An exotic fish might sound out of your league as a newcomer aquarist, but they are not as challenging to take care of as you might think.
Plenty of exotic fish species can be kept in a tank at home with the right level of care; you just have to find the fit for you.
We’ve created this guide to show you exotic freshwater fish you can keep and how to care for each species.
With our help, you’ll know how to look after popular exotic species like Vampire Tetras and African Cichlids, leveling up your fish keeper game.
8 Exotic Freshwater Fish You Can Keep At Home
Hundreds of exotic fish species are out there, but a small handful would suit home aquarists perfectly.
Check out these eight species and learn a little more about them before considering whether you should add them to your tank.
Arowana, also known as a monkey or bony fish, is one of the larger species of exotic freshwater fish you can keep at home.
These carnivores need a mixed diet and access to smaller crustaceans and other fish that they can eat, but their tank mates should be non-aggressive and large enough so they’re not confused for food.
Like other exotic fish, the Arowana has a lifespan of 10 to 15 years.
The larger adults of the species can reach up to three feet long, so you must have a tank to cater to them and mimic their natural environment.
A 60-gallon tank is best for a juvenile, but you’ll need at least 250 gallons when full size.
Although known as one of the easier exotic fish to care for, the freshwater discus can be high maintenance if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Most importantly, they need a larger tank size of around 75 gallons, with a school of between 10 and 12 fish, to prevent bullying from occurring in smaller groups.
An adult will measure between 5.0 and 6.0 inches with a lifespan of 10 to 15 years with the proper care.
The water temperature should remain around 85 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit to keep these fish happy and prevent you from changing the water daily.
A variety of foods is needed, but it’s essential to have them small so their mouths can eat properly. For example, frozen bloodworms are a great treat but shouldn’t be fed daily.
Koi Bettas (Betta Splendens)
Koi bettas are striking, colorful, and peaceful members of the fish community.
As an omnivore, their diet should consist of a betta pellet mixed with frozen and live food for variety.
The tank conditions should be between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit with a 5.5 – 7.0 pH range, and they’re considered incredibly hardy.
The Koi betta will only live for around three years, with the adults reaching around three inches in size at maturity.
However, they are incredibly low maintenance with requirements like a minimum five-gallon tank and a peaceful nature, making them good cohabitants with many other fish types.
Royal Farlowella Catfish (Sturisoma Panamense)
The Royal Farlowella Catfish, also known as the Royal Whiptail Catfish, has a long, slender body and a tail that resembles a whip.
They are peaceful and beautiful and, when cared for properly, will live in a freshwater tank for up to 10 years.
This herbivorous fish needs a biofilm, vegetables, and algae diet to thrive and is a hardy breed, doing well in a community tank.
The best tank size for the Farlowella is at least 30 gallons, with a pH range of 6.5 – 7.5 and a water temperature of 72 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit.
Vampire Tetra (Hydrolycus Scomberoides)
The Vampire Tetra, or payara, is considered one of the most challenging freshwater exotic fish to keep at home but has striking fangs that grow up to six inches long.
This large fish only eats live food, meaning other fish, and they need several daily feedings.
They’re usually kept in a professional aquarium with a pH range of 6.0 to 8.0 and a temperature of 75 to 82 degrees, and they need at least 500 gallons in tank size.
The lifespan of a Vampire Tetra is around two years, and even less in a home aquarium, which can be off-putting considering how much effort they require.
They require pristine water in a large tank with a weekly 50% water change to stay healthy and at least six others for company.
Wolf Cichlid (Parachromis Dovii)
The Wolf Cichlid, also known as Dovii Cichlid, is a bright and colorful predator. They live an astonishing 25 to 30 years with proper care, and adults will grow to around 30 inches at maturity.
Their ideal tank mates should also be large and powerful or have none, and they are difficult to care for.
Their requirements are for a tank at least 150 gallons in size, with a pH range of 6.8 to 7.6, and a water temperature of 75 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit to match their natural environment of Central America.
A diet of carnivorous foods, including pellets, live, and frozen foods, is needed to accommodate their growth.
African Cichlids (Labidochromis Caeruleus)
The African cichlid is a large exotic freshwater fish that comes in various colors and behavioral patterns, and they’re appreciated for their low-maintenance keeping.
However, their nature is highly active and aggressive, which makes them enjoyable to watch, and depending on the type, they need at least a 20-gallon for a single fish to be comfortable.
These fish require a pH range of 6.5 to 8.5 gallons with temperatures between 75- and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Their diet will depend on the type of African cichlid you have, some being herbivores, carnivores, or insectivores.
They will measure around five to six inches at maturity, which varies between types.
Flowerhorn Cichlid (Amphilophus Hybrid)
With a beautiful bulbous head and bright coloring, the Flowerhorn Cichlid is popular in exotic freshwater tanks but not naturally found in the wild.
This fish has a life span of around 12 years and, at maturity, will grow up to 16 inches.
Their care level is generally low, but you must be careful about tank mates as they are naturally aggressive.
The Flowerhorn cichlid’s tank should be at least 70 gallons in size, with a pH range of between 7.0 and 8.0.
Caring for an Exotic Freshwater Fish
If you’re considering starting an exotic freshwater tank, there are a few things you’ll need to tick off for your fish to thrive.
These all depend on the species of fish you have, so more specific instructions are recommended once you choose a fish.
Setting up the tank
The assembly of the fish tank is essential to ensure it meets the requirements for each species.
This includes water temperature, pH, nitrite, nitrate, and the right tank size to accommodate the fish and their growth. You’ll need accessories like filters, lighting, substrate thermometers, plants, and testing kits.
Tank Maintenance and Cleaning
A fish tank should have at least 20% of its water changed every fortnight and requires regular cleaning of the walls and any elements within.
Ongoing maintenance is also a must to ensure the tank meets the specific requirements of the fish, like pH levels and nutrients.
Each fish type has a preferred tank mate, a species they can feel comfortable and at peace in the same space.
Fish species have different behavioral patterns like aggression and territorialism, so you want to ensure the tank community is as peaceful as possible.
Feeding the fish
Determine whether the fish is an omnivore, herbivore, or insectivore. Although fish can survive on pellet food alone, it’s not recommended, so variety is usually key with all species.
The frequency of feeding will also differ by species, with some needing multiple feeds daily and others just once a week.
Bringing the Exotic to Your Home
The term ‘exotic’ can be enough to scare some amateur fish keepers away when it comes to choosing new tank mates, but it shouldn’t.
As you can see, plenty of exotic fish species can thrive ideally at home in your tank, provided you give them the proper care.
Som exotic fish might require extra attention and special care instructions, but they’ll reward you with their personalities for years to come.
Not to mention their beauty will turn your tank into a gorgeous attraction. Consider our recommendations for the best exotic freshwater fish to keep at home and open up a new world of possibilities for your tank.
Ian Sterling, founder of Fishlab.com, began his aquarium journey over 30 years ago, driven by a deep fascination for fish and their diverse personalities. His website, Fishlab.com, is dedicated to making fishkeeping accessible and enjoyable, offering beginner-friendly guidance, expert insights, and a community for aquarists to connect and share experiences.