Clown Killifish: Ultimate Guide (Care, Diet, Breeding & More)

Clown Killifish swimming in fish tank.

While this fine fish isn’t likely to make balloon animals at your next party or terrorize any small villages in Maine, the Clown Killifish is a playful and colorful character very much like their alter ego.

While the tail of the male can outdo some of the proudest of peacocks, both males and females look slick together in their matched evening stripes, suit, and tie.

The Clown Killifish, Epiplatys annulatus, known also by the more common name Branded Panchax or Rocket Killifish is a highly bred freshwater fish sought after for its brilliant colors and sharp look.

This dynamic fish requires tranquility, socialization with small numbers of their kind, and things to explore each day to thrive. Here are some best practices and guidance on how best to live alongside these beautiful, engaging creatures.

Species Overview

Of the 1,200 or so known species of killifish around the world, the Clown Killifish is one of the most sought after. Native to the coastal areas of West Africa, namely Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone these show-stoppers have traveled the circuit of the globe and been propagated extensively throughout the world.

CategoryRating
Life Span3-5 Years
FamilyNothobranchiidae
Color VarietyVarious
Care LevelEasy
CompatibilityPeaceful
Food and DietCarnivore
TemperamentDocile
Tank Size (Min.)5 Gallons (per pair)
Tank SetupRocks and Plants in Freshwater
Size1.5-2 inches

They are a docile, small, freshwater fish with a knack for making themselves at home just about anywhere. From tailing ponds with heavy metals and odd ditches these surprisingly resilient, beautiful creatures deserve a better home. One that you can make possible with a little extra care and attention.

Firstly you’ve got to be able to correctly identify the species to buy one. They tend to be more expensive than most killifish given their stunning colors so it is important to ensure you get the right species. Always have a visual reference of your target species on-hand and always stick with reputable suppliers before making your purchase.

Your target will be just over an inch in length closely resembling the profile of a pike (E. Lucius). Their heads are rounded like a bullet and their tail fin is shaped like a garden spade. Another prominent feature is that their dorsal fins are set unusually far back towards the tail relative to other killifish.

Their beauty and coloration are both unique and stunning. So much so that we will cover their carefully curated image in later greater detail.

Lifespan

Unlike their annual killifish cousins, the Clown Killifish normally lives a few years. Although many offspring are lost before they mature to adults in the wild, they have surprising longevity given their sometimes less than ideal habitats and nearby prolific predators.

With a little bit of luck at the game of life, a varied diet, and companions, Clown Killifish can thrive for up to five years. In captivity, under circumstances that closely simulate their habitat, some owners have claimed even longer. Naturally, it helps too that their only potential predators in your home are their chosen tank mates.

Appearance

From the rainbow-kissed tail fins of the males to the uniform nature of their tiger stripes, once you have a picture in your mind of what they look like you’ll remember their killer look forever. They are brightly colored with yellow and black tiger-striped bodies and multicolored anal and dorsal fins.

While males are normally showier than females (similar to birds) both males and females can equally be showy pieces. They normally cluster in pairs so you can expect them to strut about your home in their finer wear to the delight of your guests and friends.

Size

Males often have long rainbow-colored tails which females lack, they still tend to be just smaller in length. Overall it is considered a small, tropical, freshwater fish whose habitat is also normally smaller than the habitats preferred by other members of the Nothobranchiidae family.

They can grow up to two inches long but most max out just over an inch. Although they are predators by nature their diminutive size can make them a target food source for larger omnivorous or carnivorous fish. Judicious care and prudent choices in Clown Killifish care will allow them to reach this full potential.

Clown Killifish Care

Clown Killifish adapt easily to any number of habitats and as might be expected they’ll do equally well in captivity if you give them due care and a proper home. Their health, longevity, and virility depend on the ecosystem you create and maintain for them and the foods you provide. With great power comes great responsibility.

Without mincing words Clown Killifish although resilient they can be pretty picky. Picky about what they eat, picky about when they mate, and picky about their environment. Their not difficult or expensive to care for they just insist on their favorite foods, a warm bed, and a safe place to raise a family. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Tank Size

Although they like to explore their surroundings and remain engaged it doesn’t take much to please them. A five-gallon tank is sufficient for a pair although successful owners have kept Clown Killifish happy with even smaller spaces. In nature they often live in all sorts of ditches, potholes, and tiny spaces; so if you’re in a tiny urban flat they’ll be right at home.

Check out this article that features a Clown Killifish living under very unusual circumstances. It details their tiny home approach and speaks to how an average hobbyist can best support global conservation efforts.

Once you’ve found a suitable home and begun designing, be sure though to factor in the open spaces they’ll need to chase down and hunt their prey. Unlike many of their killifish cousins, the Clown Killifish is a pure predator! Give them some space to open up, dodge rocks and vegetation before going in for the kill.

Water Parameters

Clown Killifish make their homes in the slow-moving or stagnant waters of pools, potholes, streams, estuaries, and creeks throughout the tropics of West Africa. As residents of sometimes less-than-optimal waterholes, they are adaptable to a wide range of water conditions (temperatures, PH balances, and degrees of salinity).

Ideally, you want to aim for a tank near 80F, with a neutral PH (close to 7.0), salt-free water to make these freshwater river fish feel at home. They are used to living in constantly warm equatorial regions and expect their water to remain equally warm. Fluctuations in the water temperature will stress these fish, so try and keep it stable at all times.

What to Put in Their Tank?

Before filling your tank make sure you have the right equipment. Clown killifish are top performers but they need the stage set perfectly. They’ll want just the right lighting, just the right temperature, and just the right ambiance to thrill the crowds.

Firstly, to best simulate the conditions of their natural habitat the water has to be warm and slow-moving. This means you’ll want a good heater that can maintain the stable, warm conditions the Clown Killifish prefers.

You’ll also want a decent lid. Clown Killifish are prolific jumpers and despite their size can put on quite a show when pursuing prey. More than the occasional acrobat has made an unexpected exodus from center stage.

Next work on building a sandy substrate that can be heavily planted, littered with branches, and small quantities of leaf litter. Although the latter is not necessary (and may produce themselves anyway if you have sufficient plants) it provides hideout places and supports the growth of microbe colonies. These can provide a quick snack for adults or a meal for fry while you are away.

Lastly, you’ll need to ensure the spotlight is on your Clown Killifish. Just don’t overdo it. They prefer low light conditions prevalent in their natural habitat and soft light will suffice.

It is also suggested that when you choose plants get a few that will cover the surface or provide intermittent shade. A combination of floating vegetation and plants that thrive in low light like those in the Taxiphyllum genus, like Java moss work well.

Common Diseases

Although killifish are highly resilient and have excellent immune systems, the small size of the Clown Killifish makes them susceptible to a number of illnesses. The most problematic come from fungal and viral sources.

Much of this can be avoided by having a good tank cleaning regimen and proper maintenance of your filtration systems. Remember your aquarium is a closed system meaning nature can’t add rain, wind, or season changes.

The tank will fail or prosper by your hands alone and a regular cleaning regimen goes a long way to prevent water-borne diseases.

In the event your killifish are attacked by viruses, fungi, or bacterium most health issues can be controlled through prudent quarantine of sick animals and timely use of therapeutic medications. 

The most common is fluke (caused by bacteria living in snails) which causes skin degradation and attacks their central nervous systems. Snail triage and over-the-counter medications can quickly turn things around.

What Do Clown Killifish Eat?

Like many other performers, their diva status holds true when it comes to haute cuisine. Clown killifish insist on live food and will frequently turn their noses up at flakes and pellets. When forced they can survive on or become used to the latter, while a few might refuse and take on anything in the bowl still swimming first.

That said, once they have finished eating, check for any uneaten food or remnants on the bottom. If you notice that your Clown Killifish are leaving uneaten food, cut back to avoid an accumulation of carrion biomass.

Always stick with live aquatic insects, invertebrates, and similar micro-organisms. Brine shrimp, Tubifex worms fly larvae and Daphnia fleas are the common dishes they’ll want to sample which you can find at most pet stores.

If you ask for food for your Clown Killifish and they offer you nothing beyond vegetable protein flakes you need to insist on live alternatives rather than analogs.

Clown Killifish won’t eat plants except out of necessity. However, they benefit from the growth of microbe colonies on your aquatic plants as a dietary supplement.

The health of their biome and feeding them the correct foods will ensure the longevity, health, and well-being of your killifish clan.

Behavior & Temperament

Clown killifish will gladly explore all spaces in their given home. They prefer to spend much of their day between the surface-to-mid section of the tank. When they are ready to feed they’ll hover nearer to the surface, but just out of touch of would-be (non-existent in your home we hope) predators.

They prefer to stay within range of the surface where in nature their prey would be normally be living, flying, floating, or swimming. The surface is their natural banquet hall so if you see the live food you’ve given them lying dead at the bottom your fish may be ill or just overfed.

When not eating, mating, or chasing down prey, Clown Killifish will spend their days exploring in pairs. Sometimes they tango as female and male pairs, but not exclusively.

They don’t enjoy crowded tanks or the stimulation or stresses of many interacting school members. So even if you have a dozen in your community tank they’ll likely pair off into several sub-groups rather than collectively school.

When stressed or competing for a mate they may battle or even eat one another but that is both extreme and rare behavior for a Clown Killifish. On most occasions, the killer or kill (a Dutch word meaning a small stream where these fish were traditionally found by Europeans) is seemingly benign.

Normally they are completely docile, gentle, and simply strut about in pairs all day or spending time with their soulmates innocently floating about.

Clown Killifish Tank Mates

If you are building a community tank, Clown Killifish are fine to be around most others. Just be sure to not introduce very tiny fish (like their smaller North American cousins the Least Killifish) or juveniles, as Clown Killifish are liable to consider them as prey.

So preferably stick to similar-sized tank mates as much larger fish may suffer the same confusion and conversely eat your Clown Killifish.

Next, consider tank mates that enjoy warm water versus cool-climate or seasonal species. It’s always ideal to keep fish from similar climates together as they usually like the same water and air temperatures.

With those restrictions in mind the most common Clown Killifish companions are:

It also never hurts to put in a few compatible cleaners. Don’t overdo it though; you want them to clean up any carnivorous messes left by your killifish and do maintenance. Too many may have them competing against your Clown Killifish for microbial food.

Breeding

If your Clown Killifish starts acting aggressive and showing his funny side perhaps it’s time to mate. You will want to use a separate breeding tank or aquarium net breeder as the eggs are prone to predation. Try also to keep out any snails or shrimp from this area as they too will eat your Clown Killifish eggs.

At this point separate the lucky couple or potential dating pool from the rest. Just be sure there is only one master of ceremonies in the ring at a time. In nature the lucky couple would be looking for pebbles, porous moss to hide their eggs in.

This can be simulated with small amounts of the same substrate and fauna from below. People have also used porous moss, floating plants, or small sticks to recreate a natural nursery. Beyond playing the music and turning up the lights that is all you can do.

Once the eggs have been fertilized or you believe little ones are on their way remove mom and dad from the nursery. Two weeks later you should have healthy little Clown Killis soon on their way to rejoin the happy family. But there is a big catch to this family reunion which we’ll share in the finale.

Final Thoughts

These fish really are easy to keep once you have the right setup.

If you’ve set up your tank as recommended and provided them with regular live food they will require little else beyond help nurturing the broods.

Aquarists of all ages and experiences will love watching these colorful, enjoyable creatures at play.

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