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A Barbed Response

Wrongly maligned for being fin-nippers, barbs are in fact some of the best fish for the home aquarium


© Neale Monks


Mention tiger barbs, Puntius tetrazona (often called Barbus tetrazona) to many aquarists and the first thing they'll say is that these fish are terrible fin-nippers. Fin-nipping is the habit some fish have of biting small pieces off the fins of other, usually larger and slower moving, species in the aquarium with them. In some cases this isn't so much a bad habit as just one of the ways that fish finds its food in the wild. Pufferfish, for example, will take bites out of pretty much anything, from plants and sessile invertebrates through to slow moving fish. To a pufferfish it doesn't really matter what the target is, the instinct to try a piece to see if it tastes nice is just too strong! In aquaria this behaviour can even lead to puffers taking bites out of airline tubing and electrical cables -- with predictably unfortunate results.

Other species don't just sample the fins to see if they are edible, they actually view fins (and often scales as well) as part of their normal diet. There are several tetras kept by aquarists that fall into this category, of which the most notorious is the bucktooth tetra, Exodon paradoxus. This handsome if belligerent schooling fish routinely attacks far larger fish, even predatory species like Oscars that you would imagine would be able to look after themselves. The various species of 'blood tetra' -- Hyphessobrycon callistus, Hyphessobrycon eques, and Hyphessobrycon serpae -- also fall into this category, as many an aquarist has seen when trying to keep this seemingly harmless little fish along with angels or discus.

Finally, there are the fishes like the tiger barb that nip fins only when they normal behaviour cannot be properly expressed. In this case, tiger barbs usually turn into fin-nippers when they aren't kept in large enough groups. Aquarists often keep these sorts of schooling fish in twos or threes, and for a tiger barb that's just not enough. In fact schooling fish generally prefer to be kept in a shoal of at least a dozen specimens, and preferably more. When kept like this, tiger barbs rarely attack the other fish -- they're too busy chasing each other.  Schooling fish aren't mindless drones blindly following one another around, but dynamic social groups with a hierarchy and a definite chain of command. Who's at the top and who's at the bottom seems to be constantly up for grabs, with the result that each fish is constantly engaging in threats and trials of strength with the other members of its school to see if it can move itself up the social ladder a rung or two. In big groups, this constant activity dissipates their energy, but if the group is too small some of this tension spills over into displacement behaviour. Biologists have noticed this sort of thing with all sorts of animals, from polar bears pacing backwards and forwards in their enclosures at zoos through to the way humans will fiddle with their nails or hair when they're stressed or nervous.

Bottom line: the tiger barb isn't a bad fish, it's just not usually kept properly. Kept in a decent sized group it will coexist peacefully with other barbs, characins, sharks, loaches, and all sorts of other robust and fast-moving community fish. It may well be tempting fate to keep tiger barbs with Gouramis, angelfish, or any other slow-moving species with long, trailing fins (though many people have managed it) -- but that's no reason to avoid barbs completely! But as you'll see later on, there are plenty of peaceful barbs that work very well with even these kinds of fish.

Small, medium or large?

Like soda, barbs come in a variety of sizes. The small barbs can be thought of as those species that grow to around 6 cm (2 inches) in length and so work nicely in 60 cm (20 US gallon) aquaria along with fish like neon tetras and dwarf Gouramis. Examples of small barbs include such varied species as the dwarf gelius barb (Puntius gelius), the cherry barb (Puntius titteya), the golden barb (Puntius semifasciolatus), and of course the tiger barb itself.

The next size up come fish like the clown barb (Puntius everetti), the zebra barb (Puntius eugrammus), and the rosy barb (Puntius conchonius). These fish reach lengths of around 10-15 cm (4 to 6 inches) and so need correspondingly larger quarters than their more diminutive cousins. A school of these fish, by which we mean at least half a dozen specimens, is an impressive sight but do not underestimate their requirements for space, good filtration, and a strong water current to swim into. But in the right tank these can make excellent companions for peaceful cichlids, catfish, spiny eels, and Gouramis.

Finally, there are the jumbo-sized barbs, like the spanner barb (Puntius lateristriga) and tinfoil barb (Puntius schwanenefeldi); fish that can easily top 20 cm (8 inches) and are best thought of as 'tropical goldfish' in their demands for space and powerful filtration. Though not particularly delicate, their sheer size means that they eat a lot and produce a lot of waste, and this makes keeping them in aquaria rather challenging. While popular for use in warmed pools and display tanks in zoos and botanical gardens, these fish are best avoided by home aquarists. Having said that, if you do have enough space for them, they make excellent companions for things like large catfish and giant Gouramis.

Barb feeding behaviour

Before taking a look at some of the most interesting barbs available to the aquarist, it's worth considering their feeding behaviour in aquaria. Like most of cyprinids, such as goldfish and carp, barbs are essentially omnivores, and need a balance of meaty and green foods to do well. In the wild most species primarily eat insect larvae, small crustaceans, and algae, as well as all sorts of organic matter they pick off the substrate. Generally, the larger barbs tend to be more vegetarian than the small ones, but in either case the aquarist would do well to offer a variety of foods. A good quality flake food makes an excellent staple, and the larger species will happily accept pellets and floating sticks as well. Live or frozen bloodworms and mosquito larvae are also relished, along with Artemia and Daphnia.

Few barbs are predatory, and though they may snap at livebearer fry and will certainly eat any fish eggs they find, they are essentially benign towards smaller tankmates. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to keep fish of radically different sizes together though (such as neon tetras with tinfoil barbs) but otherwise slight differences in size isn't something to worry about. A clown barb isn't going to eat a Danio less than half its size, for example.

A more common problem with barbs is their tendency to stir up the substrate while looking for food. As the barbels around their mouths might suggest, these fish can be remarkably catfish-like when it comes to uncovering bits of overlooked food in the sand or silt. This naturally makes them pretty useful scavengers, but some species, like the golden barb, can root about enough for this to become annoying. In planted tanks, the silt these fish shift into the water settles onto fine-leaved plants like Cabomba and Myriophyllum. The obvious solution is to keep the substrate clean so that this won't happen, but in tanks with numerous messy fish this might not be possible. In this case either use plants with broad leaves that won't be bothered by a bit of silt, or else choose barbs that won't dig as much.

Some interesting barbs

To finish off this look at the barbs, below are some notes on five of the more interesting and attractive species. Except where noted, barbs can be thought of as hardy, tolerant fishes that will do best in soft, acid water but will tolerate hard, alkaline water as well (though they usually won't breed in it). Barbs appreciate a well-planted aquarium wish plenty of shade, a soft substrate, and a fairly strong water current. Beyond that, they aren't picky, and most will eat a variety of foods including pellets, flakes, frozen bloodworms, and algae wafers.

Cherry barb, Puntius titteya

The cherry barb is an often overlooked but actually rather nice barb that makes an excellent addition to the community tank. Unlike most other barbs, it isn't a schooling fish but rather a territorial one, both males and females defending their patches surprisingly vigorously. Because the cherry barb is rather shy, the tank needs to be thickly planted, preferably with lots of floating plants as well. In more open aquaria with just a few rocks or ornaments this fish tends to be very nervous and hides most of the time. The cherry barb is one of the species that likes to dig, and a soft substrate is certainly appreciated. Ideally the substrate should be rather dark or these fish tend to lose their vibrant colours a bit; peat is ideal but otherwise fine gravel with a decent layer of mulm will do perfectly well as an alternative.

Cherry barbs tend to be quite variable in colour, going from a salmon-pink in some specimens through to a rich red in others. Feeding may be one factor, with colour enhancing foods bringing out the deepest colours, but there does seem to be some genetic variation as well. Males are invariably the most strongly coloured in any particular batch, but it's a good idea to keep more females than males to cut down on squabbling. In very small tanks (60 cm / 10 US gallons or less) it is safest to just keep a single male, but in larger tanks it can be very amusing to watch the males chase one another where their territories overlap.

Five-banded barb, Puntius pentazona

If you'd like a barb that looks like the tiger barb but lacks its bad habits, then the five-banded barb may well be just what you're looking for. Somewhat like a svelte version of the tiger barb, it isn't so deep bodied and doesn't grow quite so large, but is otherwise very similar. As its name suggests it has five instead of four vertical bands, though these are not quite as bold as those on the tiger barb. This species is also rather timid in comparison with the tiger barb, so rather than presenting itself as a menace to the community tank, the only real problem with this species is encouraging it to feel settled and playful. It should definitely be kept in a reasonably large group (I'd recommend at least ten specimens) and the tank should be well-planted and with a few shadowy hiding places that these pretty barbs can retire to when they are feeling put upon.

Spanner barb, Puntius lateristriga

Spanner barbs get their name from the pattern of stripes along their flanks: two vertical bars and one horizontal one, in a form resembling a spanner (or wrench). They were among the earliest tropical fish to be regularly maintained in home aquaria, and though less popular now that smaller, more colourful species remains a good choice for communities containing medium sized fish including catfish and the more peaceful cichlids. At an adult length of 15 cm (about 6 inches), tinfoil barbs are much bigger than tiger barbs but less than half the size of tinfoil barbs, making them an excellent choice for use with medium to large species of catfish, cichlid, and characins that might view smaller schooling fish as food.

Spanner barbs have very catholic tastes, and besides various live foods such as insect larvae and small crustaceans, they will eat small fish like Neons or guppies, green algae, softened vegetables, and of course flakes and pellets. These barbs are essentially schooling fish when young, but as adults tend to become more or less solitary, though not antagonistic to one another.

Tinfoil barb, Puntius schwanenefeldi

One of the most reliable fishes for the big community tank, zoos and botanical gardens have used these hardy fish for decades as tropical alternatives to goldfish. Fully grown they can easily top 30 cm (12 inches) and are plenty tough enough to do well with things like Oscars, Pacus, giant Gouramis, and big catfish. They are active but peaceful, very nicely coloured, and enjoy all sorts of foods from floating pellets through to cooked spinach. Like most barbs it is omnivorous and does appreciate some greens, and if not given enough will simply bite leaves from the aquarium plants. Tinfoil barbs are no more predatory than any of the other barbs, but being rather big they can easily take small fish and fish fry given the chance.

Obviously these are not fish for the small aquarium, and they grow remarkably quickly. While lovely fish, they are included in this article as much as a warning as a recommendation, and though they are superb aquarium fish under the right circumstances, unless you can devote an aquarium containing several hundred gallons to them, then leave them in the pet store.

Jae barb, Puntius jae

The barbs mentioned above all come from south and south-eastern Asia, but there are in fact barbs to be found throughout the Old World, including the lovely jae barb from Central Africa. Although never frequently imported, it is does turn up in the better aquarium stores and is definitely worth looking out for. It is a relatively tiny species, barely 4 cm long when fully grown, but a jewel nonetheless. The base colour is essentially reddish brown, with bright red stripes on the fins and bold bluey-grey bars on the body. The result is a very neat, stylish fish that makes an excellent choice for a small tank containing other peaceful species.

Unfortunately, this fish is quite demanding. It must have soft, acid water that is well filtered. Strong lighting is not appreciated, so either use plastic plants and dim light, or else plant the tank heavily so that the lower levels are nicely shaded. A dark substrate is another essential: coloured gravels can work well, otherwise use volcanic sand or peat. The size of the tank doesn't matter greatly since they are so small, but bear in mind that they are quite lively and have to be kept in a fair sized group.

The jae barb wraps up my quick look at the barbs -- an undervalued and sometimes maligned group of fish that really do deserve a second look. They're lively, colourful, and hardy, and come in a variety of sizes to suit any aquarium. So next time someone tells you all barbs do is nip the fins of other fish, you'll know better.

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