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How to Choose Compatible Fish For Your First Marine Reef Aquarium

Updated on April 16, 2013
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It's easy to think that all the different,beautiful fish and invertebrates that inhabitate the living reefs would be natural tank mates in your marine reef aquarium.That may not necessarily be the case,unless you have carefully selected the right specimens who can peacefully co-exist in your lovingly created aquarium.

The reef is a living ecosystem,where 'survival of the fittest'is the only dominant theme.What may seem to the novice aquarist to be 'nice lively' addition to the aquarium,may end up as someone's meal inside the aquarium.In their natural environment,many small fish,crustraceans and mollusks are the daily diet for many fish.

i have had Gobies being gobbled up by Hawkfish,Anthias being stung and then swallowed whole by a green Carpet anemone and damsels chasing each other all over the aquarium,simply because I got tempted in to adding 'just another lovely fish' to the aquarium without giving a thought to their needs.

One of the first things to consider at the planning stage is,what kind of a marine aquarium you would want? Would it be a 'Fish Only With Live Rock' (FOWLR) or would you be looking at creating a replica of the reef,complete with fish,invertebrates and corals?

Symbiotic relationship between a Shrimp and a Goby

Key Considerations

Some key things to consider are the general temperament of the concerned inhabitant and the adult size it can attain. The other rule is "If it can fit in to anyone's mouth,it will most probably end up there".

The reef is complete with as many diverse behaviors as there are different species,some aimed at co-existing peacefully,while providing ample security from predators.Clown fish form symbiotic relationships with their anemone hosts.Certain shrimps and goby fish form a symbiotic relationship for a similar purpose.Other fish like Damsels,Dottybacks,Hawkfish and Wrasses cannot tolerate another of their own kind (conspecifics) Given the limited space available in an aquarium,this eventually leads to the weaker one's death,either by stress or by attack.


A lone Bangaii Cardinal is not such a pretty sight
A lone Bangaii Cardinal is not such a pretty sight | Source

Some others like male dragonets and adult angelfish will not tolerate another male in the aquarium,but will accommodate the females(naturally!).Some others prefer to live in groups or shoals and should not be kept alone,e.g.Bangaii cardinals should ideally be kept in groups larger than 3 individuals,9 being an ideal sized group.

Here is a brief introduction to some of the recommended fish species and their specific needs. This is by no means an exhaustive list and is only intended as reference for the novice hobbyist starting on his/her first marine reef aquarium.

Naso Tang
Naso Tang | Source

Tangs

One of the best Tangs known to the hobby is the Yellow Tang.The other favorites are the Sailfin Tang and the Regal Tang. While the Yellow Tang and the Sailfin Tang are vegeterian,the Regal Tang needs a diet of plankton.Tangs can grow quite large,growing to an average of 6 inches and over,requiring a large aquarium to move around.Tangs are best kept in groups of 3 or more as individual tangs tend to get aggressive towards other fish.

Clownfish & Damselfish

The reason Clownfish and Damselfish are mentioned together is because Clownfish are Damselfish.Clownfish live in a symbiotic relationship with certain sea anemones,however,they can also survive without them in an aquarium,though this is generally not recommended.Some of the most popular Clownfish are the Common Clownfish,Tomato Clownfish,Maroon Clownfish and Clark's Clownfish.

Clown fish are generally more tolerant of conspecifics,but will not tolerate other species of clownfish.

Damselfish on the otherhand will not tolerate conspecifics at all,unless it is a mated pair.Some of the most common damsel fish are the Blue Damselfish,Black tailed Damselfish,Three Dot Damsel fish and the Orange tailed Blue Damselfish.

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Butterflyfish

Most Butterfly fish are difficult to keep,so it is advisable that one studies the needs of the specific Butterfly fish one intends to buy before proceeding.

Dottybacks

Dottybacks are generally good for a community tank,provided you keep only one of the species. They are quite aggressive towards conspecifics and only the Orchid Dottyback can accommodate other Orchid Dottybacks.Other Dottybacks like the Neon Dottyback and the Sunrise Dottyback are better kept alone,unless of course you chance upon a mated pair...and that's rare.

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Cardinalfish

Few Cardinalfish have received as much attention as the Bangaii Cardinalfish.Most cadinalfish are nocturnal in nature,though the Bangaii Cardinal is an exception to that rule.Bangaii Cardinals are ideally kept in groups,preferably 9 of them together.They are peaceful and won't bother anyone else.Do keep brine shrimp in stock.I prefer hatching them in the sump and they eventually get sucked up in to the aquarium.

Gobies

Gobies are generally small in size,rarely going beyond 2.5 inches and are easy to keep and feed...more importantly,they are not aggressive. The symbiotic relationship between certain gobies and snapping shrimps can be quite fascinating to watch. The Neon Goby is one of the famous popular of gobies in the hobby,others being the Green- banded goby,the Red-headed goby and the Citron goby.

A Ready Reference Compatibility Chart of the most common species

(click column header to sort results)
Compatibility chart  
Angelfish  
Bangaii Cardinalfish  
Common Clownfish  
Maroon Clownfish  
Blue Damsel  
Tomato Clownfish  
Neon Dottyback  
Orchid Dottyback  
Mandarin Dragonet  
Royal Gramma  
Rainford's Goby  
Green-striped Coral Goby  
Neon Sharp-nosed Goby  
Citron Coral Goby  
Long-nosed Hawkfish  
Flame Hawkfish  
Sunburst Anthias  
   
Angelfish
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Bangaii Cardinalfish
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Common Clownfish
Y
Y
Y
N
Y
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Maroon Clownfish
Y
Y
N
Y
Y
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Blue Damsel
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Tomato Clownfish
Y
Y
N
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Neon Dottyback
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Orchid Dottyback
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Mandarin Dragonet
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Royal Gramma
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Rainford's Goby
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
Y
 
Green-striped Coral Goby
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
Y
 
Neon Sharp-nosed Goby
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
Y
 
Citron Coral Goby
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
Y
 
Long-nosed Hawkfish
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
N
N
Y
 
Flame Hawkfish
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
N
N
Y
 
Sunburst Anthias
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
 
Fire Goby
Fire Goby | Source

There is only one mantra while setting up your reef tank,to build it fast,go slow! Invest your time studying & then your money!

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