Gobies can be found in almost all bodies of water, including the coldest oceans to freshwater mountain streams. And there are plenty of marine gobies that are perfect for the reef aquarium, as Dave Wolfenden explains.
Some gobies are so incredibly adaptable that they have even evolved to exploit a partly terrestrial lifestyle in the shape of the endearing mudskippers.
They are all part of the Gobiidae, one of the largest of all fish families, and there’s even a considerable choice for marine aquaria. Despite their small size, these fish can have bags of personality, usually making them excellent reef choices.
Because of their size, gobies should not be kept in the aggressive fish-only system as they will be harassed by many larger species and many predators will snack on them. However, most will be superb for the reef aquarium, providing any chosen tank mates are peaceful.
Certain gobies, though, can be intolerant of conspecifics or even heterospecifics that look similar, especially in limited space.
This is the result of often strong territorial behaviours tying individuals to small patches of home reef. Limit stocking to one goby of each genus unless there’s plenty of room.
Most will adapt well to captive diets and a variety of small fresh, frozen and artificial feeds is important. Many will fend for themselves in a mature reef system with natural plankton populations. Sleeper gobies, for instance, will process the aquarium’s substrate to extract the invertebrate life.
While gobies can find a reasonable amount of food in a typical aquarium, some supplementary feeding will prevent individuals becoming emaciated. Gobies in general fare best in well-established systems and a refugium can help to provide supplementary live food.
Gobies are generally sensitive to medications, because of their scale-less skin.
They’re not the most parasite-prone fish, thanks to their thick mucous coat which helps trap pathogens, but they can nevertheless still suffer from parasitic and other diseases.
Be cautious when treating for ailments. Prophylactic care for newly-acquired specimens is ill advised. Instead, try plenty of TLC and optimal water quality, plus plenty of food. If medication is necessary, don’t overdose.
When selecting specimens, avoid any looking emaciated. These may have been starved for some time and are too thin to recover.
Which species of goby is right for you?
Some of the most commonly encountered gobies in the marine hobby include Sleeper gobies (Valenciennea) which are prodigious sifters of sandy substrate, hence the alternative name of sifter gobies.
These spend much of their time ingesting sand and extracting tiny invertebrates. For this reason, they can be used as efficient cleaner crew as their constant turning of the substrate helps to maintain the sand bed.
Ensure rockwork is securely placed, as meandering gobies can easily topple piles of live rock.
Bear in mind too that they may frequently spit mouthfuls of sand over corals and other invertebrates, so strategic coral placement must be a consideration.
Blue-cheeked sifters (V. strigata) — pictured above — are often imported from the Indo-Pacific. Specimens grow to around 15cm/6” in the aquarium and earn their common name from electric blue markings on a yellow face.
Also noteworthy is the Chalk goby (V. sexguttata), again from the Indo-Pacific and reaching a similar length.
The Jam sandwich goby (V. helsdingenii) from the Indo-West Pacific, with its alternate black and white bands, looks particularly striking and again is a very attractive reef addition.
This species will reach 15cm/6” and it’s worth trying to establish pairs, as males are identifiable courtesy of their elongated dorsal fin filament.
Neon gobies are the alternative cleaners (picture above by Nick Hobgood, Creative Commons)
Several species are known collectively as 'neon gobies' and belong to the Elacatinus genus – formerly Gobiosoma. Most hail from the Caribbean and other regions of the western Atlantic.
Most commonly offered are the ‘true’ Neon goby (E. oceanops) or the Sharknose goby (E. evelynae) and both grow up 5cm/2”.
Other species may be encountered, although identification can be difficult.
These fish make a viable alternative to cleaner wrasses of the Labroides genus. They adapt well to captive diets, although will supplement diet by performing useful cleaning of 'clients'.
They will set up cleaning stations, but can defend these against other cleaner gobies — so ensure ample room if attempting to keep more than one.
Several genera of gobies form a mutualistic partnership with shrimps — notably Pistol shrimps of the Alpheus genus.
Several genera form such symbioses with shrimps, including Stonogobiops, Ctenogobiops, Cryptocentrus and Amblyeleotris. The basis of this relationship is that the shrimp are good at building burrows but have poor eyesight. The gobies have good vision and are given lodgings in the shrimp’s burrows in return for acting as reliable lookouts.
A shrimp will keep in constant contact with the goby via its antennae and both shrimp and goby retreat to the burrow at the first sign of danger.
If attempting to recreate this relationship, provide a deep substrate of varied material, from fine sand through coarse coral chips to live rock rubble. The best shrimp with which to attempt such a pairing is Randall’s shrimp (Alpheus randalli) — identifiable courtesy of its red-banded legs.
More gobies worth seeking out include the Yasha (Stonogobiops yasha) from the Western Pacific, which grows to 5cm/2”. This is very attractive but pricey.
Also check out the Dracula goby (S. dracula) from the Indo-Pacific, which grows to 7cm/2.8” and sports red and orange bands.
From the Amblyeleotris genus there’s A. aurora (above). The Aurora goby, from the Indian Ocean, grows to 10cm/4” and is stunning with orange bands. A. randalli, up to 12cm/4.7” and from the Western Pacific, has a gorgeous sail-like dorsal fin.
The cool customer
The Catalina goby (Lythrypnus dalli) is sometimes offered — and it sure has that grab factor!
Note that striking range body punctuated with bright blue vertical markings, as pictured here.
However, this species, which grows to 6cm/2.4”, is really sub-tropical from the Gulf of California and surrounding regions. As such it fares best in temperatures slightly below those in a typical reef aquarium, requiring around 18-21°C/64-70°F.
It is possible to maintain, although it requires a dedicated aquarium decorated with coarse sand and rubble, and capable of providing the cooler conditions this fish needs.
As such, this fish should not be purchased as an addition to an existing tropical reef aquarium.
Amblygobius: lovers of midwater
This genus contains a few occasionally imported species and they tend to spend much of their time in mid-water — in contrast to others of the family.
One of the most challenging of the genus is the Court jester (A. rainfordi) — pictured above — from the Indo-Pacific. Growing to around 5cm/2”. This diminutive fish requires copious amounts of filamentous algae, which is lacking in many reef aquarium systems.
Hector’s goby (A. hectori), which is also sometimes referred to as the Gold court jester and from the Indo-West Pacific, assumes strikingly similar markings, albeit with different coloration, and its husbandry needs are comparable to the Court jester
The Banded goby (A. phalaena) is less challenging to look after. From the Pacific, this species reaches 12cm/4.7” and looks stout and chunky, and occurs in various colour morphs.
Banded gobies, as a group, will spend a considerable amount of their time sifting through the substrate for food and will be therefore less reliant on filamentous algae than certain other members of the genus.
Gobiodon gobies get a grip
Members of this genus can usually be found perched on branches of stony corals such as Acropora. Being highly benthic, their ventral fins are often modified into suckers, allowing them to adhere to their host coral, even in some pretty strong surges of water.
These timid fish need to be provided with very small foods, but they can be among the most endearing and best value fish you’ll keep. They’re ideal for smaller SPS-dominated systems.
Particularly engaging is the Okinawa or Yellow goby (G. okinawae) — pictured above — from the Western Pacific. It grows to 3cm/1.2” and sports a white patch on its cheek — the only marking on an otherwise entirely yellow body.
This species appears to be an obligate dweller of Acropora in the wild and the best captive system would also incorporate such corals.
Once an individual is established in the aquarium it will perch on its coral, seemingly demanding all your attention and becoming a true and affectionate pet.
Also noteworthy are the Citron goby (G. citrinus) from the Indo-West Pacific. It grows to 6cm/2.4” and has a distinctive yellow coloration.
There’s also the stunning Green clown goby (G. histrio). This is a striking fish, with red markings on a vivid green body, but reaches only 3.5cm/1.4”. It also originates from the Indo-West Pacific.
Can I breed gobies?
Plenty of marine goby species will spawn in the aquarium if pairs can be established, but many of them are aggressive towards conspecifics.
Many can change sex too, making the establishment of pairs no problem for individuals living in the wild – as every member of the species is a potential partner!
The coral gobies (Gobiodon spp.), for example, appear to be bidirectional protogynous hermaphrodites — starting out as females but can undergo a sex change if necessary.
However, such gender bending is reversible and males may turn back into females if required.
The main challenge with breeding arises from an ability to successfully rear the tiny larvae, which need first feedings of rotifers, followed by enriched Artemia nauplii.
Gobies, however, can be a good bet if planning on a first breeding project for marines. Neon gobies (Elacatinus spp.) are probably the best prospect, as they will spawn in even small tanks if conditioned with varied regular feeds.
PVC pipes will provide a suitable love nest and the resultant larvae should be moved to rearing tanks with identical water chemistry to their original system.
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