If you fancy a challenge, and you’re prepared to go that extra mile in providing the right environment, tilefish can make marvellous additions to the marine aquarium. They’re reef friendly, too! Here’s how to succeed with these beautiful fish...
is curator at the Blue Planet Aquarium in Cheshire Oaks. He explains how to succeed with tilefish in the marine tank.
Some groups of fish are bulletproof and easy to care for, able to fit in with a wide variety of tank mates and adapt to a range of systems — the tilefish are not one of them. These nervous, demanding fish are a challenge to keep successfully, and some thought needs to be put into whether they’re right for your system — they are certainly a very bad impulse buy! Given tailored conditions and expert care, however, they can be fabulous choices for specialised reef or peaceful fish-only systems.
Who are you calling a goby?
Despite often being referred to as ‘tile gobies’ in the trade, the tilefish are not gobies. They belong in their own family, Malacanthidae. There are two subfamilies:
• Malacanthinae (16 species). Known as sand tilefish on account of their habit of frequenting the sand and rubble zones of the reef ’s edge and darting into the substrate when startled, many species are found from 15-30m in depth. There are two genera:
Malacanthus (three species, all of which reach 30cm-plus in length), and Hoplolatilus (13 species, which includes the smallest and most colourful of the tilefish; most specimens in the trade are from this genus). Sand tilefish are elongated in shape, with continuous dorsal and anal fins and forked tails; they’re built for swift, darting movement and manoeuvrability. Behaviourally, they tend to be diurnally active. They hover over the seabed and feed more-orless constantly throughout the day, retreating into burrows at night for safety. Due to the size the Malacanthus species can reach, Hoplolatilus is the go-to genus. The Blue blanquillo, Malacanthus latovittatus, is sometimes available, but it grows to be a handful.
• Latilinae (29 species). These are of little interest to aquarists thanks to their drab colours and larger size — some reach over a metre in length. They are commercially fished for food.
Get the aquascape right
The size and layout of the tank are very important to make tilefish feel at home. In spite of the small size of many
Hoplolatilus species, a minimum tank volume of 250 l/55 gal or so is best for the smaller species. Ideal tilefish lodgings include a reasonably deep (10cm+), extensive layer of sand into which the fish can burrow, along with variouslysized chunks of rubble. This mixed substrate will be used by the tilefish to create burrows in which they can hide, and it’s a key feature for any system housing them. Due to their industrious reworking of the tank’s substrate, they can topple rockwork so ensure everything is securely fixed in place.
Additional rocky overhangs and caves
in the lower reaches of the tank will go a long way to helping the fish establish and feel secure. On balance, the perfect system would be based around a deeper water reef edge with subdued lighting, but given suitable conditions for burrowing and hassle-free tank mates, most species can adapt well to typical reef conditions.
Because of their nervous disposition, tilefish are renowned jumpers, so some form of lid or cover is pretty much mandatory when keeping them.
Keep it peaceful
Tilefish tend to be very shy and retiring, so they need easy-going tank mates. Definitely avoid triggers, puffers and large angels if you’re maintaining them in a fish-only or FOWLR tank, but even damsels and other small-but-territorial fish can pose problems in reef systems. Instead, cardinals, dartfish, gobies and anthias can work well.
With many tilefish, it’s possible to house pairs in the same system; in fact, this is the preferred way to keep them and maximise the chances of success — even trios can work well. Spawning behaviour has been reported in a few species, but closing the life cycle in captivity will involve conquering the challenges associated with collecting and rearing the minute pelagic larvae.
Being planktivores, they pose no threat to sessile invertebrates, and only the tiniest ornamental crustaceans are at risk of predation from these fish.
Selecting a healthy tilefish from the get-go is absolutely vital. Because many come from reasonably deep water, it’s important to check for decompression damage before buying one; this manifests itself as unusual swimming patterns such as a failure to swim horizontally. Avoid any specimen that shows frayed fins, and make sure any prospective purchase is feeding. In the dealer’s tank, tilefish may be skittish and reserved, but failure to feed and starvation
prior to purchase are common problems — you want one that’s feeding and reasonably settled from the off.
As tilefish are very nervous they should be acclimated in dark conditions, then allowed to settle in for a few days; don’t be surprised if yours hide away for a while after introduction. In general, smaller specimens adapt better than larger adults. If you can dial the lighting down after introduction, ramping it up over the following few days, then this can help greatly.
Ideally you’ll be quarantining any new acquisitions as they can carry a range of pathogens such as whitespot. However, bear in mind that a typical bare-bottomed quarantine tank is terrible for these fish and a bare-bones, sterile tank will simply add to the fish’s stress levels while it’s already vulnerable.
Therefore, provide some substrate for burrowing and plenty of cover (short lengths of PVC pipe are ideal) in the quarantine tank. Observe the fish closely while it’s in quarantine, and be prepared to treat promptly should it show any signs of parasitic disease or secondary bacterial infections.
Blue jaw tilefish, Hoplolatilus starcki.
Tilefish require a substrate of rubble and sand in which they can create burrows.