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Dottybacks, Pseudochromids for Small Marine Aquariums


By Bob Fenner



Small Marine Aquariums
Book 1:
Invertebrates, Algae
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by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums
ook 2:

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The species/members of the family of Dottybacks, Pseudochromidae, subfamily Pseudochrominae are easy to divide in terms of suitability for small systems. Some are peaceful enough, and others can be veritable demons to their fish tankmates. The latter, in fact, all are better being tank-bred and reared versus wild-collected in terms of temperament; but one can keep the meaner to meanest species as sole-fish along w/ non-fish tankmates.


            Here we’ll present the best of the better suited varieties you’re likely to find available; and some to avoid. Do bear in mind that this list will age poorly; there are several species of Pseudochromids that are being developed in sufficient numbers to be offered commercially; and several that are “new to science”, that haven’t been described as yet. All species are “tough customers” that are best kept as single individuals (or paired) as the only fish/es in a small volume. In particular, “Dottyback-like” fishes like Grammas, small Basses are sure to be harassed… likely to death, if kept with them.



What Are Dottybacks? Not Basses

Though they look like miniature basses with their pear-shaped eyes, canine teeth and aggressive manner, physical shape and full-on grouper like in their bravado, Dottybacks are a distinct family from the true basses of the Family Serranidae.

They may be readily discerned from smaller serranids on the basis of a simple character: dorsal fin spine counts. Dottybacks, family Pseudochromidae ("Sue-Doh-Krome-Id-Ee") have one to three spines each in the anterior, hard portion of their top fins, true basses have 7-13 spiny rays.

Genera most often seen are the Pseudochromis (with about 100 current species; some of which have been split off into other genera) and Labracinus (with two species), Ogilbyina (with three species). Less known and familiar to marine aquarists is Cypho with two species.

Genus Pictichromis: Some eight species have been relegated to this genus, moved from Pseudochromis; you may well find older literature listing them in their former genus. I’ll include them alphabetically by species with Pseudochromis spp.

Genus Manonichthys: Of the seven described species in this genus we only see M. splendens regularly. It too was in Pseudochromis and is most often included there.

Genus Pseudochromis contains some of the most beautiful and bold species of fishes offered in the trade. Don't let their size ever fool you, these small marines are tough customers; some are counted as the top predators of their reefs; though most are attain only a few inches in length.

Pseudochromis aldabraensis Bauchot-Bautin 1958, the Orange Dottyback. Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, down to Aldabra, over to Sri Lanka. To four inches in length. Shy, but a great aquarium beauty when kept with suitably larger fish specimens. Produced in good numbers in captivity. Aquarium image.

Pseudochromis bitaeniatus (Fowler 1931), Double-striped Dottyback. To 12 cm. Western Pacific. This one in S. Sulawesi

Pictichromis (Pseudochromis) diadema Lubbock & Randall 1978, the Diadem Dottyback.  Western central Pacific. To two and a half inches in length. One of the first Dottyback species to be kept. An aquarium image.

Pseudochromis fridmani Klausewitz 1968, the Orchid Dottyback. Known only from the Red Sea, but cultured in commercial numbers. To three inches in length. This photo taken in Sharm, Red Sea.

Pseudochromis fuscus Muller & Troschel 1849, the Yellow Dottyback. Central Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. This pale phase one in Australia's GBR. To three and a half inches long.

Pseudochromis marshallensis (Schultz 1953), Marshall Island Dottyback. To 8 cm. Western Pacific. This one in S. Sulawesi.

Pictichromis (Pseudochromis) paccagnellae Axelrod 1973, the Royal Dottyback. Western Pacific. To three inches long. One of the easier going members of the family and one of the original aquarium Dottybacks. Photo taken in Bunaken/Sulawesi/Indonesia.

Pictichromis (Pseudochromis) porphyreus Lubbock & Goldman 1974, the Magenta Dottyback. Western Pacific. To three inches in length. An early Dottyback that has fallen out of favor in the abundance of other showier species. Fiji image.

Pseudochromis sankeyi Lubbock 1975, the Striped Dottyback. Gulf of Aden and lower part of Red Sea in the northwestern Indian Ocean. To three inches in length. Aquarium photo of a captive-produced individual.

Manonichthys (Pseudochromis) splendens, (Fowler 1931) the Splendid Dottyback. Eastern Indonesia and Northwest Australian waters. To three inches in length. A commonly cultured, and for the group, very peaceful Dottyback species; and available tank-bred and reared without season. One in S. Sulawesi.

Pseudochromis springeri Lubbock 1975, the Bluestriped Dottyback. Red Sea endemic, though most specimens offered are produced in captivity. To three inches in length. Red Sea image.

Pseudochromis steenei Gill & Randall 1992, the Lyretail Dottyback. West Pacific. To five inches in length. Amongst mean fishes like the Dottybacks, this species is a pure terror. Absolutely to not be trusted with any other fishes of small size or gentle natures. Aquarium image.


The Other Pseudochromid Genera, Species:

In the genus, Cypho, C. purpurescens is a beauty though expensive and not-yet spawned/raised in captivity in good numbers. Its congener C. zaps is dull in appearance. Genera Labracinus and Ogilbyina members, though tempting, are too large and mean for the size systems we’re discussing here.

Labracinus cyclophthalmus (Muller & Troschel 1849), the Fire-Tail Devil. Western Pacific distribution; found in and around rocky reefs. About eight inches maximum length. Feeds on small fishes in the wild. 

Ogilbyina queenslandiae (Saville-Kent 1893), the Queensland Dottyback. Queensland, Australia endemic supposedly.... To six inches in length. Female and male photographed off Heron Island.


If ever there was a collector, distributor and retailers combination dream AND nightmare group it's got to be the Dotty backs. They are extremely territorial amongst themselves and can be living terrors if mixed with fishes they don't care for.

The dream part comes from Dottyback shipping mortalities; virtually none. The "Elm Street" portion is finding enough cubicles, containers to individually cordone them off. Their interaction with each other reminds me of freshwater male Bettas, Betta splendens. The big difference is that Dottybacks have large canine teeth and no long flowing fins to slow them down. A large proportion of these fishes are lost by the business from "jumping" out of the system entirely or in with each other.

Good specimens are about all that is ever offered. I wouldn't be concerned about chewed fins on a prospective purchase, as long as the fin bases or body was not bloodied. They are ready healers.


The Dottybacks are found all over the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea on exposed reef flats, lagoons and seaward reefs. The common element in their environments is the presence of hiding spaces, coral and rock crevices and caves that they can and will duck into lightning quick.

"Normal" aquarium conditions suit these fishes fine; many are found in shallow, changeable circumstances in the wild, and are accepting of the same in confinement.

Behavior: Predator/Prey Relations:

Dottybacks define the very word territorial; they're small but you should definitely keep them one to a tank. They are relentless scrappers with their own kind and other members of the genus. On the reef they are often found within an arm's reach of each other, and there are a few accounts of aquarists keeping two or more together in less than a fifty gallon system, but there are far more recordings of Pseudochromine war losses amongst their own genus, gobies (esp. Fire, Nemateleotris), Wrasses, Grammas, Anthias, and more. Wholesalers keep Pseudochromines strictly apart; you should too. Larger, more aggressive species, or individuals are best kept with Triggers, large Angels, Tangs...

Though they are bully boyz, Dottybacks are often kept in all types of marine systems, from fish-only to full blown reef. Due to their nature and small size, they generally leave expensive invertebrates alone.


Spawning in aquariums and in the wild has been observed (See Debelius and Baensch for the best coverage). Temporary pairs produce a spherical egg mass which is guarded by the male on the bottom. Hatching occurs in 6 days at about 27 C. Species spawn every two to three weeks over a period of the year.

Some Dottybacks show color and structural differences between the sexes; males being more rich in intensity and color, some species males with longer unpaired fins.


These fishes should be placed in the system somewhat last, after the other less territorial types have secured their footage (finnage?). A very worthwhile approach to adding a Dottyback involves a clear, screw or snap on lid plastic (don't let your significant other catch you using their food-storage containers) jar that has holes melted or drilled into it. The new Dottyback (or old misbehaving one) is floated in the tank for a few days before release. This seems to ease tension and give all parties a chance to get acquainted without being able to get at each other.

Adopting this handy hint alone will save you the cost of this book many times over.





In the wild Pseudochromids are carnivores, feeding on small crustaceans, worms and zooplankton; searching for food during all daylight hours. In captivity they are ravenous feeders of all foodstuffs, especially frozen and fresh meaty foods. Don’t let yours get too thin! A sunken bellied specimen photographed in a LFS in New Jersey



Dottybacks are moderately susceptible to marine Ich, but easily cured with copper and specific gravity manipulation.

Two other "diseases" of note are color loss and the aforementioned jumping problem. On capture, they're fabulously marked and colored, but some species are notorious for fading to dull and drab. Insufficient filtration and lack of varied, frequently offered foods are most often cited as slowing the loss of color.

How many Pseudochromids have I seen lost due to them catapulting themselves out of their system? MANY. Far more are lost this way than from infectious disease. Check and double-seal top openings big enough for their auto-launching.


            Yes, the Dottybacks have much to offer; given selection of an easygoing species, or dedicating a bad boy to its own single-fish display. They can be overly shy, but more than make up for this reclusiveness with their occasional shows of color and bold behavior.


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Axelrod, Herbert R. 1973. A colorful beauty from the coral reefs of Indonesia; Pseudochromis paccagnellae. TFH 4/73.

Barrall, Glenn & Anthony C. Gill. 1997. The Gold-Browed Dottyback, Pseudochromis aurifrons Lubbock 1980. FAMA 6/97.

Burgess, Warren, Herbert R. Axelrod & Raymond E. Hunziker. 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes, vol. 1, Marine. T.F.H. Publications, NJ.

Carlson, Bruce A. 1981. Pseudochromis porphyreus Lubbock & Goldman 1974. FAMA 6/81.

Debelius, Helmut. 1986. Fishes for the Invertebrate Aquarium. Reimer Hobbing GmbH, Essen.

Debelius, Helmut & Hans Baensch. 1994. Marine Atlas, vol. 1. MERGUS, Melle Germany.

Fenner, Robert. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.

Fenner, Bob. 2000. The Dottybacks, family Pseudochromidae. FAMA 6/00.

Gardner, Todd. 2000. Spawning and rearing the Yellow Dottyback, Pseudochromis fuscus. FAMA 4/00.

Herwig, Nelson & Don Dewey. 1982. Congrogadus subduscens. A new challenge for the marine aquarist. FAMA 3/82. 

Howe, Jeffrey C. 1992, 95. Original Descriptions: Pseudochromidae. Pseudochromis diadema 5/92, Chlidichthys cacatuoides 11/95. FAMA.

Kuiter, Rudie H. & Helmut Debelius. 1994. Southeast Asia Tropical Fish Guide. Tetra-Press, Germany.

Michael, Scott W. 1990. An aquarist's guide to the Dottybacks, genus Pseudochromis, pts. 1 & 2. FAMA 10, 11/90.

Michael, Scott W. 1995. Fishes for the marine aquarium, pt 11; An aquarist's guide to the Dottybacks. AFM 8/95. Identical to the above reference. Shame.

Moe, Martin. 1997. The Orchid Dottyback breeding room. FAMA 11/97.

Nelson, Joseph S. Fishes of the World, 3rd Ed. 1994. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. NY.

Paletta, Michael. 1993. The Orchid Dottyback, Pseudochromis fridmani. SeaScope v. 10, Summer 93.  

Small Marine Aquariums
Book 1:
Invertebrates, Algae
New Print and eBook on Amazon:
by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums
ook 2:

New Print and eBook on Amazon: by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums
Book 3:

New Print and eBook on Amazon:
by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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