Has this ever happened to you? You sit down for a few minutes to enjoy your reef aquarium—but instantly you get the feeling that something is wrong. You then search the aquarium, taking inventory of everything—corals—the LPS and leather corals all look normal. Then you take inventory of the saltwater fish. Tangs, Butterflyfish and Angelfish are accounted for….but…one of your fish is missing. For me, the missing fish was a pink skunk clownfish—the smaller fish in the pair. How is it possible for an entire fish to disappear? Where do they go?
The first place I tend to look for a missing fish is the carpet. If you have a loose fitting lid (or none at all), many of the popular species of fish tend to jump out of the water when spooked. You may find the missing fish on the floor surrounding the fish tank. Over the years, I believe I have lost 4 fish to carpet surfing—well at least confirmed carpet surfers. Some fish species are more prone to carpet surfing. If the missing fish is a Firefish or Fairy Wrasse, definitely check the carpet first—they are big-time carpet surfers. In the event that your missing fish was carpet surfing, and you find it still alive, quickly pick it up with your hands and place it right back in the aquarium. One time I found a clownfish (on a concrete floor, not carpet) that was so dry her scales were tacky (rather than slimy and wet), and she pulled through.
Water Sliding (Sump Diving)
Another popular destination for missing fish is the sump. I call it Water Sliding, because I romanticize the trip from the display aquarium to the sump to be akin to a giant water slide at a water park. These fish end up going for a ride through the plumbing, where their final destination is the sump. I have had a couple fish I speculate were accidental water sliders—because they never did it again, however I have also had fish that seemed to find their way down every few months. When your fish go missing, don’t forget to check the sump.
Unfortunately, depending on the size of the missing fish and the size of the mouths of the other fish in your aquarium, the missing fish may have become sushi—eaten by one of the other fish in the tank. Are any of the fish in your tank large enough? Do they look like the cat that swallowed the canary? I totally may just be projecting this—but I once had a problem with a wild-caught Flame Cardinalfish that swallowed another tankmate that I thought was about half its size (and too large to be swallowed…boy was I wrong). What I actually noticed was that I thought both fish were missing. After some careful observation, what really had happened is that the Flame Cardinalfish, with the catch of the day still in its mouth, was hiding—with a mouth so full the tail fin was still visible. If you have a pattern of missing fish, you likely have some sort of predator—it could be one of the larger fish, a large starfish, or maybe even a mantis shrimp that hitchhiked in on a piece of live rock.
While I have never caught the clean-up-crew in the act of devouring a carcass, I suspect that a large percentage of missing fish die of natural causes and are then devoured by the clean-up-crew. Your tank is likely brimming with crabs, pods and bristle worms that are nature’s little cleaning machines. It seems almost unbelievable that they could clean things up without any signs of a carcass, but unless the fish have figured out how to travel to another dimension, this is the only logical theory I have left.
If one of your fish go missing—don’t despair right away—check the floor and the sump—they may be there. If, after searching, you still can’t find them, see if you can figure out if there is a predator lurking in your tank (either seen or unseen)—because you want to avoid the same situation in the future. In the meantime, let me know if you see a missing Pink Skunk Clownfish who responds to the name… “Pinkie”.
Image by chillitpv