Go Go Gobies! Best Goby Fish for Aquariums
The family Gobiidae is one of the most species-rich groups of fish on Earth, featuring eight subfamilies occupying diverse habitats from freshwater streams to the oceans. However, only a fraction of these species appear in the aquarium hobby, and most of them are marine. Many goby fish species make good candidates for home fish tanks, reef or otherwise, regardless of their size or water requirements. Let’s take a closer look at a few favorite gobies you may encounter in fishkeeping circles.
Even with an ever-growing variety of gobies available in the hobby, some of the most popular species are those that have been around the longest. When I started my first marine aquarium in 1976, the most readily available species were the neon goby (Elacatinus oceanops), magnificent firefish (Nemateleotris magnifica), and Catalina goby (Lythrypnus dalli).
The Catalina goby is considerably tougher to find these days, which is probably a good thing because it does best at temperatures in the mid 60s F (high teens C) and is not really suitable for the typical home aquarium. So we will end our discussion of L. dalli here, except to say that if you do see one, be aware of its temperature requirements and proceed accordingly.
The Genus Elacatinus
The neon goby has waxed and waned over the years in popularity and availability. E. oceanops was among the first fish species to be captive bred, and tank-raised fish have by and large replaced wild-caught specimens in the hobby. Neon gobies represented one of the hobby’s most ubiquitous species in the 1990s and early 2000s, and one rarely walked into a saltwater store that didn’t have some available. Because they are quite small and have frequently gone down overflows or through dividers, though, neon gobies have since lost some popularity—especially among wholesalers and retailers. Today, E. oceanops is only occasionally available, but it is still a fish worth seeking out.
Neon gobies are attractive, hardy, and will spawn in a community setting. They are cleaner fish that feed on parasites, dead skin, and more. Unlike their cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) counterparts, neon gobies are not generally a nuisance for their tankmates. I do not recall ever seeing a neon goby damage another fish it was cleaning, but I have seen many cleaner wrasses damage or even kill their client species by repeatedly picking at it in the same area. There’s some color pattern resemblance between these two species, with the neon goby featuring a broad, horizontal black stripe on an otherwise blue body that’s reminiscent of the cleaner wrasse’s pattern.
Neon gobies readily accept all foods typically offered by the aquarist as long as the pieces are small enough to fit in their mouth. They are somewhat territorial and form a dominance hierarchy if kept in a group, though a bonded pair may not tolerate additional neon gobies in smaller tanks. They get along well with most other fish species, but choose tankmates carefully; neon gobies can be tasty morsels for other fish due to their slender bodies.
Several other species from the genus Elacatinus are usually available as tank-raised fish, including the sharknose goby (E. evelynae), in which the blue stripe turns yellow on the head, and the yellow-line goby (E. figaro), which is yellow where E. oceanops is blue. These fish essentially differ from E. oceanops only in color pattern, and aquarium care for all three species is the same.
If you are maintaining a quarantine tank with an ongoing and established biological filter, members of Elacatinus are excellent choices. They will help keep the biofiltration active and are extremely hardy, which can be helpful if diseases such as ich develop on fish in quarantine. In addition, the availability of tank-raised fish means you do not need to buy fish collected from the wild.
Dartfish and Firefish
Firefishes and other dartfishes have long been referred to as gobies, but in a separate family, Microdesmidae. Now the dartfishes have been merged with gobies into Gobiidae, and the family Microdesmidae is considered a clade within Gobiidae. So while advocates of older sources may wag their fingers at common names like “firefish goby,” these titles are now taxonomically correct.
The magnificent firefish (N. magnifica) remains one of the most popular reef fish in the hobby. Beautiful, hardy, and peaceful toward tankmates, these fish are great for beginners and can challenge advanced hobbyists who wish to spawn them. Fire gobies tend to hang out in the water column and flick their extended first dorsal fin, so they are usually out and visible, endearing them to hobbyists and non-hobbyists alike. Their biggest downside is that they have a tendency to jump; they should never be kept in open-top aquaria.
Members of this species do not get along too well with each other. Novice hobbyists commonly purchase two to four individuals, which often results in only a single survivor. If you are lucky enough to have two survivors, it is highly likely that they are a compatible pair. Fire gobies are monogamous in nature, nesting in holes in the substrate. I’ve never tried to spawn them but always suspected that sticking angled PVC pipe of various diameters and lengths into the substrate would provide the necessary territory for breeding.
The purple firefish (N. decora) is also available fairly regularly. Its first dorsal fin is not as long, and its colors are more subdued. And then there’s the least colorful yet most expensive fish in the genus, Helfrich’s firefish (N. helfrichi). I’ve always thought of its color pattern as a more pastel version of N. decora. Its geographic range is more restricted than that of the magnificent and purple firefishes, making it less frequently available.
Hailing from the Maldives, the exquisite firefish (N. exquisita) is the newest member of the genus, though there is some debate as to the species’ validity. Like N. helfrichi, it is also likely to demand a high price. It looks like a yellower version of the purple firefish. It’s found in deeper waters and gets a bit bigger than its fellow firefishes.
The Genus Ptereleotris
I remember first seeing members of the genus Ptereleotris in the early 1980s, and it quickly became my favorite goby genus. Even today, the bar goby (P. zebra) remains one of my favorite marine fishes, and I recommend the species to almost any hobbyist. Though seldom found among dealers, bar gobies are beautiful, active, and really prefer to be maintained in a group. They are easily intimidated by more aggressive species, so tankmates should be chosen cautiously. Their color must be seen to be appreciated, and is seldom at its best in dealer’s tanks, as their hues seem to change depending on how the light is hitting the fish. Body colors vary from green to blue while the narrow vertical bars can vary from pink to orange.
I’ve had them spawn in tanks on several occasions but have never tried to raise them. Raising this species can present a challenge to even the most experienced marine hobbyist. Interestingly, P. zebra lays adhesive eggs in caves.
Bar gobies are another species that should be considered for permanent status in quarantine tanks, as they seldom, if ever, become ill. I’ve had several tank wipeouts over the years where bar gobies were not only the sole survivors, but they never even showed any signs of the disease that wiped out the rest of the tank.
Members of Ptereleotris tend to jump, so open-top aquariums should be avoided. Numerous other Ptereleotris species are available, with the scissortail goby (P. evides) being the most common. It is subtly colored in shades of gray with a blue eye. P. hanae, P. heteroptera, and P. microlepis are primarily blue to green species and can all be found offered as blue gudgeons.
The lined dartfish (P. grammica) is the rarest of these species to reach the hobby. It is absolutely spectacular to look at and tends to be a slightly larger when offered in the trade. Lined dartfish also command a much higher price than other Ptereleotris species, but if this breathtaking fish fits in your budget, don’t miss an opportunity to obtain a group!
The clown gobies of the genus Gobiodon have long been popular aquarium fishes. They generally swim out in the open and aren’t particularly active, making them a good choice for nano reef tanks. For a while, I didn’t fully understand why clown gobies received so much hobby-wide acclaim. They seemed to eat and behave just fine in my experiences but didn’t live very long and rarely survived longer than six months. This bothered me because I believe fish that cannot live a normal life span in captivity are best left in the wild.
As the quality and variety of foods available has improved, though, so has the survivability of the clown gobies. It is important to offer them a varied, high-quality diet including a range of frozen foods and the best possible pellets to maintain their long-term wellness.
Several Gobiodon species have been known to spawn on coral branches after cleaning the spawning area of polyps and living tissue. They are particularly fond of Acropora corals, so remember to keep an eye on them if you keep them together with clown gobies.
Four species from this genus reach the hobby on a regular basis, and others can be found occasionally. Color choices abound in these big-headed and laterally compressed fish, with the yellow clown goby (G. okinawae) likely being the most popular one. The black clown goby (G. unicolor) is the most frequently available, while the green clown goby (G. histrio) is probably the most colorful, featuring red stripes and spots on a dark green body.
My favorite species is the somewhat larger citron goby (G. citrinus), which features a darker yellowish color with some stripes and spots around the head.
The Genus Tigrigobius
The genus Tigrigobius features several goby fish species that were once highly sought after but rarely available. Fortunately, some have been bred in captivity and are now available as tank-raised specimens. Species from this genus are small and can be great choices for nano reef tanks, and possibly larger tanks if tankmates are chosen with care.
I searched for green-banded gobies (T. multifasciatus) for several years when they became available as tank-raised fish. I had only been able to obtain wild-caught specimens on a single occasion prior to this and quickly sold all that I’d been able to acquire. Green-banded gobies are small and great for even very little nano tanks. They are territorial, though, and best kept individually in nano tanks unless a bonded pair can be obtained. Keeping a single pair of T. multifasciatus is probably the best option, even in larger tanks.
The redhead goby (T. puncticulatus) is another wonderful addition to the nano reef, and it’s not as territorial as T. multifasciatus. Wild specimens were occasionally available in the 1990s before they were bred commercially. Thankfully, I haven’t seen a wild redhead goby since tank-raised specimens became available. Because this species is now captive bred, it is widely available without putting any pressure on wild populations.
The tiger goby (T. macrodon) is also being bred commercially. While not as colorful as the other goby fish species, it is still an appealing fish in its own right. Interestingly, I have never seen a wild specimen in the trade; captive breeders have done a wonderful job introducing this species to hobbyists.
A Goby for Any Setup
Goby fish are great examples of the adage that good things come in small packages. There is a goby for every fishkeeper, regardless of experience or tank size. So, what are you waiting for?