For many of us aquarists based in the United States, it often seems that all the beautiful, colorful species come from exotic, far off locations in the Indo-Pacific such as the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. While more tropical species are being bred in captivity every week due to the tireless efforts of both commercial and hobbyist breeders, we still can’t easily see these fish for ourselves in their native habitats unless we hop on a plane for at least 15 hours and travel to the other side of the planet.
In truth, there are many lovely Caribbean species that can be found as close as Florida and can even be legally collected as long as one has a proper fishing permit and adheres to local catch limits. Many varieties of angelfish, basslets, cardinalfish, jawfishes, gobies, damsels, wrasses, and puffers all inhabit the warm waters around Florida and can be enjoyed with as little as a mask, snorkel, and fins. For aquarists living in the Sunshine State who are interested in setting up native tanks, there are countless inlets full of beautiful fish, many of which are suitable for a range of tank sizes. This piece will cover some of the ornamental species that can be found in these waters.
Damselfish are extremely abundant in Florida’s surrounding waters. At first assessment it appears that there are far more species than actually exist because most juveniles look nothing like the adults they will become. For example, the juvenile Beaugregory (Stegastes leucostictus) is bright yellow and blue with brilliant blue spots decorating its midline, but as an adult this fish is primarily brown with only a subtle hint of the original coloration left. ), a bold, white and black striped fish with yellow accents that can almost always be found defending a round nest of bright purple eggs. The males turn a dark, iridescent purple/blue color during courtship making them a fascinating species to observe.
Bicolor damsels (Stegastes partitus) are usually black and white although color variations are common depending on the exact location. Both species remain small at about four inches but like all damsels, are known to aggressively defend their eggs and nest sites. One of the most obviously identifiable damsel species in this region is the Sergeant Major (Abudefduf saxatilis)
Similar in size and body shape to damsels are chromis. The most brightly hued chromis commonly found in Florida is the blue chromis (Chromis cyanea), a brilliant blue species with black accents and a deeply forked tail. They generally live in loose aggregations and feed on plankton. The purple reeffish (Chromis scotti) and yellowtail reeffish (Chromis enchrysurus) are two other attractive species that live a bit deeper in the water column compared to the blue chromis but that maintain their bright juvenile coloration even as adults. All three species remain under five inches when fully grown and can easily be maintained in captive environments.
The angelfishes of Florida’s waters are mostly large (1-2 ft) and generally not suited to life in aquariums smaller than 250g, but there are a couple notable and beautiful exceptions. Of the large, recognizable species, Queen angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris), French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), and Gray angelfish (P. arcuatus) are the three varieties most frequently seen. All reach adult sizes of at least 14 inches and spend their days slowly patrolling and grazing reefs. Juvenile French and Gray angels are some of the most striking fish with jet-black bodies adorned with fluorescent yellow concentric stripes and bright blue pelvic fins. The Rock Beauty (Holacanthus tricolor) is a stunning yellow and black angel with blue lips when mature, that is not particularly common in Florida’s waters but can certainly be found. They grow to about eight inches in length and are entirely yellow with bright blue and black false eyespots as juveniles. The only other small angelfish that can be found in this part of the world is the lovely and diminutive Cherubfish (Centropyge argi), but that is only occasionally and typically on reefs deeper than 80ft. This gorgeous little fish looks as if its entire body is covered in violet velvet with an orange face peeking out. Many aquarists don’t realize this exotic-looking species actually hails from U.S. waters.
There is a wonderfully diverse variety of small, elongated bottom-dwellers in Florida consisting of gobies, blennies, jawfishes, and even a dragonet! At least four species of Elacatinus gobies can be spotted there of which Neon (E. oceanops) and Yellowline (E. horsti) gobies seem to be the most prevalent. These tiny fish (2 inches or less) are always resting on their pectoral fins atop sponges and coral heads. Blennies seem to be hiding in every crevice. Although I have yet to see it while diving, there is a Sailfin blenny (Emblemaria pandionis) that inhabits Florida’s waters . It displays a dorsal fin at least the size of its entire body to attract mates. Seaweed blennies (Parablennius marmoreus) are particularly fun to photograph because they look as if algae are growing straight out of their heads like a crown. They are almost always tucked away in holes and cracks with only their fringed faces peering out into the water.
Both Yellowhead jawfish (Opistognathus aurifronsParadiplogrammus bairdi) at first glance appears to be far too exotic for U.S. waters, but luckily this is not the case. Males are bigger than females and have much larger dorsal fins that they use to intimidate other males and court their diminutive mates. Like a sail, they raise and spread out their dorsal fin to reveal an unexpected and lovely pattern colored in vibrant earth tones that is sure to impress other dragonets and humans alike.) and Banded jawfish (O. macrognathus) are present in this region, and both are fascinating photography subjects due to their mouthbrooding tendencies. Males incubate the eggs in their mouths until they are ready to hatch. The Lancer dragonet (
While the majority of reef fish in our aquariums originate from seas half a world away, there is plenty of variety, color, and beauty to be found right here in the United States.
Alex Rose holds a B.S. in biology and a M.S. in aquatic biology, and she has a wide variety of experience in the biological sciences, including bioacoustics research, exhibit construction, science writing, teaching, public presentation, and aquatic animal husbandry and breeding. Alex is a professional violinist, photographer, PADI divemaster and lover of all things aquatic. Her driving goal is to find ways to protect our world’s marine habits through diving, writing, education and research. Visit her website at alexroserenaissance.com. You can also read more on the Sustainable Reefkeeping page.