Northern Snakehead

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Channa argus - Cantor, 1842
Northern Snakehead

Channa argus, an invasive species in several US states. Courtesy US Geological Survey.


Reaching weights of up 8 kg (17.6 lbs.) and lengths of a meter (39 in.), this is a gluttonous predator and a fish unsuited to most home aquariums. (Snakeheads that grow into adult sizes in the confines of a tank have burst glass aquarium walls and bitten their keepers with formidably sharp teeth.) This was once the most commonly imported snakehead offered to aquarists, and hobbyists have regretted buying young juveniles, expecting they could cope with a spirited fish.

In the wild, snakeheads feed voraciously on all sorts of animals, including fishes, crustaceans, frogs, snakes, water birds, and even small mammals. They are able to slither out of the water for short periods, allowing them to move from one body of water to another. (In cooler weather, they can survive out of water for three to four days breathing air with a primitive labyrinth organ.) Cute juveniles of most species grow into fearsome adults that require special handling and huge quantities of meaty foods.

This species, and all members of its genus, are banned in the US and are illegal to import, transport, sell, or own with a permit. This ruling came about after released or escaped Northern Snakeheads established breeding populations in Maryland, Virginia, and Arkansas. They are perceived as predatory threat to native fishes, invertebrates, and other wildlife.

Young adult Channa argus. USGS Image.

In its native range, it is an important food fish. Some snakeheads found in US waters are believed to have been intentionally planted by fishermen hopeful of future catches.

There are dwarf Channa species, such as the Rainbow Snakehead that are much more appropriate for the home aquarium. These are popular in Britain and Europe, but officially banned in the U.S. under a rules that forbid the trade or possession of all Channa species.

Family: Channidae

Other common name(s):

  • Snakehead

Native range:

Habitat: Streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, flooded rainforests. Associates with aquatic plants that give it cover as it waits to ambush prey.

Maximum length: 100 cm (39 in)

Minimum aquarium size: 2271 L (600 gal)

Water: Freshwater 14 °C (57 °F) - 22 °C (72 °F)

General swimming level: Bottom to midwater.


Carnivore. See Overview above.

Aquarium Compatibility

Incompatible with all other aquarium fishes and invertebrates. Will eat almost anything it can fit into its gaping mouth, and is also reported to attack and kill or main any fish that enters its territory.


Sexual maturity comes at 30 cm (about 1 ft.) and around two years of age. Warm weather spawner, releasing pelagic eggs.



Text credit: JL