Forgotten Fish: Old-timers with Plenty to Offer
Author: Neale Monks
The tetras, barbs, and gouramis that were popular in the "good old days" of the fishkeeping hobby still make beautiful and interesting aquarium specimens today.
One of the amusing things about the fishkeeping hobby is how certain fish go in and out of style. During the 1980s, Central American cichlids were very popular, with lots of different species regularly being offered for sale. Now, apart from the ubiquitous firemouths and convicts, these cichlids are rather infrequently sold in comparison with their African cousins. Go back a little further, into the 1960s and 70s, and it was the hardy barbs and tetras that held sway as the standard-issue tropical fish. Tolerant of the often less-than-perfect filtration and heating systems used back then, these fish were a good value, as well as being lively and fun to watch. Fast-forward to the present, and many of these old-timers have been swept away (or at least overshadowed) by a host of more brightly colored species like neons and fancy guppies.
However, these forgotten favorites were really very nice fish indeed, and remain excellent choices for the community aquarium. What made them popular in the past can still be useful today. For the beginner, these fish can be relied upon to be hardy, easily fed, and robust enough to put up with any slight problems you might have as you start out in the hobby. More experienced aquarists will appreciate these fish as being well worth re-discovering, having become rather unfamiliar in recent years. If you’re into oddball or predatory fish, some of these sturdy schooling species could make excellent dither fish or community tankmates.
Barbs are among the most underrated aquarium fish around, largely because everyone associates barbs with fin-nipping. The reality is most species are actually very good community fish and can be trusted to coexist harmlessly with cichlids, catfish, gouramis, and most of the other species aquarists like to keep. The barbs kept by aquarists come primarily from Asia, though there are a few from Africa as well.
Many come from mountainous and subtropical regions where the water is distinctly cooler than that preferred by fish from the steamier parts of the tropics like the Amazon. As a result, these fish often do well in comparatively cool water, and some can even be kept in unheated tanks in centrally heated homes. It’s no surprise, then, that barbs were among the first fishes to be kept by aquarists in substantial numbers—some species being kept even before the first World War!
The Spanner Barb
A typical example is the spanner barb Puntius lateristriga, once one of the most common fish in the hobby but now only occasionally seen. In terms of body shape, it looks a lot like a small silvery-green to yellow goldfish with large shiny scales and a fairly streamlined body. Both sexes sport a little red in the dorsal fin, but this is much brighter on the males, which are also slim compared with the females. Its most distinctive feature is a set of three black bands, two vertical, one horizontal, that resemble a monkey wrench in shape. A wrench, in British English, is known as a spanner, and for whatever reason, this name has stuck to the fish throughout the English-speaking world.
Spanner barbs aren’t small fish (adults are about 7 inches long) and they are fairly pushy at feeding time, which makes them far from perfect fish for small community tanks with delicate species. On the other hand, in a big tank a school of these robust fish will get along well with not-too-aggressive cichlids, large catfish, giant gouramis, and the like.
The Golden Barb
Another barb that was once a staple of the hobby is the golden barb Puntius semifasciolatus. Much smaller than the spanner barb at approximately 2½ inches when mature, this delightful fish is shimmering yellow in color with a little red on the tail fin and a few black spots along the flanks. Like many of the barbs, but unlike tetras and danios, golden barbs are bottom-feeders and will snuffle about at the bottom of the tank like small catfish or loaches.
As with barbs generally, males can be distinguished from the females by their slimmer profile and slightly brighter colors. Older books often refer to golden barbs as Barbus schuberti, but they’re now known to be a color variant of Puntius semifasciolatus, which is normally greenish-yellow. Taxonomic issues aside, these are splendid barbs for the community tank.
A handful of tetra species dominate the hobby; fishes like neons, cardinals, and black widow tetras are available in practically every aquarium store and pet shop. But there are literally hundreds of tetras, and over the years many of them have been kept as aquarium fish. Quite a few of the species that became established early on in the hobby were fairly large and silvery rather than brightly colored. While unquestionably attractive, they were gradually supplanted by the smaller, more colorful species.
One such fish is the silver tetra Ctenobrycon spilurus. This species gets to about 3 inches in length and has a rhomboid shape. Its overall color is silvery gray. Hardy, omnivorous, and easy to breed, the silver tetra is perhaps a bit too large for the average community tank and certainly far too active to mix with gentle species of fish, but these flaws become virtues when kept in a large tank with robust animals like cichlids, barbs, and catfish that might otherwise scare (or eat) smaller tetras. Like a lot of the fishes covered in this article, the silver tetra is an adaptable fish, and it can even be kept in very hard, basic water without problems, something that cannot be said for many of the more delicate tetras.
Very similar in terms of hardiness, but more brightly colored, is another silver tetra Tetragonopterus argenteus. This fish has an almost circular body, a brilliant silver sheen, and bright red ventral fins. A black spot on the base of the tail matches its large black eye. Typically getting to about 3 inches in aquaria but a little more in the wild, this omnivorous species is easy to keep and makes an excellent alternative to the larger (and less plant-friendly) silver dollars.
The X-Ray Tetra
It isn’t just big fish on the list of overlooked tetras; there are some lovely little species too. The x-ray tetra Pristella maxillaris is one of the nicest. Basically transparent (except for a blood-red tail and brilliant white, black, and yellow markings on its dorsal and anal fins), at about 1½ inches this vivacious, schooling tetra is a durable species that will grace any community tank. Exceptionally adaptable, the x-ray tetra makes an excellent choice for the aquarist stuck with water that is too hard and basic for other tetras to do well (in the wild, this fish is even found in slightly brackish water).
The Rosy Tetra
Another lovely tetra is the rosy tetra Hyphessobrycon rosaceus. Salmon-pink in color and barely 1½ inches in length, its deep body and remarkably long red and black fins give this fish much more presence than you might imagine. They aren’t compulsive schoolers like the x-ray tetras and instead sort of hang out in groups displaying to one another, making them uncommonly entertaining fish.
Perhaps their biggest drawback is their lack of color when crowded into a brightly lit aquarium at a tropical fish store. But get them home to a nicely planted aquarium and feed them a mixed diet with a little color-enhancing flake thrown in, and you’ll soon get to see the fish at their best! While hardy and adaptable, rosy tetras do prefer slightly acidic water, preferably filtered through peat or with blackwater extract added.
Before cichlids were all the rage, the labyrinth fish, the gouramis, bettas, and their relatives, were often relied upon to bring personality to the aquarium. Intrinsically tough fish, labyrinth fish are able to breathe air, allowing them to survive in ponds and ditches that other fish would find intolerable. This, incidentally, also made them perfect fish for aquaria—labyrinth fish bore the hardships of capture, transport, confinement in retail aquaria, and arrival in the home aquarium far better than most other fishes. No wonder then that the very first “tropical fish” in the aquarium hobby was actually a subtropical labyrinth fish, the paradise fish Macropodus opercularis.
The Paradise Fish
Aquarists in Europe began keeping paradise fish during the late 1860s—in other words, next time you see these fish, you’re looking at a species kept by aquarists since the time of the Civil War! What made paradise fish so popular was their modest size (about 4 inches), bright colors (red and blue vertical stripes), and tolerance of low temperatures (paradise fish will do well at anything from the mid 60s to high 70s Fahrenheit).
As the years passed and aquarists got better at keeping more delicate species, the paradise fish dropped out of favor, and they’re relatively hard to find these days. Partly their mean disposition didn’t help; male paradise fish fight as vigorously as Siamese fighting fish, and both sexes are apt to bully more gentle species of gourami or betta. On the other hand, kept with hardy barbs and tetras, these are attractive and entertaining fish.
The Dwarf Gourami
While the paradise fish has dropped off the radar somewhat, a good number of gouramis remain a fixture of the hobby. One ever-popular species is the dwarf gourami Colisa lalia, but its reputation has been diminished somewhat by the prevalence of bacterial infections that lead to the untimely death of many specimens, seemingly no matter how well they are kept.
The Thick-Lipped Gourami
A fine alternative comes in the form of the thick-lipped gourami Colisa labiosus, a larger but far more durable species well worth keeping. One of the nicest things about this species is that even the female is attractively colored, even though she isn’t quite as pretty as the male. So while female dwarf gouramis are rather drab and sometimes not even offered for sale, female thick-lipped gouramis are pleasant enough fish that will grace any aquarium. At about 4 inches in length, this species is about twice the size of the dwarf gourami and consequently cannot be recommended for very small aquaria, but beyond that they are peaceful fish that will ignore their tankmates (though, as with other gouramis, the males can be aggressive toward one another).
Jump ahead a few decades, and among the new kids on the block during the 1980s were various species of Australian rainbowfish. Rainbows, of course, remain popular fish, but the focus has shifted away from the Australian species and more toward the colorful ones from Papua New Guinea. Nonetheless, you will see Australian rainbowfish up for sale periodically, and while they don’t look like much when young, once they mature they can be very nice fish indeed.
That is actually a problem with rainbowfish generally—very few of them are colorful when immature, and especially not when crowded into a retailer’s tank. So with rainbows you really do need to take it on trust that the ugly ducklings in the tropical fish store will actually turn into those brilliant fish you see in your books and magazines. Once they do mature, rainbows can be relied on to remain in good health for many years, with the larger species typically living for at least five years.
The Queensland Rainbowfish
A typical example is Melanotaenia maccullochi, sometimes known as the Queensland rainbowfish. My favorite variety was bluish at the front and reddish at the rear, the two colors merge into one another mid-flank as a series of horizontal bands. At less than 3 inches in length, these are very accommodating and manageable fish that work well in practically any community, but as with many other rainbowfish their high level of activity does mean they need plenty of swimming space. The Queensland rainbow was one of the first Australian freshwater fish to be traded in the aquarium hobby. This was way back in the 1930s, though it didn’t become widely sold for some decades after that.
The Cape York Rainbowfish
Another early export from the Antipodes was the Cape York rainbowfish Melanotaenia splendida. This is a fairly large rainbowfish that reaches a length of about 6 inches and has a steely-blue body marked with a few horizontal red stripes. It isn’t so much its colors that make it attractive, it’s the patterning, which is complex and covers not just the flanks but also the fins with fine red and blue spots and stripes.
Like many other rainbows, mature males have a very humpbacked appearance that makes them very impressive animals and easy to distinguish from the females. Males spend a lot of their time displaying to rivals, holding out their fins and sizing one another up. Presumably this is meant to impress the females, but in aquaria it makes these fish a bit more entertaining than the average schooling barb or tetra.
Cape York rainbows are hardy and adaptable, and were among the first rainbows to become established in the hobby, first appearing in the United States during the early 1970s. While not very widely seen anymore, it is an excellent choice for community tanks containing moderately large but peaceful species.
Of course as a group the cichlids are far from forgotten, with many species being among the most popular fish in the hobby. From the elegant angels of the Amazon to the feisty Rift Valley species from Africa, the cichlids have firmly established themselves as the most intelligent and engaging of all the fish kept by hobbyists. Nonetheless, there are a surprising number of species that have somehow fallen out of favor.
The Keyhole Cichlid
One of the loveliest is the keyhole cichlid Cleithracara maronii, a gentle species perfectly suited to life in a community tank. The main problem with this fish is its lack of color—it’s basically yellowy-brown with black markings on the head and flanks. Compared with the brilliant blues and yellows of the average African cichlid, the poor old keyhole does rather lose out. But on the flip side, this is a small species (around 3 inches or so) that barely digs and never harasses tankmates. Gentle almost to the point of shyness, this is a splendid choice for the aquarist who wants to observe cichlid behavior without disrupting the serenity of a South-American-themed community of tetras and Corydoras catfish. While it prefers soft and acid water for breeding purposes, the keyhole is very adaptable and will do well in even fairly hard and basic water conditions.
The Flag Acara
Another South American cichlid that has lost some of its popularity over the years is Laetacara curviceps, the flag acara. A smaller fish than even the keyhole cichlid, the flag acara is an excellent community tank resident. A master of color changes even by cichlid standards, a flag acara can switch from tan to green to blue in seconds. Superimposed on its basic coloration is black band running along the midline of the fish, though this can fade away to practically nothing depending on its mood.
All in all, these are interesting fish to watch. They are also surprisingly adaptable and easy to tame for such small fish, and once settled in they can be fed by hand. Perhaps overshadowed by the more brightly colored Apistogramma species from South America, and the showy dwarf cichlids like the krib from West Africa, like so many of the old-timers of the aquarium hobby, thus is a fish well worth rediscovering.
Many More Forgotten
There are plenty of other fish from yesteryear I could add to this list. Port acaras, festivum cichlids, Odessa barbs, moonlight gouramis, and Hypostomus plecostomus—the list goes on and on. But the good thing with all these forgotten fish is that rediscovering them won’t be difficult. Most retailers will either have them in stock or will get them in if you ask.
While it is easy to be dazzled by the bright colors of red-line torpedo barbs and Aulonocara peacock cichlids, we shouldn’t forget the pioneers of the fishkeeping hobby that got fishkeeping off the ground in the first place. Sentiment aside, these are just plain great aquarium fish: colorful, hardy, inexpensive, and easy to keep.
What more could you ask for?