Neon Tetra

Characteristics, Origin, and Helpful Information for Hobbyists

Green neon tetra ( Paracheirodon simulans) in aquarium
Bruno Cavignaux / Getty Images

Brilliant and the dazzling crown jewel of aquariums everywhere, the hardy little neon tetra fish was originally imported from South America. Their popularity resulted in a thriving captive breeding trade in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. More than 1.5 million neon tetras are imported each month to the United States. Less than 5 percent of neon tetras sold for aquariums are wild caught specimens from South America.

Characteristics

Scientific Name

Paracheirodon innesi

Synonym

Hyphessobrycon innesi

Common Names

Neon tetra, neon fish

FamilyCharacidae
OriginSoutheastern Colombia, eastern Peru, western Brazil
Adult Size1.5 inches (4 centimeters)
SocialPeaceful, do not keep with larger fish
Lifespan5 years
Tank LevelMid to bottom-dwelling
Minimum Tank Size10 gallon
DietOmnivore
BreedingEgg scatterer
CareIntermediate
pH7
HardnessUp to 10 dGH
Temperature68 to 79 F (20 to 26 C) 

Origin and Distribution

Neon tetras originated from the clear water and blackwater streams and tributaries in the Orinoco and Amazon basin in Brazil, Columbia, and Peru. These are regions of blackwaters beneath dense forest canopies that allow very little light to get through. Neon tetras live in shoals mainly in the middle water layers and feed on worms and small crustaceans.

Neon tetras are now generally all captive-bred, with most coming from the Far East and eastern Europe.

Several varieties of captive-bred specimens are now available. These include the long-finned neon tetra, though it is rather rare, as well as a golden strain that is basically a semi-albino variety, and a diamond neon tetra that appears sprinkled with metallic scales along the top portion of the body.

Colors and Markings

The neon tetra has a slender torpedo-shaped body that reaches no more than an inch and a half in length. What this fish lacks in size, it makes up for in color. From the tip of its nose to the adipose fin, the neon tetra has a bright neon blue stripe. It is believed this bright stripe makes them more readily visible to each other in blackwater conditions.

Below the blue stripe, the neon tetra sports a white-silver belly. Past the belly, a bright red stripe extends all the way to the tail. This red white and blue combination makes the neon tetra one of the most popular of all aquarium fish. It is rivaled only by its cousin, the cardinal tetra, a fish that it is often mistaken for. The key difference between the two fish is the red stripe. In the neon tetra, it only extends from the middle of the body to the tail. In the cardinal tetra, the red stripe runs the entire length of the fish, from snout to tail.

Like other colorful fish, the bright colors of the neon tetra will fade at night when it is resting, if it becomes alarmed, or when it is ill. At the fish store choose specimens that are active and robustly colored, as faded colors can be an indication of poor health.

Always keep neon tetras in schools of a half dozen or more.

Tankmates

Neon tetras do well in a community tank as long as tankmates are not large or aggressive. Small peaceful fish such as rasboras, small tetras, as well as corys and other small catfish are good choices as companions. Avoid larger fish, as they will eat neon tetras at the first opportunity. The rule of thumb is, if the mouth of the fish opens large enough to swallow the neon, they will do it sooner or later.

Neon Tetra Habitat and Care

Newly set up tanks are not suitable for neon tetras because they will not tolerate changes that occur during the initial startup cycle. Only add neon tetras when you tank is fully mature and has stable water chemistry. Water should be soft and acidic for neon tetras, meaning a pH that is not above 7.0 and hardness of no more than 10 dGH.

Blackwater extracts or driftwood are often used to darken the water, maintain an acidic pH, and soften the water.

In their natural habitat, neon tetras live in areas of dark water with dense vegetation and roots. Providing a habitat with plenty of low-light hiding places is important. Give them plenty of plants, including floating plants if possible, as well as hiding places such as rocks and driftwood. Driftwood will provide hiding places, and serve the dual purpose of softening and darkening the water. The dark substrate will help replicate the natural habitat that neon tetras feel most comfortable in. Some owners will put a dark background on three sides of the aquarium to achieve the desired low light habitat.

Neon Tetra Diet

Neon tetras are omnivores, meaning they will eat a variety of foods. Fine flake food, small granules, live or frozen brine shrimp or daphnia, and frozen or freeze-dried bloodworms are all good food choices. Offer a variety of food, including live foods, to ensure good health.

Sexual Differences

Sexual differences are not overtly apparent in neon tetras. Generally, the female will have a larger more rounded belly than the male. This rounded belly can make the blue stripe appear curved on the female, in contrast to the very straight neon stripe on the male.

Breeding of the Neon Tetra 

Neon tetras can be challenging to breed, due to the need for very specific water conditions. If you wish to attempt to breed them, set up a separate breeding tank. Water hardness in the breeding tank should be only 1 to 2 dGH, and pH 5.0 to 6.0. Use a sponge filter for filtration, and provide live plants. Spawning fish will often jump, so make sure the tank has a cover. Cover the sides of the tank with dark paper to reduce light in the tank. Water temperature should be kept between 72 and 75 F (24 C).

Condition the breeding pair with feedings of live foods prior to placement in the breeding tank. When introducing the breeding pair to the tank, begin with no lighting at all.

The next day, increase the lighting and continue to do so gradually to induce spawning. Spawning will generally occur in the morning. The male will embrace the female during spawning, who will release more than 100 eggs. The eggs are transparent and slightly adhesive and will stick to the plants. Remove the breeding pair as soon as the eggs are laid, as the parents will quickly eat them.

Maintain low lighting as both the eggs and the fry are sensitive to light. The eggs will hatch in approximately 24 hours, producing very tiny fry that will feed off their egg sack for the next couple of days. Hatch rates are not high, so do not expect more than one-third of the eggs to result in viable fry. In three to four days the fry will become free-swimming and must be fed very small foods, such as infusoria, rotifers, egg yolk, or commercially prepared fry food. In a few weeks, they will be large enough to be fed freshly hatched brine shrimp. The fry will display adult coloration after about one month.

More Pet Fish Breeds and Further Research

If neon tetras appeal to you, and you are interested in some compatible fish for your aquarium, read up on:

Check out additional fish breed profiles for more information on other freshwater fish.