Many novice aquarium hobbyists dream of integrating exotic fish into the ecosystem of their tank, as these species are generally energetic and colorful. While it is true that some tropical swimmers are hard to handle, there are plenty of beginner-friendly options in the aquarium trade.
Before we begin, you should know a few things about choosing your first exotic fish:
In this article, we will further discuss our top ten favorite picks of exotic fish for beginners.
Also referred to as cories, corydoras are a species of aquarium-friendly exotic fish native to the coast of South Africa.
They are also called catfish due to their whiskers, but in reality, they do not belong to that family.
Cories are small and sociable swimmers that thrive in schools of at least six, which is why you should always pair them with a few tank mates of their kind.
They are also notorious bottom feeders, which is why you should add a gravel base to the aquarium.
Use medium-sized stones for the base, as corydoras love to dig around for food.
Keep the base of the tank smooth and clean, as anything too sharp or dirty can injure their whiskers and affect their feeding.
How to Take Care of Corydoras
Store-bought cories are more resilient nowadays to water chemistry and tank environmental conditions, but they thrive in some specific circumstances you should try to provide.
Here are the chief points you should consider:
Cories are very friendly fish and they will get along with many other community fish.
Playful and curious, they do not hide, but swim out and about at all times, being a joy to watch and take care of.
Swordtail fish are petite in size, growing to a maximum length of two inches.
Their name draws on the fact that males have elongated, sword-like tails which differentiate them from females.
Even though the fish was originally green with two red stripes, it has since been bred in many color varieties.
As a rule of thumb, swordtails aren’t aggressive to other fish. However, males tend to harass their females quite a bit as a way to show interest. Therefore, it is advisable keeping two females for every male in the tank, so that the ecosystem is balanced. He will still bother them, but at least he won’t focus all the antagonism on one lady.
How to Take Care of Swordtails
Swordtails are resilient fish and they adapt to almost any environment.
While very social, they are not schooling fish.
If you want a company of swordtails, the minimum tank size should be 15 gallons, but go for 30 if you want to mix them with other species.
Here are some more things to know about taking care of them:
Swordtails are interesting fish, social, joyful, and energetic. Design your tank properly and you will never feel boredom again with these little companions!
3. Cherry Barb
Cherry barbs are red and vivacious tropical fish native to Sri Lanka’s Kelani river. The males are brighter in color, while females sport duller pigmentation.
They are schooling fish much like the corydoras, but their groups aren’t as tightly knit.
Still, having six or more in your tank is a good idea.
One important thing to note about cherry barbs is their aggression levels.
Although they aren’t quite as feisty as most pet shops describe them, they do tend to harass slower fish with large fins.
Therefore, if you have one or more in your tank that fit this description, it is best to avoid adding these little red guys to the mix.
The males display brighter colors in the presence of rivals, but keep in mind to keep the tank spacious enough to avoid future troubles.
How to Take Care of Cherry Barbs
The first thing you should consider is adding plants to the tank, as cherry barbs love a good game of hide-and-seek. Moreover, males will have brighter colors in the presence of plants and tank decorations.
In addition, they are not pretentious fish if you offer them the best of conditions:
4. Zebra Danio
The zebra danio is one of the most popular exotic fish for beginners. It reproduces with great ease and is not consumed for food, which explains its fame in the aquarium trade.
In addition to this, zebra danio is an extremely hardy and adaptable aquatic species that can put on quite a show in your tank due to its incomparable vivacity.
It can live up to five years in good conditions and make some of the easiest-to-care-for fish for beginners.
How to Take Care of Zebra Danio
Since they prefer to live in water with some current to it and are schooling fish, you should start with a group of at least five, in a tank with some current (albeit mild).
Danios are friendly fish, so they will get along with all barbs, corydoras catfish, swordtails, and clowns, among others.
5. Neon Tetra
Another tropical tank star, the neon tetra is well loved in the fishkeeping community due to its vibrant colors, adorable personality, and fuss-free maintenance requirements.
It is tiny and lively, perfect for a 10-gallon aquarium where it can school with other members of its species.
The only thing it truly needs is an abundance of hiding places, as it likes to lay low.
In addition to this, keep in mind that the neon tetra’s petite stature makes it a moving target for larger fish with predatory tendencies.
Avoid placing yours in a tank with such species, as the little guy might unfortunately end up as a snack.
Other than that, it is a great fish to own for both beginner and advanced aquarium enthusiasts.
How to Take Care of Neon Tetra
With a lifespan of about 8 years, the Neon Tetra will be a lively and fun companion if you offer them the proper living conditions.
Keep in mind that they are sensitive to sudden changes in water conditions.
It means that they will not like new tanks, but will fare great in stablished, matured aquariums.
Friendly and sociable, Neon Tetras will enjoy the company of Cory Catfish and Barbs.
6. Harlequin Rasbora
Another schooling species, harlequin rasbora fish are suitable for any tank.
They are small and docile aquatic creatures with a rather unique color palette.
Their black and metallic orange bodies glisten in the water, which is entertaining and enjoyable to look at.
In addition to this, they are incredibly easy to care for, thus being perfect for a beginner.
Harlequin rasboras thrive in decorated tanks full of live plants and large rocks, as this mimics their natural habitat.
However, you should keep all these ornaments to the sides so that the little guys have plenty of room to swim. And if you want their unique colors to pop, line the bottom of the tank with dark sand or gravel only.
How to Take Care of Harlequin Rasboras
Harlequins love company and they will get along with many other species beside its own.
A school of 8 to 10 Rasboras will add vibrancy, entertainment, and joy to a larger tank.
Keep large fish from this aquarium, however, as big fish may turn the small harlequins into prey and meal if they get the chance.
As we said, keep the Rasboras far from large or predatory fish. Other than that, they will make friends with other fish in the tank and playfully share the space with Cory Catfish and Tetras.
The otocinclus or otto catfish is a perfect fish for beginner fish owners who want a pet that will take care of algae in the tank by eating it.
It is the perfect alternative to the Plecostomus, which tends to grow too much in size over time.
In the wild, it is natively located in the Peru basin of the Amazon River, as well as streams in Colombia and Ecuador.
Unfortunately, they do not live very long, but you can offer them an excellent environment to prolong their life and give them the best of times.
In order to achieve that, you need to provide a tank that is well established, mature, stable and clean.
They love heavily planted tanks with soft filmy and soft green varieties of algae growths.
How to Take Care of Otocinclus
Otocinclus is a very small, very fast, and very peaceful fish that require little maintenance but good environmental conditions. Keep them away from large fish with predatory temperaments, however.
Sudden shifts in water temperature or chemistry/parameters will stress them to the point of ending their life, so make your primary concern to treat the tank with outmost of care.
Ottos are very sociable and they will get along with tens of other species as long as you bring them friends that are not aggressive, as Ottos cannot defend themselves.
Cory Catfish is one of the best companion for Otto, but they will have a great time with many freshwater shrimp and snails.
8. Kuhli Loach
When you want to spice up the population of your tropical aquarium without committing to species that are too hard to handle, the kuhli loach is an ideal addition.
This peaceful eel-like fish is a bottom feeder that is interesting to watch, especially during mealtime and in the evening/night.
It can have various shades and patterns as well, so you can add some more color to the ecosystem.
You should get a handful of khulis, as they are more active during the day when in school.
While it will not suffer from the lack of company, it is better to offer it some companions.
Other than that, it is a resilient, long-living fish (up to ten years or more lifespan), and sensitive to weather changes.
You will have one thing to keep in mind while caring for them: since they do not have scales, they are sensitive to medicine, chemicals in the water and injuries.
How to Take Care of Kuhli Loach
Keep the fish in a well-aerated, clean, and frequently renewed water.
Make sure you clean the bottom of the tank frequently to remove the deposits of ammonia and nitrates, since they can negatively affect this bottom feeder.
The khulis are peaceful and while they are not schooling fish per se, they enjoy the company – the food rivalry will keep them all out and about their hiding places during the day.
They also share the tank happily with other species on this list: harlequin rasbora and ottos make some of the best companion choices.
9. Bristlenose Ancistrus
A common misconception exists among aquarium aficionados, and it reinforces the idea that beginners should stray away from larger fish and stick to the little guys instead.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The bristlenose ancistrus, for example, is an excellent species for novice hobbyists in the field, as it is medium-sized and skilled at tank cleaning.
The Bristlenose Pleco (as fish lovers know it best) is one of the most common aquarium Plecos and a master of disguise, featuring colors and shades of brown, black, grey, or olive.
They feature bony plates on their bodies and they sprout branches (think about them as some sort of tentacles) from their heads when they reach maturity.
They are spectacular in sight and even if they look fierce with their horns and armor, they do not fare well in the presence of predatory and aggressive fish.
They will, nevertheless, defend themselves against semi-aggressive and small harassing fish, but try to keep a peaceful environment.
How to Take Care of Bristlenose Pleco
Well oxygenated water with moderate flow are the minimal tank requirements.
Since they are mostly nocturnal, they will also need many hiding places (plants, driftwood, and caves are their favorites).
Don’t start your tank with other mates for the Plecos but add fast fish that swim in the mid layer of the tank.
The Plecos, if hungry, may also suck on fish without scales.
Guppies are a vibrant, energetic, and varied species of tropical fish that will add diversity to any tank.
There are more than 300 different types, and they occur natively in the basin of the Amazon river, as well as streams in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela.
They are delightfully low maintenance, as long as you keep the water temperature appropriate.
Guppies are lively, colorful fish, fun to watch and easy to care for if you achieve the proper living conditions.
How to Take Care of Guppies
Before you pick a tank for them, follow the 1:1 ratio rule – one gallon of water for guppy.
Get at least three guppies in a four-gallon tank and start from there with the math. \If you want 9 guppies, get a 9-gallon tank.
Guppies are friendly and they love a strong community. From this list, you can pick Cories, Ottos, Harlequins, Swordtails, and Plecos to become the guppies’ mates.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of what you expect from an exotic fish, you will certainly find a few popular species that are suitable for your first tropical tank.
When in doubt, always stick to smaller and non-aggressive specimens that enjoy schooling together, as these won’t cause you any trouble.
In time, you will be able to incorporate more and more diversity into your own aquatic ecosystem.