Fish Tales by Henry C. Schultz III

The Dottybacks

"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 readily available.

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.

A magenta 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 lethal mistake.

A Splendid Dottyback (P. splendens).

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".

A Pseudochromis 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 fish.

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.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

References Cited:

Baensch, H.A., 1994. Pseudochromidae. pp958 - 987. Baensch Marine Atlas, Volume 1. Microcosm. Shelburne. 1215 pp.

Brons, R., 1996 Reproduction and captive breeding of two red sea dottybacks: Pseudochromis fridmani and P. flavivertex. Freshwat. Mar. Aquar. 19(6):48-62.

Burgess, W.E., et al, 1991. Dottybacks. pp. 200 - 208. Dr. Burgess's Mini-Atlas of Marine Aquarium Fishes Mini-Edition. T.F.H. Publications. Neptune city. 1023 pp.

Gill, A.C. and J.E. Randall, 1992. Pseudochromis steenei, a new sexually dimorphic species of dottyback fish from Indonesia (Perciformes: Pseudochromidae). Rev. fr. Aquariol. 19(1-2):41-46.

Gill, A.C. and J.K.L. Mee, 1993. Notes on dottyback fishes of the genus Pseudochromis of Oman, with description of a new species (Perciformes: Pseudochromidae). Rev. fr. Aquariol. 20(2):53-60.

Lieske, E. and Myers, R., 1996. Dottybacks. pp.31 - 33. Coral Reef Fishes. Princeton University Press. Princeton. 400 pp.

Michael, S. W., 1999. Dottybacks. pp.109-124. Marine Fishes: 500 + Essential-To-Know Aquarium Species. Microcosm. Shelburne. 447 pp.

Moe, M.A.Jr., 1997. Breeding the Orchid Dottyback; An Aquarist's Journal. Green Turtle Publications. Plantation. 285 pp.

Web Sources

Ora Inc.
The Breeders Registry

Photo Credits:

Henry C. Schultz III: P. fridmani
Eric Lindquist: P. porphyreus; P. paccagnellae
Ed McCammon: P. aldabraensis
Doug Brummett: P. diadema
Kevin Kuykendall: P. springeri
Rick Peterson: P. steenei

Ken Knezick - Island Dreams: P. splendens

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The Dottybacks by Henry C. Schultz III -