Damselfish – A Complete Guide (Care, Diet, Facts)

The beautiful damselfish, or demoiselle, comes from the Pomacentridae family of marine fish. Keep in mind that when you say damselfish, you are referring to a family of many very unique species. Damselfish are hearty, colorful, and active saltwater. They live in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Atlantic and Caribbean. They are a cousin or the sweet, friendly clownfish. Damselfish, however, will often be aggressive.

Damsels are a tough family that can survive a lot of beginner mishaps in the tank. Murky water won’t slow it down. They will eat almost anything and can live up to eight years. Some owners report even longer lifespans, up to twenty five years. Is the damselfish right for you? Out of so many different species, one must be.


The Elegant Damselfish

There are over three hundred species of damselfish and each species has a very unique look. These fish make up a lot of the many brilliant colored fish you see in pictures of coral reefs. Though these colors may fade or soften as damselfish age, damsels remain graceful, active fish.

Most damsels grow to between two and four, inches but a few can be much larger. There is at least one species, the Garibaldi, that grow to fourteen inches. The tiniest damsel, the Lined Chromis, never makes it to two inches long.

Most damselfish have a flattened body with a round to oval sideview. They sport a single, continuous dorsal fin of varied design. Some are soft and flowing, some are spiked. Damsels’ tails are usually forked, but a few are rounded. They have small mouths, smaller teeth, and only one pair of nostrils.

Popular Species of Damselfish

All damsels are known for their bright and attractive colors. They are best known for the glowing cobalt shades of some species. You will also find damselfish that are canary yellow, jet black, snow white, or a multitude of aqua shades. Other favorites are purple or peach tints. Their outward designs will be stripes, spots, or swirls.

Each species has its own shape, color and personality. Some species are gentle and playful. Other species will be wary, protective and outright aggressive. Some species will get along, others won’t. Here are a couple facts about four of the more popular damsels you’ll find at local pet stores.

Blue Damselfish

The most common of all damselfish is the stunning Blue Damsel. It’s also the most aggressive of the family. This doesn’t stop it from being coveted and collected for salt water tanks. Only three inches long, this tough guy can withstand some pretty bad water conditions. The little omnivore is not a picky eater. What this damsel has is a legendary blue body that brightens any tank.

Blue Sapphire

For another gorgeous fish with that signature damsel blue, Blue Sapphire. It’s a lesser known damsel, but has a much better temperament than the Blue. Blue Sapphires are rarely aggressive. This means you can show off the jewel tone beauty among other tank mates.

Azure Damsel

If you like more of a pop of color, the azure damsel has a blue upper body and canary yellow belly. This damsel is four whole inches of the most mild mannered species. As more farmers are having success tank breeding, damsels are becoming more docile. In fact, the Azure Damsel does very well in whole schools of Azures.

Talboti Damsel

For a completely different look, you might like the Talbot’s or Talboti Damsel. These are tiny two inch damselfish. Talboti have yellow heads and soft peach colored bodies with a large black spot on the dorsal fin. On some Talboti, the peach color darkens to a violet shade. The temperament of this fish is docile when young. Keep in mind that they are reported to get more aggressive with age.

Typical Damselfish Behavior

Yes, except for a few species, damselfish are a surly lot. They are small fish and brilliantly colored. They stand out to larger predators, that would eat them or their eggs. Damsels become aggressive in order to defend their food, their nests, or themselves. They’ll chase off anything that looks big enough to take a bite out of them. This includes predator fish, the odd unlucky diver or the hand that feeds them.

Damsels are territorial and like to stay in their own “patch.” They will defend this as their own space. Damselfish rarely care for their offspring once they have hatched. Unfortunately, many species are known for eating their young.

Damsel life revolves are their food, and they will begin to recognize the person who brings the food. The damselfish in your tank will swim over to greet you when you come near. This can look feisty and sweet, but don’t get carried away and put your hand in the tank. For fish with tiny teeth, they have no problem taking a nip at you.

Will Damsels Get Along with Other Fish?

No one article can give the specifics for how species of damselfish interact. This is where having a reputable expert at your aquarium shop or online will be helpful. You’ll want to be sure you know which species are going to get along. It’s also helpful to have an extra tank in case you need to rescue an stressed or injured tank mate.

The truth is, these beauties are jewel toned little bullies. Their aggressive behavior can stress out other fish, causing them to get sick or skittish. Give your damsels plenty of tank space. Take time to research. Go on forums for anecdotal information. Learn as much as you can about which species can interact well. If a more docile fish is getting bullied, separate them.

Tankmates for Damselfish

Choose friends who will stand up to damselfish nonsense. Go for clownfish, dwarf angelfish, anthias, tangs, dottybacks, wrasse, bottom dwelling gobies. Plan to have these fish acclimate to the tank first. Add the damsels last, once the others have established their territory.

Invertebrates for the most part can fulfill their jobs as cleaning crew. Even the most aggressive blue damsel should leave your shrimp alone. Shrimp are colorful  and useful in your aquarium. In fact, fire shrimp or peppermint shrimp will provide grooming services to your damsel fish. And damselfish love this. But with damsels, never say never. Keep an eye on your aquatic community.

Tank Life: Habitats for Damselfish

Imagine a scene from a tropical reef in the Pacific or Indian Ocean. A vast expanse of coral hosts the comings and goings of thousands of little colorful fish. This, to a damsel, is home. The more a tank can take on these qualities, the better for your damselfish.

Damselfish are territorial. They can develop more aggressive tendencies in tight quarters. You can limit aggression by providing more places to them to hide. Big rocks or decorations they can dart behind when they need a breather will help them.

Along with places to hide, damselfish need room to swim. If your damsel will be three inches or under, start with a thirty gallon tank. Then you can add ten gallons for each additional fish. When you design your tank keep in mind that smaller damselfish will want to eat closer to the bottom of the tank. Larger damsels will eat higher up.

The Truth about Damselfish and the Nutrition Cycle

It used to be that the hardy nature of the damselfish did not work in favor of it’s health. You might still see the old way of thought on other sites that damselfish are a good tool for establishing the cycle in a tank. This means starting with tap water and introducing all the bacteria and removing toxins from the water.

Damselfish are strong and inexpensive. Putting them in the water to live, eat, and basically go through their own lifecycle made the water healthy for other, more delicate fish. But the price of this is overstressed, sickly or dead damselfish. Try using the sand that forms beneath coral, known as live rock, instead.

Healthy Tank Conditions

The ideal water temperature in your aquarium will be between 73°F to 81°F. pH levels should be between 8.1-8.4. The pH, or power of Hydrogen, measures how neutral the water in your tank is. It is especially important to monitor pH and keep it adjusted if your damsels are living in a reef tank.

The gravity, or salinity, of the tank must be somewhere between 1.020-1.025. If you have wild caught fish, the wrong gravity can cause great amounts of stress. This is another good reason to have a second tank. A ready supply of premixed saltwater will help you keep your fish in a healthy environment.

What to Feed Your Damselfish

When owners talk about damselfish, they tell of the more aggressive types. Some species though, will only eat plants. In the wild, they’ll eat phytoplankton, algae, or bits of plants. This is another reason to research your species. If you feed an herbivore an all meat diet, the damsel could starve or develop internal problems.

If your damsel is like most species, it will be omnivorous. Time was when the damselfish would be put into murky tank to eat up excess algae or waste. Those aren’t best practices today, but it gives you an idea of the scope of their appetites.

This means you can feed your damsel fresh and frozen seafood meats, as well as flake food. Meat-eaters will eat any plankton and mysis shrimp. Omnivorous damsels will need plant in their diet as well.

To help curb aggression, it helps to feed damsels smaller meals through the day. Pay attention to the speed of the current when you are feeding your damselfish. In an aquarium with a fast current, your fish will do better eating in a lower location. In the case of a tank with a slow current, you will find you can feed your fish higher up.

Breeding Damselfish

More and more species of damselfish are being bred in tanks. It is reported that after a couple of generation, farmed damsels become more docile. If you think you’d like to try, here are some basics to understand first.

You’ll know when damsels are getting ready to breed. The males court the females with clicking sounds and wild, exuberant swimming. The male will clear a space on the substrate or their female to lay up to twenty-thousand eggs. The males will fertilize the eggs and stay close by to keep watch over the eggs.

More than one female may deposit eggs with a single male. It takes the eggs about a week to hatch and the larvae will swim off in search of plankton. This is a good strategy, as the adults of some species will eat their own young. In some species of damselfish, it can take years to reach maturity.

Keeping Healthy Damsels

Damselfish are widely known as hearty and adaptable. You can keep them healthy with a varied diet, regular water cleanings, and low stress. Still, there will be instances of disease in your tanks.

Bacteria can start disease in your fish. Most bacteria grows comes from food waste in the tank. The easiest way to avoid this is to spot feed only as much as the fish will eat in a couple of minutes. After that, clean the food away.

There are also some viruses that pass quickly from fish to fish. Parasites, too can take over a tank environment. Watch for changes in behavior, swelling or discoloration. Remove any fish that looks unwell to your extra tank and consult your veterinarian.

Do You Think the Damselfish is Right for You?

Damsels are beautiful, tough little saltwater fish. They are active and mesmerizing to watch. You’ll have an interesting time looking at all the different species available. Take the time to get to know the temperaments and needs of each species. You may be able to mix and match your way to a colorful aquarium.

You might choose to set up a full reef tank or stick to a simple substrate and rocks. you will enjoy long hours watching over and caring for these interesting fish. Damselfish are a great idea for a long term aquarium project.

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