Gaze into the typical home aquarium, and you’ll likely see some familiar fish—the bright colors of neon tetras…the orange glint of goldfish…and the regal glory of a male betta, also known as a Siamese fighting fish. These all are fine aquarium options—they’re easy to care for, attractive and affordable.

But if you’d like to see something a bit more distinctive swimming around your tank, there are lots of less common options that also won’t break the bank* or require extensive care. As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Freshwater Aquariums

Freshwater fish often cost significantly less than saltwater fish…and maintaining a freshwater aquarium is somewhat simpler because there’s no need to monitor the water’s salinity levels. Some interesting options for freshwater aquariums…

Make every week shark week. There’s nothing like a school of small sharks swimming back and forth to add excitement to an aquarium. Roseline sharks are not actually sharks, but these active, interesting schooling fish are so sharklike in appearance that they’ll have you humming the theme to Jaws. But: Roseline sharks grow from just one inch in length to more than six inches, so while a 20-gallon tank can be sufficient at first, a 100-to-200-gallon tank is more appropriate for a large school of fully grown roselines. Price: $20 to $60 each.

Similar: If pseudo-sharks aren’t your style, how about fake snakes? Rope fish look and swim like snakes, but they’re really fish. Some people find them creepy, while others love having a fake snake in their tank. Caution: Don’t add a rope fish to an aquarium that also contains fish just an inch or so in size—it might eat them. Price: $25 to $60.

Small tank, big interest. Some wonderfully interesting aquatic life can thrive in a freshwater aquarium of modest size. Freshwater shrimp are available in dozens of stunningly colorful varieties such as blueberry shrimp, cherry red shrimp and bumblebee shrimp—all named based on how they look. (Note that there also is a saltwater version of the bumblebee shrimp.)

freshwater shrimp

Shrimp do well in tanks as small as two gallons…they’re compelling to watch as they scoot backward through the water…and they’re scavengers that will help clean your aquarium by eating algae.

Beautiful, distinctive fish that remain small as they age and can thrive in tanks as small as five gallons include emerald dwarf rasbora (top), which usually are pink or orange with bright green stripes…and furcata rainbow (bottom), which have striking blue eyes and yellow edges on their fins.

emerald dwarf rasbora

furcata rainbow

While betta fish are a somewhat predictable aquarium fish, as noted above, the males truly are tremendously attractive and can thrive in tanks as small as five gallons as long as it has a filtration system to provide healthy water quality—male crowntail bettas are especially ornate. Caution: Bettas are fighters, so don’t put more than one male in a tank. Prices: $8 to $15 apiece for the shrimp…$10 to $25 for the others.

A bottom feeder with top-tier style. Catfish are a useful addition to an aquarium—most catfish for home aquariums are scavengers that eat detritus and algae, so they help keep the tank clean. Catfish generally aren’t known for their good looks, but the long, lean “twiglike” royal farlowella catfish will be among the visual highlights of an aquarium. Price: $35 to $85.

royal farlowella catfish

A ghost in the tank. Black ghost knifefish move elegantly through the water by undulating a bottom fin—it’s an otherworldly swimming style that sets this fish apart from other aquarium fish. This mostly black, largely nocturnal fish is somewhat shy, so don’t expect nonstop action or striking colors—but it will learn to come out at feeding time, and if you have four or five in your tank, there usually will be at least one out and about. Black ghost knifefish can reach 20 inches in length, so while a 30-gallon tank can be sufficient when they are young, a tank 90 gallons or larger is more appropriate for fully grown specimens. Price: $25 to $45.

black ghost knifefish

Go for the (unconventional) goldfish. Goldfish are among the most predictable and familiar aquarium fish—but not if you choose distinctive varieties. Interesting options include bubble eye goldfish (top), which have cartoonishly oversized puffy cheeks—technically they’re fluid-filled sacs…oranda (middle), which have egg-shaped bodies and “caps” atop their heads…pom pom goldfish (bottom), which have pom-pom–like facial growths…and ryukin goldfish, which have a short, round body with a “dorsal hump.” Despite their name, these and other goldfish are available in a range of colors. One advantage: Goldfish thrive in room-temperature water, so you won’t need a tank heater. Price: Often $20 to $40 apiece for the varieties listed above, though some rare ryukin can cost as much as $150…some oranda, up to $250.

bubble eye goldfish


pom pom goldfish

Here’s looking at you. Some people don’t consider fish true pets because they don’t form a bond with their owners. But that isn’t necessarily true—some fish do take notice of nearby people and even learn to recognize their owners’ faces. Fish from the Cichlidae family are particularly good at this, and discus are arguably one of the most attractive cichlid species. With their large circular shape—about five to seven inches in diameter when fully grown—and bright colors, they’re sometimes called the king of the aquarium. Discus are not the easiest fish to add to an aquarium, however—they prefer water that’s around 85°F, which is warmer than most freshwater aquarium fish…and they often are outcompeted for food by other fish because they are slow swimmers. Price: $40 to $250.


Plants, not plastic. In American aquariums, plants often are a plastic afterthought. That’s a missed opportunity—real plants can add visual interest. One challenge with live aquarium plants is that they tend to require lots of light to thrive, but some do well even in low light conditions, including cryptocoryne brown wendtii (shown) ($7 to $15)…rotala indica ($4 to $8)…and telanthera ($5 to $10).

cryptocoryne brown wendtii

Saltwater Aquariums

Novices often worry that maintaining a saltwater aquarium will be a lot of work. But the challenge isn’t maintaining the aquarium—it’s maintaining your composure when you discover that a fish that cost you $100 or $200 has died. Saltwater fish often are expensive, in part because most are wild-caught and transported long distances. But there are a few interesting and relatively affordable possibilities…

Finding Nemo every day. Clownfish are colorful, available in a wide range of patterns and fairly affordable. Unlike most saltwater-aquarium fish, clownfish tend to be aquacultured, not wild-caught, which keeps prices low and makes them an excellent, hardy choice. There are many varieties of clownfish, but if you want Nemo, look for an ocellaris clownfish. They school together but can get territorial in small numbers, so it’s better to have a handful or more in your aquarium than just a pair. Price: $20 to $100 apiece.

Incredible intriguing seahorses. Seahorses actually are fish—but unlike any other creature. It isn’t just their strange shape and sedate swimming speed that sets them apart—unlike virtually every other species, the males give birth. Seeing hundreds of babies shoot out from a male’s pouch in your aquarium is like watching a nature documentary happening in your own home. Purchase aquaculture seahorses rather than wild-caught—they’re much more likely to be healthy. Seahorses cannot share a tank with most other fish—they’ll get outcompeted for food—but they can share a tank with most invertebrates, such as saltwater shrimp and feather duster, which are beautiful, colorful “filter feeders” that have featherlike appendages that trap passing phytoplankton. Prices: $40 to $80 per seahorse…$20 to $60 per shrimp…and $20 to $30 per feather duster.


Consider coral. Coral is a living marine invertebrate, though it’s lack of movement makes it seem more like a rock. It makes up for its lack of action with its astounding beauty. A variety called zoanthid coral is available in a range of stunning fluorescent colors, is relatively easy to maintain and generally not overly expensive. Price: $25 to $200.

zooanthid corals

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