Here at ReefBuilders, we keep our readers on their fins as we strive to deliver the latest aquarium happenings around the world. At the same time, we also try to pepper our blogroll with informative posts so as to keep that reef noodle working. Reef Nuggets is a new mini series that can hopefully spruce up your home reef by offering some interesting perspective on common topics. Today we attempt to cast aside the archaic and draconian stereotype that all damselfish are mean and unwanted pest fish. There are a handful of species that hold true to their namesake, and really are damsels in disguise.
Damselfishes are ubiquitous in the ocean as well as in our aquarium hobby. They run the gamut in terms of size and colour, and come from a dizzying array of different genera. Chromis and Chrysiptera make up the bulk of aquarium offerings, but other species are also commonly seen from Dascyllus, Pomacentrus, Neoglyphidodon and so on and so forth.
Over the years this family of fish have received horrible stereotypes for being unkeepable fish killing brats, the scourge of the aquarium hobby. This stems mainly from a few notorious species such as the Blue Devil (Chrysiptera cyanea) or the Velvet Damselfish (Neoglyphidodon oxyodon). Truth be told, there are a multitude of lesser known damsels that make wonderful aquarium additions that many of you may not have even heard of. In this article we take a look at some of the more charming species from two very popular genera that are truly deserving of the title “damselfish”; i.e Chrysiptera and Chromis. Although there are many more interesting species we would love to cover, we will be highlighting four of our favorites from Chrysiptera and Three from Chromis. Perhaps a part 2 could be in order just to sample the rest.
Chrysiptera is a large genus, with many species both aggressive and docile. While some can be found at rather deep reef zones, the majority are found living in shallow waters near or in coral growth, and hover close to the substrate. The infamous Blue Devil (C. cyanea) hails from this genus, but it’s unfair to classify all Chrysiptera as trouble makers. There are the roses amongst the thorns, and here are some of them.
Chrysiptera caeruleolineata is a beautiful and delicate looking species that honestly does not receive enough attention. I have kept this species on a few occasions and they are truly a delight. C. caeruleolineata gets its name from the blue line that runs from its nape along its dorsal region, which sits atop a bright yellow body. In larger specimens, a soft pink or purple glow may be seen on the face. Barely reaching 2 inches, this species is more often than not found swimming in small groups in the wild, as demonstrated by the pictures above. A peaceful species that is tolerant of conspecifics and sticks close to the substrate, C. caeruleolineata is a hardy and worthy addition to any reef. Widespread Indonesia from Bali, ranging to Japan and Central Pacific.
Chrysiptera tricincta recalls the familiar black and white banded pattern that is commonly seen in Dascyllus, but unlike the latter, C. tricincta is rather docile and peaceful. Also known as the Tuxedo Damselfish, it is a member of a complex consisting of very similar looking species, such as C. kuiteri. C. tricincta grows larger than the preceding species in our selection, to about 3 inches, and so is more suited for larger reef tanks. If you like the banded patterns of Dascyllus but without the aggressive temperament, C. tricincta is a good substitute.
Another monochromatic beauty that lacks the typical damselfish zing is Chrysiptera rollandi. This species occurs in two colour forms. The usual forms are dull grey and white, but the ones coming from the Central Pacific are adorned with a bright yellow top. The more colourful yellow form makes for a good aquarium fish. C. rollandi has an unusually large pair of white ventral fins which it flicks like a pair of flags as it makes calculated darts around the rock scape. I have a single specimen that has been living with me for a long time now without any problems, so based on personal experience i’d say this species is docile and worth keeping.
Chrysiptera bleekeri is a homage to the more familiar C. starcki, but lacks the strong definition and colour tones that the latter possesses. C. bleekeri is a more delicate sombre pastel compared to the stark blue of C. starcki. The coloration is quite variable but it is more often than not a purple-pink, rather than blue. Like C. starcki, it has a yellow dorsal fin but again, in a more suffused tone. C. bleekeri is very rarely offered in the aquarium, and when they do show up, they are usually unintentional.
If you do manage to stumble upon one however, give it a try. The lighter coloration and somewhat more passive temperament makes this rare damselfish a worthy candidate for a reef tank. The purple and yellow colour combination is somewhat similar to Chrysiptera traceyi from the Marshall Islands, and although unrelated, is also a good damselfish to have in a tank.
Like Chrysiptera, Chromis is another large genus with many species varying in size, temperament and biology. Some are rather solitary and prefer living in twilight zones such as C. abyssus and C. brevirostris. Many prefer living in sunlit reefs where they form groups over coral heads, and these are the smaller more suitable species for a community tank.
Reef keepers like the idea of having groups of Chromis swimming in harmony above coral heads, but struggle at the choices provided by the aquarium trade. A boring staple that fills the void is the Green Chromis (C. viridis). However as they start growing larger and start killing each other off, that initial happy bunch soon pines away to one or two tangible manifestation of frustration that makes you want to tear down your tank.
Well there are other options to this than that stale decade old Green Chromis. Species that stay smaller, group better and overall way cooler looking than your Green Chromis will ever dream of becoming.
Chromis acares is hands down my favourite “schooling” species. In the wild, these are found swimming in tight groups above coral heads. The common name Midget Chromis is very apt, as the species stays small, at around 2 inches. Chromis acares is a sooty grey overall, with a black and blue edged anal fin. The yellow tail and mask is characteristic for this species. Unfortunately, Chromis acares is not commonly found in the aquarium trade, but makes its appearance from time to time. I have kept three of this in the past with nary a problem. They tend to break apart in the aquaria, but will group closely if a larger more intimidating “open water” swimmer is around to keep them in check. A Genicanthus for example, or a large Surgeonfish will do the job.
The Vanderbilt’s Chromis (Chromis vanderbilti) is another good aquarium candidate. Like C. acares, they are found in loose groups above rich coral growth in the wild. The Vanderbilt’s Chromis is a wide ranging species, and is a member of a species complex with two other similar and confusing species; – Chromis nigrura and Chromis lineata both look superficially similar to C. vanderbilti. All of them however, are small and share the same temperament and husbandry.
For variety and colour, one or two Vanderbilt’s Chromis will go a long way in brightening up your tank. These are reef associated and in the wild are found very near or within corals, so watching the same interaction in a home aquarium will add another dimension to your tank.
The last species from the Chromis genus we’re highlighting today is C. retrofasciata. C. retrofasciata is a beautiful and dainty little species, with blue ringed black eyes and a distinctive peachy yellow body. The species name “retro” meaning backward or behind, and “fascia” meaning line or band, stems from the black edge of its body. Like many shallow water Chromis species, C. retrofasciata lives in loose groups that huddle amongst or around Acropora and other stony corals in the shallows.
Interestingly, this species is a subject of mimesis by Manonichthys jamali in Cenderawasih bay. Again, if you’re looking for something to break up the static monotonous reef scape in your tank, one or two of these small Chromis would go a long way.
Do not forget that in the wild, the reef scene is theming with fish not only at surface level. Within the corals and amongst the rubble are wonderful little fish that adds movement, liveliness and a tinge of mystery. A fully functioning reef should be able to captivate you not only when you look at it from the living room couch, but also up close when you scan the rock work and coral labyrinth. What’s that little Chrysiptera that’s darting about his space? Did I just see a little Dottyback or Plectranthias peek out from behind that rock? Go ahead, sweep that damselfish stereotype under the carpet and give one of these a try.
Do bear in mind that although these are more peaceful than your average damsel, they still do appreciate a healthy level of space. Damsels, no matter the species, may find a patch of reef that they like and may not appreciate other fishes intruding on their space. Tank size and volume plays just as big a role as your selection of species. I have managed to keep all seven of these in a 200 gallon tank without a single scale being lost, so hopefully that gives you an idea on the temperament of these fish as well as the space they require. Keep looking out for more editions of our new mini series, as we share with you more interesting reef nuggets.