Bala Sharks

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. Here are the facts on the species and how to care for them.

Breed 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


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

Egglayer, not bred in home aquaria

Care Easy to intermediate
pH 6.5–7.0
Hardness to 10 dGH
Temperature 72–82 F (22–28 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 believe damming of the rivers is to blame, while still others believe pollution is the root cause. All these events quite likely factored into the demise of this fish that at one time was quite prolific in the area.

Regardless of the reason, there is no question that the Bala Shark is rarely found in its original native haunts. 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 are captive bred.

Colorings 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 true shark, it has a large triangular-shaped dorsal fin and torpedo-shaped body that gives it a distinctly shark-like appearance. That’s where the similarity to real sharks ends, as this species is far more peaceful than the average ocean-going shark (and is a freshwater fish while sharks are ocean-dwellers).

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 teal. 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 they are suitable for most tanks. What isn’t apparent at this point is the fact that this fish can grow to a foot or more in size, making it suitable for only a very large aquarium. This is particularly true because Bala Sharks are schooling fish that must be kept with others of its own kind. Bala Sharks are active fish that startle easily and will leap out of the tank if it does not have a good cover.
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 continue to grow for several years.

Also, 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 dump a Bala Shark, or any nonindigenous fish, into local waterways. Unwanted fish should be euthanized before opting to dump them outdoors.


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. They also tend to stress shy or slow-moving fish, due to their constant vigorous activity in the tank. Balas should not be kept with inverts, such as snails and shrimp, as these are part of their normal diet in nature.

Balas should be kept in schools, preferably four or more. When kept alone, they tend to be quite timid and skittish. If kept with only one or two others of its own kind, a dominant fish may emerge and bully the others. Therefore, it is wise to keep a larger school of Balas. If the tank is large enough, adult Bala Sharks can be kept with other medium- to large-sized robust fish.

Habitat and Care 

As previously mentioned, the key factor in the Bala environment is tank size. An aquarium of 125 gallons is needed to keep a school of adult Bala Sharks. Since they are active swimmers, a longer tank is recommended. 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.

Water should be soft to medium-hard, slightly acidic, and 72–82 F (22–28 C). They are sensitive to water conditions, particularly low water temperatures, and are susceptible to white spot when temperatures drop too low.

The tank should be fitted with a good cover, as this species jumps when startled. Decorate with large robust plants around the periphery of the tank, leaving plenty of open swimming space in the center of the tank. Floating plants are also suitable to deter the 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 in the water column.

The Diet

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

Sexual Differences

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

Breeding the Bala Shark

Bala Sharks have not been successfully bred in home aquaria, although occasional undocumented reports surface. The primary issue is tank size, as well as the lack of information regarding the required conditions for breeding. Interestingly enough, this species is bred commercially. In fact, most specimens for sale are commercially bred in the Far East. However, these commercial breeders employ the use of hormones to induce spawning, so natural spawning conditions are still largely undefined.

More Pet Fish Breeds and Further Research

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