15 Best Top Dwelling Fish for Your Freshwater Aquarium

top dwelling fish
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Last Updated: September 6, 2023 by Flora Gibbins

As I delve into the mesmerizing depths of the aquatic world, I find myself marveling at the beautiful stratification of life that exists. Just as on land, where we see distinct creatures populating the skies, the ground, and underground, the underwater world is similarly structured into three levels: the top, the middle, and the bottom. Each layer, each stratum, is a universe in itself, teeming with species that have uniquely adapted to thrive in their particular environment.

Top vs Mid vs Bottom Dwelling Fish

Now, why should we care about this, you might ask? Well, as a fervent aquarist, the distinction between top, mid, and bottom-dwelling fish is vital. If you’ve ever owned an aquarium, you’ll know how important it is to ensure compatibility among your aquatic pets. It’s not just about making sure they get along, but also about guaranteeing that they all have space to swim, feed, and generally be fish.

From a conservation perspective, understanding these distinctions can help us protect these unique habitats and their inhabitants from threats like pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change. Imagine an oil spill happening at the sea’s surface, which layer of the aquatic life do you think would be most affected? Right, the top dwellers.

On a scientific level, the diversity of species, their adaptations to different environments, and how they interact with each other is a fascinating field of study. It’s like nature’s grand experiment in survival and evolution, unfolding right before our eyes.

So join me as we journey into the world of top dwellers, exploring the creatures that prefer the sunlit, air-kissed upper layer of our water bodies, the “sky” of the underwater world.

Understanding Top Dwellers

As we continue our journey, let’s get a closer look at the marvels of the upper aquatic stratum, the realm of top-dwelling fish. These aquatic creatures, as the name suggests, spend the majority of their lives near the surface of water bodies. They’re the ones kissing the water-air interface, basking in the warm sunlight, and, in some cases, even daring to leap out into the open air.

Top-dwellers are an integral part of aquatic ecosystems. Their diet often includes insects that land or hover on the water’s surface, which helps control insect populations. These fish, in turn, serve as food for various birds and land animals, creating a bridge between the aquatic and terrestrial food chains. It’s fascinating to see how intertwined our ecosystems are, isn’t it?

Top-dwelling fish are often referred to as surface dwellers in the aquarium hobby. Both terms describe the same behavior, referring to fish that spend most of their time in the upper levels of the water column. These fish have unique adaptations that equip them to thrive in the upper layer of water. For instance, their eyes are usually positioned on the upper side of their head, allowing them to keep a watch for both prey and predators. Moreover, their mouths often point upwards too, facilitating the surface feeding that characterizes many of these species.

In essence, top-dwellers fish are the embodiment of the beautiful, yet challenging, life at the aquatic-terrestrial interface. Their specific adaptations, behavior, and role in the ecosystem are captivating subjects to explore, offering us valuable lessons in survival, diversity, and the beauty of nature.

Top Dwelling Aquarium Fish Species

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the fascinating world of top-dwellers and their significant roles in aquatic ecosystems, let’s plunge a little deeper. It’s time to meet the real stars of our story, the species that make the upper layer of our water bodies their home. From the well-loved guppies to the exotic arowanas, we’ll encounter an array of stunning creatures, each with their unique characteristics, behavior, and quirks.

1. Hatchetfish (Gasteropelecus sternicla)



Our first encounter is with the peculiar yet charming Hatchetfish. Named for their distinct body shape that resembles a hatchet, these fish are true surface dwellers. They are native to South America, gracing the waters with their presence, an embodiment of the unique beauty nature endows its creatures with.

Hatchetfish are fascinating creatures with their bodies uniquely designed for life at the surface. Their oversized, wing-like pectoral fins are perfect for occasional gliding flights above the water surface, a sight that never fails to leave me spellbound. These little guys are a marvel of evolution, a testament to nature’s infinite creativity.

As an aquarist, caring for Hatchetfish can be quite rewarding. They’re peaceful creatures and do well in community tanks with other non-aggressive species. However, they have a knack for jumping when startled, so a well-secured tank lid is a must-have. Their diet primarily consists of insects and floating foods, staying true to their top-dwelling nature.

2. Dwarf Gourami

dwarf gourami

Dwarf Gourami, an absolute gem in the aquatic world, is a species I hold close to my heart. These vibrant, petite fish, typically measuring up to 2 inches in length, are decked out in striking patterns of blue or red with intricate lacing. The subtle iridescence of their scales makes them look like they’ve been kissed by the sun, a sight that always leaves me enchanted.

Hailing from the slow-moving waters of South Asia, these tropical fish exhibit a calm, serene behavior that mirrors their native habitat. They love hanging out near the surface, often hiding in floating vegetation, a trait that brings a delightful diversity of levels to any aquarium.

Caring for these gentle souls is fairly straightforward, making them ideal for beginner and experienced aquarists alike. They thrive in well-planted aquariums that mimic their natural habitat, with plenty of hiding spaces and calm waters. As omnivores, Dwarf Gouramis enjoy a varied diet of both plant matter and small live or frozen foods.

3. Female Betta Fish (Betta splendens)

female betta


Diving deeper into our exploration, let’s focus on an exceptional top-dwelling species — the Female Betta Fish. Often overshadowed by their vibrant male counterparts, female Bettas bring a unique charm to the aquatic world that I personally find enchanting.

Unlike male Bettas, females tend to have subtler colors and shorter fins, but their personalities are just as vivid. They’re curious, intelligent, and can be surprisingly interactive, often swimming up to the glass when they see you approaching. It’s these interactions that make keeping Betta fish so rewarding and endearing.

Female Betta fish can be a great addition to a community tank due to their less aggressive nature. However, they still require the right conditions to thrive. A warm, well-filtered aquarium with plenty of hiding spots suits them best. Bettas like to rest near the surface and can sometimes be seen lounging on plant leaves. Floating plants can offer bettas a rest area and help them feel more comfortable and secure.

For diet, a variety of high-quality betta pellets, live, and frozen foods will keep them happy and healthy.

4. Honey Gourami

honey gourami

Next up is the Honey Gourami, a darling little fish whose sweet demeanor and warm coloration have always struck a chord with me. These peaceful fish are smaller relatives of the Dwarf Gourami, typically reaching only about 2 inches in length. Their bodies radiate with shades of warm honey and orange, brightening any aquarium with their presence.

Native to Southeast Asia, Honey Gouramis are top-dwellers who love swimming among floating plants. They’re calm, quiet fish, well-suited to a peaceful community fish tank.

Caring for Honey Gouramis is not too complex. They appreciate well-planted tanks with soft, slightly acidic water, which mimics their natural habitats. They’re not fussy eaters and will happily accept a variety of foods, including flakes, pellets, and live or frozen foods.

5. Zebra Danio

zebra danio

Let me introduce you to the lively Zebra Danios, fish that are always on the go, their non-stop energy is truly infectious. Known for their distinctive horizontal stripes, which remind me of zebras, these small fish species with a distinctive torpedo shape hail from South Asia’s warm waters.

Zebra Danios are active swimmers, predominantly occupying the top part of the fish tank, their movements a constant dance of life and energy. Watching them dash around is one of the highlights of my day.

In terms of care, Zebra Danios are hardy, adaptable, and can live well with other fish, making them an excellent choice for beginner aquarists. They are schooling fish and thrive in tanks with ample swimming space. They’re omnivorous, so a balanced diet of flake foods, plant-based foods, and occasional live or frozen treats will keep them healthy and happy.

6. Swordtail


Our journey continues with the elegant Swordtails, fish named after the distinctive, elongated lower part of their tail that reminds me of a sword. Sporting a variety of vibrant colors, these lively fish bring a dash of drama and beauty to any aquarium.

Swordtails are native to North and Central America, naturally inhabiting hard, warm water. They are mostly top-dwelling and are usually peaceful, although males can occasionally spar with each other, showing off their “swords.”

Swordtails are fairly easy to care for. They appreciate spacious tanks with plenty of plants and a mixed diet of flake foods, vegetables, and occasional protein-rich treats. Their lively demeanor and stunning appearances make them a joy to watch and care for.

7. Molly



Next up are Mollies, a group of fish that come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. Mollies, with their friendly nature and hearty disposition, have always been a favorite of mine.

Mollies can be found in both fresh and saltwater environments, but in aquariums, they prefer a bit of aquarium salt in their water. They spend a lot of their time near the top, often seen swimming peacefully or playfully nipping at the water surface for food.

Caring for Mollies is relatively easy. They prefer a well-planted tank with lots of swimming space and thrive on a diet of high-quality flake foods, vegetables, and occasional live foods. Watching a group of Mollies swim and interact is genuinely enjoyable, adding an interactive dimension to the aquarium experience.

8. Clown Killifish (Epiplatys annulatus)

clown killifish

The Clown Killifish, or banded panchax, is a unique top dweller that adds a dash of vibrant color and drama to any community fish tank. Named for their bold, striking colors and patterns, they remind me of a clown’s costume and never fail to draw my eye. These truly tiny fish typically grow to a maximum size of just 1.5 inches.

Hailing from the freshwaters of West Africa, Clown Killifish are peaceful fish that prefer hanging out near the surface among floating plants. Their splendid coloration and playful nature make observing them an absolute delight.

In terms of care, Clown Killifish are relatively undemanding but do appreciate specific conditions to thrive. They prefer a heavily planted tank with plenty of floating vegetation to mimic their natural habitat. As for their diet, they enjoy a variety of small live and frozen foods.

9. Golden Wonder Killifish (Aplocheilus lineatus)

golden wonder killifish


The Golden Wonder Killifish is an absolute marvel to behold. These fish exude an elegance that I find truly captivating, their golden-yellow bodies sparkling like a treasure as they navigate the water surface.

Native to freshwater bodies in Africa, Golden Wonder Killifish are top-dwelling species known for their vibrant coloration and larger size compared to other killifish. They’re peaceful but can eat smaller tank mates due to their relatively larger mouth size.

Taking care of these magnificent creatures requires some attention. They thrive in a well-planted aquarium that offers plenty of hiding spots. A diet consisting of both plant-based and meaty foods keeps them healthy, with a particular preference for live or frozen invertebrates.

Killifish species tend to appreciate floating plants, especially if they provide hiding spots. These serve as a safety area where they can retreat.

10. White Cloud Mountain Minnow

white cloud mountain minnow

Allow me to introduce the White Cloud Mountain Minnows, often referred to as “the living jewels” in my personal aquarium due to their gleaming colors. They’re tiny fish but big in appeal, and exhibit captivating shades of red, gold, and blue.

Native to cool streams of China’s White Cloud Mountain, these minnows are top-dwelling, peaceful fish, showing a lively yet gentle demeanor. Watching these schooling fish dancing together around the surface always fills my day with delight.

They’re small fish, growing to an adult size of around 1.5 inches. Their small size and hardy nature make them popular among aquarists.

White Cloud Mountain Minnows are exceptionally hardy, making them suitable for beginners. They can adapt to various water conditions but prefer cooler, well-aerated water mimicking their natural habitat. They aren’t picky eaters, happily accepting a broad range of foods from flakes to small live and frozen fare.

11. Glass Catfish

ghost catfish

Up next are the intriguing Glass Catfish, a species that never ceases to amaze me with their near-transparent bodies. This unique feature allows us a rare glimpse into their internal workings, making them one of the most fascinating species to observe.

Glass Catfish are peaceful, schooling fish from Southeast Asia. They are often seen lingering near the water’s surface, their semi-transparent bodies shimmering subtly in the light, lending a unique charm to any aquarium.

Caring for Glass Catfish requires specific attention due to their unique nature. They need a calm, well-planted tank with plenty of hiding places to feel safe. They thrive on a varied diet of small live or frozen foods, which need to be nutritionally balanced to maintain their health. Their delicate nature might present a challenge, but the reward is an aquarium graced with an extraordinary species that leaves everyone enthralled.

12. Threadfin Rainbowfish (Iriatherina werneri)

threadfin rainbow fish


The Threadfin Rainbowfish is a personal favorite of mine, a species that adds an otherworldly charm to the aquarium. Named after their long, thread-like dorsal and anal fin rays, these delicate-looking fish shimmer in a beautiful mix of pastel colors.

Native to northern Australia, Threadfin Rainbowfish are peaceful top-dwellers, their undulating fins adding a mesmerizing grace to the water surface. They’re indeed one of the most elegant species I’ve had the pleasure of caring for.

Threadfin Rainbowfish are relatively easy to care for but do require specific conditions. They thrive in softly lit, well-planted tanks with calm water to best display their delicate finnage. They’re micro predators, so they’ll need small live or frozen foods alongside high-quality flake or pellet foods to meet their dietary needs.

13. Harlequin Rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha)

harlequin rasbora

Lastly, let’s not forget the Harlequin Rasbora, an eye-catching schooling fish species known for the distinctive black “pork chop” shape against its vibrant orange-red body. Observing their playful dance around the top of my tank has always been a source of joy.

Hailing from the slow-moving streams of Southeast Asia, Harlequin Rasboras are peaceful fish, comfortable in the company of other peaceful species. They bring a splash of color to the top layers of the water.

Harlequin Rasboras are generally easy to care for. They prefer slightly acidic water and a tank rich in vegetation, ideally with dim lighting to mimic their natural habitat. They are not overly picky eaters, accepting a mix of flake foods and live or frozen treats. Their lively nature and striking coloration make them a delightful addition to any community tank.

14. African Butterfly Fish (Pantodon buchholzi)

african butterfly fish


The African Butterfly Fish hails from the slow-moving, heavily vegetated waters of West and Central Africa. With its broad, fan-like pectoral fins and slender body, it does indeed bear a resemblance to a butterfly, albeit an aquatic one. Its body color ranges from brown to silver-grey, often mottled, which assists in camouflage among surface leaves and vegetation.

This species is a nocturnal predator, lying in wait for unsuspecting prey near the water’s surface. Its upturned mouth, large eyes located on the top of its head, and excellent jumping ability, are adaptations for this surface-dwelling, predatory lifestyle. When I first observed this species, I was struck by their patient hunting technique. They remain almost motionless until an unsuspecting insect comes within range, then they strike with lightning speed.

In terms of care, it isn’t particularly demanding but does require specific conditions. A calm, softly lit environment with plenty of floating vegetation is ideal. Since these fish are avid jumpers, a well-secured lid is mandatory. Their diet in captivity should mirror their insectivorous nature in the wild, with a good mix of floating dry food and live or frozen invertebrates.

15. Wrestling Halfbeak (Dermogenys pusilla)

wrestling haflbeak

The Wrestling Halfbeak, named for the unique “wrestling” display males perform during courtship and territorial disputes, is a fascinating addition to any top-dwelling community. Originating from Southeast Asia, this species is quite unique among aquarium inhabitants, thanks to its distinctive beak-like lower jaw.

Wrestling Halfbeaks inhabit the surface areas of slow-moving freshwater environments like rivers, streams, and rice paddies in the wild. Their elongated bodies, which can grow up to 3 inches in length, and a pronounced lower jaw or “beak,” give them a distinctive appearance that’s sure to stand out in any aquarium setup.

One of the aspects I find most fascinating about Wrestling Halfbeaks is their live-bearing nature. Unlike many fish that lay eggs, Wrestling Halfbeaks give birth to fully formed fry, a rarity among top-dwellers. This live-bearing quality can make them particularly exciting to keep for aquarists interested in breeding their fish.

In terms of care, they appreciate a well-planted tank with ample open space at the top for swimming. They are predominantly carnivorous and thrive on a diet of small live or frozen foods such as daphnia, brine shrimp, and bloodworms, although they will also accept good quality flake and small pellet foods.

These fish are also known to be great jumpers, so a secure lid on your aquarium is essential to keep them safely contained.

Importance of Top-Dwelling Fish in Aquariums

The introduction of top-dwellers to your aquarium opens up a new dimension of aesthetic beauty and ecological interaction. Understanding their specific contributions and care considerations is essential to maintain a healthy and harmonious tank.

Aesthetic Contribution to Aquariums

When it comes to creating a visually dynamic and engaging aquarium, incorporating top-dwellers is a must. From the shimmering scales of the Golden Wonder Killifish to the delicate dance of Threadfin Rainbowfish, the splashes of color and movement at the surface add layers of depth and interest to your underwater world.

Having spent countless hours observing my own aquarium, I’ve found that the active exploration and playful antics of top-dwellers never cease to captivate. Their presence truly elevates the overall aesthetic of the aquarium, creating a vibrant and lively spectacle that is a joy to behold.

Beneficial Interactions with Mid-Dwellers and Bottom-Dwellers

Top dwellers also play a significant role in the ecological dynamics of the aquarium. By occupying the upper levels of the water column, they create a balanced distribution of fish across different zones. This leads to beneficial interactions with mid-dwelling and bottom-dwelling species, promoting healthier and more diverse behaviors among all inhabitants.

For instance, in my own community aquarium, I’ve noticed how the active surface feeding of my top-dwellers often encourages my mid and bottom dwellers to be more outgoing during feeding times. This in turn aids in their nutritional well-being and encourages a more natural, holistic interaction within the ecosystem.

Considerations in Feeding and Care

However, the care of surface dwellers requires specific considerations. They generally prefer food that floats or is presented at the surface, and may not readily forage for food that sinks quickly. Therefore, providing appropriate meals, such as floating flakes or slow-sinking pellets, is essential to meet their dietary needs.

Moreover, as many top-dwellers are adept jumpers, having a secure lid is crucial to prevent any accidental leaps from the tank. I’ve learned this through experience – it’s always better to provide a safe and secure environment that anticipates the natural behaviors of your aquatic friends.

Top-dwellers offer a unique allure and ecological contribution to any aquarium. With the right understanding and care, you can enhance the aesthetic appeal and biological diversity of your aquarium, all while enjoying the vibrant life and activity of these fascinating surface swimmers.

Bringing It All Together: The Dynamic World of Top-Dwellers

Entering the world of top-dwelling fish opens the door to a new realm of aquatic wonders. Each species we’ve explored brings its unique charm, character, and color to the upper strata of your aquarium, enhancing the overall appeal and vitality of your aquatic environment.

By understanding the needs and behaviors of these surface swimmers, you can create an enriched habitat that celebrates the diversity of life in our underwater world. In my own journey as an aquarist, embracing the eclectic mix of top-dwellers has not only transformed my aquarium into a dynamic vista of colors and movements, but it has also deepened my appreciation for the intricate, interconnected relationships within aquatic ecosystems.

As you consider introducing these fascinating species to your tank, remember that each fish, whether it’s the iridescent Honey Gourami, the delicate Threadfin Rainbowfish, or the radiant Harlequin Rasbora, carries with it an innate, natural beauty that will illuminate your aquarium.

The world of top-dwellers is filled with possibilities and wonders. Embrace the journey, anticipate the challenges, and take joy in each new discovery. As you delve deeper into the captivating realm of these surface swimmers, you’ll find that the enriching and rewarding experience of caring for these aquatic creatures truly elevates your aquarium-keeping journey. And who knows, you might even find your new favorite fish among them.

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