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Little Gems - The best Tetras for your aquarium
The vast array of fishes on the market can be bewildering if you are setting up your first community. There are plenty of them out there, but somehow its easy to end up with a tank of fish that only come out at night, or ones that looked different in the shop but all seem to be the same colour when you get them home (usually brown). For many people the community tank is their first effort at fish keeping, and an early disappointment can deter people from fishkeeping altogether.
Fortunately there is a family of fishes which has many representatives ideal for a first tank – fishes that are beautiful, have lots of colour, and are happy to swim about in public view instead of hiding behind the nearest rock (at least most of the time). These are the tetras. Some of them can get quite large, and some can get unpleasantly nippy, and there’s a few that don’t look nearly as pretty when you get them home as you thought they would – but there are many species that have rightly become stalwarts of the aquarium trade as perfect community fishes.
To see the fishes described here at their best you will need a reasonably large tank, around three feet – you can keep them in a much smaller tank, but like Chinese food the best bit about tetras is being able to have several different kinds. This size tank will allow you to keep all the groups mentioned here. The gravel should be dark, and provide lots of plants for the fish to swim in and out of, and to provide little dark corners that you will be able to see your fish gleaming in. A brightly lit tank with no hiding places might enable you to see your fish all the time, but they will be pale and anaemic. The fishes discussed here are all Amazonian fishes. As such, their native waters are soft and clean. The cleanliness is still vital, and you will need a good filter, but these fishes have been bred in captivity for a long time, and are now a lot less fussy about the pH than their wild relatives. All the fish on sale in your local shop will probably be acclimatised to your local water. My tap water (and tetra tank) err on the wrong side of 8 for pH, but the fish are all still thriving. These are all tropical fish, and need a temperature between 20C and 26C.
All the fish described here will get along well in the community tank, and will probably swim round in a group together at least some of the time. When you buy the fish, buy them in species groups of five or six, then let them settle in and the filters adjust for a couple of weeks before going to get the next group. For shoaling fishes there is security in numbers, and they will stick close together for the first few days. As they become more used to your tank, and realise they are probably safe, they will shoal less, and it will not be unusual to find one or more fish away from the group ‘doing their own thing’. This doesn’t mean you can get away with just buying one, as they do need the security of having their own kind around in swimming distance.
Tetras are very nervous fishes, and don’t like being caught. When you buy a group it is not unusual for one to die almost immediately. If possible don’t go to the shop when the Saturday staff are on, as often they are not as experienced at quick fish catching as they might be.
The first on the list is the Glowlight Tetra, Hemigrammus erythrozonus. This may not be an obvious choice, as it is often easy to pass by in the shop. Under the bright lights and scrutiny of the masses they just look like darkish brown fish. A quiet tank with some places to hide will bring your group of glowlights into their full beauty. The Glowlight is indeed a brownish fish with a pale belly, but the glow of its name refers to the long stripe that runs along the flank from the head to tail. This stripe is a warm reddish orange that glows like an electric element especially when the fish are lurking in dark corners. Glowlights grow to around an inch and a half, and are relatively hardy tetras – five or six of these are a good choice to get your tank started.
The Black Neon Tetra, Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi, is a brown fish with a slight iridescence to the body. A long bright white stripe runs along the flank, with a deep velvet black stripe immediately below it. Coupled with their bright red eyes, this makes these one-and-a-half inch fish an attractive addition to the aquarium,
When most people are asked to think of a tropical fish, the one that springs to mind is the beautiful little Neon Tetra, Paracheirodon innesi, which we have left to this point in the discussion as they are slightly more delicate and will be better introduced to a tank that is already up and running. The Neon tetra is a small fish, growing to under an inch long. Basically a silvery fish, the Neon tetra has an electric blue stripe running along the flank from head to tail, that is so bright and luminous it does indeed look as though the fish has had neon lighting installed. As if that wasn’t enough, the abdomen is a brilliant red.
Reputedly slightly more delicate than the Neon is the Cardinal Tetra, Paracheirodon axelrodi, although personally I have never found them to be difficult or particularly demanding. The main differences between the Neon and the Cardinal are that the Cardinal is slightly larger, growing to a whole inch, and that the red on the belly extends forward as far as the head. The electric blue stripe is still present. Once again, bargain on five or six, although your group can consist of mixed Neons and Cardinals.
The last fish on the shopping list is the Platinum Tetra, Hemigrammus vorderwinkleri. This is sometimes a little hard to find in the shops, but is well worth the wait. Growing up to an inch and a half, the platinum tetra provides a brilliant flash of pure, metallic silver in your tank. In the wrong light the fish is an unappealing murky green with a large black spot in the tail. However, when the light catches it there should be a clear flash of metallic silver. Unfortunately they are often confused, in shops at least, with the Gold Tetra, Hemigrammus rodwayi. There isn’t anything wrong with the Gold Tetra, and they can be quite nice, but they aren’t, to my mind at least, as nice as the platinum ones.
There is a tendency to think of tetras as short-lived fish, but once they have settled in successfully they can live to five years or more. All these fish are egg scatterers, but are notoriously tricky to breed. They require extremely soft water to spawn, and the eggs are highly photosensitive, so the spawning and hatching has to be done in the dark or the eggs will die.
Feeding your tetras is easy – they enjoy any fish food that is small enough to be eaten, and will relish the opportunity to chase live daphnia around the tank every so often.
Companions are easy to find. In the tank setup described above there is room for a few more fish (tetras being so tiny, you get some leeway – ten inches of individual tetras produces a lot less waste and consumes a lot less oxygen than ten inches of a single large goldfish!). Any fish that is reasonably gentle and not big enough to eat them will fit in well. Corydoras catfish are also from the Amazon, and make gentle and unassuming tankmates who will catch any food that falls to the bottom (although that is no excuse for not giving them any catfish food of their own). Panda Corydoras are smaller than many other species, and particularly active and entertaining. Of course, there are also hundreds more tetras to try. Some can be rather nippy, so read up on any fish before you buy it, to avoid disturbing the harmony in your tank.
This article has been provided by Kathy Jinkings and cannot be reproduced without her permission.
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