Neon Tetra – Detailed Guide: Care, Diet, and Breeding

Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) – Detailed Guide Care, Diet, and Breeding

Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) is the iconic species in ornamental aquaculture. This small-bodied, brightly colored fish is one of the most commercially traded aquarium fish in the world, with about 2 million imported and sold only in the United States each month.

This species has truly some advantages over other ornamental fish species. Neon tetra is prized for its slender, bright body and beautiful markings, and its interactive displays when kept in groups. They are very cheap, can live in small tanks, and have a long lifespan.

Nonetheless, there is also a downside – Neon tetras are not very hardy fish. Although they are one of many fish species sold as beginner’s fish, they have specific requirements to be well suited to that role.

Keep reading for everything there is to know about the Neon tetra and how to care for the species in home aquaria.

Quick Notes about Neon Tetra

Name Neon tetra
Other Names Neon fish or Neons
Scientific Name Paracheirodon innesi
Tank size (minimum) 10 gallons (~40 liters)
Keeping Easy – Medium
Breeding Difficult
Size 1.5 inches (~ 3.5 – 4 cm)
Optimal Temperature 68 – 82 °F (20 – 28 °C)
Optimal PH 6.5 – 7.5 
Optimal GH 3 – 8  
Optimal KH 1 – 6
Dwellers Middle
Nitrate Less than 40
Diet Carnivore / omnivore
Temperament Peaceful
Life span up to 5 years
Color Form Transparent with blue horizontal stripes and red fin

Origin of Neon Tetra

This fish was first imported from South America and was described by renowned ichthyologist George S.Myers in 1936, and named after William T.Innes, an American aquarist, and author of many books and articles about the aquarium fish and the aquarium hobby.

Habitat of Neon Tetra

Neon Tetra is a freshwater fish that originates from the clear water and black water streams of the Amazon River Basin in southeastern Colombia, eastern Peru, and western Brazil. However, the small fish equally thrives in clearwater streams.

Blackwater results from the tannins that leach into the water as vegetation decays, thus forming transparent, acidic water that is darkly stained.

Naturally, the blackwater streams of the amazon river basin usually flow through dense forests and rich vegetation – which often blocks the sunlight.

Description of Neon Tetra

Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) – Detailed Guide Care, Diet, and Breeding - descriptionThe Neon tetra fish is a sight to behold. Everything about it, from the color to its small length (about 1.5 inches or 4 cm), makes it appealing to the eye and renowned among aquarists.

Paracheirodon innesi is a slender fish species. It has a silver belly and with slightly laterally compressed. The large eyes take up a lot of space on its head.

The most striking part of its appearance is its coloration. Nature smiled upon this creature and fashioned it in ways that make its color not only alluring but unique.

The Neon tetra shows pronounced color differences between day and night.

In the daytime, the fish’s body has a tincture radiating greenish-blue color.  At night the lateral stripe changes to a dull violet-blue color.

Apart from this, it has iridescent blue horizontal stripes on its sides.  The build is not complete without its tail fin. Its hind part, including its caudal fin, is shiny red.

Interesting fact: These fish have light-sensitive skin. According to the study, the longitudinal stripes of Neon tetra skin are under control of the sympathetic nervous system. In addition, they also respond to light directly and show circadian color changes.

This distinct color helps it navigate the murky dark waters where it lives. And its unusual appearance makes it easily recognizable.

Furthermore, the fish is partially transparent except for the markings on their bodies.

Difference between Neon tetras and Cardinal tetras

It is very easy to confuse Paracheirodon innesi (Neon tetras) and Paracheirodon axelrodi (Cardinal tetras) species. They both look very much alike except for the length of the red stripe.

In Neon tetras, the red stripe runs halfway across the body. In Cardinal tetras, the red stripe runs entirely across the body (from caudal to gill plate).

Typical Behavior of Neon Tetra

  • Temper:

Neons are pretty peaceful creatures. Generally, they are easy-going and have a good temperament.

However, they can become hostile and nippy if they feel threatened, stressed, or kept in a very small (up to 6) group.

  • Sociality:

Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) – Detailed Guide Care, Diet, and Breeding - large group (schooling)Group size has a significant effect on Neon tetras. Experiments showed that:

– Large groups of Neons (10 or more) had a greater tendency to shoal than those in smaller group sizes.
– Neon tetras had reduced aggression in the largest group sizes.
– Darting decreased in larger group numbers as well.
– It was easier to feed them when they were schooling.

So, they should be always kept in groups. A group of fish is termed a “school”. And Neons love to move together in a school. They move horizontally, and therein lies their charm.

When one fish in a school notices something strange, the rest will also probe what is happening. If you wave your hands at them at the side of the tank, they will move towards you to say hello.

Though one specimen alone is fascinating, if they are kept alone, they will undergo a depressive state that shortens their lifespan significantly.

Note: Keep in mind that different species of tetras will not school with each other.

  • Activity:

They are jumpers. So, you need to have a tight lid and/or keep that water level at least a few inches below the rim of the tank.

  • Placement in Tank:

Neon tetras generally stay in the middle of the tank.

Features:

  • Social: Yes
  • Activity: Average
  • Placement: Middle dwellers
  • Peaceful: Yes but can be nippy
  • Jumpers: Yes

Lifespan of Neon Tetra

Surprisingly, despite their small size, Neon tetras can live for a long time.

Wikipedia says about 10 years. Well, personally, I do not believe it. My experience with this fish, combined with the experience of other hobbyists and scientific studies, goes against that.

On average, Neon tetras can live up to 5 years in fish tanks, typically between 3 to 5 years. They can also have a shorter lifespan due to certain factors, which may include:

  • Overstocking. Even though neon fishes like to move in groups, overstocking can cause their sudden demise.
  • Stress and Illness. Diseases can quickly spread from one fish to another and kill them. A rule of thumb specifies one inch of fish per gallon of water.
  • Inappropriate care. For example, Neon tetra doesn’t respond well to sudden changes in water conditions. Though they have a remarkable ability to adapt to their surroundings, rapidly changing parameters can kill them.

Feeding Neon Tetras

Neon tetras are omnivores; hence they consume both plant and animal material. They are not picky eaters when in the aquarium. Ideal food options consist of:

  • spirulina,
  • frozen foods,
  • flake foods,
  • micro pellets, etc.

This species equally appreciates:

It was established that they prefer high-protein diets and that animal protein provides better growth rates than plant protein.

Neon tetras predominantly consume food as it falls through the water column.

How Often and How Much to Feed Neon Tetras?

Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) – Detailed Guide Care, Diet, and Breeding - small groupFeeding is arguably the most important variable in the course of fish keeping. We have to find a fine line between overfeeding and underfeeding.

For example, if we give Neon tetras their daily ration as one meal they are generally unable to consume all the food as the sinking rate of the diet exceeded the rate of consumption by the fish.

Therefore, it is recommended to feed Neon tetras at least twice a day. Ideally, non-eaten particles of food (leftovers) and waste should be siphoned out after every feeding. It will help to keep the water clean and prevent contamination.

Also, it will not be a problem to have a “starvation day” once a week.

Important: Remember – it is better to underfeed than overfeed. Overfeeding is a major problem in maintaining water quality.

Are Neon Tetras Plant Safe?

Yes, Neon tetras are plant safe. Even more, they are up there with the top choices for planted tanks.

I have heard that sometimes they may nip at plants but this is not common. Personally, I have never experienced that.

Features:

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Food Preference: Meat
  • Feeding Frequency: 2-3 times a day

Keeping and Caring for Neon Tetra

Despite being so popular in the hobby, Neon tetras are not very hardy fish. They are sensitive to temperature fluctuations and water quality.

Note: As a matter of fact, scientists use them to see the effects of pollution in the water.

Nonetheless, it is still a good beginner fish, and here are a few things to take adequate care of Neon tetras.

  • Observe the color of your fish in the morning. Pale body and discoloration of the lateral line are bad signs. If the color isn’t as bright as it should be, then you have to pay extra attention to the situation! Check your water parameters, feeding, tankmates, everything you did before that (fertilization, introducing new plants or animals, etc.).
  • Monitor your fishes, and quickly remove the dead ones to avoid contamination of the tank.
  • Make sure to do water changes every week to minimize the amount of nitrates in the tank.

Tank Requirements and Water Conditions

It is important that you cycle your tank before bringing fish home. Once the tank is cycled you need to check the quality of the water using a test kit.

Also, cleaning up your tank is a straightforward preventive measure to ensure you don’t endanger your fish.

Tank size:

Usually, Neon fishes like to move in groups of at least 6 – 10. Hence, you’d need a tank that can contain about 10 gallons (40 liters) of water. Such small tanks are more suitable for the beginning hobbyists.

Also, the tank should have a tight-fitting cover to keep the fish from jumping.

Water parameters:

The best approach is to imitate their natural habitat in your fish tank.

Temperature: Neon tetra domiciles in waters between 68 – 82 °F (20 – 28 °C). Experiments showed that for this species lethal time 50 (LT50 – time until death) of water temperature tolerance at above 95 °F (35 °C) and below 59 °F (15°C).

pH: Neon fishes are comfortable in slightly acidic to neutral water. The ideal pH range should be between 6.5 – 7.5.

Hardness: Neon tetras prefer soft water (3 – 8 GH). With time they can acclimatize to harder water but they really do not like it.

Filtration:

Lastly, you will need a quality, efficient filtration unit to filter their waste.

Keep in mind the size of the fish. Some filter intakes can suck this small fish in! You will need to use an extra pre-filter in the form of a sponge to prevent them from being sucked in.

Substrate:

No special requirements. If you have plants substrate should be adapted to the needs of plants in the tank.

Lighting:

In addition, Neon tetras live in dark environments. It is necessary to ensure that your tank is not too bright.

In addition, if you have plants lighting should also be adapted to the needs of plants in the tank.

Water flow:

Not needed. Neon tetras do not have strong water flow in their natural habitats.

Plants and Decorations:

The fish tank should be heavily planted to mimic their natural habitat.

Provide good hiding spots in your tanks for your fishes. Neon tetras love to hide. You can use floating plantsfake plantsdriftwoodleaves, small rocks to provide great hiding spots for them.

Neon tetras can lose their colors if there are unfavorable conditions or when they are constantly threatened by bullying fish. It will also reduce nipping.

Acclimation:

Gradually introduce them to the fish tank. Sudden changes in habitat can harm them. Before putting Neon tetras into your tank do not forget to carefully temperature acclimate them.

Give them time to acclimatize/quarantine before adding into the main tank. Do not rush the process! Do it very slowly to prevent any unnecessary stress.

Problems Associated with Neon Tetras

Like all fish species, Neon tetras can also get sick. It can be Ick, Fungus, Clamped fin, Haemorrhagic Septicaemia, Dropsy, Fin Rot, etc. Luckily, most of these diseases can be treated.

However, there is also a so-called Neon Tetra Disease (or NTD) which can be easily confused with others because it does not have any particular symptoms.

Neon Tetra Disease. The most common symptoms include loss of appetite, loss of color, curving of the spine, isolation, swelling, etc.

Treatment: Unfortunately, NTD has no cure. Therefore, the only way to protect other fish is to quarantine the sick fish.

Breeding Neon Tetras

Neon tetra is somewhat challenging to breed. The reason is that they require very specific water conditions to breed successfully.

Therefore, to breed Neon tetras successfully, you need a breeding tank where the parents can mate, spawn, and the eggs that have been fertilized can grow. Also, note that adult Neons may mistakenly eat eggs if not kept in a separate breeding tank.

Breeding Tank for Neon Tetras

A breeding tank should have the following attributes:

  • It would help if you fed live foods to the parents 2 – 3 times a day to induce breeding. According to the breeding protocol, it should be done for a period of 3 weeks prior to the spawning of Neon tetras.
  • Tight-fitting cover. Neon tetras jump high in their breeding phase.
  • Start with no lighting. The aquarium should be dark at first, then gradually increase the light source until spawning occurs.
  • You might need 5 to 10 gallons (20 – 40 liters) of water for the breeding tank.
  • Small rocks should cover the bottom of the tank.
  • Fine-textured plants should be grown in the aquarium.
  • The temperature should be around 72 °F (22 °C). High temperature is very bad for breeding.
  • Very soft water and pH level between 5.5 – 6.5.
  • Sponge filter for filtration.
  • Live plants.
  • Spawning mop or a spawning substrate (nylon brush) for egg deposition.

Some breeders also use a net placed on a frame at 1 inch (2.5 cm) high from the bottom of the tank to protect the eggs from being eaten.

Mating:

Once they reach 1 inch (2.5 cm) of total length, they become ready for the first spawning. Ideally, males and females should be kept separately before spawning.

Females have a more prominent and rounded belly than male Neons. The female carries eggs in her belly. When she is ready to breed, her body becomes broad.

They will usually breed early in the morning. Spawning usually lasts from 1 to 4 hours.

According to the study, Neon tetras can reproduce again shortly (15 to 20 days) after the completed spawning.

Eggs:

Neon tetras are egg scatterers. Parent Neons should be removed as soon as possible after breeding.

Note that you should reduce the light exposure after fertilization of the eggs because they are sensitive to light. Maintain only low lighting in the breeding tank.

The eggs are typically transparent and stick to live plants and walls of the tank.

Each female can produce from 20 to 60 eggs.

Important: Temperature plays a very important role. Warm temperature (77 °F – 25 °C) decreases the number of eggs by 3 – 4 times compared to colder (72 °F – 22 °C)!

Interesting fact: Laboratory studies also confirmed that keeping Neon tetras between spawning periods more than 20 days results in a significant deterioration of the quality of gametes. In other words, they produce fewer eggs (4 – 5 times decrease in the number of eggs was noted).

Hatching:

Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) – Detailed Guide Care, Diet, and Breeding - fry stages development
photo by M. M. Ferreira Marinho

Eggs tend to hatch in about 22 – 24 hours.

The fry of Neon tetras is about 0.01 inches (2.5 mm) long. Overall body coloration is pale at hatching. They will display adult coloration in about a month.

Note: Check out this study, if you want to know more about the 4 stages of fry development.

The fry will feed exclusively from the yolk sac for the first 3 – 4 days. After that, they will become free-swimming.

Provision of appropriate food at different larval and post-larval stages is an important breeding aspect in the production of Neon tetra.

The fry is small and can only eat a small amount of food. They should be fed foods like:

  • green water,
  • zooplankton,
  • artemia nauplii.

Experiments showed that infusoria or even decapsulated Artemia cyst were suboptimal choices (low survival rate (~60%) and growth rate). Neon early fry has small mouths which restricted them to feeding on and digesting decapsulated cyst.

Neon Tetras and Suitable Tankmates

Neon tetras are peaceful fishes and can accommodate other fishes and animals in the community tank. Since they don’t grow beyond 1.5 inches (4 cm), there’s a lot of room for other tankmates, making the aquarium more lively.

Fish

Here is a quick list of some animals that can coexist with the Neon tetra fish:

Dwarf shrimp

It is highly don’t recommended to keep Neon tetras and dwarf shrimp in the same tank. They will definitely eat all shrimplets! They can even start picking one adult shrimp.

So, if you are planning to breed dwarf shrimp it will be a very bad idea.

Snails:

Neon tetras are compatible with any freshwater snail. They will do a good job in scavenging for food particles, plant matter, and algae along with the lower levels of the tank.

The problem is that they can nip off their antennae periodically.

Nippy

Sometimes Neon tetras will nip the fins of long-finned fish, like betta, or show minor acts of both intra- and interspecific aggression.

In most cases, this is a sign of a stressed fish, otherwise, they seldomly proceed with actions such as fin-nipping.

Avoid:

  • Neon tetras should not be combined with large and/or aggressive fishes that can bully them. Larger fish such as Angelfish, Cichlids, Red fin shark, etc. will gladly eat them.
  • Keep them away from all types of crayfish and most types of freshwater crabs. 

A neon tetra fish shouldn’t be left alone. It can be predisposed to stress, thus weakening its immune system and making it susceptible to illnesses.

In Conclusion

The Neon tetra fish is a stunning, mid-dwelling freshwater fish that is highly popular in the aquarium hobby.

It is also very accommodating of other tank mates, as it is a peaceful species. Its lovely appearance and peaceful disposition in the aquarium endears it to many aquarium keepers.

Although Neon tetra can be a little picky about its habitat, it is often sold as a good beginner fish.

References:

  1. The Reproduction of Neon Tetra, Paracheirodon Innesi (Myers, 1936), Under Controlled Conditions. Polish Journal of Natural Science. 25. 2010, pp. 81 – 92.
  2. Akiko Kasai and Noriko Oshima “Light-sensitive Motile Iridophores and Visual Pigments in the Neon Tetra, Paracheirodon innesi,” Zoological Science 23(9), 815-819, (1 September 2006). 
  3. Light-induced colour changes by the iridophores of the Neon tetra, Paracheirodon innesi. JENNIFER CLOTHIER, N. LYTHGOE, J Cell Sci (1987) 88 (5): 663–668.
  4. Nutrition of Ornamental Fish: Water Soluble Vitamin Leaching and Growth of Paracheirodon innesi. American Institute of Nutrition. J. Nutr. 124: 2633S-2635S, 1994.
  5. Individual neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi, Myers) optimise their position in the group depending on external selective contexts: Lesson learned from a fish-robot hybrid school. Biosystems Engineering. Volume 204, April 2021, Pages 170-180
  6. Comparative development in Moenkhausia pittieri and Paracheirodon innesi (Ostariophysi: Characiformes) with comments on heterochrony and miniaturization in the Characidae. The Fisheries Society of the British Isles, Journal of Fish Biology 2017.
  7. Performance of Co-Housed Neon Tetras (Paracheirodon innesi) and Glowlight Rasboras (Trigonostigma hengeli) Fed Commercial Flakes and Lyophilized Natural Food. Animals 2021, 11, 3520.
  8. Growth and survival of neon tetra, Paracheirodon innesi (Myers, 1936) fry fed mixed zooplankton, formulated feed and combination thereof. Annals of Biological Research, 2012, 3 (12):5665-5668.
  9. A case study on mortality of neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) associated with the seasonal climate transitions in West Java – Indonesia. IOP Conf. Series: Earth and Environmental Science 521 (2020) 012022.
  10. The effect of group size on the behaviour and welfare of four fish species commonly kept in home aquaria. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 125 (2010) 195–205.
  11. Comparative analysis of animal based feed preferencesin selected Aquarium fishes. International Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Studies 2019; 7(2): 42-45
  12. CHAPMAN F.A., COLLE D.E., ROTTMANN R.W., SHIREMAN J.V. 1998. Controlled spawning of the neon tetra. Progr. Fish-Cult., 60: 32–37
  13. ELIAS 2003. Tetra neonovh Paracheirodon innesi (Myers, 1936) (The neon tetra). Akva ́rium Tera ́rium 46: 4–11.
  14. WEITZMAN S.H., FINK W. L. 1987. Neon Tetra relationships and phylogenetic systematics. Tropical Fish Hob., 36: 72–77.
  15. Weitzman, S. H. & Fink, W. L. (1983). Relationships of the neon tetras, a group of south American freshwater fishes (Teleostei, Characidae), with comments on the phylogeny of new world Characiformes. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 150, 339–395.

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