A Caribbean Sea Biotope Aquarium

Author: Jeremy J. Gosnell

While many aquariums mix a variety of species coming from different oceans and ecosystems, a biotope aquarium is designed to replicate a specific slice of nature. A seasoned scuba diver and aquarist suggests various species for an aquarium that mirrors the beauty of the Caribbean.

Jewels of the Atlantic

The Caribbean Sea is often referred to as the jewel of the Atlantic. Crystal-clear turquoise water, abundant coral reefs, and a unique culture have made the islands of this tropical sea a tourist destination and paradise for ages. The Caribbean, situated in the tropics of the Western Hemisphere between South America and the Gulf of Mexico, is actually one of the largest saltwater seas, covering 1,063,000 square miles.


While species diversity in the Caribbean is not nearly as abundant as in South Pacific regions, this unique sea is home to a host of interesting creatures. Many of the Caribbean’s inhabitants have been popular aquarium specimens for decades. Even though this large tropical sea is much closer to the United States than many South Pacific regions, Caribbean biotope reef aquariums are far less common in the aquarium world. While it isn’t rare to find the occasional Caribbean species mixed in with South Pacific or Red Sea endemic fish, it is uncommon to find an aquarium solely dedicated to creating a slice of this incredible sea.

Considering that the Caribbean represents 9 percent of coral reefs worldwide, it clearly serves as host to plenty of species. The goliath grouper Epinephelus itajara, common to South Florida and the Keys, can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds. On the flip side, the tiny yellow-headed or pearly jawfish Opistognathus aurifrons grows only several inches long but packs a ton of personality. Elkhorn and staghorn corals and Ricordea mushrooms are all hallmark creatures helping to create the Caribbean reefs.

So just what species from the Caribbean make suitable aquarium residents? How is creating a Caribbean biotope different from mixing and matching a community reef tank? Does the Caribbean climate and ecology present any real difficulties when trying to replicate it in captivity?

Exciting Caribbean Fish

Many people don’t realize the fact that they may be keeping a Caribbean native in their aquarium already. Several of the species that are often found in local fish outlets originate from the Caribbean. The queen angelfish Holacanthus ciliaris, a Caribbean endemic, is often referred to as the most beautiful of all fish. In reality, the blue angelfish Holacanthus bermudensis and French angelfish Pomacanthus paru are also extremely attractive animals. The ever-popular royal gramma Gramma loreto is a Caribbean fish and one that adds color and personality to many aquariums worldwide.

There are, however, some fish that originate in the Caribbean Sea but are less common in our aquariums. Some of these animals grow somewhat large and present specialized needs in captivity. All of them could potentially be housed in either a fish-only or reef Caribbean biotope aquarium.

Spanish Hogfish Bodianus rufus

Maximum Size: 15 inches

Reef Compatibility: Add with caution if keeping a reef aquarium

These fish are found throughout the Caribbean—ranging from South Florida to the Bahamas to the Netherland Antilles. They are often found on the back reef, fore reef, and even reef drop-off zones. Juvenile Spanish hogfish are active cleaners, but as they grow larger the species often abandons this behavior.

While Bodianus are often readily available at local fish outlets, they have the habit of picking at and eating various corals when they become adults. Polyps are usually their first entree, and I have known several Spanish hogfish that even dined on large-polyped stony corals. Be very cautious when adding this species to a reef.

Banded Butterflyfish Chaetodon striatus

Maximum Size: 6 inches

Reef Compatibility: Add with caution if keeping a reef aquarium

This amazing little fish is found throughout the Caribbean Sea and even as far north as New Jersey. They prefer the shallow back reef zones and fore reef zones. They are specialized carnivores that prefer to feed on marine worms called polychaetes, but zoanthids, anemones, and various eggs will also be consumed.

Like any butterflyfish, C. striatus can be a problematic feeder in the aquarium. Sometimes they are simply too picky to accept anything but frozen foods, and other times their love of corals, anemones, and polychaetes can rid the tank of any sessile invertebrate life. Keeping a banded butterflyfish in the reef environment should be done with extreme caution and with the understanding that the fish may need to be removed at some point due to the consumption of corals.

Barred Hamlet Hypoplectrus puella

Maximum Size: 6 inches

Reef Compatibility: Add with caution if keeping a reef aquarium

Barred hamlets are found throughout the entire Caribbean Sea. They are typically found at moderate depths in the back reef and fore reef zones. Hamlets are generally carnivores, specializing in eating crustaceans such as crabs or shrimp.

Barred hamlets have all the makings of a truly delightful aquarium resident. They are colorful, unique, and don’t get terribly large. The only problem that can be foreseen in the reef environment is the fact that hamlets are likely to consume various invertebrates. The hamlet’s smaller size could make for a manageable addition to any Caribbean biotope.

Blue Chromis Chromis cyanea

Maximum Size: 6 inches

Reef Compatibility: Reef safe

These fish are very common throughout the Caribbean, but less common in the northern Gulf of Mexico and Florida. They are often found in the fore reef zone where open ocean currents supply them with planktonic food. These little fish are omnivores that eat small plankton-based foods such as tiny jellyfish and other invertebrates.

The blue chromis makes a hardy and colorful fish in the aquarium. Like many damselfish or chromis, they willingly accept nearly all types of prepared and frozen aquarium foods. The blue chromis has the advantage of being slightly more docile than many of the popular South Pacific damselfish.

Bluehead Wrasse Thalassoma bifasciatum

Maximum Size: 10 inches

Reef Compatibility: Add with caution if keeping a reef aquarium

These fish are incredibly abundant on shallow coral reefs throughout the Caribbean Sea, and even north into the Carolinas. They are found on nearly all coral reef zones but are far less common on the deep reef drop-off. They are carnivores that feed mainly on zooplankton and small benthic organisms, such as shrimp or worms.

In the aquarium, these wrasses behave like many other larger wrasses. They are not terribly difficult to keep or find in fish stores. Their taste for invertebrates can become a problem, though with careful attention their diet can be managed. In the wild blueheads are known to be cleaners in the juvenile stage, though I have never heard of them offering this service in the aquarium.

Atlantic Blue Tang Acanthurus coeruleus

Maximum Size: 16 inches

Reef Compatibility: Reef safe

The Atlantic blue tang has been a mainstay in the aquarium hobby for many years. They are found throughout the Caribbean but are rare or absent in the Gulf of Mexico. They are herbivores that graze on algae.

In the aquarium, the blue tang requires the same care as many other surgeonfish species. A healthy crop of freeze-dried algae and clean water will help keep this fish looking and feeling its best. They are prone to ich, like many other members of the Acanthurus genus; it’s always a good idea to keep a non-obligate cleaner organism such as a goby in the tank to help nip an outbreak in the bud, though quarantine and freshwater dips of new specimens are the first and best prevention.

French Angelfish Pomacanthus paru

Maximum Size: 16 inches

Reef Compatibility: Add with caution if keeping a reef aquarium

This fish is common throughout the eastern Caribbean but is rarely seen in the Gulf of Mexico. They occur in the fore reef, back reef, and reef drop-off zones. French angelfish can grow to become very tough. They eat sponges, algae, and even some gorgonians.

Like any angelfish in the aquarium, the French angelfish tends to prefer corals and invertebrates as food items. While they create a striking display, they also grow very large, have specialized feeding requirements, and are likely to accelerate waste accumulation in the aquarium, so they are not for the average tank.

Queen Triggerfish Balistes vetula

Maximum Size: 24 inches

Reef Compatibility: Far from reef safe

These gorgeous triggerfish are common throughout the Caribbean. They tend to prefer the back reef and fore reef zones. The queen triggerfish is a very specialized predator that uses a high-pressure jet of water to flip over sea urchins. Once an urchin is on its back, the triggerfish can feed on the animal’s soft underside.

In the aquarium, queen triggerfish make a striking display but are known to be very belligerent. These large fish will bite into heaters, airline tubing, other equipment, and tankmates—as well as the hand that feeds them. They grow large, generate a lot of waste, and should be excluded from any reef aquarium.

Neon Goby Elacatinus oceanops

Maximum Size: 2 inches

Reef Compatibility: Reef safe

These charming little fish have been very popular in marine aquaria for decades. It’s not surprising, as they are hardy, don’t get very large, and are wonderful cleaners. It is amazing just how aggressive some individuals are about cleaning their tankmates. This species is found throughout the Caribbean Sea and often spotted in the back or fore reef zones in association with boulder star corals.

Obviously a small fish like this that does not dine on corals is totally reef safe. Also, many larger Caribbean predators will recognize the goby as a cleaner and not eat it. However, all fish are individuals, and instinctive behaviors are often short circuited in an aquarium, so there is no guarantee that a larger fish wouldn’t consume your tiny, well-meaning goby.

Yellow-Headed or Pearly Jawfish Opistognathus aurifrons

Maximum Size: 4 inches

Reef Compatibility: Reef safe

This personable little fish is one of the Caribbean’s true stars. They are found throughout South Florida and the Caribbean and are extremely common in the Netherland Antilles, around Bonaire and Curacao. They can be found in the shallow back reef zone or any sun-drenched sand flat. These fish work hard to construct tiny burrows and will often spit sand at intruders.

The jawfish is also a mouthbrooder, often spotted on the coral reef with a mouth full of eggs. In the aquarium, the jawfish is compatible with any coral reef tank, but it can easily become a prey item for larger fish and invertebrates, including anemones. Also, this jawfish is notorious for leaping out of uncovered aquariums, especially at night. Making sure your tank is securely covered can help make sure your jawfish doesn’t end up competing in the usually fatal sport of carpet surfing.

Candy Basslet Liopropoma carmabi

Maximum Size: 2½ inches

Reef Compatibility: Reef safe

This highly colorful and attractive fish is both rare and very expensive. I have seen candy basslets sell at online fish retailers for $900 to $1000. These unique animals prefer deeper portions of the coral reef and are therefore hard to find. While they occur all over the Caribbean Sea, they are seldom seen by divers, and their love of deeper water and coral caves makes them nearly impossible to catch.

These fish are reef safe and prove very hardy once they can be acquired. They may become prey for larger fish and invertebrates and are suitable for nano-reef aquariums.

Caribbean Corals

Boulder Star Coral Montastraea annularis

These corals represent the builders of the coral reef, growing in sheet-like mats with many polyps. The boulder star coral can change and adapt its shape to compensate for waves and current and is typically found in shades of green to brown and occasionally gray. Montastraea annularis is very common on reefs going down to 21 feet and becomes more flattened as it descends down to 100 feet.

In the aquarium, the boulder star coral requires nutrient-free water and bright lighting like any photosynthetic coral. T5 or metal halide lighting would suit this species just fine, and as the coral begins to grow it would create an attractive mat throughout the aquarium. A correct balance of calcium and alkalinity, as well as trace element supplementation, will aid in the health and growth rate of this species.

Maze Coral Meandrina meandrites

The maze or maze brain coral comes in a variety of shapes and colors. It is named because the coral polyp, which is large, looks almost like a section of a maze-like brain. At night this coral recedes its tissue and extends its tentacles to feed on tiny animals. Like any large-polyped stony (LPS) coral, it requires bright light but is more tolerant of shaded areas and less-than-perfect water quality than small-polyped stony (SPS) corals.

Rose Coral Manicina areolata

The most common morph of this coral is a small, elliptical colony with a long central valley. It can appear brown to yellow to brownish green in the wild. In the aquarium, the rose coral requires bright lighting and nutrient-free water. The same requirements for keeping both boulder star and maze corals would apply to this species as well.

Sunray Lettuce Coral Leptoseris cucullata

These colonies are known to create flat plates or saucers. They have short centers and valleys with noticeable corallites that are nestled in rows along the center. Again, the same requirements for keeping the boulder star coral apply to this species.

Staghorn Coral Acropora cervicornis

This branching coral occurs in the back reef zone and fore reef environment. Its upper area is defined by wave movement and various currents. Being an SPS, it tends to be very dependent on available light.

Like any SPS coral species, staghorn corals require nutrient-free water and very bright light. It would be difficult to get this species to thrive under anything dimmer than metal halide lighting. A perfect balance of alkalinity and calcium and high water flow increase success rates with this species.

Other Caribbean Invertebrates

Nearly any online supplier of clean-up organisms has a specific pack of animals that originates from the Caribbean. It is very likely that many of the snails, sea cucumbers, shrimps, and crabs in your tank right now originated from somewhere in the Caribbean Sea—likely South Florida. There are several Caribbean invertebrates that are very unique and make interesting aquarium specimens. Like all animals from the region, they vary in their suitability for reef aquariums.

Yellow-Line Arrow Crab Stenorhynchus seticornis

Maximum Size: 2½ inches

Reef Compatibility: Add with caution if you are keeping a reef tank

This is a small spider-like crab with a unique, triangular body. These crabs have a noticeable serrated spine rising up through their body, between the eyes. They carry themselves with long, thin legs and two tiny purple claws. They are omnivores that eat algae, tube worms, bristleworms, and work to clean up dead organisms.

In the aquarium, the yellow-line is like many other omnivorous crabs. They are good at cleaning up uneaten food, but sometimes their tastes turn over to coral polyps. Although they are small, constant picking at any coral or anemone by this crab can easily lead to stress or demise.

Queen Conch Strombus gigas

Maximum Size: 12 inches

Reef Compatibility: Add with caution if keeping a reef aquarium

Anyone who has visited the islands of the Bahamas is very familiar with this species. It represents, in that part of the Caribbean, a unique food source. Conch fritters, strips, and chowder are all served at different areas on the islands. These animals are common throughout the entire Caribbean and can often be found in sand or rubble areas. They are also usually found on seagrass meadows. They are primarily herbivores that graze on algae and sometimes detritus (decaying plant and animal matter).

Queen conchs are often sold for the aquarium to control algae or even clean up the sand bed, but sadly they have a tendency to shift their desires to coral polyps as they age. In addition to that, queen conchs grow very large and can topple rock and coral once they get larger.

Final Notes

Creating any biotope aquarium takes work. Some people can get downright obsessive when taking on this task. They will only select sand, rock, and aquarium decor from the region of the world’s ocean they hope to replicate. Some hobbyists spend a tremendous amount of time making sure that all species kept together in a biotope aquarium would exist well together naturally. Other aquarists hope to recreate one very specific slice of Mother Nature or a particular reef they have visited.

You don’t have to become obsessive when setting up a Caribbean biotope, but you must keep a careful eye on your stocking. The typical method of walking into an aquarium or fish retailer and selecting whatever fish catches your eye doesn’t work. With a biotope you have to be selective about each and every animal you choose to keep. Research on the specific region and the care requirements of each species can all help things move along and prevent major problems.

There are online retailers that specialize in Caribbean livestock. Using an outlet that is aware of what you are trying to accomplish could help make certain that you reach your goal. While a biotope aquarium involves work, perhaps more work than the standard reef tank, the finished product stands as a testament to what can be done when consideration, research, and knowledge of a particular geographic location work in concert.

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