THE TRUTH ABOUT TIGERS

Are they Den­nis the Men­ace-like trou­ble­some tear­aways, or de­servedly pop­u­lar school­ing fish who ought to come top of the class?

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Contents -

What’s the beef with Tiger barbs? Are they trou­ble­some tear­aways or de­servedly pop­u­lar and colour­ful fish?

Few fish in the hobby di­vide opin­ion as strongly as Tiger barbs. To some, they’re lively, colour­ful fish that will brighten up any com­mu­nity tank; oth­ers dis­miss them as trou­ble­some nip­pers only too ready to shred the fins of any gup­pies and gouramis. But what­ever you think of them, Tiger barbs have been among the most widely sold fish in the hobby for decades.

so, what’s the real deal with th­ese colour­ful barbs? Do they de­serve their bully boy rep­u­ta­tion, or have they been wrongly ma­ligned by aquar­ists who weren’t keep­ing them prop­erly? should the scep­tics show a bit more love for th­ese in­ex­pen­sive and un­de­mand­ing fish?

Nam­ing Tigers

Tiger barbs were first kept as aquar­ium fish in the 1930s, at which point they were known as Bar­bus

tetra­zona. The name Bar­bus was used for a very large group of cyprinid fishes char­ac­terised by a pair of well-de­vel­oped bar­bels around the mouth – our own na­tive Bar­bel, in fact, was Bar­bus bar­bus. Be­sides the Tiger barb and the Bar­bel, the Bar­bus genus in­cluded such ex­tremes as the tiny Bar­bus jae from west Africa, which reaches maybe 3.5cm in length if that, and a gi­ant south Asian species called a Mah­seer, a real whop­per ca­pa­ble of reach­ing up to 2m in length and al­most 70kg – over 10 stone!

Need­less to say, sci­en­tists have had fun un­pick­ing Bar­bus into smaller, more clearly de­fined gen­era, such as

Sahyadria, which in­cludes the Deni­son barb; Pun­tius, into which went many of the smaller Asian barbs, in­clud­ing the Cherry barb; and Bar­bony­mus, which plays host to sev­eral larger barbs in­clud­ing the Tin­foil barb.

You may well find the Tiger barb listed as Bar­bus tetra­zona in old aquar­ium books, but from the 1980s on­wards it was more com­mon to re­fer to them as Pun­tius tetra­zona, a name still widely used in books, on­line, and in aquar­ium shops.

how­ever, the cor­rect sci­en­tific name is Punti­grus tetra­zona, the Tiger barb hav­ing been moved into the genus Punti­grus along­side some

Their ten­dency to squab­ble can quickly spin out of con­trol, with the Tigers drag­ging other fish into their fights

other small Asian barbs with ver­ti­cal stripes. In fact, Punti­grus is a cross be­tween Pun­tius and the word ‘tiger’, so Punti­grus tetra­zona can be trans­lated as ‘small tiger-like barb with four stripes’ – a pretty fit­ting sort of name!

Tiger ter­ri­tory

Tiger barbs are na­tive to In­done­sia; more specif­i­cally, the is­lands of Bor­neo and Su­ma­tra. They’re also found in the south­ern­most prov­ince of Malaysia, on the other side of the Malacca strait from Su­ma­tra. Their favoured habi­tats in­clude both still and slowly flow­ing wa­ters, but in­vari­ably th­ese streams, ditches, pools and canals are thickly veg­e­tated, par­tic­u­larly above the wa­ter­line. It’s your clas­sic rain­for­est habitat re­ally, with over­hang­ing trees pro­vid­ing shade, thick­ets of semi-aquatic plants around the edges, and a deep layer of de­com­pos­ing leaves and twigs on the bot­tom.

Need­less to say, such wa­ters are often peaty in colour, low in hard­ness, and with a slightly acidic ph caused by the pres­ence of or­ganic acids. Some­thing like 1-5°dh, 5.5-6.5 ph, are the sorts of con­di­tions you’d want if you were cre­at­ing a true biotope for wild-caught fish.

Al­though wild-caught Tiger barbs are oc­ca­sion­ally traded, the fish found in most shops are farmed. Th­ese fish are rel­a­tively un­de­mand­ing with re­gards to wa­ter chem­istry, and can do well in

even quite hard wa­ter. Avoid very hard wa­ter though, as both the fishes’ colours and the like­li­hood of them breed­ing are im­proved in soft, slightly acidic con­di­tions. For general main­te­nance in a well-run aquar­ium, any­thing in the range of 2-20°dh, 6.0-8.0 ph will be han­dled with­out prob­lems.

Naughty or nice?

This is where things get tricky. Like all school­ing fish, Tiger barbs are in­tensely so­cial and hi­er­ar­chi­cal, so they must be kept in large groups. With­out suf­fi­cient num­bers, their ten­dency to squab­ble can quickly spin out of con­trol, with the Tigers drag­ging other fish into their fights. While they rarely do much harm to each other, slow-mov­ing and long-finned fishes might not han­dle things so well. It’s worth not­ing that ac­tive fish with sim­i­lar dis­po­si­tions – medium-sized tetras, Dan­ion­ins and Rain­bow­fish – often live per­fectly well along­side Tiger barbs. They tend to be as bois­ter­ous as the barbs, and there’s noth­ing the barbs will do that they wouldn’t do them­selves in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances! So when it comes to choos­ing tank­mates, you should cer­tainly avoid placid species like Neon tetras and Co­ry­do­ras that wouldn’t en­joy the at­ten­tion, as well as any­thing ei­ther too slow to get out of trou­ble, or with such long fins they be­come an easy tar­get for a frus­trated barb. Gup­pies, gouramis, Bet­tas and an­gelfish are all best avoided. As well as think­ing about their so­cial be­hav­iour, you also need to con­sider swim­ming space. A de­cent-sized group of Tiger barbs would num­ber at least 10-12 spec­i­mens, and given that adults reach around 7cm, a school shouldn’t be squeezed into any­thing less than 125 l. The big­ger, the bet­ter, ALAMY in fact, and a wise aquar­ist would aim for maybe 180 l.

Tiger barb al­ter­na­tives

Even if Tiger barbs have a jus­ti­fied rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing ag­gres­sive in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, don’t as­sume that holds true for all barbs. Some barb species are placid, even ner­vous fish, and more likely to be the vic­tims in a sit­u­a­tion than the ag­gres­sors. One old favourite is the Ruby barb,

Pethia ni­gro­fas­ci­ata, a South Asian fish sim­i­lar to the Tiger barb in shape and size, but less in­clined to be ag­gres­sive, par­tic­u­larly if kept in big groups. It also dif­fers in be­ing sex­u­ally di­mor­phic – ma­ture males are a rich, red­dish-pur­ple in colour, while the fe­males (and im­ma­ture males) come in yel­low with ver­ti­cal black bands.

Ruby barbs make good com­mu­nity tank res­i­dents, but it’d be un­wise to tempt them with slow-mov­ing, long-finned com­pan­ions. Given the Ru­bies’ pref­er­ence for wa­ter chem­istry val­ues around 2-15°dh and 6.0-7.5 ph, tetras, dan­ios, Har­le­quin ras­b­o­ras and loaches should all work nicely though.

One species that might be con­fused with the Tiger barb at first glance is the Pen­ta­zona or Five-banded barb from Bor­neo, usu­ally called

Des­mop­un­tius pen­ta­zona in aquar­ium books, though what we see in shops may well be a closely re­lated species called Des­mop­un­tius hex­a­zona. Both look like smaller, more slen­der Tiger barbs in terms of shape and colour, but Pen­ta­zona barbs usu­ally have six ver­ti­cal bands on the body (oddly, given their com­mon name, not five!), whereas the Tiger barb has four. They also have a red patch on their anal fin, com­pared with the Tiger’s black anal fin.

Pen­ta­zonas also have a more re­stricted dis­tri­bu­tion than Tiger barbs, favour­ing black­wa­ter habi­tats such as peaty streams. There’s not much point try­ing to adapt them to hard, al­ka­line con­di­tions if you want to see them at their best, so aim for

1-12°dh, 6.0-7.0 ph in­stead. Pen­ta­zona barbs are gen­er­ally peace­ful when kept in suf­fi­cient num­bers of 10 or more, but they can be shy, so don’t keep them with big­ger or more bois­ter­ous tank­mates. A third looka­like species is the Rhombo or Snake­skin barb, Des­mop­un­tius rhom­boo­cel­la­tus.

It’s sim­i­lar to the Pen­ta­zona barb, but eas­ily dis­tin­guished by its un­usual mark­ings – the five ver­ti­cal bands on the flanks, each di­vided into rhom­bus or kite-shaped mark­ings. Like the Pen­ta­zona barb, this is a soft wa­ter spe­cial­ist from the black­wa­ter streams of Bor­neo, and makes a good choice in biotope tanks along­side other fish that like soft, acidic wa­ter chem­istry and low lev­els of light­ing. It’s a very peace­ful species, even more so than the Pen­ta­zona barb.

Planted tanks are ideal for Tiger barbs.

ABOVE: most Tiger barbs are com­er­cially bred to sup­ply the huge de­mand.

Plat­inum tigers have lit­tle colour, but stand out well.

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