10 Best Top-Dwelling Fish for Your Aquarium

10 Best Top-Dwelling Fish for Your Aquarium

Bottom dwellers are quite popular because they cruise around the bottom of the fish tank and clean up any food scraps from the ground. For balance, add top-dwelling fish. These fish will feed from the water surface and fill the fish tank’s upper third.


1. Brown Pencilfish

Nannostomus, also known by the hockeystick and diptail pencilfish, is an inexpensive surface dweller. Their slanted swimming style, with the head facing the surface and the tail at 45 degrees, is what gave them their common names. They love to drift along the aquarium’s surface in search of tiny food (such as baby brine shrimp or crushed up flakes). Avoid high flow areas near the aquarium’s top. As a docile schooling fish, they feel most comfortable in a group of six or more brown pencilfish and readily get along with other peaceful community fish of similar size. Our full article on pencilfish provides more details.

Brown pencilfish

2. Silver Hatchetfish

If you naturally gravitate toward oddball fish, take a look at Gasteropelecus sternicla. Their body is shiny silver, narrow, and curved like the blade part of a hatchet. They are known to swim around the surface of water, with their fins extended like wings and looking for small food floating above. They are great jumpers, and will find any crack in the aquarium’s top to jump out of. Many of these fish are wild-caught and should be kept in groups of six or more. You can also consider treating them for white spot disease, ich, or ich.

Silver hatchetfish

3. Golden Wonder Killifish

All surface dwellers don’t have to be schooling fish. Aplocheilus linnatus, a stunning and sturdy centerpiece fish, can grow to as much as 4 inches (10cm) in length. The male is more colorful and has a brilliant yellow body with a blue-green sheen and orange edging on its tail and fins. They like many killifish prefer slightly cooler temperatures of 72-78 degrees F (22-26 degrees C). A snug lid is required to keep power cables and airline tubing from getting caught. This species is larger and prefers meaty foods, such as brine shrimps and bloodworms. Don’t keep them around small fish. You should keep them in close proximity to each other and put up lots of obstacles, such as floating plants, to hinder their sight.

Golden wonder killifish or striped panchax

4. African Butterflyfish

Pantodon buchholzi, another bizarre surface dweller, is a small version of an arowana. Its large wings and spiky fins make it look like a tiny arowana. The freshwater butterfly fish can grow up to 5 inches (13cm) in length and should be kept in an aquarium of 30 gallons or more with no other small tank mates. They are an ambush predator and prefer slow moving waters. They also like nutrient-rich floating foods such as freeze-dried shrimp and frozen foods. They can be aggressive towards other surface-dwelling species, especially their own type. Keep them small with a dense group of floating plants for shelter.

African Butterflyfish

5. Furcata Rainbowfish

Pseudomugil furcatus is one of our favorite dwarf rainbowfish with bright blue eyes and yellow-tipped fins that look like little pom-poms waving in the air. They can eat almost any fish and are very fast, so they shouldn’t be mixed with long-tailed or slow-tailed guppies. The rainbowfish have a longer lifespan than most fish, and are more expensive than average fish. For more info, see our detailed care guide on forktail rainbows.

Forktail blue-eye or furcata rainbowfish

6. Betta Fish

We can’t forget about the most popular beginner fish, Betta splendens. Yes, bettas will technically swim all over the aquarium, but if your tank is set up correctly, they do prefer to hang out in the upper third level. You need to provide more “perches”, or resting posts, up top. This could be a floating betta log or betta leaf hammock, floating plants or a live plant with boards that reach the surface, like an Amazon sword or large anubias. Give them a variety of food, including freeze-dried brine shrimp, betta pellets and frozen bloodworms. Our complete care guide contains detailed information about betta fish care and possible tank mates.

Dumbo halfmoon Betta Fish

7. Common Danio

Common danios are zebra, leopard and blue danios. They have a narrow, torpedo-shaped, fast-paced body. They are able to swim at any level, but they tend to hang out near top where they are actively searching for food. This schooling fish prefers a group of six or more and does great in cooler water fish tanks around 72-74degF (22-23degC). Both novice and experienced fish keepers enjoy keeping a lively tank of these energetic, hardy fish.

Leopard danio

8. Clown Killifish

Epiplatys annulatus is a colorful nano fish with striking vertical bands, piercing blue eyes, and a flaming tail of orange, yellow, or red that inspires its other nickname “rocket killifish.” Like other killifish, it needs a close-fitting top to prevent escape and can live in cooler temperatures from 74-76degF (23-24degC). The clown killifish is smaller than the golden wonderkilli and measures less than 1.5 inches (3.8cm). At least six to eight clownkillis should be kept in a school. Give them small foods such as micro granules or crushed flakes, baby brine shrimp, and cyclops. They are not an annual killifish but have a shorter lifespan of about three years. You can breed them in a species-only aquarium with floating plants or spawning mop to collect their eggs.

Male and female clown killifish

9. Orange Hatchet Danio

Laubuka dadiburjori (formerly called Chela dadiburjori) is a different kind of danio with a slightly rounded, more hatchet-shaped belly compared to your typical zebrafish. The shiny orange body is distinguished by a horizontal stripe that runs down one side and contains several black spots. Like the common danios, they like to swim near the surface, will eat almost anything, and can live in cooler water temperatures. You can get six or more of these rare danios in a pack and enjoy their fast chases around the tank.

10. Halfbeak

This group of livebearers are known for their unique mouth shape. The lower jaw is much longer than the higher jaw. Some halfbeak species need brackish water. Do your research and choose the Celebes and silver halfbeaks for freshwater tanks only. They do grow large enough to eat smaller fish and their own fry, so provide lots of floating plants and cover to increase fry survival rate and minimize squabbling among males. Sometimes they can’t get enough food from wholesalers or fish shops so feed them lots of small, meaty foods, such as daphnias and bloodworms.

Celebes halfbeak (Nomorhamphus liemi)

If you spot a top-dwelling fish you like, check out our preferred online fish vendors and see what they have in stock. Enjoy nature daily, and make sure to get that tight-fitting aquarium lid.