Dottybacks are a family of small saltwater tropical fish. Dottybacks have two distinguishing traits: dorsal fins and lateral line organs.  

Dottyback dorsal fins have three spines at most. Dottybacks also have an incomplete lateral line. The lateral line organ can detect movement, vibration, and pressure.

Dottybacks are shy guys, hesitant to approach other fish they fear are predators. Because of this, most Dottyback hide in crevices on the seafloor where they’re tucked away from predators and competitors.

Centered photograph of a male Steene's Dottyback specimen
Male specimen of Steene’s Dottyback


Dottybacks are a common aquatic species known for their stunning and eye-catching appearance. Their bodies are elongated, and they have vibrant scales that come in a diverse range of colors, including various blends of purple, red, and yellow, as well as hues of blue, black, and brown.

You can further distinguish a dottyback by the dozens of subspecies that exist, each featuring its own unique pattern on its scales. This adds to the already impressive variety that Dottybacks have to offer. For example, the Bicolor Dottyback features a striking color combination of purple on its front half and yellow on its back half. Another species may be entirely blue except for a prominent yellow pattern.

Dottybacks vary in length from 2 cm (0.8 in) to 13 cm (5 in).


Dottybacks are both meat lovers and opportunistic eaters, preferring to dine on benthic invertebrates like worms and shrimp found on the seafloor. They also enjoy frozen plankton and krill. For captive Dottybacks, store-bought pellets or flakes make a suitable alternative. While captive dottybacks should be fed once or twice daily, wild Dottybacks can dine up to 5 to 6 times daily. Dottybacks are adaptable and can comfortably adjust to significant dietary changes.


Dottybacks live in the tropical waters of Australia and New Zealand. Most Dottybacks live in coral reefs thanks to an abundance of viable hiding spots and prey to feed upon.
Dottybacks prefer the safety of deep water, where natural darkness helps them evade predators’ detection. It’s advised to house pet dottybacks in a dark room that mimics their natural habitat.
Dottybacks prefer waters around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) in temperature. They prefer alkaline water with a pH of 8.4, with a salinity of 1.023.

Centered photograph of a Firetail Dottyback
A Firetail Dottyback


During mating season, male dottybacks will establish a territory and display their vibrant colors to attract a mate. When a female is ready to lay eggs, she will deposit them in a safe and secure location, often on a flat surface like the walls of a sea cave. Some eggs can fall to the seafloor and still safely hatch. The female can lay over 1000 eggs, the male will then fertilize the eggs and protect them until they hatch.

The egg sac is then carefully laid in the morning. It will hatch after 4 days, usually very soon after sunset. The fry will then emerge as fully formed miniature versions of their parents. However, they will lack the vivid coloration that adult dottybacks are known for. It takes around a month for the larvae to enter metamorphosis to develop their signature colors.

In a captive environment, Dottyback reproduction depends on the provision of a suitable spawning surface, proper water chemistry, and appropriate temperature levels.


Dottybacks are not facing extinction. The loss of their preferred coral reef habitats makes foraging and survival slightly tougher than it was previously. Despite their cute appearance, Dottybacks are feisty and fiercely defend their territory against competing dottybacks and territorial species like surgeonfish. Fortunately, humans pose little threat to dottyback as they are not commonly hunted for food. Crabs and lobsters, however, are happy to chase after a Dottyback.

Centered photograph of a Splendid Dottyback
A Splendid Dottyback

Bonus Facts

  • Many Dottyback owners have learned to keep the lid on a dottyback’s tank. That’s because these graceless fish are known to jump right out of their enclosures!
  • Dottybacks often disguise themselves as Angelfish and similar fish to avoid attracting predators. For example, some Dottybacks disguise themselves as adult damselfish to hunt baby Damselfish more easily. This behavior has earned Dottybacks the nickname “deceivers of the deep.”
  • Rarely, dottybacks can be cleaner fish for Angelfish as well. This “cleaner fish” behavior hasn’t been consistently documented, though.


Are Dottyback fish safe?

Dottybacks are usually territorial but can peacefully coexist with some similarly sized fish. Owners should use caution when introducing Dottybacks to other fish.

How many Dottyback species are there?

There are at least 152 different Dottyback species, spanning 16 different genera. This means that dottybacks vary widely in shape, size, and behavior.

Can you keep 2 Dottyback fish together?

Despite being territorial, some dottybacks are peaceful together. However, since dottybacks become aggressive on a whim, most owners house them separately.

What fish can live with Dottybacks?

Dottybacks are aggressive towards smaller fish. They behave better around larger fish species like Damselfish, Angelfish, and Sturgeon.

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