Channa diplogramma – Malabar Snakehead

Channa diplogramma is a large (44 cm) snakehead from India. It is a powerful, free-swimming species that is therefore not very suitable for the aquarium

Channa in general

Channa, commonly known as Snakeheads, are primitive predatory fish and members of the family Channidae. They are a group of perciform (perch-like) fishes whose affinities are unknown, although recent studies on the molecular phylogeny of bony fishes consider snakeheads as most closely related to the labyrinth fishes (anabantoids) and the synbranchiform eels, which include the spiny eels.

The Channa family includes 31 species widely distributed in Asia from southeastern Iran and eastern Afghanistan eastward through Pakistan, India, southern Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Sumatra, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, and China to and with part of Siberia. In addition, 3 species of the related Parachanna family are found locally in parts of Africa.

Distribution Channidae
Distribution Channidae

The Channa varieties have large differences in size. The unofficial term Dwarf Snakehead was coined by aquarists to refer to a group of Channa species that do not grow larger than 25 cm: Channa bleheri, Channa cachua, Channa orientalis, Channa andrao. These species are also most suitable for keeping in an aquarium due to their limited size and relatively peaceful character. Most other species grow to a maximum of 30-90 centimeters. Five species (Channa argus, Channa barca, Channa marulius, Channa micropeltes and Channa striata) can even reach 100 centimeters or larger and can be considered monster fish that are hardly suitable for keeping in an aquarium.


Fossiles dated from 50 million years ago indicate an origin in the southern Himalayas (India and East Pakistan). From 15 million years ago, the animals have spread by the expanding intertropical climate zone to parts of Europe, Africa, and larger parts of Asia.

Physical features

Channa have an elongated body and are distinguished by their long dorsal fins large mouths full of teeth. They earn their common name Snakehead because of their flattened shape and the scales on their heads that are reminiscent of the large epidermal scales on snakes.

Channa have gills to breathe water like most other fish. However, subadults and adults can also breathe air to supplement their demand for oxygen. Snakeheads are in fact obligatory air breathers and must have air from the surface otherwise they will drown. Unlike many other airbreathing fishes, Channa have a series of cavities in the rear section of their head. These suprabranchial chambers are filled with folded tissues that have a high surface area, and allow oxygen change to occur directly between air and their blood. Unlike mammals, they lack a diaphragm and use water to exchange old air with fresh air each time they take a breath. Thus, their ability to breathe air when out of the water is limited. They appear to breathe air more frequently when swimming actively.

The genera Parachanna (native to parts of Africa) is described apart from the genera Channa because of a more primitive implementation of the airbreathing section.

Snakeheads are known to migrate over short distances overland to find other water basins, using the ability to breathe air. When moving over land they curve their body in an S shape first, before launching themselves forward by a powerful stretch. In high humidity conditions, Channa are able to survive from 2 up to 4 days out of the water. When placed in direct sunlight, however, they desiccate and perish in minutes to several hours. In contrary to what is believed, Snakeheads are not known to leave the water for any reason other than making their way back to the water after flooding. The only snakeheads that actively leave the water belong to the dwarf species (C. gachau and C. orientalis, C. asiatica, and C. amphibius). Even then there is a clear reason for leaving the water, such as escaping overpopulation.

Snakeheads can be found in a wide variety of waters and water conditions. They are found in tropical, subtropical and temperate regions. Snakehead fish are not dependent on the oxygen level in the water. Many (not all) species can also tolerate widely varying temperatures and water parameters for a period of time. However, they are very vulnerable to sudden changes in water parameters.

Commercial interest

Snakeheads are important consumption fish, especially in India, Southeast Asia, China and to a lesser extent Africa. It has been fished on a large scale for centuries. In recent decades, certain species (C. maculata, P. obscura, C. striata, C. argus) have been cultivated for consumption. Sometimes they are used by fish farmers to reduce “pest fish” like Tilapia.
In Southeast Asia, markets are often overrun with Snakeheads. Fishermen and sellers take advantage of the fish’s ability to survive in just a thin film of water. This means that fresh fish can be offered throughout the day, a nice bonus in the not-always-hygienic conditions of a warm market.

Scientific research shows that snakeheads contain natural anti-inflammatories. In addition, it is known that they have a high content of omega-6 fatty acids, which have an analgesic effect. The fish oil also has positive effects on the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancers.

“Fish out of hell”

Partly as a result of colonization, snakeheads have been deliberately introduced to other areas (Madagascar, Hawaii, Taiwan, Japan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the Czech Republic) over the past hundred years. Today, snakeheads are considered a major threat to local ecosystems. Especially in the absence of natural enemies (such as humans), they are very invasive and destructive. Large species become sexually mature after 2-3 years, mate up to 2-5 times a year, and produce up to 15,000 eggs at a time. In addition, they are considered capable of migrating overland to other water systems. C. argus in particular is thought to be able to double its population within 15 months.
The discovery of a number of species of snakeheads in US waters has caused quite a stir. The media has been used to take unpopular measures to prevent the further spread of the species (such as draining or completely poisoning). Various media created a Piranha-esque image of a monster fish that eats all the fish in an entire lake, then moves overland to the next lake, preying on dogs and children along the way. National Geographic came out with a slightly more fact-based documentary Invasion of the Snakeheads that talked about Fishzilla. Filmmakers in Hollywood found inspiration and support for 2 horror films in the hype. Asian food markets (and the related need to store live fish in natural fish ponds) were blamed for the invasion. With the availability as food fish, the fish also became available to aquarium and pond keepers. Fish that grew too big for the tank often ended up in the local ecosystem. Since 2002, many US states have banned the possession of live snakeheads. In Europe, too, an import permit is required for C. argus, because this species is able to thrive in our colder waters.


Snakehead fish are predatory fish that feed on plankton, insects and snails as youngsters. As they grow larger, the larger species switch to a menu consisting mainly of fish, frogs, crabs, shrimps, small aquatic mammals and waterfowl. Young specimens usually hunt in groups. When they reach sexual maturity, they isolate themselves to lead a solitary life or live in pairs. They then develop a higher degree of aggression towards conspecifics and often also towards other fish. Often a couple will not tolerate other fish in the limited space of an aquarium.

Snakeheads are not active swimmers. In addition to hunting, they actively move only to draw air from the surface. Usually, they swim in the middle water layer or rest on the bottom to strike from an ambush. A number of species, however, are pelagic and are more active swimmers. All snakeheads are capable of launching themselves forward from a standstill by briefly curving their muscular body and stretching it forcefully.

Brood care is an important behavioral trait for Snakeheads. All species violently guard and defend their eggs and young. The majority of species lay eggs that rise to the surface and are guarded there. A number of smaller species collect these eggs and store them in a burrow that may or may not have been dug. A number of species are mouthbrooders.

The snakehead is a popular – eccentric – fish among a specialist group of aquarium keepers. Snakeheads are elegant, powerful, alert, and calm fish, with a willful character. The mutual communication, hunting technique and brood care is fascinating. Some aquarium keepers specialize in keeping the largest species and have a pet-like experience. Some rare and variegated species (such as C. barca) are among the most valuable aquarium fish on the market.
Snakeheads often have changing patterns and colors as they grow. With the exception of the dwarf species, the young of most species are much more beautifully marked and colored than the aging fish. With age, they usually get a duller ground color. Some aquarium keepers lose interest in them as they grow. It is therefore wise to do some research before purchasing.

As predators, snakeheads are by nature not a suitable choice for the average community aquarium. They are intolerant and usually soon the only fish. A special aquarium is required for keeping snakeheads. Aquarium keepers have different experiences when it comes to mixing snakeheads with other tankmates. Most species are best kept alone. Combining snakeheads with territorial or aggressive tankmates is not recommended. An intimidated snakehead hides, tries to escape, and refuses to eat. The extent to which other fish are tolerated in the small habitat of an aquarium depends very much on the species, but within that probably also on the individual specimen and the specific situation. There are a number of general experiences per group:

Dwarf species

Due to their small size and relatively mild temperament, most dwarf species pair well with robust, fast fish of a similar size. Provided these fish are not too territorial or aggressive. It should be taken into account that most dwarf snakeheads live in their natural environment in an eco climate zone with seasonal extremes in water temperature and water values. As a result, they cannot be kept at a tropical temperature all year round. A temperature reduction for at least one season per year is necessary to keep them healthy. Co-residents must also be able to cope with this.

Medium sized species

This group contains the most diversity in terms of behavior. Many of the larger species (between 30-60 cm) can be combined with relatively fast and robust fish of a similar size, for example, large cyprinids. General experience is that combining with other fish species works best when the snakehead fish are not yet too big and when the other fish have already settled. Newly introduced fish are often killed immediately. It varies greatly by species and experience. Often the tolerance to other fish is temporary. When a pair of snakeheads is formed, the co-inhabitants (also conspecifics) are usually chased and killed.

Large species (60 – 130 cm)

These snakeheads themselves require an amount of space that most private aquariums are unlikely to be able to provide. Extremely large private aquariums are usually just big enough to hold 1 fish or a couple. In general, the same applies as with the medium varieties. Fish that grow with them from an early age are often tolerated. Newly introduced tankmates are often killed immediately.

Channa diplogramma – Malabar Snakehead

Young Channa diplogramma (meaning double stripe) are red-colored and live in groups. De attractive little fish are nice to see and appear quite docile. An unaware aquarist probably cannot suspect that these cute babies will become a river monster within some months.

After about 2 months, the red color is indeed exchanged for a white-yellow base color, with two horizontal black stripes over the body, and an organ-like area in between. The tail and caudal fin usually contain a red spot. After a year, this cloth is exchanged for the final pattern, which consists of earthy black and white spots. Channa diplogramma grows to a maximum of 44 cm. In appearance and behavior, Channa diplogramma can hardly be distinguished from C. micropeltes. Until 2011, Channa diplogramma was even considered to be the same species. Besides the geographical location and the fact that Channa diplogramma grows much smaller (44 vs 122 cm), the characteristic differences that Channa diplogramma are:

  • a greater pre-anal length (55.66 mm vs. 50.64 mm in C. micropeltes)
  • lesser body depth (mean 15.60 mm vs. 20.05)
  • fewer cheek scales (16-20 vs. 23-25)
  • more caudal-fin rays (15-17 vs. 14)

Channa diplogramma is endemic to parts of South India, in Kerala en Tamil Nadu.

Channa diplogramma distribution


Channa diplogramma is one of the most social species of snakehead. Also as they get older they often hang out together and hunt in groups. Hunting takes place during the day. Only when they become sexually mature do they isolate themselves and continue to live in solitary or in pairs. From that moment on, the tolerance towards conspecifics and other fish decreased sharply.

Channa diplogramma is also one of the few snakeheads to live a pelagic (free-swimming) life. As a result, they make few demands on the layout of their living environment. They can be found in rivers, lakes, swamps, streams and ditches. Channa diplogramma and Channa micropeltes have the largest teeth of all snakeheads. The enlarged canine teeth are provided with lateral cutting surfaces. This allows them to tear large prey into pieces.

Sexual dimorphism

The females have a smaller head and a somewhat larger abdomen.

The aquarium

The size of this species, the speed at which it grows, and the amount of food and swimming space required mean that this species is not really suitable for the aquarium. Experiences are that young can usually be combined fairly well with other fast and robust fish of the same size. Under the conditions that they grow up together. Newly added fish are often killed regardless of size. Sooner or later, other residents may end up facing the same fate once a couple has formed.

However, if an enthusiast wants to keep a monster fish like Channa micropeltes, the Channa diplogramma is a much better – smaller – alternative. Channa diplogramma, however, can hardly be distinguished from Channa micropeltes in appearance, is offered less often, and is therefore also more expensive. It is therefore advisable to only purchase this species from a reliable address.

Channa diploma can be dangerous. They are capable of inflicting serious injuries on the caretaker (or their children). All movements in and around the aquarium are considered food, whereupon they launch themselves with force and speed on top with their mouths full of teeth. The maintenance of the tank is also a terrifying operation.

In an aquarium, Channa diplogramma will become fully aware of the environment outside the tank. Movements such as the caregiver or arriving food are continuously monitored. It is almost impossible to surprise them, because they see the caretaker and food coming from afar.

The aquarium should be provided with sufficient areas with dense vegetation and hiding places and dark areas. Empty aquariums and bright lights are certainly associated with open water at the surface and thus vulnerability to predators and cause stress.

The temperature can be set at 24-28 degrees Celsius. Hardness and PH value are not very important if extremes are avoided.

It is a misunderstanding that air-breathing fish live in stagnant, polluted water and that clean water is not necessary in the aquarium. While most snakeheads can tolerate a wide range of water conditions, most fare poorly when water becomes polluted or undergoes sudden changes (eg a massive water change). Many snakeheads die with too massive water changes or too abrupt introduction to the aquarium. Good filtration is necessary, especially given the burden that the amount of animal food entails. A 15% water change per week is recommended.

Snakehead fish are great escape artists. With their muscular body, they can squeeze themselves out through the smallest slit and also push the cover up themselves. A well-sealed aquarium with a weighted cover is necessary. There must also be sufficient space between the hood and the water level to allow them to breathe air. A snakehead that can’t gasp for air drowns.


Carnivore. All kinds of live food are eaten. Usually, they can be weened to frozen food, pieces of fish, and large dry food. Do not feed them beef or chicken as some fats are not digested properly and can lead to fat storage and even organ degeneration. Young snakehead fish need daily feeding to allow for growth. From a length of 30 centimeters, it is enough to feed 2-4 times a week. Contrary to popular belief, they do not need a daily meal. In fact, a regular day of fasting helps prevent the build-up of bacteria and the development of constipation problems and constipation.

Grown fish should be fed using forceps to prevent injury – to the human.



Patrick de Pijper

Copyright images

Ben Lee,

Channa diplogramma” by PsibyOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bijgewerkt op 25 August 2023 door John

Additional information






Ophiocephalus diplogramma

First described by


Social behaviour


Breeding behaviour






Minimum length


Length maximum


Temperature minimum


Temperature maximum



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