Behold Black Rubies!


Occasionally it does us good to step back and look at ‘traditional’ fish with fresh eyes. Gabor Horvath thinks that the Black ruby barb could become your new favourite staple.

Imagine the scene: you’re looking for a shoal of fish to liven up your mixed community tank. You want something active, eye-catchingly colourful but with a peaceful temperament. With a few larger fish in your tank — something like a pair of Ellioti cichlids, Thorichthys maculipinnis — you don’t want anything too small, as you’ve had Neon tetras, Paracheirodon innesi, disappearing before. And because you have a limited budget you must choose wisely. 

You ask your pal, a seasoned aquarist, to accompany you to the nearest shop to help you select the right fish. He points at a tank containing some striped fish. You recognise the shape: a barb. 

You have heard (even read) about the Tiger barb, Puntigris sp., before, but these fish have fewer stripes and lack the bright orange colours. They really look drab and boring, so you tell your friend to keep browsing. 

Eventually you decide on some colourful tetra and shake your head when your friend goes back for a shoal of the nondescript barbs. Fast forward to a few months later you’re visiting your friend’s fish-house. In one of his tanks, you spot a group of stunning fish sporting a jet-black body peppered with sparkling blue glitters and a striking crimson head. You about those beauties and he explains that these are the same ‘ugly’ barbs you refused to buy earlier — Black ruby barbs, Pethia nigrofasciata. After agreeing with him that he will definitely give you some of the offspring you go home contemplating the best ways to house them.

As it happens, this isn’t a fictional story. It happened to me and my friend, who didn’t believe me when I told him about the surprising colour change these fish go through after they mature. True, when you see the juveniles for sale there’s little to see of their future potential, and it’s easy to overlook them in favour for some instant impact fish. The Black ruby barb, sometimes called the Purplehead barb, isn’t even a new arrival to the market, and has been around for many decades under its former Barbus or Puntius nigrofasciatus formal monikers. 

I remember when I first read about the meaning of the second part of the scientific name — nigrofasciatus, meaning bearing black stripes — as a seven-year-old budding aquarist back in 1978, and it kickstarted my interest in taxonomic nomenclature. After reading the chapter about the behaviour and breeding I instantly decided that it was the species I wanted, as I have always loved fish that change colour according to their moods. Alas, for various reasons I had no chance to keep them until very recently, following the above-mentioned visit to the store. 

Impulse buys can be dangerous, but in this case I already had the background knowledge required to keep my Black ruby barbs in optimal condition. Originating from hilly forest streams and their associated small pools in Sri Lanka, they need clear, well oxygenated water at a relatively cool temperature. They will feel good anywhere between 20-26°C, but they can survive the extremes for short periods (something I’ll come back to later).
In their natural habitats the water parameters are 6.0-6.5pH and 5-12°GH, but the fish available in stores are all captive bred and very adaptable — don’t worry if your water is not a perfect match. Just stay between 6.0-7.8pH and 2-20°GH and they will fare very well. 

As my tapwater is within this range I didn’t have to worry too much about tank preparation. I simply added them to a community tank containing my Moon tetras, Bathyaethiops flammeus, and a shoal of Corydoras panda. The barbs weren’t nervous at all and began exploring straight away. 

I was a bit concerned about potential conflicts between the barbs and the quite shy Moon tetras, but true to their peaceful reputation these fish caused no problems at all. In fact, their outgoing nature and active lifestyle had the effect of making my tetras braver, too, and I began to see them more often than before. 

Still, to stay on a safe side I wouldn’t keep them with fish sporting long, trailing fins or whiskers, but apart from this they could be a great addition to any community setup. They will of course eat any newborn fish if they get the chance, but anything over 1cm is safe. Later I added a few Borneo suckers, Gastromyzon scitulus, to their tank and the barbs happily (or rather just peacefully) shared their foods even with the smallest of the lot (barely 1.5cm).

Rowdy crowd

Being good-natured doesn’t necessarily mean boring. Crimson-head barbs (as they’re called in Hungary) will liven up your tank with unceasing activity. They never stop, so there is always some movement. At one end of the tank a male chases the females around, while at the other end two males pose with outstretched fins, until a third one gatecrashes the brawl and takes centre stage. Then they swap: other males go after the females and the previous chasers start sparring. 

Read the rest of the feature in the June issue, available to read instantly on our digital edition HERE  or purchase the print edition HERE.


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