Aquarium Design, Installation and Maintenance, Thousand Oaks, CaliforniaMarine Aquarium Maintenance and Installation, Thousand Oaks, California

Night Fish


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By Jim Wolf, Marine Biologist

The colorful reef fishes so typical of a salt water aquarium are just a part of the reef fish community. At night, a transition occurs between the colorful daytime inhabitants, and the dark, red colored night time fishes. There are many familiar fishes in this group and almost all fishes are active during twilight (dusk or dawn). Groupers, lionfish, eels and many predatory species exhibit some level of night activities but four families are specialist in this nighttime world. They enjoy tanks with subdued lighting, or perhaps a cave to escape the light. The two major groups are the Cardinal fishes, and the Beryciformes, so lets look at them!

BERYCIFORMES are a group of bony fishes with a well documented fossil record and a characteristic bony plated skull.  Many are lie-in-wait predators. This means that they lie motionless waiting for prey to come into range. Prey items include fish, crustaceans, and worms. Many of them are yellow to red in color because these colors quickly fade to an inconspicuous brown under conditions of low light.

Family HOLOCENTRIDAE. This is a large family including the very hardy Squirrel and Soldier fishes. The Squirrel fishes include about 40 species of fishes that all possess a large spine on their operculum (The plate that covers the gills), unlike their close cousins the Soldier fish which lack this spine.  Initially they are shy and reclusive, but the soon become very active and will accept almost any food. These animals have a large swim bladder, so are very sensitive to sounds and tapping on the glass. As these animals live frequently in caves, it is not unusual to see them up side down orienting to the roof of a cave.  They may occasionally push other fish around, but have a poorly equipped mouth, so therefore do not cause much damage. Conversely they should be watch for signs of injury if placed into a tank with aggressive fishes.

These fish should be either solitary, or placed into a tank in groups of three or more. If two fish are placed together one will usually pick on the other.  By grouping in 1 or 3+ you avoid these problems. The remaining three families share this "1 or 3+ rule".

Family MONCENTRIDIDAE. This family includes only two species of Pinecone fish. These exotic expensive specimen fish are in the realm of the specialists fish. Pinecone fish have a bioluminescent organ under their eye that they use to signal one another. To thrive they need a tall aquarium with subdued lighting and tranquil tankmates. They eat live fishes and shrimp at first and can be trained to eat prepared foods. Despite these demands, they are well worth the effort, for how many other fishes glow in the dark?

Family OREOSOMATIDAE. Flattened, brick metallic red, big eyes and a large low slung mouth, the "Ox-eyed Oreos" leave a lasting impression. Rarely seen, but non the less very impressive, they are well worth the effort. Their care is similar to Pinecone Fish and tend to be a little more tolerant of light and tankmates.

Family APOGONIDAE: Cardinal fishes are in many respects the damsel fishes of the night. Members of the family Apogonidae, they fill many of the ecological niches that are filled by the damsels during daylight on the reef. The night time has caused them to be less territorial (since
there is less competition) and they have larger mouths ( to consume the larger plankton associated with night time on the reef) and posses large eyes.

They do well in small groups and are non aggressive. They eat a variety of food and will adapt readily to captivity if they are not harassed by other fishes. They like subdued lighting and are a good addition to a "twilight aquarium".

There over 170 species but only a few are seen in the hobby. Sphaeramia nematoptera is the common clown cardinal. It is tempting to add these fish to community aquarium , however they need a tranquil environment that is associate with either a reef or twilight aquarium. In captivity, if well cared for, Cardinal fish will breed. The male will hold the eggs in his mouth. On the reef they may be commensal ( to hang around with no "cost" to either host or visitor) with sea urchins or anemones and many other species are red to yellow in coloration with striking patterns.


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