Are Mandarin Gobies/Dragonets Hard to Keep? Maybe!

Mandarin Gobies, also known as Mandarin Dragonets are one of the most stunning fish you can see swimming around your aquarium. The problem is they can be hard to keep, especially for the beginner to saltwater aquariums. What is it that makes these beautiful fish have such a poor survival rate in home aquariums?

Mandarin Dragonets can be hard to keep as Copepods are their main food source. Consuming a pod every 5-10 seconds keeps these fish healthy and only mature aquariums with a large reproducing Copepod population are suitable enough to provide enough food. Some can be trained to accept fish food.

Many beginners to saltwater aquariums see these fish and put them at the top of their purchase list only to have the fish die weeks later. This article was written to bring awareness to the feeding habits of the Mandarin Goby, and why a little patience will usually pay off.

What Makes Mandarin Gobies Hard To Keep?

Mandarin Gobies are a carnivore and in the wild, their predominant food source is a small critter called Copepods. Copepods may be seen scurrying around mature aquariums, especially at night. Copepods will naturally grow in your aquarium and help with janitorial services as well as becoming a natural food source for your livestock, but it takes time!

For more information on Copepods check out the article in the Further Reading section at the end.

The natural feeding habit of the Mandarin Dragonets is that they are hunters and they eat constantly throughout the day. You will see them perching on the sand and rock looking for their next meal. A healthy Mandarin Goby can eat a Copepod every 5-10 seconds during their daily routine.

For Example:

  • 60 seconds / 5-10 seconds = 6-12 Copepods eaten per minute
  • 6-12 x 60 minutes = 360-720 Copepods eaten per hour
  • 360-720 x 14 hours awake = 5,040-10,080 Copepods eaten every day

So, for each Mandarin Goby in a tank, they can mow down between 5-10,000 pods every day! This gives you some idea of how much they eat. Even if we took a very conservative number and had them eating one every 20 seconds, that’s still around 2,500 pods eaten every day!

If your aquarium does not support this amount of Copepods you can see that in a few short weeks the Mandarin will starve to death.

Many newcomers to the hobby do not do research on this fish, they just see it in the store, buy it and then wonder why it’s not eating the flakes and pellets that all the other fish eat. This is why they are so hard to keep, for those that have not done their research.

So, if these fish are so hard to keep, how come so many people own them without any problems? The trick is to ensure you can keep them fed in your aquarium.

How Do You Feed Mandarin Gobies?

By far the easiest way to ensure the survival and healthy eating habits of the Mandarin Goby are met is to ensure your aquarium is mature enough to have a healthy, reproducing Copepod population.

A Spotted Mandarin Goby -Source: Citron

This usually requires the aquarium to be at least 1-2 years old! It is not a good idea to put in a Mandarin after you have seen only a few pods scurrying around. Your pods need to reproduce faster than the Mandarin Goby eats them or the food supply will eventually run out.

To help start and maintain a healthy Copepod population you can implement some of the following:

Install a Refugium

A refugium is a small area dedicated to growing macro-algae and providing a ‘Refuge’ for Copepods and other macro-fauna to reproduce without being eaten.

Refugiums can come as a dedicated area in a sump or a hang-on container that hangs on the side/back of a sump or the aquarium. Water is passed through them and by placing some rock rubble in there you can create a nice haven for pods to reproduce.


CPR HOB Refugium

CPR Hang-On Refugiums

For more detailed information on Refugiums see my dedicated article in the ‘Further Reading’ section at the end.

Install a Pod Condo

This is exactly what it sounds like – It is a condo/apartment for Copepods and other macrofauna to reproduce in without getting eaten. They are a small cube filled with holes and passages that give the pods a refuge.

These pod condo’s/hotels/habitats can easily be inserted into a sump, the filter chamber of an All-In-One aquarium, or even at the back of the rock in your aquarium to remain out of sight, but give sanctuary.

Being only a couple of inches across, they are a perfect way to allow your aquariums pod population to grow to provide ample food for Mandarin Gobies

You can find Pod Condo’s Here at

Get A Copepod Starter Kit

If you know you want a Mandarin Goby but your aquarium is not mature enough for one yet, you can begin to create a healthy Copepod population by inserting a Starter Colony into your aquarium.

Combined with a refugium or pod hotel, this kit will allow your colony to rapidly grow to be able to sustain a Mandarin Goby. Copepods will enter your aquarium over time, via coral frags, and from your initial installation of Live Rock or Live Sand, but the starter kit dramatically increases the time it takes to grow a colony.

You can find a Copepod Starter Kit Here at

How To Train a Mandarin Goby To Eat Prepared Foods

Getting a Mandarin Goby to eat the foods you give to the tank is the holy grail of ensuring their survival. It can be done, but for the majority of owners, they are unsuccessful.

A Mating Pair of Red Mandarin Gobies – Source: Steve Childs

Here are some ways you can try to get a Mandarin Goby Feeding:

  1. Observe the fish in the store and ask the staff to feed it for you. See what they feed it, see how it eats. Does it instantly devour the food, or does it ignore it?
  2. Try and obtain a ‘Captive-Bred’ fish. They tend to feed better on prepared foods
  3. Ensure the fish is fat and healthy. Look at the area just behind the skull. If it looks thin or pressed in, pass on that fish
  4. Mandarin Gobies are notorious for eating in the store then not eating after arriving at your home. be prepared for this
  5. Insert your new purchase into a quarantine tank (you should do this anyway) and practice feeding your Mandarin prepared, live foods without having to compete with other fish in the aquarium
  6. Regularly buy live Copepods and feed your tank with them after lights out. This will give the pods a chance to seek refuge without being decimated by the rest of your fish
    You can Purchase bottles of live Copepods Here at

Mandarin Gobies have been known to feed on Brineshrimp, Mysis Shrimp & Black worms, but by far the best food is their natural food – Copepods

To Finish

Mandarin Gobies are beautiful fish and by having some patience and allowing your aquarium to mature, and getting it started with a Copepod colony, you will have far better success at keeping a Madinarin Goby alive past a few weeks.

I have seen many, many aquariums, even nano-reefs, that have a fat and happy Mandarin cruising around looking for their next meal only because they let their tank mature or they were successful at training their Mandarin/s to eat frozen foods.

The one thing you have to bear in mind when you have a Mandarin Goby only eating frozen foods is that they need to be fed at least morning and night and this will require a tank sitter for anytime you are on vacation!

Further Reading

You may find the following articles helpful to you:

Header Image:
Green Mandarin Goby – Source: Luc Viatour


Hi, I'm Richard and I have been an avid aquarist for over 30 years with a passion for Saltwater Aquariums. I love to pass on my knowledge to help others get the same amount a pleasure out of this hobby as I do. View my About Me page to find out more about me & my mixed reef aquarium.

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