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Related FAQs: Grammas, Grammas 2, Gramma Identification, Gramma Behavior, Gramma Compatibility, Gramma Selection, Gramma Systems, Gramma Feeding, Gramma Health, Gramma Reproduction,

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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

The Basslets that We Call Grammas, Family Grammatidae

Bob Fenner

A beautiful Gramma loreto

"Is there something wrong with that fish?" It's either upside down in that cave, or swimming at a forty-five degree angle when it's out". Arrgghhh, I used to hate answering those questions during all my years "on the floor" in pet-fish retail. On the other hand, maybe the people who didn't ask figured our livestock was whacked-out.

At any angle, the "little basses" or Basslets of the family Grammatidae make delightfully peaceful and beautiful marine aquarium additions. "The" fairy Basslet, aka royal Gramma, Gramma loreto is a real standard in the United States, and one of the earliest commercially tank-bred and reared marines.


The Grammatidae (formerly Grammidae) are all marine and confined to the tropical western Atlantic from the Bahamas to Venezuela.

Do you like to avoid confusion? Me too; the common name Basslet is applied to four genera in three different families ; I would prefer to label the Grammatids as... Grammas! Now doesn't that make sense? We'll call them Grammas.

The two genera and ten species (three for Gramma, and seven Lipogramma) are closely related to Dottybacks, family Pseudochromidae and Marine Bettas or Roundheads, family Plesiopsidae, as well as the true Basses of their namesake, Serranidae. The Grammas have the beauty and grace of all three, but thank goodness the generally peaceful of the Plesiopsids. 

Grammatids differ from the true Basses (family Serranidae) in having an interrupted or missing lateral line and a continuous dorsal fin without prominent notches in the membranes between the spines.

Size? There are accounts of some "breeder" grammas approaching a gargantuan six inches, the biggest I've encountered on or off the reef were four.

Good Species:

Actually the whole family make carte blanche great aquarium specimens. However most are too deep water and less colorful than the top two mentioned here to warrant collection.

There are but a couple of Grammatids that are highly prized in the aquarium hobby. Gramma loreto, the Royal Gramma is the  Basslet or Gramma to many. Color wise it's front half varies from purple to violet, with the back half a bright yellow. The second in Bonaire.

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Gramma melacara, the Black-Cap Gramma (or Basslet if you must) is even more desirable in my opinion with it's brilliant purple body, jet black diagonal cap and frosty-white tipped forked tail.

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These fishes are easily overlooked in the wild, being small, secretive, and quick to "exit stage left". Being an avid diver and having frequented their environments for more than twenty five years I can assure you their numbers are many. A bright, small flashlight reveals them hiding up close, and at angles along cave walls and ledges.

The two valuable species and their congener are found in the same sorts of steeply (seventy percent plus) inclined reef fronts, aka "walls". The Royal Gramma occupies the shallowest waters, very generally from the surface to 60-80 feet, being dislocated by the Black-Cap, Gramma melacara, which is in turn is displaced by the third Gramma species, the yellow-cheek Gramma linki, at 120-160 feet on down.

You can understand, given the necessary hang-time (hours) to decompress and limited diver collecting minutes, why the deeper water species cost so much more.

The 'other' Gramma genus Lipogramma is rarely seen in the trade as these fish are deep water denizens that, though attractive and equally peaceable as the genus Gramma, are not as strikingly colored. Lipogramma klayi is sometimes found as a 'contaminant', mixed in with Gramma loreto shipments as it is similar appearing.


The single most important 'tip' on picking Grammas I can grant you is to be patient; wait a good week or two after your supplier receives theirs to purchase them.

For tank-raised individuals, this brief period will allow acclimation to aquarium conditions and virtually eliminate incidental losses.

How will this Gramma be caught... or will it? Here in Grand Turk.

Freshly imported caught specimens way too often suffer from post-decompression stress... and something else; the ill-effects of chemical tranquilizing. Florida outlaws the use of Quinaldine and MS-222 (tricaine) but their use in other capture areas of the Caribbean is pervasive. Though not the scourge of cyanide use, there is decidedly higher mortalities associated with true anesthetic versus 'pure' hand netting.

How to tell which type of capture technique has been used? You can't; just wait for a week or two. Trust me.

Environmental Conditions:


Grammas live close by their nooks and crannies, upside down, right side up, at all angles. They prefer as much decor, broken up environment as possible, as well as low illumination.

These fishes make great additions for reef tanks, staying small, not bothering invertebrates, and keeping deviant live rock critters, like benthic crustaceans and worms in population check.


Grammatids make great bioassay organisms for an individual system or store on mixed tank recirculation. Talk about "a canary in a cave"; their color and behavior fades with diminishing water quality. Water changing, reducing organic loads, re-elevating pH can be physically correlated with their observable health. 


Territoriality in these species dictates that they be safely kept one to a tank... unless you can buy 'known pairs', or have a five or six foot plus wide system. Each individual needs about a half yard of bottom. If you intend to try your luck with more than one to a tank, by all means place them all at once.


Males build nests from algae and plant scraps; both parents guard the gray eggs, numbering up to four hundred. The Royal Gramma was one of the earliest tank raised species back in the 1960's. Gramma loreto is unfortunately still wild caught in commercial quantities to satisfy demand.

Foods & Feeding

Grammas are very fond of brine shrimp, particularly live, but readily accept all foods on training.


The only one I want to mention is environmental; jumping. The grammas are aquatic Houdinis; keep their aquarium tops completely covered.


Outside of the "bad news" of anesthetic use, the grammas are exemplary marine aquarium fishes. Want to save some time, snickering and explanation time? Paste a photo and statement on your tank describing their weird spatial orientation ways.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Hemdal, Jay. 1985. Caribbean Basslets. TFH 12/85.

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

Ott, Gerhard. Undated. Gramma loreto from a snorkelers viewpoint. Aquarium Digest International #34.

Randall, John E. 1968. Caribbean Reef Fishes. T.F.H. Publ., NJ.

Thresher, Ronald. 1975. Caribbean Basslets. Marine Aquarist 6(2):75. 

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