Saltwater Aquarium Blog

Ultimate care guide, facts, food, tips & more

Do you agree that the Mandarin fish dragonet, also called the mandarin goby, psychedelic fish or mandarin dragonet is one of the most vibrantly colored reef fishes you’ve seen?

a very popular but fragile saltwater fish. The scientific names for the two most commonly kept species in the reef aquarium hobby are Synchiropus splendidus, and Synchiropus picturatus. Splendid, and picturesque they are.

Their psychedelic coloration is what makes them unique and impossible to mistake for other species. Mandarin fish have scale-less bodies in blue or green, with striking orange wavy designs. Their tails are bright purple, red or orange, with blue edging.

While it is commonly called the Mandarin Goby, it is not actually a goby–but rather a dragonet. I’m not exactly sure why, but when in doubt, it seems like people default to calling cool, small fish gobies (like with the engineer goby).

The good news is that, although they are small in size, this fish has a respectably long life by aquarium standards and an extremely long life, by goby standards. Their average lifespan is between 10- 15 years, and their small size makes them suitable for being kept in nano tanks (they only reach about 3 inches in length, some reaching up to 4 inches).

mandarinfish also known as mandarin goby

Mandarin Goby Ideal Habitat

In the wild, Mandarin Gobies can be found in the Coral Triangle of biodiversity, around Malaysia, Australia, Philippines or Indonesia, the Great Barrier Reef and in the Indo-Pacific Ocean area. They live particularly in shallow lagoons and inshore reefs, especially around rubble beds or dead corals, which offer them protection and privacy.

The mandarin goby is best kept in a very mature tank with live rock, live sand, and a refugium. They prefer slower water flow and are picky eaters, so they don’t do well when mixed into the chaos of an SPS dominated tank or with gregarious and otherwise aggressive-feeding fishes.

The standard advice is to keep them in a very mature reef tank because they will spend the majority of their days scouring the live rock and eating the tiny, natural fauna in your tank.

Your Mandarin dragonet will spend its days perched on and hovering just above the live rock, scanning the nooks and crannies for any morsel of food.

Mandarin fish Dragonet Feeding

The Mandarin goby is a notoriously fussy eater, preferring live copepods and other tiny living crustaceans, which is why it is strongly recommended to keep this fish with a mature refugium, where natural stocks of copepods can be replenished. They may also accept live mysid shrimp, baby live brine shrimp, also called artemia, as well as other meaty foods, like black worms.

mandarinfish or mandarin goby

Behavior and Tank Mates for Synchiropus splendidus and Synchiropus picturatus

Mandarin Gobies are very peaceful fish that will never show aggressive behavior or get into trouble. Actually, it seems that other fish won’t even pay them great attention. On the other hand, they are very likely to act territorial towards their own species, so only consider keeping a single fish or a mated pair–males will attack other males.

Harems (one male with more females) have been successfully housed together, so this may also be an option, but is potentially best left to the advanced aquarist or would-be breeder.

Because they are shy fish, they like to have a lot of hiding places to feel secure. During the daytime, they like to stay hidden between rocks, but they may come out occasionally and hop through corals. It is best for them to be kept with other peaceful fish of the same size, as they cannot compete for food very well with larger ones.

They are not common prey among predator fish, although some scorpionfish are known to attack them from time to time, especially during mating times.

If they feel threatened, they may bury themselves in the sand, according to Scott W. Michael in his book: Marine Fishes.

You should also reconsider keeping these fishes if you also have an anemone. This slow-moving and docile fish has been reportedly eaten by anemones, even though they have that protective slime.

avoid buying mandarinfish as a starter saltwater aquarium fish

image by Luc Victour on Flickr

Picking the right one

Due to some pretty amazing advancements in the breeding of saltwater fishes, captive-bred dragonets have become available on the market. If you are looking to add this fish to your reef tank, I encourage you to see if your local fish store can get the captive-raised fish in for you.

Mandarin Fish Dragonet Interesting Facts

  • The Mandarin Goby gets its name from its bright coloration, which is similar to the robes of ancient Chinese officers, called mandarins
  • Although they are often called Mandarin Gobies, these fish are not indeed Gobies, but they rather belong to the Dragonet family
  • They are picky eaters, and you must pay great attention to what your specific fish would eat
  • They produce a noxious mucus to protect themselves from being eaten. Some believe their bright colors are a warning to would-be predators
  • Mandarin Gobies are safe to keep in reef tanks, as they won’t nip at corals or anemone, just make sure there is no more than a single male in the tank
  • They are picky eaters and don’t compete well for food, so pay great attention to their feeding time to make sure they stay healthy
  • They do display a limited amount of sexual dimorphism, which means that if you look carefully, you can tell males and females apart. Male mandarins have an elongated first dorsal spine when compared with females. This is generally not a bulletproof differentiator, because it is possible that females could be confused with less developed males, but it is at least one way for you to narrow down the lot if you are interested in trying to breed these fish at home
  • While they are generally inexpensive and widely available, they require a mature tank and are not good beginner fish

More Information about the Mandarin Fish

The mandarinfish dragonet is often one of the first saltwater fishes on a new aquarium owner’s wishlist, but since they require a mature reef tank with substantial nautal foods to eat, they are not recommended for the beginner.

Check out these two articles to learn more about:

If you have a few minutes, please watch this video about the mandarinfish dragonet.

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