When stocking an aquarium with fish, it’s usually recommended to choose one top dwelling species, one species that stays in the middle water layer and one bottom dwelling species to start with (unless the aquarium is < 15 gal/57L, then you should stick to only one or two fish species). In this article, we focus on the middle to upper water layers by discussing schooling fish! Keep reading for a list of easy but beautiful schooling fish that are peaceful, hardy and suitable for beginners without being boring.
Harlequin Rasbora, Rasbora heteromorpha
Harlequin rasboras are one of the more popular schooling fish, and not without reason. They’ve been a favorite among fishkeepers for many years because of their hardiness, vibrant color and peaceful behavior and are actually on the list of best beginner fish. These little schooling fish also don’t require a complicated aquarium setup: a rectangular tank of at least around 13 gallons/50L is enough for a small group of 6-7, although bigger is better and allows for a larger group. Because harlequin rasboras prefer soft, slightly acidic water they are most suitable for blackwater biotopes, although they can adapt to many different water conditions as long as the aquarium is properly cycled. To imitate their natural habitat you can add Indian almond leaves!
Cherry barb, Puntius titteya
The Puntius/barb genus as a whole often gets skipped for community tanks due to the aggressiveness and nippy tendencies of the tiger barb, which is a pity because there are many more types of barbs and not all of them are agressive. Cherry barbs (pictured at the top) are a great example! Although they can occasionally nip at fish with longer fins, they’re actually peaceful and prefer an aquarium with other peaceful species. A group of at least 8 is preferable, although a tight school will usually not be formed. Some sources report that an aquarium of at least 5 gallons/18L is suitable for cherry barbs, but this is definitely not the case. At least 18 gal/70L is a much better place to start, as these fish grow to a size of around 2 inch/5cm.
Black skirt tetra/black widow tetra, Gymnocorymbus ternetzi
If you’re interested in keeping tetras but want something other than super bright colors for a change, the subtle silver and black of the black skirt tetra might appeal to you.
Black skirts are one of the easiest tetra species and can be found in almost any aquarium store. They don’t demand specific water values, although they will appreciate it when the lighting is slightly subdued by floating plants and a dark substrate. An aquarium of at least around 20 gallons/80L is a good idea, as black skirt tetras are active and need plenty of swimming space. Live plants are appreciated, but keep them limited to the edges of the tank!
Platy, Xiphophorus maculatus
Closely related to swordtails, another long-time aquarium favorite, platies are one of the most popular fish in the aquarium hobby as a whole. They are livebearers that don’t require very specific care and are very peaceful, which makes them suitable for most community aquariums.
While their popularity makes them easy to find in local pet-/aquarium stores, it also has a downside: commercially bred color varieties can be weak due to inbreeding and they are often impulse bought and kept in unsuitable housing. Like any other tropical fish, platies need a filtered, heated aquarium that’s large enough for a group of at least 6-7 fish; a planted tank around 20 gal/80L is a good place to start. Unlike the fish mentioned before, they don’t do very well in soft water and a pH of at least around 7.5 is appeciated.
Keep in mind that platies breed very quickly, so if you don’t have room for the fry it’s best to keep only males. If you do want to keep females, make sure you have at least two for every male as they will be chased relentlessly. To help the fry survive, you can add some Java moss as a hiding place.
Glowlight tetra, Hemigrammus erythrozonus
One of the most popular tetra species available, glowlight tetras are small silver fish with a red stripe along their body, although an almost fully white albino version is also available in some places.
Like the other tetras mentioned, they prefer slightly acidic, heavily planted waters and a blackwater setup is actually the most natural choice for them. Due to their super peaceful nature, glowlight tetras are one of the best community fish and will do well combined with most species that require similar water values (like other tetras: the ones mentioned in this article can all be combined provided your aquarium is large enough). Just be sure not to house them with any fish big enough to eat them! A setup of at least around 18 gal/70L should be enough to house a proper group of glowlight tetras.
Bloodfin tetra, Aphyocharax Anisitsi
Yes, another tetra! Though a bit less well-known than the “classic” tetra species, bloodfin tetras definitely shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to easy schooling fish. They are active swimmers that don’t require specific water values or temperature as long as regular maintenance is done and can really brighten up an aquarium with their striking silver and red colors. Although like most tetras they may try to have a nip at long-finned tankmates, they are otherwise peaceful and do well in tropical planted community setups. Keeping a large enough school helps make them feel safe and can prevent most nipping behavior! A dark substrate and some floating plants are appreciated but not necessary.
White cloud mountain minnow, Tanichthys Albonubes
Like most other schooling fish on this list, white cloud mountain minnows are often the victim of improper care and housing. Some sources report that tanks as small as 2,5 gallons/9,5L(!) are suitable for one or two white clouds – tanks of this size are not suitable for any fish, let alone an active schooling fish that needs to be kept in larger groups. An aquarium of at least 15 gal/57L is an absolute must.
While they can withstand a wide range of temperatures, white clouds are best kept in an unheated aquarium (if the room temperature is unstable, use a heater set to 60-72 °F/15-22 °C to prevent stress). In the wild, they are found in densely planted mountain streams with soft, slightly acidic water. This makes them perfect for aquarists looking for something other than the regular tropical community: they do great in hillstream type setups with loaches and other species from similar waters. They are fun to keep and males will regularly display interesting breeding behavior, showing off their colorful fins to attract the females.
A full white cloud mountain minnow caresheet can be found here!
While this list is not even close to covering all the wonderful, easy schooling fish species out there, it gives a good example of some of the available choices in rasboras, barbs, tetras, livebearers and minnows. In all these categories there are lots of other great species that are suitable for beginners and experienced aquarists. And remember: when it comes to schooling fish, the larger the group the better they will look! While a group of 7 is enough for most of them, a group of 20 is a lot more spectacular and the fish will really appreciate the company.
If you have any additional questions about these schooling fish or want to share your experiences, leave a comment below. Happy fishkeeping!