Camel Cowfish Care Guide

Scientific NameTetrosomus gibbosus
Minimum Tank Size125 Gallons
Water Parameters72-78 F, pH 8-8.4, Salinity 1.020-1.025
The Camel Cowfish is one of the less frequently owned boxfish. A member of the Ostraciidae family, they require an experienced aquarist and should never be bought without a lot of thought and preparation. They can easily wipe out an entire tank if improperly cared for but are known to be a bit less dangerous than the more commonly kept yellow boxfish or Longhorn Cowfish. Again the Camel Cowfish is for experts only.

The reason for the high difficulty rating and extreme caution around keeping this fish is the way it defends itself. The Camel Cowfish has the ability to release a powerful neurotoxin that wards off any predator, making the cowfish almost immune to large fish attacks. When eaten they are usually spit out before any harm can be done due to their toxins. In the vast ocean the poison is quick to dissipate and become harmless. When kept in our enclosed environments the neurotoxins have nowhere to go and remain at full strength. This will cause the fish in the tank to become extremely lethargic until they die from the poison that they cannot escape. This is very hard to spot as the toxins are not colored. Instead the owner would have to notice the odd fish behavior to hope to catch the poison in time to save anything in the aquarium. The top of the tank will be covered in a foamy substance from the poison, but this is not usually visible in most set ups.

Photo Credit to Tim Sheerman-Chase on Flickr

Despite their smaller size compared to other boxfish the Camel Cowfish will still see stunted growth in the aquarium. They are much more likely to stay around 9 or 10 inches when kept in an aquarium. They are not strong swimmers and should be kept in a low flow tank with no threats. A stressed boxfish will lead to either a poisoned tank or dead boxfish. While they are not particularly hard to care for their extreme responses make any mistakes extremely unforgiving. If you plan on keeping this fish you will need to remain vigilant for the 8+ years they can live. A checklist near the aquarium is a good way to keep big issues on your mind any time you interact with them.

An interesting Side note is that the Camel Cowfish is an invasive species in the Mediterranean Seas. They are originally from the red sea but have been able to travel to the Mediterranean Sea ever since the Suez Canal was built. There is no risk of reducing their population when supporting their collections as they are rated as least concern by the IUCN Red List.

A final interesting thing is how slow they swim, combined with their hard body, makes them incredibly easy to catch with bare hands. This should not be done as it will stress the fish out but it can be done to quickly move them to another tank if you see they are threatened or may possible release toxins soon.

Is the Camel Cowfish Reef Safe?

Boxfish are considered a ‘with caution’ fish when it comes to corals and inverts. Most inverts will not be bothered by the Camel Cowfish as they are far too slow to hunt shrimp and do not go for hard shelled things like crabs or snails. On the other hand they will eat things like worms, LPS corals and anything with an exposed fleshy membrane. This means things like clams, anemones and stationary worms like feather dusters cannot be kept with the Camel Cowfish.

Unlike wrasse the cowfish should not be considered an answer to worm infested tanks. Something that is much quicker and persistent when hunting worm should be used to combat large amount of worms. What the Camel Cowfish does bring that wrasse do not is the ability to shoot strong jets of water at the sand bed. They do this to hunt for burrowed worms to great effect.

Here we can see the cowfish searching for food on rocks, ignoring several corals in the tank.

Plenty of SPS, small polyp stony corals, can be kept with the Camel Cowfish. The cowfish will typically spend a lot of its time around these corals, keeping them safe from other fish. Their toxin holding bodies taste very bad to other fish. They will rub this taste on the corals they make their home, making them much less likely to experience nipping. Unlike clownfish who actively host corals, the Camel Cowfish will not actively defend any corals that it considers its home.The corals they prefer are usually branching corals that are fairly large. They will return to these multiple times throughout the day but will not spend all of their time there.

Camel Cowfish Diet

Keeping a Camel Cowfish well fed is not difficult but it can be hard to get them to start eating in a new aquarium. If they are being held in a local fish store you should ask the owner if they eat and if so how they are fed. Try to watch the fish being fed so that you can feed them in a similar matter when they get to your home tank. If this is not possible then live feeder shrimp, blood worms and mussels should be fed to the cowfish. These more pricey foods are likely to entice them into eating much more than normally prepared foods do.

The Camel Cowfish diet should contain:

  • Dried brine or mysis shrimp
  • Live gut loaded brine shrimp
  • Chopped table shrimp
  • Frozen foods
  • Chopped Squid
  • Clam
  • Mussels
  • Sponge based foods or sponge
  • Seaweed
  • Algae

If you choose to use prepared foods be sure to avoid flake foods. Even high quality flakes are not a good choice as the Camel Cowfish has difficulty getting enough to eat from flakes. Also avoid any foods that stay at the top of the tank. The Camel Cowfish is susceptible to buoyancy issues if they accidentally get air in their stomachs. Sinking pellets are a much better choice and are easier for the cowfish to catch and eat. These cost about the same as flake foods but are much cheaper than some of the other suggested foods.

When feeding the Camel Cowfish long feeding times should be used. This does not mean increase the amount of food the tank gets, rather feed the food over a long period of time. The Camel Cowfish is very slow when it comes to feeding but still requires a large amount of food. Dumping in a lot of food at once will typically see the cowfish eating slowly as its tankmates devour most of the food. This over feeds the majority of the tank while leaving the cowfish malnourished.

An interesting trait of the Camel Cowfish is how they spit out water at the owner to get attention. This is usually done when they are hungry. The activity of spitting should not be encouraged as they can accidentally ingest air which can give them buoyancy issues.
Seaweed is one of the best solutions to feeding the Camel Cowfish its herbivore nutrition. Many other herbivore foods and blended pellets will be ignored some of the more picky cowfish. However by clipping the seaweed to rocks it simulates their feeding habits in the wild of picking off algae from rocks. The two things to remember when feeding seaweed are:

  • Remove any uneaten seaweed after 1 hour
  • store the seaweed in a dry area

The seaweed we have access to is typically sold dried. This allows it to be stored for a much longer time than fresh seaweed. The trade off here is when it gets re hydrated the seaweed will begin to break down. As we will be placing it in the aquarium this happens quickly. The general rule is to remove seaweed an hour after you add it to the tank. This will keep the majority of it from breaking down into the tank, adding unnecessary nutrients to the water column that will only be eaten by bacteria.

The reason we cannot keep the seaweed around the aquarium is the humidity they create in the room. Once the bag of seaweed is open a large amount of humidity will go into the seaweed before it ever enters the aquarium. This makes it break down a lot quicker. For this reason it should be kept somewhere drier. Seaweed can be safely stored in the pantry.

In most stores there will only be two types of seaweed for sale. The normal green seaweed most people know and red seaweed. These will offer the Camel Cowfish different nutrition and should be alternated whenever possible. The red seaweed is known to break down quicker so try to keep an eye on it especially if it is in a higher flow area.

Camel Cowfish Tank Requirements

The Camel Cowfish is much smaller than many other boxfish. It can slip between most rocks and into smaller caverns. They will spend a lot of their time hiding around a couple rock structures, ducking into caverns, under overhangs or into any branching corals for cover when something approaches them. They will also roam the bottom of the tank blowing strong jets of water into the sand. This often uncovers worms that most other fish don’t typically catch.

Their tank should have a sand bed of at least an inch in depth. Large amounts of live rock are highly recommended. They feed off of the algae that grows on these rocks. The more surface area you can create with rocks makes for more space for the algae to grow. Large flat rocks at the top of the tank create good over hangs for the Camel Cowfish to hide under while also making a large flat surface for them to pick at algae.
While they do well when kept with other large or mid sized fish, the Camel Cowfish does not do well in high flow tanks unless there are a lot of low flow areas. Their hard body and slow swimming makes them easy to push around with strong powerheads or wave makers. Most filters will not be too strong for them unless they become sick.

One of the worst things you can do is add the Camel Cowfish to a tank that was never intended to house them. An aquarium that does not suit a boxfish is likely to stress them until they either bomb the tank with their toxins or die due to stress. While they are not particularly demanding it is easy to stress them out with an aquarium meant for large fish or competitive eaters.

Camel Cowfish Tankmates

While boxfish do not interact much with their tankmates the wrong fish can make the tank uninhabitable. Avoid fast swimming fish that use shows of aggression to establish dominance, large fish that harass tankmates as well as other boxfish or similar looking puffer fish. Cleaner shrimp can try to clean the Camel Cowfish but will either have difficulty or not even try to clean them. On the other hand fish that clean fish should not be kept with a boxfish as their poisons could easily kill them if they startle the boxfish.

Most aggressive fish will know to avoid the boxfish however very large fish will still try to eat them. If this happens it is basically guaranteed that the Camel Cowfish will release neurotoxins in self defense. They usually emerge unharmed from such attacks.

No matter how safe the boxfish may be with larger fish they should never be kept together.

Good tankmates are:

  • Dwarf Angelfish
  • Clownfish
  • Cardinalfish
  • Chromis
  • Butterfly Fish
  • Peaceful Angelfish
  • Wrasse
  • Anthias

Hard shelled crawling inverts like snails, crabs and hermits are good clean up crew members. They should not be attacked by the camel even if they do spend a lot of their time in the same areas around the bottom of the tank. They are not able to bite through these hard shells but may shoot jets of water at them on occasion.

Large decorative shrimp are usually fine with the Camel Cowfish. As long as they are able to swim quickly the cowfish should give up on hunting them quickly and accept the shrimp as tankmates. Small, slow moving inverts should not be kept with this boxfish.

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