Damselfishes are the quintessential aquarium fishes. In the wild they literally serve as 'feeders' for higher food chains; in captivity as starter, beginner and "fill in" fishes. For both they are feisty and frolicsome, earning their other common names of demoiselles and devils.
Within the more than three hundred described species of damsels (Family Pomacentridae) including the symbiotic clown anemone fishes, there is a very wide range of adaptability to aquarium conditions. Many of the shallow water reef varieties are quite pliable to captive care; being scrappy for their size, accepting any and all types of food and resisting poor water quality and diseases.
Some species of Pomacentrids are so tough they're endorsed as first fishes for new aquaria, surviving the chemical and physical evolution of nutrient cycling establishment. Such stalwarts are the damsels in various genera: Dascyllus (Dominos or Three Spots, Dascyllus trimaculatus, Three and Four Stripes, Dascyllus aruanus, Dascyllus melanurus); the several species sold as Sergeant majors (genus Abudefduf); the blue and yellow and blue Chrysiptera damsels and to a smaller extent metallic Chromis and the so-called deep-water damsels (Pomacentrus et al.).
At the other end of the spectrum of suitability are the subjects of this article, the Giant (Mexican) Damsel (Microspathodon dorsalis, formerly Damalichthys vacca) and the equally gargantuan Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicunda).
As juveniles these extra large damsels are dazzling (Volume 1 of T.F.H.'s Marine Atlas p. 397 shows the young and adult garibaldi, p. 408 the giant damsel). While you're there please note the other pictured "jeweled damsels pictured; the frequently offered Caribbean Microspathodon chrysurus, the semi-official 'true' jewel or neon-velvet damsel, Neoglyphidodon oxyodon, and the much less seen Plectroglyphidodon lacrymatus, both from the west Pacific. The Cortez jewel-markings as a youngster are easy to distinguish from the other purple-blue dotted species. Unlike the Caribbean member in the same genus, it lacks a yellow tail.
The number one problem with these two "big boys" is just that; they get too darn big. Oh sure, they're cute and oh-so active when tiny young. Ask someone who has been terrorized (yes, that's the right word) by a couple of inch domino while working in a marine tank. I've seen damsels draw blood. Gram for gram (ounce per ounce) they are amongst the toughest meanest turf fighters among reef animals. If they can intimidate an aquarist, imagine how their tankmates feel. Now just think how it would be if that three spot domino got to be over a foot long and two pounds in weight. Our two jumbo damsels do.
Secondly, the issue of temperature. The Garibaldi is a Baja and U.S. California local. It lives in water that spans the fifties and sixties of degrees Fahrenheit. The Giant Damsel hails from Mexico's Sea of Cortez on down to the middle of Central America on the East Pacific coast in water to the mid-seventies. Both these fish stress out at higher temperatures.
So, now being informed consumers, knowing full well how big and fierce these species are, and their penchant for cooler water, you still want to try one out? Well, let me help you choose a healthy specimen.
For garibaldi purchase a specimen that has been collected in the warmer, summer months. This is easier that it may seem. Most are on the market within a few days to weeks of wild collection.
For both jumbo damsels; get a small specimen, one to three inches, as these move and adapt more easily.
Select for brightness of color and don't worry about cyanide enhancement of the same. These species are collected without poisons. Simple baiting and hand nets are all that's required.
Both species are found in close association with broken rocky bottoms, patch reefs that they do not leave- ever. Surveys of garibaldi have found them at the same lek territory for more than fourteen years; they live more than twenty.
Water Quality :
True to the rest of their family, the giant damsels are undemanding chemically and physically. Circulation and filtration should be brisk as these are active, big-eaters that appreciate high oxygen concentration and challenging currents. One important parameter to keep up with is pH; 8.0 plus.
These fishes are good bio-indicators. If the environment's going down-hill they will indicate the same, quick. Temperature strain can be seen immediately as color loss and hiding behavior. The appropriate use of a chiller or temporary means of lowering the temperature is suggested.
Mixing members of the same species is generally a disaster. Unless you have a humungous system (a hundred or more gallons), with more than virtual piles of rock for hiding, and a marked discrepancy in size, one to a tank please.
Both these damsels are more resistant than smaller damsel species to infectious diseases and parasites. Freshwater dips, lowered specific gravity and copper solutions are standard treatment modes.
Like most damsels the garibaldi and giant damsel eagerly scarf down more than their share of all types of foods offered. An important observation here regarding stomach contents analyses of wild specimens. A big part of what's found in them in situ is algal and sponge (phylum Porifera) material. In fact these fishes are instrumental in culturing large patches of algae and brilliant orange, red and yellow sponges; the former found over and the latter underneath the rocks where they live. When deprived of sponge foodstuffs their color fades.
I suggest daily feedings of something meaty; shrimp, clam and the like and algal and sponge material. These foods are available pre-made through the hobby; occasional live (rock) material is relished.
Garibaldi and the Caribbean Jewel damsel have been raised in captivity. Eggs are collected in the wild from males' nests by combing (as in hair comb) the eggs out of prepared and defended algal bed areas. These have been raised in specialized hatchery tanks, fed rotifer cultures. If you're interested in trying the this, see the reference section. Moe and Forrest, 1981, give details of spawning and development of the giant damsels closely related congener, the Atlantic jewel Microspathodon chrysurus. Chris Turk of Ocean Nutrition, myself and other friends used to do this with garibaldi in the late seventies in San Diego.
Damsels are substrate spawners much as many of the freshwater neo-tropical cichlids, with males cropping an algal nest, enticing females to lay eggs, guarding against raiders providing care before a variable pelagic larval phase (Thresher et al. 1989). As young develop they must seek a nearby unoccupied patch reef space, frequently hiding from large conspecifics.
Want a colorful, out-going to the point of being obnoxious, rough and tumble specimen? have a cooler temperature tank, or better still one with a chiller? Looking for a fish to outlive the family dog? Don't mind it getting BIG and eating you into poverty? The jumbo damsels are for you.
Allen, Gerald R. 1991. Damselfishes of the World. Mergus Publishers, Melle Germany.
Bader, Beth. 1993. Photographing the Feisty Damsels. Sea Frontiers. May/June 93.
Burgess, Warren E. 1975. Salts From the Seven Seas (Atlantic Jewelfish). Tropical Fish Hobbyist. 10/75.
Burgess, W. E., H. R. Axelrod & R. E. Hunziker. 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes, Volume 1 marine Fishes. T.F.H. New Jersey.
Fenner, Bob. 1989. Successfully Selling the Popular Marines. Pets Supplies Marketing. 1/89.
Flood, Colin A. Those Darling Damsels. Tropical Fish Hobbyist. 8/92.
Moe, Martin & Forrest A. Young. 1981. Spawning the Jewels of the Pacific. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium. 5/81.
Stratton, Richard F. 1988. The Spectacular Garibaldi. Tropical Fish Hobbyist. 2/88.
Stratton, Richard F. 1992. The Pale Gold Warrior. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium. 1/92.
Stratton, Richard F. 1992. The Blacksmith Damsel. Tropical Fish Hobbyist. 4/94.
Thresher, Ronald E. Patrick L. Colin & Lori J. Bell. 1989. Planktonic Duration, Distribution and Population Structure of Western and Central Pacific Damselfishes (Pomacentridae). Copeia. 1989(2), p. 420-434.