» Posted by on Apr 1, 2014 in Blog, Reef Aquariums | Comments Off on Marine Fish for the Reef Aquarium

Marine Fish to buy in the ornamental fish trade are predominately tropical in nature and endemic to coral reef habitats world-wide.  Most ichthyologists agree, these areas contain the most diverse species of fish than any other habitat globally including freshwater lakes and rivers.  The range of epibionts, epifonts, natural light (sun being closer to earth), and minerals provide the perfect setting for endless primary life sources.  Through millions of years of natural selection evolves a myriad of invertebrates, plants and thus vertebrate species.  Why?  Because food sources, natural defense, and homes have been made through “mother nature”.  The perfect place for many fish to thrive.


With all of these fishes available to us, our choices are endless in a rainbow of colors.  Of course, as you may suspect, some fish are NOT suited for home aquariums.  In particular, captive coral reefs care.

Helfrichi Firefish are an excellent addition to your Reef Aquarium!

Helfrichi Firefish are an excellent addition to your Reef Aquarium!

There are several factors to consider when choosing suitable organisms. Most regard compatibility both with their own kind and with other tank mates, feeding requirements, tolerance to captive care, appearance and cost.  Thus, it will be imperative to seek information through the shop, before purchasing.  When speaking of compatibility, I’m not only talking about direct aggression toward others, but indirect aggression where competition for food, space, or shelter may hinder others.

It is important to select the right group of fishes for your community, although it is just as important to select the right individual.  You may see eight choices of the same type of fish you want.  Now you must make an accurate decision on which one you’ll take home.  Try asking these questions:

  • Does it eat? (A good shop will always feed a fish if you ask.).
  • Does it look clean? (Are there any spots, blotches, or discolorations on the fins or body?).
  • Are the eyes clear or cloudy?
  • Does the shop have a good reputation for fish heath? (Do they use commercial U.V’s and/or quarantine with copper sulfate?).
  • What is it captive-care diet? (Can I afford this?). What food to buy?
  • Are there any behavioral patterns you should know about?
  • Is it compatible with future fishes you wish to have?
  • Is it easier for\ captive care or more challenging?

(Remember ALL fish do not live with the same ease in aquariums.)

I love it when someone will ask me what fish are reef compatible.  I’ll always comment; “technically, none are”.  Remember, the complex interactions among life upon the reef affect all natural sea life.  We distinguish these interactions as the drive to biological diversity.  On the reef, predation is the key to survival.  It goes without saying, all fish prey on something it needs to naturally commit itself to future generations.  While it may seem over tens of thousands of fish species are in existence, simplicity of scientific families may help us to generalize their behavior.  Throughout scientific history, taxonomists and ichthyologists have grouped fish into families from external anatomical features.  Thus, most fish of same families are of similar behaviors.  While we may notice all reef fish prey on something in your reef aquarium to survive, it may be helpful to refer to the chart below for general food sources.  By doing so, you may be able to distinguish which fish would be best suited for your reef habitat.

Clown Triggers, while beautiful, do not make the best Reef Inhabitants.

Clown Triggers, while beautiful, do not make the best Reef Inhabitants.

Using a fish by fish approach would be best, although because of space and simplicity value, I have opted for a more synthetic approach, treating each family of fishes as a whole.
Generalities of particular nutrition sources have been compiled through data and scientific observation dating  back many years.  One would come to a conclusion,  fishes observed preying on cnidarians in nature, would most likely prey on them in a captive environment. It should also be noted, fish not observed eating cnidarians although similar-fleshy invertebrates (worms, molluscs, etc.),  may eat cnidarians when it is their only food source.  Ethologists whom study animal behavior, spend thousands of hours on the sea-bed studying fish nutritional sources.  Aquarists observe fish behavior through countless hours of admiration and economic drive,  some not so good, as we’ve observed an animal succumb to predation.  So as you may suspect, our chart below is scientific observation and captive care experiences.
In the chart we use descriptional food sources fishes of that family generally prey upon for nutritional sustenance. We grouped the families into three categories ranging from least to high risk. As stated before, there is always some inherent risk with any fish when you put it in a simulated natural environment of which that fish has instinctively adapted to. As well, some aquarists encounter problems because the animals act as “opportunistic– feeders”. Whereas they will feed on what is plentiful when their preferred food-choice is not available.


# Plankton – small crustaceans, worms, micro-plankton, copepods, phytoplankton.

^ Crustaceans – medium/large decapod shrimp, lobsters, crabs, hermit crabs
~ Worms – segmented and non-segmented worms-featherdustors, bristle worms (flatworms or planaria are in plankton group).
! Cnidarians – coral, coralliomorphs, anemones, zooanthids, polyps, etc.
( ) Molluscs – clams, snails, mussels, nudibranchs, etc.
* Echinoderms – sea stars, urchins, brittle/serpent stars, sea cucumbers, etc.
< Piscavore – eats smaller fish, it may fit in its mouth.
[ p ] Herbivore – eats plants and algaes.

Group(Family Name) Food Source Common Fish From Group

Least Risk:

Gobies (Gobiidae, Gobioididae) # Watchmen, Sleepers, Citrons, etc.
Dart Gobies (Microdesmidae) # Firefish, Gudgeons, Scissortails, etc.
Dragonettes (Callionymidae) # Scooters, Mandarins
Jawfish (Opistognathidae) # Pearly, Bluedot, Dusky, Tiger, etc.
Chromis/Clownfish (Pomacentridae) # Chromis, Amphiprion Clowns
Cardinals (Apogonidae) # Kunderi, Pajama, Red, Blue-Eye, etc.
Basslets (Grammidae, Serranidae) # Royal, Chalk, Swissguard, etc.
Pseudochromids (Pseudochromidae) # Purple, Fridmani, Bicolor, Dutoiti, ect.
Anthias/ Perchletts (Serranidae) # Squamipinnis, Bartlett, Plectranthias, etc.
Small Wrasses (Labridae) # Cirrilabrus, Halichores, Paracheilinius, etc.
Surgeons (Acanthuridae) [p] Tangs
Blennies (Blenniidae) [p] Algae, Forktails, Midas, Teardrops, ect.

Moderate Risk:

Seahorses/ Pipefish (Sygnathidae) # Cannot compete, best in species only tanks
Damsels (Pomacentridae) # Aggressive towards small fish
Hawkfish (Cirrhitidae) # ^ Flame, Longnose, Pinos, etc.
Small Hogs (Bodianidae) # ~ Bimacs, Mesudas, Coral, Banana, etc.
Fucilers (Caesionidae) # ~ ^ Purple, silver, etc.
Goatfish (Mullidae) # ~ ^ Bicolor, Red, Skunk, etc.
Batfish (Ephippidae) # ~ Orbic, Tierra, Batavianus, Spadefish (BIG FISH)
Small Filefish (Monocanthidae) # ~ * ( ) Matted, Orange Dot, etc.
Rabbitfish (Siganidae) # ~ ! Foxfaces, Blueline, Orange Spot, etc.
Squirrelfish (Holocentridae, Priacanthidae) # < ^ Hawaiian, Big Eye, Soldiers, etc.

High Risk:

Butterflys (Chaetodontidae) # ~ ! ( ) Most all- Auriga, Racoon, etc.
Angels (Pomacanthidae) # ~ ! ( ) [p] Most all- Lemonpeel, Flame, Emperor, etc.
Puffers (Diodontidae, Tetradontidae) # ^ ~ ! ( ) * < Pocupine, Dogface, Sharpnose, etc.
Boxfish (Ostracionidae) # ~ ! [p] Cowfish, Black, Spotted, etc.
Triggers (Balistidae) # ^ ~ ! ( ) * < All types- Few exceptions exist
Large Wrasses (Labridae) # ^ ~ ! ( ) * < Lunare, Tusks, Thalasoma genus, etc.
Large Hogs (Bodianidae) # ^ ~ ! ( ) * < Cuban, Spanish, Mexican, etc. (BIG FISH)
Parrotfish (Scaridae) # ^ ~ ( ) * < Bicolor, Princess, Bleekeri, etc. (BIG FISH)
Eels (Anguillidae, Muraenidae) # ! ( ) * [p] All Morays (BIG FISH)
Lionfish (Pteridae) ^ ( ) < Volitans, Radiata, Antenata (BIG FISH)
Jacks (Carangidae) ^ ( ) < Trevallys, Lookdowns (BIG FISH)
Groupers/ Snappers (Serranidae, Lutjanidae) ^ ( ) < Panther, Minniatus, Polleni, Emperor (BIG FISH)
Grunts/ Porgies (Haemulidae, Sparidae) ^ ( ) < Porkfish, Highhats, etc. (BIG FISH)


Please note this chart does not express compatibility among fish. There may be other factors such as aggression levels among smaller fish to consider.
Always consult an M-1 Certified Aquarist for the best mix of fish in your community.

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