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?
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?
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 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.