What Fish Can Live with Turtles?
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Turtles aren’t the most unexpected pets, but they aren’t that common either. That being said, turtles have something most other pets lack, and that’s the astounding biological diversity.
I am talking specifically about their ability to adapt to vastly different environments, making turtles real-life hybrids.
They are the equivalent of a cat that could fly. Or a dog that only sleeps underwater.
These semiaquatic creatures come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and temperaments and often display vastly different biologies.
Some like water more than others, and knowing which species to choose boils down to understanding your expectations.
To better understand turtles, in case you’re not familiar enough with these creatures, here are some useful facts:
- Turtles can live decades, around 50 to 70 years, with proper care and depending on the species
- They like to live alone, as they tend to display aggressive and territorial behavior when in the presence of another turtle
- Turtles require a semiaquatic setup with both dry land and enough water for them to practice their swimming and hunting abilities
- Turtles are rather high maintenance animals that require strict care to thrive and remain healthy
Now that you know the basics let’s dive into the heart of it. If you’re planning to get a turtle, what fish can you consider as tank mates?
Can Fish Live with Pet Turtles?
Yes and no. For the record, turtles are omnivorous creatures, so they will kill and eat smaller fish if they find them in their habitat.
That being said, you can pair turtles with some fish species, provided you consider several points, such as:
- Ensuring optimal space – Turtles require a mix of dry land and deeper water to swim occasionally. There should be enough aquatic space for both the turtle and the fish you’re planning to introduce to the tank. This will achieve 2 things. First, the turtle won’t feel constricted and claustrophobic in a space filled with fish swimming in all directions, which can happen. The second is that the larger water volume will allow the fish to dart away from the turtle if things go south.
- Avoiding small fish – You can tell whether a fish is too small by comparing it to your turtle. Some turtles only grow up to 3-4 inches, while others are larger, going for 8 inches and above. You should choose the ideal fish based on your turtle’s size to make sure that the reptile won’t eat them. If the fish are too small, your turtle will treat them as snacks.
- Avoiding overly large or aggressive fish – If your turtles will attack and bully smaller fish, the reverse is also true. Aggressive fish species may bully your turtles, stressing them out and decreasing their quality of life.
- Prioritize fast swimmers – Ultimately, no fish is completely safe when sharing the same space with a turtle. While not all turtles are carnivorous or predatorial, they will all try their luck with some fish snacks, if available; some extra protein hasn’t hurt anyone. Prioritizing fast and snappy swimmers will make sure that the fish can outswim the turtle should the necessity arise.
- Ensure optimal tank decoration – It’s always a good idea to provide your fish with some escape routes in case the turtle is in high pursuit. Decorate your tank with driftwood, rocks, PVC pipes, plants, or other decorations they can use to take cover from the reptile. Such a layout will keep the fish safe and more at home since they know they can rely on their safe spaces to bail them out of trouble.
- The turtle’s species – Some species of turtles should never be housed with fish. The snapping turtle is a great example in this sense, along with other carnivorous and predatorial species. Others, like the musk or the painted turtle, have no issues sharing their space with some peaceful and energetic fish.
If I were to recommend some viable tank mates for your turtles, I would name golden barbs, zebra danios, some species of Corydoras, or neon tetras as good options.
Schooling fish are great since they will intimidate the turtle and protect each other along the way.
As another crucial point, turtles have different personalities. This means that even benign species that will accept the company of some fish may, at times, snap and go into killing mode.
I’m basically saying that nothing is for certain when it comes to pairing turtles with any fish.
Always be on your guard, assess your turtle-fish daily dynamics, and intervene if the situation gets hotter than it should be.
Also, as a final point, don’t buy expensive fish precisely because of the volatility I’ve just mentioned. Stick to cheaper, easy-to-replace fish that won’t hurt your pocket if they meet their fate between the turtle’s jaws. After all, the turtle is the real superstar of the tank, not the fish. The fish are only supposed to work as decorative elements, breathing more life into the turtle’s habitat.
If you love fish, go for a fish-only tank instead.
Keeping Fish with Pet Turtles
Now that we have determined which fish can accommodate to which turtles, the next thing in line is finding a way to balance their dynamics.
We have already gone through the basics, but are there even more advanced tricks to minimize the dangers of pairing fish with turtles? Yes, there are, and I will detail them below:
Never Feed Fish to Your Turtles
Your turtle’s diet can vary depending on its species. Some species, long-neck turtles, tend to display a carnivorous behavior, while short-neck ones lean more towards an omnivorous diet.
Despite this difference, all turtles will accept fish snacks under the right circumstances.
To counter this tendency, avoid feeding any live fish to your turtle. By doing so, you will deny the reptile the opportunity to learn how to hunt and eat live fish.
This is an excellent way of avoiding turtle-fish violence, which is bound to happen otherwise.
Start at Early Age
Turtles are more likely to attack the fish if they aren’t familiar with them. Sometimes they will just test the waters to see what the fish are and what their purpose is in the habitat.
It won’t take long for the turtle to realize that fish can make for quite good meals, provided they put on some effort into hunting them.
To prevent that, introduce both species to one another during their juvenile phase. A turtle that will grow alongside fish for its entire life is less likely to see them as food.
That’s because the reptile has grown so familiar with their presence that it no longer exhibits predatorial behavior towards them.
This is an important point given that turtles can live in excess of 50 years, while most tank fish will die within 4 to 6.
So, you will need to replace the fish with a new batch at some point. If your turtle is already accustomed to fish roaming around its habitat, bringing in new swimmers won’t impress them at all.
As an important note, this strategy doesn’t work for carnivorous and predatorial turtles since their hunting instincts are too well-polished for that.
Keeping juvenile snapping turtles with fish will only allow them to exercise their hunting abilities at a younger age.
So, in their case, housing them with small fish at an early age will actually produce the opposite effect. They will become better and more effective predators because of it.
So, always consider the turtle species you’re aiming to get.
Keep the Turtle Well-Fed
Juvenile turtles need to eat at least one per day since they display more effective metabolisms and require more nutrients.
Adult turtles need to take their time to digest the food, so they don’t need to eat as often. Providing them with 2-3 meals per week is enough in most cases.
The problem is that starving your turtles will most definitely activate their predatorial instincts.
This will cause them to look for nutrients elsewhere, and the fish roaming their habitat will suddenly appear juicier than you’d like. To prevent this, keep your turtles well fed.
We have already discussed options like minding the fish’s size, temperament, the species of turtles and their behavior, etc.
These are all defining factors that will influence the dynamics between your turtles and the fish swimming in their environment.
10 Fish That Can Live with Turtles
Some of the most popular aquarium fish capable of sharing the same space with turtles include:
You wouldn’t say that Zebra Danios qualify for the task of adapting to a turtle environment, given the fish’s size.
Zebra Danios only measure around 2 inches, so they would typically qualify as prey for most turtle species. Fortunately, the Danios have ways to deal with the threat pretty effectively.
First, they display schooling behavior. This allows the Danios to form compact groups to intimidate or confuse any potential attacker, no matter their species. Turtles included.
The second point is that the Danios rely on their speed and high energy to dodge any incoming attacks or more inquisitive tank mates that overstep their boundaries.
So, it’s safe to say that turtles won’t pose any significant threat to a compact school of 8+ Danios. That being said, you should craft the tank’s layout so that it will provide the Danios with easy escape routes.
I include here aquatic plants, driftwood, PVC pipes, rocks, or any other elements that will break the line of sight between the fish and their assailant.
The Neon Tetra seems like an even more unfit choice, seeing how these fish are even smaller than the Danios.
However, just like the Danios, Tetras rely on their sense of community and high bursts of speed to keep themselves out of harm’s way. Since these fish are small, you can always keep a dozen or more of them in one school.
This will boost the Tetras’ confidence in themselves, allowing them to roam their environment freely and face any threat coming their way.
And by “face” I mean flee and scatter everywhere, then rearrange their pack to tighten their ranks. This strategy is pretty useful at confusing potential predators, especially slower ones like turtles.
Just make sure that the Tetras’ habitat has plenty of plants and rocks that the fish can use to hide from the aggressor.
Also, since these fish are cheap and can reproduce fast and easy, losing some of them to your turtle occasionally won’t burn your pockets.
Pumpkinseed are a different breed compared to the previous 2. This time around, this fish doesn’t need to rely on its escaping capabilities to stay safe.
Instead, it will rely on intimidation and force to keep inquisitive turtles away. This fish is rather territorial and can display aggression against trespassers, provided they aren’t extremely large and predatorial.
Pumpkinseeds will typically grow up to 6 inches, but they can get double in size at times with proper care.
They also like to live in pairs and even form schools, provided there are enough of them.
The fish’s territorial behavior, combined with its predilection towards forming schools and energetic temperament, will keep it safe from any turtle attacks.
To minimize the risk of your turtle hurting or even killing the fish, choose a smaller species of turtle. Up to 6-8 inches should be good since that’s the average size of a Pumpkinseed.
Turtles will only try to eat smaller fish and will show no interest in larger species.
Electric Yellow Cichlids
Cichlids are always a good pick, no matter your turtle’s temperament or species. We will ignore strictly predatorial species like the snapping turtle since these can attack and eat everything that moves.
Most other turtle species won’t see cichlids as prey, and even if they do, they are unlikely ever to kill and eat one.
Electric cichlids will grow up to 3.5 inches on average, but what they lack in size, they make up via their community.
Electric cichlids like to live in larger groups, the larger, the better. It’s important to note that Electric Yellow cichlids are not territorial, so you won’t have any problems with cichlid-on-cichlid aggression.
They also reproduce quite easily, so long as you provide them with proper water conditions and an adequate layout. Your Electric Yellow cichlids require a rocky setup since they like to take cover when stressed and during the mating phase.
These will provide the cichlid with even more protection in case they have a more inquisitive aquatic reptile as their companion.
Convict cichlids make for another interesting addition to your turtle tank. These vivid cichlids display territorial behavior and will grow up to 5-6 inches in the optimal setting.
Providing them with enough space will lower their aggressive tendencies, so they won’t be overly aggressive and irritable.
This cichlid species is highly resilient and will thrive given that the water parameters are right.
When it comes to pairing it with a turtle, the tank’s layout will make all the difference. You only need to decorate the tank according to the cichlid’s natural environment, and the fish will do the rest.
Convict cichlids live in a rich habitat filled with plants, rocks, wood, and numerous other environmental elements that they can use for hiding.
You should also add a sandy substrate since this cichlid loves to dig around and bury itself in the sand occasionally. So long as the Convict cichlid lives in an optimized setup, you don’t need to worry about its interactions with the turtle.
A bonded and compact group of cichlids will easily repel the turtle should it come to bother them.
The Oscar will use its sheer size to overpower and intimidate turtles. This cichlid can grow up to 16 inches under the right conditions and needs at least 55 gallons of space.
Some Oscars have been observed to grow even larger, close to 20 inches or more, although that’s very rare.
This fish grows extremely fast, up to 1 inch per month during its first year of life, and is smarter than other species. It is also exceptionally resilient to changing water conditions and can survive even in dirty tanks.
Obviously, you should clean the fish’s habitat regularly to keep it in good health and boost its quality of life and lifespan.
This cichlid won’t be bothered by the turtle’s presence one bit. The Oscar is simply too big and intimidating for the turtle to consider it as food.
At the same time, this large cichlid won’t see the turtle as a threat. At a minimum, the Oscar will show interest in the turtle from pure curiosity, not because it would attempt to hurt or eat it. So, they should make for quite compatible tank mates.
Chinese Algae Eater
The Chinese Algae Eater officially ranks as the fish with the most self-explanatory name ever. In my book, at least.
This bottom-dweller can grow up to 12 inches and makes for a smart addition to a turtle tank. This is partly due to the fish’s predilection toward keeping a low profile and avoiding potentially dangerous interactions with your turtle.
The fish doesn’t need much to remain healthy and happy in the tank. Since this is a river-dwelling species, make sure it has enough hiding spots and gravel or rocky substrate. The Algae Eater will eat…mostly algae, so it needs hard surfaces that would allow algae to spread.
When it comes to caring for the Algae Eater, water quality is paramount. This fish thrives in fast-flowing currents and clean waters, so make sure you can replicate these conditions in your tank. A powerful filtration system is necessary for this sense.
So long as your turtle isn’t bothered by it, both species will live in relative peace with one another.
None will pose any threats to the other since the fish is larger than the turtle and likes to keep its distance.
Tiger Barbs are semi-aggressive, inquisitive, fast-swimming fish that may display intense territorial behavior.
They are also heavy schooling fish, requiring a larger school to remain healthy and active over the years. All these characteristics make for good indicators of the fish’s compatibility with turtles.
Tiger Barbs won’t take bullying from anyone, much less a slow-moving reptile. On the contrary, they might take their chance by poking at the turtle occasionally to see what it’s made of.
After all, Tiger Barbs are notorious fin nippers that, despite their small size (around 3 inches,) can even stress out fish double or triple their size.
Fortunately, the turtle doesn’t have fins, and it can always exit the water to seek refuge on dry land if the Barbs get too pushy. I would say that Tiger Barbs make for compatible additions to your turtle tank.
Just make sure to avoid excessively aggressive or predatorial turtles and keep the Barbs in larger schools. These fish find their strength in higher numbers.
This species of catfish is the epitome of cannon fodder for the fish world. In other words, these fish don’t have size on their side, they are peaceful and have no ways to intimidate the turtle.
They will also barely reach 2 inches in size. Given all these downsides, what exactly makes the Otocinclus catfish turtle-compatible?
I would say there are 2 things to consider in this sense: the fish’s speed and jittery temperament and its numbers. Otocinclus catfish are herbivorous and algae-grazing species that will simply invade your tank and display mainly bottom-dwelling behavior. But they can typically move throughout the tank, sticking to various hard surfaces and decorations.
One important feature to mention for the Otocinclus is that this fish falls into the prey category, being hunted by a variety of larger fish in the wild. It’s safe to say that the Otocinclus is pretty used to sharing its space with more aggressive and territorial species.
Since it is so small and pretty much defenseless, it had to improvise. Otocinclus relies on a highly energetic behavior, its speed, and numbers to overwhelm, confuse, and maybe even scare off predators.
Needless to say, some Otocinclus may fall victims to your turtle occasionally. This shouldn’t be a problem so long as your turtle doesn’t develop a taste for the fish.
This catfish also reproduces quite easily and it’s cheap, making it easily replaceable.
This is among the best options for your turtle tank. The rope fish is a snake-like carnivorous predator that can grow up to 15 inches in the ideal conditions.
This fish ranks as a nocturnal ambush predator, spending the day in rocky caves and crevices and going out to hunt during nighttime.
The ideal environmental setup should include a sandy substrate and a rocky layout with caves for the fish to take cover. The rope fish will keep a low profile during nighttime, cuddled in a rocky crevice somewhere and avoiding all interactions with your turtle.
It also helps that the fish displays a yellow, sandy color, boosting its camouflaging abilities. They are so good at it that they can sometimes escape the turtle’s keen underwater eyesight.
Not that it would matter anyway. The fish is too large for the turtle to consider it as food.
Just make sure you don’t pair the rope fish with smaller fish species since this carnivorous creature will hunt them down immediately.
Turtles are quite demanding aquatic creatures both in terms of environmental parameters and tank mates.
Fortunately, most turtles are omnivorous and will only feed on fish occasionally. They will only eat small fish that are slow enough for the turtle to catch them.
Some will ignore fish altogether, especially if they aren’t used to having them in their diet.
If you want to pair your turtle with tank fish, choose a calmer and more docile turtle specie that’s less likely to kill the fish.
As a general rule, turtles will primarily hunt smaller fish that would fit their mouths easier.
For all other aspects regarding the ideal tank mates for them and how to prevent turtle-fish violence, refer to this article.