Exotic Fish Choices for Beginners

10 Amazing Exotic Fish Choices for Beginners

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:

  • You should pick some that are resilient to occasional drops in water quality; it does not offer you a license for negligence, but you should know your limitations and pick your friends accordingly;
  • Moreover, beginners should also pick less pretentious exotic fish that require moderate attention from your part. Some very rare, gorgeous fish, while incredibly attractive, may need your constant attention – therefore, they do not make the best choice for beginners;
  • If you want to put different exotic fish in a tank, you should pick the ones that get along naturally; if you do not want troubles, pick fish that do no bully one other; a peaceful tank will offer an amazing experience to both them and you, especially if you are a beginner;
  • Pick fish that will fit your tank even when they grow; some may feel the temptation of overcrowding their tanks, but when it comes to exotic fish, give them room to grow and move freely;
  • Learn more about how to plan a fishscape, including tank size, fish to add, landscape to build, and weekly tank maintenance depending on all these factors.

In this article, we will further discuss our top ten favorite picks of exotic fish for beginners.

1. Corydoras


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:

  • Try offering them a pH between 7.0 and 8.0;
  • They need 3° and 10° dKH alkalinity;
  • They fare best in pristine water at temperatures between 74° and 80° F (get a high-quality heater if the tank does not reach the minimal temperature or it is located in a cold room);
  • Do not put catfish in new or neglected aquariums and offer them space to thrive (a 30-gallon tank should do);
  • Filter the water frequently (10% water exchange once every two weeks or 25% once a month).

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.

2. Swordtail


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:

  • You may want to cover the aquarium as swordtails are seasoned jumpers if you want to prevent some accidental suicides;
  • They will adapt to any tank, but try offering them a temperature between 65 and 82⁰ F;
  • Offer them moderately alkaline, hard water: 12–30 dGH, anywhere in between 7.0 and 8.4 pH;
  • Make sure you filter the water regularly to offer your buddies an environment where they can thrive;
  • Their best diet contains a balanced mix of protein and plants;
  • They can befriend many other species, such as some types of corydoras, but do not overcrowd the tank.

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:

  • Give them 13-to-25-gallon fish tank (and even larger);
  • They thrive at temperatures between 73 and 81°F;
  • Keep pH levels between 6 and 8;
  • Make sure you give them good filtration, enough space to swim (unplanted areas in the tank), and a slow water flow;
  • They are omnivorous, so they will enjoy almost all types of fish food, but since they are small, they may have problems with large grains.

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).

  • They love to swim and play; therefore pick a tank of at least 10 gallons and bigger; if you keep only 5 to 10 fish, increase the gallon size to offer them the best swim, play, and life conditions;
  • Keep the water temperature in between 65 and 77°F;
  • Make sure your tank features medium hard water, with a pH of 6.5 to 7.2;
  • Use any type of filter you want, but some recommend a HOB filter for the provision of current that danios love to play in; it would be a shame to deprive them and you of the play show they are able to put;
  • They love to eat small insects, worms, algae and crustaceans – but if your budget does not allow live food, order high-quality flakes they will enjoy as well; from time to time, spoil them with live or frozen food as well.

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.

  • Besides the large tank they love (20 gallons for a school of 15 fish is the best ratio), keep the temperature between 70 to 81°F, with soft water (<10 dGH) that features a pH level between 6 and 7;
  • They like subdued lighting (2 watts per gallon) and properly filtered water; however, do not perform more than a 25% water change each week, as it can harm or kill the Neons;
  • They thrive well on a diet mix of pellets, flakes, frozen and live food, but make sure they only serve small grains and pieces.

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.

  • Pick a tank of 10 gallons and above – the larger, the better;
  • They enjoy pH water in between 6.0 to 7.5, with a hardiness of up to 12 dGH, and a temperature in between 73 to 82° F;
  • Rasboras enjoy a varied diet and will eat almost anything as long as the grains are easy to swallow; you should feed them a balanced mix of flake, dried, frozen and live foods and a varied diet to avoid any health problems.

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.

7. Otocinclus


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.

  • Get a tank that features at least 10 gallons in size if not bigger;
  • Maintain the water temperature between 72 and 79 degrees;
  • Offer them a 6.8 – 7.5 pH;
  • Keep the water with very low levels of Nitrates and 0 ppm of Ammonia and Nitrites; filter the water properly and moving at a steady pace;
  • Regular partial water changes are mandatory, but do not forget the warning above.

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


Image Credit:
By Iidkk - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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.

  • Pick a tank over 10 gallons in size; the more khulis you bring, the larger the tank; the best school contains 5-6 khulis, so do the math to offer them the best tank size.
  • Keep the tank water temperature in between 75 and 86° F, with a 5.5-6.5 pH;
  • They also love soft water (0 – 5 dGH) and moderate lighting;
  • They love to hide and swim all over the place, so take your time with hiding spots and decorations;
  • Keep their diet varied and rich – they will gladly eat high quality fish food.

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).

  • Get a tank of minimum 25 gallons with a large bottom if you want to host a handful of Plecos or a mix of community fish;
  • Keep the water temperature anywhere between 60 and 80° F, 6.5 to 7.5 pH, and hardness of 20 to 25;
  • Add a canister filter and an under-gravel water system to offer them the best conditions;
  • They do not fare well under high levels of ammonia and nitrates;
  • Their best diet should contain around 85% plant matter and 15% protein, and although they will love to clean your tank of algae, make sure to feed them vegetarian tablets or even blanched vegetables once or twice a day.

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.

10. Guppy


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.

  • Some have an easier life by getting only male guppies in the tank; if you want both sexes, make sure you bring a 1:2 male to female ratio, as males tend to harass females if they spend too much time alone;
  • Keep the water temperature close to the one they have in their natural habitat: 50⁰F – 84⁰F; make sure you do not allow for much temperature fluctuations, as they can harm the fish;
  • Keep the pH as neutral as you can, around 7, at all times, and a dGH 8 to 12 water hardiness;
  • Change half the water every week;
  • Their diet should feature diversity, with guppy flakes, small grain pellet food, live or freeze-dried food in small grain, etc.; do NOT overfeed them.

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.

10 Amazing Exotic Fish Choices for Beginners