Over the years, the fish-keeping world has seen many different species of exciting fish. We have been discovering new species of freshwater fish and adding them to our aquariums for what seems like forever. Still, within the abundance of freshwater fish, some species have become almost iconic over the years. Read on to discover the most iconic freshwater fish and why we love them.

Before we get started, let’s look at what defines an excellent aquarium fish. We must understand that we are not just talking about our favourite fish here. No, we are considering fish species that have become iconic and almost legendary within the aquarium community. These are not the most colorful freshwater fish or perhaps the biggest fish. The fish we explore below are other species recognisable beyond the aquarium hobby. Fish that almost all fish keepers will have added to their fish tank at some point – true aquarium icons!

A group of Pterophyllum altum looking fantastic


Let’s waste no time in mentioning these gorgeous fish. With their elongated anal and dorsal fin, they demand centre stage in any community tank. Three known species of angelfish are found in different geographical locations and differ slightly in their appearance. Still, all three maintain the unique characteristics that make them so iconic. While commonly kept in community tanks, they can be aggressive fish and wouldn’t think twice about eating any fish or shrimp small enough to fit past their pouting lips.

A group of angelfish shoaling together in a heavily planted aquarium is breathtaking and some of the most beautiful planted tanks ever created have included only angelfish.

Neon tetra are one of the most commonly kept freshwater fish worldwide.

Neon tetra

Not to be confused with the Cardinal tetras, Neon tetras live up to their name in every way. Found mainly living in blackwater streams, neon tetra use their bright colours to identify with each other and maintain safety in numbers. It is also these vibrant colours that have pretty set them into the heart of the aquarium community. A small peaceful fish that will eat almost any food and a natural schooling fish are just some reasons we love them. These small fish look right at home in a well decorated tank filled with live aquarium plants and other peaceful community fish.

First introduced in 1936, the neon tetra has featured in almost every fish tank at some point due to their hardy nature and ability to co-exist with other fish.

The Zebra danio is out of this world.

Zebra danio

If there were an award for ‘most helpful fish’, then Zebra danios would surely win. As far as fish go, zebra danios are peaceful fish, making them ideal for most community tanks. Occasionally they may nip the fins of other fish, but when kept in adequate numbers, they spend all their time chasing each other around. Zebra danios are constantly on the move and will swim the length of the entire tank all day long. What makes them interesting fish is the fact that they have travelled into space! The Zebra danio has been used for countless objects within the science community and assisted with medical research, which, at one point, included a quick trip up into space. How many fish can say that!

German blue ram are one of the most colorful freshwater fish you will find.

German blue ram

Cichlid species are renowned for having a potentially aggressive nature and typically require a large tank with other large fish. However, the German blue ram may be a cichlid species, but they don’t behave like other cichlid species. These beautiful dwarf cichlids are peaceful species capable of living alongside smaller fish in a peaceful community tank. In appearance, the German blue ram is a cichlid in every sense. With bright yellow, deep blue and just the right amount of red, the German blue ram is one colorful fish. First introduced to the fish-keeping world in 1948 and still going strong today.

Colorful freshwater fish like the Betta are often kept on their own and become more like pets.

Betta fish

While most Betta fish we see these days may be a far cry from the wild species first discovered in 1910, we cannot deny that they are one of the most popular tropical fish around. Betta fish belong to a group of fish called labyrinth fish and have the ability to breathe air, which allows them to be kept in a variety of different freshwater aquarium settings. With colours ranging from bright orange to electric blue, there appears to be a Betta fish to suit everyone’s choice. These colorful fish are also filled with personality and often form bonds with their keepers if cared for correctly. One of the distinctive behavioural traits of Betta fish is their reaction to other fish. When another fish or person outside the aquarium is spotted, the Betta flairs its fins and gills outward to create the illusion that they are more prominent. It’s fascinating to observe and is encouraged (to some extent) to maintain a healthy and happy fish.

The best of the rest

Above are only a few of the most popular aquarium fish. We couldn’t list them all, but here are some more popular fish we think are still worth mentioning.

Fancy Guppies – Like the Betta, fancy guppies have been selectively bred for many years to create beautiful patterns and shapes. They are great starter fish for new fishkeepers, and babies will appear over and over again due to their livebearing ability.

Cardinal tetras – Often mistaken for neon tetra, the cardinal tetra has a solid blue line across the length of their body. Cardinal tetra is excellent schooling fish and looks great in a fully planted freshwater tank.

Celestial pearl danio – Another schooling fish but a little larger than the cardinal tetra. With deep red on the tips of their fins and a beautiful spotted body, celestial pearl danio makes an excellent choice for tanks with other peaceful community fish.

Electric yellow lab – Anybody who has seen the yellow lab cichlid cannot deny they rival marine fish with their bright yellow appearance—electric yellow lab Malawi’s look fantastic when kept in a large tank.

Oscar fish – No list is complete without mentioning the Oscar fish from South America. These are large fish commonly displaying bright orange markings over a dark body. Tank mates generally consist of other larger fish like the green terror cichlids or jack Dempsey fish. The bright orange markings are unique to each individual fish and can be used to tell them apart from other Oscar fish in the same tank.

Final thoughts

We can agree that there are so many fish available to today’s fish keepers, but out of all that we see today, some species of freshwater fish will always remain close to our hearts. Maybe they bring back memories of childhood aquariums with our parents, or perhaps we were once captured by the beauty of shoaling fish in a planted aquarium. Whatever drawers you towards your favourite fish, that is what makes the world of aquarium fish so unique. 

What does fish keeping mean to you? Aquarium fish, whether they are peaceful or maybe even all-out aggressive fish, nothing is more satisfying than an established tank filled with our favourite fish.

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