8 Fun Gobies for Aquariums of All Sizes

Author: Neale Monks



Join the goby craze! An international aquarium aficionado reports on eight great old and new favorite gobies that make small, colorful, and interesting additions to aquariums of all types.



Early this year, the Minnesota Aquarium Society kindly flew me across the Atlantic to give a talk about gobies. At first I was a bit surprised by this offer. Do that many people keep gobies? Wouldn’t they prefer I talked about livebearers or cichlids, or some other group of popular tropical fish? No, they wanted gobies.


But it makes sense. What other group of fishes includes so many small, colorful, and interesting species that are ideally suited to aquarium life? Unfortunately, they’re also woefully underrated by hobbyists and retailers alike, often dismissed as being shy, finicky feeders that are annoyingly difficult to breed. If any group of aquarium fishes needed a sales pitch, surely it was the gobies!


There are many freshwater and brackish species that illustrate well the opportunities presented by the order Gobioidei. Some are familiar, others less so, but all of these fish are available if you know where to look. Indeed, with my first example, you might well be able to catch your own.


1.       Fat Sleeper (Dormitator maculatus)

Dormitator maculatus is one of the so-called sleeper gobies, supposedly named because of their lethargic, sleepy dispositions. The fat sleeper is found in brackish-water marshes and streams along the Atlantic coastline of the Americas from North Carolina to Brazil. Water chemistry isn’t too critical, and they do reasonably well in hard, basic fresh water, though ideal conditions would be slightly to moderately brackish, with a specific gravity of 1.003 to 1.010 at 77°F. By goby standards the fat sleeper is a giant, with a maximum recorded length of more than 27 inches. There is considerable variation in size, however, and most specimens do not get that big.


The fat sleeper is hardy and adaptable, and has been kept by American aquarists since at least the 1930s. It’s occasionally traded outside of North America, though it can be easily confused with the clay goby D. lebretonis from West Africa, a similar-looking species that only gets to about 4 inches in length.


All Dormitator are omnivores, and the fat sleeper is no exception. They like to sift sand for food, and under aquarium conditions will readily consume any pellets or algae wafers they find, along with meaty foods such as earthworms, river shrimps, bloodworms, krill, and chopped white fish fillet. Plant material in the form of cooked peas, spinach, and Spirulina flakes should also be provided from time to time.


Fat sleepers are not particularly aggressive, but their size and dietary habits mean that small fish will simply be viewed as food. In a suitably large aquarium, good tankmates would be medium to large brackish-water species such as giant sailfin mollies, scats, monos, Colombian shark catfish, Datnioidesspp., and some of the North American gars.


2.       Marbled Sleeper Goby (Oxyeleotris marmorata)

All gobies are edible, but most are too small to be of much value. An exception is the marbled sleeper goby Oxyeleotris marmorata, a species that is intensively farmed and sometimes finds its way into the aquarium trade. It is a true tankbuster, reaching lengths of more than 2 feet, and widely distributed across Southeast Asia.


It is highly prized for its flavorful and meaty flesh. Asian chefs refer to it as the bamboo fish because it likes to hide inside hollow bamboo tubes—in restaurant aquaria at least—and they’ll pick out a particular goby depending on the number of diners. A full-grown specimen would be classified as an 8- to 10-person bamboo fish and cooked in any number of ways.


But what about those marbled sleepers lucky enough to avoid the kitchen and wind up in the tropical fish trade? As you’d expect for such a big fish, aquarium size is one critical issue. Realistically, this is a fish that needs 200 gallons or more. It’s a bad-tempered, territorial, predatory fish, so tankmates aren’t recommended. In terms of water chemistry it’s adaptable, and may be kept in either hard, fresh water or slightly brackish water.


Like most predatory fish, this nocturnal hunter has a taste for things like earthworms and river shrimps, but once settled will take strips of fish fillet, chunky pieces of seafood, and eventually carnivore pellets. Predatory fish are prone to vitamin deficiencies if given just one type of food item, so it’s important to offer marbled sleeper gobies a good variety of foods throughout the week.


3.       White-Cheeked Goby (Rhinogobius duospilus)

A number of Rhinogobius species are now being exported from East Asia, including R. candidianusR. giurinus, and R. nagoyae. The most commonly seen species is the white-cheeked goby R. duospilus, sometimes called the dwarf dragon goby.


R. duospilus is a stream-dwelling goby suited to clean, well-oxygenated aquaria. Unheated tanks are best since they are happiest at around 64°F, but provided the temperature doesn’t exceed 75°F, they can be kept alongside subtropical and more cold-tolerant tropical fish like minnows and danios. White-cheeked gobies only get to a couple of inches in length, so choose small, gentle tankmates that won’t harass them.


White-cheeked gobies are active fish and great fun to keep. Males and females are both pretty, though males have obviously different coloration, including a bold white band on each cheek and characteristic red specks on the membrane that protrudes from the edges of the gill covers.


Feeding isn’t difficult, as white-cheeked gobies happily consume frozen bloodworms and other small, meaty food items. They don’t like flakes or pellets though, and compete poorly with other bottom feeders like catfish and loaches.


4.       Peacock Gudgeon (Tateurndina ocellicauda)

The peacock gudgeon is one of the more commonly seen Australasian sleeper gobies. In many ways it’s a miniature version of the equally widely traded purple-spotted gudgeon Mogurnda mogurnda. Whereas the purple-spotted gudgeon reaches 8 inches in length and tends to be grumpy, the peacock gudgeon tops out at between 2 and 3 inches and makes a fine choice for the peaceful community aquarium. Pairs can be maintained in as little as 10 gallons, and they get along well with small surface swimmers that won’t compete with them for food, such as lampeyes and dwarf mosquitofish.


They are very colorful fish and wouldn’t look out of place on a coral reef! They are true freshwater fish, however, and require soft to moderately hard, slightly acidic to neutral water conditions. They eat live and frozen invertebrates such as bloodworms, mosquito larvae, glassworms, brine shrimp, and daphnia.


One neat thing about peacock gobies is their willingness to spawn. Males and females are easily distinguished, as the males have notably humped heads. Spawning takes place inside hollow tubes. After spawning the male guards the eggs, but like most gobies, his brood care ends once the fry are free-swimming.


At that point he should be separated from the fry, and the fry reared on microworms initially, then brine shrimp nauplii, and eventually daphnia and finely powdered flake food. Peacock gobies aren’t the easiest gobies to breed—that accolade belongs to the desert goby—but they’re still a relatively straightforward species well within the abilities of an aquarist who’s bred slightly challenging egg-layers such as bettas or tetras.


5.       Freshwater Neon Goby (Stiphodon atropurpureus)

Stiphodon gobies are small, mostly algae-eating gobies that live in fast-flowing streams and creeks. Adults spawn in those habitats, and the males guard their eggs in much the same way as other gobies, but the fry then drift down to the sea.


After a few months the larvae swim toward land, gradually metamorphosing into forms resembling the adults. Once in rivers they swim upstream into the streams they prefer to inhabit, in many cases having to work their way past obstacles such as waterfalls. Most will fail, but the strongest juvenile Stiphodongobies eventually make their way into shallow-water habitats where they feed on algae and tiny invertebrates.


Two of the more widely seen species are S. ornatus and S. semoni, the latter species usually being sold as the cobalt blue goby. But the most commonly traded of the Stiphodon species is S. atropurpureus.


Although it is known in the trade as the freshwater neon goby, it isn’t particularly similar to the saltwater neon goby Elacatinus oceanops, except perhaps in terms of size and shape. Unlike saltwater neon gobies, the females are rather drab, and only the males develop the vivid neon-blue bands along each flank that give the species its common name.


Maintenance of Stiphodon is essentially consistent regardless of the species. Because they come from fast-flowing streams, they dislike aquaria that are overstocked or lacking in adequate circulation. Low to middling water temperature is best, with 72° to 75°F being ideal. They aren’t fussy about water chemistry and get along well with other fish that enjoy similar conditions, such as minnows and hillstream loaches. Males are mildly territorial, but Stiphodon are gregarious and thus best kept in groups where females outnumber males.


The main problem with Stiphodon is diet. Wild fish slither across rocks, grazing the mixture of green algae and tiny invertebrates known as aufwuchs. These fish aren’t scavengers and won’t get by on leftovers. They absolutely must be provided with at least some algae, and that means they’re best kept in a mature, well-lit aquarium. This can be supplemented with algae wafers and finely minced seafood, but green algae and diatoms do need to be at the heart of their diet. Note that red algae such as hair algae and thread algae is not eaten.


6.       Violet Goby (Gobioides broussonnetii)

The eel-like violet goby Gobioides broussonnetii, also called the dragon goby or dragon fish, has a similar distribution to the fat sleeper, but rather than brackish-water swamps and creeks, this species favors muddy lagoons and estuaries. It is highly adapted to those sorts of environments and is able to survive even when the tide has gone out by hiding in a burrow and breathing air.


While often sold as a freshwater fish, it doesn’t do well under such conditions for long. Instead it needs to be kept in fairly brackish conditions, with a specific gravity from 1.005 to 1.015 at 77°F being ideal. Otherwise this species is surprisingly undemanding.


Wild fish consume plankton, small invertebrates, algae, and organic detritus. Under aquarium conditions suitable foods include brine shrimp, bloodworms, minced seafood, and algae wafers. Despite their large size—up to 20 inches—these gobies are completely non-predatory, and if adequately fed even ignore livebearer fry. Indeed, mollies would make particularly good companions, enjoying much the same conditions.


Violet gobies are territorial toward one another and need a fair amount of space to settle in. Adult specimens shouldn’t be kept in tanks less than 55 gallons in size. They need burrows to hide in, with PVC tubes being serviceable substitutes for the muddy burrows they’d dig in the wild.


Incidentally, a second species, G. peruanus, is traded under the violet goby name as well. It comes from the Pacific rather than the Atlantic coastline and has fewer purple bands on its flanks but is otherwise similar, and needs to be maintained in the exact same way as G. broussonnetii.


7.       Indian Dwarf Mudskipper (Periophthalmus novemradiatus)

Mudskippers are simultaneously the most wonderful aquarium fish on Earth and the most misunderstood, so let’s get the basics clear first. No, they won’t live in freshwater conditions. They absolutely must be kept in brackish or fully marine conditions, with a specific gravity of between 1.005 and 1.025 at 77˚F being appropriate for most species. They are also poor companions for other types of fish. Mudskippers tend to do best in their own species tank, or more accurately their own vivarium, since they require sandbanks, rocks, and bogwood roots above the waterline.


Mudskippers are sensitive to cold, dry air, and are notorious escape artists, so a tight-fitting hood is essential. An under-tank heating mat is preferable, but if a standard internal heater is used instead, a heater guard must be placed around the heater to keep the mudskippers from burning themselves.


There are several mudskippers on sale, ranging from the 2-inch Indian dwarf mudskipper Periophthalmus novemradiatus to the much larger—and psychotically aggressive—West African mudskipper P. barbarus, a species that tops out at around 10 inches. For the aquarist wanting to keep a small group of mudskippers, the Indian dwarf mudskipper is perhaps the best species even if it isn’t the most colorful. It’s fairly mild, and territorial aggression between males isn’t too severe. By contrast, male West African mudskippers will kill each other and usually end up being kept alone.


Mudskippers feed on insects, algae, and organic detritus. Under aquarium conditions they are very easily satisfied with a mix of flake foods, chopped seafood, and occasional offerings of suitable live foods, particularly things like fruit flies and houseflies. When kept properly, mudskippers will become very tame.


8.       Desert Goby (Chlamydogobius eremius)

The desert goby is my very favorite goby, and one of the hardiest fish in the hobby. In the wild these fish are able to tolerate temperatures from 40° to 90°F, and salinity levels from completely fresh water to almost twice that of sea water! Under aquarium conditions they do well in hard, basic water, with the addition of salt at about ½ to 1 ounce per gallon being beneficial but not strictly essential. They can be kept in a brackish-water aquarium as well. Their space requirements are minimal, and a pair will be happy in as little as 5 gallons.


There are two forms available, the greenish-gray wild-type and a golden leucistic form produced in the Czech Republic. In both cases the males are larger than the females and sport attractive blue, yellow, and black markings on their fins. Their maintenance is very straightforward because these fish are remarkably omnivorous, taking flakes and micropellets alongside the usual small invertebrates and organic detritus.


Breeding the desert goby is simplicity itself. Spawning takes place in caves, with the male taking care of a clutch of around a hundred quite-large eggs. The fry that emerge will eat just about anything, though brine shrimp nauplii and finely powdered flake foods make suitable starting points.


One word of warning—these fish are notorious jumpers! Ironically, while in Minneapolis giving my goby talk, I lost my colony of desert gobies in precisely this way. The neighbor looking after my fish forgot to put the lid back on after feeding them, and by the time I got back all save one juvenile had jumped out.


Suicidal tendencies apart, if there’s a better species than the desert goby to start your own exploration of the fish we call gobies, it’s hard to think of one! Perhaps you’ll give these little fish with big personalities a try?