As many fish store workers can probably attest, beginner marine aquarium hobbyists have a strange knack for finding the toughest to keep species. Whether it’s mandarins, seahorses or stingrays, newbies just seem to be attracted to the most delicate or high-maintenance fish from the get-go. And that’s totally cool–there are indeed some very awesome (albeit highly specialized) fishes out there to keep. But without lots of practical hands-on experience under your belt, these overly ambitious ventures are almost always doomed to failure. Particularly when they happen to new aquarists, these failures can feel devastating. Therefore, what is much better is to gradually work your way up to these challenges. With your first tank, this means first trying your hand at a few hardy species! Even better in this regard is a hardy species that is captive bred. One perfect (and rather beautiful) example of such a species is the chalk bass.
Chalk bass natural history
The chalk bass (Serranus tortugarum) gets the latter part of its scientific name from its type locality being the Tortugas Islands in the Florida Keys. It occurs throughout the western Atlantic Ocean (from the Bahamas and Virgin Isles, southern Florida and the southern coast of Mexico to Venezuela) and especially the Caribbean Sea. While it is usually encountered at depths of less than 90 meters, it has been recorded at 400 meters. It is found living near all sorts of bottoms from silt and sand to rubble and solid reef. It does, however, stick close to the bottom and dashes for cover at the slightest hint of danger.
The chalk bass is a carnivore, feeding primarily on zooplankton while younger/smaller and on slightly larger, benthic crustaceans when older/larger.
Though lone individuals may be found, it most often lives in hierarchical social groups. It is synchronously hermaphroditic (that is, each individual has both male and female reproductive organs at the same time); it is, however, apparently incapable of self-fertilization. It reaches a maximum size of three inches (8 centimeters) at maturity, though most individuals top out at around two inches.
Its coloration varies somewhat with differences of lighting and physical environment (it can change appearance to camouflage itself into its surroundings). Most often, it has an icy blue to turquoise base color with eight very dark red-orange vertical stripes over the upper body. Fin coloration ranges from transparent to slightly pink.
Throughout this species’ relatively long history in the aquarium trade, experts have expressed sheer astonishment at how underrated the chalk bass is among hobbyists. As they rightly point out, it’s pretty easy to collect and ship. And, as we’ve already said, it’s extremely hardy in captivity. It’s beautiful. It’s not at all a picky eater. It’s compatible with all other similarly-sized aquarium fish species (even its own species) and could very reasonably be classified as ‘reef-safe.’ It remains a fairly small size. And it’s not at all expensive! They could hardly be any more suitable for a new marine aquarist, right?
Easy as they are to keep, there are still a few things to know before you buy. If you wish to keep more than a single individual, they should be acquired as a group of three-five (or more)–preferably collected together. It is recommended that groups are quarantined and added to the display tank together simultaneously as to prevent squabbles. A 30-gallon tank is sufficient for an individual specimen.
Be aware that newly introduced aquarium specimens will be quite shy. Thus, their hardscape should include numerous rocky caves, large empty sea shells, etc. to take shelter in. Do allow them to hide until they comfortable coming out into the open. Lower lights may help give them a confidence boost. Feedings of live food (such as live baby brine shrimp) will certainly give them good reason to come out and move around. Just take good precaution against escapes; chalk bass are known jumpers, particularly when they are in a new aquarium environment.
As mentioned, they get along well with most other species in captivity. Still, it is probably best in most circumstances to avoid keeping them with other small basslets (grammas, dottybacks, etc.). Also, hyper-aggressive species such as certain damselfish should be avoided. Finally, they cannot be kept with larger fish predators such as lionfishes, triggerfishes, groupers, etc. They are, on the other hand, safe to keep with sessile invertebrates and larger crustaceans such as emerald crabs (they might of course eat very small shrimp though!).
It’s no wonder that so many aquarium authors cite the chalk bass as being among the hobby’s most underappreciated species! All it’s positive attributes–bright colors, peaceful disposition, disease resistance, overall hardiness, willingness to eat most aquarium foods, small adult size–make it ideal for beginners and experts alike. Particularly in the case of tank bred specimens (such as the ORA Chalk Bass), we’re talking about a seriously trouble-free, bulletproof fish here!