17 Tropical Fish for Beginners

Try one of these recommendations from a fish veterinarian.

<p>Bilanol/Getty Images</p>

Bilanol/Getty Images

Reviewed by Nick Saint-Erne

There are many fish species that are recommended for new fish keepers wanting to set up an aquarium. Many of the fish recommended here get along well with others and have a wide tolerance of water quality parameters. Before you purchase any fish, ensure you have enough room for all adult-size fish in the size of your aquarium, and with filtration to accommodate everyone. Some fish will require specific water quality or diets which may limit what fish can be kept together.

Here are a fish veterinarian's recommendations for the best tropical fish for beginners.

Betta fish

<p>NatalyaAksenova/Getty Images</p>

NatalyaAksenova/Getty Images

One of the most popular tropical pet fish is the Betta fish (Betta splendens). Many people are not aware that betta fish are tropical fishes and commonly keep them in a tank without a heater, leading to lots of disease and digestive issues. As long as you keep them in a proper tank with heater and filtration, your betta will live a long and happy life.

Betta fish, especially males, are known for their aggression, so you should only keep one in a tank at a time. Males should also be kept separate from females, except at breeding time, or he will fight the female. Females can usually be kept together. Other fish that can be kept with bettas include smaller fish such as tetras, rasboras, guppies, and mollies. Bettas are slow swimming fish, so avoid putting them in with fish that nip fins.

They require an aquarium heater set around 78 to 82 F (26 to 28 C), which is warmer than many other tropical fish prefer. Bettas will need to be fed a few small meals a day. Overfeeding is a common issue with bettas, so regardless of what size pellets you feed, only feed your betta enough pellets per meal that can be consumed in three minutes.

Species Overview

Length: 3-4 inches (7-10 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Long, delicate fins; males have a variety of caudal fin shapes. The come in many colors, including red, green, purple, and blue.

Neon Tetra and Cardinal Tetra

<p>cejoos/Getty Images</p>

cejoos/Getty Images

If you have a small (less than 5 gallons) heated aquarium, your best choice is a small school of neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi) or similar looking cardinal tetras (Paracheirodon axelrodi). A vivid splash of neon blue and red, these small tetras brighten up any tank and are commonly kept in a small school. The neon and cardinal tetras have similar needs, and can live together in an aquarium. The only difference is the cardinal tetra has red under the blue stripe that extends all the way to the head.

They enjoy a wide variety of décor and plants in the aquarium, and are very easygoing. Neon and cardinal tetras get along with a lot of other species and are very easy to keep. Most commercial tropical fish diets are well suited to providing adequate nutrition for your tetra school.

Species Overview

Length: 1 and 1/2 inches (4 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Bright neon blue stripe along the middle of the side and a red coloration below the blue stripe.


<p>Mirko_Rosenau/Getty Images</p>

Mirko_Rosenau/Getty Images

The most common species of mollies sold in fish stores are the sailfin molly, Poecilia latipinna, the black or short-fin molly, Poecilia sphenops, and the Yucatan molly, Poecilia velifera. Molly fishes are members of the live-bearing fish group, meaning that they give birth to live young. It is very common for some Molly owners to bring one very round fish home from the pet store, and then a few days later, the tank is full of baby fry. Mollies are very easy tropical fish to keep and are a common beginner fish.

In order to prevent countless generations of Mollies, you will need to know how the genders differ and separate them. Inbreeding issues in Mollies are common when they are allowed to breed within the same genetic pool for multiple generations.

Species Overview

Length: Up to 5 1/2 inches (12 to 14 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: It is easy to determine the gender in Mollies as males have a prominent gonopodium, an elongated anal fin used to inseminate females. Only males have the large dorsal “sail fin” in the species that do have enlarged dorsal fins. The females have a smaller dorsal fin and a fan shaped anal fin.


<p>underworld111/Getty Images</p>

underworld111/Getty Images

Very closely related to the Molly is the guppy. The guppy (Poecilia reticulata) is another live-bearing species within the same family as mollies, platys and swordtails, known for their vibrant colors. They are very easy to keep, but can easily over populate an aquarium if you do not keep the genders separate. Males tend to have more vibrant colors and have a long, thin anal fin, unlike females who have rounder bellies and a rounded or fan-shaped anal fin.

Guppies get along with many other tropical community fish and are easy to feed with flake foods or a small pellet. There are many color varieties of guppies, so finding a color pattern that suits your taste is very easy. As with the Molly, there are some inbreeding issues with guppies if they are allowed to reproduce within the same aquarium for too many generations, so be sure to keep the genders in separate tanks and manage breeding appropriately.

Species Overview

Length: Up to 2 inches (5 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Long, thin body with wide tail, many colorations and fin designs have been produced by selective breeding.

Congo Tetra

<p>Mirko_Rosenau/Getty Images</p>

Mirko_Rosenau/Getty Images

A larger, schooling tetra species to consider for your tropical aquarium is the Congo tetra. Originating from the Congo River Basin in Africa, these tropical fish add a golden rainbow to your tank. The Congo tetra has a long, flat body with iridescent gold and silver scales and long, white-tipped fins.

They are easy to care for and prefer to be kept in a small school. They readily take a pelleted diet, but also will eat veggie and meaty treats. Preferring a softer, slightly acidic water, you will need to keep a closer eye on their water quality, but other than that, they are easy to care for and will add some sparkle to your tropical aquarium.

Species Overview

Length: 2.5 to 3.5 inches (6 to 8 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Wide body with gold and silver shimmering scales and white-tipped, ruffled fins

Panda Cory

<p>vojce/Getty Images</p>

vojce/Getty Images

There are many species of Corydoras catfish that you can consider for your tropical aquarium, but the Panda Cory (Corydoras panda) is one of the most readily available and recognizable. With a pale, almost translucent body, they resemble their Panda bear namesake with a black band across their eyes, tail peduncle, and dorsal fin. They are bottom feeders and tend to be more active at night.

The Panda Cory is a bottom feeder that likes to clean the substrate along the bottom of your tank. Topping out at only 2 inches, they like to live in small schools. Be sure to provide them with plenty of open substrate to allow them to forage throughout the day and provide them with a sinking omnivore pellet. If you have any other bottom-dwelling fishes, you may need to provide some shelter such as caves for your Panda Corys because they are shyer fish.

Species Overview

Length: Up to 2 inches (5 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Rounded, armor plated pale body with downward facing mouth that has barbels on the lips.


<p>pengpeng/Getty Images</p>

pengpeng/Getty Images

The Swordtail (Xiphophorus helleri), named for their elongated tail fin on males of the species, is similar to the guppy and Molly. They are live-bearing fish and come in a wide variety of colors. They are less common than guppy and Molly fishes, but are easy to care for and get along with many tropical community fishes.

An active, schooling fish, the Swordtail does best in a small school of at least 4-5 individuals. They can all be the same color or may vary. Planted or artificial décor works well for Swordtail and although they have a fighting name, they are very easygoing and easy to care for fish. They will eat any flake or pelleted food, along with frozen fish food.

Species Overview

Length: 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Torpedo-shaped body, males have an elongated sword on the tail fin. Multiple color varieties are available.

Kuhli Loach

<p>Mirko_Rosenau/Getty Images</p>

Mirko_Rosenau/Getty Images

They may look like a more advanced fish, but the Kuhli Loach (Pangio kuhlii) is a great tropical fish species for beginning aquarists. This eel-like fish has an elongated body with small fins. Their bodies are dark brown and yellow striped, and they do well as single fish or in a group. The Kuhli Loach is a bottom feeder and is most active at dawn and dusk, so do not expect them to be very active during the day, and provide good hiding spots for them during this time.

The Kuhli Loach is a peaceful, community fish that will do well on many commercial tropical fish diets. They prefer slightly more acidic water, but this will not significantly limit their potential tank mates. If you have other bottom-dwelling fish, such as cory catfish, be sure there is plenty of space for everyone to forage freely.

Species Overview

Length: 5 inches (13 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Elongated yellow and brown striped body with small fins and downturned mouth with barbels on the lips.

Boesemani Rainbowfish

<p>wrangel/Getty Images</p>

wrangel/Getty Images

Of the many species of Rainbowfish available in the pet trade, the most recognizable is the Boesemani or Boeseman's Rainbowfish (Melanotaenia boesemani). With the typical wide body and pointed head, the male Boesemani Rainbowfish is a vivid combination of blue or purple head and yellow or orange tail. Females tend to be lighter in color with a white belly and green/yellow dorsal coloration.

The Boesemani Rainbowfish does well in groups or as singles with other schooling fishes. Their colors will become brighter as the males get ready to spawn, which can be a good indication to move them to a spawning tank if you wish to save any of the offspring. Like most of their rainbowfish counterparts, they are easy to care for community fish. They like to swim in schools, so be sure to give them lots of room.

Species Overview

Length: 4 inches (10 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Wide body with purple/blue head and orange/red tail for males and white belly and yellow/green back for females.

Bristlenose Pleco

<p>JanRehschuh/Wikimedia Commons</p>

JanRehschuh/Wikimedia Commons

Of the many catfish or Plecostomus species, the Bristlenose Pleco (Ancistrus cirrhosus) is the best suited to beginners due to its small size. The common Plecostomus or Suckermouth Catfish (Hypostomous plecostomus) can grow up to 2 feet long and will easily outgrow many beginner tanks. It is highly recommended that you only purchase a catfish species that you can easily identify and know how big it will grow to as an adult, as most fish sold in fish stores are still immature. The Bristlenose Pleco is known for their many bristles around their mouth, which is not seen in other species.

The Bristlenose Plecos, like other Plecostomus species, are bottom dwellers, using their mouths as suction cups to attach to smooth surfaces. They will commonly attach to the sides of the tank or large, smooth driftwood logs. They are primarily herbivorous, but will do well with an omnivore diet. Often, you will feed your Pleco a sinking wafer specifically made for them and allow them to dine on whatever else may drift their way. The Bristlenose Pleco gets along with almost all other fish because they are peaceful and covered in armor plates.

Species Overview

Length: 5 inches (13 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Compressed dark brown body with lighter brown to tan spots over hard bony plates, numerous barbels along face, downward-facing mouth with barbels on the lips.

Rosy Barb

<p>vojce/Getty Images</p>

vojce/Getty Images

The Rosy or Red Barb (Puntius conchonius) brings a pop of bright color to your tank and is one of the more peaceful barb species. They are a larger barb species, topping out at 6 inches long, so a school will need a larger tank since they are very active swimmers. They can be more aggressive than other tropical community fishes, so keep them with similar sized fish species, or give smaller fishes lots of places to hide.

Known for jumping, the Rosy Barb will require a tight fitting lid. Like many other Cyprinid species, they are omnivores and will enjoy snacking on any live plants in your tank. Feed them a pelleted diet, but ensure to spread it out throughout the tank to limit competition and allow everyone to get an equal share.

Species Overview

Length: 4 inches (10 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Round red to orange iridescent body with black spot by tail peduncle and black tipped fins.

Harlequin Rasbora

<p>slowmotiongli/Getty Images</p>

slowmotiongli/Getty Images

A red-to-orange colored fish with distinct black markings, the Harlequin Rasbora (Trigonostigma hetermorpha) provides a striking pop of color in your aquarium. There are a few different species of similar looking rasboras available, but the Harlequin is best known and most common. They prefer to live in schools, which can be combined with other small schooling species such as tetras or small barbs.

The Harlequin Rasbora is an easy tropical fish to keep and does well in a variety of community tanks. They are omnivorous and can eat a varied diet of pellets, veggies, and meaty treats, such as brine shrimp and bloodworms.

Species Overview

Length: 2 inches (5 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Angular red to orange body with black flag coloration on the back half of the body, with black stripe along tail and fin tips.

Silver Dollar

<p>saavedramarcelo/Getty Images</p>

saavedramarcelo/Getty Images

Aptly named, the Silver Dollar (Metynnis argenteus) is a tall tropical fish with a silver body that is rounded like a coin. It is a peaceful community fish. They can get up to 6 inches tall and like to be kept in groups of six or more individuals, so will need more room and a deeper tank to fit comfortably. Males can develop a red tint to their fins when they are ready to breed, which can be confused with fin rot or inflammation.

Although they are medium-sized fish, Silver Dollars like to have lots of places to hide, which can be difficult given their body and school size. Thankfully, they are hardy and easy-to-keep tropical fish that get along well with many other species, even smaller ones.

Species Overview

Length: 6 inches (15 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Tall silver body with clear fins (male fins will turn red when sexually mature).

Buenos Aires Tetra

<p>Nate Abbott/Getty Images</p>

Nate Abbott/Getty Images

Similar in body shape to the neon Tetra, the Buenos Aires Tetra (Hyphessobrycon anisitsi) has a brilliant green shimmer with black stripe and red-tipped fins. These fish provide a great contrast with other larger schooling species, but are known for nipping at long-fin species. Buenos Aires Tetras are one of the larger tetra species, topping out at almost 3 inches long.

A hardy and easy-to-keep species, the Buenos Aires Tetra is best kept in a school and is known for vigorous snacking on vegetation. They are also known to jump, so be sure to keep the lid on your tank. Buenos Aires Tetras are omnivores that will do well on a varied diet of flake or pelleted food, plus freeze dried or frozen fish foods.

Species Overview

Length: 3 inches (8 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Torpedo-shaped body with pale belly, green-yellow iridescent back, black stripe along tail with red-tipped fins.

Mickey Mouse Platy

<p>Dennis Amith/flickr</p>

Dennis Amith/flickr

Like some of the other species on this list, the Mickey Mouse Platy (Xiphophorus maculatus) is a live bearing fish, named for its distinctive mouse head and ears on its caudal peduncle and tail. As with all live bearers, it is very common for fish owners to bring home one fish from the store and suddenly end up with a whole school. To keep any live bearer successfully, it is critical that you keep the genders separate in order to reduce overpopulation. Female Mickey Mouse Platys tend to have rounder bellies and males have an elongated anal fin, called a gonopodium, used to breed with the female, which has a rounded anal fin.

Mickey Mouse Platys are very easy to keep and a common beginner fish. They do well in wide water quality ranges and are tolerant of many beginner mistakes. They will eat almost any fish diet, just try not to overfeed them. They are mid-tank dwellers, so will utilize the main water column, leaving the bottom of the tank available to bottom-dwelling species.

Species Overview

Length: 3 inches (5 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Rounded red to pale orange body with "mickey mouse" black pattern on tail and peduncle.

Pearl Gourami

<p>Maksim Lobanov/Getty Images</p>

Maksim Lobanov/Getty Images

Of all the Gourami species in the pet trade, the Pearl Gourami (Trichogaster leerii) is one of the most peaceful and beautiful. Gourami species are members of the Anabantidae fish family, like the Betta, that have a rudimentary ability to breathe air using their labyrinth organ. Gourami species vary in size, color, and temperament, so be sure you correctly identify your intended species before bringing them home.

The Pearl Gourami has a pale body covered in white spots with contrasting black spots along the lateral line and fins. Pearl Gouramis prefer a heavily planted tank and slightly acidic water. Males tend to be more aggressive than females, but males will have red-tinted belly and jaw that can easily be confused with an infection. You can keep them in a small school, with one male and multiple females, or with other schooling fishes.

Species Overview

Length: 4.5 inches (12 centimeters)

Physical Characteristics: Flattened pale body covered in white spots with black spots along lateral line and fins, males will have red coloration to belly and chin.


<p>khudoliy/Getty Images</p>

khudoliy/Getty Images

Looking for a pop of neon color? Then you should consider GloFish. These genetically modified fishes contain fluorescent invertebrate genes, not injected pigment, giving them a glowing appearance under blacklights or blue LEDs. Currently, there are danios, tetras, barbs, cory catfish, and rainbow sharks that are available in five glowing colors. These fish are not a threat to the environment and if they were ever to escape into the wild, they would be very easy prey due to their bright colors.

GloFish require the same environment, food, and care as their traditionally colored counterparts. You will need a special "glowing" light in order to bring out their fluorescent colorations, but the fish will be very bright even in normal aquarium lighting.

Species Overview

Length: varies by species

Physical Characteristics: Fish come in a variety of fluorescent colors, including yellow, green, pink, purple and orange.

No matter which species of fish you decide on, it is critical to always do your research to ensure all your aquarium inhabitants will get along and do well in the same water chemistry. Try not to overstock your tank, and add new fish a few at a time to allow your filtration to catch up with the fish waste. For new tropical tanks, you will need a reliable heater and thermometer to ensure proper water temperature. It is recommended to always have a second heater at the ready just in case your first one has an issue, if you live in a cold climate. If you are to lose power, here are some options to maintain your tropical temperatures.

Read the original article on The Spruce Pets.