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A Guide On Tropical Fish Species & The Best Tropical Fish For Beginners

Last Updated September 8, 2021
A Guide On Tropical Fish Species & The Best Tropical Fish For Beginners

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Introduction

A kid starring at a tropical fish

Keeping fish can be therapeutic; they don’t require the constant attention of a dog, they aren’t as messy as a cat, and they don’t make much noise either. The sound of the water in their tank can be like a meditation frequency, and oh, how we could pass the hours watching them. 

Why get a normal goldfish, though? With so many species available, you could opt for something a little more exciting! And that is where tropical fish come into play. 

However, if you want to start a tropical fish tank, and you have never had one before, there are some things you need to know. 

What Are Tropical Fish?

What are Tropical Fish

You might be asking yourself what a tropical fish is, and how they differ from other fish. Well, tropical fish are fish that live in water temperatures between 74-80 degrees Fahrenheit. They can come from salt water, or freshwater. 

These fish are often brightly colored, due to the pigmented and iridescent cells of their skin. Despite how most of these fish started out as wild species, many are now bred from captive specimens, making them into ideal pets and also meaning that even more colors of these unique fish are available. 

When it comes to captive fish, we often refer to them as tropical if they are kept in a heated aquarium. Freshwater tropical fish are more common to be kept than saltwater tropical fish, simply due to the availability of fresh water sources. It is easier to use a tap for fresh water. Not everyone is free to lug a bucket down to the beach. On a serious note, it is much harder to attempt to recreate salt water using freshwater and sea salt additions. 

However, we cannot tell you which is best for you, though for beginners we do recommend freshwater fish as it is easier to fill their tank. Hence, we will first show you the freshwater tropical fish species that you can get, before we give you the salt water list. 

You can try a saltwater fish if you are feeling ambitious or if you have already planned how you will acquire the correct water for this fish.

Freshwater Tropical Fish Species

Freshwater Tropical Fish Species

Angelfish 

Angel fish come from the Amazon Basin in the South American tropics. They are seen as being a standard tropical fish for any aquarium owner. They will grow up to 8 inches and can come in a variety of shades and patterns. 

While these fish are often hardy and easy going, they can get semi-aggressive occasionally.

These fish require a tank with 55 gallons of water as a minimum, with moderate current flows, and floating driftwood and broadleaf plants. They do enjoy slow moving water and dim lighting too. 

Arowana 

These fish are highly sought after. The most expensive aquarium fish that was sold was a Platinum Arowana that actually cost over $400,000! They are beautiful and are not easy to breed in captivity, hence the hefty price tag.

Due to how costly they are, these fish are typically recommended for experienced aquarists that have a tank over 250 gallons. 

Barbs

Barbs are a type of very energetic fish that will often school in groups of at least five fish, they cannot be kept in a tank with slow or weak tank mates as they can easily become reckless quite quickly. 

These fish are quite hardy, and they are therefore suitable for beginners in the tropical fish keeping world. There are many varieties of Barbs, including Tiger Barbs and Black Ruby Barb fish.

Betta Fish

Bettas have a lot going for them, they are very intelligent and are one of the most beautiful fish available, however they are also aggressive. They are bred for and much loved for their long and colorful caudal fins. 

The female’s fins are less impressive than those of the male, but females can be kept in groups, which we call sororities. Males cannot be kept in groups and should only be kept alone. 

Bettas are unique as well because they can actually recognize their owners, and they can also be trained to perform tricks too, this makes them one of the most entertaining fish that you can keep.

Black Ghost Knifefish

Black Ghost’s are one of the most weird and wonderful species that you can keep in your home aquarium. This is simply because the Black Ghost Knife fish is nocturnal, and they are electrolocation to navigate their way around their tank. 

If you wish to have these fish, we always recommend having some experience before keeping these fish as they are unique, not only in how they look but also in their diet, needs, and lifestyle. 

To keep these fish, it is best that you have a tropical fish tank that has at least 100 gallons capacity. They will eat live or frozen foods as well, you can feed them brine shrimp and bloodworms.

Cichlids

These fish are brilliant, they can be one of the most rewarding fish to keep. They have amazingly beautiful patterns and come in so many different sizes too. 

Do keep in mind that these fish have the potential to be aggressive towards other fish. They do make great for ‘species-only’ tanks as they are intelligent and active. You could watch Cichlid all day and waste the day away gazing at their antics.

Clown Loach 

If you have the space for a large tank, and therefore large fish, these loaches are great fish. They can grow up to a foot long. They are peaceful bottom dwellers, are active members of community aquariums, and they bring a gentle splash of color to your life. 

These fish are schooling fish, and they need a large tank, we are referring to a size no smaller than 100 gallons. If you get these fish, be sure to provide them with plenty of places to hide among rocks and plants.

Cory Catfish 

A vast majority of Cory Catfish are hardy, peaceful, and downright cute bottom dwellers that adore socializing and cleaning the sediment in their tank. 

You can find over 160 species of these. The most popular of these fish are Peppered, Sterabi, and Emerald Cory Catfish. A majority of these are fantastic for beginners in the tropical fish realm. However, some can be rather fussy eaters and are therefore more suitable for experienced aquarists.

Discus 

Discus fish are a group of Cichlids that are found in the South Americas, and they are wonderful. Much loved for their incredible shape and colors. 

They have some of the most wonderful and exciting variations. However, despite this, they are not all that easy to keep. This means that they are the dream tropical fish for many advanced aquarists. 

These fish will need at least a 50 gallon tank, and they need vertical driftwood in order to make them feel comfortable.

Gourami

Gouramis are peaceful community fish with intense colors. They love to explore with their friends, and so you have to keep them in pairs. They need a well planted fish tank and a simple flake food diet to be happy. 

You can get any variation in size and color of Gourami species, and there are many types of this species available including Dwarf, Pearl, and Kissing Gourami.

Guppies 

If you are looking for the ideal beginner fish, then Guppies are it. They come in a wide variety of colors with a very peaceful temperament. 

Guppies are live bearers that live in large schools and will typically eat whatever they come across. 

If you have a nano tank, then Endlers Guppies are hybrids of a Guppy and a smaller Endler fish. These fish have intense coloration and are perfect for beginners in the Tropical fish realm who do not have a massive amount of space free in their home. 

Pictus Catfish

Pictus Catfish are unique tropical fish that are fairly easy to care for, provided they have a large tank. In a large tank, they will be active and very fun to watch. You may waste your day away watching them. 

These fish have long barbels and spines on their pectoral fins that require much care to prevent them from breaking. 

Pictus Catfish come from South American rivers, so you want to give them plenty of rocks, driftwood, and a good water flow to simulate their natural habitat. 

Platies

Platies are from the family Xiphophorus, they are easy to keep, so they are ideal for beginners who do not want too much of a challenge. 

Keep them in a well planted tank, and you will find that this helps them to be easier to keep and to breed. 

You can get these fish in multiple different colors, so they can add a dash of color to your life. 

Swordtails

Swordtails fit into the same family as Platies, from the family Xiphophorus. These, too, are easy to keep, hence are also ideal for beginners. 

Like the Platies, Swordtails also like a well-planted tank, and having one will make keeping these fish easier, and make it easier to breed them too. 

These fish are also available in different colors. You could always get a mixture of Platies and Swordtails. 

Rainbow Sharks 

These are wonderful tropical fish to keep, however, they are not for everyone. They are aggressive and territorial fish, thus are best for experienced fish keepers. 

These fish have an incredibly gorgeous and striking experience, even though they are not real sharks. They are very active in an aquarium, and they make for fantastic entertainment. Forget turning on the TV, just watch the fish instead, they make for better programming. 

When you introduce these fish to an aquarium, they need to be added last, as this helps to reduce their aggression. They may not be sharks, but they sure can have the attitude of one in some situations. 

Rainbowfish

Rainbow fish are a great choice. They are absolutely stunning fish and are highly sought after due to their wonderful colors and really calm temperament. These fish are great community fish, working well in community tanks as they bring a great energy and really brighten up the whole tank. 

Rainbowfish can live in a tank that is as small as 10 gallons, although they would much prefer a larger planted aquarium. While 10 gallons is suitable for people who do not have much space, we would suggest trying to avoid this, simply for the happiness of the fish if you can. 

Tetras 

Tetras are very elegant schooling fish they come in many different varieties, the most popular is neon tetras Glo-lite, and black phantoms. However, there are plenty more varieties that you can choose from. 

These fish are sensitive to water changes, however, this doesn’t mean that they are not good fish for beginners. Provided that they are in a planted aquarium in a shoal of six fish minimum, they should be fine. 

Saltwater Tropical Fish Species

Saltwater Tropical Fish Species

Blenny 

The first saltwater fish we will look at are Blennies. These fish are intelligent and complex. They need sediment and a lot of food to be as active and hardy as they are. 

These fish often become the absolute favorite tropical fish of fish community set-ups thanks to their curious nature and their brilliant facial expressions. 

These are probably one of the easier saltwater fish to care for, as long as they have plenty of sediment and food, they will bring you oodles of entertainment. 

Butterflyfish

These are probably one of the more iconic saltwater fish, with endearing colors and a wide variety of fin shapes. They have long noses, which they use for snagging food from out between rocks. However, some will eat only coral polyps, which can make them a rather expensive fish to keep. 

These fish need a minimum of a 75 gallon tank, thanks to their activeness, and roaming their tank is part of their sweet charm. 

A majority of the varieties of Butterfly fish are not easy to keep, though. This makes them more recommended for experienced tropical fish owners, add on top that they are saltwater fish, and we wouldn’t recommend these fish until you have tried out an easier tropical fish. 

Cardinal fish 

These are one of the most curious fish you can have, as well as one of the most beautiful looking fish. These fish are nocturnal hunters, and they are both peaceful and easy to add into an aquarium. 

You can get two popular species of this fish. The Pajama Cardinal fish and the Banggai Cardinal fish. Banggai Cardinal fish are at risk, near extinction from over-collection, so you need to make sure that if you wish to own this type of Cardinal fish that you only buy from captive-bred specimens so that you are not playing a role in the risk of these wonderful fish. 

Chromis 

Chromis are definitely the most peaceful Damselfish that you can get. Chromis are energetic shoaling fish who have shimmering bodies, and they are suitable for reefs. These fish are also very hardy, although they are carnivorous, and they need feeding multiple times each day. 

As for the tank size required by the Chromis, they will need a tank that is no smaller than 30 gallons, and they have to be in a shoal of six fish. 

Clownfish

We can all agree that no saltwater fish list is complete without the Clownfish- or as most people will recognize them- ‘Finding Nemo’! 

These are generally known to be the best saltwater fish for beginners, not only because they give us all nostalgia to the good old days when that movie came out, but because they have a super friendly nature, and they can live in a tank that is as small as only 10 gallons. 

While bigger tanks are easier to manage these fish in, they can be kept in smaller tanks. If you are a beginner with saltwater tropical fish, get yourself Nemo. 

Damselfish

Damselfish are another fantastic fish. There are over 250 species of this type of fish, including the 12-inch Garibaldi, or the captivating blue Sapphire Damselfish. 

The variation of this fish means that each species of this fish has its own needs and requirements, however, all of these are territorial. This means that they will always need to be paired with bigger fish if you wish to have a mixed tank. Bigger fish will put them in their place should they try to get aggressive, and therefore you will avoid any unnecessary violence. 

Dottyback

Dottyback fish are intelligent, gorgeous, and very hardy. These are ideal for saltwater tropical fish beginner keepers. They have the potential to be territorial to their own kind, and they can be a little aggressive sometimes. However, this can be easily prevented if you pair them with a more aggressive or larger species. 

These fish can survive in smaller tanks, however, whatever size tank you get for them needs to have plenty of hiding spots for when they are feeling a little introverted and don’t want to brave the open water. Fish can have introverted moments too. 

Firefish 

Firefish are excitable and fun little Gobies. They nearly glow with their vibrant red and blue colorings. They can be shy sometimes, when other times they can be frantically exploring extroverts. 

Not only that, but they make for amazing members of your saltwater tank. Be careful you do not waste your days away watching them, as they can be amazing to watch with all their unique activities when they are feeling adventurous.

Hawkfish

These fish are amazing hunters, but be aware, they will simply eat any of their smaller tank mates. Thus, it is better to provide them with larger tank mates who they will be more peaceful towards. 

You can keep Hawkfish in reefs with the right inhabitants, or you could also keep them in smaller-species-only tanks.

Even though they are prone to eating smaller tank mates, these fish are surprisingly fussy eaters. But, if you feed them right, then they can be very rewarding with their cute, shy personalities, and their bright red colors. 

Lionfish 

Although these fish can be a bit troublesome outside of the tank, when they are part of a tropical fish tank, they are fantastic to have as a unique pet. They are peaceful to any fish that is too big to fit in their mouth, and they are primarily docile. 

A majority of species need to have at least 50 gallons to make any real impressive addition to a reef. Be cautious when you do handle them, though, as their dorsal spines so have venom in them. 

Goby

Speaking of Gobies, these wonderful fish have so many different varieties, and they all have vast differences in their coloring and their personality. Every fish will be perfectly unique in their patterns and their behavior. 

These fish require at least 50 gallon tanks, this is because some species can grow to be over 6 inches, and they will typically need a plethora of substrates to sift through. 

Then, if you decide to keep them alongside a particular species of shrimp, they can form a symbiotic pair, although this is a rare occurrence in home aquariums, but not totally unheard of. 

Mandarinfish 

If you want beauty, Mandarin fish are one of the most incredibly show stopping, patterned fish that you can have. 

They do, however, require constant feeding, and they are without a doubt one of the more time-consuming fish that you can add to your tank. That being said, their gorgeous looks make this more than worth the while. Turn off the TV and just stare in awe at the unbelievable beauty of the Mandarinfish.

Marine Betta

If you want an easy to care for tropical fish, then a Marine Betta could be the fish for you. These fish have interesting behaviors such as resting face down, so their body resembles a moray eel. 

These fish are great because they are hardy, and they are disease-resistant. This makes them ideal beginner saltwater tropical fish. 

What is even better is that they are also full of personality and make for fantastic pets. 

Tangs

If you want to have the full main cast from Finding Nemo, then you might like to know that Dory from the movie has a few cousins, and these are all legendary to have in an aquarium. 

Tangs are peaceful and calm fish that eat algae and veggies, and their colors simply have no competition. The only downside of these fish is that they are often difficult to keep, and they need large tanks, at a minimum size of 125 gallons. 

Triggerfish

When we talk about hardy saltwater tropical fish, Triggerfish spring to mind. These fish are intelligent, powerful, and have personality for days. They are unique. Often marked with bright lines and spots. 

Wrasses

Finally, Wrasses. There are over 500 species of Wrasse, and each species has its very own unique color and personality, so there will be plenty to choose from, so you can choose the one that is the best match for you. 

Wrasse can be anywhere from half an inch in size, to over six feet in length. It is the smaller varieties that we tend to keep in a common home aquarium. Where would you put a six-foot fish? 

These fish are very energetic, and they do demand a lot of food, but, so long as you can provide them with their food requirements, they will be an active party in either a small tank, or a big reef setup. They fit in well, so they make for a great fish in any saltwater aquarium. 

The Best Tropical Fish For Beginners

A family admiring their tropical fishes in their aquarium

Okay, so we have spent some time looking into both freshwater tropical fish, and saltwater tropical fish. 

But, out of all these, there are so many that are suitable for beginners in tropical fish keeping. How can you choose which one to get? Let’s break it down for you.

How To Choose The Right Tropical Fish For You? 

There are a few things you should consider when you are trying to choose the right topical fish for yourself. 

Let’s take a look at a few of the things you need to consider, ensuring you make the right choice. 

Freshwater Vs Saltwater

First you need to consider freshwater and saltwater, these two things are not alike, and for busy people who are beginners in tropical fish, saltwater may be too much effort. Freshwater is easy, sourced from our kitchen sink. 

Freshwater tanks are colorful and natural, providing an impressive visual while also requiring more minimal maintenance and lower costs to operate. Freshwater fish also tend to be hardier and less expensive, if issues occur freshwater fish are more forgiving and less fragile. 

Saltwater tanks are wonderful and provide you with an even more vast array of tropical fish, however creating the perfect saltwater balance is no easy task, and you cannot maintain this environment as easily as you would with a freshwater tank. The inhabitants may also be a little more sensitive to any issues that occur. 

For beginner ease, freshwater is the safest bet, until you feel more confident dealing with a more challenging environment.

Factors In Choosing Tropical Fish

There are a few things you need to think about before making your choice as well as whether you want a freshwater or saltwater aquarium; consider the tank size, the budget you have, how much time you have to spare, and also the equipment required for the care of these fish. 

We do not all have the space in our homes for a 100 gallon tank, so you should consider what size tank you can fit in your home, from there think about which fish will be happiest in a tank of that size. You should never overcrowd a tank either, so if you are limited on space, cautiously choose the fish that you think will be happiest in your tank size of choice. 

Some tanks can cost you a pretty penny, as can some tropical fish. Budget how much you are willing to spend on the fish, and not only for the set-up. Some tropical fish will have expensive diets and if you don’t have the biggest budget, you may want to select a fish that is happy on a more minimalist diet. 

Another thing to consider is time. Fish, like people, can be high or low maintenance. If you are a busy person who wants fish because they are typically low maintenance, then do not choose a needy fish such as a Cory Catfish. 

Finally, in ties with your budget, also consider not only the tank and the fish food, consider what is needed for the tank. A saltwater tank needs all the same things as a freshwater tank does, but it also should have a protein skimmer to remove organic waste, working with the filter. There may also be lighting requirements if you have corals. Saltwater tanks also benefit from a live rock substrate. 

Freshwater tanks simply need the usual; filter, heaters, pumps, lighting, water conditioner and so on. 

Good First Fish Choices

If you are still a bit stuck on which fish you should get, we have a list of a few fish that are the best tropical fish for beginners, both saltwater and freshwater. Paired with the above factors that you should consider, we are sure you will find at least one or two on this list that suit you perfectly. 

  • Guppies– Not fussy eaters and very resilient.
  • Catfish– Picky up leftover food, omnivores, small.
  • Bettas– Resilient, small fish, can be kept alone.
  • Angelfish– medium-sized, omnivorous, resilient. 
  • Neon Tetras– Most popular fish, cheap, omnivorous.
  • Loaches– Can be large or small, carnivorous, community fish. 
  • Swordtails– Low maintenance, eat commercially processed foods. 
  • Oscar fish–  Larger fish, carnivorous, produce a lot of waste.
  • Dwarf Gouramis– Small Gourami, omnivorous, suitable for small aquariums.

Summary

A school of tropical fish

Getting tropical fish can be really exciting, however make sure you have weighed up which tropical fish is for you, as well as whether saltwater or freshwater fish is more reasonable for you. If you are a beginner, we recommend starting off with freshwater fish, and getting used to their needs and requirements. 

Tropical fish are really exciting as they have loads of personality, and you could simply watch them for hours on end.

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