Channa marulia

{pronunciation} ma-rule-ee-a

Common name:

Sal (Bengal); Large Murrel (India); River Murrel (India); Gan ara, (Sri Lanka); Kalu maha (black fish (Sri Lanka) pla chon ngu hao (ngu hao= cobra) (Thailand).

First description:

Hamilton.F. 1822
Ophiocephalus marulius.
An Account of the Fishes found in the River Ganges and it's Branches.
Publ. Archibald Constance. Edinburgh. pp. 65-66.


D: 45-55 A: 23-36 C: 15 V: present Ratio: 3.1-4.0




All vertical unpaired fins can be a deep or pale blue, adorned with numerous white/gold spots. However, the rounded caudal has at the root of the fin, on its upper side, a black spot surrounded by a white/gold ring. The unmarked pectorals are black and noticeably large. The toning of the upper body is green, black or dark brown, marked by dark irregular belts (cross-bands) crossing the back. Four to six large, black irregular spots are seen in the mid-section. The yellowish-white lower part has numerous white spots.

Juvenile differences in colouration:

In the Indian form, described by Francis Hamilton, the young fish have the dark adult cross bands, terminating in an orange lateral stripe from the eye to the caudal. The caudal spot has an orange aura and there are several pale stripes in the dorsal fin.

The juvenile Channa marulia ara, has a yellow lateral stripe and a similar orange ocellus. Brown dots appear on the dark dorsal and yellow anal and there are about 5 dark vertical stripes on the dusky caudal fin. The fins have no colour.

Size: Can grow to a size of 1220 mm.


950 mm.

Sub-species and colour variants:

Channa marulia ara ( Deraniyagala 1945)

This Sri Lankan variety differs in posesing a lower than average ray count of the dorsal (45-49) and anal (23-31) fins. This largest and rarest Snakehead in Sri Lanka has a wide diversity of colours, and Deraniyagala (1929) states that the fish can completely change it's hue in a few minutes. General colour differences are that the upper part of the body is pale olive, the middle is bright brassy yellow, whilst the lower torso is a dirty yellow.

The markings are similar to the Indian type, although a dark violet lateral band runs from the eye to the end of the caudal fin. This band is capable of enormous expansion, to the point that it dominates the whole body area and gives it the appearance of being a dissimilar, 'black' fish .

There are one or two violet bands on the top of the head.

The dark-based ocellus in the caudal fin is usually absent in specimens longer than 260mm.

Channa maurulia leucopunctata (Sykes 1841)

The fish has a long, roundish body, a flat head and compressed oval- shaped caudal fin. Sykes (1841) records this fish differs in the following:

a) having less rays in the pectoral fin.
b) absence of an ocellated spot in the caudal fin.
c) the dorsal,anal and caudal being more tapered posteriorly.
d) and having numerous white spots.

Meristic: D: 47-53 A: 28-35 C: 13 P: 15-17* V: present Ll: 59- 60
*the rays end externally in a central point.


All unpaired vertical fins are dark and speckled with white spots. The body background colour is a reddish/brown black, partially speckled with white. In the mid section, a faint longitudal line extends from the upper insertion of the pectoral fin to the tail.


Ophiocephalus aurolineatus, Ophiocephalus theophrasti, Ophiocephalus marulius, Ophiocephalus grandinosus, Ophicephalus leucopunctatus.

Geographical location:

The distribution of this fish includes a large area of South-East Asia from Sri Lanka, through India and across China to Korea. There have been reports from Sumatra and Borneo, although one would tentatively surmise that the fish in question, might be the similar C.marulioides.

Lieut.-Colonel W.H. Sykes (1841) records this fish from the area within India called the Deccan, at an altitude of not less than 457 metres.

In India, locations of C.marulia marulia have been recorded by Hamilton (1822), Jhingran (1982), Chattopadhyay (1975) and Shaw ∓ Shebbeare (1937), whilst principal authors of the locations of C.marulia ara in Sri Lanka are Deraniyagala (1929) and Munro (1955). Smith (1945) mentions that it is the rarest 'serpent- head' found in Thailand, whilst Kottelat (1985) registers C.marulia from neighbouring Kampuchea. It is also generally credited to China and Korea, with sparse information listed by Nichols (1943)Reeves (1927).


Channa marulia can be found in ponds, deep freshwater and occasionally brackish rivers in India, where it is cultured as a very important food fish. Here the fingerlings are caught in the wild and cultured in irrigation wells.

In Sri Lanka, where it can be found in the deeper rivers and streams, its common name is Gan ara which means, 'River ara'. Although it is said to make a good pet, this Snakehead needs a very large, robust tank or ideally a pond to be kept in captivity. This would need heating to a temperature of between 17 and 32 °C.

It is a pugnacious animal and two adults of the same sex cannot be kept together.


The breeding season is from April until June in Sri Lanka. A sheltered, weedy river where the depth is not more than one metre, is preferred. The cup-like nests are constructed by both parents near stems and blades of water weeds, about 0.6m from the river bank. After spawning (temperature 28-31 °C) the male and female take turns to zealously guard their offspring.

The fertilized, orange-coloured eggs are 2mm wide and contain a single oil globule which enables the egg to float at the surface. [Chacko and Kuriyan (1947) report that 500 golden yellow eggs are produced by Indian fish.) These hatch in 54 hours at 17-26 °C and 30 hours at 28-32 °C. The fry hatch at a size of 5 mm and achieve rapid growth, attaining a length of 26mm at 3 weeks and 90mm at 11 weeks (Deraniyagala 1929). C.marulia is known, however, for its cannibalistic tendancies, especially when young. Jhingran (1982) particularly noted this in specimens raised in irrigation wells, where results of surveys showed only 10% of the original stock survived.