Tackling the "barbs are boring" myth.

Let's face it, with all of the amazing fishes available to the hobby, some get more favorable treatment than others. Some are simply loved more. Soem get all of the "good press", and others get a bad reputation.


Take this little quiz:

Quick- Which is the first word that comes to your mind when a fish geek says "Barbs?"

1) meh

2) mean

3) big

4) messy

5) dull

6) meh

Sensing a there a theme here? 

I think so.

I think my "theme" is admittedly based on equal parts childhood experiences, fish store "chatter", outdated information, and good old lack of experience with them over the years. However, if you poll a random group of hobbyists (and I have), you see this sort of thing.

And any time "meh" comes up twice in a few seconds when talking about a group of fishes, you know that there are equal parts of inexperience and  a sprinkling of ignorance mixed in there somewhere!


Barbs are "old school" fishes, for sure.

I mean, even the name "Barb" is sort of "old school" sounding- like a name origin lost in the mists of aquarium history..a haze of metal-framed aquariums, filter floss, and "air-powered outside filters..." 

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

According to Wikipedia, The root of the group, "Barb" is "common in cyprinid names of European languages", derived from the Latin word, "barba"- a humble reference to the "barbels" which are prominently seen around the mouth of many fishes we classify as "barbs".

Old school.

Yeah. Sounds really "1950's" to me. And that means it's a group of fishes that's ready for a new look. 

Okay, I'll admit it, for all to hear:

I consider myself an "advanced" hobbyist, but I'm shockingly ignorant about Barbs.

And it's not like Barbs are obscure fishes, kept only by highly advanced specialists or ignorant beginners. Nope. They're really considered one of the "cornerstone" groups of aquarium fishes...well, sort of...Right?

I think so.

And I fully admit,  I'm downright lacking in my knowledge of them. I'm going to be a bit arrogantly presumptuous for a moment and suggest that many of you might be, too!

I mean, I can identify some of the more popular members of the group. I can 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!"

Yet, when you think about "Barbs"- that's like IT, right? I mean, "Tiger Barb", "Cherry Barb", "Tinfoil Barb", and...um, well...uhh...?

Not only am I sort of ignorant about 'em...I never even really gave them a fair shake over the past- oh, like 25 years or so...

And that's a real shame. They're kind of- well, cool!

It's hard to imagine being this ignorant or at least, 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 from trying others by what "the books" said about them. I was literally scared away from them:

"Aggressive!" "Metallic." (aquarium hobby code word for "butt-ass ugly", BTW) "May eat aquatic plants!" "Produce copious amounts of metabolic waste", "Attain 5 inches in length!" 

Shit. That's some bad PR, huh?

Literally, they're "typecast" as mean, ugly, 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 think that it's time to re-think these fishes. Yeah, we need to look at them yet again.

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, butt-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, the group of fishes that we collectively refer to as 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 fuckng ugly fish?" Well, it scared me off!  Pic by Kapr Obecny-Used under CC BY SA-3.)

Or we hear of pretty, yet mass-bred, genetically-weak, mankind-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 for 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 beating the shit 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 very lowest base 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, Asian biotope aquarium!)

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

Oh, yeah. I can!

Jungle streams, filled with leaves, seed pods, interesting rocks, plants...the sort of habitats that make even the most jaded fish geek sit up and give them a second look.

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 featured a few years back?

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, to date,  I have received 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 "bad programming" that we and hobbyists worldwide  have been exposed to, telling us to approach them with extreme caution...

We had to do a little of it ourselves...We featured a sexy, Asian-themed botanical-style tank from Johnny Ciotti absolutely "starred" Barbs- specifically, Desmopuntius omboocellatus- the "Snakeskin Barb"-one of THE coolest barbs you'll ever see. They're flat-out awesome in this tank. And peaceful. And they don't eat aquatic plants.

Yet you almost never see them in a proper context like this, IMHO. And context, as we know, can make a big difference in perception of a given species within the aquarium hobby.

So we've seen a few "modern twists" on the idea of Barbs in an aquarium conceived around them...

And still...the sound of silence.

Weird, huh? 

I mean, they truly look amazing in blackwater! What's the deal here? 


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

I'm at a loss, here. 

Work with me...

I really do think that this is a group that truly suffered/suffers from the cumulative effects of "bad press" they've received over the decades, warning us about the general 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, many of these guys don't seem all that much more aggressive than a bunch of rowdy Apistos, if you ask me.

Yes, there are some aggressive ones. There are some huge ones. There are some which poop like mad. And yeah, there are some which tear up live plants.

So...We can just avoid these pain-in-the-ass species, right?



I think that we can collectively blow up the popularity of Barbs by maintaining the most "aquarium-friendly" species under the most appropriate possible conditions. Employ botanicals. Select the correct plants. Follow rigorous husbandry regimens.

Nothing different here than we've done for other varieties of fishes, right?

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

And interestingly, 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 hobby standards- 3" (7.62cm) or so on the average, and almost seem to have individual "personalities.."

That's a pretty cool thing, right?

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.

LOL. Seriously, thought- you CAN compromise. And there are some good compromises! 

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

There are numerous relatively modest-sized species, which, when placed in an aquarium designed to highlight them and accommodate their needs, can create a vibe and aesthetic that are truly second to none. We know that "subtle" coloration is not a "nonstarter" for a fishes kept in a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium. The right conditions can really highlight a fish in a very special way!

Of course, in a blog piece of this necessary brevity, we can scarcely scratch the surface of this topic, short of giving everyone a little shove to research more about them and consider them for inclusion in your next tank!

I know that I will. 

With sufficient swimming space, water chemistry, and oh...aquatic plants and botanicals- what kinds of fascinating results are possible? Perhaps a break in the "meh cycle," which has unfairly plagued these fishes for decades in the hobby.

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.

Yeah, 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?

Damn. I'm feeling like Barbs can change the world! 

Well, maybe they can change the hobby!

Let's start by seeing if they can change a few minds, first, right?

Let's take the "blah" out of the "Barb equation", okay?

As always...Stay excited. Stay thoughtful. Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

August 27, 2020

Glad you enjoyed! I think that there is so much to be gained hen we look at old friends in a different light…and barbs are practically the “poster child” for this! Good luck! -Scott

Richard Reeves
Richard Reeves

August 26, 2020

Hey, great piece on barbs. Just this week I am in the process of setting up a new 60 gallon tank and have been thinking of doing barbs. The post is just about everything going through my head. I have always loved cherry barbs, I’m hoping to even breed them, just seemed like a fun goal.
Thanks for the inspiration to follow my gut.


Leave a comment