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Damselfish - Yes, Sane Ones Do Exist!

Damselfish get a really bad rap in the saltwater aquarium hobby. They are highly aggressive, bite your hand if you put it in the tank, have been known to harass timid tank mates to death, and are a pain to remove if you have to take one out of your tank.

Damselfish

So why would anyway ever consider a damsel for their fish tank let alone a reef tank? Well they are several:

  • They are an extremely hardy fish
  • They will eat just about anything you feed them
  • They have an exclusive blue color that is difficult to find 
  • They are small and do not require a large tank
  • They are reef safe when introduced correctly

Back in the day before fishless cycling was common practice, the damsel was the fish you would use to cycle a saltwater tank because they could tolerate levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates that would kill off many other salwater fish. Of course, nowadays one should never consider cycling with damsels.  However, they are extremely hardy in a tank and are a very forgiving fish for a novice.

Damsels will eat just about anything you feed them in the tank. They do not require a specialized diet and will do just fine with any food you buy them.

Damselfish have a blue color that is very hard to find for a reef tank. Think about it for a second, how often have you thought about looking for a blue colored fish to compliment your reef tank setup.  Let's think about likely candidates:

  • Blue Tang AKA "Dory" - Very large, susceptible to ich
  • Powder Blue Tang - Notoriously difficult to keep and best for experts
  • Mandarin Goby - Notoriously difficult to keep from starving to death and will devastate a micro-fauna population in a smaller tank
  • Large Angelfish - Not reef safe and get very large
  • Coral Beauty Drawf Angel - Hit or miss on reef safe; intermediate level fish
  • Blue Reef Chromis - The most suitable candidate, but get 5" long and should be grouped

Wow, that was pretty quick. So unless you have a large tank or pretty skilled at reefing already, your options are pretty limited for a blue fish.  

Most damsels stay very small. Only a few members get large and should be avoided for a community tank as they get very aggressive. Their compact size makes them attractive for smaller tanks, especially those under 75 gallons.

Damelfish are reef safe, but have to be introduced in the correct manner. This means that you have to introduce them last and with the right tankmates, I'll get into this in detail later in this article.

So we have established the reasons why a damselfish could be a good candidate for your saltwater aquarium, but we have all heard the horror stories of their aggressive nature. Is there such thing as a sane damelfish?  The answer is - YES!

Introducing the Chrysiptera Damselfish

There is a genus in the Damselfish family called Chrysiperta. They are just as pretty as their other damsel relatives but far more peaceful. They will bring the lively nature and action of damsels without the aggressiveness. I will break down 3 of more colorful Chrysiperta Damsels that fit the exclusive damsel blue that many hobbyist love:

  • Azure Damsel
  • Starck's Damsel
  • Yellow-Tail Damsel


Azure Damsel
Azure Damelfish
Max Size - 3"
Minimum Tank Size - 30 gallons

The Azure is the most mild-mannered of the group. It has a wonderful disposition in the group and has rarely caused disruptions in aquariums. It is the best damselfish to choose if you are considering one that is blue.

Starck's Damsel
Starck's Damelfish
Max Size - 4"
Minimum Tank Size - 30 gallons

The Starck is more aggressive than the Azure but still far less than many other damsels. It has a brilliant blue body with a broad yellow band running along the top. It can almost pass as an angelfish to a layperson's eye.

Yellow Tail Damsel
Yellow Tail Damelfish
Max Size - 3"
Minimum Tank Size - 30 gallons

This is the most aggressive of the three and has the most horror stories behind it. It's on the list for two reasons. First, many of the stories I have seen have been involving timid fish or the yellowtail was placed in first and established it's territory. Both are incorrect ways on how to introduce a damselfish. Second, the yellow-tail damsel is often mistaken as a "Baby Dory" by children and with it's hardiness can withstand a novice hobbyist or parent purchasing a "Dory" (AKA Blue Tang) for their children. I personally have recommend this fish to potential Blue Tang buyers along with a lot of education about the care and maintenance required to successfully keep saltwater fish. The suggestion was so common, that I actually was interviewed by the Huffington Post about my experience with this fish.

So I have outlined the three best damselfish. Now let's break down the best practices for adding a damsel to your tank

Best Practices for Adding A Damselfish

I'm going to break this done into 3 parts:

  • Introduce them last
  • Have other semi-aggressive fish in the tank
  • Have lots of rockwork

Damselfish are often going to be the most aggressive fish you will add to your tank. Because of this, you need to introduce them last into your tank where territory has already been established by your other tankmates. This will prevent your damsel from becoming the alpha fish in your tank.

Semi-aggressive fish need to be in the tank in order to be successful in the tank. If you have timid tank mates like firefish, damsels should be avoided. Here is a quick list of semi-aggressive fish that suit a damsel's nature:

  • Tangs
  • Dwarf Angelfish
  • Clownfish
  • Dottybacks
  • Basslets 
  • Semi-Aggressive Wrasses like the Six-Line Wrasse
  • Bottom Dwelling Gobies

Rockwork is the third factor on our list. You are likely going to have a lot of rockwork if you have a reef aquarium so you will likely be okay. This is mostly a consideration if you have a fish-only setup.

When selecting damselfish for your aquarium, you pretty much won’t go wrong with these guys if you’re looking for a community setup. Just make sure you have a tank that is suited for the species you are getting, add them last, and pay attention to tankmates.

 

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