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Related FAQs: Garibaldi, Damsel Identification, Damsel Selection, Damsel Compatibility, Damsel Feeding, Damsel DiseaseDamsel Reproduction

Related Articles: Pomacentridae, Damselfishes

/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

A Not-So Frolicsome Damselfish, the Garibaldi, Hypsypops rubicunda

Bob Fenner

   Hypsypops off San Diego

 Approaching a length of more than a foot and having an attitude of "get out of my way, I get what I want", sunny southern Cal.'s favorite local fish is more then a net full. In the course of doing semi-science (descriptive) regarding this pomacentrid's biology, I collected a few interesting tidbits of information and many questions. I was curious as to their territorial and other overt behaviors; what could be the "meaning" of their clicking/tooth grinding noise production? Why do aquarium specimens seem to lose their bright reddish-orange color intensity over time in captivity?

This article is a "cover" for a study done on the local garibaldi population's parasite fauna, a review article in general on it's popular biology and an enhanced bibliography if space permits. If it does not, you are welcome to write me in care of FAMA.

Hypsypops rubicunda (Girard 1854), the Garibaldi. Eastern C. Pacific; Monterrey Bay to Baja. To 30 cm. A Garibaldi at The SIO Aquarium, San Diego

Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Classification: Taxonomy, Relation With Other Groups

Garibaldi are members in good standing of the damselfish family, Pomacentridae, in the largest suborder and order of bony fishes, Percoidea and Perciformes respectively. Particulars of their higher taxonomy can be sought out in the citations below. This entirely marine family is closely compared with the freshwater Cichlidae in having much in common structurally and behaviorally.

The common name is a notation toward the Italian revolutionary of the same moniker, for his wearing of bright red/orange tunics.

Natural Range

The two Californias, Baja Mexico and Del Norte in Los Estados Unidos (the U.S. to gringos) in rocky near-shore, marine coastal and Channel Island areas.

Selection: General to Specific

Be aware of the time frame of this species life; they live quite a long time, at least twenty four years in the wild. Due to "cuteness", size as it relates to the first quality and related costs of transport, aggressiveness of larger individuals, beautiful brilliant purplish-blue spotting, juveniles about one to three inches make up the bulk of the trade. These individuals are gorgeous and can make excellent aquarium additions. My strong advice and rationale:

1) Buy specimens that have been collected during warm months. What this translates to is purchase a garibaldi only during the summer. All garibaldi are collected from the wild, the vast majority from Southern California. Much the same as for "scooter" blennies, leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciatus), Catalina gobies, various species of anemones and octopi, and other cool water species expatriated from our shores to your tanks, garibaldi have a range of thermal adaptability. The smaller the differences between their intended habitat (your system) and their native one the better. The same goes for all the other above named species; unless you have the means (a chiller, very cold home...) to accommodate them, they will suffer from too much/too soon of a temperature change. Anything more than ten degrees Fahrenheit is as a rule of thumb, way out of line. In

our area, at the depths where they are found and collected, we're talking low to upper sixty degrees around summer and about the low to mid fifties in the winter. Figure it out for yourself; are you asking for more metabolic adjustment than your livestock can make? Except for an errant individual being found in a tidepool

these are cooler-water organisms that are often bumped-off from too great a thermal challenge.

However, considering you have a specimen and system with little temperature difference, &:

2) It is a small (about an inch) to sub-adult (<three-four inches), you have a good chance of successfully keeping this fish for a few years.

In the wild, individuals duke it out for swimming/eating territory and breeding space on rocky patch reefs. Smaller/younger/weaker individuals live on the edge of such areas, constantly suffering harassment and exposure to rougher environmental conditions. These fish adapt very readily to captive environments. Larger ones are progressively meaner and more finicky eaters.

3) Color. The brighter, deeper, more intense is preferable. This can be correlated with recent capture as well as physiological state. Beautiful specimens are in better shape.

4) Check for (the absence of) physical sores and external parasites. As you'll learn in the next piece in this series there are quite a few. Scrapes and consequent infections are a function of capture, handling and transport traumas and stress. Hypsypops are collected by "baiting the field", usually with a crushed sea urchin, and scooping up with a handnet. This is a restricted activity in the United States (California), and an off and on proposition with Mexico's Baja down south; requiring the usual payment of a tax (commercial fishing permit) to partially support another large, inefficient and wasteful bureaucracy.

Environmental: Conditions


Some substantial shelter should be provided in any marine system. This is critical with aggressive territorial fishes like the garibaldi. Provide a minimum of two adequate "cave-type" settings that your specimen can completely conceal itself within.


Not too demanding a species here. Some general suggestions: As a common observation, fishes that live in close connection with non-fish species have a tendency to favor similar conditions and have comparable intolerances. Garibaldi are virtual farmers of their lek areas. Within their confines they "harvest", "cultivate", remove competitors and other browsers. I have seen them escorting Seastars and more by "picking them up" in their mouths and dropping them off the edge of their turf. See directly below.


Something brisk. These and other near shore species regularly encounter considerable wave action. Wouldn't reciprocating power heads be a great idea? I could design and engineer them, I bet you and the present manufacturers can as well. Hmmmmm.


See above under habitat. The interaction of garibaldi amongst themselves and other species is vivacious and directed, playful and action-packed. Give them and their tankmates enough decor to break up the "view-shed" so they can get out of eye-shot of each other.

Behavior: Territoriality

Dick Stratton, local yokel and friend/acquaintance, gives his seal of approval to keeping more than one Garibaldi in a system. I don't. The hassle of continuous chasing and biting will detract from all but the largest and specialized of aquaria. I have found single specimens to be well-adjusted and adaptable community members. Mixing a much smaller individual is okay given plenty of cover and room (one hundred gallons plus).


Simple enough; they tend to be shy and retiring when they're placed in with other fishes who have been there ahead of them. In the event other's are moving in with them, rearrange the rockwork, leave the lights on overnight, and keep your eyes on the newcomer(s)

Predator/Prey Relations

Only once recorded as being found as a prey item, in the stomach of our local blue shark. Garibaldi are a Batesian mimic. More on this in an article of the same title.

Reproduction, Sexual Differentiation:

Garibaldi display marked sexual dimorphism. Sort of like large neo-tropical cichlids, males have a frontal protuberance on their heads, are larger, with more elongated and pointed un-paired fins. In the summer, males construct and keep meticulous a close-cropped nest of red algae. Multiple females are enticed into the area, lay adhesive eggs and are driven out. The male vigorously guards this nest against all wanna be sashimi eaters. Angry male and nest pictured at right.

Feeding/Foods/Nutrition: Types, Frequency, Amount, Wastes

Substantial and varied is the way to put the ideal Pomacentrid diet. They will eat most all foods offered. Due to high activity levels, size and the prevailing higher than normal temperatures that you're subjecting them to, you will want to feed more material more often. Shrimp, clam and other naturally-occurring meaty foodstuffs should be offered, as well as algal and sponge matter. I depart ways again here with Richard S. in his suggestion of feeding beef-heart. Don't do this. It makes a mess, is probably of limited food value to marine-life, and may well be toxic.

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

Susceptibility to protozoan infections under stress has been cited, particularly salt water ich. By utilizing freshwater dips I have never had such an incident.


Through the work of Feder and Hubbs in the mid fifties, a substantiation of the role of sponge material in the diet of this species was formed. Stomach content analysis confirms the importance in mass of poriferan consumption. It was found that without chemical constituents from these just tissue-grade animals garibaldi would/will lose their lustrous and intense color.


What good can be written of "The California Marine Fish", Hypsypops? It certainly is beautifully colored and marked as a juvenile. It gets about the same size as many larger angelfish species. Garibaldi behavior rivals pomacanthids in latitude and interest, and they are hardier to boot. One important contrast/difference is their cost. I have seen small garibaldi retailing for twenty to forty dollars in recent months. Not bad.

Of the three hundred and twenty described species of damsels there are few that rival garibaldi. The giant (Mexican) damsel Microspathodon dorsalis (nee Damalichthys vacca) is about the same size, but not nearly as attractive. Garibaldi can be territorial to the point of dominating the system, but they are nowhere as destructive as the damsels (Dascyllus) variously called dominos or three spots; I would not want to stick my arm in with one of them that was twelve inches long! Got a cooler water marine system, looking for a personality specimen that will learn who you are, and last a long time? Try the garibaldi.

<A "time warp" note here re: this piece was penned many years ago... During much of the eighties and nineties the Garibaldi was unavailable out of Baja Mexico (but still collected in California alta in the U.S. at the time). Now (2003) the situation is reversed, with Garibaldi collection outlawed in the USA part of its range, and collection re-opened in Baja. This is still a cool/coldwater fish that should only be kept in large, chilled systems>


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Allen, Gerald. 1991. Damselfishes of the World. Aquarium Systems, Mentor Ohio. Dr. Allen has many publications on this group; this one will refer you to all those past.

Fenner, Bob & Cindi Camp. 1991. Damselfishes, Saltwater Bread and Butter. FAMA 10/91.

Fenner, Bob. 1989. Successfully Selling the Popular Marines. Pets Supplies Marketing 1/89.

Sikkel, Paul C. 1994. Honey, I ate the kids. Natural History, 12/94.

Stratton, Richard F. 1988. The Spectacular Garibaldi. T.F.H. 2/88.

Stratton, Richard F. 1992. The Blacksmith Damsel. T.F.H. 4/92.

Stratton, Richard F. 1992. The Pale Gold Warrior. FAMA 1/92.


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