One look through the tanks at the local fish store can overwhelm a first time aquarist. Even a relatively small store is likely to have dozens of species to choose from. And the number of possible choices continues to grow even today as new species are being discovered and making their way into the trade. But not all of them are suitable for the beginning aquarist. Many have special needs or grow to enormous sizes while others will pick a fight with anyone they can. This article will attempt to guide you towards some smart first choices so hopefully your first tank doesn’t end up a disaster.
What makes a good starter fish?
First let’s consider just what makes a fish ideal for the beginning aquarist. While your tank’s potential inhabitants don’t have to meet every one of these criteria, the more they do the better.
Affordable- fish that can be purchased in an appropriate quantity without breaking the bank.
Readily Available- fish that are captive-bred and readily available from most retailers.
Friendly- fish that fit into a community setting and are known to get along well with a variety of other species.
Easy to Feed- fish that eagerly accept most commonly available fish foods.
Small Size- fish that will not rapidly outgrow their first home.
Hardy- fish that are more forgiving of less than ideal water conditions.
Without further ado, here are some fish to take a look at for your first aquarium.
recommended species: Cardinal Tetra, Neon Tetra, Black Skirt Tetra, Rummynose Tetra
Tetras are a small peaceful group of fish that are very easy to care for and are ideal for a community tank. Several species are available in a wide range of colors and patterns and multiple species can be maintained in the same aquarium. As a schooling fish, all Tetras should be maintained in a group of six or more of their own species and enjoy a tank with live plants as well.
recommended species: Zebra Danio/GloFish, Giant Danio, Leopard Danio
Danios are much like Tetras- small hardy active fish that enjoy hanging out in schools. Likewise Danios come in a number of colors, including the vivid hues of GloFish, which are actually a species of Danio that has been genetically modified to alter its color. The only real difference in terms of care from Tetras is a slightly larger adult size.
recommended species: n/a (all are the same species)
Guppies have been popular in the aquarium trade for many decades as an introduction to fish breeding. Guppies are livebearers meaning their offspring are born free swimming, as opposed to hatching from eggs. What’s more they’re very easy to breed- keep a male and female together and you’re almost guaranteed to have a tank full of baby fish (known as fry) before you know it. Unlike Tetras and Danios, Guppies don’t tend to school but still get along fine with their own, however males may spar for the attention of a female. For this reason, if you decide to keep several, try for a mix of about one male for every two females. To tell them apart check the tail. The males are the ones with the much larger and vibrant one.
recommended species: n/a
The Swordtail’s name is a clue to its appearance- the signature feature, at least of the males, is a long sword-like protrusion extending back from the base of the tail. Swordtails are much like Guppies- they are livebearers and, while not schooling fish,will loosely shoal and prefer to be with their own kind. Also in a manner similar to Guppies, too many males can lead to fights so keep a female heavy group. Swordtails color variety isn’t quite as diverse, typically ranging from yellows and tans to oranges and reds. Even so they are a beautiful and hardy beginner fish.
recommended species: n/a
Platies are a close relative of the Swordtails and as such look very similar, less the sword. This also means their care and behavior are more or less the same as for Swordtails, although they tend to be a little less quarrelsome. Platies are available in a slightly wider range of colors and patterns as well including some blues and greens. As you may have guessed, they are also livebearers that will breed readily in a healthy aquarium.
recommended species: n/a
Bettas, also commonly known as Siamese Fighting Fish, are a very popular choice for the first aquarium, particularly the males who possess the flowing tails they’ve come to be known for. It’s easy to see why- they’re easy to care for and beautiful. Over the years, Bettas have been selectively bred to produce numerous color and fin variations. Bettas can make an unusual addition to a community tank. However, their aggression can be a problem. First of all keeping them with their own kind should not be attempted by the beginning aquarist. As for keeping them with other species, at the very least they shouldn’t be kept with fish that have a similar appearance such as large frilly tails. And some individuals will simply refuse to get along with anyone. Overall they are better suited for a tank all of their own.
recommended species: Julii Cory, Albino Cory
Corys are small catfish that like to spend their days rooting through the substrate searching for a meal. While they don’t really school like more free swimming fish, Corys should still be kept in small groups as they enjoy being with their own. Corys can be somewhat shy so make sure to provide some hiding spots to put them at ease. As bottom feeders, smother and softer substrates are preferred as well. Corys are a great choice for a fish to occupy the otherwise empty bottom region of a community tank.
recommended species: Tiger Barb, Cherry Barb
Barbs are great if you wish for a very active tank. While they can be somewhat aggressive, if kept in a school they will mostly keep any harassment amongst themselves. Even so, caution should be used if they are housed with any tankmates sporting long or frilly fins or tails as they may nip at them. Barbs range in color from orange to green and are a very hardy choice for your first aquarium.
recommended species: Harlequin Rasbora, Emerald Eye Rasbora
A relative of Barbs and Danios, Rasboras are another very active fish that prefer to be and should be maintained in schools of at least six. Rasboras come in a few different shades, most commonly red/orange. Many Rasboras also tend to have a silvery metallic appearance which really makes for an attractive display.
Fish to Avoid
On the flip side there are some fish that, despite being poorly suited for most home aquariums, still frequently make their way into beginning aquarist’s tanks.
Plecos- Most Plecos suitable for average size aquariums are pretty expensive, and the ones that aren’t get quite large.
Goldfish- Goldfish get quite large as well, and are very messy fish requiring increased care. They are also a cold water species and therefore not suitable for a tropical community tank.
Discus- One Discus is a pretty decent size, and they need to be kept in groups. They are also pretty expensive and have higher and more specialized care requirements.
Freshwater Sharks- These are not actually sharks at all, and simply get the name due to their similar appearance. They get too large for most aquariums.
Birchirs- Another fish that gets too large for most aquariums. In addition, Birchirs will eat pretty much any tank mates they can fit in their mouth.
Mollies- Mollies are actually brackish fish meaning they live in regions where rivers meet the sea, producing semi-salty water. And while they can tolerate a freshwater aquarium setup, they really do better in a dedicated brackish tank. Most other freshwater community fish can’t handle the salt meaning they make poor tank mates.
Puffers- Puffers are another group of brackish fish. Some species, much like the Mollies, can survive in a freshwater aquarium but bring the added problem of aggression and tend to be somewhat delicate.
Piranhas- A frequently desired fish; Piranhas are poorly suited for most aquariums. They require schools and get quite large. And without proper feeding they are likely to turn on each other.
Cichlids- Cichlids cover a wide range of different fish from around the world, many with special care requirements and generally more suited for a tank dedicated to their unique needs.
There are numerous other species of fish that aren’t suited for a first aquarium. These are just some of the most commonly seen and most commonly purchased without a proper understanding of their needs. Should you come across something not covered here, make sure to do the proper research on it’s needs before making any decisions about adding it to your aquarium.
Before you add anything to your new aquarium it’s best to come up with an exact list of what you intend to keep including quantities for each species, ensuring your tank will be large enough. Using what you have learned here you can begin to put this list together and come up with a plan for stocking your first freshwater aquarium setup. Remember to take it slow. Stocking your first aquarium with hardy and compatible fish such as those listed here will go a long ways towards teaching you the ins and outs of successfully keeping an aquarium.