Nothing Fishy About It: These Are The Top Freshwater Aquarium Fish For Beginners
Raising fish aquariums can be a rewarding hobby. Beyond being a relaxing delight to watch, having a home aquarium can also be an excellent learning experience for children, and a project that brings families together. While there’s thousands of freshwater fish species to choose from, not all are best for beginners. As you begin this wonderful hobby, here’s the species experts say are hardy enough to join you for the journey.
While the origin of their angelic name is unclear, fish enthusiasts can agree on one thing: these elegant fish are not only beautiful to watch, but are surprisingly easy to care for. Considered one of the best fish for beginner home aquarists, these elegant fish are part of the cichlid family. That’s very surprising, given their behavior tendencies.
While most members of this family tend to be aggressive, peaceful angelfish are the exception. Like many other cichlids, angelfish are found in bodies of water across South America. If properly cared for, angelfish can live up to ten years in captivity. Because of their elongated shape, these majestic fish prefer taller tanks of at least 20 gallons, which should undergo frequent water changes.
2. Betta Fish or Siamese Fighting Fish
These tiny colorful pepperpots pack quite the punch. Originating in rice paddies and slow-moving streams in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, they can live in low-oxygen bodies of water thanks to a complex organ called a “labyrinth”, which helps them breathe air from the surface like a lung. Bred in Thailand to compete in fighting contests, these aggressive little fish gained notoriety for their short fuses.
Despite their tempers, bettas can actually live in a community tank if placed with non-aggressive species. These fish are very hardy and perfect for any beginner. While they are often sold or displayed in small bowls, bettas actually do better in small filtered tanks where the water is frequently changed. It should be noted that due to their disposition, bettas should not be kept together.
3. Corydoras Catfish
Spending most of its life foraging on the aquarium floor, it may be easy to overlook the Corydoras catfish. These freshwater members of the catfish family are found across South America, where they typically live in slow-moving, shallow bodies of water.
While their large eyes may give them a more benign appearance, these fish are covered in a tough armor-like exterior, and some even have venomous spines — so no cuddling. Like most catfish, corys spend their days searching for scraps of food on the tank’s floor. They are quite hardy, and can make very peaceful tank mates. Considered one of the longest-living freshwater fish, they have been recorded as living up to 27 years in captivity.
4. Neon Tetra
One of the most commonly purchased freshwater aquarium fish is the neon tetra. This small, brightly colored and flashy fish is native to the Amazon River Basin. The iridescent blue and red stripes that line their bodies help make them visible in the murky, dark water they inhabit.
Today, most neon tetras in the pet trade come from fish farms located across Asia. Because of widespread commercial breeding, these fish have been able to adapt to a variety of water conditions, a trait that makes them easier to take care of, perfect pets for beginner aquarists. Neon tetras do well in community tanks with other small fish. Despite their low cost and popularity, these fish can live anywhere from five to ten years in a properly-maintained tank.
5. Molly Fish
A common staple in most fish supply stores, mollies are a perfect freshwater fish for novice fish-keepers. These small fish are native to warm regions of the Americas. Mexico, in particular, is home to a large variety of molly species.
Mollies are peaceful fish, and thrive in community aquariums with other small fish such as guppies, platies, and swordtails. A popular choice for pet owners, one molly recently made headlines when it underwent a 40-minute surgical procedure to remove a dangerous growth. In order to perform the groundbreaking and complicated surgery, surgeons had to inundate the fish in a water-soluble anesthetic.
6. Rainbow Shark
Most people do not associate sharks with the words “beginner aquarium”. Yet unlike the other marine species that share its name, the rainbow shark is a perfect addition to a beginner freshwater fish tank. These stealthy looking fish are characterized by their sleek dark bodies and red-tipped fins.
Despite sharing a similar appearance to their cartilaginous fish relatives, the rainbow shark is not an actual shark. Native to bodies of water across Southeast Asia, these relatively peaceful creatures spend most of their time grazing on the floor of aquariums. Not only do they eat food that’s been leftover, they will also occasionally eat algae growing on the tank’s surfaces. This fish does well in community tanks that are well-stocked with places for the secretive fish to hide.
7. Silver Hatchetfish
Glittering at the surface of freshwater fish tanks across the world is the fascinating hatchetfish. The name of this unique fish was inspired by its flat body, which looks like the head of a hatchet or ax. Found in the Amazon River basin, these metallic fish live in a variety of freshwater environments, including streams, floodplain lakes, and other shallow waterways.
The surface of the aquarium is where you will most likely see this fish, due to the animal’s fondness for insects. Able to leap to catch low-flying insects, these fish are excellent and powerful jumpers, so be careful, as they’ve been known to jump out of uncovered aquariums. These carnivorous bug-munching fish can make a dazzling addition to any freshwater aquarium.
8. Kissing Fish or Kissing Gouramis
This opalescent fish got its name for its unique smooching behavior. But while many observers think this romantic fish is puckering up to its scaly beau, this “kissing” movement is actually an aggressive display of dominant behavior. An extra joint in their jaw allows them to open their mouths to take in larger food, and engage in some territorial lip-locking action.
These territorial fish are native to bodies of freshwater in Southeast Asia. Like bettas, they also have a special lung-like organ that allows them to take in oxygen from the surface. While commonly consumed as food in their native Southeast Asian habitat, these pearl-colored fish are also frequently exported as pets. And that “romance” can go for a while: if cared for properly, they can live up to 25 years in captivity.
9. Bolivian Ram
One of the most striking freshwater fish for beginners is the Bolivian ram. These small spotted members of the cichlid family are surprisingly easy to care for. These hardy fish originated in tributaries of the Amazon River basin in western Brazil and Bolivia.
Despite being in the cichlid family, these candy-colored jewels are incredibly peaceful, and are at home in most community tanks. Bolivian rams do well in tanks over 20 gallons. They aren’t known for being picky eaters, and will eat just about any food offered to them. Despite their friendly nature, they do enjoy having various places to hide, such as submerged wood or dense vegetation, which mimic their natural habitat.
While guppies are known to be one of the first fish species that come to mind for beginning aquarium enthusiasts, many do not know that these itsy bitsy fishies have been used for some very big jobs. Originating in the northeast of South America, these voracious insect eaters have previously been recruited to rid bodies of water from mosquito larvae.
Selective breeding has resulted in male guppies being the owners of those impressive fanlike tails, a stark difference from their shorter-finned, more drab wild relatives. These hardy fish are also rapid breeders, and can quickly overpopulate a tank. Guppies are extremely common in pet stores due to how easy it is to care for them.
11. Harlequin Rasbora
Another common fish that is perfect for beginning aquarium owners is the harlequin rasbora. These little guys are found in Southeast Asia, but have become very common in pet fish stores across the world. Considered easy to take care of, they are popular for anyone learning how to develop their fish-keeping hobby.
In their native habitat, they live in murky rivers and swamp forests. Often referred to as just “harlequins”, these tiny fish got their name because of that geometric patch of black, which resembles the comedic character’s costume. Social and energetic, harlequins do well in community tanks with other similarly-sized fish. As “shoaling species”, these fish need to be in the company of one another, with four being the minimum amount pet owners should keep.
Another stellar recommendation for aquarium newbies is the platy. Not only are platies known for being easy to care for, they also come in a myriad of bright shades that will liven up any tank. Platies are members of the same family as other common freshwater aquarium fish: mollies, swordtails, and guppies.
Like their relatives, platies are livebearers: they give birth to live offspring, called fry. These active fish are quite talented at mating and reproducing quickly. Native to the rivers of Central and South America, these fish have captivated aquarium owners for over a century. Like their relatives, platies enjoy living in social communities, and do well with fish of a similar size and temperament.
13. Black Phantom Tetra
A common member of freshwater fish tank communities around the world are black phantom tetras. With that flashy name, these quick-moving silver fish keep their fish parents entertained as they zip across their tank. Found in South America, these glistening beauties have become popularized as aquatic pets due to their resilient nature.
This hardiness has resulted in them being an excellent choice for beginner aquarium hobbyists. Because their natural habitat includes slow-moving or stagnant bodies of water, these fish have the ability to withstand changes in water conditions. Like most tetras, black phantom tetras are social, and do well in groups or even pairs.
One of the most interesting developments in the ornamental fish industry has been the popularity of GloFish. Not only are these fish with their brilliant hues fascinating to watch; their genesis is equally interesting. GloFish were initially bred to detect environmental contaminants in the water by turning fluorescent in the presence of a pollutant.
In order to achieve this signature glow, the genes which produce fluorescent colors in jellyfish and coral were injected into the embryo of a small freshwater fish called the zebra danio. While their appearance may be alien, these fish have the same requirements and upkeep of their non-superhero relatives. Because many of them originate from easy-to-care-for species like tetras and danios, GloFish can make a vividly exciting addition to any beginner’s tank.
Despite their morbid sounding name, killifish are an increasingly popular freshwater fish species for aquarium hobbyists. Killifish are part of a large family that includes about 1,270 different species found across the world. It is thought that the origin of their name comes from the Dutch word “kil”, meaning “small stream” — the native habitat of these slender beauties.
Found in bodies of water across the world, killifish are one of the more common freshwater fish species. These fish feast on insect larvae, small crustaceans, and other aquatic animals. The gorgeous colors and attractive patterns of this fish continue to wow freshwater fish enthusiasts.
16. Five-Banded Barb
A common fixture in many freshwater aquariums, this hardy fish originated on the Indonesian island of Borneo. Despite their unmistakably loud coloring, the five-banded barb is typically found in swamps, and in black water streams, slow-moving bodies of water that have turned dark due to decaying vegetation.
Aquarium owners hoping to own these fish should replicate this swampy environment by adding submerged logs and lots of aquatic vegetation. As a shoaling species, five-banded barb populations should be larger than six. While these fish look very similar to their relative, the tiger barb, five-banded barbs are less aggressive and are less likely to nip at their tank mates.
17. Zebra Danio
Another fish commonly recommended to those wanting to begin their aquarium hobby is the zebra danio. These striped silver bullets have become desirable in the freshwater community for their hardy, social nature. Zebra danios are known as one of the easiest freshwater fish species to care for, and they are extremely easy to find in most pet stores.
In addition to being an excellent introduction into the world of fishkeeping, these striped fish have also become invaluable tools for scientific research. Zebra danios are used as model organisms for studies in the fields of toxicology, oncology, genetics, and biology. These peaceful fish enjoy living in communities, and are often seen chasing one another within their tank.
One of the most popular fish for novice aquarium owners is the majestic swordtail. A member of the same family as guppies, mollies, and platies, swordtails share a similarly shaped long body with one exception: their tail ends in a fabulously long pointy “sword”.
Originally hailing from Central and North America, wild swordtails usually appear as a dark green with a red stripe. However, selective breeding has resulted in a variety of vibrant shades. One of the reasons behind their popularity for beginners is that they are extremely hardy, and can tolerate changing water conditions more than other species. Swordtails are social, but tend to do better with similar species from the same family.
19. Dwarf Gouramis
Vibrantly colored and fascinating to watch, dwarf gouramis are becoming a popular pet. These whiskered little gems are members of the same family as the betta, another ubiquitous fish in the freshwater fish industry. Like their “fighting” relatives, gouramis are found in densely vegetated and sluggish bodies of water across South Asia.
Like its relatives, the dwarf gourami has the ability to take in oxygen from the surface with a lung-like apparatus called a labyrinth organ. Gouramis are very social, and are very adaptable to a variety of water conditions. In contrast to most freshwater fish species, dwarf gouramis are often found in incredibly iridescent and bold colors.
20. Jack Dempsey Cichlids
Found in the warm waters around Central America, the Jack Dempsey is the perfect introductory character to the often-intimidating family of cichlid fish. Named after the tough boxer of the 1920s, the Jack Dempsey can most certainly hold its own when it comes to protecting its turf.
Despite the occasional display of aggression, Jack Dempsey cichlids do surprisingly well in community tanks. These carnivorous fish spend most of their day hiding in caves, or gorging on crustaceans and other small aquatic animals. They have grown in popularity due to their ability to tolerate a variety of water conditions. In addition to their hardiness, Jack Dempsey cichlid owners also enjoy the interesting behavior of the fish, and their ability to change color.
21. Tiger Barb
Tiger barbs are a frequent sight in many freshwater aquariums. Owners delight in watching these striped munchkins with their orange tips quickly dart around their tanks, like small flashes of light. In the wild, tiger barbs are mostly seen in the warm waters of Malaysia. They are notably hardy and less reactive to changes in water quality.
Tiger barbs can become slightly aggressive if kept in small numbers, and they fare better with fish of a similar temperament and size. When placed in large shoals of fish, they typically entertain themselves by chasing one another. Tiger barbs have also undergone the same genetic modification as zebra danios in order to make them GloFish, further boosting their popularity.
22. Rainbow Fish
Displaying a full spectrum of colors, the dazzling rainbow fish has become a favorite for aquarium enthusiasts. These diamond-shaped fish come in a variety of vibrant colors, leading most owners to consider them the shimmering jewels of their tanks. These elegantly colored aquarium ornaments are found in Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.
These social fish enjoy living in shoals of more than eight fish, and require lots of free space to swim. Rainbow fish are not picky eaters, and will consume anything offered to them. Because they have been extensively bred for commercial purposes, these fish can now live in a variety of water conditions.
With their brown and bumpy exteriors, it can be easy to mistake a plecostomus for a piece of debris in an aquarium. These “armored catfish” are covered with bony plates to protect their long bodies. One of the most obvious traits of the pleco is its round mouthpart, which allows them to adhere to a variety of surfaces and helps them suck up algae and other food sources.
Plecos are mostly nocturnal, and can grow to a whopping 24 inches. While these fish do enjoy eating algae, they are omnivorous and require a varied diet. Plecos can be a great addition to any tank, not just for their abilities to automatically clean up the environment, but also because they are a less delicate species of fish.
One of the most common fish in the pet industry, goldfish have a special place in the hearts of most fish enthusiasts. Native to Eastern Asia, historians believe the fish was first domesticated over a millennium ago in China. Unlike their relatives, the common carp and koi, goldfish do not have “whiskers” on the sides of their mouths.
While goldfish can take on a variety of colors and body shapes, they are all the same species. Selective breeding and gene manipulation have created a lucrative industry fueled by the demand for “fancy” goldfish. While goldfish are relatively easy to care for, potential owners should know that these long-living fish do not stop growing, sometimes reaching over 18 inches. Goldfish are also very intelligent, with research showing that they can even be trained to perform tasks or tricks.
25. Clown Loach
One of the most visually arresting freshwater aquarium fish, the clown loach is also one of the most interactive freshwater fish. These bottom-dwelling cuties have become popular with aquarists because of their often humorous behavior, and the “personality” traits they display. This unique-looking fish is known for its comical antics, such as mimicking each other and playing dead!
Found across the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, loaches are highly social, and do well in community tanks. Clown loaches tend to be more active when places in shoals of five or more, and even do well with semi-aggressive species. While they are generally easy to care for, clown loaches can grow up to 15 inches. Because of this, these interesting fish require large aquariums.