Learning to care for a mandarin dragonet can be a complicated process. The mandarin dragonet is one of the most mesmerizing, beautiful, and recognized fish in the reefing community. This fish is truly a marvel of nature, but it can be deceptively hard to keep one alive. Understanding your Dragonet is very important.
The first step in learning about how to care for a mandarin dragonet, is learning about them. The mandarin Dragonet has many names such as Psychedelic mandarin, mandarin fish, and mandarin goby (they are not gobies though). As well, there are three common types of dragonets seen often in the hobby:
The most common dragonet, and the one you have likely seen before.
Very similar to the green mandarin, in fact it is almost the same, it just has more red and orange colors.
Has the same body shape as the other two, but is much more green, with round spots around its body
Thankfully, caring for each is essentially the same. However, the sex of the dragonet is important in deciding how to care for it. Male Dragonets will fight with other males, so unless your tank is very large, never put two males in one tank. Males will fight even if they are two different types of mandarins. Despite this behavior, they are extremely peaceful to other fish and cause little harm. Fortunately, mandarin dragonets are sexually dimorphic, which makes it easy to tell their sex. The male has a large dorsal (on his back) fin with a point to it:
In terms of their size, they are fairly small and stay around 3 to 4 inches long. However, unlike many other small fish, they live relatively long lives, generally living 10 to 15 years. They are also very resistant to many common fish diseases due to their skin and the special mucus around it. Besides their diet, these fish are actually quite hardy.
In the wild, these guys like to live in shallow lagoons and inshore reefs, with lots of rocks and dead corals for them to hide in. While Dragonets are somewhat shy and love their hiding spots, if they feel comfortable in their environment, they are much more likely to be swimming around in the open and will eat better. Wondering how to make a Dragonet comfortable? It all starts with the tank setup!
Whether you are setting up a new tank, or wish to introduce a Dragonet into an established tank, here are some general rules and tips to follow:
The Dragonet is a small fish, but that does not mean a small tank is suitable for them. While someone who is very experienced and dedicated can keep mandarins in a small tank, the majority of people will struggle and find it too time consuming. For the average enthusiast, I recommend a minimum tank size of 30-gallons. Personally, I would consider a 40-gallon breeder with a sump/refugium, to be the smallest tank appropriate for a Dragonet. A bigger tank would be good, and can maybe support multiple mandarins, but tanks over 120-gallons would probably result in you seeing your mandarins less. A 40-gallon breeder tank can be bought for cheap from Petco, with their 1$ per gallon sale setting the price for one at about $55. Otherwise, you can find a potentially nicer and bigger tank from a local fish store, or online distributors like:
*Note: While expensive, these sites offer AIO (all in one) tanks that come almost fully ready – all you need to do is set them up and add some equipment, rocks, sand, and livestock. Perfect option for those who are worried about setting up their own tank from scratch and all the rest that comes with figuring out how to care for a mandarin dragonet.
These guys are saltwater fish and live in warm oceans, so understanding the chemistry of their water is vital when learning how to care for a mandarin dragonet.
If you do not know what most of these are, or how to measure them, I would advise for you to do some research first and get the tools to measure these parameters before you put any livestock in your tank.
– These tools can be bought at local stores or online from the sites mentioned above, but make sure to read reviews and do research so that you get high-quality tools!
As mentioned before, Dragonets love many hiding spots, and thus an aquascape design with many caves and other nooks for the mandarin to hide and swim through is optimal. This does not mean that you can’t have a spot that is completely open, you just need one decently sized section of rock work. Many different kinds of rock are viable, but I would recommend using dry rock, as the risk of pests and trouble to cure live rock is not worth it. I would try to find rock that is very porous, and thus allows bacterias and pods to grow. However, pretty much any dry rock from a respectable vendor will serve you well.
On the ground, adding a sandy substrate about 1-2 inches deep would be good for a Dragonet, as they sometimes like to burrow into it. When buying sand, pay attention to the grain sizes (ones that are 1mm or smaller will be harder to clean and will easily be pushed around by the currents).
– This does not mean go for the 5mm or larger grain sizes either, as those will not be as comfortable for the fish, nor will they look as natural.
– As before, all of these things can be purchased online or locally, just do your research on individual products!
There are many ways to set up a reef tank with lots of different equipment you can use. I will only talk about sumps and refugiums, which I consider almost necessary, especially for people just figuring out how to care for a mandarin dragonet.
Sumps are very common in modern reefing, with almost all sizable tanks having one. A sump is simply a second, modified tank underneath the display tank. This tank will usually be divided into sections using baffles, and in these sections is where you can place your heaters, skimmers, do your mechanical filtration, etc. For keeping a Dragonet, it is best to get a sump with a large refugium/center section such as a Triton style sump.
Try to get a sump with a refugium that holds 10%-20% of your display tank’s water volume. You will need the refugium to filter the water using macro algae, such as Chaeto, as well as providing a breeding ground for the pods that the dragonets eat. It is also smart to put some Marinepure product, like the spheres or plates, for excellent biological filtration in the refugium. This large refugium in your sump will work together with the rock in the display to grow large numbers of pods for your dragonet to eat. However, you can add another layer of redundancy with a separate HOB refugium.
A HOB refugium is a hang-on-back refugium which is essentially a small tank that hangs on the back of your display aquarium (It will not be able to go on your sump). While these refugiums certainly play a role in filtration, their main purpose is to provide a space for pods to grow. This will be an area that is safe from the dragonets and separate from the sump in case there are any issues with the sump. This refugium might come with a decent light to grow some macro algae, but you can also set up a light of your own.
Choose your sump after you decide on your tank. You can buy a triton method or HOB sump online from big distributors like:
Some companies sell custom triton method sumps to fit your specific desires! You can check them out here:
Dragonets get their infamous reputation due to how hard it can be to keep them well fed in a home aquarium. This is often the trickiest part in caring for a mandarin dragonet. Over the years it has gotten easier to keep them alive due to a better understanding of the fish, new technologies, and captive-bred specimen. Mandarin dragonets primarily consume pods, eating practically all day. The captive-bred dragonets are more expensive, but they are more hardy and accustomed to eating prepared foods. This can be a major advantage, as these mandarin Dragonets do not rely solely on live pods for food. The prepared food is usually frozen such as Frozen Cyclops, brine shrimp, and bloodworms.
Captive-bred or wild-caught, it is still wise to have a large population of copepods and amphipods in your tank, sump refugium, and hopefully your HOB refugium. Do not limit yourself to just one type of pods either, try to get a couple different ones growing in your tank, as it helps with varying the diet for the mandarins. Pod populations will grow in your system fast, helping you by eating detritus and algae. It is smart to supplement your tank with phytoplankton, as it helps the pod populations grow and be healthy. Phytoplankton and Pods will also help feed your corals and other filter feeders like clams.
Try to train your mandarin dragonet to eat frozen foods although some just never accept anything but live food. If you can get a stable population of pods growing in your tank, you don’t have much more to do when it comes to feeding. Just admire the beauty of your mandarin. However, you should try and offer other treats once in a while for their health. These treats include things like baby snails and small worms, as well as frozen foods.
If you are not sure where you can buy pods, phytoplankton, or macro algae like Chaeto, I would personally suggest Algaebarn. They have all of these things, as well as an awesome refugium starter pack for all sized tanks. They even carry Triton style sumps from Crystal Reef Aquatics on their website. While some of their products may be more expensive than they would be from other places, they guarantee their pods to be alive, and for their macro algae to be pest free.
Feeding mandarin dragonets is much less complicated than it may seem, it just requires some dedication and effort!
– Where to buy your mandarin dragonet? It is possible that your local fish store sells them. If they do not, you can find both captive-bred and wild-caught ones on LiveAquaria.com. Some other sites may sell captive-bred dragonets, like AlgaeBarn but these are from the same distributor as the ones sold on LiveAquaria.
– Mandarin dragonets prefer slower flow, so keep that in my when choosing other livestock like coral. You can still keep things that require high flow, but try to provide calmer spots for the dragonet!
– The slimy mucus around their skin not only protects them against diseases, but also discourages predators.
– When breeding, the fish lock their fins together and swim to the top of the tank in a wonderful display.
– If you have an established tank, you’ll want to quarantine the mandarin for about 2 weeks. This is so it can adjust to living in it;s own tank and can eat without being afraid of other fish.
– Anything I forgot to mention or got wrong? Message me on Instagram @AtlasAqua
– Finally, here are some personal videos of my own mandarin dragonet:
By Maxim Bobel
Thanks for reading on how to care for a mandarin dragonet. Please feel free to like, comment, and share below!
Red Mandarin Picture: https://www.liveaquaria.com/product/1723/red-mandarin?pcatid=1723&c=15+1635+1723
Male/Female Mandarin Picture: https://www.liveaquaria.com/product/5146/blue-mandarin-captive-bred-biota?pcatid=5146&c=15+1500+5142+5146
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