9 Types of Freshwater Aquarium Sharks

Let me first say that except for the Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas) there are no true sharks that can live in freshwater.

Any Shark you see in the freshwater section of a pet store is a shark mostly for its looks – but sometimes there’s more to a Shark than meets the eye.


What is a Freshwater Aquarium Shark?

While no one’s entirely sure how a small selection of aquarium fish were dubbed “Sharks,” they all share some traits that make guessing easier.

  • All are cyprinids (carp) or Catfish native to the tropics, home to many of the most popular aquarium fish in the world.
  • All are active bottom to midwater swimming fish with pointed dorsal fins and forked tails.
  • All are easy to keep, most are common in their home regions, and all will breed in captivity when given ample space.

In short, they were given the name both due to appearance and to popularize them as aquarium fish – and it works!

Freshwater “Sharks” are some of the most common fish in the hobby. Nearly every fish store in the country will carry at least one of these Sharks and possibly several.

However, it’s also a shame to note that every single one of these Sharks (except the small and gentle Roseline Torpedo Shark) is a terrible choice for a beginner aquarist with a small tank.

While all are tolerant of a wide range of water conditions and easy to feed, they are all either aggressive, massive, or both. Perhaps another reason they are called “Sharks.”

But so long as you know what you’re signing up for, freshwater Sharks are fascinating fish that become showpiece specimens in most aquariums.

So let’s take a look at the different types of freshwater aquarium Sharks!


Types of Freshwater Aquarium Sharks

Nearly all of the “Sharks” in the freshwater aquarium trade fall into one of two groups: active Cyprinids (Carp and Minnows) and predatory Catfish.

This makes understanding their care requirements fairly straightforward as they’re all closely related to one another.

Red Tail Black Shark

Red-tailed black shark (Epalzeorhynchos bicolor; Labeo bicolor)

The Red Tail Black Shark is one of the more tragic tales in the aquarium world. A striking fish, it is unfortunately almost entirely extinct in the wild.

Found exclusively in the Chao Phraya River, as Thailand modernizes and develops, its habitat has disappeared as dams have been built and swamps have been drained.

Wild specimens have not been seen since 2011 and it may even be extinct in nature – however the species is captive bred in sizable numbers and may one day be reintroduced into the wild.

Red Tail Black Sharks are usually sold as 2″ juveniles that are striking in color.

As adults they retain their midnight black bodies and crimson red tails, with a small white spot at the tip of the dorsal fin. However, they grow aggressive and territorial as they age, and are especially intolerant of their own kind.

While they lack sizable teeth they can worry away at the fins and flanks of slow moving fish that occupy the same area of the water column (mid and bottom).

This is usually more of a problem in smaller aquaria. When given at least 55 gallons of space or more, adult Red Tailed Black Sharks are good additions for a semi-aggressive community tank.

Providing a cave or nook of driftwood gives the Shark a focal point to defend, allowing its tank mates to swim peaceably.

As true omnivores Red Tail Black Sharks will eat anything you offer them. In the wild, detritus, bottom dwelling invertebrates, and even algae is eaten.

In aquaria they will take flakes and other prepared foods, graze on filamentous algae, blanched vegetables, and frozen foods.

  • Scientific Name: Epalzeorhynchos bicolor
  • Origin: Thailand
  • Length: Up to 6″
  • Aquarium Size: 30+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Semi-Aggressive

Rainbow Shark

rainbow shark in aquarium

Closely related to the Red Tail Black Shark, the Rainbow Shark is similarly colored. All of its fins are pink to red with a gray body that can be almost black but never as dark as its close cousin.

Rainbow Sharks are more common in the trade and less expensive, with albino varieties often seen in aquarium stores.

Rainbow Sharks have identical care requirements as well – as bottom dwelling omnivores they will take any prepared or frozen foods offered.

They share the same semi-aggressive attitude as well and will bully slow moving mid and bottom dwelling fish if they stray into its territory. A cave or hollow to claim will help mitigate some of their outward aggression.

Rainbow Sharks are also intolerant of other Sharks, including other Rainbows, unless kept in large aquariums with plenty of hiding spaces.

The tank should have 3 or more Rainbow Sharks to diffuse aggression across the group. When kept with Red Tail Black Sharks Rainbows tend to lose as they are thinner and not nearly as robust.

  • Scientific Name: Epalzeorhynchos frenatum
  • Origin: Southeast Asia
  • Length: Up to 6″
  • Aquarium Size: 30+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Semi-Aggressive

Black Shark Minnow

black freshwater aquarium shark

When young it’s obvious that the Black Shark Minnow is a close relative of the first two Shark species. However this Shark grows massive in comparison, with 24 inches common for aquarium specimens and up to 36 inches in nature.

Black Sharks are common and desirable enough to be sought by fisherman for sport as well as food.

Black Sharks are somewhat uncommon in the pet trade but occasionally sold to unsuspecting aquarists who don’t realize that they will outgrow all but the very largest of aquariums.

Adult Black Sharks have flowing fin extensions and a purplish black color that’s striking. They are robust fish that can weigh as much as 25 lbs!

Like their smaller cousins, Black Shark Minnows are Cyprinids, in the Carp family. This makes them relations to Goldfish, Koi, Barbs, and Danios.

Cyprinids as a whole tend to be bottom dwelling omnivores that are hardy aquarium fish.

Given the size and territorial nature of the Black Shark it’s essential to pair them with large fish fast enough to get out of the way and ample space for them to claim an area.

  • Scientific Name: Labeo chrysophekadion
  • Origin: Southeast Asia
  • Length: Up to 3 feet
  • Aquarium Size: 180+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Semi-Aggressive

Bala Shark

Bala shark

Bala Sharks are unfortunately very common in the aquarium trade. They are sold as striking small fish with tinfoil bright scales and contrasting black edges to their fins.

While they retain this look as they mature they also grow far too large for most aquariums.

Bala Sharks that have outgrown their tanks are also common for pet stores to receive so don’t count on a store taking your Shark once its grown up.

Adult Bala Sharks are over a foot long and at all ages are schooling fish. When kept alone, Bala Sharks are skittish fish that will launch themselves against the glass or lid if the tank is too tight.

When kept in schools of 6 or more Bala Sharks are less skittish but still grow large and need ample space to roam.

125 Gallons is the absolute minimum for a school of Bala Sharks, with larger definitely being better. A heavy, well fitting lid is essential as they will test it on occasion when scared and might end up on the floor when you’re not around.

Bala Sharks are peaceful midwater dwellers and are a striking addition to any community tank of medium to large fish. In the wild Bala Sharks eat plankton and small floating invertebrates.

In aquariums they will take both prepared and frozen foods with gusto and look more like true marine sharks than any of the other “sharks” on the market!

  • Scientific Name: Balantiocheilos melanopterus
  • Origin: Malay Peninsula and Indonesia
  • Length: Up to 14″
  • Aquarium Size: 125+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Iridescent Shark

Iridescent Shark

The Iridescent Shark is another common, inexpensive aquarium fish that is unsuitable for the majority of aquariums.

They are active and strikingly colored, with a purplish black iridescence mixed with pale white tones. However Iridescent Sharks can reach 3 to 4 feet in length and are schooling fish, to boot.

Iridescent Sharks are closely related to the Mekong Giant Catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), which grows up to 10 feet long and is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world.

Unlike most catfish Iridescent Sharks are midwater dwellers that swim quickly and aren’t shy about finding food at the surface. They are peaceful community fish but will consume tank mates small enough to fit into their broad mouths.

So long as you have the space for them Iridescent Sharks are attractive additions to a tank-buster community aquarium!

As large, schooling fish that are easy to feed and grow quickly, it’s no surprise that Iridescent Sharks are popular food fish in Asia.

You also might have come across Iridescent Sharks in the frozen seafood section of your local grocery store under the name Swai! Firm and delicate in flavor, it can be used as a replacement in any recipe calling for freshwater whitefish.

  • Scientific Name: Pangasionodon hypophthalmus
  • Origin: Southeast Asia
  • Length: 36-48″
  • Aquarium Size: 300+ gallons
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Chinese High-Fin Banded Shark

Jörn [CC BY-SA]

The Chinese High-Fin Banded Shark is a large cyprinid that performs something of a reverse Ugly Duckling transformation.

When young it’s attractively patterned, with chocolate brown to black bands and mottled patterns on a peach colored background.

The sail-like dorsal fin sits high on an arched back and they are peaceful community dwellers with an active demeanor.

As adults, they are a rather nondescript, cigar shaped fish with a sucking mouth similar to Chinese Algae Eaters. The entire transformation takes place over the course of two years.

They consume algae, detritus, and other organic matter from rocks in fast flowing rivers and streams. However they grow up to 5 feet long and around 80 lbs in the wild!

Chinese High-Fin Sharks are also an endangered species in China and the few that make it into the trade are captive bred in Asian ponds.

One major reason few of these fish reach maturity is because they aren’t tropical fish! Chinese High-Fin Sharks are actually cold water fish.

While they will tolerate temperatures up to 75F they prefer being kept in unheated aquariums and outdoor ponds.

They thrive alongside Goldfish and Koi, will keep pond decorations free of algae, and will hibernate similarly once the water reaches 40F.

  • Scientific Name: Myxocyprinus asiaticus
  • Origin: China
  • Length: 4-5 feet
  • Aquarium Size: 300+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Columbian Shark

Tete sea catfish (Ariopsis seemanni), also known as the Colombian shark catfish.

Also known as the Silver Tipped Shark, the Columbian Shark is a predatory Catfish with unusual care requirements.

Young are common in the pet trade and are silvery blue, active fish that will eat anything offered.

However, that also includes tank mates as they grow; Columbian Sharks are fast predators with deceptively large mouths.

While predatory, they are not aggressive towards other fish and prefer being kept in schools. Columbian Sharks eventually grow to be a foot long and can be skittish when kept singly, meaning a tight fitting lid is essential.

They are also not true freshwater fish – as they mature, Columbian Sharks need to be acclimated to either brackish or marine environments or they will wither and die from disease or stress.

Columbian Sharks, like many Catfish, have venomous spines along the pectoral and dorsal fins that they hold rigid when chased or netted.

The sting is not life threatening but is particularly painful; running the affected area under water as hot as you can stand is the best remedy.

  • Scientific Name: Ariopsis seemanni
  • Origin: Central and South America
  • Length: 12″
  • Aquarium Size: 75+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Roseline Torpedo Shark

roseline shark

Also known as Denison’s Barb and the Roseline Shark. These freshwater aquarium Sharks are one of the few truly suitable for the average aquarist.

They are medium sized schooling fish that reach 4 inches in length in aquariums, though a bit larger in nature. They have vivid yellow and red lateral stripes matched by attractive patterns on their twitching tails.

While increasingly common in the trade, Roseline Sharks are mostly wild caught as captive breeding has not yet caught up to demand.

They are so popular that they are now an endangered species in their homeland. If possible, try to ensure that your Roseline Sharks are captive bred only to stave off the extinction of wild fish.

While a little pricey, they are schooling fish and should be kept in groups of at least 6 individuals.

Roseline Sharks are not demanding when it comes to water quality or feeding; they thrive in a wide range of temperatures and accept both prepared and frozen foods with gusto!

  • Scientific Name: Sahyadria denisonii
  • Origin: India
  • Length: 4-6″
  • Aquarium Size: 30+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Peaceful

Harlequin Shark

The Harlequin Shark is our last Shark and closely resembles the Red Tail and Rainbow Sharks in terms of appearance and care requirements.

This African Shark is a semi-aggressive omnivore that has a more cryptic coloring to blend into dappled sunlight and shadowy tangles of weeds. They will happily consume anything offered, including algae, invertebrates, and both frozen and prepared foods.

Harlequin Sharks are territorial just like their cousins and need a cave or grotto to call their own. Otherwise they will claim the entire bottom zone as their own in smaller aquariums and relentlessly bully their tank mates.

They will also fight continually if kept with their own kind, including the Asian Epalzeorhynchos and Labeo species.

  • Scientific Name: Labeo cyclorhynchus
  • Origin: Congo River Basin in Africa
  • Length: Up to 6″
  • Aquarium Size: 30+ Gallons
  • Temperament: Semi-Aggressive

Conclusion

Freshwater aquarium sharks come in a variety of types and mostly share the same challenges that marine sharks would provide: they are either aggressive, large, or both.

So make sure you’re up for the challenge before picking up that cute little Red Tail Black or trio Bala Shark – they all will live for years and may outgrow both your aquarium and your patience!

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