How to select the best Dragon Fish(Arowana)


Criteria for Selection

All Dragon Fish are beautiful creatures and have outstanding qualities. Some are more beautiful than others. So how does one go about selecting a good specimen? What is it that separates a top-quality fish from the rest? What should we be looking for when trying to come to such an important decision?

Eleven factors should be considered: colour, body shape, scales, mandibular barbels (whiskers), fins, eyes, mouth, teeth, gill covers, vent and swimming style. No single fish can score perfect marks in all these categories, of course, but the higher the notional score in each section, the better the overall quality of the specimen in question.

The following has been prepared with this in mind and, at the very least, should help you to obtain a Dragon Fish that is healthy and pleasing to the eye. At the end of this section, you will find a summary table for easy reference. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion on the specific qualities to look out for in certain commercial varieties of Dragon Fish.


The most important criterion is the colour of the fish because often it is the colour that first attracts the hobbyist. If the body shape is correct but not the colour, then the fish cannot be considered perfect. Naturally, the colour differs according to the variety of Dragon Fish (see Dragon Fish Varieties, pages 50-53).

Golden Dragon

Body Shape

The ideal shape is one that is in proportion and symmetrical. The body should be neither too fat nor too thin. It should have a firm appearance, without bulges or depressions. Body shape can be affected by the environment the fish is kept in and the type of food it receives.

A stunted specimen
A stunted specimen

The size of the tank has a direct effect on the growth and development of the body. A fish grown in a small tank will be stunted, and the body rounded and hunched. Dragon Fish should preferably be kept in a tank which is three times the body length.

The diet should be nutritious and consists of food which enhances the body colour. Live fish and shrimps represent good food for the Dragon Fish, but do not allow the fish to have a preference for one type of food, or overeat.

Scale pattern on a Golden Dragon Fish.
Scale pattern on a Golden Dragon Fish.


The scales of a Dragon Fish are most distinctive. They should be neatly layered, slippery, even in size and radiant. There should not be any dark spots, although red spots are welcome as these are considered auspicious .

Close-up of scales.
Close-up of scales.

Many people have a misconception that scales which drop off are not replaced. Dropped-off scales will be replaced with new ones. However, during the replacement process, the fish tends to rub its body against the sides of the tank because it feels itchy, and this may result in body damage. To prevent this, remove all objects in the tank that can damage the fish during this time. It takes about three to five weeks for the fish to regain its lost scales.

Water condition should be monitored, and quality maintained to prevent bacterial growth. If any scale is misshapen, it can be removed surgically, and a new scale will eventually grow in its place

Mandibular Barbels (Whiskers)

Many fish lovers have high regard for the Dragon Fish s barbels or whiskers because they resemble the dragon’s horns which are a sign of blessing. Mandibular barbels must be of equal length and be straight, with the colour similar to the body colour of the fish. Any broken, shortened or bent barbels may mean a reduction in the fish’s majestic appearance, but how can these barbels be preserved and maintained? Most importantly, make sure there is ample space for the fish to swim freely in the tank, thereby preventing the barbels from being damaged. Without sufficient space, the barbels cannot grow properly, and the tips may rub against the sides of the aquarium and become damaged.

Specimen with good eyes and undamaged barbels.
Specimen with good eyes and undamaged barbels.

To avoid damage to the barbels:

1. Do not decorate the aquarium with furnishings such as rocks.

2. Do not drop food in a corner; put it in the center of the aquarium.

3. Do not knock against the aquarium and frighten the Dragon Fish.

4. Cover the aquarium with thick glass with smooth, minimize rounded edges for safety

The above four points can minimize damage to the Dragon Fish s barbels, especially when the fish is excited or frightened.

Should the barbels be broken or damaged, the recovery period varies according to the age of the fish. Normally, a young fish recovers faster than an older one. Barbels may be damaged in two ways:

• At the root: when this occurs, recovery may be difficult even for a young Dragon Fish.

• Away from the root: it is necessary to decide whether to leave the barbel to grow back naturally, or to use a needle to help speed the growth. Even if the barbel is bent but not broken, it is best to cut it off so that it will not be out of shape when it re-grows.

Anaethetised Dragon Fish.
Anaethetised Dragon Fish.

The needle treatment

1. Sterilise a fine needle.

2. Administer anaesthesia to the Dragon Fish so that it is unconscious during the operation. MS222 is a clean and effective anaesthetic. Use 50 ppm (parts per million or mg/1) by mixing 2g of the chemical, which comes in powder form, with a small quantity of , then stir this into an aquarium tank containing 40 litres of water. Next, carefully transfer the fish from its aquarium using double-layer plastic bags (see Fish Transfer) into the tank containing the water with anaesthetic. Watch the fish until it shows signs of flipping over onto its belly, indicating that it is unconscious.

3. Place the unconscious fish on a rubber or plastic sheet.

4. With the sterilised needle, quickly but carefully prick the root region until it is swollen and bleeding. Apply antiseptic cream to the wound.

5. Place the fish back into the aquarium. The fish, being unconscious, will be belly-up. Increase the aeration and place the air stone near to the operculum (gill cover) of the fish to help its recovery. Place Acriflavine in the water (suggested concentration of 2 ppm) with 0.3-0.5% salt to safeguard against infection of the wound. Change 30% of the water daily for the next 3-5 days.

Juvenile Arowana with fins damaged by its tankmates.
Juvenile Arowana with fins damaged by its tankmates.


The fins of the fish are like its limbs. This is no different for the Dragon Fish. Any damaged fin can affect the graceful movement and, ultimately, the beauty of the whole fish. A beautiful fin should be one which is complete, smooth and outstretched, with all its hard rays straight and smooth. There should be no tear in the fin.

Care of the fins should begin when the fish is young. At this stage, the fish should not be given too much space in which to swim about as it would feel insecure in a spacious environment and tend to be easily frightened. When frightened, a young Dragon Fish dashes about at the slightest disturbance, thereby injuring itself. A smaller space to give the fish a feeling of security also enables it to be more active, thereby strengthening the fins at the same time.

To avoid damage to the fins:

•Do not install ornamental displays such as rocks.

•Do not rear other fish in the same tank.

•Use a fine-mesh net when scooping out the young fish. When the fish reaches 15cm (6in) in length, do not use a net but a double-layer plastic bag to remove it from the tank.

If a portion of the hard ray of the fin is injured, that is, broken or bent, gently remove the ray at its base with a pair of scissors and a new ray will grow in its place. In the case of more rays being damaged, place the fish under anaesthesia and remove the broken rays. Any case of broken rays should be attended to immediately, especially if the tail rays are involved, as the Dragon Fish depends largely on its tail fin to move about.


In its natural environment, the eyes of a Dragon Fish are focused on the surface of the water to search for live food. However, when a fish is reared in an aquarium which is transparent all round, the eyes tend to look downwards due to the surrounding distractions and because food is readily available in the water, usually at the bottom of the tank.

Sometimes, due to lack of exercise, the fish develops fat around the eyes and this may cause them to bulge in their sockets, thereby giving rise to protruding or droopy eyes.

The aquarist need not be unduly worried about a fish s downward¬ looking eyes, as this phenomenon is only the fish s natural adaptation to its environment. However, the value of the fish is adversely affected by this abnormality.

Close-up of eye (Green Dragon)
Close-up of eye (Green Dragon)

A good-quality fish must have eyes which are centrally focused. The eyes must not be droopy or protruding. They must be evenly shaped, clear and move naturally, and have a bright sparkle.


When the mouth is closed, the upper and lower lips must not protrude and the lower jaw should not hang loose. In the aquarium, fish often rub against the glass wall of the tank, resulting in the loosening of the jaw muscles. To avoid this, increase the volume of the aquarium; you could install a water jet to increase the flow of water into the tank.


Generally, fish hobbyists do not pay much attention to the teeth of their fish. However, if the teeth are not healthy-looking, the fish’s health will be affected and this, in turn, will affect the fish’s outward appearance.

Fish with gill-cover deformity at the intermediate stage.
Fish with gill-cover deformity at the intermediate stage.

Gill Covers

Normally, gill covers should be smooth and flat with no scratches or wrinkles. The following points should be noted:

• Do not install ornamental displays in the aquarium.

• Maintain the correct water temperature at around 26-28°C (c.79-82°F). Gill covers and head tissues may wrinkle if the temperature is too high. A drastic change in temperature may cause the fish to suffer tilted gill covers.

• Change water regularly and maintain a clean tank, keeping water at optimum quality condition.Water should be clear, not murky, and there should not be a layer of bubbles on the surface. The latter condition indicates a high organic load which should be avoided.

• Raise aeration to increase dissolved oxygen concentration in the water.

• Practise prophylactic preventive treatment should you see any injuries on the gill covers. Place 2 ppm of Acriflavine in the water once every two weeks, as this minimises infection by fungi and external parasites.


The vent of a healthy fish is located horizontally to the pelvic region and should not be easily visible. If the vent protrudes, it means that the fish has a stomach problem, an indication that it is not healthy. Exceptions are when the fish is due to spawn or after spawning.

Swimming Style

A graceful swimming style,
A graceful swimming style,

The manner in which a fish swims is important, as graceful movement enhances its aesthetic value. Correct posture is when the fish swims horizontally in the water, with its dorsal body profile parallel to the water surface and its fins spread out. The mandibular barbels must be pointing outwards and be straight. Seen from the top of the tank the fish must also have a proportionate, torpedo-shaped body. The fish must be able to turn around the tank swiftly. A fish which moves up and down or A graceful swimming style, diagonally is not ideal.

Summary of General Selection Criteria

Colour: according to the variety, the body colour should be bright and lustrous.

Body shape: sufficiently broad, long and symmetrical.

Scales: neatly arranged, shiny, evenly shaped and large.

Mandibular barbels: long and straight, equal in length and matching the body colour of the fish.

Fins: big, widespread and complete.

Eyes: even in shape and size, not droopy or protruding, lustrous and not misty.

Mouth: tightly closed, and jaws not protruding.

Teeth: neatly arranged and in line with jaw.

Gill covers: compact and close to the head and body; shiny and not scarred. 10. Vent: not protruding, flat on pelvic region.

Vent: not protruding, flat on pelvic region.

Swimming style: graceful and often swimming in the upper levels of the water in the aquarium.
Specific Selection Criteria

The specific selection criteria for four commercial varieties of Dragon Fish, namely, Green Dragon, Indonesian Red-Tail Gold Dragon, Malaysian Gold Dragon and Indonesian Red Dragon are described below.

Green Dragon Fish

Green Dragon Fish are native to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar. These fish have green scales and a prominent lateral line. The more expensive varieties have scales which are purplish-spotted; fish without the purple spots are more common and, therefore, cheaper. Generally, the Green variety is the least expensive of the four varieties described.


Scales: At 10cm (4in) length, the fish is silver in colour, having shades of grey and green. The colour is dull, mostly greyish.

Fins: Young fish have yellow fins, similar to the Gold Dragon Fish described below. However, when they become adult, the colour becomes bluish-green with grey overtones.

Head Region: This variety has a smaller head region than the other varieties, with dull greyish lips.

Body Shape: The fish has a relatively shorter and smaller body than the other three varieties.

Indonesian Red-Tail Gold Dragon Fish

In this variety, the dorsal portion of the fish is dark green, including the dorsal fin and upper half of its tail fin.The rest of the body scales are gold.

A good fish should have half of its scales glittering. Its gill cover does not have any red colour, but assumes a glittering gold. This attractive variety is found in Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia.

Indonesian Red-Tail Gold Dragon.
Indonesian Red-Tail Gold Dragon.

Scales: When the fish is only 10cm (4in) in length, it has golden scales tinged with pink. The edge of each scale is green, similar to the Malaysian Gold Dragon. At this young stage, it is difficult to distinguish between the two varieties, although the Malaysian variety is the more brightly coloured of the two. When the fish reaches 20cm (8in) and over, the lustre of the scales of the Malaysian variety extends to the fifth row, but not in the Indonesian variety.

Fins: At 10cm (4in) length, the fish has fins that are comparable to the Malaysian variety. The Indonesian variety has 9-11 spiny rays (hard fin rays) on its pelvic fin.These spines are black and close together.The caudal fin has six spiny rays. When the fish reaches about 15cm (6in) or over, the black colour of the rays gradually disappears.

Head Region: Lower gill covers are radiant, and the mouth is not as pointed as that of the Malaysian variety. In addition, adult fish do not assume as lustrous an appearance as their Malaysian counterparts.

Malaysian Gold Dragon Fish

This variety shares some characteristics of the Indonesian Red-Tail Gold, except that the former has golden scales overlapping the dark green back scales, causing the whole body to shine. This fish is in great demand because of limited supplies. Therefore it is more expensive than the Indonesian variety. Sometimes, the Malaysian Gold can be even more expensive than the Red Dragon.

Young adult Malaysian Gold Dragon.
Young adult Malaysian Gold Dragon.

Scales: When the fish is about 10cm (4in) long, the scales turn yellow, with a tinge of olive green. The glow extends to the fourth row of scales (from the stomach region). The edge of each scale is pinkish, with some golden yellow colour. When the fish is fully grown, the pink colour of the scales disappears, and the whole fish turns golden yellow. This glowing colour extends to the fifth row of scales and over the back of the fish. Note that, depending on the environment in which the fish is raised, the colour may differ. When there is insufficient light, the colour of the scales is darker than when the light is adequate.

Fins: At 10cm (4in), the fish has pinkish pectoral and pelvic fins and a red tail (caudal) fin. The pectoral fins are more arched and pointed at the tip. There are 7-9 black fin rays on the anal fin and five black rays on the tail fin. When the fish is fully grown, the black colour on the fins disappears and they turn reddish. The pectoral and pelvic fins turn golden. The anterior portion of the dorsal fin still retains a tinge of black. When the tail fin is broad and big, it indicates that the fish is in good health and condition.

Body Shape: At 20cm (8in) length, the fish s body is broad and elongated. Body colour is also brighter than in smaller specimens.

Head Region: The lower lips of the fish are silvery and bright, and taper towards the mouth.

Indonesian Red Dragon

In Hong Kong, this variety is also known as the Red Pearl-spitting Dragon Fish . In Malaysia and Singapore, Chinese businessmen call it the Prosperous Fish’. The Red Dragon is native only to Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia. However, in the mid-eighties, this variety was bred in captivity by fish breeders and hobbyists in Singapore. It is the most sought-after variety of the Dragon Fish as its red colour is associated, especially by the Chinese and Japanese, with wealth and prosperity. A good-quality fish has a‘chilli’ or blood-red body colour, and the edges of the scales are radiant. The gill covers have a unique red colouring, and all the fins and the edges of the scales may be apricot, pink, deep red, blood red, or even brown or liver-coloured.

Scales: At 10cm (4in) length, the fish has scales which are orange-yellow with a bit of light green; the edges of the scales are pink and radiant.When the fish is fully grown, the scales bear prominent red trimmings. The larger the fish, the redder these trimmings become. The scales take on a shade of purplish blue when the fish becomes fully grown.

Young adult Red Dragon of exceptional quality
Young adult Red Dragon of exceptional quality

Fins: The dorsal, tail and anal fins are bright red, whereas the pectoral and pelvic fins are bright orange, with a particular lustre. The tail fin is shaped either like a pear or a fan.

The pear-shaped tail.
The pear-shaped tail.

It has 9-12 hard spiny rays, which are darker in colour and close together, just like the Indonesian Red-Tail Gold variety, but these rays will later turn dark red when the fish is fully grown.

The fan-shaped tail.
The fan-shaped tail.

Body Shape: Red Dragon adults usually have longer bodies than specimens of the other three varieties.


Head Region: The bps are pink or a golden colour.

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