Channa stewartii – Golden Snakehead

Channa stewartii or Golden Snakehead remains relatively small. The species is generally aggressive towards conspecifics and other fish and is best kept in pairs.

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 official term Dwarf Snakeheads was coined by aquarists to denote a group of Channa species that do not grow larger than 25 centimeters: C. bleheri, C. cachua, C. orientalis, C andrao. These species are also most suitable for keeping in an aquarium due to their limited size and relatively peaceful nature. Most other species grow to a maximum of 30-90 centimeters. Vijf soorten (Channa argus. C. barca, C. marulius, C. micropeltes and C. striata) kunnen zelfs 100 cm om groter worden en kunnen als monstervissen worden beschouwd die nauwelijks geschikt zijn voor het houden in een 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 snakehead fish that actively leave the water are dwarf species (C. gachau and C. orientalis, C. asiatica, and C. amphibeus). 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.


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 one 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 fellow residents are often killed immediately.

A number of large species, such as C. argus and C. micropeltes, are important food fish. They are considered highly invasive and destructive to the local ecosystem outside their natural habitat (see also the documentary Invasion of the Snakeheads). After the fish were sighted in several places in the US, import bans and a ban on owning a live specimen are in effect in most states within the US.

Channa stewartii – Golden Snakehead

With a maximum length of 25 cm, Channa stewartii is a relatively small snakehead. Channa stewartii occurs throughout the course of the Brahmaputra River in India and Bangladesh and in the Ganges from southern Nepal to the east. This area is characterized by subtropical water temperatures with a warm summer season and a colder winter season.

Channa stewartii distribution

Channa stewartii is known as a very bigoted snakehead fish. The species can be kept solitary or in pairs. To form a couple it is required to start with a group of young. A large aquarium with many hiding places is required to protect individuals from the aggression of dominant males. Also, keep a spare aquarium to temporarily house a damaged fish and let it recover. Channa stewartii clearly takes no prisoners. In a couple, the confrontations are usually limited, and it turns out to be an easily sustainable species. Preferably, however, do not change too much in the tank, as a change seems to herald new territorial battles. The damage or death of one of the two can be a sudden result.

Synonyms: Ophiocephalus stewartii, Channa stewartius.

The aquarium

An aquarium with densely planted areas, open swimming areas, sufficient hiding places, and not too bright lighting. Some darker spots are appreciated. Make sure that it is possible for them to get air from the surface, otherwise, they will suffocate. Close the aquarium tightly. They manage to escape from the aquarium through the smallest hole. All snakeheads are escape artists, but this species is especially so.

Make sure that the aquarium temperature is lowered to 16-18 degrees Celsius during a season. The rest of the year, it can be maintained at 24-25 degrees Celsius. In the colder period, less food is required and the water level can drop slightly. It is also possible to reverse the summer and winter seasons and keep them in an outdoor pond during the summer period.

Snakehead fish can live in water of very different composition. However, they are poorly resistant to sudden changes. Therefore, change small amounts of water at once.

Any co-residents must be able to withstand the necessary temperature reduction in winter.


Carnivore. All common fish food is eaten, including frozen. They will not feed on dry food like flakes or granules.

Breeding Channa stewartii – Golden Snakehead

Breeding the Golden Snakehead is possible. Trial matings take place throughout the year. To initiate breeding, the water temperature should be lowered to about 20 degrees Celsius. Putting a male and a female together does not necessarily result in a pair. It is best to form a group, from which a pair can arise. Remove the others from the aquarium, otherwise, they will not survive.



Patrick de Pijper

Copyright images

Tea Shyi Kai: en Flickr

Additional information






Ophiocephalus stewartii

Common name

Golden Snakehead

First described by

Lambert Playfair


Social behaviour

Breeding behaviour





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Minimum length


Length maximum


Temperature minimum
Temperature maximum


pH minimum


pH maximum



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