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Sphaerichthys vaillanti PELLEGRIN, 1930

Vaillant's Chocolate Gourami


Order: Perciformes Family: Osphronemidae


Type locality is the village of Nangah Sebroeang which lies south of the Danau Sentarum National Park within the upper Kapuas river basin, West Kalimantan (Kalimantan Barat) province in the Indonesian part of Borneo. It appears to be endemic to the Kapuas drainage where it’s also been recorded from the Danau Sentarum lake system itself as well as further downstream near the city of Sintang.


Thought to mostly inhabit peat swamps and associated black water streams though may also found in some clear water habitats. The former are located in forested areas and contain water that is typically stained dark brown by humic acids and other chemicals released from decaying organic material.

This results in a negligible dissolved mineral content and the pH can drop as low as 3.0 or 4.0. The dense rainforest canopy above means that very little light penetrates the water surface and the substrate is normally littered with fallen tree branches and rotting leaves. Aquatic plant species may include representatives of genera such as Cryptocoryne, Blyxa, Barclaya, Eleocharis, Utricularia, and Lymnophila.

Due to human activity vast tracts of primary forest have been altered or lost entirely throughout Borneo, and in the Kapuas region water pollution and other environmental degradation due to illegal gold mining, deforestation, conversion of land to agriculture, overfishing, the introduction of exotic species and the aquaculture industry have increased dramatically since the late 1990s. According to the IUCN attempted conservation efforts have thus far failed and a significant percentage of S. vaillanti populations may have already been lost.

At the type locality there were no aquatic plants and the fish were collected among submerged tree roots in clear, slightly tannin-stained water. the pH was 5.3, conductivity 20 µS/cm and water temperature 85.1°C/29.5°C.

Kottelat & Widjanarti (2005) noted that it is not an abundant fish in the Danau Sentarum system and that it’s normally collected in small creeks among leaf litter and other debris where it’s colour pattern and swimming behaviour apparently assist in mimicry of a dead leaf.

Maximum Standard Length

45 – 55 mm.

Aquarium SizeTop ↑

An aquarium with base dimensions of 60 ∗ 30 cm or more is recommended.


Provided adequate cover and structure is available this species is unfussy with regards to décor with ceramic flowerpots, lengths of plastic piping and other artificial materials all useful additions. A more natural-looking arrangement might consist of a soft, sandy substrate with wood roots and branches placed such a way that plenty of shady spots and caves are formed.

The addition of dried leaf litter (beech, oak or Ketapang almond leaves are all suitable) would further emphasise the natural feel and with it the growth of beneficial microbe colonies as decomposition occurs. These can provide a valuable secondary food source for fry, whilst the tannins and other chemicals released by the decaying leaves will aid in the simulation of a blackwater environment. Leaves can be left in the tank to break down fully or removed and replaced every few weeks.

This species seems to do best under fairly dim lighting and plant species from genera such as Microsorum, Taxiphyllum, Cryptocoryne, and Anubias are recommended since they will grow under such conditions. A few patches of floating vegetation to diffuse the light even further may also prove effective.

It naturally inhabits sluggish or still environments therefore filtration, or at least water flow, should not be very strong. Very large water changes are best avoided with 10-15% weekly adequate provided the tank is lightly-stocked.

Water Conditions

Temperature21 – 25 °C

pH3.5 – 6.5

Hardness0 – 54 ppm


Primarily a micropredator feeding on small aquatic crustaceans, worms, insect larvae and other zooplankton. It can be a little picky in the aquarium and initially may not accept dried or otherwise prepared foods, though in many cases will learn to take them over time.

At any rate it should be offered daily meals of small live or frozen fare such as Artemia nauplii, Daphnia, grindal worm, micro worm, etc., in order to develop ideal colour and conditioning.

Behaviour and CompatibilityTop ↑

Tankmates must be chosen with care since this species is slow-moving and will easily be intimidated or outcompeted for food by larger/more boisterous tankmates. Peaceful, pelagic cyprinids such as Trigonostigma or smaller Rasbora species make good choices as do some loaches such as Pangio or Kottelatlimia spp.

Though not gregarious in the sense of schooling/shoaling fishes it does seem to require interaction with conspecifics and displays more interesting behaviour when maintained in numbers, meaning we recommend the purchase of no less than 6 individuals.

Groups develop noticeable hierarchies and you’ll often see dominant individuals chasing away their rivals at feeding time or when occupying their favourite spot. According to observations maintaining it in numbers also appears to favour the formation of breeding pairs.

Sexual Dimorphism

The sexes can be tricky to tell apart when newly-imported or not in good condition though females always possess a uniformly straight lower jaw profile and overall more acuminate head shape than males. In the latter the lower jaw is slightly rounded due to the presence of distensible skin that is expanded during mouthbrooding (see ‘Reproduction’).

Once fully-acclimatised however this species exhibits spectacular reversed sexual dimorphism with the female taking on a red and green patterning which intensifies further during courtship/spawning, while males remain brownish. See the ‘Notes’ section for a more detailed description.


This species is a paternal mouthbrooder. It can be bred in a group or single pair in a set-up as suggested above, and provided the quality of both water and diet is maintained should not prove too difficult. Courtship is normally initiated by the female, or alpha female if multiple individuals are present.

The climactic spawning embrace is similar to that seen in Luciocephalus and Parasphaerichthys species in that the pair remain almost upright, rather than the female being turned upside down as in Betta and most other anabantoid genera.

The spawning process may take several hours with eggs laid and fertilised on the substrate (we’ve seen images in which a shallow clay pot was used) and the male collecting them in his mouth directly. The surrounding area is defended by both fish throughout.

Brooding males tend to take refuge in a quiet area of the tank and eat very little, if at all. The eggs/fry are retained in the mouth for 7 – 20 days before 10-40 fully-formed, free swimming juveniles are released. The male can be removed to a separate tank a few days post-spawning in order to minimise the chances of fry predation if you prefer though in mature, heavily-decorated set-ups some may survive. Alternatively the fry can be removed as they are released/spotted provided water of the same chemistry and temperature is available elsewhere.

The fry should be large enough to accept live foods such as microworm or Artemia nauplii immediately, and daily water changes of around 10% of tank volume should also be performed in order to maintain water quality and growth rate. The rearing tank must have a tightly-fitting cover (some breeders use clingfilm/shrinkwrap to ensure no gaps) as they need access to a layer of warm, humid air to ensure proper development of the labyrinth organ.

NotesTop ↑

This species is traded under several names of which others include ‘Samurai gourami’ and ‘Samurai Zebra Chocolate Gourami’. Though the former of these is arguably the most common, these names are potentially misleading since the fish is neither especially combative nor from Japan.

Its unique colour pattern makes it difficult to confuse with any of the three other members of the genus even in the absence of meristic data. Specifically, S. osphromenoides and S. selatanensis both possess a relatively more compact body shape, distinctive colour pattern consisting of light vertical bars over a brown to reddish base colouration and are maternal mouthbrooders.

Its closest relative appears to be S. acrostoma which is similar in terms of body shape and also a paternal mouthbrooder, but the two be easily identified by colour pattern. In S. acrostoma males possess a light lateral stripe extending from the caudal peduncle base to midbody with a concurrent dark stripe underneath while females exhibit a few dark, vertically-orientated scale rows in the lower, anterior portion of the otherwise uniformly brownish body. There are two red markings extending posteriorally and ventrally to the eye, respectively.

In S. vaillanti males the pale lateral stripe extends from behind the the eye to the caudal-fin base and the concurrent dark stripe is both thinner and less intense, plus there is an additional vertical bar between dorsal and anal fins.

Females possess a series of alternating red and green vertical bars extending across most of the body and usually above the lateral line, the anterior portion of the upper body is predominantly greenish with the posterior more reddish, and all colours intensify to spectacular effect when the fish are in spawning condition. The eye markings as described for S. acrostoma are darkish in both sexes.

Sphaerichthys species are often grouped within the Osphronemid subfamily Luciocephalinae along with the genera Trichogaster, Trichopodus, Luciocephalus, Parasphaerichthys, and Ctenops. They share with the latter trio an egg structure that is unique among teleosts; the distinguishing factor consisting of a series of spiralling ridges on the outer surface. This has given rise to the (as yet unproven) theory that the four genera form a monophyletic group, i.e., they share a common genetic ancestor.

In Luciocephalus and Sphaerichthys the eggs are also distinctively pear-shaped suggesting that these two share even closer genetic roots, and this theory was supported in the detailed phylogenetic study published by by Rüber et al. (2006). Sphaerichthys and Luciocephalus were repeatedly found to be most closely related to one another and represent the sister group to Ctenops and Parasphaerichthys.

Like others in the suborder Anabantoidei this species possesses an accessory breathing organ known as the labyrinth organ. So-called due to its maze-like structure this organ allows the fish to breathe atmospheric air to a certain extent. It’s formed by a modification of the first gill arch and consists of many highly vascularised, folded flaps of skin. The structure of the organ varies in complexity between species tending to be more well-developed in those inhabiting particularly oxygen-deprived conditions.


  1. Britz, R. and M. Kottelat, 2002 - Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters 13(3): 243-250
    Parasphaerichthys lineatus, a new species of labyrinth fish from southern Myanmar (Teleostei: Osphronemidae).
  2. Britz, R., M. Kokoscha, and R. Riehl, 1995 - Japanese Journal of Ichthyology 42(1): 71-79
    The anabantoid genera Ctenops, Luciocephalus, Parasphaerichthys and Sphaerichthys as a monophyletic group: evidence from egg surface structure and reproductive behaviour.
  3. Kottelat, M. and E. Widjanarti , 2005 - Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement 13: 139-173
    The fishes of Danau Sentarum National Park and the Kapuas Lakes area, Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia.
  4. Roberts, T. R., 1989 - Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences No. 14: i-xii + 1-210
    The freshwater fishes of western Borneo (Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia).
  5. Rüber, L., R. Britz, and R. Zardoya, 2006 - Systematic Biology 55(3): 374-397
    Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolutionary Diversification of Labyrinth Fishes (Perciformes: Anabantoidei).

5 Responses to “Sphaerichthys vaillanti – Vaillant’s Chocolate Gourami”

  • Sverting

    Most other sites claim it to be 8cm long and that they need aquarium measuring at least 80x30cm.


    Hoedeman, J. J.(1969): Aquariumvissen encyclopedie 5. Elsevier Nederland B. V., Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
    Richter, H. J. (1979): Das Buch der Labyrinthfische. Verlag Neumann-Neudamm, Melsungen, Germany.


  • Hi Sverting, thanks as always for the feedback. In this case I’m going to beg to differ, though.

    The size range we quote above is based on information from several people who have kept the fish, personal (trade) experience, plus scientific records. I’m confident this species doesn’t reach 80 mm SL.

    We use standard length here on SF, so perhaps those references refer to total length?

    Regarding aquarium size, there’s at least one hobbyist who’s bred it in a 30 x 20 cm tank. 60 cm x 30 cm should therefore be more than sufficient for a group…

  • Sverting

    You have my most sincere thanks since I wanted to add S. vaillanti to my Bornean setup.

    I didn’t want to say, that your information was wrong, far from it, but wanted to find the truth about this species. Sadly, it’s really hard to find anyone breeding this fish in Poland, and thus i was left without any sound proof as to the size it should achieve.

    Nevertheless, if I’ll be able to buy S. vaillanti and they’ll outgrow the predicted 5cm SL You’ll be the first to know.

    As to breeding the fish in smaller aquarium, I wouldn’t say it’s a sound proof that aquarium is big enough, but I agree that 60×30 cm are surely enough for a 5cm long gourami.

  • Hi, no problem at all, we really appreciate feedback and it’s true that in this case most sources have different information so it is logical that ours might seem questionable.

    Good luck on finding the fish, and please let us know if you do. 🙂

  • Hi, I have to agree with Matt that I don’t think that these fish will be able to reach that size… it just seems so much bigger than the records and I have kept them several times too. Never say never – but I just can’t see them getting that big?!

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