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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

The Dottybacks, Family Pseudochromidae

By Bob Fenner

 Pseudochromis aldabraensis

Constantly diving in and out of coral and rock crevices, eliciting oohs and ahhs from observant aquarists, and the occasional "what was that?" These are the diminutive in size, but definitely not in temperament Dottybacks.

Very bass-like with their pear-shaped eyes, canine teeth and aggressive manner, these small slender fishes make great aquarium specimens; if the rest of your fish livestock is compatible.

Taxonomy/Relation To Other Groups:

Though they look like miniature basses in appearance and full-on grouper like in their bravado, Dottybacks are a distinct family from the true basses, family Serranidae.

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

Most marine aquarists are familiar with the many gorgeous species of the genus Pseudochromis, but were you aware that the Eelblennies (don't let the common names throw you) occasionally found in the trade were in the same family? Modern classification schemes divide the Dottybacks into three sub-families; the Anisochrominae (note the ending of sub-families -inae) very rarely sees its sole genus, Anisochromis of two species in the trade. 

The Eelblennies, sub-family Congrogadinae are occasionally offered, and what is stated here for care applies to them though behaviorally they are much more secretive and less bold. Eelblennies are aptly common named being similar to the blennies in their passive nature and long and tapered in eel-body shape. The most commonly offered Eelblenny (aka the Green Wolf Eel) in the hobby, Congrogadus subduscens (Richardson 1843) is shown at right. 

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Most often seen are the Pseudochromis (with about 51 species) and a few Dampieria (or Dampiera) "Groupers" (the latter's old genus name was Dampieria, now is Labracinus (with two species). Less known and familiar to marine aquarists is Cypho with its one species. The three species previously placed in the genus Obgilbyina and one in the genus Assiculus are now Pseudochromis. Add them up. The subfamily comprises about fifty four current species though there are several more to be described (Dr. John Randall pers. comm.).

For our discussion, from here out when I refer to "the" Dottybacks you will nod your head in acknowledgement that we are referring to the subfamily Pseudochrominae.

Range: All marine, tropical Indo-Pacific and Red Sea. All marine, tropical Indo-Pacific and Red Sea.

Some Great & Not Species for Aquarium Use:

The Dottybacks of the genus Labracinus get up to eight inches (20 cm.) long and have similar care to Pseudochromis. These fishes are just as gorgeous though slightly less robust and aggressive as their subfamily kin. The two most commonly seen species are Labracinus lineatus the Lined, and Labracinus cyclophthalmus the Spotty Sail or Spot-Fin Dottybacks. They are sold under several names, but are most universally recognized in the wholesale trade under the shared common name "Dampieria/Dampiera Grouper". Ho-boy.

Cypho purpurescens (De Vis 1884), the Oblique-lined Dottyback. Sometimes offered in the trade as Pseudochromis mccullochi Western Pacific. To three inches in length. Like the family, safe with stinging-celled life, though will eat crustaceans and tubeworms. Aquarium images, the last from Hiroyuki Tanaka. 

Genus Labracinus:

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

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Genus Manonichthys: 7 spp. https://www.fishbase.se/identification/SpeciesList.php?genus=Manonichthys

Manonichthys splendens, 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. A sunken bellied specimen photographed in a LFS in New Jersey. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/
Country/CountrySpecies Summary.cfmCountry=Indonesia&Genus= Pseudochromis&Species=splendens

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Genus Ogilbyina:

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

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Genus Pitichromis:

Pictichromis 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.

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Pictichromis 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 (formerly 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. Aquarium image.

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Genus Pseudochromis: 70 spp. https://www.fishbase.se/identification/SpeciesList.php?class=Actinopterygii&order=Perciformes&famcode=291&subfamily=Pseudochrominae&genus=Pseudochromis&areacode=&c_

The genus Pseudochromis consistently has some of the most beautiful and bold species 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 (the giant of the genus, the Australian Pseudochromis novaehollandiae gets to 7.5 inches), you are well advised to have a separate system or other way of dividing your Dottyback from your other fish livestock in the event of an all out piscine war on introduction.

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. Aquarium image.

Pseudochromis bitaeniatus (Fowler 1931), Double-striped Dottyback. To 12 cm. Western Pacific. This one in S. Sulawesi. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/
Country/CountrySpecies Summary.cfmCountry=Indonesia&Genus= Pseudochromis&Species=bitaeniatus

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Pseudochromis flavivertix, the Sunrise Dottyback. Yet another pseudochromid out of the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden to the south). Notes on spawning, sexual differentiation available on the link: http://www.orafarm.com/dottybacks.html#sunrise
One cultured, one in the Red Sea.

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.

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Pseudochromis fuscus Muller & Troschel 1849, the Brown 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. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/
Country/CountrySpecies Summary.cfmCountry=Indonesia&Genus= Pseudochromis&Species=marshallensis

Pseudochromis nigrovittatus Boulenger 1897. To 7.5 cm. Persian Gulf around Oman into the Red Sea. RMF pic in Nuweiba, Gulf of Aqaba. http://fishbase.org/Summary/species

Pseudochromis novaehollandiae Steindachner 1879, the Multicolored Dottyback. Highly variable in color, markings, but margins of median fins always rimmed by bright blue. Found only on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. This one off of Heron Island. To four inches in length.

Pseudochromis olivaceus Ruppell 1835. Olive Dottyback. W. I.O., Red Sea. To 9 cm. Red Sea 2019.

Pseudochromis pylei Randall & McCosker 1980, Pyle's Dottyback. Western Central Pacific: Flores and Banda seas, at depth ( 40-85 meters) on steep drop-offs. To three inches in length. Aquarium image by Anthony Calfo.

Pseudochromis queenslandiae moved to the genus Ogilbyina.

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.

Pseudochromis springeri Lubbock 1975, the Bluestriped Dottyback. Red Sea endemic, though most specimens offered are produced in captivity. To three inches in length. Aquarium images to show variation in color.

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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.

Pseudochromid Crosses
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Unknown Pseudochromid Species: There are several, from the Middle English meaning "many".
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This one in Raja Ampat, 08
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Pseudochromid U1 SIP... Pseudoplesiops typus ?

Due to their beauty and demand in the hobby, a few new species make it into the markets every couple of years. Around the world the Magenta, Pseudochromis porphyreus, Bicolor, Pseudochromis paccagnellae and Diadem, Pseudochromis diadema have become standard offerings. The Red Sea endemics the Orchid (Pseudochromis fridmani) and Springer's (Pseudochromis springeri), and the striped Pseudochromis sankeyi, Indian Ocean Pseudochromis dutoiti, and beautiful Aldabra, Pseudochromis aldabraensis are other more-expensive species that are available and in current demand. As time goes by, more species will be found, collecting stations established, and the prices to be paid will deliver ever newer favorites to us. 


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.

Other Biology of Interest:

These fishes have some interesting mimicry's, pretending to be other species, or being copied by others. The black Pseudochromis paranox looks and swims a lot like the Dwarf Midnight Angel Centropyge nox that it hangs around with, apparently being deferred reduced predation pressure pretending to be it's unpalatable look-alike.

Pseudochromis springeri mimics a facultative Cleaner Wrasse, the Four-Line (Larabicus quadrilineatus) accruing a similar non-predatory benefit. 


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. In captivity they are ravenous feeders of all foodstuffs, especially frozen and fresh meaty foods.


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. Vigorous filtration and varied diet 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.


And you thought gold was expensive by the ounce!? As you make your personal marine aquarist evolution you'll be tempted to try the Dottybacks. If you can't be dissuaded to leave your wallet behind when you go to the fish stores, you will end up housing them. Take care to carefully introduce your specimen... and only do so when you have the wherewithal to re-capture it and keep it separated.

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. 

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