Choosing fish for your aquarium

When you set up an aquarium, the fun part is choosing the fish. There are a lot of fish to choose from – cichlid, tetras, goldfish, rainbows, barbs, piranha, dozens of species of catfish – and that’s just fresh water.

Before you start, you need to answer a few questions. The answers will give you a better idea of what you can have, and, better, what you’ll enjoy most.

1 – Do you have a heater in the tank?

If the answer is “no”, then you’re limited in your choices to goldfish or a few hardier tropical fish (neon tetras, zebra danios, white cloud or gold cloud mountain minnows) which can handle room temperature.  These tropicals prefer a heated tank, but can live in a cooler environment.

If the answer is “yes”, then you can choose from a wider range of tropical fish. Do not use a heater for goldfish. Do not mix goldfish and tropical fish.

2 – How large is your tank?

The larger the tank, the larger volume of fish it can accommodate. If you want big fish, or lots of fish, you need a big tank. The rule is: For every gallon of water you can have one inch of slim-bodied fish or one half-inch of fat-bodied or deep-bodied fish.

When you get into very large fish, like tiger shovelnose catfish, which can grow to an adult size of two to five feet long, the rule goes out the window and you need much more water and much more filtration. A breeding pair of piranha need an eighty-gallon tank, even though together they’re perhaps sixteen inches long.

In aquariums, size matters. If you have exactly the size of aquarium you need for the number of fish you have, you have no leeway if something goes wrong. A larger volume of water gives you time to deal with a problem before fish start to die.

3 – What kind of fish do you like?

This is the fun part. You can have a community aquarium, where a variety of fish live together peacefully, or you can have a “specimen tank”, where one “oh-wow!” fish  lives. Piranha, tiger shovelnose cats, arowana, oscars and other really large and predatory fish are kept in specimen tanks because they eat anything else put in with them.

Cichlids, tetras, barbs and many other smaller fish are community fish. “One of this and one of that” doesn’t work in a community tank. Fish who like to hang out in groups like to do it with other fish like them. Five glass catfish will act like a school and hang out together. One glass catfish, one neon tetra, one zebra danio, one rainbowfish and one gold barb will all be stressed and unhappy because they feel insecure.

African cichlids go with African cichlids. If you try to put South American cichlids (like angels, severums, oscars) with African ones, the chances are excellent that they’ll fight. This is because their dominance/submission signals are reversed, so a South American fish showing submission signals seems challenging to an African one, and vice-versa.

South American cichlids can often go with other fish, but not always. Discus are very peaceful, and can live with the small tetras, like neons, cardinals and the like. Angelfish will probably eat the neons eventually. Red-breasted piranha (which are a tetra) can live with a school of small fish. If the little fish are schooling, the piranha know there’s no danger, and they’re calm.  Black piranha eat anything that comes into their tank, and will make a pass at your hand, too.

The best thing to do is think about what you like to watch – a group of fish swimming peacefully, or a single fish that isn’t quite so peaceful. Plan ahead – if you buy a ten-gallon tank now for that tiny arowana, you’ll be buying something much bigger in a very few months.

Finally, whatever you get, research it first if you can. When you get it, write down what you have and how many. Especially in a community tank, it helps a lot to say not “I have some little fish, kind of blue”, but “I have six cardinal tetras” or “four Bosemani rainbows”. It means when you add fish to your aquarium, we can help you choose fish that will get along with what you already have.

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