What to Know About Neon Tetra

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on December 10, 2022
5 min read

Neon tetras are some of the most popular freshwater fish in the world. They’re beautiful additions to any home aquarium and are frequently studied in research settings.    

If you’re new to freshwater aquariums, you’re probably looking for a pet that’s both easy to maintain and fun to watch. Neon tetras are a perfect option for beginners and experts alike. Just keep in mind that neon tetras — like any pet — have specific care needs that you should be aware of before deciding to bring one home.

Neon tetra fish are members of the scientific family Characidae. Their scientific name is Paracheirodon innesi. Neon tetras are a distinct species from the similarly named black neon tetra and green neon tetra — one of which isn’t even in the same genus as the neon tetra. But you can frequently find all of these tetras — plus other unique species — in pet stores around the world. 

Tetras in general are very popular aquarium fish. The neon tetra is the most famous and plentiful of all of the tetra species found in the ornamental fish trade. Each month, approximately 2 million neon tetra are sold in the U.S. alone. They’re the second most common fish imported to the U.S. The most common is the guppy — Peocilia reticulata.

Neon tetras are originally from the Amazon basin — for example, around the Solimoes River. This includes the countries: 

  • Columbia
  • Peru
  • Brazil

You’ll find them in both acidic blackwater and clearwater streams. These days, you can find tetra all over the world. The aquarium trade has been spreading them far and wide for decades. For example, they were first imported to the U.S. in 1936.

Neon tetras are rather small ornamental fish. They grow to an average of 1.5 inches in length. They have silver-white bellies and light blue backs. 

There are very few differences between male and female neon tetra. The females have slightly rounder undersides. 

Neon tetras' most stunning features are the two iridescent stripes on each side of their body. A blue one runs from their nose to about two-thirds of the way down their body. A red one is slightly lower and starts about halfway down their body. It runs down to their tailfin. 

Neon tetras have the ability to alter the exact color of their stripes. In the light, the blue stripe has a blue-green color, and in the dark, it appears indigo. 

They do this by shifting reflective crystal structures in response to their habitat’s light. Their shiny colors are so unique that they’ve inspired engineers to create new magnetically controlled iridescent technologies. These could be used in a large number of devices — from screen displays to flexible camouflage. 

Neon tetras are shoaling fish that like to live in large communities. They’re social creatures that move around in group formations. The displays are entertaining to watch.

Neon tetras are notoriously difficult to breed. Researchers have conducted numerous studies trying to find the best, most cost-effective ways to breed this species. 

The average neon tetra lifespan depends on whether or not it’s in the wild or in an aquarium. They live longer when they’re given the care and attention that they deserve.

Neon tetras are omnivores in the wild — they eat many different forms of life. This includes: 

The precise species depend on their environment. 

In aquarium settings, you can feed neon tetra most types of fish flakes. Just make sure that they’re on the smaller side so they’re easier for the fish to eat. Fortunately, researchers have shown that tetra species thrive on commercial brands. Look for ones that are specially formulated for tetras. 

Many owners opt to use sinking pellets for tropical fish. A lot of these brands include natural color enhancers that are meant to bring out the color in your pets.

You can also supplement their diet with: 

These are a great way to provide a wider variety of nutrients for your pets.

Each species of fish have unique care needs. You should always have your tank ready to go before bringing your new fish home. 

Since neon tetra are shoaling animals, they only thrive when other members of their species are in the same tank. Never bring home just a single neon tetra. You should adopt at least six of them at a time. They do groups in eight to 12.   

Neon tetras also do well in mixed community environments. Just make sure that your tank is large enough for all of your fish and that you pay attention to each species’ unique dietary needs. 

Some of the equipment that you’ll need includes: 

  • A tank — the minimum aquarium size is 10 gallons, but the exact size depends on your total number of fish
  • Aquatic plants — the goal is to create a generally murky atmosphere that mimics their home environment 
  • A heater
  • A high-quality filter
  • A basalt substrate for the bottom of your tank
  • A light source — for example, you could use large overhead lights for 10 hours each day followed by 14 hours of darkness

In terms of water conditions, you should try to keep your tank as close as possible to this species’ natural conditions. This includes: 

  • A slightly acidic water pH — but it can range from 6 to 8 in a standard tank setup
  • A tropical temperature range — the best neon tetra temperatures are between 72°F and 76°F
  • Nitrite levels lower than 20 parts per million
  • Nitrate levels lower than 50 parts per million

It’s a simple fact of life that all pets can develop health issues throughout their lifetimes. Neon tetras are susceptible to a large number of fish diseases.  

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a veterinarian that works with aquarium pets. Fish medicine is a growing field. But most veterinarians work with large-scale fish farms, not individual pets. If you can’t find a fish veterinarian to help, you can try consulting an expert at a local pet store — just make sure that they’re truly knowledgeable about your species. 

Neon tetra can be delightful, rewarding additions to any freshwater aquarium. Just make sure that you’ve done your research before committing to your new pets’ care.