Bala Shark Fish Species Profile

Characteristics, Origin, and Helpful Information for Hobbyists

Balantiocheilus melanopterus - Bala Shark in a tank
Timothy Paine

A school of bala shark can make a dramatic addition to a large aquarium tank. These Southeast Asian fish are not true sharks, but their shark-like appearance and size make them quite an intriguing pet. Due to their peaceful nature, juvenile bala sharks do well in a community aquarium. As they mature, however, they will eventually outgrow most tanks, and they will continue to grow for several years.

Species Overview

Common Names: bala shark, hangus, Malaysian shark, silver bala, silver shark, tricolor shark, tri-color shark minnow

Scientific Name: Balantiocheilus melanopterus

Adult Size: 13 inches (35 cm)

Life Expectancy: 10 years

Characteristics

Family Cyprinidae
Origin Southeast Asia
Social Peaceful, but may eat small fish
Tank Level All levels
Minimum Tank Size 120 gallon
Diet Omnivore, accepts all foods
Breeding Egglayer, not bred in home aquaria
Care Easy to intermediate
pH 6.5 to 7.0
Hardness to 10 dGH
Temperature 72 to 82 F (22 to C)

Origin and Distribution 

Bala sharks originate from Southeast Asia in medium to large-sized rivers, as well as lakes. At one time they were found in Thailand, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Malayan peninsula. However, they have become rare in many areas that they originally inhabited and are believed to be completely extinct in some regions.

The cause of this drastic reduction of bala sharks in their native lands is still under debate. Some believe they were overfished for the aquarium industry. Others think damming of the rivers is to blame, while still others believe pollution is the root cause. All of these quite likely factored in the demise of this fish that at one time was quite prolific in Southeast Asia.

Regardless of the reasons, there is no question that the bala shark is rarely found in its original native habitats. In fact, since 1996 it has been on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Currently, this species is commercially farm bred in the Far East, using hormones to promote spawning. Almost all specimens sold in the aquarium trade have been captive-bred.

Colors and Markings

This species is known by a number of names, all of which have something in common: the word "shark." Even though the bala shark is not a shark at all, it has a large triangular-shaped dorsal fin and a torpedo-shaped body, giving it a distinctly shark-like appearance, but that’s where the similarity ends.

A member of the Cyprinid family, Balantiocheilos melanopterus has a shiny metallic silver body with well-defined scales, large eyes, and a deeply forked yellow-tinged tail. The dorsal, caudal, pelvic, and anal fins are all edged in deep black. This tri-color scheme of silver, yellow, and black gives rise to another of its common names, the tri-color shark.

Perhaps the most important feature of this fish is its adult size. Usually sold as young juveniles in pet shops, they are only a mere three to four inches, giving potential owners the impression that they are suitable for most tanks. What isn’t readily apparent is the fact that this fish can grow to a foot or more in size, making it suitable for only very large aquariums. This is particularly important because bala sharks are schooling fish that must be kept with others of their own kind.

Be aware that many pet shops will not take large fish back, so take that into consideration before bringing one home. Ask the shop if it makes trade-in arrangements. If all else fails, check out public locations, such as medical offices or other businesses that have large aquariums that could use large fish. The one option that should never be used is to drop a bala shark, or any other nonindigenous fish, into local waterways. Unwanted fish should be euthanized before opting to release them outdoors.

Tankmates

Juvenile bala sharks can be kept with a wide variety of fish due to their generally peaceful nature. As they grow larger, though, they will sometimes eat small fish, particularly sleek fish, such as the neon tetra. Balas should not be housed with invertebrates, such as snails or shrimp, as these are always part of their diet in the wild. They also tend to scare the shy and slow-moving fish, due to their constant, vigorous activity in the tank.

Balas are most content in schools, preferably of four or more; when kept alone, they tend to be both timid and skittish. If only two or three balas are in the tank, a dominant fish may emerge and bully the others. If the tank is large enough though, adult bala sharks can be housed with other medium- to large-sized robust fish.

Bala Shark Habitat and Care 

As previously mentioned, the key factor in the bala's environment is tank size. An aquarium of 125 gallons is needed to keep a school of adult bala sharks, and since they are active swimmers, a longer tank is recommended. These are active fish that startle easily.

In warm climates, ponds are also an option for this species, but they should only be kept outdoors in locations where it is warm year-round. They are sensitive to water conditions, particularly low water temperatures, and are susceptible to white spot disease when temperatures drop too low.

The tank should be fitted with a tight cover, as this species jumps when startled. Decorate with large robust plants around the periphery of the tank, but leave plenty of open swimming space in the center of the tank. Floating plants are also suitable to deter fish from jumping out. Provide smooth rocks and driftwood to round out the décor. Filtration should be robust to ensure good water movement and high oxygen levels throughout the water column.

Bala Shark Diet and Feeding

This species is an omnivore that is not fussy about what it eats. Bala sharks accept flake foods, pellets, freeze-dried and frozen foods. They also voraciously accept live foods, including Daphnia, bloodworms, brine shrimp, mosquito larvae, and tubifex worms. Vegetables should be included in their diet as well; they readily consume fresh veggies such as spinach and peas, as well as fresh fruits.

Gender Differences

Most of the time, there are no obvious external differences between the sexes. However, during the spawning season, the female develops a rounder underbelly than the male.

Breeding the Bala Shark

Bala sharks have not been successfully bred in home aquaria, although occasional undocumented reports do surface. The likely issue is tank size, along with the lack of information regarding the required conditions for breeding. Interestingly though, this species is bred commercially. However, the commercial breeders in Asia employ the use of hormones to induce spawning, so the natural spawning conditions are still largely unidentified.

More Pet Fish Species and Further Research

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Check out additional fish species profiles for more information on other freshwater fish.