Since even a small amount of material can be difficult for a
newcomer in any field to digest and retain, the novice aquarist
may wish to read only the ``Good First Fish'' section to begin
with. Then, while consulting a good beginner's book (the most
essential item for any novice aquarist to own), she or he should
choose a small number of possibilities for the fish with which
to start her or his new tank.
If someone familiar with the local fish stores is available,
it is wise to get a recommendation for where to shop for fish.
Otherwise the beginner should try looking for shops that specialize
in fish, either exclusively or as a major part of their business.
This is no guarantee, of course, but it does improve the odds
of finding a good store.
If, upon reaching the store, none of the selected fish can
be found, the novice should refrain from purchasing any fish
that he or she is unfamiliar with, even if recommended by
the store's employees. (Some stores have very knowledgeable
staffs but many, alas, do not. It will take some time before
the new fishkeeper can discern a good store from a bad one,
or good advice from poor.) At this point, another store could
be sought out or further reading done to determine alternate
choices for first fish.
Assuming that desirable choices for first fish can be found,
the beginner should carefully inspect the specimens for sunken
bellies, sunken eyes, clamped fins, labored breathing (often
with gill covers quite extended), and any sort of external
blemishes that might indicate parasites or disease. If the
fish appear healthy, the novice should ask to purchase a very
small number of fish, depending on the size of the tank and
the fish. A twenty gallon tank is a good size for a beginner;
it is large enough that the water conditions will be fairly
stable, yet small enough that the beginner is not intimidated.
For this size tank a single fish of one to two inches in length,
or three or four smaller fish, is the most the novice should
start with. (If more fish are put into the tank initially,
poisonous ammonia will build up and kill the fish. If the
tank population is built up gradually, however, this will
not be a problem. To understand this gradual introduction
of fish, known as `cycling the tank', the novice should read
about the nitrogen cycle in his or her aquarium book.
If we define a good beginner's fish as one that is easy to feed
and care for, hardy, able to live in a variety of water conditions,
and attractive, then there are a number of widely available
fish which fit the bill nicely. Many of these are regularly
sold as beginner's fish. But watch out! Many of the fish sold
as beginner's fish really are not well suited to that role.
Many of the smaller schooling fish make ideal first fish.
These include White Cloud Mountain Minnows, the several commonly
available species of Danios and Rasboras, and most available
species of Barbs. For those with a slightly larger tank, Rainbowfish
make a great schooling fish. Corydoras Catfish are ever popular
While many beginners are tempted to get just one or two
of each of several different schooling fish, this should be
resisted. Schooling fish do better if there are several of
their own species present for them to interact with. A minimum
of six of each of the midwater schooling fish is recommended,
while four is the bare minimum for Corys. In the long run,
a school of a dozen fish showing their natural behavior will
be more pleasing than a mixed group of fishes unhappily forced
to share the same tank. (``Mom, why is that one fish hiding
behind the heater and that other one just hanging in the corner?'')
Of course, as mentioned in the introduction, the population
needs to be built up slowly, two or three fish at a time.
The aquarist might, for instance, build up a school of eight
Rasboras of a certain species, then turn to building up a
school of six of a species of Cory Cats.
White Clouds, Danios, Rasboras, and Barbs are all Asian fish
related to the Carp and the Minnow. All of these fish belong
to the family Cyprinidae. White Clouds, Danios, Rasboras, and
Barbs are small, active, hardy, and colorful.
Cory Cats are members of the family Callichthyidae, a family
of armored catfish from South America. Corys are small (generally
2 1/2" long or less), schooling fish that are always searching
the bottom of the tank for food. There are at least 140 species
of catfish in the genus Corydoras. Some of these are
quite delicate and die quickly even in the hands of experts.
The fragile ones, however, are rarely seen in pet stores and
are high priced when they can be found. The Corys you will see
for reasonable prices are hardy and can even survive in a tank
with low oxygen as they can swallow air from the surface and
absorb it through their intestines. Some Corys you may encounter
are the Bronze Cory - C. aeneus, the Spotted Cory - C.
ambiacus, the Leopard Cory - C. julii, the Skunk
Cory - C. arcuatus, the Bandit Cory - C. metae,
and the Panda Cory - C. panda.
- ``White Cloud Mountain Minnows'' - Tanichthys albonubes
- Found in mountain streams in China, White Clouds can
be kept in unheated tanks (down to 55F). Some people advise
against putting these fish in tropical tanks but I have
found that they do fine in heated aquaria as well, as long
as the temperature is not kept above the mid 70s. They can
be fed any small food and they spawn often but fry will
not be seen unless the parents are removed to another tank.
White Clouds are brown with a red tail and a silvery white
line down the side that shines in the light. They get to
be 1 1/2" long.
- Several species of Danios are often found in pet stores,
including the Giant Danio - Danio aequipinnatus,
the Zebra Danio - Brachydanio rerio, the Leopard
Danio - Brachydanio frankei, and the Pearl Danio
- Brachydanio albolineatus. These fish are fast swimmers
and are always in motion. Different patterns of blue markings
allows one to tell these fish apart. Most Danios stay under
2 1/2" long, although Giant Danios can get up to 4".
- The most popular Rasbora is the Harlequin Rasbora - Rasbora
heteromorpha. A very similar looking species, Rasbora
espei, is also available, as is the Clown Rasbora -
Rasbora kalochroma and the Scissor-Tail Rasbora -
Rasbora trilineata. Orange, brown, and red are usual
colors for Rasboras, and their stop-and-start swimming makes
them interesting to watch as a school. Scissor-Tails can
get up to 6" long and Clown Rasboras up to 4" while Harlequins
stay under 2" long.
- By far the most commonly seen and commonly cursed Barb
is the Tiger Barb - Capoeta tetrazona. It nips the
fins of other fish if not kept in a large school of its
own species and because it is over-bred it is susceptible
to diseases. Several aquarium morphs are also available
(such as the greenish ``Mossy Barb'' and an albino variety)
but these are even more sickly and often deformed.
Don't give up on the Barbs too fast though, as many
are well suited as first fish, especially for those with
moderate sized tanks. Capoeta titteya, the Cherry
Barb, is a terrific little barb - up to 2" long and with
a wonderful orange-red color. Mid-sized barbs (up to about
4 1/2" long) include Clown Barbs - Barbodes everetti,
Rosy Barbs - Puntius conchonius, and Black Ruby
Barbs - Puntius nigrofasciatus. The artificial
morphs (long-finned, albino, etc.) of the Rosy Barb should
be avoided though, as these tend to be sickly. Checker
Barbs - Capoeta oligolepis and Spanner or T-Barbs
- Barbodes lateristriga are large, peaceful barbs
(Spanner Barbs up to 7" long). Unless you have a very
large aquarium avoid Tinfoil Barbs - Barbodes schwanefeldi.
They grow to be over a foot long!
Note that many barbs don't school as ``nicely'' as do
Danios or Rasboras, but most should be kept in schools
nonetheless. Also note that many authors may put all of
the above mentioned species in the genus Barbus.
Corys generally feed at the bottom of the tank and special
sinking foods should be fed. These include sinking pellets
like Tabi-Min and frozen blood- worms. Care should be taken
to insure that all frozen foods are eaten quickly as they
decay rapidly and can foul the tank. Don't overfeed!
Rainbows are extremely colorful fishes native to Australia,
New Guinea, and Madagascar. Like the Cyprinids described above,
Rainbows are schooling fish and should be kept in groups of
six or more. Larger, somewhat more expensive, and harder to
find than many of the schooling fishes already discussed, Rainbows
are easily cared for, active, and make good first fish for those
who want to try something a little less common. Look in your
dealer's tanks for the Australian Rainbow - Melanotaenia
splendida, Boeseman's Rainbowfish - M. boesemani,
Turquoise Rainbows - M. lacustris, and the Celebes Rainbow
- Telmatherina ladigesi.
The previous section talked about good fish for the complete
novice aquarist. This section will discuss good fish for beginning
aquarists who have had some experience or who are willing to
do more careful research and shopping before buying their fish.
Many of the fish recommended here are every bit as hardy,
adaptable, and easy to care for as those in the first section.
However, in the first section I was able to recommend whole
groups of fish or at least say to watch out for only a species
or two in each group as bad choices. Here, however, the groups
will be quite mixed with many good choices and many poor ones.
Also, some of the fish in this section are hardy only if some
special needs are cared for. If you wish to successfully keep
fish from these groups you need to be sure you know which
species you are getting and what their needs are.
Why bother? If you are a complete novice, perhaps you shouldn't.
The great choices from the ``First Fish'' list should allow
you to get your feet wet (as it were) with minimum risk. However,
as you gain experience you may decide to give some of these
fish a try. Many are quite beautiful and/or have interesting
behaviors and some aquarists become so taken with them that
they join specialist clubs just to learn about and trade one
group or another of these fish.
Loaches are long-bodied Asian fishes distantly related to the
Cyprinids (Barbs, Danios, etc.) described above. Like Cory Cats,
loaches have a down-turned mouth equipped with barbels - an
adaptation for living and feeding at the bottom of ponds and
streams. They will scavenge the tank bottom eating the food
missed by other fishes, but you should take care to see that
they get enough to eat. Special sinking foods are a must.
Some loaches are sensitive to poor nitrogen cycle management,
which is why they are included here, rather than in the Good
First Fish section. Once the tank is established and the beginner
seems to have gotten the hang of maintaining a tank, however,
loaches make great additions to most community fish populations.
The most commonly seen loaches are the Kuhli Loaches - Acanthophthalmus
species. These are long, ribbon-like fishes which grow to
be 4" long. Brown with yellow stripes and bands, Kuhli Loaches
are shy and spend a lot of time buried in the gravel.
Another popular group of loaches are the members of the
genus Botia. Clown Loaches - B. macracantha, Yo-Yo
Loaches - B. lohachata, Skunk Loaches - B. horae,
Blue Loaches - B. modesta, and Striated Loaches - B.
striata are all seen in the hobby. Some of these (notably
Clown and Blue Loaches) can get big, but they grow extremely
slowly and can live in a small aquarium for several years.
Loaches will often be happier if kept with a few of their
Weather Loaches - Misgurnus fossilis and Spotted
Weather Loaches - Cobitis taenia should be avoided.
They are cold water species and have the unfortunate habit
of jumping out of aquaria, especially at the approach of a
``Pleco'' (a shortening of the now-unused genus name Plecostomus)
is the common term used for suckermouth catfish of the family
Loricariidae. As mentioned below in the Bad First Fish section,
common Plecos (Hypostomus species) are often sold to
beginners as algae cleaners. Unfortunately, these fish get too
large for the relatively small tanks of most beginners.
Some species of suckermouth catfish, however, do stay small
enough for most beginners to keep. The Clown Plecos of the
genus Peckoltia have alternating transverse bands of
darker and lighter brown, tan, or yellow and generally stay
under 4" long. The Bristlenose or Bushynose Plecos of the
genus Ancistrus possess, as their common names imply,
numerous projections from the area between their eyes and
mouth. Within each species the bristles are larger on the
male, especially near breeding. In fact, Bristlenose Plecos
are among the few Loricariids to be successfully spawned in
the home aquarium.
Otocinclus Cats, often just called Otos, are the smallest
Loricariids and will clean algae from live plants without
hurting any but the most delicate of them. Otos sometimes
die shortly after purchase for no apparent reason, but if
they make it past this critical time they make very good community
While the various suckermouth catfish will indeed help to
keep the aquarium free from many common algae types, the beginner
should not make the mistake of thinking of these fish as simply
algae eaters or scavengers. They should be given foods intended
just for them, such as zucchini which can be blanched or weighted
down to sink it to the Pleco's level. Some fish food manufacturers
have recently realized that there is a market for specialized
Pleco foods and now sell products such as sinking algae wafers
which fit this bill nicely. These foods should be fed in the
evening when the light reaching the tank is low, as most Plecos
are more active at this time and most other fish which might
compete for the food are less active. Pieces of (uncoated)
driftwood in the tank are also important for many Pleco species,
which rasp at the wood and ingest the scrapings. By the same
token, Plecos should *not* be kept in wooden tanks, or even
acrylic ones for that matter, as they may chew into the tank
material damaging it and/or themselves (by ingesting toxins
or undigestible matter).
Pleco species can be quarrelsome amongst themselves and
may be picked on by other fish due to their generally slow-moving
nature. Provide a hiding cave for each Pleco and give them
territories proportional to their size (e.g. 10 gallons for
a 3" fish.)
Like many of the fish in the first section, Tetras are schooling
fish and should be kept in groups of six or more of the same
species. Tetras are native to Central and South America and
Africa. In some regions of South America the water is quite
soft (very little rock is dissolved in it) and acidic. (Another
way of saying ``acidic'' is to say that it has a low pH - one
below 7, which is considered ``neutral''. A strong acid has
a very low pH. Liquids above pH 7 are said to be ``basic''.)
Unless you know that your tank water is also soft and acidic,
the Tetras that need that water should be avoided. Before
you buy a Tetra that you are not sure about, look it up in
your book. If it says that it needs a pH below 6.5 you should
probably avoid it. While many beginning aquarists are tempted
to simply adjust the pH of their water by buying little containers
of chemicals in the pet store, do not give in to this temptation!
Water chemistry is very complex and you can easily kill all
your fish by trying it.
On the other hand, if your tap water is naturally soft and
achieves a consistent acidic pH, there is no reason that you
can't try your hand at some of these fish.
Two very popular Tetras which need soft, acidic water are
the Neon Tetra - Paracheirodon innesi and the Cardinal
Tetra - Cheirodon axelrodi. These are quite attractive
red and blue fish. The red line on the Cardinal runs from
the head on back, while in the Neon it starts only in the
belly region. But their attractiveness is their only advantage.
Besides its water requirements the Neon has the added drawback
that almost all of them are bred in the Far East in huge numbers
with no regard to quality. Further, the raising ponds for
the young fish are filled with medicines. The medicines keep
diseases in check but as soon as the fish are shipped they
begin to get sick. They die in huge numbers in the stores
and in buyer's home tanks. Probably less than 1 in 10 Neons
lives for more than one month after being removed from the
pond it was raised in. Further, those two or three tiny neons
for a dollar at the local store can easily introduce a disease
that kills all the fish in your tank.
Cardinals will have a greater chance of not dying immediately
after purchase but even they will probably not live long in
your home tank. They are wild caught in Brazil as adults so
they may have lived most of their naturally short life span
before you buy them.
Other Tetras which need acidic water include the Blue Neon
Tetra - Hyphessobrycon simulans, the Flag Tetra - H.
heterorhabdus, H. metae, the Loreto Tetra - H.
loretoensis, the Black Phantom Tetra - Megalamphodus
megalopterus, and the Red Phantom Tetra - M. sweglesi.
So what about those aquarists without acid water? There are
plenty of hardy Tetras out there for beginners without special
water. These include the distinctive Black or Black Skirt
Tetra - Gymnocorymbus ternetzi, the brightly colored
Glow Light Tetra - Hemigrammus erythrozonus, the radiant
orange Jewel Tetra - Hyphessobrycon callistus, the
Flame Tetra - H. flammeus, and the red-tailed Pristella
- Pristella maxillaris, all of which grow to less than
two inches long. Slightly larger Tetras include the Penguin
Tetra - Thayeria obliqua and the closely related Hockey-stick
Tetra - Th. boehlkei, both of which are easily recognized
by the black lines originating in the lower half of their
caudal (tail) fins and running forward, the shiny Diamond
Tetra - Moenkhausia pittieri, and the beautiful, trident-tailed
Emperor Tetra - N. palmeri. Finally, the only African
Tetra frequently seen, the Congo Tetra - Phenacogrammus
interruptus is a gorgeous fish which grows up to four
Cichlids, members of the family Cichlidae, come from Central
and South America and Africa, with a few species found in Madagascar,
the Middle East and into Asia. Cichlids are quite unlike any
of the fish discussed so far. They are related to and resemble
the Perch and Sunfish of US waters. For aquarists, cichlids
pose four major problems: (1) Some need special water conditions,
(2) some have specialized diets, (3) some get quite large (the
largest up to 3' long), and (4) all are territorial.
Again, why bother? Because for those willing to take the
challenge, the rewards can be great. If any fish can be said
to be intelligent, Cichlids can. They display this in their
everyday activities as well as in their specialized mating,
breeding, and fry-raising activities. The fish mentioned in
the previous sections all lay eggs and then ignore or even
eat them! Cichlids, on the other hand, care for their eggs
and young. It is said that one of the most rewarding sights
an aquarist can see is parental Cichlids herding their fry
around the tank and protecting them from all dangers. And,
even if your Cichlids never breed, they will be more responsive
to you than perhaps any other fish. Cichlids can be much more
``pet-like'' than you might think a fish could be.
If you do decide to take the Cichlid challenge, choosing
your Cichlids can be difficult. Some can be added to your
community tank and will do fine with the schooling fish talked
about above. These include Curviceps - Aequidens (really
Laetacara) curviceps, Dorsigers - Aequidens
(again, really Laetacara) dorsiger, and the
less frequently seen Nannacara anomala, all from South
America, and Thomas' Dwarf Cichlid - Anomalochromis thomasi
from western Africa. Unlike the monster Cichlids, these fish
stay small (3 1/2'' is a good sized adult) and are relatively
peaceful. Two or three may be placed in a 10 gallon tank and
they should still all find places to live if there are rocks
and other decorations in the tank.
Other Dwarf Cichlids you may see are the Ram - Papiliochromis
(some books use Microgeophagus or Apistogramma)
ramirezi, Apistos - Apistogramma species, and
the Checkerboard Cichlid - Dicrossus filamentosus (referred
to as Crenicara filamentosa in the books). These fish
vary in their difficulty for keeping as aquarium fish, but
all of them should be avoided by beginners.
Keyhole Cichlids - Aequidens (really Cleithracara)
maronii, Festivums - Cichlasoma (really Mesonauta)
festivus, and Angelfish - Pterophyllum scalare
can be good fish for the relative novice, but only if healthy
specimens can be found and this is often not easy. For this
reason, small Keyholes and Festivums should not be purchased.
Adults of these two species are generally better choices;
still, one should look the fish over carefully and not buy
them until they have been in the store tanks for at least
a week. Similarly, for the very popular Angelfish, one needs
to be very careful when buying them. Before you buy, ask the
salesperson to tell you where the store gets its Angels. If
the salesperson doesn't know, won't tell you, or says that
they come from ``the wholesaler'' (and who knows where before
that?) don't buy them. If you are told that they come from
a local breeder then you have at least a chance of getting
healthy fish. Also, Angels should be kept in tanks both taller
and longer than a 10 gallon aquarium. Keyholes, Festivums,
and Angels are all shy fish and should be provided with cover
-- preferably a planted tank.
Discus, like Angels, need tanks higher and longer than 10
gallon tanks. Their specialized needs do not stop there, however,
and beginners should shy away from these difficult and demanding
At the other end of the difficultly scale, a very good choice,
especially for those with a 20 gallon or larger aquarium,
is the ``Jurupari'' - Satanoperca leucosticta (formerly
referred to in the hobby as Geophagus jurupari). It
does get large (up to a foot), but it grows very slowly and
may still be less than six inches long when several years
old. It is a very peaceful Cichlid which will help to clean
your tank by sifting through the gravel for uneaten food.
A similar fish, Geophagus surinamensis, is also a good
Kribs or ``Kribensis'' - Pelvicachromis pulcher are
a widely seen West African Cichlid that will do well with
the larger schooling fish and should be kept in a twenty gallon
or larger tank. Male Kribs grow to be 4" long and females
stay a bit smaller.
Most of the remaining cichlids which are commonly available
are too aggressive and/or grow too large for the beginning
aquarist to effectively deal with. This includes the very
popular Oscar - Astronotus ocellatus which grows rapidly
to over a foot, is opportunistically piscivorous, and is a
very messy species. If the aquarist is truly interested in
keeping more cichlids than those recommended above, she or
he should be prepared to set up special, separate (and probably
larger) tanks for these fish and to read more extensively
on cichlids before buying them.
Anabantids are another group of fishes that are quite different
from those already discussed. Distantly related to Cichlids
and Perch, Anabantids are found in Africa and Asia. Members
of the families Anabantidae, Belontiidae, Helostomatidae, and
Osphronemidae, Anabantids are also referred to as the ``labyrinth
fishes''. This is due to a special breathing organ referred
to as the labyrinth organ which is essentially a maze of tunnels
near the fish's gills. Labyrinth fish gulp air at the surface
of the water and absorb it through the labyrinth organ, allowing
them to live in water with too little oxygen to support fish
which only breath through their gills. Some Anabantids can survive
out of water for several hours breathing only through their
labyrinths, as long as they stay moist. Anabas testudineus,
known as the Climbing Perch, is said to be able to climb trees
and to live out of water for up to two days.
As well as giving aquarists some additional choices for
community-tank fish, Anabantids offer some unique options
to fish keepers as well as presenting a few problems. Because
some Anabantids are able to withstand cooler temperatures,
and because of their ability to survive in water with very
low oxygen, these fishes can be kept in tanks or bowls without
heaters or filtration. On the other hand, some Anabantids
(particularly males of some species) are very territorial
and some grow quite large.
Breeding Anabantids can be quite rewarding. Some species
build nests out of bubbles into which they place their eggs
while others, like some Cichlids, are mouthbrooders.
The most commonly seen Anabantid is probably the Betta or
Siamese Fighting Fish (which is generally said to be Betta
splendens but is probably a crossbreed). Artificial color
varieties with red, blue, green, purple, and many other colors
in various combinations are widely available. Males are bred
to have very large fins and both sexes are seen with double
tails. Siamese Fighting Fish generally make poor choices for
the community tank for two reasons. First, as their name would
imply, they are very territorial. The aggression is greatest
between two males, but can be directed towards any fish that
looks to the Betta too much like another Betta. Second, their
long fins make easy targets for many fish such as Barbs. Siamese
Fighting Fish can be kept alone in bowls (the larger the better)
or tanks without filtration as long as frequent partial water
changes are done. They do need warm temperatures, however,
and are sensitive to temperature changes, so a constant heat
supply is needed if the room is less than about 75F. Also,
due to poor breeding, many Siamese Fighting Fish are not very
healthy. A 3" male would be a large adult; females stay smaller.
A better choice for keeping alone in a bowl or small tank
is the Paradise Fish - Macropodus opercularis. These
are much hardier fish than the Fighters and can withstand
temperatures down to 60F. They may jump, however, so the tank
should be covered to be safe. Also, like Siamese Fighting
Fish, male Paradise Fish can be extremely territorial towards
one another. Paradise Fish may get up to 4" long.
Another very commonly seen Anabantid is the Blue or Three-Spot
Gourami - Trichogaster trichopterus. Gold, Silver,
and Cosby Gouramies are also widely available and are simply
artificial color varieties of the Blue Gourami. Blue Gouramies
can get up to 6" long. They are not as aggressive as Fighters
or Paradise Fish, but more than one in a small tank may lead
to constant (if not overly deadly) chasing. They will do well
in a tank with larger schooling fishes. Similar, though slightly
smaller species include the Banded or Giant Gourami - Colisa
fasciata (which is only a giant compared to the similarly
colored Dwarf Gourami described below), the Thick-lipped Gourami
- Colisa labiosa and the somewhat less aggressive Pearl
Gourami - Trichogaster leeri and Moonlight Gourami
- T. microlepis. The Kissing Gourami - Helostoma
temmincki grows larger (up to 12") but makes a good fish
for beginners with larger tanks. It is peaceful, though males
will contest with one another by pressing their lips together
and pushing - the so-called ``kissing'' from which the common
name derives. Most Kissing Gouramies seen will be of the Pink
Small Gouramies, only growing to 2" or so in length, are
also available. These include the Dwarf Gourami - Colisa
lalia, the Honey Gourami - C. chuna, and the Sunset
Dwarf Gourami (probably a cross between C. lalia and
C. chuna). In theory, these would all be good fish
for the community aquarium. In practice, these fish are often
the victims of poor breeding practices in the Far East (like
so many others described before) and many are even treated
with hormones before they are shipped to make them appear
brighter in the store tanks. A good rule of thumb is, ``If
it looks too good to be true, it probably is.''
Although harder to find, Anabantids which have had less
human interference with their reproduction are generally better
choices. Look for the Mouthbrooding Betta - Betta pugnax,
the Licorice Gourami - Parosphromenus deissneri, the
Spike-Tailed Paradise Fish - Pseudosphromenus cupanus,
the Croaking Gourami - Trichopsis vittatus, and the
Dwarf Croaking Gourami - T. pumilus, which range in
size from 1" to 4". Do not buy Chocolate Gouramies - Sphaerichthys
osphromenoides which are quite delicate, or the true Giant
Gouramies - Osphronemus spp. which grow quickly to
well over two feet long.
The family Poeciliidae contains Guppies, Mollies, Platies, and
many other fishes. While these fish are often thought of as
beginners' fish they have been intentionally left off the list
until now in order to make a point. The reasons these fish are
often sold to beginners are that they are cheap, brightly colored,
and have a general reputation among non-aquarists as easy fish.
Notably absent from this list is any real suitability for keeping
by beginners. For one thing, many livebearers need high level
of salt in their water to be healthy - making them incompatible
with many other aquarium fish. Many common livebearers also
are overbred, resulting in fish not nearly as healthy as those
kept by aquarists of previous generations (or by the authors
of most books). Some are not even able to reproduce without
human intervention. Finally, due to their low market price,
they are generally not well cared for and may carry diseases.
Poeciliids, as they are also called, come from the Americas,
primarily Central America. They are called ``livebearers''
(as opposed to ``egg-layers'', as all the previously discussed
fish have been) because the eggs are fertilized within the
female and the fry do not appear until the eggs have hatched.
There are also livebearers from other families in which the
details of reproduction vary.
The well-known Guppy can be found in a number of colors
and with as many as 12 different artificial tail varieties.
Also available is the closest thing that you may find to the
wild Guppy - Poecilia reticulata: ``feeder Guppies''
which are not bred for color. The fancy strains tend to be
fragile while common Guppies often carry diseases. Guppies
should be kept in water with at least one teaspoon of salt
per five gallons of water.
Common Mollies are the Black Molly (which was derived from
the Marled Molly - Poecilia sphenops) and the Sail-Fin
Molly - Poecilia velifera (of which there are also
several color varieties available). Black Mollies need at
least one teaspoon of salt per five gallons of water to keep
them healthy and prevent the outbreak of ``ich'' (Ichthyophthirius
multifiliis, a parasite commonly seen in aquaria) while
Sail-Fin Mollies need at least three times this amount. Sail-Fins
grow to 6" while Black Mollies stay less than 3".
Closely related, Swordtails - Xiphophorus helleri
and Platies - Xiphophorus maculatus are also popular
fish. A number of color and finnage varieties are available
of each with some of the Platies also referred to as ``Moons''.
These fish need at least a teaspoon of salt per 5 gallons
of water to be healthy. Some varieties are susceptible to
various maladies (Tuxedo Swords often get tumors, for instance)
and as with so many other fish the naturally colored fish
are probably your best bets. ``Green Swords'' (which are really
multi-colored) are naturally colored X. helleri, but
unfortunately wild morphs of Platies are not often seen. The
Variegated Platy - Xiphophorus variatus is sometimes
seen, however, and fills this role nicely.
We have already discussed several poor choice for beginners'
fish alongside their more desirable cousins. Here are more fishes
that are seen in the stores that beginners should be warned
about. Many of these fish make good fish for advanced hobbyists
while others never make good aquarium fish. Some are even suitable
for a well-informed beginner; you just need to know what you
are getting yourself into before you buy the fishes on impulse
and drop them into your community tank.
Goldfish are one of the most common fish sold to beginners,
but are particularly poorly suited to this role. The common
Goldfish sold as feeders are generally full of diseases and
parasites which may kill them and other fish they are housed
with. Fancy varieties, which have been selectively bred for
centuries to achieve their unnatural appearances, are subject
to a host of problems associated with their abnormalities.
All Goldfish are cold water fish which do not do well in
the lower oxygen levels found in tropical aquaria, and therefore
should not be housed with tropical species.
Piranhas are among the most abused of all aquarium fish. They
are often purchased in order to watch their legendary feeding
habits. As mentioned above, feeder fish often bring diseases
and parasites with them and these can infect Piranhas. A regular
diet of feeder fish can also be quite expensive.
Piranhas are schooling fish and are generally shy and stressed
when kept as single specimens. Unfortunately, they also get
big (many species well over a foot long), so most beginning
aquarists don't have room to house more than a single Piranha.
If enough tank space is available to keep several Piranhas
together, they must be kept well fed or they will turn on
each other, killing and cannibalizing one fish after another.
There are several families of fish from South America, Africa,
and Asia, referred to as Knife Fishes. Many species of Knives
get large, some over 3' long although some of the less attractive
species stay as small as 8". All of them are nocturnal predators,
a fact that many a beginner could have used before all of his
or her small fish ``mysteriously'' disappeared a few at a time.
Somewhat related to Tetras, Hatchets (family Gasteropelecidae)
and Pencils (genus Nannostomus) are Characins from South
America. Many of them need soft and acid water and all of them
are delicate. Hatchets have the added disadvantage that they
tend to launch themselves out of the aquarium to an untimely
More fragile fish include Elephant Noses - Gnathonemus petersi
and Baby Whales - Petrocephalus bovei. African fishes
from the family Mormyridae, these are night feeders and are
hard to provide for in the aquarium.
Chinese Algae Eaters - Gyrinocheilus aymonieri are often
introduced into the aquarium to do what their common (sales)
name implies - eat algae. They are usually seen at a small size
and many die within a short time of purchase. If they live,
however, they get big (up to a foot long) and tend to prefer
to rasp at the sides of slow moving fish (making them susceptible
to infections) to eating algae.
Not a shark at all but a Cyprinid (related to the Carp), Bala
Sharks - Balantiocheilus melanopterus quickly outgrow
most home aquaria. They get to be over one foot long.
Unrelated to the Bala Shark or to true sharks, the Iridescent
Shark - Pangasius sutchi is a catfish. It grows to over
3' and tends to injure its nose against the aquarium glass.
Another catfish to avoid is the Glass Catfish - Kryptopterus
bicirrhis. While it stays small enough to be an aquarium
fish (up to 6"), it is very delicate and should not be purchased
The suckermouth catfish of the genus Hypostomus are often
sold in the stores as algae cleaners. Most of these species
get in excess of 12". Some of the slender suckermouth catfish,
such as the Whiptail - Dasyloricaria filamentosa and
the Farlowella - Farlowella gracilis, are quite delicate
Catfish don't have long whiskers for looks. They are there to
help them hunt for their food - other fish! In addition to eating
all fish of less than half their size in the tank, many of the
piscivorous (fish-eating) Cats will outgrow most tanks. One
common species of long-whiskered catfish, the Pictus Cat - Pimelodus
pictus grows to 10" while the Channel Cat (a pink form is
often seen) grows over 2 feet long. Shovelnose Cats are usually
only seen at six inches or greater, so the beginner does have
some warning with these. Still, one might not expect them to
get 2 or 3' long.
Red-Tailed Catfish - Phractocephalus hemiliopterus are
particularly large-growing predatory catfish. A dark body with
a horizontal white stripe and red tail gives them an attractive
appearance at a small size that has unfortunately made them
a popular aquarium fish with those who fail to appreciate the
enormity of adults. Adults may grow to well over 4' in length
and have mouths that more than match their lengths. As such,
they are more than many public aquaria can house, not to mention
Spiny Eels (family Mastacembelidae) are aggressive fish, some
of which grow quite large (over 3'). Some do stay small (less
than 4" for one species), but all are likely to have internal
Painted Glassfish are Glassfish - Chanda ranga which
have been ``painted'' with chemical dyes. This procedure adds
a temporary bit of unnatural color (which disappears with time)
and stresses the fish, causing them to be prone to diseases
and parasites. This fish needs at least 1 teaspoon of salt per
gallon of aquarium water.
While Painted Glassfish were for a long time the only fish commonly
seen that had been ``colorized'' by unscrupulous marketers,
the last few years have seen several other fishes subjected
to this abuse. One of these is the White Skirt Tetra (an albino
version of the Black Skirt Tetra - Gymnocorymbus ternetzi)
which are sold as Blueberry Tetras, Strawberry Tetras, Rainbow
Tetras, etc. depending on the dyes used to color the individuals.
Similarly, Blueberry and Strawberry Loaches have also been seen.
If you are unsure if a fish has been dyed, ask.
I have already mentioned some fish, such as Mollies and Glassfish,
which come from brackish waters - I simply have not called it
that before. Brackish water is intermediate between the fresh
water of most rivers and lakes and the salt water of the Oceans.
Brackish water is found in gulfs, deltas, and lagoons, as well
as a some lakes and rivers. Because brackish water fish need
so much salt in their water they are not compatible with most
aquarium fish. Further, brackish water fish generally need more
room per fish to stay healthy than freshwater fish. Some commonly
seen brackish water fish include Monos - Monodactylus
species, Archers - Toxotes species, Scats - Scatophagus
species, and many species of Puffers (family Tetraodontidae).
If brackish water fish are to be avoided by beginners, then
beginners should stay well away from salt water fish. Their
bright colors are attractive, but they are generally much more
difficult for beginners to keep alive than are fresh water fish.
There are thousands of species of aquarium-suitable fish from
a host of families that are not covered above; this article
is far from comprehensive. Killifish (fish of the family Cyprinodontidae)
for example, are widely kept by many advanced hobbyists, but
not often by beginners. This is not because they are
all unsuitable as beginner's fish. In fact, some of them would
make very good first or second fish. They are simply not widely
available in pet stores.
For choices of good beginners' fish beyond those listed
here, and for expanding once one has moved beyond the beginner
level, local aquarium clubs and friends who are aquarists
can be very good sources of information. So can many of the
available fishkeeping books and magazines. At every level
of experience, the aquarist will find that good information
is well worth the time and/or money it takes to get it.