Bala Sharks in Your Aquarium

Balantiocheilus melanopterus - Bala Shark
Ray Pierce

A school of Bala Shark can make a dramatic addition to a large aquarium tank. These Southeast Asian fish are not sharks, but their shark-like appearance and size can be desirable. Here are the facts on the species and how to care for them.

Quick Facts about Bala Sharks

  • Scientific Name: Balantiocheilus melanopterus
  • Synonym: Barbus melanopterus, Puntius melanopterus, Systomus melanopterus
  • Common Name: Bala Shark, Hangus, Malaysian Shark, Silver Bala, Silver Shark, Tricolor Shark, Tri-color Shark Minnow
  • Family: Cyprinidae
  • Origin: Southeast Asia
  • Adult Size: 13 inches (35 cm)
  • Social: Peaceful, but may eat small fish
  • Lifespan: 10 years
  • 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 - 7.0
  • Hardness: to 10 dGH
  • Temperature: 72-82°F (22-28°C)

Origin and Distribution of Bala Sharks

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 they originally inhabited and are believed to be completely extinct in some regions.

The cause of this drastic reduction of this species in its 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.

It is quite likely that all these events 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.


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.

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, continuing to grow for several years.

Also, be aware that many pet shops will not take large fish back, so consider that before bringing one home. Ask the shop if they will make 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 non-indigenous fish, into local waterways.

Unwanted fish should be euthanized before opting to dump them outdoors.

Tankmates for Bala Sharks

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 mediums- to large-sized robust fish.

Habitat and Care for Bala Sharks

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, as 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 will jump 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.


This species is an omnivore that is not fussy about what it eats.

Bala Sharks will accept flake foods, pellets, freeze-dried and frozen foods. They will also voraciously accept live foods, including daphnia, bloodworms, brine shrimp, mosquito larvae, and tubifex. Vegetables should be included in their diet, and they will readily accept fresh veggies such as spinach, peas, as well as fresh fruits.

Sexual Differences

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

Breeding Bala Sharks

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 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.