Bringing up Barbs..again.

Okay, I'll just come out and say it:

I've discussed this before, but I'm shockingly ignorant about Barbs.

Yeah, one of the sort of "cornerstone" groups of aquarium fishes...well, sort of.

And I'm downright poor in my knowledge of them.

I mean, I can identify some of the basics; hold my own in a very lightweight conversation on them with general hobbyists. However, once you get beyond, "Which do you like better: The 'classic' Tiger Barb, or the 'Moss Green' Tiger Barb?" my lack of knowledge is "front and center!"

I mean, not only am I sort of ignorant about 'em...I never even really gave them a fair shake over the years..

It's hard to imagine being this ignorant or indifferent about a group of fishes that are so pervasive in the hobby, but I simply think it's because I just haven't played with them as much as other fishes. When I was a kid, I always had a few Cherry Barbs or Tiger Barbs; maybe a "Gold Barb" or two- in my tanks- but was always held back by what "the books" said about them. I was literally scared away from them!

I think that it's time to re-think these fishes. We need to look at them yet again.

Even the name "Barb"- sort of reeks of that "big, gnarly PROBLEM fish" label, right? I mean, they're called freakin' BARBS? Really?

Bad PR from the start. And it just goes from there:

You know the story: They attain larger sizes, need large quarters, can be a bit mean, relentlessly active, and they "eliminate" a lot. Oh, and "they nibble on live plants!" Literally, mean, tropical versions of Goldfish! So, I was a classic example of someone who was simply "programmed" by the popular opinions of the day, and it sort of shut me down on this large and diverse group of fishes for decades! 

I was doomed from the earliest days in my hobby "career" to simply smile as I walked by tanks filled with them at the LFS...

However, in defense of my ignorance- I don't think I'm the ONLY one who was sort of "chased off" by the popular sentiment regarding these guys! Why is it that we have all sorts of Cichlid clubs, Killie clubs, Betta clubs, Guppy Clubs, even Catfish clubs, but NO "Cyprinid clubs?" ("Okay, you can say the same about characins, too...but let's stick to the Barbs here, Fellman" )? Maybe what's not helping these guys is that, taxonomically, they're heaped into the family Cyprinidae, which also includes such notable big, messy, ugly and non-aquarium-friendly fishes as Carps and Minnows...Yeah.

Damn taxonomy.

Now, in defense, the family Cyprinidae also includes the ultra-cool Danios and the popular "Sharks", not to mention, Rasbora...

So, we can't categorically "dis" the whole group...but man- the "poster children" of the family are, well...pretty much everything our forefathers in the aquarium world told us: Big, ugly, gluttonous fishes that would pretty much lay to waste any well-managed aquarium in minutes!

(Cyprus carpio- Latin for "Big ugly fish?" Scared me off... Pic by Kapr Obecny-Used under CC BY SA-3.)

Or we hear of pretty, yet mass-bred, genetically-weak, exploited versions of these fishes, damning the marketplace for years with their general "non-vigorousness..."So the caveats about this group of fishes become ingrained into our collective fish-geek psyche from an early age, don't they?

But then again, if you're a kid, looking at active, cool fishes for your first 20-gallon tank, the Tiger Barb (currently Systomus tetrazona) and it's relatives are sort of hard to turn away from...Of course, until said Tiger Barb and its pals starts chasing the crap out of your Neons in your small "community" tank, that is.

Yet, that's not really the fish's fault, right?

(The "classic" Tiger Barb. Pic by Anandarajkumar -used under CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The reality is that many, many of these guys DO make cool aquarium fish, particularly if your tank is large enough to keep a school, and to provide enough room for the other inhabitants to "get out of the way" when the barbs start partying. I mean, "relentlessly active" doesn't always translate into "aggressive", right?

Especially when they're maintained in a tank set up for their needs.

Stuff we need to research, think about, and prepare for before we purchase. Otherwise, the "hate cycle" continues forever, as the fish live up to our lowest expectations of them.

And yes, speaking of needs- there are a ton of Barbs that come from tinted, acidic waters in Southeast Asia- perfect for what we do.

And perfect for a well-researched biotope aquarium, right? Yeah. I think this is another group of fishes that could benefit from being maintained under conditions more closely representing their natural habitats...which are both interesting and attractive aquarium subjects.

(Yeah, the "Siamese" Tiger Barb, Putnigrus partipentazona...Hello, biotope aquarium!)

Can you imagine a Barb "biotope" tank? One which "riffs" on the sexy botanical habitats from which many come from?

Oh, yeah. I can!

Well, wait just a minute...Seems as though we've been down this road before.

Remember our video, "The Tint Meets The Aquascaper", by the legendary George Farmer, which we have in our "Inspiration" section? What fish did George choose to "star" in this awesome blackwater aquarium? Why, Puntius pentazona, which look incredibly sexy when given the proper environment, don't they? And when an aquarium personality with the extraordinary taste and talent of George freaking Farmer chooses to feature them in one of his videos, you'd think it would open up the floodgates to a new era of popularity for these seemingly forgotten fishes...



A tank this nice, with fish this cool- should definitely help change some minds on this diverse group. And yet...I still cannot recall off the top of my head if I have received to date a pic of a tank from one of our community set up exclusively for- or even featuring-Barbs! 

No respect.

So we'll keep forging ahead...hoping to undo a century or so of "programming" that we and hobbyists have been exposed to, telling us to approach them with extreme caution...

Our upcoming video of an Asian-themed botanical-style tank from Johnny Ciotti absolutely "stars" Barbs- specifically, the "Snakeskin Barb", Desmopuntius omboocellatus- one of THE coolest barbs you'll ever see. They're flat-out awesome in this tank.

Yet you almost never see them in a proper context like this, IMHO.

Weird, huh? 

I mean, they truly look amazing in blackwater! Hello?

So, what IS it that keeps these fishes from exploding with popularity?

At a loss, here. 

Work with me...

I really do think that this is a group that truly suffered/suffers from the cumulative "bad press" they've received over the decades, warning us about the need for "large tanks", "hefty filters", "tough tank mates", etc. I totally fell for this stuff, when the reality is that, as that a group, most of these guys don't seem all that much more aggressive than a bunch of rowdy Apistos, if you ask me.

The fact that they are so diverse, generally hardy (with the exception of the damn Cherry Barb for many of us-pehraps a victim of lowest-common-denominator "commoditized breeding?"), and typically easy to breed, makes the disrespect they receive by the general hobby all that much more puzzling.

Barbs do have a certain "character" that many of the shoaling fishes we keep (like my beloved Tetras) seem to lack. Maybe it's because many of them are "larger" fishes by aquarium standards- 3" (7.62cm) or so average, and almost seem to have individual "personalities.."

Not sure, but they do have that "It factor" going for them... Sure, some WILL tear up plants...but I mean, c'mon...plants or fishes? Really.

(The undeniably sexy Black Ruby Barb (Puntius nigrofasciatus), captured by my mentor, the great Bob Fenner!)

And, there are numerous relatively modest-sized species, which, when placed in an aquarium designed to highlight them, can create a vibe and aesthetic that are truly second to none.

(What John Ciotti called a "half-assed iPhone shot" of his latest creation featuring Barbs...REALLY? Yes, I hate him too. Talented people suck)

Barbs, like so many of the fishes we play with in our aquariums, benefit- and suffer- from the perceptions and "misconceptions" they dealt with for years.

And not all of them are aggressive, mean bastards that nip fins and eat live plants, so maybe we need to  give 'em another look...and cut 'em some slack? 

I think we do...

Perhaps looking more closely at Barbs can help us improve in other areas, too? Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned that can be applied to life in general? By giving them the respect and consideration they deserve, we can absolutely "de-program" ourselves from the (unfair) biases of our own making, avoiding the over-generalization and stereotyping which sours so many things in our culture, right?

As always, stay open-minded. Stay resourceful. Stay excited. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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