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Goldfish and Bettas are Not the Only Bowl Fish

Aquarium store employees tell me that one of the top ten questions they get is, what else can I keep in a fish bowl other than a goldfish or Betta. They will often tell you nothing, but there are other fish that are actually better.

Some great bowl fish are paradise fish, guppies, platy variatus, white clouds, small danios, particularly zebra danios, golden China barbs, blood fin tetras, cave tetras, and salt and pepper cory cats.

Actually I have yet to find a fish that did not adapt and survive fairly well in my bowls in the warmer part of the year. Of course I know a fair amount about fish keeping and do some research before buying fish so I have been using good prospects.

In this web page I share what I have learned in my many years of keeping fish bowls.

Several decades ago in the late 70's or 80's I learned to keep fish in 10 and 20 gallon aquariums, with filters and heaters. Many types bred and the fish thrived, so I counted myself a success at traditional fish keeping.

In the last couple of decades I have been making a study of keeping fish in bowls without electricity. I am currently keeping four small tanks, two bowls, and three vases with fish inside, and I plan to set up two larger tanks outside for the summer, all without electricty. So this web site represents quite a bit of experience.

Brief Summary

The paradise fish is a great bowl fish. I have not kept them myself until recently because the point is so uncontroversial. I lost my first Paradise fish, I think I bought an infected fish from the store, my second one has been doing well for quite a few months. Paradise fish are a lot like Bettas, also called Siamese fighting fish, but their range goes much farther North and they can take cold which will bother, or even kill a Betta. Warning they will rip similar sized gold fish up. Gold fish are very passive, and paradise fish are not. Widely recommended by many experts for bowls. They breath air, and will even drown if they can not reach the surface. As they naturally live in little puddles they are well adapted to bowls. They may also harm other fish. Paradise fish can be very colorful, the problem is that it seems to be hard to actually find very colorful ones in the stores.

The feeder or wild type guppy is a great bowl fish, and can live its whole life cycle in very little water. I wouldn't recommend it but they could probably do it in a quart of water. Colorful, full of life and personality, easy to breed, simply a great fish.

Fancy guppies also work well in bowls. I was less certain about fancy guppies but after several experiments I have have found over and over that even the fancy guppies can thrive in bowls.

White cloud minnows are another great bowl fish. They come from cold mountain streams and can definitely take some cold. They are very small so a bowl is definitely big enough for them. They are also very hardy and easy to breed, even in bowls.

Zebra danios come from northern India. Some of their natural range is north of the tropic of cancer, so they can handle colder water. They are very active, and look good in those stripes. They are also hardy and easy to breed. They can even do it in a bowl. They are small enough that a large bowl is large enough for them. Sure they like to race around, but they have no trouble turning around long before they hit the side of the bowl.

The platy variatus is larger than the guppy, but comes from farther north than both guppies and the normal platy. It can take the cooler temperatures of a bowl. Like other live-bearers they are easy to breed. Mine went through several generations in about two gallons of water, with no electricity. I gave quite a few away to friends, etc.

I recommend the Salt and Pepper Cory, Corydoras paleatus. They range as far south as Argentina, and they definitely can take, indeed they prefer temperatures in the 60s. I have found they do not breed in the 70s, but they do breed in bowls in the 60s. I bought the first generation, the second, and third were hatched in bowls. The third generation has produced eggs many times, but I have not found baby fish, it appears that my male is infertile.

Blind cave tetras survive very well in two gallon bowls. As they come from caves which are often cool they can take colder water than many tropical fish. They are supposed to grow to three inches, and they probably will not do that in a two gallon bowl, but it could be reasonably argued that it is far better to keep a cave tetra that can grow to three inches in a bowl that limit it to two inches, than it is to keep a gold fish that can grow to more than a foot, 12 inches in a bowl that limits it to two inches. The cave tetra is not reaching its maximum size, the gold fish is limited to less than one percent of its normal weight. You could also keep the cave tetra in a five or ten gallon tank, which costs about the same as a two gallon bowl if you just use a tank without equipment as you would normally use a bowl.

Golden China barbs also survive well in a two gallon bowl. Like the cave tetra it may limit their size. Pretty much every thing I said above about size also applies to the golden China barb. The golden China barb as the name implies lives in China. Part of its range is north of the tropic of cancer, outside of the tropics. So it can take a little cold. I found that they remained fairly active even in winter. I read in one report that they live in Russia, but that seems a bit far fetched. The golden China barb has a fair amount in common with the gold fish. They are cyprinids, have an artificially bread gold color, and tolerate some cold. But they naturally max out at about three inches, not over a foot. For this reason they might be generally more appropriate for bowls, and a good substitute for gold fish.

Another bowl had three black skirt tetras. Once again, all three survived the cold, without obvious ill effects, but they were not active at all. They seemed a little more active in midsummer. The water was much warmer. Still even in summer they remained still much of the time. The bowl maybe too small for them. They are now in the 100 gallon tank with the barbs, cave tetras. Before that they shared a five gallon with those other fish and two American flag fish. They hide most of the time.

I have also kept a pair of American Flag Fish for a few months. I started them out in a two gallon bowl, and then transferred them to the five gallon. They were shy in both the bowl and the tank. They also failed to breed, as far as I can tell even though I definitely have a pair. Once again none died, clearly can take bowl conditions.

I have recently gotten bloodfin tetras for a second time. The first time they came in sick and soon died. This group is doing better and I think they will prove good or great bowl fish.

A more extensive description of my experience. Now I will give you a more complete and leisurely view of my couple of decades of bowl keeping.


The feeder or wild type guppy is a good bowl fish and will breed even in fairly small bowls. I knew a family that bred generation after generation in less than a quart of water. As those little mini aquariums that used to be sold in drug stores are actually more than a quart feeder guppies could probably go through their whole life cycle in a mini aquarium. I gave some feeder guppies to a preteen who had no experience keeping fish. The guppies bred in her one gallon bowl.

A gallon bowl is probably plenty big enough for breeding feeder guppies. In general I would recommend that one use two gallon bowls, a two and a half gallon tank or perhaps a large plastic pet carrier, like Lee's Kritter Keepers, for most of the fish discussed here. However, feeder guppies are very small fish and they do thrive and reproduce in smaller volumes of water.

I would not recommend keeping even feeder guppies in a quart, like those mini aquariums that used to be sold in drug stores, but if you insist on keeping any fish in a quart jar or a mini aquarium a feeder guppy is probably the kindest choice. It is perhaps the only commonly kept aquarium fish that would have a decent chance of going through its whole life cycle in such a small container.

Several years ago I kept Endler's livebearers in bowls. Endler's livebearers are very closely related to guppies. It took careful scientific study to determine they are a different species. They come from the guppy's natural range in northern South America. So they can give us some idea of how a natural guppy might react. I found out they do not like cold. The ability to deal with cold is one of the key abilities of a good bowl fish.

I bought two last summer that rapidly died. As it was summer this had nothing to do with cold. I assume they must have been infected with something when I brought them home from the store.

This happens to me fairly frequently with fish that I buy from the feeder tanks, but not when the fish are sold as pets. At any rate, before the female died five fish fry were born and all those lived.

As winter came on and temperature dropped to the low sixties in the bowl the Endler's livebearers slowed down and did not move much. I had much the same experience with balloon mollies and red coral platies. The fish slowed down and did not move much. In all three cases all the fish lived, the mollies even kept their fins spread, but it seemed clear they were outside their comfort range.

I have not had this experience with feeder guppies. I assume this is because the feeder guppies have evolved to survive colder temperatures. Feeder guppies are sometimes collected outside here in the Sacramento area and it is claimed that they can survive the winter in large bodies of water.

Feeders in other areas, particularly colder areas, may not have this ability. As the guppies probably could not survive the winter in an area with snow they would have to be breed indoors and would not develop the cold tolerance. But I could be wrong, perhaps feeders are pretty cold tolerant everywhere. If the feeder guppies in your area are not cold tolerant that would make them less appropriate for bowls.

In the late 70's or early 80's I tried to keep a couple of male fancy guppies in a bowl, both died fairly rapidly.

More recently I kept an injured fancy guppy in a half gallon bowl. It recovered in the half gallon bowl. I returned it to a friend. This happened in mid winter with the bowl temperature in the low 60's.

I also kept several other fancy guppies that were not injured in my Lee's Kritter Keeper. All seemed to survive quite well. They did not seem bothered by the low 60's temperature.

These fancy guppies, or most of them at any rate, were breed and raised in a home aquarium.

I took the fancy guppies from the Lee's Kritter Keeper into school and put them in a unheated tank that has about a hundred gallons of water. I suspect that temperatures are commonly down in the sixties, but they seem to be surviving well. So more and more I was convinced that even fancy guppies can survive bowl conditions.

More recently I continued my experiments with fancy guppies. In the last few months I have kept several fancy guppies. The female gave birth, but I think I did not notice it early enough and I have only five young. At any rate the young and the male are doing well but the female seems to have fallen ill. This happened I believe more than a month after giving birth. I can not blame this on the store, I had kept her for months before this happened. I can say this is quite rare for me. I have I believe 18 other fish that seem healthy.

At any rate I am becoming convinced from quite a bit of experience that even fancy guppies go quite well in bowls.

But the simple feeder guppy is not just a good bowl fish, it is a great bowl fish.

Platy Variatus

Platy variatus comes from an area farther north than the ordinary platy and is therefore better able to take colder temperatures. As I mentioned above the red coral platies did not move much when the temperature was below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The two platy variatus that I bought survived a winter and their young did just find the next winter, producing the third generation in the spring. I returned the parents to the store after I got the second generation well started. I gave the second generation to the store, a friend, and a public school where I work. The descendents are still living in a school aquarium many years later. I have no idea how many generations they have gone through, but it is so many that they have lost much of their color and are evolving back to the wild type.

I kept what I think were platy variatus several years ago and they did just fine. I say I think they were platy variatus, I got them from a feeder tank. They were definitely platies and they were shaped like platy variatus.

They went through an interesting process of sex change. One got right in the middle of a sex change and became a hermaphrodite. I do not usually name my fish, but in this case I made an exception and called it Pat.

As best I can remember, I did not succeed in getting fry. This probably had something to do with the sex change.

One difficulty with them now is that the stores seldom have them. They used to be a standard. You might want to ask one of the local stores to get them for you as a special order. The store employees tell me they will be glad to do this. There are a number of good bowl fish you can get this way.

As Platy variatus are larger than guppies it would be good to have at least a two gallon bowl for them, and perhaps better still a large plastic Lee's Kritter Keepers, or a two and a half gallon tank. The Kritter Keepers come in various sizes, the large is more than three gallons.

White Cloud Minnows

While fish stores usually don't recommend white clouds for bowls, many web pages on the Internet will. White clouds are one of the most commonly used fish for the mini-aquariums that were commonly sold a few years back.

These were plastic cubes with about a quart of water and several small fish. The people who work at fish stores think those things are terrible.

Nevertheless, the mini-aquariums are the basis of much of my thinking. My plan is to use two gallon bowls and three gallon plastic pet carriers with many of the the same fish used in the mini-aquariums. If the PhD expert who invented the mini-aquarium thinks the fish can live in a little more than a quart I figure they will thrive in the larger bowls or plastic containers. I suppose it is of little surprise that the fish have thrived under these conditions.

I like to think I am inventing a kinder, gentler mini aquarium.

I have had good luck keeping white clouds, and I highly recommend them as one of the best bowl fish. I have no difficulty keeping them alive for years, and they swim around very normally in a two gallon bowl.

White clouds come from the tropics, near Hong Kong, but they come from up in the mountains. The full common name is White Cloud Mountain Minnow or Fish. The words White Cloud refer to the Mountain not the fish.

So while White Clouds are not as cold tolerant as gold fish they do tolerate cool temperatures. They live out doors in the Sacramento area year around. In fact the Sacramento Zoo has only one fish, the White Cloud Minnow. I assume they keep them out side. The normal daily mean temperature in Sacramento during the month of January is 45 degrees Fahrenheit, about seven degrees Centigrade. At night the temperature is colder, but in a reasonably large body of water the fish may be dealing with the mean temperature for the day. At any rate Innes says in his famous book, Exotic Aquarium Fishes, that the White Cloud can take down to 40 degrees.

I found it reasonably difficult to get the White Clouds to breed. They did not like the super hard water we have in my community. I had to get bottled water to encourage them to breed. Of course they lived fine in the hard water, and the males were interested in breeding. It took soft water to make the females willing.

The books say they do not eat their eggs or fry. This was not my experience. I put a small jar full of Java Moss in the bowl and then put it in a separate bowl. Sometimes I got fish fry. I never had fish fry develop in the bowl with the parents. This may have just been the fish I was dealing with. I should try with new fish sometime.

Zebra Danio

I have kept zebra danios in a two gallon bowl. They did just fine in winter. The temperature was commonly 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 16 Celsius. Maybe even a little colder, evaporation makes the temperature in the bowls about a couple of degrees colder than the room. The zebras showed no sign of distress and remained active.

I really enjoyed the Zebra bowl. I had several cryptocoryn plants in the bowl, I started with one. It is a nice jungle and the zebras are active and healthy. I feel it is really the ideal bowl I dreamed of. Not that the bowls have not worked all along, but things seem particularly nice now.

I finally got the zebra danios to breed, after trying many times. I put a round clear plastic dish with sides that come up about an inch all around in the bowl. The indoor plant department of my local hardware store sells these. They are normally used as dishes for potted plants. The dish had some Java Moss in it held down by some smooth round stones. The danios laid eggs in this and I put the dish in another container.

The first time I got fry they did not survive, but later groups did. I raised the young to sexual maturity, but they are smaller than the zebras usually sold in stores. The females are plump which suggests they have eggs, but I never did succeeded at getting a second generation in the bowls. This maybe because all the fish were females.

Many of the zebras from the bowls were given away. A friend took some, a science teacher, and the principle took the others. I kept about seven which I am hoped to breed, but it seems that they all turned out to be females.

You might be thinking that if the zebra danio is good other small danios would also be good. But I have noted from maps that the other species come from farther south. The northern part of the zebra danio's range is actually north of the tropics. This is why it can take the colder temperatures. Small fish whose range is crossed by the tropic of Cancer or Capricorn often make good bowl fish.

Salt and Pepper Cory Cats

The Corydoras paleatus, salt and pepper cory, seem very well adapted to life in a 3 gallon large Lee's Kritter Keeper. The first one I bought was doing well so I bought a female. When I took the zebra danios out they had eggs on the side of the aquarium within two days.

As this happened in winter the temperature was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 16 Celsius. The eggs took about two weeks to develop and hatch. This is a long time and I gave them up for lost, but I did not disturb them and I eventually noticed that that they were developing and that one of the fry moved while i was watching it with three magnifying glasses.

The three magnifying glasses are in a plastic holder that allows me to use them individually or in combination. Together they give quite a bit of magnification. I got the set from Radio Shack for about ten dollars, and I have been very pleased with it.

The first group of fry disappeared, but more eggs kept appearing. I finally gave up on the project and put the Java Moss in a mini Lee's Kritter Keeper which contains about a quart of water. I put this on the windowsill outside the curtains so it could get sun. I checked the Java Moss to find out how it was growing and of course I noticed that I had baby cat fish.

I transferred these to a white dish pan which had not been used, so there was no soap residue to worry about. I used this to raise the cat fish. Eventually I put some of the young in with the parents when they were big enough. Finally, I took the parents back to the store.

I fed them dry food that I ground fine in my fingers. Now I just use the fish food as is because most of the fish are now normal size, or at least plenty large enough to eat regular food. I stir the water to sink it to the bottom.

I have also fed them hard boiled egg yolk when they were younger. I put a little piece in a tiny in a little bottle, about an inch long, and shake it up. I pour the resulting yellow soup into the dish pan. Later I have simply crushed the old dried egg yolk from the refrigerator between my fingers.

I also cleaned the gunk from the bottom of my other bowls and put it in the fry tank. I checked the gunk under a microscope and noticed something wiggling, live food for the fry.

The fry grew up. One is really stunted, some are to small, several are about the size they are normally sold at in the shops. I currently have six in two Lee's Kritter Keepers. They seem to be doing fine. It seems that the parents eat the small fry, but these are large enough to survive.

The parents stopped producing eggs when the temperature went up with the coming of summer. I think they do not like the heat. Temperature are frequently over 80 Fahrenheit, 25 Celsius. this seems to be high enough that they have lost interest in breeding. Still they produced a lot of eggs when the weather was cooler.

Simply put the Salt and Pepper Cory Catfish seems to be very well adapted to life in large bowls, two and a half gallon tanks and Lee's Kritter Keepers.

Rosy or Flathead Minnows

Rosy Minnows are a white color mutation of the wild Flathead Minnow that is sold as a feeder in some pet stores. It will most certainly live in a bowl. It can take very cold water, probably colder than anything other than a Gold Fish, and maybe even colder than that.

I found them hardy enough, but dull in my bowls. It is obvious even in the store that they are not particularly attractive. What I found in my bowls is that they took full advantage of the flower pots I turned on one side to give them a cave. They took cover and rarely swam around like the other fish I keep.

I had read that they guard their young, so I was anxious to see them breed. I had no luck on this score.

All of this is a bit of shame, it would be nice to have something that one could keep at very low temperatures.

Balloon Mollies and Coral Red Platties

I have kept both of these and both survived well, they did not get sick. As mentioned at least once above, both moved very slowly when the temperature was in 60 to 70 Fahrenheit, 15 to 20 degrees Celsius. Both of these fish have been developed in captivity and may not be as tough as fish that are closer to the wild type. I may well test fish that are closer to the wild type in the future.

Mollies are naturally much bigger and therefore questionable for use in bowls. I generally try to grow fish up to something close to their natural size.

I kept the Mollies for a long time and I did not get any fry, which suggests that they were not appropriate for a bowl.

The Coral Red Platies are sold as a very small Platy and they might be great for bowls if they were not so sensitive to cooler temperatures.

In only kept the Coral Red Platies for a short time and all of that was in the winter when it was cold so I do not know if they would have produced young if I had kept them longer, particularly in the warmer part of the year.

Fish I Have Not Tried Yet

My investigation of bowl keeping is a work in progress. There are some very good fish I have not tried yet.

Paradise Fish

While most fish store employees will say nothing but a Betta or a goldfish can live in a bowl some of the more sophisticated recommend paradise fish as the best choice. The paradise fish is a relative of the Betta or fighting fish, the key difference is that it comes from colder climates and therefore better suited for unheated bowls, particularly if you save energy in the winter by turning down the heat.

The down side for most people will be that the paradise fish is closer to its wild type and therefore does not have the color and long flowing fins of the Betta. Actually I think the wild paradise fish has more color than the wild Betta, but it has not developed in captivity the way the Betta has.

Another advantage of the paradise fish is that as a bubble nester it cares for its young. While one can breed guppies, and white clouds in bowls, and zebra danios, salt and pepper corys, and platy variatus can be breed in larger bowls none of these fish care for their young. If you want to see fish parential care in a bowl or small unheated tank the paradise fish is perhaps the best bet.

Another reason I am interested in bloodfins is that it is a Characin. Characins are a major grouping of fish in the aquarium trade and blood fins are perhaps the obvious bowl fish of the group.

Other Pages on Site

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Biological Filtration Without Electricity

Italian Cities are Outlawing Fishbowls

Home Page, General Information on Fishbowls YouTube Video on the advantages of fish bowls, featuring my blind cave tetras

Another video featuring my blind cave tetras and discussing my hobby.

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Last Updated May 4th, 2016