When most people think of a sea bass, they probably think of a tasty dinner. But some species in this group make ideal tenants for your tank, even if you are a beginner in keeping a saltwater aquarium. This group of fish is highly diverse and includes fish as enormous as groupers and as tiny as basslets, also known as dottybacks and grammas, and sometimes Anthias.
Although they are predatory and territorial in nature, basslets are highly sought-after saltwater fish because they are relatively well-behaved and do not usually bully other fish if the tank is large enough. They are also very hardy.
These colorful fish reach a length of about four to six inches and boast hues of red, orange, yellow, and purple. They are ideal for smaller reef tanks, although they do need space. Their bodies are bullet-shaped with a half-moon-like tail and are thus designed for sudden bursts of speed for feeding and defense. For the most part, however, they are leisurely swimmers who will school with their own kind. They get along with most fish. Other species that are usually highly territorial, such as damsels, don’t bother these little basses.
In nature, these fish live in colonies around branching and table corals, where they find food and shelter. They spend most of their time hovering over their chosen coral head scooping up plankton and small crustaceans, a behavior they will also exhibit in the aquarium. These species are what’s known as “sequential hermaphrodites,” which means they have the ability to change from male to female. All eggs hatch as females, and after about one year, some of the females begin to change into males who dominate the colony, called a harem. One “supermale” reigns while the remaining males, called “bachelors” reside within the colony. When the supermale dies or disappears, the most dominant bachelor takes over.
The coloration on males is usually quite brilliant and you will notice that the fish’s colors become much richer as the female turns into a male. The dorsal fins on males are elongated. Most species prefer the company of their own since they tend to school in nature.
Meat is a must for these creatures. They prefer live food such as brine shrimp, but you can also feed finely chopped frozen shrimp or fish. As always, be sure that the food is completely thawed before you place it in your tank. Water quality for basslets has to be good, but they are not as sensitive as some other fish, and can tolerate slight fluctuations that may occur in the aquaria of inexperienced keepers.
Some more experienced aquarists will maintain that you keep only one, while others have had great success with harems of five or six of the less aggressive species, such as fairy basslets. A few species are rather picky, and enjoy being the only basslet in the tank.
Only about five species of basslets are endemic to the Atlantic, collectively known as the fairy basslets. Among these is one of the most popular for reef keepers, the royal gramma, Gramma loreto. This is a rather shy fish with remarkable coloring. It usually likes to live in sheltered areas such as caves or deep nooks in the reef, so it needs lots of hiding spaces to be happy in your tank. It is aggressive toward its own kind, so you shouldn’t keep more than one or two in smaller tanks (100 gallons or less), and be sure to have a space each can claim as its own. Do not keep them with boisterous species. They eat finely-chopped frozen fish and live zooplankton.
Basslets from the Pacific are also known as dottybacks and in Europe they are commonly called pygmy basslets. There are about 50 species endemic to the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea.