Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Juv Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Juv Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis) known to tropical fish keeping enthusiasts as Cacao Fish are a solitary, non migratory species found in the Western Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Red Sea, Caribbean Sea, and along the Florida coast.

Cocoa Damselfish from Brazil and the Caribbean are genetically distinct from those collected in other locales, but all are commonly found in shallow rocky or coral reefs at depths from 3 to over 95 feet. Although juveniles and sub adults often appear inshore; adults are more common on offshore reefs, wrecks, and around offshore oil platforms.

Stegastes variabilis has a large dorsal fin and a distinctive oval body shape that is compressed on the sides.

Adult Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Adult Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Cocoa Damselfish are a dark blue to almost brown color on the upper half of the body, and a bright yellow on the lower half.  Dark vertical blue stripes run along the flanks, on the top of the head, and the snout area.  They have a small black to tan spot above the pectoral fins, and another on the top of the caudal peduncle.

As Cocoa Damselfish grow into adults, they retain the small black spot on the upper caudal peduncle but their body color turns a dark yellow.

Juveniles and newborn specimens have a number of small blue spots and a series of stripes on the head and upper

Juvenile Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Juvenile Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

body. They also have two spots and a strip on the upper portion of the iris.  They have a much brighter yellow body color than adults and a more distinct dark blue eyespot edged in bright blue on the mid dorsal fin.

Similar to Beaugregory Damselfish (Stegastes leucostictus), both adult and juvenile Cocoa Damselfish are easily distinguished by the dark spot on the top of the caudal peduncle.

Cocoa Damselfish are aggressively territorial and best housed in an aged FOLR aquarium of at least 55 gallon capacity, with a sand or finely crushed coral substrate, and plenty of mature live rock arranged into caves, crevices, and overhangs for hiding. Although some have been housed in reef tanks with corals, they feed on sponges, anemone, and some inverts so should be considered reef safe with caution.

In a fish only live rock tank with substantial growths of algae, they do best with mildly aggressive tankmates like surgeonfish, large angelfish, dottybacks, hawkfish, etc.

Cocoa Damselfish have not been sucessfully bred in an aquarium environment. In their natural habitat Cocoa Damselfish are solitary until breeding season. They have distinct mates and a mating “dance” that they perform. Adhesive eggs are laid by the female on empty sea shells, stones, or other cleaned pieces of rock where they are then fertilized by the male.

The male aggressively guards the eggs from other intruders and aerates them for up to a week until they hatch out. The hatched larvae drift away with the current as plankton, feeding on zooplankton and phytoplankton before eventually settling to the bottom.

In their natural habitat, adult Cocoa Damselfish feed on benthic algae, sponges, ascidians and anemones, and detritus.   Juveniles feed on zooplankton and invertebrates like harpacticoid copepods and nemerteans.

In an aquarium environment plenty of aged live rock; adults should be fed a variety of flake foods containing Spirulina, algae, Nori, and mostly vegetarian foods.   Juveniles feed on zooplankton and should be offered fortified brine shrimp, finely chopped Mysis, squid, shrimp, clam, fresh fish, etc.

Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis) are rarely seen by tropical fish keeping enthusiasts in local fish shops. Online they are occasionally available from transshippers, wholesalers, and a few retail outlets at reasonable prices. Most specimens are collected from Caribbean and Brazilian waters.

Juvenile Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)

Juvenile Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)






Minimum Tank Size: 55 to 75 gallons
Aquarium Type: Reef or FOLR
Care Level: Easy
Temperament: Semi Aggressive
Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
Water Conditions: 72-84°F, dKH 8 to 12 , pH 8.0 – 8.5, sg 1.020-1.026
Max. Size: 4.9″
Color Form: Blue, Yellow
Diet: Omnivore
Compatibility: Reef w/Caution
Origin: Brazil, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico
Family: Pomacanthidae
Lifespan: 18 years
Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate

One Response to “Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis)”


  1. […] ventrally; the Bicolor Damselfish (Stegastes partitus) with white on the rear half of body; the Cocoa Damselfish (Stegastes variabilis) with yellow caudal and pectoral fins; the Freshwater Gregory (Stegastes otophorous) with yellow […]

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