The Best and Worst Beginner Fish for Your Aquarium
For this article, I am assuming you know enough about basic fish care to be considering which fish you would like to put into your new tank. This is a crucial decision. Do not trust some store employee to tell you which fish you should choose. They most likely know very little. It's up to you to make a wise decision. I am going to list five fish commonly purchased for a first aquarium that are horrible choices. However, store employees constantly sell these fish to unsuspecting customers who will most likely be back in a few weeks to replace their new pets that have gone on to that big fish tank in the sky. I will also list some much better alternatives that will allow you to get started in what can be a very fascinating and rewarding hobby. In determining the best beginner fish, I first wanted to make sure that they were hardy enough to allow for beginner mistakes that are bound to happen. Secondly, I chose fish that could live happily in the common community aquarium that most beginners like to set up. These fish don't require huge tanks or need special care to survive. Hopefully, this lens will guide you in choosing fish that are both appealing and appropriate for your aquarium.
My personal recommendation...
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#5 Worst Beginner Fish: Oscar
The oscar is a common choice for people looking for a large predatory fish. It is a member of the cichlid family known for their big personalities and aggressive nature. Many people enjoy watching their oscar make a meal of the poor feeder fish that swim too close. It's hard to resist the big eyes of a baby oscar begging you to take him home, but they make a poor beginner fish for several reasons. First of all, they require a larger aquarium than most are willing to start with. oscars can grow to be up to eighteen inches in length, and they have a large body mass. The minimum would be a 55 gallon for a single adult oscar, but even that is pushing it. You would have to be meticulous in doing large weekly water changes and have no other fish in the aquarium. Because of it's size and messiness, the oscar really should be kept in 75 gallon tanks or higher.
Also, they are very susceptible to hole-in-the-head disease which can be very difficult to treat. Large sores develop on the head and along the lateral line of the fish that can eventually lead to its death. It is believed to be caused by poor water quality which is common with oscars. They produce a lot of waste, and if the water is not changed regularly, the built-up nitrates can become toxic for the fish. In addition, the feeder fish many people give to their oscars can bring in many diseases to the tank. I really don't ever recommend using feeder fish unless it is absolutely necessary. If you do, you should quarantine the feeder fish in a separate tank to check for diseases before giving them to your oscar or other fish in your main tank.
Lastly, it is very difficult to find compatible fish to keep with oscars. They will eat any fish that they can get into their surprisingly large mouths, so you must keep them with similarly-sized fish. However, oscars can be very territorial and prefer to be left alone. They will beat up on other fish they view as competition, but they also can get picked on by the bigger and more aggressive members of the cichlid family. This means that you need a huge tank to house oscars with any other fish. Most beginners like to have more than one fish in their tank, but it is very difficult to do that with oscars.
Ideally, oscars should be kept in extremely large tanks (hundreds of gallons) with other members of its family. That way, you can experience the complex social structure and varying personalities of each fish. Cichlids are fascinating fish with big personalities, but oscars and the other larger members of its family should be left for experts who can afford to house them properly and provide them with excellent care.
#5 Best Beginner Fish: Kribensis
The Kribensis (krib for short) is a dwarf species of cichlid that naturally inhabits the rivers of Africa. Fortunately for those with aquariums, the krib is readily available in most fish stores in the United States. There are very little negative comments I can make about this fish. It has all of the personality of its larger cousins without the extreme aggression or difficult housing requirements that most of the larger members of the genus require.
They may seem dull in the fish store, but if you give them the proper care at home, they can become quite colorful (especially the females). I suggest getting one male and one female so you can observe their unique parenting habits. It is easy to distinguish males from females. The males are duller and longer while the females are more compact with a red or pink belly. If you put an overturned flowerpot or other cave in the aquarium, I am sure your kribs will soon lay eggs. You can then experience their awesome mating coloration of intense reds and purples and even more awesome parenting instincts. The male and the female will guard the eggs vigorously. Once the fry (baby fish) hatch, both the male and the female will take care of their young. Once the fry start to swim, you can see the parents herd their offspring around the tank. It is truly an amazing sight to behold! I do suggest keeping them with faster moving species that are able to outrun their aggressive behavior during breeding. Species such as angelfish and bettas would be pick on quite frequently. Also, they are best kept in larger community aquariums of 30 gallons or larger if you plan on keeping them with other fish. Otherwise, they can get territorial like any other cichlid.
There are many other different dwarf cichlid species, but most are unsuitable for the beginner due to their specific water chemistry requirements and fragile health. However, bolivian rams and keyhole cichlids also make great community fish if you can manage to find some healthy specimens at your local fish store.
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#4 Worst Beginner Fish: Neon Tetra
With their bright neon blue coloration, neon tetras have been a favorite among fishkeepers for ages. With colors that rival marine fish, they are indeed one of the most beautiful freshwater species to keep. Only reaching one inch in length, they certainly are able to fit comfortably into most beginner's tanks. Why then are they not a good beginner fish? First of all, they do not adapt very well to changes in their environment. This leads to many difficulties when you bring the fish home. It is not enough to just float the bag in the water for ten minutes and then set them free. They need to adjust much more gradually by adding small amounts of aquarium water in the bag over a long period of time and then releasing them into the aquarium. Even then, they can still be very nervous and go into shock easily. They also require very clean water to do well in the home aquaria. Frequent water changes are a must to keep from having your neons start dying for no apparent reason. Their sensitivity does not make them very forgiving of mistakes that are bound to be made when a person first starts out.
Furthermore, they are not as hardy as they used to be. Excessive breeding has allowed the neon tetra to become very affordable, but it also has weakened the quality of the livestock that most fish stores carry. Many fish come to American dealer's tanks with all sorts of deformities and other health issues. They often are beat up and on the verge of death before you ever get them home. Neons are very susceptible to neon tetra disease. It is very contagious and very deadly. One infected fish can wipe out the entire school in a matter of weeks. The fish stops schooling and eating and eventually dies. It is not a pleasant experience to watch a helpless creature suffer. A large school of neon tetras can be a vibrant centerpiece for any aquarium, but it is not an easy goal to achieve.
#4 Best Beginner Fish: Neon Rainbowfish
Neon rainbowfish (also called dwarf or praecox rainbowfish) are one of my personal favorite species. They have everything people love about neon tetras without a lot of the problems that people may have with neons. Dwarf rainbowfish grow to about two inches in length. They are a peaceful shoaling fish, so they should be kept in groups of at least five or six. While this may seem like a lot, it is much more rewarding to observe the natural behavior and beauty of a group of these rainbowfish rather than just seeing one nervously dart around the tank. As far as color goes, fully mature specimens rival the beauty of neons in every way. While they may look dull in stores, with proper care they develop a stunning iridescent blue body with red or yellow fins depending on the sex of the fish. Males have red fins, and females have yellow. In the tank, males will fight and show off to impress the females. I personally find the dwarf rainbowfish's behavior more interesting than neons, and their mature coloration is just as stunning. In addition, they are much hardier than neons. While they prefer more alkaline water, they will do well as long as the water isn't extremely acidic. They also are much more tolerant of changes in water quality or chemistry. As long as you keep a regular schedule of water changes, they should be fine. They are a little harder to find, but they are worth the effort. I have seen them in chain pet stores on a pretty regular basis. I strongly recommend neon rainbowfish as a good alternative to the neon tetra for beginners.
There are a number of other tetras that would qualify as good beginner fish. Black skirt tetras, bloodfin tetras, glowlight tetras, serpae tetras, and x-ray tetras are just a few examples of some much hardier cousins to the neons. Do some research to see if any of these species appeal to you. They are all hardy and readily available in most fish stores. They all like to shoal so you should house at least five or six if you decide any of them is right for your tank.
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#3 Worst Beginner Fish: Dyed or Deformed Fish
There is absolutely no sight that I despise more than to see a tank stocked with fish that have been dyed to "enhance" their appearance. Widely distributed examples of such fish are "painted glassfish," "jellybean parrots," or "fruit tetras." All of these fish have gone through a despicable process to gain their unnatural appearance that has caused harm to the fish. Some fish such as painted glassfish are injected with a dye by a needle. Since the injection only covers a small area, the fish are subjected to a number of punctures, many of which can become infected. It is very painful and stressful for the fish as well as causing problems with their immune systems down the road. Another even worse method involves dipping the fish in a solution to strip them of their protective slime coats. After that, they are dipped or injected with dye and then placed in a solution that irritates the fish to regrow the slime coat. Needless to say, this is very detrimental to the fish's health longterm. As much as eighty percent of the fish die during the process while the rest have a much shorter lifespan than their natural counterparts. For as much discomfort as it causes, the dye is only temporary in most cases and will fade within months after either method is employed. The only reason these fish exist is because they are popular. Please do not support such gross mistreatment of helpless creatures. They should not be in a beginner's tank or anyone's tank at all.
Another recent trend is breeding fish for abnormalities. It is one thing to breed for longer fins or different color variations, but it has gotten a little out of hand in recent times. There are many exotic goldfish varieties readliy available in most fish stores. Things such as lionheads and bubble eyes exemplify some rather extreme mutations of the ordinary goldfish that we are accustomed to. Some of the deformities are so extreme that it interferes with the fish's ability to function normally. They tend to have many more health issues and live a lot less longer than their original forms. Other examples include balloon mollies purple heart cichlids (blood parrots who do not have their caudal fin). Again, these fish are in general much more susceptible to developing health problems, and they should be avoided by beginners.
#3 Best Beginner Fish: GloFish
Now wait a minute! Didn't I just say that dyed fish are unsuitable for beginners and just plain bad in general? I did, but GloFish are not dyed fish. They are in fact a trademarked brand, and they are the result of complex scientific research and experimentation. In reality, GloFish are really just plain old zebra danios - a fish that has been a staple in the hobby for a long time. The original GloFish was created by inserting a gene from a jellyfish into the embryo of a zebra danio causing it to glow. It originally was a step in research to create a fish that could detect pollution in the water by glowing. However, they have since crossed genes from coral to create different colors and marketed the fish to the public. They are still surrounded by controversy as another manmade creation that is replacing the natural beauty of their less flashy kin. While I personally do not like the unnatural look of the GloFish, the fish have not been harmed at all. In fact, most of the GloFish sold in stores are the offspring of the originals. There is no more insertion of genes into embryos involved. They are born "naturally" with no negative side effects resulting from their creation. If you want a futuristic feel to your fish tank, GloFish are my pick for you.
They are just as easy to care for as the original zebra danio. Only growing to a litlle over an inch, they can be kept in aquariums as small as ten gallons, but they would prefer a twenty gallon for the added swimming room. They are fast and extremely hardy. They readily accept any food or water chemistry. They also are forgiving of poor water quality, but that does not mean one should neglect the all-important chore of changing the tank water. GloFish (and zebra danios) really are a hard fish to kill. They make an excellent choice for a beginner fish.
#2 Worst Beginner Fish: Pleco
Countless times, people have asked a store employee which fish they recommend to eat the algae that is taking over their tank. The usual response is to show a tank full of small one to two inch common plecos. While indeed these fish will nibble on the algae, they will grow to become enormous waste producing machines. The common pleco can grow to eighteen inches long and should be housed in nothing less than a ninety gallon tank as an adult. They really are one of the most unsuitable fish for the common aquarium. It is much easier for the beginner to clean whatever algae is on the glass manually than deal with these truly monstrous and not so attractive fish later on.
Not only are they huge but they are one of the top waste producing fish as well. They are pooping machines and can quickly destroy water quality if you fall behind on your cleaning schedule. The algae you have in your tank will only last so long. They are eating machines, and once the tank is algae free, they need to be fed algae wafers, cucumbers, or other green vegetables. However, one must be careful to remove the uneaten vegetable from the tank quickly as it can rot and mess up the water even more. Furthermore, they require some driftwood to nibble on in their tank to stay healthy. With the massive tank requirements and special dietary considerations, they are clearly the wrong choice for someone just starting to learn about the hobby, but they remain one of the most popular fish to put in the beginner aquarium.
#2 Best Beginner Fish: Corydoras Catfish
If you are looking for a first fish to help clean your tank, I an think of no better alternative than the the bronze, emerald, or albino cory. They will help to sift through the substrate and stir up debris that has fallen to the bottom of the tank making it much easier for your filter to suck it up. They also will consume any uneaten food that has fallen to the bottom of the tank. In addition to their usefulness in the aquarium, they have amazingly fun personalities. Like neons or rainbowfish, they like to be in each other's company. I strongly recommend purchasing at least five or six to truly see their unique interactions with each other. If you look closely, you can even see the cories blink occasionally. Their antics will provide onlookers with hours of entertainment. They also are extremely hardy as long as two easy requirements are met. They absolutely hate salt in their water, so please don't put any in their tank (not common for beginner's to do anyway). Also, they prefer a sandy substrate to avoid their delicate barbels from getting damaged. While sand is best, as long as the substrate does not have large or jagged pebbles, they will do fine. Make sure they are getting fed properly as well. They shouldn't be depending on scraps to make it to the bottom of the tank. Sink wafers that will satisfy their dietary requirements are readily available. Lastly, there are many different species of cories, but many of the newer or more exotic ones are much more picky about their environment. Please do your research before deciding which cory is right for you.
If you really want a fish to eat algae growing in your tank, there are a few better alternatives than the common pleco. Although, if you have that much algae growing in your tank, there is probably something wrong with your water chemistry anyway. The bristlenose pleco is a unique much smaller cousin to the monsters more commonly available. They only grow to six inches max, and they do a good job of consuming brown algae. The rubbernose or bulldog pleco are other smaller versions of the common pleco that can fit in much smaller tanks. Once again, you need to make sure there is driftwood available for them to much on. Also, the true siamese algae eater is excellent at consuming more difficult to eliminate types of algae. It is tricky to find the right fish though, and many of the imposters labeled as siamese algae eaters in stores are aggressive toward other fish and will not eat algae at all.
Amazon has a lot of kits available that give you almost everything you need to get started including a tank, filter, heater, etc.
#1 Worst Beginner Fish: Goldfish
Without a doubt, the goldfish has been the most abused fish in the hobby. Being one of the first fish housed in captivity, the goldfish is the result of genetic mutation. No one is exactly certain of the origins of the goldfish, but they are a part of the carp family along with koi. Most goldfish if released into the wild will lose their golden color within a few generations. Long prized for its beauty, goldfish have been a part of the hobby since the beginning. However, they have been very mistreated for almost as long. Housed in tiny bowls, given as prizes, swallowed alive, used as live food, deformed beyond recognition - these are just a few of the tortures that they have experienced. If I were a goldfish, I really would sue. Many really don't think of them as living animals worthy of respect. It is shameful because goldfish can make excellent pets when properly cared for.
They have great personalities and can be incredibly tough, but they are not really a beginner fish for many reasons. First of all, standard adults can grow to well over a foot in length. While many decide to house their first goldfish in a bowl, unlike the betta (probably the runner-up in the most abused category) they are incredibly unsuited for such an environment. They need a much larger amount of oxygen in their water than most other fish. Without any water movement, the goldfish will slowly perish. Most people are surprised to learn that goldfish can live as long as twenty years. Most die within the first few months because people don't understand how to meet their basic needs. Fish do not grow to the size of their environment. Placing a goldfish in a small tank or bowl will cause it to die a slow painful death. Common goldfish should be kept in large outdoor ponds or extremely large indoor tanks if they are to do well longterm.
So what are the requirements to successfully keep goldfish? I am going to discuss only the fancy varieties because they are the ones most suited for life in an aquarium. Again, keep the larger common goldfish in ponds. First of all, the fancy varieties of goldfish are much more fragile than the unaltered forms, but they can be housed in much smaller quarters. A 55 gallon aquarium can keep three fancy goldfish comfortably for their entire lifespans (which are cut to about ten years due to health problems). There are quite a few varieties to choose from, but I would stay away from the more severely deformed specimens. You must provide good filtration and aerate the water adequately. Goldfish are extremely messy, and they like to have clean water. That is not a good combination. A powerful filter and frequent water changes are a must. At least change 25% of the water weekly to keep your goldfish in top shape. Cleaning the tank is also a must as they tend to be messy eaters leaving the leftovers to rot in the tank. In addition, goldfish are a coldwater fish. They CANNOT be housed with tropical fish. They do NOT need heaters in their tank. The higher temperatures reduce the oxygen levels in the water causing stress for the goldfish. Goldfish really should be housed with only other goldfish. If you really want to have tankmates, I can suggest white cloud mountain minnows, butterfly loaches, and apple snails as a few species that may do well with goldfish. Goldfish also happily consume live plants. Only java fern, moss, and anubias species will go untouched. Their diets need to be varied. A good quality pellet food made specifically for goldfish mixed with some green vegetable occasionally is a good start. Once again, goldfish can make excellent pets if their basic requirements are met, but they really require some effort on their owner's part. Give them a try once you have the basics of fishkeeping figured out.
#1 Best Beginner Fish: Platy
Extremely hardy and colorful and easy to breed - what is not love about the platy. Native to Central America, platies are in the the livebearer family along with guppies, swordtails, and mollies. This means that they actually give birth to live young. To breed them, it is very simple. Just add a male and a female, and you will soon see small fry swimming in the tank. Males have a pointed anal fin called a gonopodium, and females have a dark gravid spot on their bellies. More females should be kept in the tank than males to prevent the females from being harassed by the males constant attempts to breed. If you don't want the offspring to be eaten, you will have to separate them or provide a lot of hiding places in the tank as the adults will canabalize their young. It is truly exciting for a person to experience the live birth for the first time.
Platies are also extremely easy to keep. They like more alkaline water, but they can tolerate anything as long as it is not in the extremes. They are very forgiving of poor water quality, but frequent water changes should be performed to keep your fish happy and healthy. They are a very peaceful fish as well. They are happy swimming casually around the tank looking for bits of food or other goodies to munch on. As long as they cannot be eaten by their tankmates, platies will get along just fine with about any fish.
Lastly, platies come in a wide variety of colors and variations. You can easily find platies in red, yellow, or blue. They also have a mickey mouse variety with a marking that looks like mickey himself at the base of their tail. Sailfin varieties are also making their way into stores. Swordtails are very close to the platies, but they are a little more feisty. Males will put on brilliant displays and mock duels in fighting for a female's attention. Their tails are very unique, and they come in many shapes and colors as well. As a precaution, platies and swordtails should not be kept in the same tank. They will breed with each other and pollute the bloodlines, so please keep them separate.
Platies are a great introduction to the hobby, especially for children who will enjoy the bright colors, activity, and offspring that the platy will deliver. They really are the ultimate beginner fish.
Let me know what you think. Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Is there anything you would like me to add? Any feedback is appreciated.