Small Barbs

Author: Last updated:

Barbs are often misunderstood and avoided by many aquarists who consider them to be nippy, aggressive and boisterous. Whilst this is true for some barbs, the majority are very peaceful fish ideally suited to a community.

Fiveband barb Puntius pentazona

The barbs are a well-known group of aquarium fish and contain many species that are always available in aquatic retailers. Providing you choose the right Barbs, you will often find that these fish are in fact much more peaceful than many of the Gouramies, Tetras, and Livebearers branded with the 'community' label. In this article we will take a look at the smaller barbs and the types of aquarium they are suited for.

Species and habitat

Barbs are part of the Cyprinidae family, a large group of fish that includes Danios, Goldfish, 'Sharks', and Loaches. The Barbs usually come under scientific names of Barbus or Puntius and are very similar in physical appearance and behaviour with most differences being in size, colour, and levels of boisterousness. The smaller barbs found in aquarium shops originate from a variety of habitats in India and South-east Asia, with some extending to China and a few from Africa.


Most small barbs are shoaling fish and need to be kept in groups in the aquarium, with at least five or six making a group. Like many small shoaling fish, the barbs have a hierarchy system where each fish has a level of dominance. In order to continually reinforce the group structure, squabbles and chasing are a regular occurrence.

This behaviour is perfectly normal and the fish rarely encounter any serious harm. In the case of some species, if there are not enough fish to create a group structure, the natural instinct to chase and intimidate will be turned towards other tank mates. This is where the barbs have gained their undeserved reputation for being troublesome fin-nippers, and the most notorious of the group is the Tiger Barb.

Tiger Barbs are particularly prone to fin-nip other fishes, and even when kept in large groups some individuals cannot resist the lure of fancy-finned fish such as Guppies or Siamese fighters. Most of the other small barbs are quite peaceful and species such as Cherry, Checkered, and Dwarf Barbs can be kept with virtually any small community fishes.

Suitable tank mates

The small barbs are well suited to general community aquariums, although long or fancy finned tank mates are best avoided with the Tiger Barbs. Most barbs are quite robust and larger barbs (above 6cm) can be kept with active or moderately aggressive species such as some of the smaller Cichlids, or peaceful larger cichlids such as Angelfish and Severums. Smaller barbs (under 6cm) are best kept with more peaceful fish.

Aquarium needs

In terms of water conditions the Barbs are very adaptable and although some do originate from soft water (or hard water in some cases), virtually all of the smaller barbs are captive bred so they are raised in fairly average conditions. A combination of open swimming spaces and lots of places to investigate is the ideal environment for these fish.

The aquarium floor should contain plenty of caves and hiding spots amongst rocks and bog-wood as well as plenty of plants. Using fine-leaved plants or Java Moss will encourage natural behaviour and even spawning. Originating from shaded streams, many barbs do not like bright, open environments, so a dark substrate or plenty of shaded areas will be appreciated.


Barbs are egg layers and will spawn relatively easily under aquarium conditions. Depending on the species eggs may be adhered to the underside of leaves, laid amongst moss and plants, or simply scattered over the substrate. A pair will often perform a courtship display to each other prior to spawning, and can lay more than a hundred eggs each time.

Spawning can be encouraged by water changes, and by allowing natural sunlight to reach the aquarium in the morning. Although some of the barbs may spawn regularly, raising the fry in a community aquarium is virtually impossible since they are usually eaten by other fish before the aquarist has even noticed that spawning has taken place.

In order to raise fry, you will need to set up a dedicated spawning tank for a pair of barbs, and remove the parents once spawning has taken place. The young usually hatch within 24-48 hours and can be fed on liquid fry foods and tiny frozen foods such as Cyclops followed by slightly larger daphnia, crushed flake, and baby brineshrimp.

The tiddlers

The smallest of the barbs are ideal for aquariums with small or delicate tank mates, and given enough space can be kept in quite small aquariums (45cm min) Cherry Barbs are an excellent aquarium fish and will do well in heavily planted aquariums. The males will turn a brilliant cherry red colour whilst the more rounded females will sport a horizontal stripe on an orange-brown body.

Checker barbs are similar in nature and the males will develop stunning and detailed markings on the body and outline of the fins. A well-developed male Checkered Barb should display a grey body with a hint of blue or red, mottled black markings on the scales, and reddish fins with a well-defined black outline.

Both Cherry and Checkered Barbs are only loosely shoaling fish and older specimens will often prefer to do things on their own, so these fish can be kept in pairs or small groups of three or more.

Of the other tiny Barbs, ones worth looking out for include the Pentazona, or Five-Banded Barb, and the Dwarf Golden Barb. Both these fish are suited to communities of other small peaceful fishes and are best kept in groups of six or more. When matured, Pentazona Barbs will show particularly detailed reflective scales and attractive patterning amongst their stripes. There are also Six-banded and Eight-banded Barb species, which look fairly similar to the Five-Banded Barb.

Medium sized Barbs

The slightly larger barbs are a little more active and boisterous so whilst they are perfectly suited to community aquariums, some very delicate or quieter species might be best avoided as tank mates. The medium sized barbs require plenty of swimming space and are very active, helping to create a lively display.

The popular Golden Barb, which appears in a number of different strains from solid yellow to a heavily mottled body, will spend much of its time at the lower levels whilst Rosy, Ticto, Odessa, and Tiger Barbs will constantly swim in all areas of the aquarium. For these active fish, robust and active tank mates are the best option and Catfish, Danios, and Rainbowfish all make good companions.

Almost all the small Barbs develop an attractive body shape and well-defined patterns, which make them an interesting addition to the aquarium. As a lively alternative to traditional 'community' fish, the Barbs are robust, peaceful, and well suited to aquarium life, so don't fall for the 'all barbs are fin-nippers' line and add a few of these beautiful fish to your community.

Click to read the Latest Tropical Fish discussions from Thinkfish users.

Think Fish Tropical Fish Forum
Tropical Fish Market Place
Fish of the month

Helping Fishkeepers With Their Fishkeeping Needs Since 2006