"Dottybacks" is the common
name given to the fish that comprise the family Pseudochromidae.
Four sub-families, 16 genera, and over 100 species make up
this family, though most dottybacks popular in the hobby are
from the Pseudochromis genus. This genus also represents
the most colorful animals of the family and the one we will
concentrate on in this article, with a few exceptions. Their
bright colors, along with intriguing personality made them
favorites of hobbyists years ago. However, the remote collection
locations of most species demanded prices that were higher
than what most would be willing to pay. Successful captive
breeding of the dottybacks by organizations such as ORA Farms
has relieved stress on wild collection practices as well as
bringing the price for these beauties into most hobbyists'
reality. Dottybacks of most species are showing up around
the hobby as captive bred, making once hard to find species
All dottybacks are hermaphrodites (Debelius
& Baensch, 1994). Since each fish can adopt either male
or female sexual organs, adding two like species into a tank
together will result in a pair, provided they don't kill each
other first. Unlike clownfish (another hermaphroditic group),
the larger of the two dottybacks will be the male. Spawning
in the home aquarium is becoming more frequent, especially
since more species are becoming more commonly available. The
male performs his mating dance outside his cave trying to
excite the female. The female will enter the male's cave,
once it accepts the male's dance. Depending on species, up
to 1000 or more eggs are first laid by the female, and then
fertilized by the male. The egg sack is negatively buoyant
and is adhered to the inside of the males cave. The male then
guards the eggs, not allowing the female near them. He will
fan the eggs to provide oxygen, and may even pick up and move
the eggs to a new location if he feels they are in harm's
way. There have even been occasional reports of the male mouth
brooding. After three to six days the transparent fry hatch
from their eggs at roughly ½ the size of a newborn
clownfish and are larval for up to 30 days (Ora
Inc.). Seven days after laying eggs the female is ready
once again, and the cycle is repeated. Raising the fry to
adult size is possible, and I would refer you to "Breeding
The Orchid Dottyback: An Aquarist's Journal" by Martin
Moe, Jr., for information on the rearing of fry. The information
presented in this text is invaluable for those wishing to
attempt to raise the fry.
All dottybacks feed primarily on small
crustaceans and zooplankton, though some may consume polychaetes
and small fish. In the home aquarium you can expect the fish
to feed from the water column, accepting most anything meat
based. Mysis, brine, plankton, and Formula One are good
foods to try first and to use as a staple of the diet. When
you're not feeding they will spend some time hunting the live
rock for food. They will feed on bristleworms, among other
things, making them undesirable to those wanting to keep a
diversely populated live sandbed. Among dottybacks, sessile
invertebrates are not at risk.
A home aquarium with plenty of hiding places
is required for all dottybacks. They are hardy aquarium fish
and adapt quickly to captivity. They make their den from small
caves and will readily use these to escape the presence of
danger. In most cases dottybacks need to be in a tank with
mildly aggressive tank mates. Gobies, blennies, small wrasses
and other non-aggressive fish will be in danger of harassment,
while surgeonfish and triggers will create a more reclusive
dottyback. Good tank mates include Cirrhilabrus sp.
wrasses, Centropyge sp. angels, clownfish, damsels,
and hawkfish. Be sure to add the dottyback last in all occasions.
In some cases, a dedicated species tank might be needed to
house them in captivity. Dottybacks have a tendency to be
intolerable of tank mates. In addition, most dottybacks originate
from 60 feet or deeper, thus they prefer dimmer lit tanks.
Today's SPS. tanks are undesirable aquariums for dottybacks
due to the bright lights that the corals dictate.
The most sought after and, in my opinion,
the most beautiful of the dottybacks is P. fridmani,
also known as the Orchid dottyback or Fridman's dottyback.
It is their bright violet color that attracts most hobbyists,
and up until a year or so ago these beauties commanded a price
tag near $100. They are collected as deep as 180 feet, though
some can be found as shallow as three feet. The great depths
they inhabit, along with their Red Sea origin, has created
their inflated price tags. Thanks to efforts in part by C-Quest
and ORA Farms, Orchid dottybacks can now be found for as little
as $30. The substantially smaller price for a captive bred
animal versus a wild collected animal is a small but important
victory for captive breeding.
The author's male
orchid dottyback (P. fridmani) is pictured above.
Note the black stripe across his eye.
The author's female P. fridmani.
Note the swollen abdomen full of eggs.
Of all dottybacks, Orchids are possibly
the most "laid back." That is not saying much, however,
as all dottybacks can hold their own in most situations. It
does allow you to keep them in quiet settings much easier
than some of their cousins, though. When kept with smaller,
docile fish the Orchid dottyback will become boss of the tank.
It will aggressively defend its cave and it will spend a good
deal of time in plain view. In most cases it will not pester
tank mates unless they venture to close to it's cave. When
kept with aggressive swimming fish, such as Surgeonfish, Orchids
are more likely to spend most of their time tucked tightly
inside their cave and appear only at feeding time. Orchids
pose a threat to ornamental shrimp, though not in all cases.
If the fish is added after the shrimp it is possible for the
two to co-exist. Once the fish is established, it would be
best not to add ornamental shrimp. They might be mistaken
as an expensive snack. You can expect your Orchid to reach
almost three inches in length.
Don't confuse P. fridmani with P. porphyreus,
or the Magenta dottyback (also Strawberry dottyback). While
diving this would be impossible, as the Magenta originates
from Central West Pacific and the Orchid from the Red Sea.
In your local store, however, the similarity is amazing. The
black stripe that originates on the snout and extends through
the eye and ends at the operculum on the Orchid is the only
way to tell them apart. The Magenta lacks this stripe is a
solid electric violet color. The Magenta is slightly smaller
than the Orchid, measuring just over two inches when fully
grown. The small size is another area of confusion for some.
These small fish can be rather pugnacious, will readily consume
ornamental shrimp and will harass other small fish to death.
dottyback (P. porphyreus) in a home aquarium.
Note the lack of the black stripe across the eye, differentiating
it from the orchid.
Hailing from East Indonesia and northwest
Australia is P. splendens or more commonly referred
to as the Splendid dottyback. The Splendid dottyback rivals
the Orchid in looks. The comparison stops there, however,
as the Splendid can be nasty. You can expect this species
to become almost eight inches, making it the largest Pseudochromis.
The males are always brighter in coloration, though they sport
the same pattern as the females, a yellow and blue checkerboard
across the body and fins, yellow tail and face with a black
stripe running through the eye. Two males should never be
added to the same tank, as this will most likely become a
A Splendid Dottyback
The Arabian or Neon dottyback, officially
named P. aldabraensis, is another common dottyback.
The metallic blue stripes sparkling underneath fluorescent
lighting lying on top of the orange-gold background immediately
attracts most hobbyists. Their very aggressive nature and
love of ornamental shrimp turns most hobbyists away. I have
introduced an Arabian dottyback to a tank containing two peppermint
shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni) and watched the fish make
it's way directly to the shrimp and proceed to smack them
upon the live rock until they were dead. He later returned
to once again pound the now dead carcasses against the rocks
until they were bite size pieces. It gets its common name
from its point of collection in the wild. They are located
from the Gulf of Arabia and Oman to Sri Lanka, but nowadays
they are readily available via captive breeding facilities.
The Arabian dottyback is a good representative for the typical
dottyback size, reaching roughly 3 - 3.5".
aldabraensis giving us a glimpse of its magnificient
coloration. It is often a victim of impulse buying,
thanks to its coloration. If they didn't research it
first, the keeper will quickly learn this fish will
kill most shrimp and small fish.
The last two commonly available dottybacks
are the Diadem (P. diadema) and Royal (P. paccagnellae).
They both come from the Western Atlantic and are easily confused
due to the like colors and similar personality. The back half
of the Royal dottyback is orange-yellow, while the front is
violet. This contrasts from the Diadem, which is roughly 75%
orange-yellow with a violet stripe from the tip of the snout
extending back to the tail. Though small (almost three inches),
both should be considered armed and dangerous. They pack a
punch in a small package and have it loaded on a hair trigger.
They will attack gobies, blennies, wrasses, and even damsels!
They will eat ornamental shrimp.
The diadem dottyback (P. diadema)
is a highly aggressive and territorial psuedochromis.
Don't let its small size fool you.
Like the diadem,
this royal dottyback (P. paccagnellae) is ready
to aggressively defend itself. Do not mix with passive
Two other rare Red Sea natives
that have benefited from captive breeding are P. flavivertex
(Sunrise dottyback) and P. springeri (Springer's dottyback).
The Springer's is a small dottyback, reaching about two inches.
They are usually jet-black though shades of gray are possible.
They possess the same striking blue stripes as the Arabian
dottyback. P. springeri mimics a facultative Cleaner
Wrasse, the Four-Line (Larabicus quadrilineatus) accruing
a similar non-predatory benefit (Fenner, WetWebMedia).
The Sunrise dottyback has the most pronounced coloration between
sexes. The males are predominantly light blue with a yellow
stripe along the topside extending from the snout to the base
of the tail. The ventral side is a lighter shade of blue,
possibly white or even yellow. The female has a yellow tail,
but the yellow stripe along the top is missing. Instead, the
lighter shading of the ventral side extends further up, and
the light blue color is less pronounced. Its behavior is very
similar to the Orchid dottyback, except it has been reported
to hunt down mantis shrimps (Michael, 1999).
Sporting the same electric blue as
P. aldabraensis is P. springeri, or springer's
dottyback. Provide care similiar to the orchid dottyback.
These can be mixed with ornamental shrimp in most cases
and are great additions to reef tanks. For best results,
try to get a pair.
The last Pseudochromis
that I'll discuss rarely shows up in the hobby. P.
steenei, also known as Steene's dottyback or Lyretail
dottyback, is the most aggressive member of the family. Scott
Michael has even proclaimed that P. steenei is, "ounce
for ounce, the meanest fish in the sea." The Steene's
dottyback will reach a maximum five inches of unholy terror.
From afar, they are a beautiful fish. The males have a yellowish-orange
head and a grayish-brown body. Females are not as attractive
with their dark gray body, yellow tail, and blue line behind
their eye. What you cannot see from afar, however, you'll
get to see frighteningly up close. P. steenei sports
an impressive set of large teeth that extend out of the fishes
mouth even when the mouth is closed! What makes this worse
is the fish is aware of the damage it can do with the canine-like
teeth and prefers to show you! In the original description
of this fish by Dr. Anthony Gill and Dr. John Randall (1992),
the authors are quoted as saying, "P. steenei
and its close relatives appear to be highly territorial and
aggressive. The second author's camera housing was bitten
while photographing the holotype and paratype of P. steenei."
In Scott Michael's recent release, "A Deadly Dottyback,"
he describes his best method for photographing P. steenei
was focusing on his fingers and placing his glove covered
hand in P. steenei's litter patch. The fish would dart
out of it's home, attacking his fingers, and even shake the
finger once in it's grasp. Once the fish released the finger
it would often remain nearby and "sneer" at it's
victim (Michael, Coralrealm).
Some attitude! When diving you can find these fish in Indonesia
and northern Australia around 100 feet deep, though they can
be spotted as deep as 160 feet or as shallow as 25 feet. In
the home aquarium they are intolerant of tank mates and will
usually kill them, making a species tank a necessity.
A pair of P.
steenei, or steene's dottyback. The colorful male
is on the left with the less colorful female on the
right. These fish need a species tank or they will make
it such soon enough.
Two beautiful dottybacks that
do not come from the genus Pseudochromis are the Oblique-lined
dottyback (Cypho purpurescens) and the Newholland dottyback
(Ogilbyina novaehollandiae). Each of these dottybacks
represents the aggressive nature that defines the dottybacks.
They will attack and kill smaller gobies, blennies, damsels,
and shrimp. Also, it is best not to house these with dwarf
angels. The Oblique-lined, the lone species in Cypho,
is a beautiful rust/maroon coloration while the female Newholland
is a virtual rainbow. Yellow, red, blue, green and orange
are all represented to varying degrees on each fish. Males
have less color than the females, but the colors are more
pronounced with a red head, black or ash on the backside,
ventral side being white and a white tail with red edging.
A small blue stripe underneath the eye and a touch of yellow
on the dorsal fin makes for a nice accent.
The last dottyback that we will discuss
is the Green Wolf Eel. Not an eel at all, although it looks
very much like one. It is also sometimes confused as a blenny.
Despite the identity crisis, it is a dottyback: Congrogadus
subducens, to be exact. This fish shares the body dimensions
of an eel, the aggressiveness of the worst dottybacks, and
an appetite which rivals a that of a grouper. It is a strict
carnivore and will eat anything it can swallow. It will eat
its tank mates if it can, and once established, it will never
be the last one to the food. It can reach up to 18" long
and is an excellent jumper. A covered tank is a must.
The dottybacks are a diverse family of
fish and I, for one, am very pleased that captive breeding
has made them readily available. When purchasing dottybacks,
be sure to buy those that have been captive bred. It is both
an ecological and ethical choice.