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Regional Accounts of Butterflyfishes: Hawai'i, Cook Islands, FijiRed Sea, Maldives

Corallivorous Butterflyfishes… For Aquariums?



Bob Fenner


Butterflyfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBooks on Amazon: Available here
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by Robert (Bob) Fenner

Amongst the member species of the family of marine Butterflyfishes, Chaetodontidae, there are stalwart examples of almost the entire range of food-gathering types… Sans filter-feeders, and top piscivore predators, they span the gamut of generalized planktivores, various favored invertebrate fauna and algal/aufwuchs pickers, to those who are mostly to entirely obligate consumers of live coral polyps.

            Don’t mistake me here; I am a giant fan of the aforementioned more generalized feeders… Aurigas, the Threadfin, the Raccoons, Forcipigers, or the FAB, though expensive members of the sub-genus Roa that are the better choices for aquarium use; but… the amongst the Chaetodontids that exclusively eat corals are some real beauties… And… yes; they ARE found on reefs (all Butterflies are at least reef-associated).

            Here are the details concerning which species, often sold as “miscellaneous Butterflies” (omitting ones that don’t show up in the trade) are obligates (or near to it); and some hopefully pertinent notes re how you might go about meeting the challenge of their captive care longer term.

Complete & Near Obligate Corallivorous Butterflyfish Species:

Chaetodon aureofasciatus  Macleav 1878, the Golden-Striped Butterflyfish. From all along Australia's northern coast over to New Guinea. A coral polyp feeder. Image from off of Queensland in Australia.



Chaetodon austriacus, Ruppell 1835, the Red Sea Melon or Exquisite Butterflyfish. A Red Sea and Gulf of Aden endemic. Never lives in captivity, unlike so many of the other fishes hailing from this area. A feeder on live corals, anemones and snail eggs. Pic from the Red Sea.




Chaetodon baronessa Cuvier 1831, the Eastern Triangular or Baroness Butterflyfish. Like the similar Indian Ocean congener, Chaetodon triangulum, this fish is a strict feeder on coral polyps. Too often shipped out of Fiji (here at a collector’s), the Philippines and Indonesia. To six inches in the wild.



Chaetodon bennetti Cuvier 1831, Bennett's Butterflyfish. Central Pacific to Africa's east coast. To about six inches total length. Most all food consists of coral polyps. A nice adult down in Wakatobi, S. Sulawesi, Indonesia shown.


Chaetodon larvatus  Cuvier 1831, the Masked or Orange-Face Butterflyfish. Restricted in range, Red Sea to lower Gulf of Aden. Only eats Acroporid coral polyps... Closely related to C. baronessa, C. triangulum. To five inches long. Aquarium photograph.

Chaetodon lunulatus Quoy & Gaimard 1824, the Redfin Butterflyfish. Easily confused with the Indian Ocean Redfin Butterflyfish, Chaetodon trifasciatus, this western Pacific to Hawaii congener fares no better in captivity. To about six inches long in the wild... leave it there. Here's a specimen in Hawaii.

Chaetodon melapterus Guichenot 1862. Arabian or Black-Finned Melon Butterflyfish. Coming from the middle of the Red Sea down and around Yemen, Oman into the Persian Gulf, this is another "principally coral polyp feeder". To about five inches in length. Aquarium image. Thanks to Matt Petersen for reminding me of this BF absence as a corallivore.

Chaetodon meyeri Bloch & Schneider 1801, Meyer's Butterflyfish. Widespread in the Indian Ocean to western Pacific Oceans, this species is another loser that is too-frequently sold as a "miscellaneous" butterfly. Only eats coral polyps... In Wakatobi, S. Sulawesi.


Chaetodon octofasciatus Bloch 1787, the Eight-banded Butterflyfish. Often sold as a "misc." butterfly, this is a strict feeder on coral polyps... rarely lives more than a few days. A less yellow than usual one in the Gilis, N. Lombok, Indo.


Chaetodon ornatissimus Cuvier 1831, the Ornate Butterflyfish. Yet another obligate corallivore. Yes, a beauty, but does not live in home fish tanks. Indo-west Pacific, Including Hawaiian Islands. To about seven inches in length. Commonly offered, doesn't live. Adults in Hawai'i and captivity by RMF.

Chaetodon plebeius Cuvier 1831, the Blue-Spot Butterflyfish. Maldives eastward to the South Pacific (Fiji). A beauty that is often sold in the trade and rarely lives for any period of time to speak of. This image from Queensland, Australia. Mainly eats Pocillopora damicornis. A cleaner of other fish’s parasites as juveniles.

Chaetodon quadrimaculatus  Gray 1831, the Four-Spot Butterflyfish. Found in the central to western Pacific, including Hawai'i. To six inches long. A few specimens live and live, most die "mysteriously" in aquarium conditions. In the wild, this species feeds principally on Pocillopora coral polyps. Shown, an adult in Roratonga, Cook Islands. Strangely, one of the forty allowed “clean list” species of fishes legal out of Hawaii.


Chaetodon rainfordi McCulloch 1923, Rainford's Butterflyfish. Only from Australia's Queensland coast up to New Guinea. A delicate beauty that is far too often offered in the industry. To six inches overall in length. Australian (Queensland) Images of a four inch specimen off Heron Island.



Chaetodon reticulatus Cuvier 1831, the Reticulated Butterflyfish. Nice looking, and "friendly" underwater toward divers, but dismal survival records in captivity for this coral polyp eater. Found commonly in central and western Pacific. To six inches total length. One in N. Sulawesi.

Chaetodon trifascialis Quoy & Gaimard 1824, Chevron Butterflyfish. This fish is way too often offered in the trade, belying it's wide distribution, mid-Pacific to the east coast of Africa and the Red Sea. Almost exclusively lives on eating Acropora hyachinthus polyps. To seven inches in length. One in Fiji.


Chaetodon trifasciatus Park 1797, the Melon or Indian Ocean Redfin Butterflyfish. Like the same named Redfin Butterflyfish from the Pacific this is primarily a coral polyp feeder. Note the I.O. species much bluer dorsal coloration To about six inches long in the wild. One in the Maldives


Oh, and Coral Plus Eaters!

            Yes; there are quite a few other Butterflyfish species that consume a modicum of live corals and other stinging-celled life in the wild. In fact; all Chaetodontids will “cross the line” given hunger and some just opportunity. For brevity’s sake I’ll just list a few of these offendis that make it into the trade occasionally.  

Chaetodon adiergastos  Seale 1910, the Panda Butterflyfish. Far west tropical Pacific in distribution. A coral polyp plus other invertebrate feeder. To six inches total length. This one in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. 

Chaetodon citrinellus Cuvier 1831, the Speckled Butterflyfish. Aggressive in the wild, this is another broad feeder of invertebrates, including corals. Widely distributed and common, though never plentiful in the mid-Pacific all the way over to Africa. To five inches overall. An adult one in Fiji.

Chaetodon ephippium Cuvier 1831, the Saddleback Butterflyfish. To a large size (9") and too often collected too large for aquarium use (get one 3-4" best). Central and western Pacific. Very nice out of Hawai'i for use in the U.S. Broad feeder on benthic invertebrates including coral polyps. S. Sulawesi image.

Chaetodon flavirostris Gunther 1873, the Black or Yellow-Faced Butterflyfish. Usually shy and non-feeding. Eats coral polyps, other bottom-dwelling invertebrates and algae in the wild. To some eight inches long. Way too often sold to the hobby as juveniles... they don't live. One in the Cook Islands.

Chaetodon fremblii  Bennett 1828, the Blue-Striped Butterflyfish. A relic species confined in range to the Hawaiian Islands. Opportunistic feeder on benthic invertebrates including corals. To five inches total length. Pictured here in captivity Hawaii.



Chaetodon guttatissimus Bennett 1832, the Spotted Butterflyfish. Some folks rate this species higher for aquarium use, but it takes a beating often in transit, especially its small mouth. Tropical Indian Ocean. To five inches long. Generalized feeder on invertebrates (including coral polyps), and algae. An adult in the Maldives.

Chaetodon lineolatus Cuvier 1831, the Lined Butterflyfish. At a foot long, vying for largest Butterflyfish of the family. Widespread from Hawai'i over to the east coast of Africa, into the Red Sea. A beauty that eats corals, anemones, much of all else, but doesn't live. Below: One in Hawai'i.


Chaetodon pelewensis  Kner 1868, the Sunset or Dot-Dash Butterflyfish. Very similar to the hardy Spot-Banded Butterflyfish, Chaetodon punctatofasciatus (see in "Good" Chaetodon section) but with oblique body barring versus vertical. Southern Pacific Ocean area. To five inches length overall. This one in the Cook Islands.

Chaetodon speculum Cuvier 1831, the Mirror or Oval-Spot Butterflyfish. A shy species that lives in coral rich areas where it feeds on same and other benthic invertebrates. To some seven inches in length. Eastern Indian Ocean to western Pacific. Ones off of Bunaken, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Chaetodon vagabundus Linnaeus 1758, the Vagabond, Crisscross Butterflyfish. In the wild feeds on anemones, coral polyps, worms and algae. Compared with the similar Indian (Ocean) B/F (see above), Chaetodon decussatus, this species does poorly in captivity. One in Fiji.


Hardiness of Butterflyfishes Period? Meh!

            Truth be told, or written in this case, Chaetodontids aren’t really very aquarium-tough animals en toto. Most species, specimens take a real beating in the course of collection in the wild (none are commercially captive-produced); holding and shipping. They REALLY don’t like small spaces, get easily ammonia burned… So… I would like to impress on you some key criteria in going about picking up better individuals if you’re stocking them:

1)      KNOW what you’re getting into, the challenges involved in keeping the species you have in mind!

2)      Don’t buy just-arrived specimens!

3)      Beware of too small AND too large individuals. Little ones can’t take the rigors of being caught, bagged, starved… Big ones are often too set in their wild-ways, easily damaged from being moved in too-little water, bag

4)      Be prepared to expedite these fishes; likely skipping quarantine in favor of a 30-60 second dip/bath. The trade off in risk of pathogenic disease introduction for reduced stress is a good gamble IF you’ve done your job in securing initially healthy specimens.

Provide at least a hundred gallon system that is well-established; with reef-quality conditions of optimized, stable water quality.

5)      Be careful regarding foods and feeding of all specimens. During daylight hours these fishes should be out and about foraging… continuously.

6)      STAY observant. IF your Butterfly is picking on one colony too much, either move it to separate quarters or cover it with a plastic colander, inverted berry basket or such to allow it time to recover.            


            Being too specialized carries risk of trouble should there be resource depletion (Beruman et al. 2008); but think about what sorts of foods you might “choose” if you lived on the world’s tropical reefs. Obviously there are many coral polyps; and though they’re principally water, and can pack some nasty sticky, stinging distasteful chemicals; many beautiful Butterflyfishes have targeted them through space and time as their principal source of nutrition.

            How might you go about keeping these fishes? Do you have the space, mix of Cnidarians, capacity for salvaging possibly over-sampled colonies? What might you do to entice you obligate corallivores onto other food items?

            The “standard” Butterflyfishes of the trade are historically much more hardy (orders of magnitude better mid-term survivability) than those that have to eat live polyps… but there were times that folks couldn’t get the Cichlids called Discus (Symphysodon) to eat prepared foods as well.

Even the most stellar species, specimens of this family live for much time in captivity; likely less than one percent surviving a year from extraction from the wild. Are these good odds, fair enough for you to give them a try?  


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Food Selection in Two Corallivorous Butterflyfishes, Chaetodon austriacus and C. trifascialis, in the Northern Red Sea. Magdy Alwany, Ellen Thaler, Michael Stachowitsch, Marine Ecology Volume 24, Issue 3, pages 165–177, September 2003

Trade-offs associated with dietary specialization in corallivorous butterflyfishes (Chaetodontidae: Chaetodon) Berumen, Michael L, and Pratchett, Morgan S (2008) Trade-offs associated with dietary specialization in corallivorous butterflyfishes (Chaetodontidae: Chaetodon). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 62 (6). pp. 989-994.

Resource use by Corallivorous Butterflyfishes (Family Chaetodontidae) in Hawaii, Cox, Evelyn F.
Bulletin of Marine Science, Volume 54, Number 2, March 1994 , pp. 535-545(11) 


Butterflyfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBooks on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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