When Neon Tetras are not schooling, it’s natural to wonder if you’ve done something wrong or if you can do something to encourage this natural Neon behavior.
We all love to see a big group of fish shoaling together (more on this below!) but actually, it’s usually a good sign when Neon Tetras aren’t schooling. Read on to find out why!
Do Neon Tetras school?
Neon Tetras don’t actually school. Schooling is highly synchronized behavior where huge schools of fish behave as one organism to confuse predators and protect the group. Shoaling, where fish basically swim close to each other, is what Neons do, but most people confuse the two.
For the purposes of this article I’ll use the two terms interchangeably as there are a lot of questions online about Neon Tetras ‘schooling’, and yes, they are both happier and healthier in a large group.
Neons behave like this because of their quick reflexes and extreme sensitivity to stimuli like movements in the water – each fish reacts the same way to the same conditions, making it easy for the group to stick together rather than darting off in all directions when threatened.
Read more: Neon Tetra behavior guide
How many Neon Tetras for a school?
The minimum number of Neons that should be kept together is 6, but ideally groups of 10 or more are needed to help them feel safe and reduce stress. The key is making sure your tank is big enough to accommodate this number of Neons.
In fish like Neon Tetras, stress leads directly to physical health problems and even early death, and schooling fish like Neons therefore rely on the safety in numbers that comes with living in a school. Too few and your fish are in fear of being attacked by predators.
However, always make sure that your tank is big enough to accommodate this number of fish before committing to buying a school of Tetras. If you over-stock the tank the bioload will be too high and your fish will suffer the health problems associated with poor water quality.
Why are my Neon Tetras not schooling?
In the wild, Neon Tetras are more likely to school together to achieve safety in numbers as they live in waters where natural predators exist. In your aquarium, especially if there are no obvious dangers from other fish, they may not school (or shoal) at all.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but many fishkeepers buy Neon Tetras specifically because they love to see them schooling across the tank, which is understandable.
However, fish are intelligent animals and the first priority of any owner should be their health and happiness rather than simply seeing them as decoration. If you have happy fish that don’t feel the need to school together, be satisfied that you’re doing a great job, not annoyed that your ‘display’ didn’t turn out as planned!
Another reason why your Neon Tetras may not be schooling is that there are simply too few of them in the group. If you have less than 6 Neons in your tank there would just be no point in them schooling for safety, as the school would not be big enough to put off any potential attackers.
Increasing the size of the group by adding more to the tank may work, but again, always make sure your tank is big enough before adding more or you risk over-stocking and impacting the health of your fish.
One Neon Tetra not schooling
If one Neon Tetra won’t school it could be a sign of illness, which always affects a fish’s behavior first. Keep an eye out for signs of conditions like Neon Tetra Disease, Ich or Dropsy and quarantine any fish that displays symptoms immediately.
This is especially true if any of your Neon Tetras stopped schooling suddenly. If the tank conditions were right and your fish were schooling before, seeing them leave the group can rightly be worrying.
Once you’ve eliminated illness as a possibility, pay attention to how many Neons are in the tank and whether they’re male or female.
Firstly, if there are fewer than 6-10 Neon Tetras in a group they rarely school (again, they actually shoal) as this isn’t enough to feel any safer, as mentioned above. Having at least 6, but ideally 10 or more, will encourage more natural schooling behavior, including having all the Neons schooling together rather than the odd one doing its own thing.
Secondly, if there are too many males, it’s not unusual for one to be excluded from the group as a result of competition for the attention of the females. A good rule with fish is to have two females for every male so there are plenty of ladies to go around, as weird as that feels to write in the 21st century!
It’s so cool to watch neon tetras school around the tank. Imagine having a 150 gallon tank with 200 tetras schooling in it. Of course you need lots of plants and filtration. pic.twitter.com/KGNopss4MA— The man with a plan! (@Tonyb441) March 9, 2021
How to get Neon Tetras to school
If you’re struggling to get your Neon Tetras to school and you’re sure they’re not ill, make sure you have enough fish in the group to encourage this behavior, you could add more Neons to give them a reason to naturally school together for safety.
You could also add other tank mates that won’t be a danger to your Neons, but will be active and/or big enough to make your Neons think twice about swimming off alone. Here’s a list of suitable tankmates for Neon Tetras.
Neon Tetras shoal (not school!) to protect themselves from predators in the wild and this may be perfectly natural, but you should also consider whether it’s worth taking away the feeling of safety just to encourage behavior that you, a responsible owner, think looks nice in your tank.
Do Neon Tetras school or shoal?
Neon Tetras shoal, rather than school. Schooling is a highly synchronized action whereas shoaling describes a group of fish that basically just swim together in a group. However, many people use the two terms interchangeably, which is fine unless you want to be particularly pedantic!
Why aren’t my Neon Tetras schooling?
If your Neon Tetras aren’t schooling it can be a sign of illness so look out for symptoms. Otherwise they just might not feel threatened enough to need to stick together, for example if there are no other fish in the tank to make them nervous.
Do Neon Tetras always school?
Neon Tetras don’t always school, but will school (or more accurately, shoal) together when kept in large enough groups and when they feel like they need ‘safety in numbers’ due to having other fish in the tank that could be seen as a threat to a lone Neon.
Will mixed Tetras school together?
Some different species of Tetras will school together in the right conditions, such as when the individual groups aren’t big enough to form schools exclusively with their own kind. It helps if they’re similar in appearance, like Neon and Cardinal Tetras which look almost identical.
As stunning as it looks when you see YouTube videos of Neon Tetras displaying perfect schooling (or shoaling!) behavior, don’t stress too much if your Neons don’t stick together in one group all the time.
If my Neon Tetras aren’t schooling, it’s a sign that I’ve created an environment where they feel safe and happy. You can add more to the group if you have too few to make them feel safe in a tight group, but always make sure your tank is big enough to avoid over-stocking.