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Related Articles: Cyprinids/MinnowsMinnow "Sharks", Redtail Sharks, Redfin Sharks, Black Sharks,

/The Conscientious Aquarist

 The Bala or Tri-Colored Shark, Balantiocheilos melanopterus

By Bob Fenner

Balantiocheilos melanopterus 

    A gorgeous fish for aquarium use, the "Minnow Shark" called the Bala or Tri-color shark has much to recommend it besides good looks. It's relatively hardy, accepts most all foods with gusto, and is gorgeously silver white bodied with black outlines on its fins... The only downsides to keeping this fish are its ultimate large size and skittish behavior... the last often a cause of loss from the Tri-color jumping right out of its tank or seriously injuring itself from thumping against the top, side or aquarium decor. Of course a good deal can be done to prevent this latter trait from becoming a problem... Providing an overly large environment with hiding/shaded areas, completely covering the top to prevent escape.

    Though Balantiocheilus melanopterus is just as prone to ich as most tropicals, it is most often lost due to environmental/stress reasons... being allowed to get "too thin", particularly in processing/shipping... and being placed in the wrong setting. Other than this, a huge reason for their loss is being placed, kept in too small quarters. This fish needs room... and how! This fish grows to some 14 inches... and quickly given good water quality and adequate nutrition. It needs a system of at least nominal four foot length.

Balantiocheilos melanopterus (Bleeker 1851), the Bala or Tri-Color Shark. Asia; Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia. To fourteen inches in length. Cond.s: pH 6-8, dH 6-12, temp. 22-28 C. Endangered status. Best kept in  large quarters, at least 55 gallons, in a small grouping.

http://www.fishbase.com/Summary/species Summary.phpID=6089&genusname=Balantiocheilos &speciesname=melanopterus


    Bala sharks are minnows... members of the Family Cyprinidae; one of the largest groupings of living fishes, with some 2.010 described species. This large family includes many other common freshwater aquarium fishes such as goldfish, koi, barbs, danios, rasboras, the White Cloud Mountainfish (Tanichthys albonubes), as well as other "minnow sharks" like the Redtail, Redfin or Rainbow, Black, Variegated, Apollo... sharks among others.

Other Minnow-Sharks

Genus Epalzeorhynchos: Five species. 

Epalzeorhynchos bicolor (Smith 1931), the Redtail Sharkminnow to science was Labeo bicolor, the Red Tail shark to the aquarium hobby.  Found originally in Thailand. Grows to a bit under five inches in length (if it doesn't jump out first). Cond.s: pH 6.5-7.5, dH to 15, temp. 22-26 C.  There are mutations of this species including albino.

Epalzeorhynchos frenatum (Fowler 1934), the   Rainbow Shark, Sharkminnow. Asia; Mekong, Chao Phraya and Xe Bangfai Basins. To six inches in length. Cond.s: pH 6-8, dH 6-12, temp. 24-27 C. There are other sports of this species in the trade, including long fin and albino varieties and a cross between this species and the Flying Fox below.


Epalzeorhynchos kalopterus (Bleeker 1851), the Flying Fox. Asia; Thailand, Borneo, Sumatra. To a little over six inches in length. Cond.s: pH 6.5-7, dH 5-8, temp. 24-26 C. Shown: four and six inch aquarium specimens.

Epalzeorhynchos munense (Smith 1934), sold interchangeably with E. frenatum as the Rainbow or Red-Finned Shark/minnow and Albino Shark in the aquarium trade. Differentiable by position of dorsal fin. Base starts ahead of pelvic fins in E. munense, just at in E. frenatus. To a little under five inches maximum length. 

Genus Garra: 153 nominal species; most downright ugly!

Garra pingi pingi (Tchang 1929), the Garra, though but one of a very large genus. Freshwater; pH 6.5-7.2, dH 12-25, temp. 12-25 C. Name derives from Burmese for "big nose". A recent addition to the aquarium trade as an alternative to the untrustworthy Chinese Algae Eater and South American suckermouth catfishes.

Genus Labeo: 103 species... many large, not-beautiful members

Labeo (Morulius) chrysophekadion (Bleeker 1850), the Black Shark/Sharkminnow. Asia and the Malay Archipelago. The largest minnow "shark" species kept at 32 inches maximum length. Cond.s: pH 6.5-7.5, dH to 15, temp. 24-27 C. 

Labeo (variegatus) cyclorhynchus Boulenger 1899, the Variegated Shark (to science, the Harlequin Sharkminnow).  Central Africa; Congo and Ogowe Rivers. To a little over six inches in length. Cond.s: temp. 21-27 C.

Genus Luciosoma: Five species.

Luciosoma spilopleura Bleeker 1855, the Apollo Shark/minnow. Southeast Asia; Thailand, Borneo, Sumatra. To ten inches in length. Cond.s: pH 6.5-7, dH 5-8, temp. 24-27 C. Best kept singly.

Other Minnow Sharks: Yes, there are quite a few. A normal and xanthic form of the Hard-Lipped Barb, Osteochilus hasselti (Valenciennes 1842) are occasionally still imported from Indonesia, where this is a cultured food fish. There are at least 3,4 other species of "Flying Foxes", genus Epalzeorhynchus, various Garras, and don't even get me started on all the fishes that are sold as SAE's (Siamese Algae Eaters... mainly of the genus Crossocheilus). There are more: the Diamond Shark, Cyclocheilichthys apogon (Valenciennes 1842), The Flying Arrow Shark, Dangila festiva. 


 As stated above, the Bala is a nervous, jumpy fish, often lost to jumping out. Even a small opening or leaving the top open for a while can result in such behavior, as can sudden movements near their tank, or too quickly "turning lights" on or off. Best to provide light outside the system first/last.


    Balas are easy going for such potentially large fishes. They will consume very small fishes, but by and large leave other fish livestock be. Unfortunately, there are many instances where the opposite is not true and they should categorically not be housed with aggressive fishes like most neotropical and African cichlids or easily scared, slow-moving tankmates (e.g. Discus, Angels). Ideally, they're kept in biotopic settings with other livestock hailing from the same region as they are (Asia: Mekong and Chao Phraya basins, Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo.)... medium to larger gouramis, barbs, danios, other minnow-sharks, loaches... and Asian catfishes from similar locale.


Look carefully at proposed purchases for signs of damage... blood streaks at the base of fins and their spiny portions. Quite a high percentage of imported Balas have genetic deformities in their fins and mouths... Thin-ness is to be avoided, and do ascertain that the fish are eating the sorts of foods you intend to use. New batches of these imported fishes do at times "die mysteriously" shortly after arrival, so avoid newly arrived specimens (wait a good week or two). This is a social species that does best kept in a small odd-numbered grouping (3, 5, 7)purchased and placed all at once. Shown: some too-skinny juveniles.


    As mentioned, four food long systems, five or six foot or more ideally are needed to keep Balas healthy and happy. These tropical fishes tolerate water of middling pH and hardness (pH 6.5-7.2, dH 12-25, temp. 12-25 C.), but little nitrogenous waste accumulation (no ammonia, nitrite, less than 10 ppm. of nitrate). Their systems are best continuously filtered with large outside power filters (canister and/or hang-on power) that are regularly (weekly) serviced, along with good-sized (20-25%) water changes. These fish are superbly sensitive to sanitizer poisoning... New water should be thoroughly treated and tested, or best, stored, aerated and heated for a week or more prior to use.

    Softer, rounded natural gravel or Fluorite is best for a substrate, along with indigenous S.E. Asian plantings that this will support. These plants will modify water chemistry in beneficial ways, along with providing some fresh greens as food.


    Minnow-sharks consume a good deal of algal and plant material along with insect larvae, crustaceans and worms in the wild. For small individuals, a good staple flake and some meaty foods offered twice daily or more often is fine, with larger individuals fed on pellets, wafers and larger meaty fare... all mouth-size, as they are minnows... and lack teeth on their jaws.


    Reddening of the mouth, fins is often a sign of something gone amiss with water quality. Rapid breathing and a loss of equilibrium are indications of a loss of oxygen, gas-exchange... often from an aerosol settling on the tank water surface. When/where in doubt re the root cause here, a water change of about a quarter of the system is expedient, and compounding the problem with adding "medications" is to be avoided.

    Balas are quite susceptible to Ich/Whitespot disease and sensitive to copper, formalin and Malachite Green based preparations (the majority of fish medications). They should be treated with half-doses here along with elevated temperature (to the mid 80's F.). If other livestock can tolerate it, the use of aquarium salt at a rate of a level teaspoon per ten gallons may be helpful.


    Balas have been bred in captivity via environmental manipulation and hormonal injection. Breeders need to be several inches in length, conditioned... generally provided with fine plant material or other suitable spawning media. Like most minnows, they're egg scatterers. The young are fed on fine live cultured food material.


    In quick review, the Bala or Tri-Color Shark is indeed a beauty with few demands... An easygoing environment of good-size, regular feeding and water changes, and careful attention to prevent jumping are about it. Buy and keep this species in a good-sized system with others of its kind and geographic distribution and similar temperament and you'll have a beautiful display for several years.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Edmonds, Les. 1996. Freshwater "Sharks". TFH 11/96.

Fink, John A. 1975. The Tri-Colored Shark, Balantiocheilos melanopterus. TFH 2/75. 

Hunziker, Ray. 1992. The Sharks that aren't. TFH 4/92.

Mecke, Klaus. 1959. Balantiocheilos melanopterus. TFH 10/59.

Taylor, Edward C. 1991. Freshwater Sharks- the 'name game'. Pets, Supplies, Marketing 11/91.

Walker, Braz. 1968. The Tri-Color or Bala "Shark". The Aquarium 10/68.

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