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What is a Bala Shark?

By Kelly Ferguson
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Balantiocheilos melanopterus is a species of fish known as a bala shark, tricolor shark, silver shark, or shark minnow. This fish is not actually a shark at all; it got its name because its body and dorsal fin shape resemble that of a shark. It shares the family Cyprinidae with common fish such as carp and minnows.

Commonly found in pet stores, the bala shark is a popular choice for aquarium owners. They have a pleasant appearance with a shiny silver body, fins edged in black, and a sleek shark-like shape. It is difficult to tell the differences between a male and female. The bala shark is peaceful and can be kept in freshwater aquariums alongside other types of fish with relative ease, provided that the other fish are not small enough to eat.

Bala sharks are active swimmers and jumpers and tend to school together when kept in groups. They actually prefer to be kept with groups of other bala sharks and can become nervous and destructive when kept alone. They have a lifespan of 8 to 10 years and grow to be fairly large for an aquarium fish, from 12 inches to 16 inches (30.5 cm–40.6 cm). Their size means they require large, covered tanks and the care of an experienced fish owner. Many aquarists recommend that new aquarium owners avoid including bala sharks as starter fish. In addition to these requirements, bala sharks enjoy live plants and wide open swimming areas in their tanks.

Bala sharks are naturally found in rivers and lakes throughout Sumatra, Thailand, Borneo and Malaysia, although their population has decreased severely since the 1970s. They are almost extinct in some regions and are recognized as an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The reason for this drastic population decline is not known, but some fishermen cite overfishing to accommodate the growing popularity of bala sharks as aquarium fish as a possible cause.

In the wild, bala sharks eat insects and insect larvae, rotifers, phytoplankton, algae, small crustaceans, and other live food. They journey to special breeding areas and participate in mass spawning when mating. The bala shark as an aquarium fish does not have a picky appetite and will contentedly eat flake foods. Aquarium breeding of a bala shark is difficult to do and is not recommended for the average aquarium owner.

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