Aquarium Freshwater Eels : 9 Things You Must Know

There are a huge number of species of fish available to aquarium owners.

Whether you’re looking for something tropical, coldwater, small, large, or a something somewhere in the middle, you’re sure to find something to meet your requirements.

If you’re looking for something a bit different, you might be considering a freshwater eel for your aquarium.

Just like fish, eels come in a variety of sizes, colors, and temperaments.  So, finding one that will fit in with your existing aquarium shouldn’t be too much trouble.

However, just like any other fish, you need to pay attention to their particular needs so that they lead a happy healthy knife.

9 Facts You Must Know About Freshwater Aquarium Eels

  1. Not all freshwater species that we call eels are actually eels.  Many eel-like creatures are actually elongated fish.  For example, swamp eels, rubber eels, and electric eels are made up of fish and amphibians.
  2. There is only one order of fish that are classified as freshwater eels, this is the Anuilliformes Order of eels.  This order of eels is made up of two families.  The Anguillidae, which includes the European eel and the American Eel, and the Moringuidae family, which includes the Worm and Spaghetti eels.
  3. Nearly every single Eel or Eel-like species is a carnivore and like nothing better than live aquarium food.
  4. Due to their soft bodies and scales, many eels need to be able to either bury themselves in the aquarium substrate or hide within cubby holes or caves.  They are therefore best kept in soft substrates such as sand or peat with plenty of places to hide.
  5. Most freshwater eels thrive in water that is every so slightly salty (as do many freshwater fish species). The salt helps prevent diseases, speeds up metabolism and provides other health benefits.
  6. The freshwater eels that are available in fish stores are normally juveniles, this is because some adult species can exceed a foot in length.  So it’s worth knowing what you’re getting yourself into before making a decision to buy.
  7. Some Eel species don’t have any scales, which makes them especially vulnerable to parasites.  If you’re planning to feed your Eels live bait such as feeder fish, you’ll want to treat the bait in anti-parasite water before feeding.
  8.  Eels are especially talented escape artists, with skills in jumping and wriggling through even the smallest of gaps, some can even breath normal air.  Swamp eels have been known to escape tanks and travel to other rooms in a house.
  9. Snowflake eels may be sold in fish shops as a freshwater species, and they can live in both freshwater and saltwater.  However, they are far more comfortable in saltwater and much more likely to thrive in a saltwater environment.

Types Of Aquarium Freshwater Eels That Can Be Kept In An Tank

As aquarium owners, we have several eel and eel-like species available to us.  We’re going to cover some of the most popular, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

American Eel

One of the most common eels found in American waters and in American aquariums is the aptly named American Eel.

They are most often sold as adolescents, and will generally cost very little, but that’s really all they have going for them.

I don’t have anything against the eels themselves, I think they’re interesting in their own right, they just don’t make good pets.

The problem is they grow and can reach five feet in length, so unless you have a massive tank, they’re going to outgrow your aquarium. Not only are they big, but they’re pretty boring to look at. Mature adults would normally return to the ocean once mature, so how are you going to do that in an aquarium?

Take my advice and leave them be, big, boring and unsuited for an aquarium.

There are many more interesting freshwater eels that look great an aquarium.

Dragon Gobies

If you have an established tank that you don’t want to have it terrorized by a scary look eel, then we think a Dragon Goby could be the perfect option.

They might look like they have more mouth than anything else, but they have tiny throats, so all your fish are safe around these goofy eels.

They’re also one of the clumsiest fish I’ve ever come across and will make a fool of themselves on a daily basis. Watch out though, they can grow in excess of a foot, so make sure you have the tank space to cope.

You also need to feed them the good stuff and are unlikely to eat your fish flakes. Blood worms seem to do well.

Kuhli Loaches

While not technically eels, we’ve included them because they look like eels 🙂

We love the fact that when you buy them from the fish store, they’re small and cute, and they stay that way for the rest of there lives.

They’re a very social species and like nothing better than cuddling, rolling around and enjoying each others company. So, if you decide you want some, you need to get a few.

You don’t need to worry too much about what you feed them, in my experience, they’ll eat nearly anything, flakes have never been an issue.

Tire Track Eel

One of the most popular eel types is the Tire Track Eel. You’ve probably seen them before on TV or the internet, or at your local fish shop.

Tire Track Eels are distinguished by their zigzag markings which extend along the full length of there back. Other Eel types may have slightly similar patterns, so its easy to mistake them for another species.

We like Tire Track Eels because they’re completely unfussy, sociable, will live with most other species quite happily and will eat almost any fish food.  Just be aware that they may eat species of fish smaller than themselves.

You need to be aware that they can be quite shy when first added to an unfamiliar aquarium. However, with time they’ll become more adventurous and you’ll see them more often doing eely things.

Like most eel species, Tire Track eels are pretty chill and like nothing better than hiding out and watching the world go by. You’ll need to stock your aquarium with hidey-holes and places to relax.

Be warned, they can get pretty big and will reach two feet with ease. Your aquarium will obviously need to be big enough to support them. If your tank is too small, you’ll stress the eel out can result in premature death.

Zig Zag Eel

If you mistake a Zig Zag Eel for a Tire Track Eel, then you would be forgiven, they do look remarkably similar. Aquarium owners have been known to buy one or the other by mistake.

There are subtle differences that will help you spot the difference between the two. The pattern and coloring differ between the two species.

Fire track eels have a more defined pattern, with a darker colored pattern on a yellow body. Zig Zag eels will also have a pattern, but it tends to be less pronounced and without the yellow coloring.

Both eel types start life at approximately the same size, coming in at a couple of inches for the juveniles. But once the eels mature their size difference becomes obvious.

Tire Track eels will max out at a pretty respectable 28 inches. However, Zig Zag eels will seem like a monster in comparison, growing to an absolutely massive 35 inches.

It goes without saying but make sure you’re tank support a fully grown adult before you decide to get one. One thing is for certain, these eels can get big and can outgrow a tank in the space of a year.

If cared for carefully you can expect a Zig Zag eel to live as long as 18 years, so bear this in mind. You’re going to be stuck with your eely friend for a long time.

Black Spotted Eel

Let me get it out the way with, I love Black Spotted Eels!

They’re a great starter Eel for aquarium owners with great looks and an easy going nature.

In captivity, you can expect them to grow to about 20 inches in length, so not small by any means. Life spans average at around 8 years, but some have lived as long as 18 years.

As the name suggests, Black Spotted eels have a black spotty pattern. Spots will align horizontally along the length of the eel. Mature adults will have more spots compared to juveniles.

Black Spotted Eels are a relaxed species, with little aggression, just make sure you have plenty of places to hide. Over time the eels will become more adventurous

Electric Eel

The Electric Eel is infamous in nature, and I must confess I would never consider one as a pet. Having said that, plenty of aquarium owners keep them.

Electric Eels are capable of producing as much as 600 volts of electricity, which is enough to stun a small horse, so you have been warned.

Not only can they potentially kill you, but they can also grow to very big indeed, easily growing to four feet, with some as large as five feet. If you’re confident in your Electric Eel keeping abilities, expect them to live to around 15 years.

Feeding them will likely involve live food, such as small fish, but with training, they can take dead feed. They’ll even begin to come to the surface when its feeding time.

So, just to recap, they’re massive, they need a ton of space, they don’t play well with others, they eat a lot and they can potentially give you a seriously nasty shock. Take one on at your own risk!

Peacock Eel

If you’re looking for a beautiful eel species, then look no further than the peacock eel. The markings can resemble the plumage of a peacock in the right light. Typically a single eel will have between four and six such peacock markings.

If you’re tight on space and have a tank that is at least 35 gallons, then a Peacock Eel might make a good choice. They will rarely exceed a foot in length, and most tend to be much smaller.

The species will get on with most other fish types, such be wary that as with most Eels, they’ll eat smaller fish if given the opportunity to do so. Having said that, they are normally quite happy to eat both live and dead food.

Just make sure you have a securely fastened lid on your tank as the Peacock Eel likes nothing better than escaping and then killing themselves next to a radiator. Don’t give them the opportunity to escape!

Half-Banded Spiny Eel

The Half-Banded Spiny Eel is a fantastic choice for anyone that has a tank that is at least 10 gallons. So, if you’re aquarium is on the smaller size, this might be a perfect choice.

Adults will grow to around eight inches in length, so not big at all, and they can be quite sociable with fellow Half-Banded Spiny Eels.

Just like most Eels, they prefer to come out at night and like to stay hidden during the daylight hours. Make sure you have plenty of hiding places, soft substrate and vegetation to lose themselves in.

They get on with most other fish species, but as always, be aware of smaller fish that might be treated as dinner. I would suggest making sure its neighbors are at least three inches in length so as not to become a snack.

Pink Paddletail Eel

Fantastically rare and exotic. The Pink Paddletail Eel is seriously difficult to get your hands on, I’ve never soon one for sale. If you get the opportunity to do so, check them out if your local fish store ever gets them in stock.

I’m not a big fan of how they look, a bit too much like worms, but I can appreciate why people like their unique looks. The purple/rosy tint to their skin is not a common coloring.

Make sure you have lots of places to hide and don’t expect them to be very active during daylight hours

I believe sand would be a good substrate for these Eels, which will offer them plenty of chances to bury themselves and hide from the rest of the tanks inhabitants.

If you want to see the Pink Paddletail eel when it’s active, then we would suggest using an aquarium moonlight lamp. You might not get to see their coloring, but you’ll have the opportunity to watch them get up to there nightly activity.

African Spiny Eel

The African Spiny Eel works well in a heavily planted tank with plenty of foliage to hide in. You’ll find these eels are masters of camouflage and will be hiding amongst the leaves in no time.

African Spiny Eels are characterized by there dark appearance, consisting of black and browns with distinct markings across their bank. These markings can consist of banding, spots or lines.

One of the biggest appeals of the African Spiny Eel is the size, maxing out at around six inches. Perfect for the small tank owner that’s limited to a small amount of space.

Just be aware that smaller fish can be seen as prey. Anything under one inch may end up as a midnight snack, so just make sure what other fish are going to be sharing the space with your eels.

With a little bit of training and coercion, you can even have these Eels eating out of your hand.

Ropefish

Ropefish are another eel type which isn’t strictly eels, but they look like an eel, so they’re on our list.

They’re typically nighttime predators, preferring to hide out during the daytime.

You’re going to need a lot of space for these beasts, at least 50 Gallons is recommended.  A full grown adult can reach an impressive 15 inches and they can live up to 10 years.

I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners, but someone with space and a few years of experience should cope just fine.

Moray Eels (Snowflake Eels)

Please don’t be fooled by the sales pitch, Moray Eels are not suitable for freshwater aquariums.

While it’s true that they may spend part of their life in freshwater, to have comfortable and stressfree life they need heavily brackish water or straight up saltwater.

Take our advice, leave them well alone.

How To Care For A Freshwater Aquarium Eel

Eels are largely hardy fish and are able to adapt to almost any type of aquarium condition.

Most are bottom dwellers, much preferring to skulk out at the bottom of a tank. However, some species are required to return to the surface in order to breath. If you have a species that needs to breathe air, make sure you have a gap between the top of your water and your aquarium lid.

As we’ve already briefly covered, eels are proficient escape artists. If you have a hole in your tank cover, you can almost be guaranteed that your Eels will attempt an escape at some point.

As Swamp Eels can breath normal air and are capable of jumping and crawling through small spaces, they’ve been known to travel large distances between bodies of water.

Eels like nothing better than hiding out in caves, in holes, under driftwood or in amongst dense foliage. But when the mood takes them, they enjoy a good swim. You’ll need to ensure your aquarium can support both behaviors.

Many Eels species like to burrow due to their soft bodies and small scales. It’s important that your substrate is soft enough to allow this. However, this can also make establishing a planted tank difficult, as they’ll tend to dig up newly planted plants.

Your tank shouldn’t be too bright or make sure there is plenty of shaded and dark areas for eels to hide and feel safe.

When they’re young, you can keep several eels together, but as they begin to mature they tend to become aggressive and territorial. Adults are most often solitary hunters and will fight other eels, as well as eat smaller fish. It’s best to keep Eels with fish that are at least the same size.

Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into with an Eel. Even though most Eels you’ll buy from a fish shop are small, they will grow, and some will grow a lot. If your tank won’t support an adult Eel, then don’t buy them as juveniles.

What to Feed Freshwater Aquarium Eels

Most Eels and other species that look like eels are predominantly carnivores.

They’re mostly nocturnal, meaning they’re going to be most active at night, and they love to hang out at the bottom of the tank.

Most will prefer to eat live food, including larvae, worms, fish and crustaceans. Some species such as the Spiny Eel will scavenge, so will quite happily eat dead fish or frozen and defrosted bloodworms.

Eels rarely need feeding more than once or twice a week, with some species feeding as little as twice a month.

Final Thoughts

Eels can bring a challenging addition to many freshwater aquariums, but you need to research the breed before committing to giving them a home.

Most if not all varieties need specialist diets, large tanks and plenty of room to hide and swim.  You need to also make sure your other tank inhabitants aren’t going to become prey.

If you have any first-hand experience keeping freshwater aquarium eels, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Or if you have any questions or would like more information on anything, let us know.

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