Damselfish – Yes, Sane Damsels Do Exist!

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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.

Damsel fish - Yes, Sane Damsels Do Exist!

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 marine 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 Damselfish 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 saltwater fish. Of course, nowadays one should never consider cycling with damselfish.  However, they are extremely hardy in a tank and are a very forgiving fish for a novice.

Damselfish 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 coral 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 Dwarf 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.

Damselfish 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 Damselfish?  The answer is – YES!

Introducing the Chrysiptera Damselfish

Scientific NameChrysipertera
Common Name (Species)Damselfish
FamilyPomacentridae
OriginIndo Pacific
DietOmnivore
Care LevelEasy
ActivityActive
LifespanUsually to 10 years
TempermentSemi-aggressive
Tank LevelAll Areas
Minimum Tank Size30 Gallons
Temperature Range73 – 81 Degrees F
pH Range8.1 – 8.4
Filtration/Flow RateAll
Water TypeSaltwater
BreedingEgg-layers, Difficult to breed
CompatibilitySemi-Aggressive tanks
Ok, For Reef Tanks?Yes
Ok, For Inverts?Mostly Yes

Damsels comes from the family pomacentridae and hail from the indo Pacific. There is a genus in the Damselfish family called Chrysiperta. They are just as pretty as other other Damsel relatives but far more peaceful. They will bring the lively nature and action of Damsels without the aggressiveness.

I will break down 4 of the more colorful Chrysiperta Damsels that fit the exclusive Damsel blue that many hobbyist love:

  • Azure Damsel
  • Starck’s Damsel
  • Yellow-Tail Damsel
  • Springer’s Damsel


Azure Damsel
Azure Damselfish – Tank Bred and tame

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. In larger tanks, they have been kept in groups. It is as of the date of this post, the only Damselfish of the 4 that is available as tank bred.

Starck's Damsel

Starck’s Damselfish – The Beauty of the Group

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. Unfortunately the Starck’s Damsel is a hard Damselfish to find usually available part of the year and commanding a price tag equivalent to Dwarf Angelfish like Flame Angels.

Yellow Tail Damsel

Yellow Tail Damelfish – The “Dory” Substitute

Max Size – 3″
Minimum Tank Size – 30 gallons

This is the most aggressive of the four 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 yellow tail 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 marine fish to potential Blue Hippo 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.

Springer’s Damelfish – The Coral Pest Slayer

Max Size – 3″
Minimum Tank Size – 30 gallons

Springer's Damsel

Of all the damsels on this list, the Springer’s Damsel offers pest control abilities. This Indo Pacific fish is well known for wiping out flatworms in a reef tank, their ability to wipe out pests have been compared with Wrasses like Six-line and Malnanrus Wrasses. The great thing about a Springer’s damsel is they are just as docile as Azures so you can get a small pest control fish without the attitude of a Six-line Wrasse in a small system! In a smaller system they cannot be beat for pest control. Keep in mind though as they mature they will look at your hands as threats to their territory and will likely attack your hands!

So I have outlined the four 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 marine 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 Malnarus. Caution with flasher wrasses
  • 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 of fish you are getting, add them last, and pay attention to tankmates.

Damselfish Care Guide

The damselfish on this list, with the exception of the Starcki Damsel, will grow to about 2-3 inches in length. The Starcki will be a bit bigger topping out at 4 inches. Give their more aggressive nature, it is best to keep them in a 30 gallon aquarium or larger with length being a major factor as damsels tend to claim an area of the tank as their own.

Water temperature should remain at 73 to 81 Fahrenheit, which pH levels at 8.1 to 8.4 and salinity at 1.020 – 1.026. Open spaces are ideal for them as damsels are open swimmers. The rocks you keep in the tank should have plenty of hiding places to reduce aggression.

Best Food For A Damselfish

What makes damselfish great in saltwater tanks is that they tend to not be very picky eaters, but doesn’t mean that you should just feed the first fish food you find at the grocery store! Damselfish should be offered a complete diet. Let’s talk about the hierarchy of saltwater aquarium food.

  • Best – Fresh/Raw Food, Enriched Frozen Food
  • Better – Fried Dried + Nutrient Soaked Food
  • Good – Enriched Flake/Pellet Food

The Best Frozen Food for Damselfish – LRS Nano

There are not many of us in this hobby who will go make fresh seafood for our marine fish. There are videos available on how to do this, but I’m going to assume it’s just not realistic for you to make your own. It’s a pretty smelly process! The next best option would be live black worms if you can somehow get it locally and grow a culture, but again your significant other may not be a fan of you keeping worms around the house or in the fridge ;-).

So this brings us to frozen food. Without a doubt, LRS Nano frozen is the best frozen food you can get on the market. It is only available at your local fish store so if you are fortunate to have a store that carries it buy it today! The rest of the items are available online with Amazon (Affiliate Links Below) being the best way to get them quickly.

The Best Freeze Died Food for Damselfish – Fried Dried California Blackworms + Selcon

Freeze Dried Blackworms

A great source of nutrition for Damselfish and Bettas. Works great with Selcon for added vitamins

Buy On Amazon

California black worms have been praised by long-term reefers as a great source of nutrition and the most pickiest of fish will eat them. At least for the live black worms, but as I stated before live is tough to get and this is the next best thing you can get at a reasonable price. These freeze dried California black worms are ready to go for your Damselfish to eat 

It is highly recommended to soak them in Selcon prior to feeding. The great thing about freeze dried food is they take vitamin soaks like Selcon very well so you know your fish are getting a vitamin rich diet!

Selcon

A vitamin enhancer that works great in freeze dried and frozen foods. A great choice to boost nutrition in brine shrimp, mysis, and blackworms

Buy On Amazon

The Best Flake Food for Damselfish – Cobalt Aquatics Marine Omni Flake Food

While you can make a very good case for pellet food, in our experience damselfish have an easier time eating flake food given their smaller mouths. Pellets are a more appropriate food for their large cousins, Clownfish. What makes Cobalt Aquatics Marine Omni Flakes stand out is their food contains probiotics. The mix of the flake is also very comprehensive containing highly quality ingredients like squid, spirulina, plankton, krill, and mussel. The product is made in the USA and it’s highly palatable formula are great for finicky eaters and avoids the digestion/nutrition issue common with low quality flake foods.

Contains Probiotics!
Cobalt Aquatics Marine Omni Flakes

One of the better flake foods available for marine fish today

Buy On Amazon

Are You Ready for A Damselfish?

Contrary to common belief that all Damsels are evil, we have listed several damselfish that are compatible in a reef community tank. As long as you add them last and pick the correct species of fish to mix them with, you should have a little blue marine fish that you can enjoy! Thanks for reading!

by Mark

Mark is the founder of Aquarium Store Depot. He started in the aquarium hobby at the age of 11 and along the way worked at local fish stores. He has kept freshwater tanks, ponds, and reef tanks for over 25 years. His site was created to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale. He has worked on making aquarium and pond keeping approachable. Mark has been featured in two books about aquarium keeping - both best sellers on Amazon. Each year, he continues to help his readers and clients with knowledge, professional builds, and troubleshooting.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I have a 32 gallon BioCube with 5 Yellow belly Damsels and lots of live rock. They get along just fine with no aggression towards each other. They are territorial when it comes to the cave that each one has picked out.

    Reply
  2. I would probably just get one and get other fish unless you want an all damsel tank. Add the damsel last. Any would fine with the Puffer as long as you add the damsel last.

    Reply
  3. I’m up sizing to a 55 gal. and Really like that Electric Blue Colour .Is it possible to get (1each of the Azure, Starck, and the Yellow Tail Damsels) along with a I think it’s a Valentina Puffer who doesn’t get very LG.

    Reply
    • We have multiple species innourb93 gallon cube chocolate maroon clown premium frost bite clown fire fish beauty angle strawberry basslet firefish lawnmower blenny and 3 diffrent types of damsels

      Reply

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