Neon Tetra Care Guide and Species Profile

neon tetra
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Last Updated: September 4, 2023 by Flora Gibbins

It’s a no-brainer why many aquarists keep Neon Tetras in their community tanks. These little guys actually have a line of iridescent blue running down their sides that reflects light in a way that makes them appear to glow! With the addition of bright red stripes to contrast with the blue, Neon Tetras are instantly recognizable and add a pop of color to any aquarium.

But despite being popular aquarium fish, they are not without their quirks and challenges. In this care guide, we’ll dive into the world of Neon Tetras, exploring everything from their natural habitat and behavior, before going into detail about how to care for them.

So if you’re a fan of these beautiful marine fish, or just curious about them, keep reading to learn more!

Species Summary

  • Scientific Name: Paracheirodon innessi
  • Other Names: Neon fish, Neons
  • Origin:  Amazon Basin, Brazil, Colombia, Peru
  • Temperament: Peaceful, Schooling fish
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Adult Size: 1 to 1.5 inches
  • Lifespan: 2 to 3 years in captivity, up to 10 years in the wild

Origin & Natural Habitat

Neon tetras are native to the streams and small river tributaries of the Amazon Basin in South America, where they inhabit the shaded areas of slow-moving water. The species was first discovered by French explorer and naturalist Auguste Boulenger in 1904, during an expedition to the Tapajos River in Brazil. Boulenger was struck by the fish’s striking appearance and distinctive neon blue stripe, which runs along the length of the body from the nose to the adipose fin.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that tetras were first introduced into the aquarium trade when a group of fish collectors in South America began exporting them to Europe. At the time, the fish were relatively unknown and were sold as a novelty items for exotic fish enthusiasts.

It didn’t take long for tetras to become a sensation among aquarists, who were drawn to their vibrant colors and the fact that they are remarkably easy to take care of.

Availability and Pricing

Today, Neon tetras are one of the most popular and widely available fish in the aquarium hobby, and they can be found for sale at many pet stores, fish stores, and online retailers that specialize in aquarium fish.

Due to their popularity and ease of care, tetras are typically very affordable and priced at a few dollars per fish, but the exact price can still vary depending on the location and the source of the fish. For example, when sourced from reputable breeders may be more expensive than those sourced from large commercial farms.

In some cases, certain variants of this species profile, such as the diamond or long-finned variety, may be more difficult to find and may be priced higher due to their relative rarity.

Appearance & Colors

Neon tetras are the epitome of a colorful freshwater fish. Their bright hues and striking iridescence make them stand out in any tank, and their signature straight blue line that runs horizontally from the nose to the adipose fin is instantly recognizable.

But that’s not all that makes these little fish so eye-catching, they also have a shimmering iridescent red stripe that starts at the middle of the body and extends to the tail fin. This sets them apart from their close cousins, the cardinal tetras, and adds another layer of beauty to their already dazzling appearance.

What’s particularly fascinating about neon tetras is that their bodies are partially transparent, which helps them blend into their natural environment and avoid predators. When not stressed, these fish are a true sight to behold, but when threatened, they can lose their vibrant colors and become more subdued.

Another interesting fact is that baby tetras are not as colorful as adults and take a few weeks to fully develop their appearance. And if you’re curious about how to tell the difference between male and female neon tetras, look no further than their body shape. Females have more rounded bellies that give the blue stripe a curve, while males have straighter blue stripes and brighter colors. Males also have longer dorsal and anal fins than females.

Overall, neon tetras have torpedo-shaped bodies that can grow up to 1.5 inches in length. But don’t let their small size fool you; these fish pack a punch when it comes to beauty and personality.

Tetra Fish Variants

There are several variations of the Neon Tetra due to breeding. They include:

  • Albino: Their bodies are white with pink eyes. These fish lack the blue and red stripes present in true Neon Tetra. 
  • Golden: Not to be confused with the Gold Tetra (Hemigrammus rodwayi), which is another species altogether, these fish have a red-gold line and gold color that beautifully contrast with planted plants in the fish tank. They look like albinos but they suffer from leucism.
  • Longfin: These aquarium fish have longer fins and a subdued body color.
  • Diamond: These have a diamond-shaped marking in between the forehead and dorsal fin. 

These variants have emerged through selective breeding in captivity, and while they may have different colorations, patterns, or fin shapes, they still share the same genetic and physical characteristics as the standard neon tetra.

Lifespan

In the wild, Neon Tetras live for up to 10 years. These hardy fish have a similar lifespan in captivity if their ideal living conditions are met. Expect to care for your Neon Tetras for 5 to 8 years. 

But if you neglect to care for your neons, they may not live this long. Or, if you house them with large, aggressive fish, they may get eaten or become stressed to death. 

neon tetra school

Behavior and Temperament

Neon tetras are non-aggressive fish that make good tank mates. These peaceful fish will not bother other fish in a community tank. 

Neon tetras are schooling fish who feel safe and happier in numbers. They feel secure living with their kind, which is why you should keep at least six Neon Tetras. If you own a bigger tank, get more than eight neons.

Neon tetras are active fish that spend most of their day swimming in the middle column. You will find them playing or hiding in the aquarium plants. 

These freshwater fish inhabit the middle water column. Nevertheless, they will swim to the surface to grab food or hide in the aquarium plants. 

These peaceful fish are also skittish and get easily scared by sudden movements in the tank. You can help them stay calm by reducing sudden motions, keeping their tank dimly lit, and adding floating plants to their tank. 

Sometimes, Neon Tetra fish are classified as fin nippers. This is because they are fascinated by fish species with long, flowing fins. It is not unusual to find a group of Neon Tetras harassing a Guppy or a Betta fish. 

Tank Mates

Are you thinking of adding tank mates for your Neon Tetras? Well, you need to think about keeping them with companions that are compatible not just in temperament but in habitat, water quality, and diet as well. 

So you want species that are chill and peaceful. Aggressive fish will only stress your neons, making them susceptible to infections and diseases. You’d also want to ensure they are about the same size, or else larger fish may end up just considering tiny Neons as tasty treats. 

Compatible Tank Mates 

  • Rasboras
  • Dwarf Gouramis
  • Dwarf Corydoras
  • Barbs
  • Danios 
  • Rainbow fish
  • Freshwater shrimp
  • Aquarium snails
  • Small loaches
  • Livebearers
  • Other tetras like black neons, black skirt tetrasember tetras, and cardinal tetras

Incompatible Tank Mates

Neon tetras are not compatible with all species, and it’s important to avoid adding aggressive or territorial fish to the same tank. So to be safe, avoid placing Neon tetras with Betta fish. Other incompatible tank mates for neon tetras include:

  • Large, aggressive or territorial fish, such as cichlids, angelfish, and bettas, as mentioned
  • Predatory fish, such as pufferfish or larger catfish
  • Fast-moving fish, such as danios, that may outcompete neon tetras for food or space
  • Bottom-dwelling fish that may compete with neon tetras for food or territory, such as loaches or some species of catfish.

It’s worth noting that while neon tetras are peaceful fish, they may still become stressed or aggressive if their environment is overcrowded or if there are too many competing fish in the same tank. Therefore, it’s important to maintain proper stocking levels and provide plenty of hiding places and areas to explore to minimize stress and promote a healthy environment for your fish.

neon tetras with tank mates

Tank Setup

It’s important to establish the correct tank size, water chemistry, and tank requirements in terms of aquarium equipment and decorations. 

Tank Size

The general rule of keeping Neon Tetras is to provide one gallon of water for every inch of the fish. Neons thrive in schools of at least six fish, each of which may grow to 1.5 inches. So even for these small Tetras, a 5-gallon tank would be tight. This means that the minimum tank for Neon Tetras is 10 gallons

Even a 10-gallon tank can become crowded for six Neon Tetras because they need room for their schooling behavior. Besides, they love a planted tank, and you may need to add tank decorations. Therefore, it would be best to get a larger tank, like 20-gallon tank or bigger. 

Since these schooling fish are mid-column dwellers, we recommend getting a taller tank. The extra room will facilitate their graceful swimming movements.

Heater

If you don’t live in the tropics or in areas where the temperatures keep fluctuating, you may need a heater to stabilize or maintain ideal water temperatures for Neon Tetras. Cooler temperature lowers the fish’s appetite and makes them prone to diseases. 

neon tetra temperature

Lighting

Neon tetras live in blackwater streams in the wild where little light passes through. In addition, the streams are slow-moving, with plenty of decomposing organic matter at the bottom. 

You need softer, dim lights for your tetra tank to replicate these conditions. Add driftwood and floating plants to create partial darkness in the aquarium. Alternatively, you can darken the aquarium glass to mimic a Neon Tetra’s habitat in the wild. 

Did you know you can create a blackwater biotope in your home? Here is a YouTube video about how to set up a biotope: 

Aquarium Plants

Neon tetras are shy fish who love a heavily-planted tank. These fish enjoy swimming in and out of the bushy plants. Plus, live plants promote water quality by absorbing CO2 and ammonia.

Some of the best aquarium plants for your neons are:

  • Java moss
  • Java fern
  • Cabomba
  • Moss
  • Anacharis
  • Pennywort
  • Red roof floaters
  • Ludwigia
  • Remember, the plants should not take up the neons’ swimming space. 

Substrates 

As middle-water dwellers, Tetra fish are not choosy about their substrate. They usually spend most of their day swimming and playing and are not interested in scavenging in the substrate. But, you need a substrate that promotes plant growth, like organic soil, since neons love planted tanks. 

Water Parameters

In the wild, Neon tetras live in clear, slightly acidic water ranging from pH 4.0 to 7.0, and temperatures between 72 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. They tend to live in groups of 10 to 20 individuals, and feed primarily on small insects, crustaceans, and zooplankton.

In captivity, Neon Tetras can adapt to a wide range of water conditions, but prefer these water parameters:

  • Temperature: 72 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit
  • pH: 6.0 to 7.0
  • Hardness: Soft to slightly hard water with a range of 1 to 10 dGH
  • Carbonate Hardness (KH): 1 to 2 dKH
  • Ammonia and Nitrites: Should be kept at 0 ppm (parts per million)
  • Nitrates: <20 ppm

Tank Maintenance

Neon tetras love clean, fresh water in their tank. Therefore, carry out 20 to 25% partial water changes to prevent waste buildup.

Use a siphon to remove water pollutants like decaying plant leaves, fish waste, uneaten food, and other detritus. Ammonia and nitrite levels should be maintained at 0 ppm as they are toxic to Neon Tetra fish.

Filtration

For a Tetra to thrive, they need a clean environment. A filtration system will remove debris, toxic chemicals, and waste. 

The size of your fish tank will determine the filtration method you use. The filter you use should have moderate flow as these fish live in gentle currents in their home in the wild. 

If you own a 10-gallon tank, you can use a hang-on-back since these fish have a small bioload. We recommend a canister filter for larger tanks and a sponge filter for breeding Neon Tetras. In addition, use peat filtration to lower pH levels and water hardness. 

Cycling The Fish Tank

Before you add Neon Tetras to their aquarium, ensure it is well-cycled. Cycling promotes the growth of good bacteria that breaks down ammonia and nitrates. This process may take 6 to 8 weeks. 

However, do not add Neon Tetras into a freshly cycled aquarium. These tropical fish are sensitive to sudden water changes that happen in newly cycled tanks. So, ensure the tank is well-established to prevent sudden Tetra deaths. 

two neon tetras with live plants

Diet and Feeding

As omnivores, Neon Tetras eat meat and plant matter. These freshwater fish eat worms, tiny crustaceans, insect larvae, water fleas, fish eggs, algae, and plant material in their natural habitat. 

Since these fish are in your aquarium, provide high-quality fish flakes with at least 40% protein. Fish flakes are packed with essential vitamins and minerals.

Next, supplement the flakes with live or frozen foods. Blackworms, fruit flies, daphnia, bloodworms, tubifex, and frozen brine shrimp are healthy sources of protein. 

Only get live foods from reputable pet stores as they can harbor the parasite responsible for Neon Tetra Disease. 

When feeding Neon Tetras, offer small bits of live foods to prevent swallowing difficulties. Also, provide plant foods to guarantee good health. Cucumbers, strawberries, algae wafers, and floating plants are excellent plant foods. 

How many times should you feed Neon Tetras? We recommend feeding your Tetra a few pinches of food twice or thrice a day. Feeding should only last a minute or two. Overfeeding your Neon Tetras can result in ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate buildup, which can prove fatal for your aquarium fish. 

Common Diseases

Despite being a hardy tetra species, Neon Tetras are susceptible to certain illnesses. The following are the most common health issues. 

Neon Tetra Disease

Neon tetra disease is common and fatal, and is caused by a protozoan parasite. A tetra can suffer from parasitic spores from consuming contaminated live food, eating dead diseased fish, or introducing new infected fish.

Symptoms:

  • Dull color
  • Restlessness
  • Fish stops shoaling
  • Trouble swimming
  • White cysts and lumps
  • Curved spine

The parasite weakens the fish’s body from the inside. Sadly, there is no cure for this disease. If you suspect some of your fish are infected, the best remedy is to remove them from the Neon Tetra tank to prevent the infection from spreading to other fish in the tank. 

False Neon Tetra Disease

False Neon Tetra disease is a condition that mimics the symptoms of actaual disease. The disease is known as Columnaris and is caused by a bacterial infection. 

Symptoms include:

  • Fish stops eating
  • Difficulty swimming
  • Stops schooling
  • Loss of bright color
  • Curved spine

False Neon Tetra disease is also fatal since it is usually misdiagnosed. However, it is less infectious, but it is better to quarantine the sick fish apart from the community tank. 

Ich

Neon tetras are also prone to catching ich, a parasitic infection caused by a protozoan. The infected fish have white spots on their bodies, hence the name “white spot disease”. 

Symptoms:

  • Fish rubbing their bodies against surfaces
  • Flicking the substrate
  • Rapid breathing
  • White spots on the body

To treat the condition, place the sick fish in a hospital tank. Add aquarium salt and gradually increase the tank water temperature. 

Fin and Tail Rot

This disease affects any Tetra that lives in poor water conditions. Fin and tail rot can either be a bacterial or fungal infection. The sick fish have split, ragged, and frayed fins that eventually fall off.

Performing a complete water change may help treat the condition. Also, ask your vet for an antibiotic prescription. 

How to Prevent Diseases

The best way to keep your Neon Tetra fish healthy is by maintaining their optimal tank conditions and always quarantining new fish before adding them to the community tank. 

Keep the tank water temperature stable, perform partial water changes, have a mature, cycled tank, feed a balanced diet, and provide dim lighting.

Keep in mind that healthy Neon Tetras look different from sick ones. Healthy neons are active and spend their day schooling and exploring the tank. Plus, a display of vibrant color is proof that your fish are well. 

But if your fish are lethargic, have reduced appetite, and are losing weight, they are not well. Other behaviors to watch out for are fish not shoaling, pale colors, and fish swimming at the surface or laying at the bottom. 

Breeding Neon Tetras

Some tetra species are easy to breed, but not the Neon Tetras. To breed Neon Tetras, you have to provide the correct water parameters and lighting conditions. Plus, you have to be extra vigilant and patient. 

Fortunately, breeding a Tetra is challenging but not impossible. Here is what you should do:

Culture Infusoria

Your new fry will need food after hatching. This is why you should culture infusoria a week or two before you breed your Neon Tetras. 

Here is a short YouTube video on how to set up your infusoria culture:

Alternatively, you can offer baby brine shrimp to the Neon Tetra fry. 

Condition The Breeding Parents

Feed the breeding Neon Tetras protein-rich foods to encourage spawning. Some excellent protein sources are frozen bloodworms, brine shrimp, or other live foods. These foods encourage females to produce eggs. Besides, feeding you Tetra high-protein makes it easier to sex the females. 

pregnant-neon-tetra

Set Up a Breeding Tank

Adult neon tetras eat their eggs and fry. To avoid this, prepare a separate breeding tank. The tank size will depend on whether you are breeding just a pair or a school. 

To set up a successful breeding tank, follow the steps:

Step 1: Rehydrate peat by soaking it in warm water, then layer it at the bottom of the aquarium.

Step 2: Spread java moss on the peat. (Alternatively, use a breeding mat or round marble substrate to protect the eggs from the parents.)

Step 3: Add water to your tank. You could use fresh rainwater, distilled water, reverse osmosis water, or treated tap water with a <2 dGH. The tank will appear dark at first, but the peat will settle after a few hours. 

Step 4: Install a heater and set the temperature to 72 to 75 degrees F. 

Step 5: Add a sponge filter to generate a gentle flow and provide clean water.

Step 6: Maintain a pH of 5.0 to 6.0. 

Step 7: Keep the spawning tank dark. 

Step 8: Add the breeding pair(s) into the tank for one or two days. The females will scatter up to 100 eggs in the tank. The male neon will then fertilize these eggs. The eggs are transparent and stick to surfaces. 

Step 9: Remove the breeding pair(s) from the spawning tank as soon as you see the eggs. 

Step 10: If there are no eggs after two days, carry out a large water change to soften the water. It also mimics the unpredictable rainfall seasons in the wild. 

Step 11: Maintain a gentle current in the tank to prevent the eggs from catching fungus. 

Step 12: You will have newly hatched fries after 24 hours. Expect only a third or a half of the laid eggs to hatch. 

Fish Fry Care

A dark tank is a must when you have fish fry in your spawning tank. Neon tetra eggs and fry are sensitive to bright light. So if you want to look at the blackwater tank, use a flashlight for a few seconds. 

The newly-hatched fry will absorb their egg sac for the first three days. Switch to prepared fry food, egg yolk, or infusoria and offer feedings 5 to 8 times a day.

As soon as the fries are large enough, include freshly hatched brine shrimp to eat them. You can also add powdered fry food in week three. The fry will start developing colors from week three. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Neon Tetras get pregnant?

I’ve been asked this in every forum that I participate in, and I never tire of saying that there is no such thing as a pregnant Neon Tetra! That’s because the eggs of this species aren’t fertilized inside the female’s body. Rather, the female Neon Tetras merely prepare to spawn eggs out and only then will males fertilize them.

How often do Neon Tetras breed?

I can breed my Neon Tetras twice a month if their spawning conditions are met. The fertilized eggs take 24 to 36 hours to hatch. 

When do Neon Tetra fry transition to adult food?

As long as you feed your fry with the proper diet, they grow as they should — which is amazingly quickly. I transition them to adult food in 4 to 6 weeks. 

What is the difference between true Neon Tetras and Cardinal Tetras?

From my observation, Cardinal tetras are larger than neons. I find it easy to distinguish these two species by just looking at their red stripe. In a Cardinal Tetra, it runs from the eye area to the tails. For a Neon Tetra, this starts mid-body towards the tail. 

Related Tetra Species


Conclusion

Neon Tetras are popular and colorful freshwater fish that are relatively easy to care for and maintain in a home aquarium. However, proper care needs attention to their water parameters, diet, and tank neighbors. By providing the right environment and conditions, you can ensure that your neon tetras thrive and bring beauty and life to your aquarium.

We hope this neon tetra care guide has been helpful in providing the information you need to get started.