Chitala chitala

Common Names: Clown knifefish, clown featherback

Type Locality: Bengal River and Bebar River, India

Range: India: Indus, Ganges-Brahmaputra, and Mahanadi drainages. Reports from other Asian areas suspected of being congener species.

Taxonomic Troubles: Originally described as Mystus chitala, later Notopterus chitala, and N. notopterus. Often confused with Chitala ornata and C. lopis. Aquarium literature interchanges these names frequently, and although aquarists can easily recognize this fish, its act

Size: 122 cm (48 inches)

Preferred Water Chemistry: Freshwater. Tropical. Temperature 24 to 28 degrees Celsius (75 to 83 degrees Fahrenheit), pH 6.0 to 8.0, soft to hard, 70 to 350 ppm. Does best at higher temperatures.

Difficulty: Must have gigantic aquarium to accommodate 4-foot adult size, otherwise of moderate difficulty, mainly due to feeding problems.

Tank Setup: The idea is a single specimen tank. Nocturnal, so caves or similar cover are necessary for the fish to feel secure. Only very young specimens are compatible with conspecifics; two fish in the same tank will fight ferociously. Generally peaceful with ot

Feeding: Carnivore, often difficult to train to non-living foods. Will eat smaller fish, earthworms and other invertebrates, and sometimes foods such as raw ground turkey or prepared food sticks.

Breeding: Eggs are laid on a (usually vertical) surface. Males defend the eggs and fry ferociously, even threatening oncoming boats. They are bred commercially in Asia, but usually not in aquaria due to their size.

Fish Description

High body and small head give a humpback appearance.  Overall silvery grey with more than a dozen diagonal dark bars in juveniles giving way to dark ocellated spots as the fish matures.  Small, feather-like dorsal fin.  Caudal and anal fins fused, able to propel the fish forward or backward by reversing undulation.  An albino domestic strain exists.


This is one of those common species that shouldn't be. Very few aquarists can properly house these behemouths. Attractive and interesting, juvenile clown knives are often purchased for community tanks. As they grow, they eat all their tankmates, then become stunted and sickly as the glass walls close in on them. And they grow quickly! In a suitably large aquarium--more an indoor pond--this species makes a fascinating display. They hunt mainly by scent and glide up to their prey using undulations of their fused caudal-anal fins to move through the water. They will often back into their favorite lair tail-first. They are nocturnal and territorial and spend most of the day in their caves, though they quickly learn to come out for feeding. The older they get, the more sedentary and territorial they become. When the lights go out, however, they can be seen prowling along the bottom, ever alert for a creature small enough to trap in their powerful jaws. Unless challenged by another knifefish or tempted by a tankmate small enough to swallow, the clown knife usually gets along with any other species that won't bother them. Large catfish may vie for cave spaces, so make sure there are plenty to choose from.