The first time I was attracted to marine fish I was looking at damselfish, though I didn’t know it. The bright colours and full-of-life actions were a magnet to my eye. It was after that, and after speaking with the shop proprietor, research and consideration, that I moved into the marine aquarium world. It was a long time ago!
Damsels seem to be the ideal fish for the beginner and a good addition for those with experience, and they are. Generally they are one of the cheapest of marine fish, if not the cheapest. As with most things, however, there needs to be a pause for thought.
Most damsels are best known by their common names, for instance the Chrysiptera cyanea, better known as the blue damsel or blue devil. It’s always best to find out the Latin name of the species that is of interest as this should remove the problem of purchasing an incorrect type.
When the aquarist has seen the type of damsel(s) that are of interest, a check should be made to see if the colours that are so attractive will remain so. Some are very attractive when young but later will become dull, perhaps a grey or brown. One point that is of interest to a reef aquarist is that damsels are safe with corals and will eat only the very smallest invertebrates.
Generally hardy and easy to feed fish are good for beginners and damsels meet these criteria as they will tolerate less than good seawater conditions (not that they should have to) and will eat many foods including flake and frozen types (of a suitable size).
As they are hardy some shops advise that they can be used to initially mature, or cycle, a system. This is wrong and the fact they are hardy is not an excuse. No animal should knowingly be made to endure less than good conditions. Systems should be initially matured using easily available liquid products which are very easy to apply.
Once a system is initially matured damsels should not be the first fish that are introduced. The guidelines indicate that fish should be introduced gradually so that the bacterial system can mature to match the increasing load. This of course means that fish introduced first will be on their own for two or more weeks. This gives them time to settle and grow accustomed to their environment. If these first fish are damsels, it is possible or even probable that any fish introduced later will suffer. This is because damsels can be very territorial and aggresive. It is best to introduce other species first to give them time to settle and of course they will be part of the scenery when any damsels arrive. Generally speaking (there are always exceptions) the blue coloured types are more peaceable than the black/white and yellow ones. When young damsels could present no problem at all but may become more aggresive as they age.
It would seem then that damsels are not quite so good a choice. This isn’t so – they will tolerate variations in seawater conditions caused by inexperience such as overfeeding and other below standard husbandry, and are not finicky when food appears. All that is needed is for the aquarist to be aware of their potential character traits and act accordingly. Damsels make a lively and colourful addition to a display.