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The Best Schooling Fish for Your Aquarium  

Reviewed by Don Spaeth

There’s something mesmerizing about watching schooling fish move as a single unit, which is just part of the reason why these pets can make such a great addition to your aquarium. You may have heard the terms “schooling” and “shoaling” used interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Fish that simply live in loose groups are shoaling, whereas schooling refers to fish that move together as a single unit. In most cases, schooling fish are the same species. 

Are you interested in adding aquarium schooling fish to your aquatic life habitat? This article will review the care needs of freshwater schooling fish and introduce you to 10 of the most popular types of pet fish that swim in schools.  

Basic care recommendations  

The specific care needs of these pets will vary depending on their species. However, the following care recommendations apply to most types of schooling fish.  

Always purchase schooling fish in groups rather than adding a single fish to your aquarium. This kind of aquatic life will be happier, healthier and much less stressed when they can live in schools as they do in nature. Different fish species do well in schools of various sizes—a good recommendation is to bring home at least five fish of the same species in odd numbers.  

Ensure that your habitat is large enough to house all your fish comfortably. Another good guideline is to dedicate at least one gallon per inch of adult fish in your aquarium.  

If you have enough space and intend to add different fish species, do your research to ensure that all species’ temperature, light and water needs are similar. You may also have to feed different foods to your fish based on their needs. Take a look at our guide Best Freshwater Fish for Beginners for more information.  

To best utilize the space in your aquarium, consider investing in fish that prefer to live in different levels of the habitat. For example, you may want to pair a group of middle or upper-level schooling fish with a school of bottom feeders if you have enough room. This can also create a more balanced and visually pleasing environment within your aquarium. 

Finally, the more aquatic life you add to your enclosure, the more waste they’ll create. Be careful not to overfeed your fish, which can lead to high ammonia levels in your water. To help keep your aquarium clean, purchase an appropriate filter for your habitat’s size. Change the water regularly, replace your filter media each month and test your water regularly. 

Which schooling aquarium fish should you add? Consider these 10 popular choices:  

 

neon tetra

1. Neon tetra 

Scientific name Paracheirodon innesi 

Recommended group size 5 or more 

Recommended aquarium size 10 gallons or more  

Water layer Mid-water 

Temperament Peaceful 

The neon tetra is one of the most popular types of schooling fish to keep as pets. Their energetic and peaceful personalities make these fish a favored option for aquarists. Their vibrant blue and red coloring make them a beautiful freshwater schooling fish that can be complemented by many different kinds of aquarium décor.   

Cardinal tetra

2. Cardinal tetra 

Scientific name Paracheirodon axelrodi

Recommended group size 5 or more 

Recommended aquarium size 10 gallons or more  

Water layer Mid-water and top  

Temperament Peaceful 

Similar in appearance to their neon tetra cousins, cardinal tetras grow larger and their red stripe extends the full length of their bodies. They are typically active and peaceful fish that can live well in a community aquarium. Because they can be more difficult to care for than other tetra species, new aquarists may want to start with a hardier species of tetra before trying their hand with these fish.  

Rummy

3. Rummy nose tetra 

Scientific name Hemigrammus rhodostomus 

Recommended group size 7 or more 

Recommended aquarium size 20 gallons or more  

Water layer Primarily mid-water  

Temperament Peaceful 

The rummy nose tetra is one of the most visually unique options within the tetra family. There are two other species—Petitella georgiae and Hemigrammus bleheri—that look very similar. Grouped together, these schooling fish can provide stunning displays with their silver bodies, bright red noses and black-striped tails. However, the rummy nose tetra can be highly sensitive to changes in their water and aren’t recommended for beginners.  

tiger

4. Tiger barb 

Scientific name Puntigrus tetrazona

Recommended group size 5 or more 

Recommended aquarium size 30 gallons or more 

Water layer Mid-water 

Temperament Can be aggressive 

With their orange-yellow bodies and black vertical stripes, it’s obvious how the tiger barb earned their name. It can be fun to watch these fish race across an aquarium together, but tiger barbs require extra considerations. Growing up to three inches, these fish need more room than smaller types of schooling fish. They can also be mildly aggressive, especially if their group is too small. Tiger barbs have been known to nip the  fins of fellow tank mates.  

rosy barb

5. Rosy barb 

Scientific name Pethia conchonius

Recommended group size 5 or more 

Recommended aquarium size 30 gallons or more 

Water layer Mid-water 

Temperament Peaceful but may nip fins 

The pinkish rosy barb is one of the larger members of the barb family, growing up to six inches. You’ll need a larger enclosure to host a school of these pretty and typically peaceful fish. Assuming you have an aquarium of adequate size, you’ll find rosy barbs do well in a community environment. In smaller groups, however, rosy barbs may become stressed and start nipping the tails and fins of other fish.  

minnow

6. White cloud mountain minnow 

Scientific name Tanichthys albonubes

Recommended group size 5 or more 

Recommended aquarium size 10 gallons or more  

Water layer Mid-water 

Temperament Peaceful 

These small, colorful freshwater schooling fish make for peaceful neighbors in your aquarium. Their hardy nature also means they are good for beginning aquarists. If you have a 20-gallon or larger aquarium, consider building up a shoal of  11 or more white cloud mountain minnows. They’ll typically be less shy and more active in your habitat.  

rasboras

7. Harlequin rasboras 

Scientific name Trigonostigma heteromorpha

Recommended group size 5 or more 

Recommended aquarium size10 gallons or more  

Water layer Mid-water 

Temperament Peaceful 

A school of metallic-looking harlequin rasboras offers a stunning visual display in your aquarium, especially if you invest in a larger shoal. Small and hardy, harlequin rasboras are a great option for beginners and can live in groups as small as five. This can make them an excellent choice if you have a 10-gallon aquarium. For seven or more harlequin rasboras, a 20-gallon or larger habitat is recommended.  

zebra danios

8. Zebra danios 

Scientific name Danio rerio

Recommended group size 5 or more 

Recommended aquarium size10 gallons or more  

Water layer Upper and mid-water 

Temperament Peaceful and playful 

The hearty and active zebra danio is named for their zebra-striped pattern. These playful schooling fish are a joy to watch and can add a lot of entertainment to your aquarium. Zebra danios can also live happily in many different water parameters, making them a good choice if you need to build your community around more sensitive fish. Although they are generally peaceful, danios may nip curiously at fish with long, flowy tails and fins.  

cory

9. Cory catfish

Scientific name Corydoras sp.

Recommended group size 3 or more 

Recommended aquarium size10 gallons or more  

Water layer Bottom  

Temperament Peaceful 

Are you looking for a bottom-dwelling shoal fish? With more than 150 different species in the cory catfish family, you’ll have plenty of choices. This group of fish are fun to watch and often play games with each other. They are also more than happy to eat leftover food, decaying plant matter and other detritus that settles to the bottom of the habitat. In this way, cory catfish can help keep your aquarium cleaner and help reduce nutrients in your water.  

pygmy

10.  Pygmy cory 

Scientific name Corydoras pygmaeus

Recommended group size 3 or more 

Recommended aquarium size 10 gallons or more  

Water layer Bottom and mid-level 

Temperament Peaceful 

The pygmy cory can be a good option for smaller community aquariums. Like others in the cory family, pygmy catfish can be great for keeping the bottom of their enclosure clean. They’ll eagerly chow down on any leftovers that make it to the bottom of the habitat.  

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Reviewed by: Don Spaeth

Don is Petco’s National Aquatic Care, Education and Programs Manager. He is an avid aquarist who has worked with and cared for freshwater and marine aquatic life for over 40 years. Throughout his 27+ years with Petco, Don has actively been involved with our aquatic vendor partners and worked to promote aquatic education both in store and company-wide.