Dottybacks-- Choose Carefully!

Author: Bob Goemans

A colorful and mellow visage hides the aggressive truth—these popular fishes are some of the biggest bullies out there! If you don’t believe in fish with an ego, just wait until they start dominating tankmates twice their size.

Origin of Dottybacks

Dottybacks mostly come from the Indo-Pacific Ocean, Red Sea, and Western Pacific. They belong in the order Perciformes, suborder Percoidei, and the family Pseudochromidae, which contains 20 genera having about 120-plus species. There have been three new genera proposed in the subfamily Pseudochrominae (Manonichthys, Oxycercichthys, and Pholidochromis), but previously the fish in these genera have been considered Pseudochromis.

Aggressive Introverts

The subfamily Pseudochrominae contains the most species- (about 60), and are ideally suited for many home aquariums because of their small size, hardiness, easiness to feed, disease resistance, and remarkable coloration.

In the wild, these mostly shy fishes are found on coral or rocky reefs, where they prefer to hide in reef holes or crevices and feed upon small crustaceans, polychaete worms, and plankton. However, that’s only half the story, as most are also quite territorial and chase away others, even those in their own genus. Therefore, making the right choice the first time around is imperative if a dottyback is on your shopping list.

Marine Chameleons

One of the most controversial species in this family that shows up in the trade is Congrogadus subducens. It belongs to the subfamily Congrogadinae and is usually called the carpet eel blenny or wolf eel, but is actually neither. This eel-like species attains a length of 18 inches and hails from the Western Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. It is usually found in very shallow waters (e.g., seagrass beds, tidal rubble flats, and tidepools) and can change its color to match its background if threatened.

It should not be housed with small fish and shrimp (which constitute its prey), and caves and/or rock crevices should be provided so it can hide. It should be fed every other day with a diet consisting of meaty-type foods. The aquarium should also be covered, as this species has a habit of jumping out of an uncovered tank. It can be safely housed with larger and more aggressive fishes, such as squirrelfish, angelfish, surgeonfish, and rabbitfish.

Ostensibly Civil

So what are some mild-mannered dottyback species that can be added to mixed environments in fish-only and reef aquariums? That is actually a difficult question to answer, because there are different factors involved—it may depend on the aquarium environment, or the fish’s tankmates. However, many species in the subfamily Pseudochrominae, such as Pictichromis (magenta dottybacks), do generally get along well with others and are often seen in the hobby.

The most common is probably the diadem dottyback Pictichromis diadema. This small, 2-inch species hails from the Western Pacific and inhabits reef slopes, base areas of drop-offs, and coral crevices, where it feeds on plankton and small crustaceans. Its yellow body is capped with a magenta color that runs from the top of the eye to the tail. The fish is often seen in the trade because it’s a small and attractive species, and those with little or no previous experience may consider it a good addition to their aquarium, whether it’s reef or fish-only. However, this is not necessarily correct.

If kept with aggressive fishes (e.g., larger angelfish, surgeonfish, squirrelfish, and wrasses), it can be maintained quite successfully (even in small groups) in any type of aquarium. However, in an aquarium with less aggressive fishes (e.g., damsels, anthias, gobies, anemonefish, and even others in its own family), they will terrorize their neighbors. They also become open to diseases when stressing tankmates. It’s no doubt a very pretty fish, but also very risky in most mixed-company systems.


Next up is the royal or bicolor dottyback P. paccagnellae, which is approximately the same size, has the same natural environmental conditions, and also hails from the same areas. It’s another commonly seen fish in the trade that features great colors—its front half is magenta, while its rear half is yellow.

Calling the fish hardy would be an understatement, as they are almost indestructible, and will attack not only larger fish, but even those thought to be more aggressive. In fact, they will even do battle with larger triggerfish! Again, these fish are pretty, but they are not suited for anything but an aquarium designed for this species. They are also extremely fast-moving and secretive, so removing one from an aquarium is an immense challenge.

The magenta or purple dottyback P. porphyrea also has the same logistics and size as the above two, but is a little more tolerant of its neighbors. However, it still should not be kept with very docile tankmates, especially in small aquariums where it has a tendency to get really aggressive. In addition, it somewhat tends to lose its coloration in captivity.

Dotty (bullies)

Moving into the genus Pseudochromis (common dottybacks), the Arabian blue-lined or neon dottyback Pseudochromis aldabraensis is a beautiful fish. It hails from the Arabian Gulf east of Pakistan and inhabits various environments (e.g., fringing reefs, bays with rocky rubble, and growths of stony corals). It gets to about 8 inches in length and feeds on plankton and small bottom-dwelling crustaceans, as do most dottybacks. A mostly yellow-orange body capped with blue, coupled with an iridescent blue stripe running lengthwise, makes this a highly attractive species. It actually has a doppelganger, P. dutoiti (from the Kenya to South Africa region), which has a more greenish body.

I’ve kept both of these—albeit not simultaneously—in the distant past (as I have those mentioned above them), and let me say that either of these two can really be a terror in almost any type of aquarium. Though one was placed in a 100-gallon reef aquarium and the other in a 75-gallon reef aquarium with larger tankmates, they almost constantly took shots at the other inhabitants. As with all dottybacks, they are extremely fast, quite hardy, territorial, disease resistant, mostly inexpensive, very colorful, and not finicky eaters. But I won’t go into detail about how quickly I got them out of my aquariums when I found out they would not peacefully coexist with their tankmates. It was one of those “live and learn” experiences from my younger years.

Edgy Scavengers

There’s another in this genus, P. springeri (the Springer’s or blue-striped dottyback), that is occasionally available in the trade. This small 2-inch fish hails from the Red Sea and inhabits the slopes of fringing reefs. It could be considered a nervous fish, as it’s always going from one place to another searching for food.

One of the things that make it favorable for reef aquariums is that it’s not overly aggressive and will get along with almost all tankmates except those that are quite docile, such as anthias. It’s also a good hunter of small bristleworms.

The Ideal

At last, a species I can highly recommend! The orchid or Fridman’s dottyback P. fridmani is undoubtedly well suited for the community tank. This fish is from the northern region of the Red Sea, and features a magenta body with a black stripe that runs from the lip through its eye to the edge of the operculum, and a blue spot on the gill cover.

This small fish is about 2½ inches and easily adapts to reef aquariums, as it likes numerous places to hide and/or search for food. It rarely bothers other smaller fish, but still maintains some of the dottyback attitude.

Nevertheless, it is the absolute best of the bunch when it comes to temperament. It’s probably the most sought-after dottyback species in the trade—it’s not only very pretty, but hardy and interesting to watch. What’s more, captive-bred specimens are available. As with other dottybacks, it’s a meat eater that should have at least one meal per day. One minor drawback is that it tends to jump out of aquariums, but covering any open areas should do the trick.


Moving on to the genus Ogilbyina (Australian dottybacks), there are two that infrequently show up in the trade—the Australian or multicolored dottyback Ogilbyina novaehollandiae, and the Queensland dottyback O. queenslandiae. Both are inhabitants of the Great Barrier Reef, dwelling in tidepools and reef faces. The Australian dottyback gets to about 4 inches in length, while the Queensland dottyback reaches about 6 inches.

What’s confusing about these fish is that their coloration varies with age and sex—the Australian dottyback has a total of five color stages alone. Therefore, a specimen may come to a local dealer that is difficult to properly identify, but still look attractive. Their alluring coloration may tempt a hobbyist into adding them hastily, but there will be trouble if the tank features smaller species—it attacks anything smaller than groupers, triggerfish, or large eels.

Little Devils

Those in the genus Labracinus (lined dottybacks) are also far too aggressive to be kept with fish their own size (8 inches) or smaller. Two that rarely show up in the trade from the Western Pacific are the red (aka, dampiera or firetail) devil L. cyclophthalmus and the blackbarred dottyback L. atrofasciatus.

Both live on coastal reefs and feed upon shrimps, snails, crabs, worms, serpent stars, and small urchins and fish. Unsuitable for a reef aquarium would be an understatement! Moreover, they are not suited for most fish-only aquariums, as these species are bullies that cannot be trusted with anything less dominating than large eels, groupers, and triggerfishes. Unfortunately, they can be handsome species, which is why they are captured and put into the hobbyist market sometimes.

A Streaking Flame

Finally, let’s look at an extremely gorgeous fish in the genus Cypho (oblique-lined dottybacks). The male Cypho purpurascens is without a doubt a stunner—reaching a maximum length of about 3 inches, its entire body and fins are bright red, and its dorsal fin often features a large black dot. It hails from the Western Pacific and inhabits stony coral areas near the edges of reef faces, caves, and rubble areas on reef slopes. Although it’s aggressive to docile fishes, it can be kept with damselfish, larger wrasses, surgeonfish, and angelfish. It needs lots of hiding places, so a larger reef aquarium would suit it perfectly.

As for diet, it requires meaty foods and should be fed once daily. If its meal is too large to swallow, it will bash the food against something hard to break it up into smaller pieces. The females have somewhat of a drab coloration—their bodies appear yellowish and washed-out, and they tend to have red coloring around the eyes. The species can only be kept singly or in mated pairs in aquariums,and even though it’s safe with corals, it’s not safe with tubeworms and shrimp, nor is it safe with any fish that has red coloration.

Vibrant Risks

There are other dottyback genera and species to choose from, most of which have beautiful colors and are quite small, but few can be considered safe to accompany the majority of animals that hobbyists keep in their aquariums. There are certainly exceptions, however, as some have proved undeserving of their reputations in mixed-company systems. Nevertheless, dealing with dottybacks may be similar to going to Las Vegas and putting your money down on a game of chance.

If there’s a dottyback species of interest that catches your eye in a local shop, it’s important to first research its needs and temperament before placing it in your aquarium. Believe me—I’ve learned the hard way that patience and research is essential when putting any of these fast-moving fish in the aquarium.

See the full article on TFH Digital