13 Cool & Exotic Freshwater Fish That You Can Keep at Home

When considering the shallow freshwater rivers of Africa, South America, and Asia, the word “exotic” may not necessarily come to mind.

After all, most “exotic” fish are deep sea ocean dwellers with strange patterns and extra appendages.

So you might be surprised to learn that the slow moving waters of the Amazon river basin and other shallow tributaries are actually home to some of the most exotic freshwater fish- many of which you can introduce to your own hobby aquarium.

13 Cool & Exotic Freshwater Fish (That You Can Actually Keep at Home)

Here are a few cool freshwater fish species that you can keep at home. Note – not all of these are great beginner fish, so pay attention to the amount of care required before making any decisions!

Arowana

arowana

  • Care level: Advanced
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Life expectancy: 10-15 years
  • Water requirements: 75-82° F, 6.5-7.5 pH
  • Tank requirements: 250+ gallons
  • Diet: Live or frozen insects, small fish, krill, worms, shrimp, and carnivorous fish pellets

The semi-aggressive Arowana fish are powerful swimmers built for their native South American Amazon river. These sleek, silver fish are streamlined, carnivorous predators that can grow up to 4 feet in length if given enough space. Their muscular bodies feature unique “drawbridge” shaped mouths and tiny tailfins. They are probably known best for their tendency to “hunt” by jumping out of the water for short periods of time and preying upon animals on low lying tree branches. The combination of their size and behavioral tendencies makes them perfect for very experienced hobbyists looking for a distinctive, exotic fish to add to their collection- arowanas are not ideal for beginners!

Arowanas are used to having a large range with low light, to mimic their natural environment of the Amazon river. They need an abundance of space, and even with a large enough tank will tend to jump and be skittish around changing conditions. It is also important to note that arowanas may not pair well with other fish as tank mates; they are predators and will eat most fish smaller than themselves, and  due to their semi-aggressive nature they are not the easiest to pair with tank mates. Some fish to consider might be angelfish, catfish, Plecostomus, Oscars, and cichlids, but there is no guarantee of keeping a peaceful tank with arowanas if the individual fish do not get along. Despite these challenges, arowanas are rewarding and unique fish to keep and are considered by some to be the “crowning jewel” of an exotic freshwater hobbyists’ collection.

Discus

discus tank

  • Care level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Generally peaceful
  • Life expectancy: ~10 years
  • Water requirements: 82-86° F, 6.0-7.0 pH
  • Tank requirements: 75+ gallons
  • Diet: Algae flakes, shrimp pellets, tropical fish flakes

Discus are native to the Amazon river delta, but they generally seek out calmer waters near the river banks, among fallen branches and trees. Due to captive breeding, there are a wide variety of color and pattern variations available, but the discus is recognizable as having a flattened, “disk” shaped body with large dorsal fins and red or yellow eyes. They are beautiful fish to keep, but their care is a bit more involved than some hardier fish, so they are recommended for hobbyists with a bit more experience.

 Discus are another exotic freshwater fish that can be housed with other fish, but are best kept in a tank of their own species. Their care can become complicated if they are unable to feed off the tanks’ bottom due to the presence of bottom dwellers, or if they are intimidated by aggressive fish or fin-nippers. More advanced hobbyists may want to keep discus within a community tank, but beginners should house discus only with other discus in a 75+ gallon tank.

Zebra Plecostomus (Zebra pleco)

zebra pleco
Peaceinpianos [CC BY-SA 4.0]
  • Care level: Beginner-Intermediate
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Life expectancy: ~10 years
  • Water requirements: 82-86° F, 6.5-7.5 pH, oxygen-rich water
  • Tank requirements: 30+ gallons
  • Diet: Frozen or live lobster eggs, blood worms, prawn, mussel, algae wafers, crushed peas, and pellets

Like several other exotic freshwater fish, zebra Plecostomus are native to the tributaries of the Amazon river. This pleco is a variety of bottom dwelling catfish that- you guessed it- is patterned with black and white stripes like a zebra! The zebra pleco is recommended for slightly more experienced hobbyists due to its more demanding tank requirements for temperature and pH.

Zebra Plecostomus are bottom dwellers, and in their native environment are accustomed to hiding in small caves and between rocks on the river bed. The tank should be equipped with hiding spots and snags for the fish to stay comfortable and thrive. These fish are most active at night, and do best when kept with a few other zebra plecos in the same tank. They are peaceful fish but are not the best tank mates for other species of fish.

Elephantnose fish

elephantnose fish
Bjoertvedt [CC BY-SA 3.0]
  • Care level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Life expectancy: 7-10 years
  • Water requirements: 73-80° F, 6.5-7.0 pH
  • Tank requirements: 50+ gallons
  • Diet: Live bloodworms, mosquito larvae, black flies, brine shrimp; some may eat flakes or frozen food as well

Elephantnose fish are incredibly unique and among the most exotic freshwater fish for collectors. They are so named for their trunk-like mouth extensions that they use to feed, communicate, and provide self-defense. These fish are native to the Niger River in Africa, and are even more special due to the electrical field it has developed to sense its surroundings and communicate in the murky waters that it calls home. These fish appreciate muddy, stagnant waters with dense foliage, and are most active at night.

Elephantnose fish are uncommon even among hobbyists’ collections, and are not suited for beginners due to their strict water requirements and sensitivity to substances in the water. Additionally, being that they are nocturnal, their feeding schedule may not be ideal for all hobbyists. However, if you are able to meet their requirements these fish are sure to be the most unique fish in your collection!

Freshwater African Butterflyfish

freshwater butterfly fish
Toniher [CC BY-SA 3.0]
  • Care level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Aggressive
  • Life expectancy: 5+ years
  • Water requirements: 77-86° F, 6.8-7.2 pH
  • Tank requirements: 30+ gallons
  • Diet: Live small fish, brine shrimp, insects, and some frozen foods

The African Butterflyfish is a lake and slow-moving river fish native to Africa with an impressive history- it is one of the oldest surviving fish species whose morphology has remained unchanged for over 100 million years! These exotic fish resemble butterflies when viewed from above, and they have long dorsal, ventral, and caudal fins that help enhance this illusion. Their mouths are upturned in a permanent “frown”, which is designed to catch insects and small fish that dwell along the top of the water. African butterflyfish are usually dark brown in color and are speckled in order to blend in with the surrounding foliage.

The African butterflyfish can dwell in communities, but they are predators and might prey upon any fish smaller than them. It is best to keep these fish in shallow tanks with other butterflyfish in order to keep them healthy and happy.

Flowerhorn Cichlid (A.k.a Flower Horn)

flowerhorn fish

  • Care level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Aggressive
  • Life expectancy: 8-10 years
  • Water requirements: 80-89° F, 6.8-7.8 pH
  • Tank requirements: 75+ gallons for one cichlid, 200+ with tankmates
  • Diet: Crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms, anchovies, frozen shrimp

Flowerhorn cichlids are among the most unique freshwater fish due to their appearance- the large “horn”-like growth on the front of their heads that is also their namesake. However, these fish are popular for more than just their appearances- they also have incredible personality! They are interactive, curious fish that have been known to interact with their owners- some even like to be pet! Flowerhorn cichlids will also add a splash of color to your tank, as they come in a rainbow of colors and variety of patterns, but almost always have a bright red “horn”.

Flowerhorns are categorized as “aggressive” fish due to their attitude towards any other fish species. However, with humans or other flowerhorns they are happy and inquisitive little fish! These fish are known to sometimes suffer from health problems as they are a hybrid fish and are not naturally occurring- they have been bred into existence intentionally. However, if they are provided with the water and tank requirements they need, they can live happily and healthily as long as 12 years!

Dwarf Puffer

pea puffer

  • Care level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Aggressive
  • Life expectancy: ~5 years
  • Water requirements: 77-79° F, 7-7.8 pH
  • Tank requirements: 10+ gallons per puffer fish
  • Diet: Bloodworms, shrimp, snails, blackworms

Dwarf puffer fish are arguably the most adorable fish to make the exotic freshwater list. These little guys max out at 1-2.5” in length, but they are full of personality and charm! Dwarf puffers are native to southwestern India (specifically the Pamba River), which contains only freshwater, making this species of puffers unique and perfectly suited to the freshwater hobby aquarium. Dwarf puffers are greenish brown with yellow-white bellies and independently-moving eyes (like a chameleon).

Dwarf puffer fish are suitable fish for beginning hobbyists as long as a few basic requirements are met. Puffer fish require very clean water with no traces of ammonia, which can be deadly. They can be kept with a few other dwarf puffers, but generally should not have any other tankmates. As long as this is maintained, dwarf puffers make an excellent choice for any freshwater fish enthusiast!

Snakehead Fish

snakehead fish
Brian Gratwicke [CC BY 2.0]
  • Care level: Advanced
  • Temperament: Aggressive
  • Life expectancy: 8+ years
  • Water requirements: 68-79° F, 6.0-7.0 pH
  • Tank requirements: 450+ gallons
  • Diet: Fish, crustaceans, birds, small mammals and reptiles

The eel-like Snakehead fish is a natural predator- such an effective one that they have actually been labeled as an invasive species in many areas.

This is definitely a fish where you need to check your local laws to see if you are legally allowed to keep it in your home aquarium.

If so, this unique fish can be a very rewarding one to keep, even if it is a bit of an oddball. The flattened shape and unique scales of the fishes’ head resembles a snake, giving it the name. They are naturally found in rivers from Africa to Afghanistan and Siberia to China.

One of the characteristics that set this fish apart is the fact that it actually requires air to stay alive, and will often surface or even jump to the surface to breathe before submerging again. The real “issue” with snakeheads is their size requirements- these fish can grow very large and require tanks of at least 450+ gallons, making them impractical for many hobbyists. However, if you have the space they can be a very unique pet to keep, and definitely a conversation starter!

Rope Fish

rope fish
Image © Citron
  • Care level: Beginner-Intermediate
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Life expectancy: 15-20 years
  • Water requirements: 72-82° F, 6.7-7.5 pH
  • Tank requirements: 50+ gallons
  • Diet: Frozen or live prawns, insects, bloodworms, mussels, etc.

The Rope Fish is like a slightly smaller, more “user-friendly” alternative to the snakehead fish. These eel-like fish do not grow as large as snakeheads, and require smaller tanks. However, they share the flattened head and scaly pattern as well unusual tentacles that emerge from its face and serve as nostrils. They are nocturnal, and their natural habitat (African river tributaries) features many low lying branches, plants, and natural hiding spots, which they appreciate in aquariums. Like snakeheads, they are also capable of breathing air, as they have both gills and lungs!

Rope fish are peaceful fish as long as they are equipped with hiding spaces and are paired with suitable tank mates. They are predators, but will not target fish such as angelfish, loaches, catfish, and plecos. Rope fish are a great alternative fish for anyone looking to try something new in a freshwater habitat!

Chinese Hillstream Loach

  • Care level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Life expectancy: 8-10 years
  • Water requirements: 68-75° F, 7.0-8.0 pH
  • Tank requirements: 55+ gallons
  • Diet: Larvae on algae, cucumber, zucchini, spinach, bloodworm, bug larvae, shrimp, sinking pellets

Chinese Hillstream loaches are algae-eating bottom feeders who use their specialized, modified fins to “suction” onto the tank glass and crawl along, feeding as they go. They possess an interesting yellow and black coloration and somewhat resemble plecos and other bottom feeders. These shy fish tend to hide amongst the algae as they feed, and you might not see them very much throughout the day. They require cooler water and higher oxygen levels than many fish, which makes it slightly more difficult to fund suitable tank mates who can handle the unique water conditions. They seem to be happiest in groups of 3-6 of their own kind, but can also be housed with any gentle, peaceful freshwater fish, preferably middle or top-dwelling fish. These little loaches can be very entertaining to watch, and are an excellent addition to a community freshwater tank!

Black Ghost Knifefish

knifefish
Black Knifefish – CC
  • Care level: Advanced
  • Temperament: Peaceful, somewhat timid
  • Life expectancy: 10-20 years
  • Water requirements: 73-82° F, 6.5-8.0 pH
  • Tank requirements: 150+ gallons
  • Diet: Live worms and meat, and/or freshwater flakes

The black knife ghostfish is native to the dark, deep waters of slow-moving South American rivers and the Amazon river basin. They have a very unique appearance, being that they are adapted to a low-light environment. They have no scales, and instead have a deep black “skin” and a flat, knife-like body that narrows towards the tail, ending in a narrow “blade”. Because they are adapted for low-light, they have developed an electromagnetic field for navigation, much like eels.

Black knife ghostfish are peaceful, and appreciate many hiding places in their tank. They are nocturnal and tend to be more active at night. Ghostfish are compatible with other peaceful freshwater fish, but can be more susceptible to injury and disease due to their lack of scales. The cleanliness of the water must also be maintained more regularly than some other fish, as ghostfish produce more waste. These fish are best for more experienced hobbyists, and are very exotic fish to keep in a home aquarium!

Wolf Cichlid

wolf cichlid
Sesamehoneytart [CC BY-SA 3.0]
  • Care level: Intermediate-Advanced
  • Temperament: Aggressive
  • Life expectancy: 10-15+ years
  • Water requirements: 75-81° F, 6.5-70 pH
  • Tank requirements: 200+ gallons
  • Diet: Insects, bloodworms, small crustaceans, beef heart, etc.

Wolf cichlids are as aggressive as they are striking. These cichlids are muscular and streamlined, designed for their predatory nature. They can range from silver to gold with blue, black, green, and/or purple speckled scales. These fish require a great deal of space, as they can grow up to two feet in length! They are intelligent fish that have been known to bond with their owners.

Wolf cichlids are aggressive and cannot be paired with smaller fish, or really any tank mates other than wolf cichlids. It is also not a good idea to add plants to a wolf cichlid tank, as they will uproot the plants with their voracious digging activity! These fish are perfect “big” fish to work up to for more experienced hobbyists, and a well-maintained wolf cichlid can live for a couple decades in great health!

Vampire tetra (Sabertooth Barracuda)

vampire tetra
Vampire Tetra – CC BY-SA 2.5
  • Care level: Advanced
  • Temperament: Aggressive
  • Life expectancy: 1-2 years
  • Water requirements: 75-84° F, 6.0-7.8 pH
  • Tank requirements: 500+ gallons
  • Diet: Live fish, including piranhas and other characins.

This one is for the books. If you live somewhere that you are able to keep this fish, then prepare yourself for the challenge that is the Vampire Tetra. This formidable creature is native to the Amazon river, where its main prey is the man-eating piranha! Obviously, this fish is not for the faint of heart, and requires extensive fishkeeping experience. Vampire tetras have two large fangs (4-6” long!) in their lower jaws designed to impale their prey. These teeth could seriously injure any tank mates, which is why they are best kept alone. Even if the vampire tetras are adapted to living in a captive aquarium, many do not live for very long as they require a great deal of space, rapid turnover in their water flow, and will sometimes be hesitant to feed in captivity. If you feel up to the challenge of keeping a Vampire Tetra, be prepared for some hard work!

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