Fish Description

Neon v/s Cardinal Tetra – The Difference

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The tropical freshwater fish species known as Tetra are one of the best fish for the home aquarium. There are almost over 700 species of tetras in the wild. Among them, the most popular is the Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon innuesi) and Cardinal Tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi). Somewhat similar but unique in their own ways, in this article, I can help you understand the difference between the two tetras. Keep reading to know more about Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra.

Neon tetra and cardinal tetra look quite similar in appearance. They even have similar origins. However, if you study and closely research, the tetras do differ from each other. Some of the notable differences you can find between the two tetras are the water conditions. Both tetras need very different living environments in order to thrive.

Once you are familiar with both of the tetras, you will be able to tell them apart from their appearance as well. Even though the neon and cardinal tetras are distinct from each other, their purpose is to brighten your aquarium.

I hope you are very curious to know about the neon tetra v/s cardinal tetra. 

Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra Origin

The origin of neon and cardinal tetra is not so different. We can also say that they have the same origin. However, let us get into the details.

First, let us know about the neon and cardinal that are available in your local store. Most of these tetras that you get in the stores are captive-bred. The sellers do not deliberately trap the tetras from the wild directly and sell them in the market. The captive-bred tetras have more tolerance for different water conditions than tetras from the wild.

In the wild, Neon tetras originate from Clearwater and Blackwater tributaries in regions such as Brazil, Columbia, Peru, and even South America. While the cardinal tetras come from the Orinoco and Rio Negro tributaries extending to western Colombia, you can find them in regions of Brazil, South America as well as Manaus. 

Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra Habitat

First, let us look at the habitat for Neon Tetras.

When it comes to the Tetra’s natural habitat, neon tetra prefers their habitat to include dense vegetation and roots in the dark waters. Another quality tetra’s habitat must have abundant plant life that can provide the fish with more hiding spots, low and diffused lighting. The water should be rich with driftwoods and rocks as well.

In the aquarium, you can try to replicate the Tetra’s natural habitat as closely as possible. You may be able to use a dark substrate, driftwood, and a huge amount of plants. Likewise, include some floating plants as well. 

Now, let us come to Cardinal tetras.

The cardinal tetras in the wild prefer clear slow-moving streams. These tetras also need subdued lighting with a good amount of plants. Cardinal tetras also need a good hiding spot, but that does not mean they feel good in a good compact space. 

While housing the cardinal tetras in your aquarium, you should keep in mind about providing enough space to them so that the tetras can swim freely. These tetras also prefer the dark substrate and a good amount of plantation in the tank.

Other things that you cannot miss while housing these tetras are their respective water parameters. You must maintain the pH level, temperature, and hardness accordingly.

Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra Size

One way to differentiate between the neon tetras and the cardinal tetra is their size. This is because neon tetras are slightly smaller than cardinal tetras.

The adult neon tetras can only grow up to 1 To 1.2 inches in length. Whereas, the cardinal tetras can grow up to 2 inches in length. 

However, sometimes you may still face some difficulties in telling them apart from their size.

Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra Appearance

The appearance of the cardinal and neon tetras is the best way that you can differentiate between the two. At first glance, the two tetras can look the same. However, if you know what to look for, you can identify them without any hesitation.

Both cardinal and neon tetras have the same color pattern with blue, red colorations throughout the body. 

In neon tetra, you can find the red stripe running from the middle of the body to the caudal fin. The blue strip extends from the Tetra’s eyes to their adipose fin.

In the case of cardinal Tetra, you can see both the colors blue and red stretching throughout their whole body. Red color runs from the lower side of the head to the tail, and on top of it lies the blue strip.

Once you are aware of this difference, you can easily recognize which is which.

Expense:  Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra

One particular contrasting quality you may be able to find between cardinal Tetra and neon tetra is their cost. The tetras are schooling fish, and hence, you will need to purchase them in bulk.

While you purchase them, you can find cardinal Tetra a little more expensive than neon tetras, although the expense difference is not that drastic.

The cardinal tetras can cost around $3 to $4 per fish, whereas neon tetras cost only up to $1 to $2 per fish.

Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra Care

Caring for tetras generally means regulating the tank environment, proper diet, filtration, etc. You will also need to change the water bi-weekly. It is the same for both the tetras. You only need to switch up a few changes.

Let us start with what you can do with a neon tetra tank.

Most neon tetras admire dark spots in the tank. Thus, you should create the environment, ensuring you can fulfill this. If you are into the darker aquarium, I say, neon tetras should be your first choice.

In the previous section of this article, I have mentioned about using driftwoods. Especially, using driftwoods that have tannins can help your water turn darker. It may sometimes change the water completely, but you do not have to worry, as it does not hamper your fish.

Whenever neon tetras feel threatened, they like to hide. So, be sure to provide them with sufficient hiding spots by planting heavy live aquatic plants as well.

Now, getting to the cardinal tetras.

Unlike neon tetras, cardinal tetras do not like their tanks to have heavy plantations. You can have few aquatic plants. However, these tetras are more likely to desire to have open space to swim. 

These tetras do not like much light, but they do like clearer water than neon tetras. Hence, you should provide them with only a few driftwoods. The most important requirement for cardinal tetras is able to spread out in open space.

Water Conditions: Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra

Water parameters are the essential requirement for the Tetra’s survival. With the right parameters, tetras can live happily in your tank.

Speaking of water parameters, the first thing that comes to the mind is the pH level. Generally, the tetra fish need slightly more acidic water than most other fish. Is it the same with neon tetras and cardinal tetras? 

The pH level 

The neon tetras appreciate water, which is acidic. For neon tetras, the acidic nature of the water can range from 6 to 6.8 pH levels. The acidic range can go up to a near-neutral point for neon tetras.

However, this is not the case of cardinal tetras. For cardinal tetras, they like their water a lot more acidic. The pH range for this Tetra can be from 4.5 to 6.2.

Even if both tetras can survive in the pH range of about 5.5 to 6.8, you cannot guarantee that the tetras are comfortable.


The cardinal tetras prefer hardness that is not more than 4 dGH. Whereas, the hardness for neon tetras can range from 2 to 10 dGH.

Can You Keep Neon and Cardinal Tetras Together?

Belonging to the tetra fish family, both cardinal Tetra and the neon tetras share parallel characteristics. Hence, you should house them keeping in mind the Tetra’s individual preference.

It is possible to keep them in a shared tank. Yet, I do not recommend this. 

As I have mentioned about both the tetras’ unique features, cardinal tetras surely like the fish tank more open than the neon tetras. This is exactly a major part where both the fish differ. Thus, even if you house them together, they will not be happy and thriving as you expected. 

In addition, you will find cardinal tetras are much more sensitive to changes than neon tetras. So, I say, it is not a good idea to mix the two tetras together if you want them to live for a long period. 

What Do They Eat? Neon Tetra v/s Cardinal Tetra

It might be strange and interesting to know that big tetras mostly prefer smaller animals as food. 

Between the two tetras, cardinal tetras are bigger in size. Hence, you will see that this Tetra opts for a diet that is small. The neon tetras mostly live on bigger food items.

Still, the choice of diet that you can provide both the tetras is very similar. For instance, you can feed the tetras worms, crustaceans, detritus, algae, shrimps, daphnia as well as flakes.

Read Full Article on Tetra Fish Diet.


This article is moreover a gist describing the difference between the cardinal tetras and neon tetras. From this, you will be able to point out exactly which Tetra to choose. 

Both the tetras have a specific requirement, even though quite similar. I hope you have chosen your pick from neon tetra v/s cardinal tetras considering their size and tank conditions.

If you want to know the detailed care routine, you can check out other articles. 

I am Ursula Mila. I am a BIM graduate. Along with studies and other different hobbies, I love to know about various aquarium fish, especially Tetras. I own an aquarium and it gives me great pleasure to interact with the fish and care for them.

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