Bring on the barbs


There are big ones, small ones, skittish leaping ones - and even blind ones. If it's diversity you're after, then Barbinae will be your bag. Nathan Hill explains more.

Glance into a community tank, and it’s highly likely you’ll see a barb. It might be the shape that gives it away: that slightly rhomboid body plan with nothing outside of a conventional fish layout. It might be elongate and torpedoed.

Whatever the blueprint, it’ll always look like a perfect benchmark for a fish.

With barbs everything is as it should be, and there’s little in the way of morphological surprises. Tails are typically forked, anal fins stand alone, unconnected to other fins. The top of the fish is adorned by a single dorsal, with no floppy second adipose fin, like those that tetra or catfish carry. From a purist’s point of view, they have no parts that might look out of place or in any way upsetting.

Like so many other large families of fish they have evolved to cover many niches and the differences between two species of barb can be as great of those between barbs and fishes of other genera.

There are tiny barbs, gigantic and beastly barbs, blind barbs that dwell deep underground, eyes completely regressed and no longer extant, and skittish, flitting barbs that leap through the air at the first opportunity. They are a very, very diverse kind of fish.

Depending on who you are, your definition for what constitutes a barb may vary.

To be precise, barbs are any fish that belong to the subfamily of the Cyprinids, the Barbinae. Within that you’ll find genera covering surprising geographical expanses, with barbs found across Europe, Asia, and Africa — although the inclusion of some, if not all African barbs, is the subject of increasing contention.

You’ll also find fish inside the subfamily that might not be recognised by the lay aquarist as a barb per se.

Balantiocheilus, for example, the fish that we frequently see offered as the Silver Shark, is a barb in the taxonomic sense, although many a fishkeeper would prefer to name it by its more eloquent and macho description.

From the trade point of view, there are plenty of species available under the barb name and on the whole most of them make excellent additions to the aquarium.

Some are famed for nippy behaviour, others as ugly ducklings. Some are noted as being incredibly twitchy and sensitive to changes in chemistry or surroundings, such as the Denison’s barb. Yet others look immensely cute when young, but grow into true leviathans that prove problematic to rehome.

Don't trip on these stumbling blocks

Nippiness is probably the greatest stumbling block for the burgeoning aquarist and historic texts can be blamed for making some barb species untouchable in the eyes of many hobbyists.

The nipper supreme is without doubt the Tiger barb (Puntius tetrazona), although this name is a hotbed of identity debate. Retailers across the UK will hiss when confronted by a customer who wants to mix angelfish with a brace of young tigers, and not always unjustly so.

Pick up any book on fishes, and the entry for Tigers will carry a warning. 'Gregarious fish!' or 'Will strip fins of tank mates!' However, aquarists experiencing this behaviour are rarer than may be expected and frequently at fault themselves for keeping the fish in unsuitable conditions.

Tigers are, admittedly, very boisterous fish, prone to circling each other in colourful displays, locking jaws and generally posturing. However, their interest is to create a lineage of dominance within their own ranks. Tigers want to boss all the other tigers.

Stop bickering

Given suitable numbers — and I would always plump for at least 12 of these — they will keep any bickering strictly within the family and will barely pay heed to any other tank mates.

However, a bored tiger, already the lead fish in a shoal of three, will happily start to show wayward behaviour, enquiring about those long, whispy gourami fins, or clamping, pitbull style, onto the trailing dorsal of an angelfish.

Size issues are probably a barb’s real shortcomings. For some reason, many fishkeepers expect them to remain small, but that staple of public aquarium rescue, the Tinfoil barb (Barbonymus schwanenfeldii) — pictured above — presses home the point that these are a big fish. Usually bought when barely 5cm/1”long, they have sleek silver bodies punctuated by those dazzling red fins, are full of energy, and will fast grow to more than 20cm/8” in the aquarium, sometimes stopping growing only after they’ve hit 30cm/12” or more.

Even some of the more usual suspects, such as Rosy barbs (Pethia conchonius) seen on sale at about 2-3cm/0.8-1.2” can attain sizes up to a respectable 10cm/4”. This may not sound a great deal, but a shoal of 12 in a 90cm/3’ aquarium, all reaching adult size, has the fast potential to eat in to your stocking capacity.

Like most cyprininds, many barbs have a high requirement for greenery in their diet and newer fishkeepers may point accusing fingers at other, more innocent tank mates such as Ancistrus for destroying their foliage when the barbs were the true villains.

Soft leaves are often tugged apart, others yanked off and fine carpet plants mown short.

Not all barbs are as bad and it doesn’t follow that the inclusion of a small shoal of any species will ruin your aquascape. However, be aware that your food choice should reflect this demand for greenery, and that an exclusively carnivorous diet may not be the way forward.

Barbs from around the world

Correctly planned for, there’s a barb for almost any community tank. If your thing is smaller, brighter fish, or if you’ve been a lifelong tetra fan, then Cherry barbs (Puntius titteya) will seek a place in your set-up.

If you prefer your fish to be more boisterous, then consider the deeper-bodied Ruby or Rosy barbs (Pethia conchonius) and house them along with smaller rainbowfish.

If you like your tank busters, and want something that can compete with Oscars at mealtime, then maybe the Lemon finned barbs (Hypsibarbus wetmorei) — pictured above — which, like so many ‘barb’ species may or may not belong within the Barbinae subfamily (being currently taxonomically incertae sedis), will be just the thing to bulldoze their way into a feeding scrum and get their share.

The only way to get the best from a species is to consider something biotopically correct. Even though the vast majority of barbs coming to the UK will be farmed en mass in the Far East, they will display finer colours and more natural tendencies if exposed to the very environments that their bodies have evolved into over the last few millions of years.

After all, evolution isn’t exactly undone inside a couple of generations of tank breeding and some bodily functions and behaviours traits are crying out to be used.

Characters that like it cooler

Many barbs make for excellent projects in unheated aquaria, with some species tolerating surprisingly cold waters. We even have our own, native species of barb in the UK in the form of Barbus barbus.

However, given that the UK record weight of this fish stands at over 8.5kg/19 lb it does not appear a sensible choice in a tank.

The tolerance to cold has led some government bodies in the past to try to ban, outright, the importation of barb species into the UK, and it was something of a battle on the part of trade organisations to make sure that this was never put into place.

From a trade perspective, it is illegal to try to import certain species without the possession of the relevant licensing, but, thankfully for us aquarists, the subtropical species pretty much remain untouched.

On the downside, this lower temperature tolerance has led some less scrupulous retailers to offer fish for sale to unheated tanks that aren’t always happy in their surroundings.

Odessa barbs (Pethia padamya) for example, can withstand surprisingly low temperatures down as far as 16°C/1°F, but it doesn’t mean that they are happy to be kept in a tank with bright pink gravel, luminous plants, and three waddling black moors.

Far better to consider a temperate or subtropical barb biotope, alongside a host of other fish they’d be found with in the wild — and loaches large and small often rank highly in such set-ups!

Set up an Asian-styled biotope for Five-banded barbs

Often sold as the ‘safer’ alternative to Tiger barbs, Five-banded barbs, (Puntius pentazona) are often found in undersized shoals in community set-ups, sometimes sold in groups as small as three.

However, in such tanks they will appear at best yellow with blackish-greenish bars on their sides. To see them this way is to sell them short.

For a biotope set-up, there’s the chance to create something that even a non-fishkeeper would recognise immediately as a stream — even though the fish is also found in swamps.

Pentazona barbs hail from Borneo and although sourcing wild collected plants and fish from this region can prove troublesome, there are many farmed and commercially-reared alternatives.

Their habitat is heaving with plants, above and below the waterline, and this should be emulated. Floating plants like duckweed are an option to reduce light levels and this in turn can promote more intense colours.

Leaf litter should feature heavily, as their natural range is often covered by dense canopy above. Into this, jutting Cryptocoryne species can help to create colour and cover. Exact species are not essential, and Borneo hosts a good range of Cryptocorynes in many colours and leaf shapes.

If crypts aren’t your thing, then Barcalaya is an alternative. If you prefer your plants closer to indestructible, then some Java ferns, while less geographically accurate, will do the job.

The substrate beneath the leaf litter should be dark, and ideally fine. Aquarium grade silica sand is a good choice, as these fish like to rummage about in the substrate for scraps of food.

In fact, feeding Pentazona barbs can be intensely rewarding if done correctly. As much as they will take to flake foods, they are at their most natural when stalking tiny insects and crustaceans. A Pentazona tank is as good an excuse as any to start up some cultures of Daphnia and Cyclops, as well as microworms. At the very least, offer frozen foods several times a week, and both bloodworm and Calanus will help to enhance the colours.

Done right, the fish will reward you with flanks of orange and near-red fins. Males especially like to intensify their markings when displaying to each other.

Although Pentazona barbs don’t get huge, maybe reaching a maximum 5.5cm/2.2”, they do appreciate a reasonable size of tank. For a shoal of 12, I would consider a tank of around 1m/3.3’ in length, although 80cm/32” will suffice if you’re stuck for space.

I wouldn’t go for lower numbers as they are prone to being nervous, and their immune systems will be compromised if they spend a lot of time dealing with the stress of lack of companionship.

They are a barb species that can go a little cooler, so keep the temperature range somewhere between 22-25°C/72-77°F, and don’t be too shy about being at the lower end.

The water should be suitably tanned from the leaf litter, as you want to create a real blackwater effect for these fish. RO water or rainwater should be used for filling the tank and for water changes, as you are aiming for a pH value that is permanently acidic, try to stay between pH4.0 and 7.0.

Wild fish can, for a time at least, live in even more acidic waters than this, but long-term maintenance of a tank with too low a pH can be troublesome.

Unlike some biotopes, your choice of tank mates for Pentazona barbs is surprisingly vast. If you want something quiet but eloquently marked then shop about for Sphaerichthys gouramis.

To make the most of that leaf litter, and provide a home for another often abused fish, opt for a brace of wriggling Kuhlii loach, (Pangio seminicta).

Rasbora species can feature highly, with one species, the Glowlight rasbora (Trigonopoma pauciperforatum) suited for dark water, acidic conditions.

Even certain Garra and freshwater pufferfish can be kept alongside them, so it’s a very liberating biotope path to follow.

Create an Indian flow for Red line torpedoes

Red line torpedoes had something of a hobby boom and bust, but not through any drop in demand.

In fact, rather the opposite occurred — and, driven by high demand as well as some poor practices in polluting their natural range, the fish was eventually made unavailable as a wild export. Now the trade relies on farming efforts and enjoys variable success.

Puntius denisonii are Indian fish, from Kerala, and have a different set of requirements to some of other barbs we are looking at here. Instead of slow moving, darkened, acidic waters, they prefer faster flowing streams with less in the way of cover and more in the way of open spaces, although they can still be found in areas such as rocky pools that almost sag with plant growth.

Setting up for them is a perfect excuse to try out a river manifold to give a constant flow, or even install a couple of marine circulation pumps such as Koralias, to make them feel really at home. Flow doesn’t need to be torrential, but should at least be present.

The tank used should be large, no less than 120cm/4’ and longer if space allows.

Although these fish only reach an adult size of about 15cm/6” they are fast — being torpedo-shaped for good reason — and incredibly nervous.

Confined spaces will stress them, as well as denying them room to elicit a flight response if startled. It’s not unknown for these fish to knock themselves out against the side panels of their tank.

Water quality can be much more into the alkaline than many other species of barb, making the fish suitable for the keeper who cannot maintain large RO water changes. A pH value of between 6.5 and 7.8 suits them well, along with a hardness anywhere up to 25°DH, although lower levels are still preferred where possible.

Although marketed as tropical, they can withstand subtropical temperatures down to 15°C/59°F. It is speculated that some have met their ends by being kept too warm and given insufficient food.

Feeding should comprise an omnivorous mix and although they will take flakes and other dried foods, colour enhancing meals such as Calanus will work wonders at maintaining that striking red stipe along the snout.

One area they won’t compromise on is water quality. Used to habitats that lack nitrates and never exposed in the wild to ammonia or nitrite the fish have no innate responses to exposure to these chemicals.

Water must be exceptional right across the board if hoping to keep them happy.

Oxygen is another consideration. Often, Red line torpedoes inhabit waterways with high turbulence, so can suffer when levels fall in the aquarium. Ensure good turnover, and don’t be afraid to include an air stone if you think the fish aren’t getting enough of this gas.

Décor can be either densely planted, or open plan. Hydrocotyle species go well, as does hairgrass, Myriophyllum and even some Nymphaea lilies.

Alternatively, an open aquarium with some scattered décor, such as branches and rounded cobbles, can be used and substrate should be fine. Silver sand is often used.

PFK correspondent Heiko Bleher has explored this fishes’ habitat and one region was said to have very red gravel substrate — though not the falsely coloured type often seen on sale.

Tank mates are plentiful. Garra species frequent the same rivers, as do Devario species, fast moving Barillius, and Aplocheilus killifish. There are also a wealth of Indian loaches to choose from.

Collectors report that Puntius denisonii adults are actually solitary in the wild, although this does not ring true with aquarium specimens. Kept singly the fish are jumpy and nervous, and even in groups they are best given a quiet location for their tank.

Be incredibly cautious when transporting or acclimating these fish. They are prone to death through little more than fright, and can literally give themselves a fishy heart attack if shocked.

Triggers for this often fatal reaction can be as simple as too adverse a change in temperature or water chemistry.

Head to Africa for an unusual Butterfly barb biotope

From Africa hail some of the smallest barbs and arguably some of the most beautiful, too.

Because of issues at their natural environments, not least of which involve civil wars, armed militant groups and the presence of the horrendous Ebola virus — many species are at best exported infrequently and, at worst, never.

However, the Butterfly barb ('Barbus' hulstaerti) does make an appearance from time to time.

This 3cm/1.2cm fish is subtly coloured rather than bright and bold, nervous in retailer’s tanks and carries a price that for many is quite prohibitive.

Certainly, to see the fish under £5 a head is often an achievement!

Availability inconsistencies mean that you may have more success perusing fish clubs and forums than embarking on a whimsical shoptour search.

Combined with the subdued markings that fish in bare stock tanks often have, it’s little wonder that people might pass them by. However, they condition up into a dazzling treat.

Butterfly barbs are Congolese in origin. Their markings can subtly differ, depending on the region they come from, and purists will go out of their way to breed from strains of specific bloodlines.

Setting up a tank for them is surprisingly easy. RO water should be used, as these fish have a desire for low hardness, acidic values. A slapdash approach to aquascaping can be employed and a natural set-up can be visually chaotic.

Tangles of hardwood should be used as décor, with a soft substrate and leaf little in abundance.

The plant fan has an excuse to treat him or herself  to an assortment of quality Anubias species, or, if depth allows, a tangle of Crinum plants scattered about.

However, given that these fish prefer lower light and some surface cover, the low dependency Anubias may prove the winner.

Although not after something so acidic it can melt glass, the keeper should strive for a pH value as low as 5.0 and conditions should never be allowed to creep up past neutral. The effect of this will be drab fish, a reluctance to breed and general pallor and ill health.

Either way, the aquarium should be drenched in tannins and the darker the water the brighter the fish, every time.

Though Congolese, temperatures may be surprisingly low, down to 17°C/63°F. In fact, breeders note that temperature has a huge impact on the genders of offspring when breeding. Water over 22°C/72°F will create mostly male fish, whereas cooler water results in a more balanced spread.

Butterfly barbs make a great species-only project as they are intensely shy of other, larger fish. Among themselves they battle for dominance and shoals should number ten or more if there is to be no singling out of weaker fish.

For this reason, too, you should provide a large tank. Although tiny, they are not good in the nano environment, with subordinates unable to evade aggressors.

Opt for a tank about 60cm/2’ in length, and buy a shoal as large as funds will allow. I would keep between 12 and 18, but many will keep just four or five in tanks only 45cm/18” long without ill effect.

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