There are some really beautiful creatures that live on the reef and the aquarist is very lucky that some can be kept in a suitable aquarium. Some of these beauties are fairly easy to keep, all needing care of course. The Mandarin fish however is not easy and definitely should be avoided by the beginner and also should be avoided by any aquarist who is a little short of patience (though a ‘successful marine aquarist’ and ‘short of patience’ seem to be a contradiction!). The Mandarin Dragonet fish is definitely different and beautiful and as said could cause grief to an inexperienced aquarist. Hopefully a responsible dealer would check the experience of an intended purchaser.
The Mandarin’s proper name is Synchiropus Splendidus and it originates in the Indo-Pacific ocean. The fish has a peaceful temperament which doesn’t mean two could be kept. Two males, though they hopefully wouldn’t damage each other, would fight. The male can be distinguished by the long first dorsal spine, the female doesn’t have this. A male and a female could live peacefully – again hopefully! The fish could grow to 4 inches (circa 10cm). The Mandarin is not suitable for a fish only aquarium, only a fully mature reef. Though, considering the size of the fish this could seem strange, aquarium size matters, in this case it should be around 70 actual gallons. Actual gallons means real gallons in the aquarium after rock displacement etc. not the usually quoted empty aquarium gallon size. The aquarium needs to be fully mature and all creatures in full health, fish, corals, everything. The aquarium must be completely mature, meaning it has been running successfully for a year at least. The required temperature is within the range 75 to 82deg F, so this isn’t a problem, the standard 77 or 79deg F should be ok.
Some may read the above and wonder why a peaceful fish with seemingly normal requirements carries a warning about difficulty. The difficulty is feeding. The fish is a carnivore with a specialised diet of copepods. In the wild it spends the day hunting for these. The fish will not take the usual pre-prepared marine foods without ‘training’ and some luck. Perhaps the aquarist will be lucky and his/her well established reef aquarium has some copepods present, but remember that other fish could enjoy a copepod lunch so the numbers of copepods could be very low. This will be fine for a while but the copepod population will diminish and fail eventually. Best is to supply a known quantity and watch the Mandarin eat, noting how much. There is a good thing, copepods can be purchased online and perhaps at the local store. Also good, they are not particularly expensive. The reason why Mandarins are considered ‘hard’ to keep is because of their diet, generally they are robust subject to the conditions they are faced with.
There is a way that hopefully the Mandarin can be trained to eat prepared fish foods, though the process is slow and with copepods available to purchase perhaps there isn’t any point. Obtain some frozen and live brine shrimp. The Mandarin should feed on live brine shrimp (this isn’t a correct diet and shouldn’t be relied on). Defrost some frozen and mix in with the live ones. Once the Mandarin is seen to be taking the defrosted ones feed these, always monitoring that the fish eats. The fish needs food more nutritous than brine shrimp, so start mixing in mysis shrimp, again monitoring that the Mandarin eats. There will of course be competition from other fish. The length of time required to get the Mandarin to feed as hoped for varies with a measure of luck included. As copepods are available, perhaps such an effort is not required, avoiding feeding on an extended diet based on the natural diet (ie. brine and mysis shrimp on copepods). Common sense suggests the natural diet is best though perhaps some small variation is good.
So, that’s the Mandarin Dragonet. Seriously beautiful, peaceful and suitable for a friendly community reef. The only major problem is feeding and that depends on the aquarist providing, best, the natural diet, perhaps supplemented by other food as described. So, if a Mandarin is seen for sale, think carefully, no-one wants starvation to lead to death. Before purchase consider how long the reef aquarium has been running, are the inmates peaceful and healthy, is copepod food available and is it affordable. Also consider, with honesty, your experience and patience. All things being positive, the captive reef will have a fantastic and really beautiful new resident.