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Cardinal Tetra Vs. Neon Tetra: What Is The Difference

Pet fish are relatively easy to care for, depending on the type of fish that you choose, and there are many small species that are perfect for life in a nano tank. That makes them ideal for children and apartment dwellers.

Some of the most desirable species of small tropical aquarium fish are tetras, with the Cardinal tetra and the Neon tetra being the most popular. Although these two species do look very similar, they are different. 

Read this guide on the Cardinal vs. Neon tetra to find out what you need to know.

What Is The Difference Between The Cardinal Tetra and Neon Tetra?

Cardinal and Neon tetras look very similar and the two species are often confused.

However, Cardinal tetras are slightly larger than Neons, and the red stripe on the lower half of the fish’s body runs along the full length of the fish from its eye to the tail. In Neon tetras, the red stripe begins in the middle of the body, slightly below the dorsal fin, extending to the tail.

Comparison Table

Features

Cardinal Tetra

Neon Tetra

Cardinal Tetra
Neon Tetra Paracheirodon innesi freshwater tropical fish

Appearance: Coloration, Size

Red, silver, turquoise blue
2 inches long

Red, silver, turquoise blue
1 inch long

Water Conditions

Hardness: 2 to 8 dGH
pH: 4.5 to 7.0

Hardness: 3 to 25 dGH
pH: 5.0 to 8.0

Temperature

73° to 81° Fahrenheit

68° to 77° Fahrenheit

Lifespan

2 to 5 years

5 to 8 years

Cardinal Tetra

Cardinal Tetra

Appearance: Coloration, Size

Red, silver, turquoise blue
2 inches long

Water Conditions

Hardness: 2 to 8 dGH
pH: 4.5 to 7.0

Temperature

73° to 81° Fahrenheit

Lifespan

2 to 5 years

Neon Tetra

Neon Tetra Paracheirodon innesi freshwater tropical fish

Appearance: Coloration, Size

Red, silver, turquoise blue
1 inch long

Water Conditions

Hardness: 3 to 25 dGH
pH: 5.0 to 8.0

Temperature

68° to 77° Fahrenheit

Lifespan

5 to 8 years

  • Cardinal and Neon tetras are two different species of tetras, although they both belong to the same family, Characidae.
  • Cardinal tetras are slightly larger than Neons, reaching approximately 2 inches in length vs. 1 inch.
  • Neon tetras are generally regarded as being easier to care for than the Cardinals. Also, if you want to breed your fish at home, Neon tetras are typically easier to breed than their lookalike Cardinal cousins.
Cardinal Tetras swimming with green plants and pebbles
  • Neon tetras are typically hardier than Cardinals, largely because the Neon tetra is commercially bred in huge numbers, specifically for the pet trade. Over time, that has made the Neon tetra much more tolerant of a wide range of water conditions. Cardinal tetras are, therefore, more sensitive to unstable or varied water conditions.
  • Both Cardinal and Neon tetras are schooling fish that must be kept in groups of at least six individuals to thrive in captivity.

Comparing Neon Tetras And Cardinal Tetras

In this part of our comparison guide to these two extremely popular aquarium fishes, we take a closer look at some of the similarities and differences between them.

The Cardinal Tetra

First of all, let’s discuss the bright and beautiful Cardinal tetra.

Origin and Distribution

Cardinal tetras are native to parts of South America, particularly the Rio Negro and Orinoco, and they can also be found in Venezuela and Brazil. The species was first described back in 1956 by Schultz.

Unlike Neon tetras, most Cardinal tetras that are sold in the trade are currently wild-caught. Cardinals are not as easy to breed commercially as Neons, but their capture also indirectly prevents deforestation and habitat destruction, as it provides work for local people who would otherwise be drawn to those industries.

Despite being wild-caught in large numbers, Cardinal tetras are not listed on the IUCN Red List since their numbers are still plentiful.

Habitat

In the wild, Cardinal tetras live in slow-moving streams and river tributaries that flow through densely forested areas. The overhanging rainforest canopy here creates a shadowy environment, and falling leaves and branches stain the waters brown with tannins, creating a blackwater habitat.

Cardinal tetras live in large shoals, feeding on plant matter, tiny crustaceans, insect larvae, and aquatic worms.

Social Behavior

Cardinal tetras are basically very peaceful little characters that spend their days flitting around the tank in a school, picking at fragments of food.

A school of small red and blue neon fish swim in the aquarium

Unfortunately, like many tetra species, Cardinals do have a reputation for fin nipping.

Diet and Feeding

Like Neons, Cardinal tetras are omnivores, enjoying a varied diet of plant matter and meaty protein. For the best health and colors, you should feed your Cardinals a varied diet of high-quality flakes, mini pellets, and frozen foods such as bloodworms, daphnia, brine shrimp, etc.

Although Cardinals do appreciate live foods, I recommend that you give your fish frozen meaty foods instead. Live food is the main way that parasites and diseases are introduced to your fish tank.

Feed your fish once or twice per day, offering only what the tetras will clear in a few minutes so as not to overfeed them.

Tankmates

Cardinal tetras make good community fish, provided that you avoid slow-moving species with flowing finnage that could be nipped by the tetras. 

Suitable tank mates for Cardinals include: 

  • Corydoras catfish
  • Neon tetras
  • Dwarf gouramis

Breeding

Cardinal tetras are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, which is why most of the fish you find in pet shops are wild-caught. 

Variants

Although they are considered to be the same species, there are several variants of the Cardinal tetra.

The appearance of these fish is influenced by where they originate. Gold and silver-blonde color morphs are often taken from the Rio Negro drainage, whereas fish from the Orinoco drainage sport a turquoise stripe that’s shorter than that seen on Cardinals that are caught in other locations.

The Neon Tetra

Now, let’s move on to the characteristics of the Neon tetra.

Origin and Distribution 

Neon tetras come from South America, specifically Rio Taquari, the Paraguay River Basin, Pantanal of Mato, Grosso do Sul, and also in Brazil.

Like the Cardinal tetra, the Neon is plentiful in the wild and does not currently appear on the IUCN Red List.

Since it’s easy to breed Neon tetras in captivity, the fish you see in the trade are commercially bred rather than wild-caught.

Habitat

Like Cardinals, Neon tetras inhabit slow-moving blackwater bodies such as river tributaries that flow through rainforest areas.

The fish swim in massive schools, primarily in the middle area of the water column, eating a similar diet to the Cardinal tetra of aquatic worms, plant matter, and tiny crustaceans.

Social Behavior

Neon tetras are naturally schooling fish that should be kept in groups of at least six individuals.

Like Cardinal tetras, Neons will show their best colors and be most active in the aquarium if they feel secure and safe, which is best achieved when the fish are kept in a large group.

A school of small neon tetra fish swim in the aquarium

Neon tetras spend most of their days swimming around in a shoal in the central area of the water column, occasionally breaking off into smaller groups to explore swim-throughs and clumps of plants.

Diet and Feeding

Neon tetras need a similar diet to Cardinal tetras.

Feed your Neons on high-quality fish flakes and pellets, together with regular portions of frozen and freeze-dried bloodworms, brine shrimp, daphnia, etc. All tropical fish species require a varied, balanced diet to keep them in good health and bring out their finest colors. 

I recommend that you feed your fish twice a day. Give your Neons enough food to keep them busy for a few minutes, and be careful that you don’t overfeed your fish.

Tank Mates

Neon tetras are peaceful little creatures, although they can be prone to fin nipping. For that reason, you should avoid including fish such as bettas that have trailing fins that could be a target for a nippy Neon. However, nippy behavior is usually confined to other, smaller members of the Neon school rather than other tank mates.

The best tank mates for Neon tetras are small species that won’t attempt to eat the little fish! Fish such as Mollies, Cardinal tetras, Platys, and Corydoras catfish can make suitable companions for the Neon tetra.

Breeding

Neon tetras are easier to breed in the home tank environment than Cardinal tetras. However, breeding this species can still be a challenge for the hobbyist.

However, if the conditions in your community tank are right, your Neon tetras will spawn. Tetras are not good parents in that they don’t guard their eggs or fry and will often eat them if they get the chance. For that reason, it’s best to set up a separate spawning tank.

You can breed Neons from around nine months old, either in pairs or in shoals, with a ratio of two female fish to one male.

Varieties

There are quite a few varieties of Neon tetras that you’ll find in your local fish store, including:

Green Neon Tetra underwater
Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org
  • True Neon tetra
  • Diamond Head Neon tetra
  • Longfin Neon tetra 
  • Gold Neon tetra
  • Albino Neon tetra
  • Red Neon tetra
  • Black Neon tetra
  • Green Neon tetra

All these varieties of tetras are omnivores and schooling species. The Neons that you find in fish and pet stores are all captive-bred by commercial breeders in the Far East and Eastern Europe.

For that reason, Neons are generally less expensive to buy than Cardinals, especially if you buy numbers of them at discounted prices.

Stand Out Features

  • Neon tetras come in a wider variety of different color morphs than Cardinal tetras, and you can even find a long-finned variety.
  • Cardinal tetras are pretty much impossible to breed in captivity, whereas Neons are relatively easy to breed in a spawning tank.
  • Neon tetras are more robust and tolerant of a wider range of water conditions than Cardinal tetras.
  • Both Neon and Cardinal tetras are suitable for life in small aquariums. However, these are very active schooling fish that do need plenty of swimming space. Also, these tetras create a much more impressive display of brilliant, flashing colors if kept in large numbers in a spacious tank.
  • Both Cardinal and Neon tetras are peaceful fishes that can live in a community tank. That said, both have a reputation for nippiness and should, therefore, not be kept with long-finned, slow-moving fish species.
  • Neon and Cardinal tetras both come from a tropical rainforest habitat where the water of the river tributaries where the fish live is stained brown by the tannins that leach from fallen leaves. Consequently, these fish look best when displayed in a heavily planted blackwater biotope that really makes their beautiful neon colors pop.

In Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed our comparison guide to the Cardinal tetra and the Neon tetra. If you loved our article, please share it with other tetra fanatics!

Cardinal tetras are slightly larger than Neon tetras, and they are also more challenging to keep. Also, since they are wild-caught, Cardinal tetras are usually more expensive to buy than Neons. For those reasons, Neon tetras are the best choice for beginners to the hobby, being more tolerant of a wider range of water conditions and somewhat more forgiving of the rookie errors that are sometimes made by newbies. 

Both fish species prefer a black water environment with lots of lush planting and subdued lighting, which also shows off the Neon and Cardinals’ brilliant colors to its full effect. 

Do you have Neon or Cardinal tetras in your community tank? Have you successfully bred your fish in the home tank? Tell us all about your tetra adventures in the comments box below!

Alison Page has been an avid fish keeper for over 35 years and has owned many different species of freshwater tropical fish including bettas. Currently Alison has two large freshwater tanks. The first tank has two huge fancy goldfish who are almost ten years old and still looking as good as ever. In the other, she has a happy community of tiger barbs, green tiger barbs, corydoras catfish, platys, and mollies.

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