Stripe v. Stripe...An epic rivalry of tiny proportions.


Rivalries are cool.

We have 'em in sports:  Baseball has New York versus Boston. EPL Football has Manchester United versus Liverpool, Hockey has Montreal versus Toronto, to name a few. There's Apple vs. PC, Coke versus Pepsi, BMW versus Mercedes...well, you get the idea.



In the aquarium world, we have cichlids versus, like everything else, fresh versus salt, and then, probably the biggest rivalry of all:

Neons versus Cardinals.

Yup, the irony of the two smallest popular fishes in the hobby is that it's probably the biggest "rivalry" there is among fish geeks!

And the cool thing is that they are both just different enough from each other to have garnered fans and created lively debates among hobbyists as to which one is best. To the outsider, they look kind of similar...I mean, really, the non-fish person is barely going to notice the red stripe being longer in the Cardinal, or the fact that the Neon generally attains a smaller maximum size than the Cardinal....But, as fish geeks, we're really into such seemingly trivial details, aren't we? And that extra stripe isn't the only thing that sets up the rivalry between these two popular little guys...

The venerable Neon Tetra ( Paracheirodon innesi) was first introduced into the hobby in the 1930's, and seems to have become a staple of the trade ever since. Named in honor of the great aquarium author, William T. Innes, this fish is about as recognizable to the fish world as Taylor Swift is to social, EVERYONE knows this fish. Hailing from tributaries of larger rivers in the Amazonian region, the Neon evolved in soft, acidic waters, lives best in shoals of 8+ specimens, and is generally super hardy in aquariums, having been captive bred for decades.  Of course, we've all seen the variations: The "Gold Neon", albino, the "Diamond Neon", and long-finned variations, all of which I think suck. Why improve this cool fish?

The bigger problem over the years, IMHO, is that they have been commercially bred by the zillions for so long that the vigor and quality of the species seems to have been bred right out of 'em, and you have to search very hard and be very selective to find high quality specimens for your collection. I mean, look really carefully the next time you're in a shop, and you'll see all sorts of developmental anomalies on these fish: bent and missing fins, scales, bent spines, color abnormalities, etc.

Seems like it's all about producing the numbers with these little guys, and breeders seem to be less concerned with quality of the individual specimens...A real shame. As much as I'm for captive propagation and protecting wild populations, I can't help but wonder if introducing some new wild blood might increase the overall quality of the specimens available in the hobby?

Now, the Neon is remarkably adaptable, having been bred in hard, alkaline water for generations. As we've talked about many times, however, I can't help but wonder if the fish will just be more healthy and happy overall in soft, acidic water- you know, the type it was evolved to live in for the last, oh, several million years or so? Surely we haven't completely "bred out" the ability of the fish to thrive in this type of water? 

Oh, and there is that temperature thing...Neons tend to thrive in a wide variety of water temperatures, from  69-82F (21-28C), remarkably wide range for a little fish, wouldn't you say?

Can't say that about the Cardinal Tetra!

Interestingly, the Cardinal Tetra, Paracheirodon axelrodi, is-by coincidence, also named after a well-known aquarium figure, the venerable and controversial Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod. In the wild, this fish seems to be found mainly in the Rio Negro basin in Brazil, and the Orinoco in Venezuela. Like the Neon, it comes from little soft, acidic blackwater tributaries and streams, as well as clearwater "morichals", which are fascinating habitats we've discussed here before.

Since the habitats of the Cardinal are sort of seasonal, the fish populations seem to ebb and flow a bit with the start and finish of the wet season. Scientists almost consider the Cardinal an "annual" fish, as it's so tied in to these seasonal changes that you'll rarely find a wild specimen older than a year. Of course, in the confines of a well-cared for aquarium, their lifespan is much longer.  A realistic argument could be made that we're actually prolonging the lifespans of these fishes by collecting them from their natural habitats for aquariums!

We've noted in our discussion of Project Piaba that this fish is of vital commercial importance to the native fisherfolk of the Rio Negro, and terrific models of sustainable collection and habitat protection have arisen as a result of extensive studies of the's truly the "poster child" for a sustainable-managed wild fishery!  

That means that we've been blessed with good-looking little tetras with all of their fish and stripes, because, unlike the Neon, we haven't bred them "by the billion" and basically erased all of their wild health and vigor!  Okay, there are those wretched "albino" and "Gold" variants that some call "achievements", I suppose...Unlike some of the captive-bred Neon variants, I find most of these "designer editions" just ugly versions of a hot fish! Now, in all fairness, the captive-bred "classic-type" Cardinals that I've seen are fantastic quality  fishes, and it's getting harder and harder to tell them apart from wild-caught specimens.

And the rivalry sort of heats up around the "sexiness" factor of the Cardinal. I think Cardinal Tetra lovers tend to view Neon lovers like the rest of us see "crazy cat people", hanging on to their old favorite. On the other hand, the Neon lovers tend to look at the Cardinal crowd as elitist, trend-mongering status seekers (hmm..sounds like reefers a bit, doesn't it? ). Cardinals seem to have a "wow" factor that lovers of planted aquariums can't resist, and, along with the Rummy Nose Tetra, they've utilized this fish in such abundance as to almost make it cliche'd in a highly 'scaped tank!

Then there's that temperature thing...The Cardinal seems to have a much smaller thermal tolerance, and you just won't see them very happy if your aquarium temperatures deviate much from the higher end of their preferred 73-84F (23-29C) range.They can be finicky little bastards, can't they?

And the shoaling thing is similar to that of the Neon, so where do you go with this?

From a standpoint of hardiness, one could argue that, if given their preferred temperature range, Cardinals are hardier than Neons, which have the susceptibility to the bizarre "Neon Tetra Disease" and the challenge from their all-too-common morphological abnormalities, thanks to the "fish factories" of the world. 

Now, with the bulk of Cardinals in the trade being wild caught, they certainly respond better to soft, acidic "blackwater" tanks, making them a sweet choice for our crowd of botanical, blackwater people...

On the other hand, Neons can tolerate "cooler" water, and seem to be a bit more adaptable to harder, more alkaline water, which has made them more accessible to a wider range of casual hobbyists worldwide.

So which is better? Which one is cooler?

It's a total toss-up. My personal thing is that I like both. I love the Cardinal because it's the classic perfect blackwater fish, IMHO. And with the love and respect I have for the Project Piaba mission, I can't help but want to support it by purchasing wild-caught Cardinal Tetras.

And the Neons?

Well, they DO have that broader "thermal comfort range", which makes them a bit more adaptable to a variety of situations...And you CAN keep them in a blackwater tank, of course, and not have to worry about keeping it so warm, right? And remember when we talked about the theory of how the Neon got its stripes to begin with?  I mean, how can you not like the fish after considering that stroke of evolutionary brilliance?

And they're both so damn small, you can keep a lot of 'em in a relatively small tank, so that's pretty cool. And again, they both school quite well, which everyone seems to like so much.

Tough call.

I suppose the down side for both fishes is that, being so small and essentially schooling fishes, they don't really have "individual personalities", so we tend to "commoditize" them, right? I mean, any fish that you see at the LFS "6 for $10.00" or whatever, tends to fall into that strange consumer mindset where they're viewed more like a pack of generic flake food or activated carbon, and slightly less than a "pet" by a lot of people.

Kind of sad, actually, because they do each have charms and behaviors (and colors) that endear them to us, don't they?

So, I suppose we've done absolutely nothing to settle this rivalry with this blog. In fact, about all we did was point out the obvious...Which is that Cardinals are way cooler than Neons.

I think.

Well, maybe...

Until next time...

Stay opinionated. Stay enthralled. Stay active.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


3 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

March 08, 2017

Oh, excellent thought, Rene! I agree, if it weren’t for the fact that P. simulates is SOOO small, I think it would be way, way more popular! And you’re right- wild specimens of the Neon ARE rarely seen in their natural habitat! It’s known from a variety of regions in Brazil and Columbia, but yeah- we never seem to see pics of it in the wild. Most curious!



March 07, 2017

I meant ‘less accessible’! ;-)

René Claus
René Claus

March 07, 2017

Nice article Scott!

I think they are both very beautiful, and don’t forget the Paracheirodon simulans! What has actually fascinated me the past few years, is the fact that there is plenty of film and photo footage of the Cardinal (and even the P. simulans) in the wild but never of the Neon. Never.
Is the natural habitat of P. innesi less explored or less excessable? I would be very interested to know!

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