Butterflyfishes are icons of the coral reef. The vast majority are found in association with live corals, and at least some species depend entirely on these invertebrates as a source of nutrition. Because of their elegant shapes and bold color patterns, butterflyfishes are often sought out for the home aquarium.
But many of the 130-plus species of butterflyfishes do not do well in captivity, even for experienced marine aquarists. In most cases, the problem is the inability to switch from their natural food to a captive menu. This is especially true for those that have specialized diets (feeding only on stony coral polyps, for example). It is therefore essential that the hobbyist pays special attention to the biology and husbandry needs of any butterflyfish species of interest, carefully selecting among the aquarium-hardy species and avoiding those that cannot be successfully maintained in captivity.
To this end, we will look at some of the more durable species, making note of some biological and care concerns. No matter what species you select for your home aquarium, it’s imperative you acquire a healthy specimen. So, we first need to determine what to look for in a specimen before you take it home.
Selecting Your Butterflyfish
When choosing a butterflyfish from your local retailer, the best place to start is making sure the fish is eating. If it is not eating at the store, you will have to spend the time and effort necessary to getting the butterflyfish eating captive fish foods and run the risk of not being able to do so. Avoid individuals that are already emaciated or that have reddened snouts. In an attempt to escape from the plastic shipping bag, some individuals wear the skin off their noses, creating a site for potential bacterial and/or viral infections.
A healthy butterflyfish will casually swim about the tank, frequently inspecting the substrate for food, and will regularly extend its pelvic fins. A sick butterflyfish will scratch its gill area against the substrate, twitch or swim about in an agitated manner. These behaviors are symptoms of parasitic infection. Also avoid individuals with areas of redness on the body. When water conditions are less than optimal or when infected by parasites, butterflyfishes often hover in the upper corners of the tank or behind aquarium decor, and display their nocturnal color pattern. These individuals should be avoided.
Avoid purchasing small juveniles (2 inches) of most butterflyfish species because they are often more difficult to keep. Large adults of some species may suffer more from the rigors of shipping and are more likely to have difficulties adjusting to captivity. The best choices are larger juveniles, adolescents or small adults.
Ideal Butterflyfish Species
Burgess’ butterflyfish (Chaetodon burgessi). We will begin our survey of durable butterflyfish with a species that is a resident of deep reef drop-offs: the handsome Burgess’ butterflyfish (Chaetodon burgessi). It comes in two different “flavors”: One is white overall, and the other is creamy yellow. The latter form often has a yellow rather than dark bar of color that passes through the eye. Intermediates between these two color forms have been reported. This species is a member of the tinkeri-species complex, along with the the Marquesan (C. declivis), yellowcrown (C. flavocoronatus), headband (C. mitratus) and Tinker’s (C. tinkeri). All these attractive species tend to occur on deeper reef walls, and all are hardy aquarium residents.
Burgess’ readily accepts aquarium fare, including flake foods, but should be provided with a varied diet to ensure good health and color fidelity. It is not aggressive toward other fish, and as long as you add them at the same time to curb aggression, more than one individual can be housed in a larger tank (135 gallons or more). It’s possible this species could be kept with small-polyped stony corals, but large-polyped varieties are susceptible to being picked on. These fish have also been kept with certain soft corals (e.g., Litophyton, Cladiella).
Marquesan or declivis butterflyfish (C. declivis). This is a lovely species with a very limited geographical range. It occurs around the Marquesas, Line and Christmas Islands. There are two subspecies of this butterflyfish: C. declivis declivis from the Line Islands and C. declivis wilderi from the Marquesas. The latter subspecies has a more yellow eyeband and more black on the sides. Those seen in the hobby are usually C. declivis declivis.
This hardy butterflyfish species will accept most foods, including chopped fresh seafoods, brine shrimp, frozen preparations and even flake foods. It can be kept with other butterflyfish, though individuals may behave aggressively toward members of their own species or similarly marked genus members. It will not bother unrelated fish. To keep more than one Marquesan butterflyfish, start with a well-established larger tank (135 gallons or more) and add them simultaneously. It’s not a large species, attaining a maximum length of around 5 inches.
Indian vagabond butterflyfish (C. decussatus). The Indian vagabond butterflyfish is found on coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and Bali, with most individuals in the aquarium trade imported from Sri Lanka. It usually occurs in pairs and is a part-time coral-eater. It feeds on stony coral polyps, as well as algae, sea anemones and polychaete worms. Even though it frequently feeds on coral in the wild, it will readily acclimate to aquarium diets. In fact, it is one of the more durable of the available butterflyfish species.
More than one individual can be housed in the same tank, as long as the aquarium is 180 gallons or more, and the two fish are introduced simultaneously. This fish does get rather large, reaching a maximum length of around 8 inches. Like many butterflyfish species, smaller individuals are more likely to squabble than medium- to larger-size fish. This species is definitely a threat to hard corals and some soft corals, and therefore is not a good selection for most reef aquariums.
Guenther’s butterflyfish (C. guentheri). This is not the most dramatically attired of the Chaetodon genus, but is hardy and has some interesting characteristics. It tends to occur in slightly cooler locations than many of its cousins, being most common in places like Taiwan and southern Japan, as well as the east coast of Australia. It also tends to live in slightly deeper, cooler water in more tropical areas. Where abundant, it often occurs in groups that can number up to 20 individuals or more. It sometimes forms mixed groups with another hardy butterflyfish, the schooling bannerfish (Heniochus diphreutes).
While little is known about its food habits, it is thought to feed heavily on zooplankton, and will also rise high in the water column to pick parasites off pelagic fish, such as jacks (family Carangidae). It has also been known to “clean” other fish in the aquarium. It is best not kept with overly aggressive tankmates. Provide plenty of swimming room. It can be displayed in pairs or in small groups if the tank is large enough (135 gallons or more).
Latticed butterflyfish (C. rafflesi). This Indo-Pacific species reaches a maximum length of about 6 inches. It has a varied diet but feeds heavily on zoanthids, anemones, terebellid worm tentacles and filamentous algae. It also eats the occasional soft and stony coral polyp, peanut worm, hydroid or invertebrate egg mass.
The latticed butterflyfish is relatively easy to maintain in a home aquarium if kept in a peaceful community tank with numerous hiding places. It will usually accept fresh chopped seafoods and frozen brine shrimp soon after being introduced to its new home, but reluctant individuals may have to be tempted with live brine shrimp, blackworms or frozen mysid shrimp. Two can be kept in the same tank and/or housed with other butterflyfish species. However, members of the same sex may fight; unfortunately, differentiating males from females is difficult.
This fish cannot be trusted with hard corals, most soft corals, zoanthids or anemones, making it unsuitable for most reef aquariums. When sleeping or stressed, this species becomes darker in color and exhibits a dark blotch on the front part of the body. It will often display this color pattern during the day for some time after it is initially placed in its new home, but it will still feed and behave normally. The captive longevity record for this species is 16 years.
Tahiti butterflyfish (C. trichrous). Although not the most colorful species in the family, the Tahiti butterflyfish is a wonderful aquarium fish that has only recently become readily available. It is only known from the Society Islands, Marquesas Islands and Tuamotu Archipelago. In the wild, it feeds heavily on zooplankton but probably also browses on a variety of bottom-dwelling invertebrates. It occurs singly, in pairs or in small groups (four to six individuals in an aggregation).
This is a hardy aquarium fish, but it should be fed a varied diet and kept with relatively peaceful tankmates. Once fully acclimated, it can usually fend for itself even if more aggressive fish are introduced later. Like its close relative, Klein’s butterflyfish (C. kleinii, another hardy species), the Tahiti can be housed in a reef tank, though some individuals will “go astray” and pick at large-polyped stony corals and certain soft coral polyps (e.g., Xenia, Anthelia).
Teardrop butterflyfish (C. unimaculatus). This larger species reaches about 8 inches in length and can easily be recognized by the black spot on each flank (the body color is white and yellow). It has an Indian Ocean cousin that was once considered to be a color form of C. unimaculatus and is even more attractive: the Indian Ocean teardrop butterflyfish (C. interruptus). It is bright yellow overall with a black spot on the side.
Although the diet of the teardrop can vary somewhat from one geographical location to the next, it is a stony and soft coral grazer, using its large, protruding jaws to bite off polyps, as well as pieces of the hard coral’s skeleton or chunks of soft coral. In Hawaii, it feeds almost entirely on corals of the genus Montipora. In other areas, it feeds on a wider range of coral species, and also ingests larger crustaceans, mollusk eggs, filamentous algae, small clams, sponges, tunicates and even fish feces. In Indonesia I have seen this species feeding on Scleronephthya, a soft coral ignored by most reef fish.
Although in certain locations this species includes a lot of coral in its diet, it readily adapts to aquarium foods, unlike some of the more specialized coral-feeding species. Because of its varied diet and more robust jaws, C. unimaculatus is the most destructive species of butterflyfish to keep in a reef aquarium. It will eat hard corals, soft corals, anemones, mushroom anemones and may even pick at ornamental crustaceans.
Vagabond butterflyfish (C. vagabundus). The vagabond butterflyfish is regularly seen on western Pacific reefs and in the aquarium trade. It is omnivorous, feeding primarily on sea anemones, polychaete worm tentacles, hard coral polyps, mollusk eggs and filamentous algae. It also eats sea slugs, soft coral polyps, sea cucumber tentacles, hydroids, sponges, worms, tunicates and shrimp.
This hardy butterflyfish does best if provided with plenty of swimming room. It will accept a wide range of aquarium foods, including chopped, fresh or frozen seafood, brine shrimp, frozen preparations and flake food. It will also pick filamentous algae off the substrate or aquarium glass. It can be kept in pairs or with other butterflyfish species, and will hold its own with many aggressive tankmates once it is fully acclimated to its new home. However, it’s potentially too destructive to be introduced to a reef aquarium and will make short work of stony and soft coral species. It will also nip at the tentacles and bases of larger stinging anemones and pick at mushroom anemones.
These are some of the best butterflyfish for the home aquarium. Remember that any of these species need plenty of swimming space, clean water that’s well-oxygenated and frequent feedings (a couple of times a day minimum). If you practice good aquarium care techniques, these butterflyfish should do well in your home aquarium. Happy fish-watching!