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/The Conscientious Reef Aquarist

Delightful, Peaceful and Functional, The Neon or Cleaner Gobies, Genera Elacatinus & Tigrigobius

By Bob Fenner

Elacatinus randalli 

The Neon or Cleaner Gobies, Genera Tigrigobius (12 species) and Elacatinus (26 species):

More Commonly Encountered Cleaner Gobies:

Ah, the genera Gobiosoma and Elacatinus, mainly of the western Atlantic. These sparkling black, white, and blue or gold jewels should be as common in marine aquariums as Corydoras catfishes in freshwater tanks; no, more so. 

These slivers of happiness are extremely hardy and of great utility; ideal first fish for the new marine hobbyists as they will pick off parasites and dead tissue from your other fishes.

Genus Elacatinus:

Elacatinus chancei; Shortstripe Goby. Bahamas to E. Caribbean. Here in Curacao 2015

The Sharknose Goby, Elacatinus evelynae Bohlke & Robins 1968. Tropical West Atlantic; Bahamas to Venezuela. To about two inches in length. Variable in color, but yellow-V-shaped mark on nose and bluish stripe sandwiched between black. Elacatinus evelynae;  in the Bahamas, and one in Bonaire.

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Elacatinus genie Bohlke & Robins 1968, Cleaner Goby. Western Central Atlantic: Bahamas and Grand Cayman Island. To 4.5 cm. Bahamas and Grand Turks images. Bold yellow V marking on head trails into pale band along sides.

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Elacatinus illecebrosum Bohlke & Robins 1968, the Barsnout Goby. Central Western Atlantic; Yucatan of Mexico to Panama. Identified in the field by a white bar that runs midline between the eyes, blue line on either side of the body that extends to the tail. Cozumel image. 

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Elacatinus (formerly Gobiosoma) oceanops Jordan 1904, THE Neon Goby. Tropical West Atlantic; southern Florida to Belize. To two inches in length.

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Elacatinus lobeli Randall & Colin 2009. Lobel's Caribbean Neon Goby. W. Central Atlantic; Belize, Honduras, Bay Islands. Blue with gray border stripe runs along top flank of body, tail and through the eyes, but doesn't join on the snout. To 2". Roatan 2019.

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Elacatinus prochilos Bohlke & Robyns 1968, the Broadstripe Goby. Tropical central West Atlantic. To four cm. Bred in captivity. Here off of Cancun, Mexico. 

Elacatinus puncticulatus (Ginsburg 1938), the Red Headed Neon Goby. Eastern Central Pacific; Sea of Cortez to Ecuador. To under two inches in length. A real beauty and tough, but small addition to reef tanks. At right, ones in captivity at a wholesaler and retailers; below in Costa Rica.

Elacatinus randalli Bohlke & Robins 1968. Yellownose or Randall's Goby. Yellow bar on the nose. Yellow upper yellow body bar surrounded by deep black; and blue adjoining the lower black bar. Tropical West Atlantic; Puerto Rico to Venezuela. To under two inches in length. Here are some pix taken in Bonaire.

Elacatinus xanthipora (Bohlke and Collins 1968), the Yellowprow Goby. Lives in and around tube sponges and coral reefs. Western Atlantic: North Carolina and southern Florida in USA and Jamaica to Central America.
Aquarium photo.

Genus Tigrigobius:

Tigrigobius multifasciatum (Steindachner 1876),  the Greenbanded Goby. Western Atlantic: Bahamas and Central America to northern South America. Aq. pic.


Good Cleaner gobies are easy to find; they almost always are of either end of the spectrum: healthy and ready to go, or rarely, on the verge of death. Look for the behavioral descriptor of "brightness" with these small fishes… that they're out and about, looking at you, the other fishes in their system, doing their bit to attract their attention.

Avoid tanks that have any Gobies with apparent spots or breaks in their skin… this batch may be in the process of "breaking down"… not a specific ailment per se, but a "handling syndrome" where aquatic life is failing in response to poor environment and microbial involvement. 

My favorite species are the popular Elacatinus oceanops and Elacatinus evelynae. These two are the most intensely captive bred and available, though many more species that should be along soon commercially.  


These gobies are found in and about cleaning stations, typically a roundish live coral head of the family Poritidae or Faviidae, at times in and around the lip of a vase-type sponge, not often on the sandy bottom, but usually advertising their services to passing fishes in possible need of a cleaning.

Yours will be happiest given a similar perch in a system of size. For breeding purposes Cleaner gobies can be kept in ten-twenty gallon tanks, but as in the wild, they appreciate more room to display innate behavior in captivity. These fishes are best kept only in full-blown reef system, with live stony corals and macro-algae, and the good, consistent water quality that goes with such rigs.  


Though they're small and obviously easy to pick out from the surrounding habitat, most all fishes, predaceous or not, even hailing from the same ocean or not, recognize Cleaner Gobies for what they are and don't inhale them… A real bonus for all! This being stated, it's not above the usual suspects prevue to accidentally on purpose eat these small fishes. Western Pacific and Indian Ocean Basses, Lionfishes and their relatives, Triggerfishes… may consume your gobies. On the other hand, Cleaner Gobies can be a bit too much for "thin skinned" fishes like some puffers, or any given tank full of fishes… being clean is fine, but enough is enough and there are situations where host fishes obviously avoid cleaners.

Looking at these species in the wild, one can see them spread out as individuals, pairs, at times in "family" groupings of smallish individuals of the same species. You may find them crammed together in dealers' tanks, but this is not a natural arrangement, and your Cleaner Goby/Gobies will do best kept a single species to a tank and as singles or pairs (if you can pick them out as such. See below) in a hobby-sized system.  


            Gobiosoma & Elacatinus gobies are not strictly obligate symbionts; that is, they "don't have to" derive all their nutrition from cleaning activity. Especially in smaller systems (let's say less than a hundred gallons) with few "customers", they should be offered small meaty food items as supplement. Supreme here are small Copepods and Cyclops (e.g. Cyclop-Eeze) and very small pellets (e.g. Spectrum) that they can fit in their tiny mouths whole. Of course, my usual plug here for tying in a purposeful live sump/refugium to supply such small fare on a continuous basis.  


            Unfortunately, like other goby species, Cleaners are rather susceptible to Crypt/Ich infestations… and all too-easy to bump off with the usual treatments for protozoan disease. Avoidance of parasites is ideal, but if you do suffer an instance, the use of Quinine Sulfate in a dedicated treatment tank, with careful vacuuming daily, allowing the infested system to go fallow/w/o host fishes for several weeks… is the route to go.  

Reproduction/Aquaculture: Looking for a marine species to try your hand at captive breeding? Possibly for economic gain? Look no further. The premier Neon (Cleaner) Goby, Gobiosoma oceanops, is a prime candidate. It has been tank-bred and reared in commercial quantities for years. As an example of typical goby reproduction, we'll describe the process.

The parents are small and may be maintained easily in a twenty gallon system. They pair and spawn readily and regularly, with demersal (bottom) eggs, and parental care.

Sexing is best left up to the fish by purchasing a handful and letting them sort things out. Individuals may be sexed with practice and close observation. Rather than trying to describe the relative and variable body shape and color differences between males and females, I'd rather encourage you to gauge which is which for the entire group via their genital papilla. immediately in front of their anal fins. You may need to use a flashlight; the males' are cone-shaped and pointed at the tip; those of females' are generally only visible near spawning and are short and rounded at the tip.

Commercial breeders use short section of small diameter plastic pipe as spawning sites and raise the eggs separate from their parents, but they will spawn and rear their young on most anything solid. The fry are raised on cultured plankton (Euplotes & Brachionus are recommended). The young are fully developed in a month; which seems fast until you realize their full lifespan is but a year or two. Please see the references below if you are intent on breeding Elacatinus.


Cleaner gobies have much to recommend them for most all tropical reef aquarium systems. They're pretty, interesting behaviorally, readily available and inexpensive, and they perform a useful function in the wild and your tanks in removing necrotic tissue and possibly parasites, making for a much less stressful setting for all.  

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Chlupaty, Peter. 1990. The care and breeding of the neon goby. TFH 1/90.

Colin, Patrick. 1975. The Neon Gobies; The Comparative Biology of the Genus Gobiosoma, Subgenus Elacatinus (Pisces, Gobiidae) in the Tropical Western Atlantic Ocean. T.F.H. Publ., NJ.

Debelius, Helmut. 1985. Gobies in the marine aquarium, pt. 1: Neon gobies. Today's Aquarium 4/85.

Moe, Martin A. 1975. Propagating the Atlantic Neon Goby. Marine Aquarist 6:2, Feb.75 

Walker, Stephen d. 1979. Spawning & rearing the neon goby. FAMA 8/79.

Wittenrich, Matthew L. 1998. Reproductive behavior in Gobiosoma puncticulatus. TFH 1/98.

Wittenrich, Matthew. 1999. Breeding and raising Gobiosoma oceanops. FAMA 7/99.

Young, Forrest A. 1994. Rearing the golden goby, Elacatinus xanthipora. FAMA 12/94. 

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