African Leaf Fish

The African leaf fish, known by its scientific name Polycentropsis abbreviata, is a freshwater species native to still and slow-moving waters across parts of Africa. This fish gets its common name from its laterally compressed body and long, leaf-shaped fins that allow it to hide among plants and debris. The African leaf fish has a peaceful temperament and makes a unique addition to a community aquarium with good water quality and plenty of hiding places.

Understanding the natural history and care needs of the African leaf fish is important for fishkeepers looking to add this species to their collection. Key aspects of its care include recreating its habitat’s soft, acidic water conditions, offering plenty of live foods, and providing a well-planted tank with hiding spots and subdued lighting. With the right aquarium set-up and care regimen, the African leaf fish can thrive for over 10 years in captivity. This guide covers everything you need to know about keeping healthy, long-lived specimens of this fascinating fish.

African Leaf Fish

Scientific Classification and Names

The African leaf fish belongs to the family Polycentridae and has the scientific name Polycentropsis abbreviata. This species was first described in 1881 by the German ichthyologist Albert Günther.

Some common names for this fish include:

  • African leaf fish
  • Spotted African leaf fish
  • Bush fish
  • African butterfly fish
  • Shortfin African leaffish

Regionally, this species may also be called Chameleón in Mexico and Pez Hoja Africano in parts of South America. The African leaf fish lacks official subspecies but does have a few geographic color variations.

Natural Habitat

In the wild, the African leaf fish inhabits slow-moving rivers, streams, swamps, and pools across parts of tropical West and Central Africa. Its native range extends from Liberia east to Nigeria and south to Angola.

This fish prefers heavily vegetated waters with submerged tree roots, leaf litter, and other organic debris that it can use as cover. Water conditions are generally soft, acidic, and stained with tannins from decomposing plant material. African leaf fish may inhabit waters with the following parameters:

  • Temperature: 22–26°C / 72–79°F
  • pH: 5.5–7.2
  • Water Hardness: 1–8 dGH

Areas with dense aquatic plants like hornwort, watersprite, and floating plants help provide the shaded conditions and security that African leaf fish need. Their natural habitat also contains insects, small fish, and other potential prey.

Physical Characteristics

The African leaf fish has several specialized physical adaptations that allow it to camouflage itself among submerged leaves and plants.

Leaf-Like Appearance

This species notably has an extremely flattened, oval-shaped body and long fins resembling leaves. Its pectoral, dorsal, and anal fins are extended and pointed for maximum camouflage. The African leaf fish’s green to brown coloration with small dark spots adds to its plant-like appearance. It can change colors slightly to match its surroundings better.


In the aquarium, African leaf fish typically reach about 4 inches (10 cm) long but can potentially grow to 6 inches (15 cm) or more. Fish from Nigeria and Cameroon often stay under 3 inches.

Diet and Feeding

The African leaf fish is a voracious predator that will eat a variety of live foods. In the wild, it feeds on small fish, insect larvae, brine shrimp, worms, crustaceans and other meaty foods that it can swallow whole. Replicating this diverse diet in captivity is important.

Feeding Schedule

  • Feed adults 1-2 times per day and juveniles 2-3 times daily.
  • Provide a variety of live, frozen, freeze-dried, and prepared foods. Good options include bloodworms, brine shrimp, daphnia, glassworms, crickets, small fish, and high quality pellets or flakes.
  • Give only food that the fish can consume within 2-3 minutes. Uneaten food should be removed to avoid water fouling.

This fish may initially ignore non-living foods but can often be weaned onto frozen and prepared items like Mysis shrimp and spirulina pellets. Use care when introducing new foods and monitor for signs of illness. Overfeeding can lead to health issues in African leaf fish.

Tank Requirements

Recreating the African leaf fish’s natural environment is key to maintaining it in captivity. This includes using soft, acidic water, providing ample hiding spots, and keeping tankmates that won’t intimidate this shy species.

Tank Size

For a single African leaf fish, a minimum 20 gallon aquarium is recommended. However, given this fish’s shy nature, a larger tank is preferable. A 40 gallon breeder aquarium or larger is ideal to provide ample territory and hiding places.

Water Conditions

  • Temperature: 73–79°F
  • pH: 5.5–7.0
  • Water Hardness: 2–8 dGH
  • Filtration: Standard hang-on-back filter or canister filter

Maintain water parameters using peat, driftwood, ketapang leaves, or RO water. Perform partial water changes of 25-30% weekly or biweekly to replenish minerals and reduce nitrates. Strong water movement should be avoided.

Tank Setup

African leaf fish need a heavily planted aquarium with plenty of hiding spots. Provide a fine, sandy substrate and include:

  • Driftwood
  • Rock caves
  • Dense plants like java moss, hornwort, and Amazon swordplants
  • Floating plants
  • Dim lighting

Leaves from oak, beech, almond, or ketapang trees can help mimic natural conditions while releasing beneficial tannins. Keep tank decor minimal for unobstructed swimming room.

Tank Mates

The African leaf fish can be combined with certain tropical community fish in a peaceful aquarium with careful selection. Avoid aggressive species that may intimidate it.

Compatible Tank Mates

Some suitable tank mates include:

  • Small tetras like cardinal, rummynose
  • Rainbowfish
  • Dwarf cichlids like rams, apistogramma
  • Corydoras catfish
  • Otocinclus catfish
  • African butterfly fish
  • Hatchetfish

Maintain schools of 6+ small fish to disperse aggression. Include lots of broken sightlines and plant cover. Monitor all new additions carefully.

Incompatible Tank Mates

Avoid keeping African leaf fish with:

  • Large or predatory cichlids
  • Goldfish
  • Crayfish
  • Shrimp
  • Plecos and other armored catfish
  • Barbs
  • Bala sharks
  • Arowana

Any fish that may view the African leaf fish as prey should be avoided. Introduce tankmates cautiously and have backup housing available.

Health and Lifespan

The African leaf fish is generally hardy but requires pristine water conditions. With high-quality care, this species can live over 10 years in captivity.

Common Health Issues

Potential health issues to watch for include:

  • Ich – Caused by the parasite Ichthyophthirius multifiliis
  • Fungal infections – Often brought about by poor water quality
  • Bloating and constipation – From overfeeding and improper diet
  • Popeye – Swelling of the eyes associated with bacterial infections

Quarantine new leaf fish and use preventive measures like routine water changes, varied diet, and aquarium salt baths as needed.


The average lifespan of the African leaf fish is 8-10 years. Some accounts exist of fish living over 12 years in optimal aquarium conditions. Their lifespan is largely dependent on habitat quality and diet.


Breeding the African leaf fish can be challenging but is possible given perfect conditions. No distinct differences exist between males and females. Use the following breeding guidelines if you wish to attempt to spawn this species:

  • Condition a breeding pair with live foods like bloodworms. Perform large weekly water changes.
  • Trigger spawning by doing a sizable (60-70%) water change using soft, acidic water between 72–75°F.
  • Provide a spawning mop or plenty of fine-leaved plants as spawn sites.
  • Eggs will be scattered among the plants and guarded by the male. Remove adults after spawning.
  • Hatching occurs in 3 days. The tiny fry can be fed infusoria, egg yolk, or powdered fry foods.

The parents should be conditioned heavily and spawned in a separate 20-30 gallon aquarium. All water parameters must be pristine to achieve spawning success. Raising the fry is challenging due to their small size but can be accomplished by dedicated aquarists.

Price and Availability

The African leaf fish has become more readily available in the aquarium trade but still carries a moderate price tag. Expect to pay the following:

  • African Leaf Fish Price Range: $20-$45
  • Average Price: $30

Juveniles are sometimes available and cost $15-25. Availability fluctuates seasonally, with these fish more commonly offered in summer months.

Purchase African leaf fish from specialty aquarium stores or reputable online retailers like:


Check fish closely for signs of disease and only buy from dealers with good customer reviews. Ask about the locality of wild caught specimens. Farm bred leaf fish tend to adapt better to aquariums.

Comparisons with Similar Species

The African leaf fish belongs to a unique family of fish but does share some similarities with a few comparable species.

Leopard Ctenopoma vs. African Leaf Fish

The leopard ctenopoma (Ctenopoma acutirostre) and African leaf fish have elongated, flattened bodies for camouflage among vegetation. However, the leopard ctenopoma gets significantly larger, reaching 8-10 inches long. It also has a more spotted pattern than the African leaf fish’s reticulated design. Both require soft, acidic water but African leaf fish are the more delicate.

Silver Dollar and Killifish Tank Mates

Silver dollar fish like the redhook silver dollar (Mylossoma duriventre) work well with African leaf fish given their similar water requirements. Most small killifish in the genera Nothobranchius and Fundulopanchax make suitable, non-aggressive tankmates. Other comparable choices are freshwater butterflyfish and hatchetfish. When selecting tankmates, avoid fin nippers and aggressive fish.

Frequently Asked Questions

How big do African bush fish get?

In home aquariums, African leaf fish typically reach about 4 inches (10 cm) long but can potentially grow to 6 inches (15 cm) given ideal conditions. Fish from some areas stay under 3 inches.

What is the name of the African leaf fish?

The African leaf fish goes by a few common names but its scientific name is Polycentropsis abbreviata.


With its leaf-shaped fins and incredible camouflage abilities, the African leaf fish is a unique addition to a peaceful community aquarium. This fish can thrive by replicating the soft, acidic water and plant-filled environment of its natural habitat. Be sure to provide plenty of hiding places, live foods, and compatible tankmates for your African leaf fish. Following the care guidelines covered in this guide will lead to a healthy, long-lived fish that retains its exotic appearance. The African leaf fish remains a cherished, if challenging, species for the advanced aquarist.