Respect the classics!

Have you ever obsessed over a fish that, just perhaps, you have kept many years ago- maybe even as a kid- and now have sort of "moved on" or just sort of taken for granted otherwise, because it was one of those so-called 'beginner's fishes?"

Yeah, well it's kind of funny to see these staples of the hobby sort of fall off of our radars as we progress, moving beyond what we feel are those "basic" fishes, when the irony is that these fishes are often every bit as interesting and cool as any of the new ones we covert nowadays!

Today, I'd like to look at two of these little fishes that totally fall into this category! Fishes that, at first, you simply tell yourself, "Oh, yeah, okay. Had 'em once..." Only to realize, upon further examination, that each one has some interesting characteristics which make it most deserving of being in your aquarium today!

The "Glowlight Tetra", Hemmigrammus erythrozonus, hails from one locale, believe it or not- the Rio Essequibo in Guyana. Okay, well, that river happens to be the single longest one in Guyana, flowing between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. It's over 600 miles long, so we're not exaggerating to call it a l-o-n-g river! Being such a long river, it flows through all kinds of environments, ranging from rain forests to grasslands, and everything in between. This fish is typically found in the rain forested regions, where the water is, of course, filled with decaying leaves, creating that "blackwater" which a few of us here kinda like.

Here's where it gets kind of interesting: Although the fish is found in this one river, the ones we work with in the hobby are not from there! Nope. This little baby has been bred in captivity from like "day one" of its presence in the hobby. I challenge you to find "wild caught" specimens of this fish in any number anywhere in the world! Talk about a success story- this is a fish that is bred in such huge numbers in captivity that wild collection is simply not economically viable! If only some of the other fish we love in the aquarium hobby fell into this category, right? For lovers of the perverted, there is an albino variety available, too.

First described by Durbin in 1909, this small (like 1.5") fish has been around for a good long time! For years, this fish has delighted beginners with its bright orange glowing line, active behavior, and general hardiness. It pretty much eats anything you feed it. Oh, and the darned thing schools. Like, really well. Like, probably as good-if not better- than just about any other sexy characin out there. 

And yeah, you see them by the million in pet shops around the world, in tank featuring everything from dayglo pink gravel and diving Sponge Bob ornaments, to planted aquariums (where they typically will garner that most awesome of all fish geek compliments; goes something like this: "What are THOSE tetras? Wait. THOSE are GLOWLIGHTS?"). Because they tend to show off best in groups in aquarium with dark substrates and richly colored backgrounds, we often see them kind of brown with a neon orange stripe, and just walk by them at the LFS, maybe with an occasional knowing nod to the "fish of our childhood..."

So, wait a second. We have a fish that is like one of the most sustainably-sourced aquarium fishes ever, it is super hardy, eats everything, looks cool in a variety of tanks, and schools like mad under almost any circumstances...

(Pic by Gonzalo Valenzuela- under CC-2.0)

Woah. Oh, and the best part? When you keep 'em in, oh- let's say, an aquarium that has soft, acidic water stained with tannins, leaf litter on the bottom, and driftwood and plans throughout, they become an integral member of a cool blackwater aquarium display. The funny thing is, we seldom display them that way, as they're more common in the aforementioned kid's tank with the dayglo gravel than they are in a more natural, biotope-oriented aquarium. In fact, you'll have to take the extra time to acclimate them to their natural conditions, as they've been bred for generations in all sorts of water conditions. Ironic, huh?

And trust me, the time it takes to acclimate these fishes to their natural water conditions is SO worth it! They look amazing in a blackwater, botanical-themed aquarium. Like, crazy good.

The other subject of today's "Let's-give-some-love-to-the-fishes-of-our-youth" campaign is the ubiquitous "Head and Tail Light Tetra" (Hemmigramus ocellifer). It's another one of those fishes that has become so darned common in the hobby that it's hard to imagine going into an LFS anywhere on Planet Earth without seeing one!

Winner of the worst, yet most descriptive common fish name of all time, the "Head and Tail Light  Tetra" (henceforth referred to as "HATLT" in this rant) is also, mercifully, called "Beacon Tetra" in some circles.  Described by Steindachner in 1882, this fish is very prolific.

In the wild, you find these guys all over the Amazon Basin, in pretty big numbers in streams, rivers, and tributaries. They tend to be found more in slower-moving waters, which gives you a little clue as to how they should be kept, and with whom they should be kept in our aquariums!

Not quite as sexy as the Glowlight, the HATLT is nonetheless, subtly attractive and super hardy. And, like the Glowlight, it schools pretty darned well. It's an awesome fish to use as a "contrast" to sexy, showy fishes like Discus and Angels (assuming the HATLTs aren't too small), and will remain relatively small in size  (like 2') and peaceful throughout its rather long life span.  Interestingly, although this species is bred in ridiculous quantities commercially, it's still available as wild-caught in limited quantities; and, believe it or not, I think the wild ones are a LOT nicer than the captive bred ones, which are like pale imitations of the wild guys, IMHO.

Once again, this is a fish that deserves a "second look", as it is amazing to see when you give it the proper conditions (yeah, the soft, acid, tannin-satined water really works for these guys) and care. Set it up in a biotope style aquarium, and this little, "beginner's fish" will take on an entirely new vibe.

This is one fish that I've seen spawn with almost no "conditioning" whatsoever in the community tank. In fact, I've even had some fry survive and grow up in a 40 gallon community tank featuring a big school of these fish, a ton of driftwood, and lots of leaves and other botanicals!

These are just two of the many, many "classic" fishes that we've come to take for granted as "beginner's fishes" in the hobby, and perhaps never really reconsidered their charms when creating more "advanced" aquatic displays. I hope that the mere mention of these kinds of fishes in a blog post will spur you to re-consider some of those old favorites that we might have overlooked in our eternal quest for the new and different!

Until next time, don't disrespect the classics!

Stay engaged. Stay interested.

Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

August 04, 2021

It certainly is exciting to look at our old friends in a new way!

There are so many “classic” fishes which we should be playing with!

Keep exploring!


Michael Christensen
Michael Christensen

August 03, 2021

I totally agree Scott, glowlight tetras are underrated. I’ve been passing them by for years. When I visualize my iideal blackwater tank, I typically think of cardinal, or neon tetras, but when one starts getting more than one tank, one wants different looks, enter the glowlight, and, they’re relatively inexpensive. $2.79 at my local fish store. I recently purchased some glowlights (hence google took me here) and I was thinking, why haven’t I kept these before? Now I’m interested in seeing if I can find some H. ocellifers, I forgot all about those fish. So many fish, so little time. Thanks for the article.

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