The chalk basslet (Serranus tortugarum) often gets overlooked by saltwater aquarium hobbyists. A surprising fact. Why NOT add them to your reef tank? After all, they’re gorgeous and popular saltwater fish (frequently changing color to match the décor). You don’t need to fuss much over their management, either. And expensive? Yeah, they’re not on that list. So what’s holding you back? If it’s a lack of information, let’s remedy the situation!
Table of Contents: Chalk Basslet Care
Chalk basslets don’t appear in many aquariums. That’s because they don’t stand out. No, literally. You need the right conditions to spotlight and demonstrate their best colors. Maintaining health and vibrancy requires some attention to detail (no more than you’d expect for any fish species, though). So let’s dive into the following links and introduce you to your new favorite fish!
- Quick Facts
- Description of the Chalk Basslet
- Chalk Basslet Lifespan
- Creating the Ideal Chalk World
- Chalk Basslet Diet
- Chalk Basslet Behavior and Tank Mates
- Breeding the Chalk Basslet
- Pros and Cons
- For More Information
- Common Names: Chalk basslet, Chalk bass
- Scientific Names: Serranus tortugarum
- Size: Up to 4 inches (10.2cm)
- Minimum Tank Size: 30 Gallons (114L)
- Reef Safe? Yes
- Care or Experience Level: Easy
- Preferred Diet: Omnivore
- Original Part of the World: Western Atlantic
Pinning down an accurate description for a chalk basslet’s tricky. Ask a selection of aquarists, snorkelers, and divers, and you’ll get a variety of answers. That’s due to the fish’s ability to adjust the pigmentation in its scales. Since they’re a favorite snack for plenty of predators on the reef, they need a little camouflage assistance to remain safe.
As such, you might notice an orange body with vibrant blue stripes. Or you could spot a blue body and burgundy stripes. Maybe you’ll even get a slash of purple down the middle. It all depends on the lighting and the surrounding environment. Of course, that’s why chalk bass are so intriguing. You can walk past your tank and see different fish each time.
Outside of the shifting color palette, the “bass” part of the chalk basslet’s name comes from the typical torpedo shape. They’re smaller than most of their cousins, making them ideal for the aquarium trade. They often dart into crevices on the reef or even into abandoned shells on the seafloor. That “snacking” size means they hug the bottom and stay along the reefs – avoiding the dangers of the open ocean.
Snorkelers and divers usually spot chalk basslet schools around the Caribbean. That’s the center of their range. However, they do extend throughout the tropical waters of the western Atlantic. They form pairs and schools along the reef, scouting out quick retreats. You’ll occasionally see them swimming along the sand around the edges of the coral, but not out where they’d present a tempting target for predators.
Due to their shifting patterns, identifying individual chalk bass gets complicated. The lifespan data comes from captive collections – and it’s not the best. The biggest downside to this colorful fish is their tendency to live no longer than around 1-2 years. That translates to a short growth period and maturity, but you’ll then need to face a rapid replacement.
If you hit the popular tourist destinations throughout the Caribbean, odds are you’ll encounter chalk basslet schools. The densest populations congregate in that region. But the species covers the Atlantic from Florida down to Honduras. It’s simply a matter of knowing where to look while you’re diving.
Chalk basslets developed their camouflage skills as a defensive mechanism. They’re delicious, small, and not particularly fast. As such, they hug the reef and remain close to the seafloor. They’ve gone as deep as 1300 feet (400m), but they usually stay in the range of 35-290 feet (10-90m). Chalk bass need crevices in the rock, caves between the coral colonies, or an abandoned shell nearby at all times to feel safe, as you can see in the YouTube video below:
That’s the kind of environment you want for your saltwater aquarium. Structures of live rock with room for a frightened bass to dash inside work perfectly. When you add the fish to the tank for the first time, they’ll choose their preferred hiding place. You’ll see them hovering around the spot. Even if they decide to explore the rest of the tank, that “home” will remain their preferred retreat for the remainder of their life.
You can also offer other hiding places where the coral or rock meets your substrate. Conch shells, coral rubble, or other décor work nicely. You’ll replicate the typical environment chalk bass encounter in the wild. You’ll also encourage them to swim throughout the bottom of the tank.
Lowering the lights when you first introduce chalk basslets to a tank will help them settle in. You don’t need to keep your lighting on those settings permanently. It’ll help them transition, though. Once they start swimming throughout the tank and eating normally, you can gradually increase the intensity. (And get the vibrant coloring you bought the fish for)
Chalk Basslet Tank Size
Chalk basslets fall on the lower end of the size spectrum. Adults don’t get more than 4 inches (10.2cm) in length. And if you only plan to keep one, you can get away with a nano tank of 20 gallons (76L). However, they’re schooling fish. So encouraging natural behavior means housing at least three. And you’ll need to upgrade to at least 30 gallons (114L) for that.
Ideally, you should aim for at least 15-20 gallons (57-76L) PER FISH. This allows each chalk bass the swimming space (and live rock) they need to feel comfortable. If you try to go too small, you could end up with aggression problems. Bigger is always better when you’re working with shoaling fish.
Once you settle on your tank size, choose a tight-fitting cover. Chalk basslets are PREY fish. As such, they have a strong startle reflex. That translates to JUMPING fish. When spooked, they’ll leap out of the tank and land on the floor. (No air-breathing adaptations) You’ll also want to check for any holes in the cover. Even small openings may result in your chalk bass carpet surfing.
Finally, you need to invest in a quality filtration system or protein skimmer. Chalk basslets WILL tolerate some fluctuation in water quality. (It’s why they’re ideal for beginners) However, you don’t want to risk things getting out of hand. Especially if you’re keeping a school, have systems in place to keep the water as clean as possible.
Are Chalk Basslets Reef-Safe?
Chalk basslets check the majority of the boxes when it comes to ideal saltwater aquarium fish species. And that includes the reef-safe one. They’re omnivores, and they WILL graze around corals in their search for a meal. But they don’t bother or damage polyps in the process. That means your SPS and LPS prize colonies are entirely safe.
After all, chalk bass need those sturdy calcium carbonate skeletons to hide between!
The only caution you need to keep in mind is with your crustaceans. As your chalk basslets start to tip the scales toward the top end of the size, they might begin to investigate your shrimp. (You know the drill: if it fits in the fish’s mouth, it’ll end up as a meal) In particular, these basslets enjoy shrimp from the Periclimenes genus. So if your fish start getting up there, watch out for your favorite crustaceans.
When considering a chalk basslet, one of the first things you need to do is ask the fish store to offer the tank food. Fish that DON’T want to eat are incredibly ill. This species NEVER turns down food. And if the basslet you’re considering snubs a tasty offering, you need to look elsewhere.
Chalk basslets are omnivores, snapping up zooplankton, algae, and other microfauna they encounter throughout the day. They’re not picky or difficult to feed. Your live rock should offer a sturdy base to the menu (unless you have other species in the tank that rely on the structure for meals). Then all you need to do is mix in other protein options:
The biggest problem with chalk basslet diets is overfeeding. The fish don’t know to STOP eating. If there’s food around, they’ll continue snapping up bits and pieces. As such, you can quickly end up with fat basslets. (Note: this isn’t a good thing) You need to monitor their intake carefully.
Unfortunately, chalk bass are accomplished at stealing food from slower-swimming fish. You’ll want to offer food in multiple places within the tank – and various levels. This should help everyone in the aquarium receive a balanced meal. (Not to mention prevent bloated basslets)
If you DO see your chalk basslet refuse a meal, check your water parameters immediately. Something’s wrong. They aren’t a species that goes on hunger strikes. If your basslet isn’t eating, they’re ill. Start with the water conditions and work from there.
Chalk basslets don’t only vary in color; they show different behaviors throughout the reef. Sometimes you’ll spot a single fish peeking out from a hiding place. Other times, you’ll see a bonded pair cruising the reef. More often, though, you see schools of the striped fish moving from one spot to another. They form a hierarchy within the school, with dominant members choosing where to swim next.
You can, of course, get away with keeping a single chalk bass for this reason. You should expect the fish to remain on the shy and nervous side, though. That goes double if you house them in a community tank. Chalk basslets are social, and they do best in schools. The larger the shoal, the better the behavior. For instance, who doesn’t want to see a “chain” of basslets stretched across the tank? (They form the line to remember how to get “home”)
However, you need to introduce the school at the same time to prevent problems with aggression. Ideally, ask the fish store if you can purchase a group of 3-5 fish collected from the same area. When introduced to the tank together, the school will form and use the same territory. They’ll develop a hierarchy as they would naturally, without excessive fighting.
Attempting to introduce new basslets to a group often leads to harassment. A new fish has no place within the group. They end up as a “stray.” The dominant fish in the shoal will harass the newcomer, sometimes to the point of starvation. It’s the only time you’ll see aggression in chalk basslet.
Otherwise, the chalk bass demonstrates a peaceful demeanor. As long as you avoid known predators (for instance, lionfish, triggerfish, and their larger bass cousins), they get along with most other reef fish.
You’ll end up with a dynamic AND colorful display with these tank mates:
- Dwarf angelfish
- Fairy wrasse
As mentioned earlier, the minimum tank size for a single bass is 30-gallons. Check out these stocking guides for the ultimate recommendations on pairing:
- Best saltwater fish for a 30-gallon tank
- Best fish for a 40-gallon tank
- 55-gallon tank stocking levels and fish
- 75-gallon aquarium fish recommendations
If you have two chalk basslets, you’ll end up with a breeding pair. That’s the easy part. The tricky part comes with getting surviving offspring. If you plan to breed your basslets, you’ll need a separate tank to raise the fry. (Not to mention a plan for the resulting fish. After all, you can’t introduce new fish to the school)
Chalk basslets are synchronous hermaphrodites. They main simultaneous reproductive organs, but they take turns expressing the gametes. And – as far as scientists know – they can’t self-fertilize. During the spawning season, each fish in a pair will take turns as the male and female. Each day, they divide up their clutch of eggs for spawning, matching the production of their partner. It’s a process known as egg trading.
The fish swim high into the water column to broadcast the gametes. The fertilized eggs then float among the plankton. The eggs sink onto the reef, where they hatch. The daily production of eggs throughout the spawning season happens because most eggs (and fry) never survive the process. And that’s where you come in.
In a tank, the odds of survival are low. Chalk basslets spawn at the surface. Other fish and invertebrates (not to mention your filters) usually snatch up the eggs at that point. So if you want to breed your chalk bass, you need to collect the eggs and transfer them to a nursery tank.
Once the fry hatch, they’ll need phytoplankton, rotifers, and copepods once they finish their yolk sacs. Then you’ll need to find homes for the survivors. Attempting to reintroduce them to the display tank will result in harassment. You CAN try rearranging the décor, so the original school thinks they’re somewhere new, but it may not work. You’re better off having a new display tank ready (or friends ready to take them off your hands).
Hobbyists don’t always think of the chalk basslet when they start planning their aquariums. If you haven’t, you should at least consider them. The colorful stripes alone make them the perfect addition. Of course, you always need to check both sides of the coin before you make that purchase.
- Chalk basslets change their colors depending on the lighting and environment as a camouflage technique.
- As with most species in the bass group, basslets are hardy and resilient to most protozoal diseases.
- As synchronous hermaphrodites, any pair of chalk basslets present the possibility of breeding.
- Chalk basslets are notorious for overeating. To prevent meal theft, you need to plan ways to feed your fish in multiple places and various levels.
- Basslets will tolerate some variation in their water conditions, but poor water quality CAN lead to popeye.
- You need to introduce all of the members of a school of chalk basslets at one time to prevent issues with aggression and harassment.
Chalk basslets often swim under the radar. Not everyone knows about them or thinks about them when they run down the list of colorful reef fish. That’s a shame. They’re the perfect fish for anyone to manage. And if you’re not convinced yet, here are a few more tidbits to sway your mind.
This YouTube video shows a chalk basslet demonstrating those vibrant colors:
Want to know about some of the best chalk basslet tank mates?
Considering a phenomenal community aquarium, complete with multiple schooling species? Here are some top choices:
In the saltwater aquarium hobby, you don’t always find the perfect combination of vibrant coloration, easy management, and low price. That’s what makes the chalk basslet such a rare treasure. The fact they’re so hardy is a sweet bonus. But you WILL need to consider the space for a proper shoal. And while they’ll forgive some sliding of the water conditions, you could risk their health if you don’t pay enough attention. It’s a careful balance – but one that pays off when you see those colors shifting!
- Fenner, B. “The Basses: Family Serranidae.” Wet Web Media.
- Jackson, E.A. 2011. “The Atlantic Chalk Bass: Serranus tortugarum.” Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine.
- Michael, S.W. 2001. Reef Fishes: Volume 1.
- Sidder, A. 2016. “These Fish Swap Their Sex Up to 20 Times a Day.” National Geographic.