hunting style and natural behaviors.

African Spotted Leaf Fish

Despite not being commonly kept, this fish has caused a bit of a conundrum in the fishkeeping community.

The African leaf fish (Polycentropsis abbreviata) was originally placed in the family Nandidae, but some have more recently argued that it belongs to the Polycentridae family.

This is not the only confusion surrounding this fish.

It’s specific requirements and natural behaviors make it hard to successfully keep in captivity. Because of this, there is much about the African leaf fish that remains unknown.


The African leaf fish looks like it sounds: a dead leaf.

It is vaguely oval-shaped with a more pointed head and tail. It is a dull brown with lighter and darker brown and black spots, which may be irregular or form a marbled pattern.

There are dark bands or stripes that run from the base of its head through its eye area to its dorsal fin. Several of its fins, including the anal and caudal fins, are transparent.

It can grow up to 3 inches and has a reported lifespan of up to 10 years, if well cared for.

Its appearance and hunting style causes it to sometimes be confused with the leopard bush fish which has a brighter, more distinctive spotted coloring.

It can be difficult to sex this fish, though females reported have a convex ventral line, whereas males have straight ventral lines.

Some keepers have also said that females take on a lighter patterning during mating season.

However, due to the rarity of this fish in the hobby, neither of these sexing methods is entirely reliable.

Natural Behavior and Origin

As its name suggests, the African leaf fish can be found in West and Central Africa, most commonly in Cameroon, Benin, Gabon, and Nigeria.

This freshwater fish prefers slow-moving waters with plenty of submerged vegetation, such as warm pools, swamps, creeks, and rivers.

When stalking prey, this fish uses its physical appearance to trick others into thinking it’s simply a dead leaf. This illusion is aided by its stalking pattern and surroundings.

The African leaf fish stalks with its head down. It appears to “drift” along in the current with the other fallen vegetation, slowly moving closer to its target.

But this pattern is anything but random: this fish uses its transparent fins to strategically direct it.

Finally, when it’s within striking distance of prey, the African leaf fish’s mouth protrudes outward. This creates a tube through which it sucks the unsuspecting morsel. It swallows the prey whole, usually head-first, and happens in a split-second.

This predatory nature is often mistaken for aggression, but this is a misrepresentation of the African leaf fish.

This species is not hostile towards other fish, but rather an opportunistic feeder.

When faced with a larger fish, they will often keep to themselves.

Water Parameters and Aquarium Equipment

Part of the difficulty of keeping these fish is their sensitivity to water parameters and their natural habitat.

The former may be easy to maintain, but the latter can be difficult to successfully mimic:

  • pH levels – soft and acidic water is preferred, so a pH range of 6.06.5 is acceptable.
  • dGH levels – can accept a range of general hardness in the water, ranging from 110 dGH.
  • Temperature – prefers temperatures between 7988°F, which is warm even for some tropical species.

The predatory nature of these African leaf fish and the amount of space they naturally traverse means that they should be kept in a minimum of 30 gallons.

However, as with most fish, more is always better. To finish setting up your tank, make sure you have the equipment below.

  • Filtration: Filters should meet two main criteria: they should not create a strong current but should be powerful enough to deal with the bioload and feeding schedule of these fish. Bio-wheel filters are a popular option among African leaf fish keepers.
  • Lighting: Since these fish prefer dim lighting but also like heavy vegetation, keepers should be prepared to invest in quality lighting that has adjustable RGB or low-light options. 4500K LED lights with a built-in 24-hour cycle are recommended.
  • Plants: Live plants are not required but are preferred by this species. African leaf fish like some open swimming space, but aren’t confident unless they have ample cover both within and at the surface of the tank.

Tank Mates

This fish has been known to snack on smaller companions and slow-moving fish that it can fit in its mouth. Because of that, it’s not recommended for most community tanks.

However, it does well in species-only tanks and tanks that only house larger, peaceful species.

Some other fish that aquarists have reported success with include:

Though it is not a schooling fish, it does seem to get along well with members of its own species.

It is by no means sociable, but neither is it aggressive. For aquarists that want more than one fish, this may be a safer option.

Food and Diet

Unlike many commercially-available fish, the African leaf fish is almost exclusively carnivorous.

This fish’s diet is further complicated by its high preference for live food items. Though it can be tempted to eat dead foods (such as frozen items), it is difficult and the food must be moving through the water column.

Some common foods that keepers have experienced great success with include:

Unwitting inhabitants in community tanks may also become dinner for the African leaf fish, who has been known to prey on other fish. If it’s the same size or smaller, it may be in danger.

Even consistent feedings may not curb the appetite of this species.

Reproduction in Captivity

Breeding and reproduction have been rarely achieved in captivity.

It can reportedly be induced to breed by doing the following:

  • Introducing heavy vegetation around the surface
  • Lowering the water less than ten inches
  • Keeping the temperature above 80°F
  • Ensuring the tank is dimly lit at all times

Pairing the fish off and providing twice as many meals has also allegedly increased the chances of reproductive success.

The males of this fish species build a bubble nest when ready to spawn, anchoring it among the surface vegetation in the densest areas. After successful mating, more than 100 eggs may be placed in the nest for safekeeping.

Eggs hatch within 72 hours, at which point the adults should be removed. Like their parents, the fry prefer live foods such as brine shrimp nauplii.

Fry are very sensitive to water parameters and light, and so the breeding tank should be kept dimly lit and undergo cleaning often.

Considering the African Leaf Fish?

Because of its predatory nature and sensitivity to water parameters, this fish is not recommended for beginners.

Instead, only more experienced keepers should buy this fish, and only if they’re prepared to invest the time and maintenance required.

Aquarists should also be warned that, while this fish has been kept successfully in community tanks, individuals may be too aggressive and require a separate enclosure.

This fish is a rarity in the fishkeeping hobby and not often seen in commercial tanks.

But for those enthusiasts who can appreciate the beauty and ferocity of this fish, the African leaf fish is a delight to behold.