Puntius barbs have so many good qualities that there's a species in the genus for every fishkeeper, as Dr Heok Hee Ng explains.
A popular notion of an aquarium is a glass box with fish in midwater. Many kinds swim in the middle of the water column, but, among these, barbs, such as Puntius, stand out for their typically small size, bold colours, gregariousness and activity.
They are members of the Cyprinidae, the largest freshwater fish family with more than 2,000 species in more than 200 genera. Cyprinids are found on all continents except Australia and South America.
But what exactly is a barb? The term should be restricted to a subgroup of cyprinids known as the Barbini, although not all Barbini are traditionally known as barbs. Here I’ll restrict the term to where it is used most often — for the smallish Asian cyprinids in the genus Puntius.
It is generally recognised that Puntius, as currently defined, is not a natural group, so research may show the species in this guide may belong to two or more genera. Some scientists have already started to recognise this diversity in placing most of the South-East Asian barbs in the genus Systomus, but we are currently retaining everything in Puntius.
Species are distributed from the Indus River drainage in Pakistan east to southern China and southern Philippines and south to Java. There are some142 species in the genus, with many reaching typically 6-12cm/2.4-4.7”. Puntius barbs are in many habitats, from backwater areas in hill streams to very acidic peat swamps.
Many are easy to maintain, typically requiring soft (GH 2-8), acidic to neutral water (pH generally 5.0-7.0) that should not be too warm. Barbs can be sensitive to oxygen levels, so make sure it is adequately aerated if the tank is warm.
Barbs are best in a group of five or more as they naturally school in the wild. Many enjoy dense aquatic vegetation but require ample swimming room as they are highly active. Décor of a barb tank should therefore include thickly planted areas in the sides, corners and back, and open space along the front.
Although lighting is seldom an issue, subdued lighting is preferred to bring out the iridescent metallic hues of many species. Dark substrates also bring out colours.
Barbs are easy to feed and will take all manner of live, frozen and prepared food. They are omnivorous and relish vegetable matter, such as squashed peas — particularly the larger species.
Barbs are for the most part active and boisterous, so tank mates should be chosen with care. They have been known to take passing swipes at neighbours, particularly when kept in too small a group. For this reason, many slow-moving and long-finned fishes, such as Siamese fighting fish and guppies, are not suitable.
What species is best for me?
Red-lined torpedo barb (P. denisonii)
This is found in southern Indian streams of a moderate current and substrate of mud and sand. It requires cooler water and is more sensitive to oxygen levels than many other barbs.
Although the Red-lined torpedo is gregarious and schools in the aquarium, evidence from native fishermen indicate this is solitary in the wild.
Reaching 15cm/6”, it is best kept in cooler 20-25°C/ 68-77°F water at a pH of 6.5-7.5. Wild populations are threatened by over-collecting but farm-bred fish in Indonesia are now being offered.
Melon barb (P. fasciatus)
This barb from southern India is found in quieter areas of streams and smaller rivers. Temperature should be around 22-26°C/72-79°F and pH 6.0-7.0. As it is capable of reaching 15cm/6”, ample space should be provided for this active, shoaling species.
Khavli barb (P. sahyadriensis)
Found in the Yenna River in Satara District, Maharashtra, India. This barb isn’t that colourful although mature males do display impressively, and with a taller dorsal fin than the female. They grow to a maximum of 7cm and prefer cooler, well oxygenated water with a neutral to slightly acidic pH.
Rosy barb (P. conchonius)
A common Indian barb, this is bred commercially and ideal for first timers as it is relatively hardy. Rosy barbs can be maintained at cooler water temperatures of 18-24°C/ 64-75°F and are not too demanding of water conditions, although soft, slightly acidic is ideal. There’s also a long-finned variety.
Rhomb barb (P. rhomboocellatus)
This inhabits very acidic blackwater habitats but can be acclimatised to slightly less. Maintain it in soft, acidic (pH 5.0-6.5) water at 22-27°C/72-81°F. It is sensitive to deteriorating conditions so needs good filtration.
Tiger barb (P. tetrazona)
The fin-nipping tendencies of the Tiger barb are legendary, so it should be maintained in a species tank, failing that in a group of ten or more. Even so, robust tank mates are necessary.
Tigers reach about 7cm/2.8”, so need plenty of space. Water temperatures should be a 20-26°C/ 68-79°F and pH about 6.0-7.0. Man-made varieties such as albino and green/moss are available.
Odessa barb (P. padamya)
Although the Odessa has been in the trade for decades, its Myanmar origin was not discovered until 2008 when it was at last formally described as a species. These are relatively hardy and ideal for first-time barb owners. Water should be maintained at 22-26°C/72-79°F and at pH 6.0-7.0.
Clown barb (P. dunckeri)
Often misidentified as Puntius everetti the Clown can reach 15cm/ 6” so ample swimming space should be afforded this peaceful, shoaling species.
Clowns do best at 24-28°C/75-82°F and pH of 6.0–6.5 and subdued lighting and a dark substrate will enhance their colours.
Some others to consider
Striped barb (P. johorensis)
Often identified as Puntius eugrammus, Striped barbs are found in acidic blackwaters (pH typically around 4.0) in the wild but can be acclimatised to more moderate aquarium conditions. Even so, this species does best in very soft (GH 2–5), acidic (pH 5.0-6.0) water. They reach about 12cm/4.7”.
Spanner barb (P. lateristriga)
The Spanner is one of the largest of the genus, reaching to 18cm/7”. Spanner barbs typically inhabit faster flowing streams with clear water and should be housed accordingly. Water pH should be about 6.5-7.0 and temperature 22-26°C/72-79°F. They can be acclimatised to harder water conditions (GH to 10) than most other barbs.
Filament barb (P. filamentosus)
The Filament is a southern Indian species that grows to 15cm/6”. Like the Melon, ample space should be provided. Best maintained at 24-26°C/75-79°F and pH 6.0–7.0, this belongs to a group of similar-looking barbs from southern India and Sri Lanka that also include: P. arulius (Arulius barb), P. assimilis (Mahecola barb), P. exclamatio, P. singhala, P. srilankensis (Blotched filament barb) and P. tambraparniei (Tambraparni barb)
Six-banded barb (P. hexazona)
The Six-banded is often confused with the Five-banded (P. pentazona) and may be the same species. The only difference is the presence of a spot at the base of the dorsal fin in the Five-banded, which is absent in the Six-banded. However, this spot appears variable within a single population.
Six-bandeds are relatively timid and spend less time swimming in the open, so ample vegetation for hiding should be provided. They don’t school as strongly as most other barbs either. Ideal water conditions include a temperature of 24-28°C/ 75-82°F and pH of 5.5-6.5. Good filtration is necessary as this species is sensitive to deteriorating conditions.
Golden dwarf barb (P. gelius)
A candidate for the smaller community fish tank, the Golden dwarf reaches only 5cm/2”. It is also one of the less aggressive barbs, making it ideal for community life too. As this is native to the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, it should be maintained in cooler 18-23°C/64-73°C water.
Lipstick barb (P. erythromycter)
A species described from northern Myanmar in 2008, the Lipstick grows only to 4cm/1.6”. The males, which are easily distinguished by red pigmentation on the upper lip, are particularly aggressive to each other, so maintain this species with a high female/male ratio of 4:1 or higher.
Another solution is to keep it in a very large group and a densely planted tank also helps reduce aggression among males.
Lipsticks should be kept in water of about 20-24°C/68-75°F and pH about 6.0–7.0.
Checker barb (P. oligolepis)
The Checker barb is a peaceful species that grows no larger than 5cm/2”, it is ideal for the community tank. It does best in soft, slightly acidic water (pH 6.0–6.5) at 22–26°C/72-79°F.
Red cheek barb (P. orphoides)
Growing to about 30cm/12”, the Red cheek inhabits streams and rivers with a moderate current. Similar to the Spanner in many ways, this is not suitable for the general community aquarium because of its size and incessant activity.
Tank mates should be robust, equally active fish such as Tinfoil barbs (Barbonymus schwanenfeldii).
Cherry barb (P. titteya)
Cherry barbs are ideal for the small community aquarium because of their size up to 3.5cm/1.4”. In the wild, they are found in heavily shaded, slow flowing forested streams with a substrate of silt and leaf litter. Cherry barbs form loose associations in which conspecifics maintain a distance from each other.
Sexing is relatively easy as the slimmer males are reddish, particularly during breeding season, while the plumper females are yellowish. Optimal water conditions include a 22-26°C/72-79°F temperature and pH of 6.0–6.5.
Black ruby barb (P. nigrofasciatus)
This is endemic to Sri Lanka, although those in the trade are commercially bred. Reaching 6.5cm/2.6”, the Black ruby inhabits clear cool shady streams in forested areas, particularly those with a gravel or sand substrate. They are best maintained at 24–27°C/75-81°F and pH 6.0–7.0.
This is a peaceful species requiring subdued lighting.
How do I stop my barbs from nipping the fins of tank mates?
Barbs have a reputation as fin nippers, but many other small, schooling fishes such as tetras are also notorious.
This occurs when schooling fishes that form a loose social hierarchy are not maintained in sufficient numbers. They turn on tank mates instead. Once a large enough group is established, the barbs become more preoccupied.
Maintain as large a group of them as can possibly be managed, typically at least ten. A large group also ensures aggression is spread among more individuals.
The other solution is to stop providing the barbs with suitable targets, so tank mates that swim slowly or have long finnage should be avoided.
How do I breed barbs?
Although specifics vary from species to species, there are general guidelines.
Most barbs require soft water, as water too hard appears to impair the fertilisation of their eggs. Most barbs should be spawned in pairs, as more than one male in the same tank is disruptive to the breeding process for many species.
After the fish have been conditioned by heavy feeds of live food, the pair should be separated to their own tank.
Barbs are egg scatterers and do not provide parental care, so make the eggs inaccessible, lest they eat them. Provide a dense mat of fine-leaved plants in the breeding tank to allow the eggs to fall among them and become relatively safe. Fertilised eggs typically hatch after 24-48 hours and the fry can be fed once free swimming.
What should I feed them?
Most barbs are unfussy when it comes to food, so flakes and granular foods are fine. Larger barbs benefit from pelleted foods. Frozen bloodworms and Daphnia make good supplements.
This item was first published in the November 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping. It may not be reproduced without written permission.