Dwarf gourami

Dwarf Gourami: Caring For These Colorful Gems

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Since their discovery, the dwarf gourami (Trichogaster lalius) has captured the hearts of many beginner and experienced aquarist alike. They naturally inhabit slow-moving, thickly planted waters in South East Asia and India alongside Betta sp. like B. splendens and B. imbellis.

Their “feelers” help them sense their way through dark, murky waters – not unlike cat whiskers. These feelers help them avoid predication, find food, mates, and their way home. Interesting tidbit: their feelers are chemotactic, which means they taste everything that they touch. 

Many keepers report that dwarf gouramis are quite shy. But, when kept correctly in thickly planted, low light tanks, with small groups of four to six other dwarf gouramis, they’re social and outgoing. Dwarf gouramis, like most gouramis, are naturally social creatures. While they may not be shoaling fish, they certainly appreciate the company of other gouramis and need to be kept in pairs as a bare minimum.

For years dwarf gouramis have been one of the most popular aquarium fish. Their small size, bright colors, and (generally) peaceful demeanor makes them perfect tank inhabitants! In India, they’re popular as well – but predominantly for food or fish meal. However, years of inbreeding and farm raising have turned these dwarves into the less-than-hardy versions of themselves with the introduction of diseases like DGIV and DGD. 

Both diseases cause deterioration in muscle tissue, loss of color, skin, and scales, and are incurable once contracted. Although the wild-caught specimens are still just as hardy, they’re much harder to come by. Which begs the question, are these dwarves worth keeping? I would say so, and many others would probably agree, so let’s see why without further ado. 

FAQ

Dwarf gouramis can become aggressive – especially male dwarves. They become aggressive with fish that look like other male dwarf gouramis such as betas, other gourami species, or fancy guppies. These guys can also become aggressive during spawning.

Dwarf gouramis can live on their own, but it’s not recommended. They’re highly social creatures, and living without others of their own kind often makes them shy and reclusive. They do much better in groups of four to six.

Telling male gouramis from female gouramis is pretty straightforward. The males are usually more colorful. With powder blue gouramis this is a little bit more difficult. The female will often be rounder and plumper, whereas the male will be a little bit more blocky and smaller.

You can keep male and female gouramis together, but expect some breeding activity at some point. If you don’t want them to breed, your best option is to get female gouramis as males will fight each other more often than not. For most people, getting all females isn’t a viable option if they want colorful fish. The powder blue gourami females are just as bright as the males, and this can be a viable solution to that problem if you like the variant.

You can keep dwarf gouramis without an air pump as they can breathe atmospheric oxygen. However, I suggest using a sponge filter for their tank, and using a sponge filter without an air pump is impossible. I would say yes, it’s possible, but it’s not the best option.

Additionally, a lack of surface agitation can cause a layer of biofilm to accumulate on the surface of the water, which may interfere with their labyrinth organ (the jury’s still out though.) 

Gouramis do lay eggs. They cannot become “pregnant,” as many newcomers believe when their dwarf gourami develops an illness or becomes bloated. Bloat is not the most common condition for dwarf gouramis, but many newcomers view their fish’s body size as an indication of pregnancy. 

A pregnant dwarf gourami is, again, not possible since they’re not livebearers.

Dwarf Gourami Classification

IUCN Status: Least Concern – last assessed 1/21/10

Class: Actinopterygii are ray-finned fishes, which is a subcategory of boney fishes. These fish are characterized by the bony structures that support their webbed fins. This group makes up nearly half of all living vertebrates.

Order: Anabantiformes are fish characterized by teeth on the parasphenoi (a bone found in the cranium of some ray-finned fishes.) Snakeheads and anabantoids (a sub-order of Anabantiformes) both have a labyrinth organ; this enables them to breathe atmospheric oxygen.

Family: Osphronemidae, commonly referred to as simply “gouramis.”

Genus: Trichogaster is a genus of gourami native to Southest Asia that stay under 5″. It includes only four species; T. lalius (dwarf gourami), T. chuna (honey dwarf gourami), T. fasciata (banded gourami), and T. labiosa (thick-lipped gourami.)

Scientific name: Trichogaster lalius 

What Does Trichogaster Lalius Mean?

Trichogaster comes from two Greek words – thríx meaning hair, and gastḗr, meaning stomach. The name “hair stomach” most likely, refers to their hair-like feelers that protrude from their stomach area.

Lalius seems to have no obvious meaning that’s agreed upon. It could’ve come from several Greek words. The most likely being lævus for bumbling, incompetent, or inept or lálos, meaning talk or chat since some gouramis produce sound. 

Dwarf Gourami Overview

Difficulty: Easy – DGIV and DGD present problems
Size: 2″ (5 cm)
Lifespan: 6 years
Tank Size: 10 G. (40L)
Diet: Omnivore – primarily insects
Temperature: 72 – 80F (22 – 27C)

pH: 6.0 – 7.5
Hardness:
2 – 18 dKH
Temperament: Somewhat aggressive – especially males
Breeding: Easy enough, fry can be difficult
Swimming: Everywhere
Availability: Very common

Difficulty: Easy – DGIV and DGD present problems
Size: 2″ (5 cm)
Lifespan: 6 years
Tank Size: 10 G. (40L)
Diet: Omnivore – primarily insects
Temperature: 72 – 80F (22 – 27C
pH: 6.0 – 7.5
Hardness:
2 – 18 dKH
Temperament: Somewhat aggressive – especially males
Breeding: Easy enough, fry can be difficult
Swimming: Everywhere
Availability: Very common

 

Distribution & Natural Habitat

Dwarf gouramis, not unlike bettas, can be found in rice patties, slow-moving rivers, stagnant ponds, and lakes in Southern Asia. However, you can find them in swamps, ditches, and irrigation canals. They have a wide distribution through Pakistan, northern India, and Bangladesh. There are some reports that T. lalius occur in Nepal and Myanmar that are now thought to be a result of misidentification.

Feral populations also exist in a handful of countries including Singapore, USA, and Columbia. These guys are considered to be an invasive species in places like Florida, and no doubt, other places throughout the United States and South America. This invasive species status is likely a result of captive-bred individuals being released into local waterways, either through farming or hobbyists. This dwarf invasion is a perfect example of why it’s important to rehome unwanted fish responsibly.

betta wild habitat

Aquarium Care

Dwarf gouramis, like all anabantoids, have a labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe atmospheric oxygen. This organ is especially helpful in their natural environment where oxygenation in the water is usually low. In an aquarium setting, however, this can pose a problem if the air above the tank isn’t moist enough. Ensuring your lid is tight with minimal gaps helps prevent health issues related to dry air.  

These dwarves don’t do well with fast-flowing waters, so a slowly bubbling sponge filter is probably your best bet. Their minimum tank size should be 10 gallons (40L.) They prefer dimly lit tanks. You can subdue the lighting by purchasing an adjustable light or including floating plants such as hornwort, red root floaters, salvinia, duckweed, or another floating plant. 

And, since we’re on the topic, they enjoy well-planted aquariums and feel much more comfortable with surface vegetation, such as floating plants. Floating vegetation also gives them something to build their nest under if you’re trying to breed them.

Unless you’re breeding them in a group, a 20-gallon long is fine for a small group of gouramis. If you’re going for more naturalistic setup, you might want to include things like driftwood, leaf litter, or seed pods – not unlike a betta setup. Since dwarf gouramis naturally come from blackwater habitats, they’ll appreciate the tannins.

While many sources suggest the use of peat moss to soften your water, this is not an economical or environmentally-friendly option. There are many other ways to soften your water, such as including leaf litter or driftwood like mentioned above. You could also invest in an R.O. unit if your water is really that bad, but I doubt you’ll need to since they go up to a pH of 7.5.

Feeding Dwarf Gouramis

In nature, dwarf gouramis are insectivores. They prey on small insects, larva, and small crustacea. They are also known to eat algae growth on plants as well as aquarium plants. In captivity they’ll gladly take to flake, freeze-dried, and frozen fare, as well as vegetable or algae wafers. Although they will love you much more if you can offer them live food. Blackworms, white worms, baby brine shrimp, daphnia, mosquito larva, and wingless fruit flies being some of their favorites dishes. 

In reality, they’re not picky and will take to anything you feed them as long as it floats. Dwarf gouramis generally eat from the surface of the water, and there are few and far between reports of them taking to gel food like Repashy or other offerings that sink.

Dwarf Gourami Diseases

Unfortunately, like neon tetras, dwarf gouramis are synonymous with dwarf gourami iridovirus (DGI or DGIV) and dwarf gourami disease (DGD.) Once thought to be a bacterial infection, it now appears that DGI is a direct result of farm-bred individuals. It’s also been shown to transfer to other species sharing the same water – even if it’s not a fellow gourami. 

A similar disease is dwarf gourami disease, also known as DGD. This disease, however, is unique to dwarf gouramis but acts similarly to DGIV in most ways.

Many pet stores have decided to stop carrying these fish since it’s difficult to obtain disease-free stock. Most of these stores have experienced high losses in their dwarf shipments, and some studies reveal that as much as 22% of all dwarf gouramis coming out of Singapore carry DGIV. 

Aside from these diseases, there are few and far between illnesses that hobbyists report so, by most standards, these guys are hardy fish. Keeping DGIV and DGD in mind, it’s important to inspect the fish thoroughly before you buy them. You’ll want to make sure they’re bright, active, eating well, and have no signs of clamped fins, lethargy, dark patches, spotty coloration, deterioration of muscle, bumpiness, or anything else that looks questionable.

ich fish disease

Ich is caused by a parasite that, to many, looks like tiny white pimples across the fish. It can attach to the mouth, fins, body, and gills. You can usually see fish scraping themselves against objects (likely because parasites are itchy!) before white spots even appear.

Often, ich goes through cycles of seeming to get better, than getting much worse and it can live under the skin of fish after you’ve “cured it” where it will lie dormant and waits for conditions to be right for another eruption of tiny pimple-like parasites. 

Depending on the species, treating ich can be incredibly difficult and be a never-ending process (like with german blue rams,) or it can be a quick fix.

Symptoms:

  • White spots
  • Scratching
  • Redness or bloody streaks

Causes:

  • Ichthyophthirius multifilis (parasite)

Symptoms:

  • White spots
  • Scratching
  • Redness or bloody streaks

Causes:

  • Ichthyophthirius multifilis (parasite)

 

DGD

Dwarf Gourami Disease (DGD)

DGD is, more or less, still an enigma to us. Only dwarf gouramis are capable of getting it and though it seems capable of spreading, it doesn’t always infect all – or any other – tank inhabitants. This leads us to believe there’s a genetic factor at play – but how exactly, we don’t know. It’s not always fatal, though most of the time it is, and it’s incurable. 

Symptoms:

  • Loss of color
  • Loss of appetite
  • Discoloration
  • Loss of skin, scales, and fins
  • Muscle deterioration
  • Lumps
  • Abdominal swelling

Causes:

  • Not fully understood
  • Only dwarf gouramis can contract

Dwarf Gourami Iridovirus (DGIV)

DGIV, or to some DGI, is currently incurable, 100% fatal, and can be spread to other tank inhabitants – dwarf gourami or otherwise. It’s best to quarantine to fish to prevent spreading and wait it out. If it seems to be suffering it may be worth considering euthanasia. 

Symptoms:

  • Loss of color
  • Loss of skin or scales
  • Discoloration
  • Lesions on the body
  • Abdominal swelling

Causes:

  • Not fully understood
  • Can be transmitted

Dwarf Gourami Tank Mates

Due to DGIV and the ability to be transferred to other tank inhabitants, I don’t advise other tank mates unless they’re fellow dwarf gouramis. There’s a good chance that by exposing them regularly to other species, we could see a cascade effect with this disease. Not only are these fish somewhat shy, need groups, and are territorial, but they’re also a dangerous tank mate for most other species of fish. 

They’re also not compatible with other anabantoids or flashy species such as guppies. Showy species can cause male dwarf gouramis to become aggresive. Even larger or a more vigorous tank mates can worsen the situation – this time in favor of the dwarf gourami getting beaten up.

If you insist on keeping them with other species, then you should be wary of flashy fish, fish that nip, slow fish, food hogs, and semi-aggressive and aggressive species.

neocaridina shrimp

Neos enjoy munching on decomposing plant matter, grazing on algae, and picking sunken pieces of wood and plants clean. This makes them a perfect addition to a naturalistic tank. They come in a variety of colors including the oh-so-common cherry shrimp!

Plopping some Tums in for them to eat is a common remedy to keeping shrimp in water that’s soft or doesn’t have a lot of calcium to support their molting.

pH: 6.5 – 8.0
dKH: 8 – 20
Temp: 70 – 79 F (21 – 26 C)
Size: 1.6″ (4 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful
Swimming: Anywhere there’s food to pick, but usually bottom

pH: 6.5 – 8.0
dKH: 8 – 20
Temp: 70 – 79 F (21 – 26 C)

Size: 1.6″ (4 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful
Swimming: Anywhere there’s food to pick, but usually bottom

harlequin rasbora

Harlequin Rasbora

Harlequins are a shoaling species that prefer friend groups of six or more. They’re not known to be nippy fish and are quite peaceful as long as they’re provided plants and company of their own kind.

pH: 5 – 7.5
dKH: 1 – 12
Temp: 70 to 83 F (21 to 28 C)
Size: 2″ (5 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful
Swimming: Mid to top-water shoaling

pH: 5 – 7.5
dKH: 1 – 12
Temp: 70 to 83 F (21 to 28 C)

Size: 2″ (5 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful
Swimming: Mid to top-water shoaling

black neon tetra

Black Neon Tetra (Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi)

Not to be confused with the black tetra (or “black skirt” tetras) or neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi,) the black neon tetra is a separate species from both of the tetras mentioned. They do best in groups of eight or more – but more is always better when it comes to shoaling fish. They have the peaceful demeanor of the neon tetra without all the health issues. 

pH: 5.5 – 7.5
dKH: 4 – 9
Temp: 73 – 81F (23 – 27C)
Size: 1.5″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful shoaling fish
Swimming: Mid to top

pH: 5.5 – 7.5
dKH: 4 – 9
Temp: 73 – 81F (23 – 27C)

Size: 1.5″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful shoaling fish
Swimming: Mid to top

Panda Cory Catfish

Corydoras

Corydoras are a shoaling species rarely kept appropriately. Some species can be seen in shoals numbering in the thousands in the wild! While this isn’t easily replicated in the home aquaria, most species are happy in groups of six or more like-minded cats to partrol the sand beds with.

While each species will vary slightly, all require smooth substrates or bare bottom and do best when they’re kept with fish that won’t be tempted to nip them as some reports claim they can excrete toxins from, well, basically what would be their arm pit – but this has yet to be proven. 

Corydoras hasbrosus would be a particularly adorable addition  – although almost any corydora would do well, similarly agreeable in size would be pygmaeus, hastatus, or panda.

pH: 5.5 – 7.0 – species dependent
dKH: 3 – 10
Temp: 72 – 80 F (22 – 26 C) – species dependent
Size: 1 – 3.5″ (2.5 – 9 cm) – species dependent
Temperament: Peaceful, can be boisterous for less active species
Swimming: Bottom (except hastatus) in a shoal of 6 or more

pH: 5.5 – 7.0 – species dependent
dKH: 3 – 10
Temp: 72 – 80 F (22 – 26 C) – species dependent

Size: 1 – 3.5″ (2.5 – 9 cm) – species dependent
Temperament: Peaceful, can be boisterous for less active species
Swimming: Bottom (except hastatus) in a shoal of 6 or more

Kuhli loach

Kuhli Loach

Kuhli loaches are easy to keep, but they need food that hits the bottom of the tank. If you have the chance, hiding food under the sand is a great way to see their natural behavior and it’s fun to watch them root around for scraps. They like to be kept in groups where you’ll often see them curled up under structures together.

pH: 3.0 – 7.0
dKH: 1 – 8
Temp: 70 – 79 F (21 – 26 C)
Size: 1.3″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful, can be shy
Swimming: Bottom

pH: 3.0 – 7.0
dKH: 1 – 8
Temp: 70 – 79 F (21 – 26 C)

Size: 1.3″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful, can be shy
Swimming: Bottom

Ember Tetra

Ember Tetra (Hyphessobrycon amandae)

Ember tetras are bright, fun, tiny, shoaling fish that occur in South American black waters. They’re hardy, peaceful fish that are often described as active, bold, and playful. They also enjoy a planted tank, but be mindful that they do like to swim in open space, so be sure to include that in your layout. They enjoy their numbers a little higher than most shoaling species, 8 is recommended.

pH: 5.5 – 7
dKH: 1 – 10
Temp: 68 – 82 F (20 – 27 C)

Size: 3/4″ (2 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful and active
Swimming: Top to midwater shoaling

pH: 5.5 – 7
dKH: 1 – 10
Temp: 68 – 82 F (20 – 27 C)
Size: 3/4″ (2 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful and active
Swimming: Top to midwater shoaling

Celestial Pearl Danio

Celestial Pearl Danio

CPDs or Galaxy Rasbora (although they’re not a rasbora or a danio,) are small shoaling species. When stocking, buy as many as possible,  8 being the minimum I’d personally suggest. There have been reports that they’re hard to transition onto prepared foods, but this may be wild-caught specimens. There are numerous reports that they’ll take finely crushed flakes and micropellets.

pH: 6.5 – 7.5
dKH: 5 – 15
Temp: 69 – 79 F (20 – 26 C)
Size: under 1″ (2.5 cm) 
Temperament: Peaceful, can be shy
Swimming: Mid-water shoaling

pH: 6.5 – 7.5
dKH: 5 – 15
Temp: 69 – 79 F (20 – 26 C)

Size: under 1″ (2.5 cm) 
Temperament: Peaceful, can be shy
Swimming: Mid-water shoaling

Breeding Dwarf Gouramis

Spawning dwarf gouramis is easy and similar to spawning bettas. If you enjoy watching bettas spawn, but don’t want to do with the aggression – dwarf gouramis might be the spawning project for you!

Start with a 10-gallon tank with the water level around 6″ to 8″ deep. A slowly bubbling sponge filter will go a long way in improving water quality, as will plants such as hornwort, guppy grass, or floating plants. Using floating plants – or any floating material – is essential for encouraging gouramis to build a bubble nest. Without this overhead cover, the nest will likely fall apart – if it’s built at all. Bare bottom isn’t entirely necessary since the eggs float, but it goes a long way in keeping up on water quality so it’s generally recommended. But it’s not the end of the world if it’s not bare bottom.

Once the nest has been built the male will begin by swimming around the female with flared fins, coaxing her to inspect his nest. He’ll continue his courting display, showing off his colors and his strength to the female in an attempt to convince her that he’s a worthy mate. 

Once the female is convinced he’s a suitable mate and his nest is good enough, she’ll swim in circles with the male under the nest. The female will touch the male’s tail or back with her mouth, which signals to the male that she’s ready. He’ll embrace her and turn her on her side. At this point, the female will release anywhere from 12 to 60 eggs which the male immediately fertilizes upon release.

Most of the eggs will float into the bubble nest, and the male collects any eggs that sink and places them in the nest. The pair will continue this ritual until the female has no more eggs to release. Usually, this goes on for a few hours and anywhere from 300 – 600 eggs will be laid in this timeframe. If more than one female is in the breeding tank, the male may spawn with other available females if they’re interested. But he usually won’t pursue further spawnings heavily at this point.

There are plenty of theories that indicate fish release hormones when they are spawning that encourage other fish around them to spawn. This theory holds especially true for angelfish breeders, who will take water from a tank with a recent spawn and dump it into another tank to try to induce other spawns. It’s likely these hormones play a role in the females becoming receptive after the first female has spawned. Once the pair is done spawning, the male will take full responsibility for the eggs. Some say that the female should be removed after spawning, lest they consume the fry or eggs or evoke the aggression of the male. Although in a large, densely planted aquarium, this might not be necessary.

The eggs usually hatch anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, dependent on water temperature. After three more days (day four or five after the eggs were laid), the fry will begin swimming on their own. At this point, it’ suggested the male be removed, so he doesn’t eat his young. This notion is only somewhat true; the male should be removed to lessen the probability that he may decide to snack on his offspring.

Many first time parents, of any species, need to learn the ropes – and most first-time fish parents eat their offspring. We’re not entirely sure why, but it seems like some fish may just “snap” under pressure and decide parenthood isn’t for them just yet. However, if you give them a few tries, say three or four spawns, before you dub them a “fry eater” you’ll find that most are quite good parents.

Once free-swimming, the fry can be fed micro foods such as infusoria, microworms, or vinegar eels. It’s not until they’re about two weeks old that they will be able to consume baby brine shrimp easily. Maybe earlier depending on your water parameters. 

It’s worth noting that in a community set up dwarf gourami spawning behavior can become aggressive towards other fish in the tank. In this situation, it’s best to remove the pair that’s attempting to spawn in a community tank to a breeding tank or remove the other fish from the community tank. Although dwarf gourami aggression is usually benign, it still stresses all inhabitants and should be avoided.

Types Of Dwarf Gouramis

Dwarf gouramis have been bred to come in several color morphs that are nothing short of dazzling. The care is identical regardless of color morph – with one exception that I’ll get into in a second.

blue dwarf gourami

Blue Dwarf Gourami

Blue dwarf gouramis have bright blue colors with thin red to brownish lines across their body and fins. This variant is a more “modest” version of dwarf gourami coloration. The females tend to be a less-than-dazzling dishwater greyish silver color. The lines are the females are visible, but they’re more subdued as well – they usually look more like 90’s-style hair highlights.

Neon Blue Dwarf Gourami

Neon blue dwarf gouramis take the coloration of the blue variant and pump it up to the nth degree. These fish would not look out of place in a reef tank and are arguably the most popular variant. However the females of this variety tend to be just as drab as those of the blue coloration.

Powder Blue Dwarf Gourami

Powder blue dwarf gouramis have minimal or no lines on them and are a, well, powdery blue. The females of this variety look just as striking as the males do, which makes them a fantastic option for people who don’t want male gouramis. The females are less punchy blue and a little more silvery blue, but they’re just as pretty as their male counterparts (I think.)

Flame Dwarf Gourami

Flame gourmais have a red to orange gradation across their body, leading into a blue head and fins. The females of this variety tend to be drab looking, like many other variations of gouramis.

Honey Dwarf Gourami

The “Honey Dwarf Gourami”  (Trichopodus chuna), is a different species – not color morph. But, since it also goes by the name “Dwarf gourami,” most people confuse it as a color morph. Their care requirements, temperament, and breeding habits are almost identical.

Further Reading & Sources

PFK – Let’s hear it for the Dwarf gourami!

IUCN – Trichogaster lalius

NCIB – Detection of dwarf gourami iridovirus (Infectious spleen and kidney necrosis virus) in populations of ornamental fish prior to and after importation into Australia, with the first evidence of infection in domestically farmed Platy (Xiphophorus maculatus).

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