Neon Tetras: The Ultimate Care, Diet, Breeding, & Info Guide

Neon Tetras are a very popular and colorful species in freshwater fish-keeping due to their blue and red colors. They can be found in practically every fish store around the world due to their popularity. They have a blue stripe across the top half of their body and a red stripe on the lower half with a silver stomach. The stunning, classic colors these fish display are actually their natural colors!

This complete guide will cover everything you need to know about keeping, caring for, and breeding the neon tetra. If you’re looking at keeping a planted tank, this fish is for you!

neon tetra

About Neon Tetras

  • Scientific Name: Paracheirodon innesi
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: Northern and Western Amazon Basin
  • Common Names: Neon Tetra, Neon Fish
  • Size: 11.5”

Temperament

Neon Tetras are extremely peaceful, and their small size prevents them from hurting most any tankmate aside from teeny tiny fry and shrimplets. They tend to be on the shy side since they are a schooling species.

The general recommendation for a schooling species is to have 6 of the same fish, but Neon Tetras will display more activity in schools of 8-12 (or more, if space permits).

The movement pattern Neon Tetras display is very intriguing, as they tend to dart around the aquarium all at once, but still retain grace while doing so.

They can be frightened easily and may take some time to settle in to their new home, but after the first few weeks, they will really show their activity and colors.

Natural Habitat

Neon Tetras come from the Amazon basin and are found in both blackwater and clearwater areas. They have a temperature range of 68-82 degrees Fahrenheit in the wild but prefer temperatures from 68-75.

They tend to be more active in blackwater tanks, so if yours are extremely skittish, you may want to try either reducing the lighting or adding tannins.

amazon basin
Kmusser [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Neon Tetra Lifespan

Neon Tetras live for 5-10 years in aquariums which seems excessive due to their small size. Their long lifespan does create a bit of a problem.

If they die off at different times, which is likely if they are dying from natural causes, then the school will diminish, and you will either have to add to their dwindling school or rehome them.


neon tetra

Neon Tetra Care

Here are some things you should if you’re thinking about keeping Neon Tetras:

Requirements

Despite how timid they may act at first, neon tetras are extremely hardy fish. They can be kept in relatively small aquariums and are tolerant of a wide variety of water parameters and temperatures.

Some are even kept in tanks without heaters due to their durability.

  • Tank Size: Most recommend a 10-gallon tank for neon tetras, which would work for 3-6, but since they should be kept in larger schools, a 20-gallon, especially a 20 long, would be perfect for them. This gives them enough room to display schooling behavior and feel comfortable in the aquarium.
  • Community Aquariums: Neon tetras are very rarely kept in species only tanks and are more commonly kept in community aquariums. Community aquariums are aquariums that house multiple fish species, typically ones from all around the world, that are capable of coexisting with one another in terms of temperament and water parameters. Neon tetras are perfect candidates for community aquariums as they are incredibly peaceful and the presence of other fish in the tank can make them feel more secure.

Water Parameters

Neon Tetras come from low pH, blackwater, soft water rivers. While they prefer softer, more acidic water, they have been in the aquarium trade long enough to be adaptable to most water conditions.

When it comes to Neon Tetras, stability is much more important than specific water parameters.

These are basic guidelines for Neon Tetras, though a wider range is possible:

  • pH: 5.0-7.5
  • Temperature: 68-82°F (68-75 preferred)
  • Alkalinity: 1°-10° dGH

While the Neon Tetra is hardy, they will succumb to ammonia and nitrite, and nitrates. Any measurable amount of ammonia or nitrite will be toxic to your fish. Make sure to properly cycle your aquarium before adding Neon Tetras, or any other fish.

Nitrates tend to be a bit sneakier. They build up in the aquarium over time in clean, properly cycled aquariums. Bi-weekly water changes help keep nitrate levels down and keep your fish healthier.

It is extremely important to test your water, and the API freshwater master test kit is the most accurate test kit on the market, and cheapest per test.

Another note to make about your tank’s cycle and schooling fish is that adding too many fish at one time can upset the cycle. Since you are increasing your bio load, you must give the beneficial bacteria time to catch up.

A school of schooling fish should be added all at once to reduce stress, though you should be prepared to do extra water changes for a short period in order to counteract the potential increases in ammonia or nitrite.

Neon Tetra Diet

Neon Tetras are not picky when it comes to food and will accept almost any tropical fish food flakes. They seem to prefer flakes over pellets, but aside from that, they will accept almost any brand.

Some brands are better than others, and personally I prefer Hikari since they have less fillers and more protein than others, and my fish love it!

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Since overfeeding can lead to excess ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, it is important to feed several small meals per day. Neon Tetras are typically fed a few pinches of flakes, whatever they can eat in 20-35 seconds, two or three times a day.

Schooling

As I have mentioned, Neon Tetras are a schooling fish, and having a school for your tetra is essential. Those that are isolated from their friends have a higher likelihood of catching diseases or dying from parameter shifts, as they are constantly stressed if they are not in a school.

The smallest school should be 8-12 tetras, depending on the tank size. The more tetras you have, the most comfortable they will be and the less they will hide.


Role in Planted Aquariums

apistogramma tank
Photo by Dorenwolf

Importance

Neon Tetras have been an integral part of planted aquariums for decades. Their splash of red and blue against dense green backdrops has been a popular contrast in the aquascaping hobby for decades.

Some people choose to focus on their fish, others on their plants, but with a fish like the neon tetra, both can be addressed. The fish perfectly complement the plants while the plants make their color absolutely pop!

Blackwater

Their color and origin also make them very popular in blackwater biotopes. A blackwater biotope is generally used to represent the tannin-laden natural habitat of certain fish, including the neon tetra.

Tannins are a type of acid that leach from decaying plant matter and make the water appear yellow or brown, like tea. The darkened water makes these fish feel more comfortable, and some very vibrant fish inhabit blackwater areas aside from neon tetras, such as wild bettas.

You can even combine a small sorority or harem of wild bettas, mainly Smaragdina and Imbellis, with the stunning neon tetra in a blackwater tank. Add in a few plants, some hardscape, and you have an award-winning tank!


Types of Neon Tetras

While the red and blue neon tetras have not been selectively bred for those colors, a few color variants do exist. Additionally, there is one substitute for the neon tetra, though they tend to be more expensive and less hardy.

Common Morphs

neon tetra
Tan Meng Yoe [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The different color morphs of the neon tetra are still the same species as the normal neon tetra and require the same care. Common color morphs of the neon tetra include:

  • Brilliant White Neon Tetra
  • Gold Neon Tetra
  • Diamond Head Neon Tetra
  • Double Long Fin Neon Tetra

Cardinal Tetra

cardinal tetra

The Cardinal Tetras are gaining in popularity, almost surpassing the Neon Tetra! They look incredibly similar, as the Cardinal Tetras also have a blue stripe on the upper half of their body and a red stripe on the lower half, except their red stripe extends through their stomach towards the mouth.

Cardinal Tetras get almost twice as large as Neon Tetras, reaching around 2” in length and are sometimes called the “Large Neon Tetra” as well as the “Red Neon Tetra”. They also come from soft water areas of the Amazon and prefer softer water than Neon Tetras with 4 degrees hardness but are adaptable to a wider range.

  • Scientific Name: Paracheirodon axelrodi
  • Size: 2″
  • pH: 5.0-7.0
  • Temperature: 71-82˚F

Neon Tetra Tank Mates

Community tanks are the most popular way to keep neon tetras, which is perfect, as they get along with most other community tropical fish.

They are generally recommended as tank mates for Betta splendens, as they are both soft water species, but the Bettas prefer higher temperatures than the Tetras. It is possible to keep them together, but the Neon Tetras will not live as long as the higher temperatures will increase their metabolism.

Suitable Tank Mates

Tank Mates to Avoid

Here are a few species you should not keep with Neon Tetras:

  • Cichlids: Cichlids are aggressive and will make a snack of Neon Tetras. Additionally, the more peaceful dwarf cichlids, like multis, will need the water much harder and warmer than the Tetras.
  • Goldfish: While Goldfish share a temperature overlap with Neon Tetras and can live in soft water, they get far too large to house with Neon Tetras. Common goldfish get 10-12” and their speed will allow them to snack on the Tetras with ease. The more wobbly, uncoordinated fancy goldfish will also be able to eat the tetras as they typically get 8-12”, depending on the type.
  • Livebearers: While Neon Tetras are very adaptable, it is still advisable to keep them in soft water tanks. Livebearers need very hard water in order to survive, otherwise you will see a lot of shimmying in your tank. They also tend to prefer higher temperature water, so the classic guppies, mollies, and platies are not recommended with Neon Tetras.

Setting up a Neon Tetra Tank

Thinking about keeping Neon Tetras? Here are a few things that you will need to consider:

Equipment

  • Tank: A 20 gallon (not a 20-high) is a good starting point for Neon Tetras, but if you are planning on a fantastic aquascape, a 40-breeder would be better suited.
  • Filtration: Filtration is necessary, but the exact type of filtration is ultimately up to you and the tank size you choose. For a 20 gallon, a simple Hang On Back (H.O.B.) filter with a prefilter sponge would be perfect. With a larger tank you may want to consider a canister filter. If you plan on breeding them, a sponge filter would be the best type of filtration.
  • Lighting: Neon Tetras love heavily planted tanks and look absolutely stunning in them, so get yourself a quality LED light specifically for plants.
  • Heater: A heater is likely going to be necessary during the winter, unless the water will always stay at or above 68 degrees. Personally, I recommend a heater on all tanks, even cold-water tanks, simply to prevent temperature fluctuations. A fluctuating temperature will cause stress in your fish and stress easily leads to disease, so a stable temperature is a must. This does not mean the tank has to run warm, but setting the heater to 70-72 degrees will help with stability and the health of your fish.

Choosing a Substrate

Substrate is not important when it comes to Neon Tetras; they can be kept on anything from gravel to sand to bare bottom, but since they prefer planted tanks, you may want to go with a plant growing substrate.

They spend most of their time swimming around and don’t peck at the substrate as much as other fish in the tank do.

If you plan on keeping them with Cory Catfish, you will want a sand substrate, but the majority of their other tank mate possibilities will not have a preference.

Adding Live Plants

Neon Tetras are not demanding in their plant choices, but they do prefer bushy plants like amazon swords and stem plants. Here are some beginner plants that are low-tech and undemanding:

  • Brazilian Water Weed (Anacharis)
  • Red Root Floaters
  • Java Fern
  • Amazon Sword
  • Java Moss
  • Subwassertang
  • Pennywort
  • Rotala
  • Ludwigia
  • Dwarf Sag
  • Vallisneria 

Neon Tetras love to dart through a wide variety of plants and duck behind large rock formations. This leaves the aquascaping options wide open – let your creativity run wild!

Cycling

aquarium cycle

Although Neon Tetras are extremely hardy, they are sensitive to ammonia and nitrite, so it is essential to completely cycle your aquarium before introducing any fish.

The cycling process takes around a month, which may at first seem like a lot of wasted time, but it gives you the time to perfect your aquascape!

Plants also help absorb nitrogen compounds such as ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, and can carry in small colonies of bacteria that convert these harmful compounds to less harmful ones.

This addition speeds up the cycling process, sine the bacterial colonies are already established, and the only thing left to do is to build up their numbers.

For more information about cycling you aquarium, check out our fishless cycle guide.


Breeding Neon Tetras

Neon Tetras, and Cardinal Tetras for that matter, are an egg scattering species. This means the males typically chase the females, who release eggs in mosses and other plants, which the males then fertilize.

They show no parental care and will eat the eggs soon after laying them.

Neon Tetra breeding has high success rates when you use tannins, low TDS (total dissolved solids) water, low pH water, and spawning mops. In the next section we will cover ways to obtain all these items.

Neon Tetras very rarely have successful spawns in the main aquarium as the adults love to eat the eggs and fry. Additionally, since most Neon Tetras are kept in community tanks, the whole tank will go after the eggs and fry, not just the parents.

Setting up a Spawning/ Fry Tank

A 10-gallon tank with a sponge filter is the most popular way to spawn neon tetras. A group of males and females should be placed in the tank and left in for several days until eggs and/or fry are observed. They should then be removed.

  • Tannins: this can be achieved through leaf litter from oak or Indian Almond Leaves, the latter being commonly available in pet stores. Driftwood will also release tannins into the water as will organic soil, but the organic soil will also release ammonia for the first month or so. This can also be used as an alternative cycling method, depending on the amount of ammonia released.
  • Low TDS and pH water: can be obtained through fresh rainwater, Reverse Osmosis water, and Distilled water. These can either be used alone if the TDS is above 10-30ppm or some tap water can be mixed in as long as the dGH stays at or below 2.
  • Spawning mops: Spawning mops for Neon Tetras are often just java moss or other kinds of moss. They can also be made from acrylic yarn, which may be cheaper for you. Alternatively, the breeding tank can be set up with a round marble substrate so that the eggs fall in between the marbles, out of the parents’ reach.

Determining Gender/ Gender Ratio

There is little difference between the male and female Neon Tetra, but the males tend to be slimmer with a straight blue line while the females are rounder with a slightly bent blue line.

There is not a specific ratio that has been determined for this species when it comes to breeding. However, when it comes to egg scatters in general, having more males than females is recommended in order to ensure the eggs are fertilized.

The actual ratio varies greatly depending on the species, anywhere from 3 males per 1 female to 5 males for 6 females. Additionally, Neon Tetras are difficult to sex with accuracy, so putting a large group, 6-10, in the spawning tank should still result in fry.

Caring for the Eggs

The spawning tank should be kept in the dark in order to prevent the adults from eating the eggs and because the eggs and fry tend to be light sensitive. Once they have spawned, remove the adults, since they will not help you care for the eggs.

Make sure you have a good amount of flow in the aquarium to prevent the Neon Tetra eggs from getting fungus.

Normally, I would recommend the addition of an antifungal like Methylene Blue, but tannins have antifungal properties, so with a good amount of flow and tannins, the eggs should hatch just fine.

Fry Care

Once the fry absorb their egg sacks and can swim on their own, which is called the free-swimming stage, they will require live food. The best two first foods are microworms and baby brine shrimp.

Baby brine shrimp should be their main staple food once they are large enough to accept them.

You should have multiple baby brine shrimp hatcheries set up in order to produce a continuous supply of them for your fish. The babies should be fed 3-8 times daily, depending on the number of babies.

I also advise continuing to add microworms to the tank during the first few months as the fry grow at different sizes. This could be due to some eating more infusoria than others, which makes them stronger and better able to chase down larger food like baby brine shrimp.

It could also be delayed egg hatching due to a wide variety of factors. Either way, baby food should be continuously fed for those that develop slowly.

After a few weeks, sometimes as early as 2-3, they should begin to accept floating powdered fry food. Once they begin accepting premade, high protein food, they will have an incredible growth spurt.

They may color up as soon as 3-4 weeks with the proper diet. Be careful when first trying out prepared fry food, as they will not initially recognize it as food, and it can quickly foul the water.

Since Neon Tetras stay relatively small, their fry are also extremely tiny, but they grow quickly. They can reach sexual maturity within 3-4 months and are sellable once they reach around ¾-1”. However, before you sell them, you need to take 1-2 weeks to slowly acclimate them back to tap water pH and TDS, otherwise they will likely die once you sell them

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