The Best Fish for Community Tanks

With so many fish to choose from where do you start? The best way is to visit your local aquarium store and see what type of fish catch your interest.  Usually, it will be something colorful and have a charisma that is interesting to you. It is best to take your time and become knowledgeable about the fish you are selecting. Remember it is often what moves in our aquarium that makes our aquatic landscape into a living ecosystem. Without a doubt much of the fun in keeping an aquarium comes from going to your local fish store and selecting the fish that will inhabit your home aquarium.

It is important for community fish to live peacefully together and have the correct type of setup and water. Some fish are good tank mates when they are small but as they grow may become aggressive towards each other. Some fish prefer hiding places to rest and claim territory for themselves. Some fish need certain conditions, i.e., water type, territory, bottom substrate, etc., to be happy. Before purchasing any fish, you need to know what their specific needs are now and as they grow.

First consider the type of aquarium you are setting up. The three common types are Freshwater Tropical, Freshwater Coldwater, or Marine aquariums. 

Freshwater Tropical has the largest variety of fish to choose from, but tropical fish need warm water to survive and flourish. Most tropical species do well at 75°-78°F (24°-26°C). The desired temperature can easily be maintained using an aquarium heater. Most tetras, barbs, gouramies, and livebearers are ideal for this sort of aquarium. A single male betta fish is an ideal community aquarium resident but are intolerant of other males of their own kind. Betta fish are tropical fish and need to be kept in warm water.

If a community Freshwater Tropical aquarium is too tame for you, you can select the rough and tumble world of cichlids, many of whom are aggressively territorial and can grow quite large. If so, be aware it is more challenging to start and maintain a cichlid aquarium than it is a typical tropical community. 

Freshwater Coldwater fish can live in wide temperature ranges. The most common coldwater fish is a goldfish, but there are other coldwater species as well. Goldfish are one species that have been bred into different forms over hundreds of years. Because of selected breeding, goldfish offer lots of varieties, patterns, and colors, but their care requirements are largely the same. Coldwater fish do not need to be kept in a heated aquarium. 

Most marine fish with bright colors and patterns need to be in a heated aquarium. The marine aquarium water needs to mimic ocean water. Keeping marine fish either in a fish only aquarium or a reef aquarium require specific expertise beyond the scope of this article. Starting with damselfish or clownfish is often recommended as a starter fish, but even some species of these fish can become aggressive as they become older. Keeping surgeonfish (tangs) are another great fish but many species become large and do require specialized diets including algae. Depending on your specific marine aquarium type and size will determine the best starter fish. Consult with your local aquatic store for the best guidance. Before entering into marine aquariums, keeping freshwater tropical or coldwater fish is a great way to gain the basic of understanding of feeding, water testing and maintenance. 

Once we determine the type of aquarium we are setting up, Tropical, Coldwater or Marine, we need to consider the size of our aquarium. Small fish can grow very large depending on the type of fish. When it comes to aquarium size, bigger is better. Larger size aquariums allow for more water volume which is more stable in terms of water quality and ability to maintain temperature. The larger the aquarium, the more fish will be able to select from, and the more fish you will be able to keep together. It is important to know and understand the maximum adult size of the fish you are selecting. Buying a small fish that grows larger than the current aquarium is acceptable, only if you intend to increase the size of its accommodations proportionally as it grows. 

Size is not the only consideration; we must consider compatibility with other fish. The community aquarium is best defined as multiple species of fish living and maintaining peace together. The allure of a community aquarium is partly due to the amazing shapes, sizes, colors, unusual behaviors, and the exotic locales from which the fish come. 

As mentioned, the size of the aquarium is important when selecting the types of fish to add. In this article we will provide some commonly available fish for two different size aquariums. 

Popular community fish to select from for a 10 to 20 gallon (~40 to 80 Liter) Freshwater Tropical aquarium include:

Freshwater fish
  • Platys (any size)
  • Neon and Cardinal Tetras
  • Bloodfish Tetras
  • Head-and-Tail-Light Tetras
  • Blind Cave Tetras
  • Flame Tetras
  • Cherry Barbs
  • Gold Barbs
  • Rosy Barbs
  • Checker Barbs
  • Zebra Danios
  • Pearl Danios
  • Betta Fish (1male/aquarium)
  • Dwarf Gouramies
  • White Cloud Minnows
  • Green Corys
  • Peppered Corys

For community Freshwater Tropical aquarium larger than 20 gallons (≥80 Liter), the following fish in addition to the list above include:

  • Swordtails (any variety)
  • Snakeskin Gouramies
  • Giant Danios
  • Rainbowfish (any variety)
  • Red-eyed Tetras
  • Scissortail Rasboras

For a saltwater aquarium (Reef or Fish Only) larger than 20 gallons (≥80 Liter), the following fish are great considerations to start with:

Saltwater fish
  • Green Chromis
  • PJ (Pajama) Cardinal
  • Percula Clownfish
  • Yellow Watchman Goby
  • Engineer Goby (These can grow easily to 12” (31cm) in length)
  • BiColor Blenny (needs algae in their diet)
  • Flame Hawkfish
  • Six-Line Wrasse
  • Royal Gramma
  • Coral Beauty Angelfish

Note: The lists above are suggestions and by no means a complete list, but it is hard to go wrong with any of these fish. 

Introducing your new fish to your aquarium must be done with care and following a few simple steps is essential. First start with active, healthy fish, free from any signs of disease. Temperature and oxygen are critical for your fish. They have a limited supply of oxygen in the bag they come in, so go directly home after you purchase them to prepare for their acclimation to their new home. Transporting fish can be very stressful, no matter how gentle you are. Once the fish have been introduced to your aquarium, it is advised not to feed immediately and to leave the aquarium lights turned off at first, giving them time to relax. Note: Adding a few fish at a time is a best practice. The fewer fish you add to the aquarium at a time allows the beneficial bacteria in the filter to catch up with the new fish load.

API products

Once at home, follow these steps for success:

  1. Turn off your aquarium lights.
  2. Float the bagged fish in the aquarium water, unopened, for about 15 to 20 minutes (this will help adjust the temperature of the water in the bag).
  3. After floating for about 20 minutes, open the bag and pour a small amount of aquarium water inside. Then tie the bag back up and let it float again in the aquarium for five more minutes (this helps to assure water conditions of your aquarium are adjusted with the bag water conditions for the fish).
  4. Now open the bag and with a fish net carefully transfer your fish from the bag into the aquarium. Note: Do NOT add the bag water to your aquarium, as it may contain ammonia and/or harmful organisms.
  5. To help assure healthy transition into your aquarium Add API® STRESS COAT™ water conditioner and API QUICK START nitrifying bacteria to your aquarium. STRESS COAT is proven to reduce stress associated with fish transfer, enhances slime coat, and helps to heal any damaged tissue. QUICK START adds the beneficial nitrifying bacteria essential to reduce toxic ammonia and nitrite helping to assure a healthy biological filter.
  6. About an hour after entering your fish into their new home you can turn the lights back on and enjoy your new fish frolicking in their new home.
  7. Once everyone is settled in their new surroundings you can feed your fish.

Now it is time to sit back and enjoy your new fish. In fact, studies show that taking care of fish, and watching them swim, can ease stress and tension, and even lower blood pressure. It is also a fun and educational family hobby. 

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