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Related FAQs: Hemitaurichthys Butterflyfishes, Butterflyfish Identification, Butterflyfish Foods/Feeding/NutritionButterflyfish Compatibility, Butterflyfish Behavior, Butterflyfish Systems, Butterflyfish Selection, Butterflyfish Disease, Butterflyfish Reproduction,

Related Articles: Best/Worst ButterflyfishesThe Pyramid Butterflyfish, Hemitaurichthys polylepis by Bob Fenner

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Butterflyfishes of the Genus Hemitaurichthys

Bob Fenner

Hemitaurichthys zoster, Maldives

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

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

     Most any marine aquarist can point out a Butterflyfish when they see one; and all worth their salt can easily name off some of the best marine aquarium specimens. Which would you list as the most hardy? Definitely the Raccoon, Threadfin, the Barbero and the several Heniochus -Bannerfish species.

On the other side of the coin are Butterflies that die at the proverbial "drop of a hat"; ornatissimus, triangulum, reticulatus... these have proven to be unsuited for captive systems; shipping and adjusting poorly, refusing almost all types of foods, succumbing easily to disease and requiring stringent water conditions.

There are several varieties in the large family of B/Fs (as they're called in the industry) however that are quite tough, and yet rarely offered to the hobbyist. Some of this is due to cost (e.g. the Blue Masked or Golden B/F, Chaetodon semilarvatus from the Red Sea), but most of it is due to ignorance and "founder effect".

What I'm getting at with the last is the catch-22 of dealers and their customers not asking for a fish they don't know about or have reservations regarding, and therefore not gaining awareness of it through adequate exposure.

Such was the case years ago with the two species of Yellow Longnose Butterflyfishes of the genus Forcipiger. Who would have guessed that such frail looking aquatics could be such sturdy aquarium fare? Well they are.

This article is an attempt at popularizing another neglected group, the relatively unknown genus and four species of Hemitaurichthys. As butterflies go they're tough, and undemanding in their food preferences; the best looking one is widespread in its distribution, including Hawaii.


Butterflyfishes make up the family Chaetodontidae ("Key-toe-don-tah-dee") meaning "bristle-tooth" in reference to their specialized feeding apparatus; small toothed mouths and flitting swimming behavior.

Our genus (Hemitaurichthys) has four described species all with a similar body plan: For B/Fs they tend to have slightly a elongated appearance, short pointed snouts, elongate pectoral and pelvic fins, the dorsal and anal fins that are rounded posteriorly.

Hemitaurichthys thompsoni and H. multispinus are very similar, uniform brown to gray overall; the spiny Butterflyfish, H. multispinus is confined to Pitcairn island in the Pacific and bears a higher number of dorsal and anal fin spines than the Thompson's Butterflyfish which is occasionally imported from Hawaii.

Of more interest due to their color are the Pyramid B/F, H. polylepis and Brown and White, or Zoster B/F, H. zoster. Both these species have a uniform grayish mask over the front and rear of the body, anteriorly masking the eyes from predatory attack. The Pyramid is splotched with a brilliant yellow swath that extends in an inverted "V" on the body and covering the anal fin. In captivity, the yellow area may extend over the head, displacing the dusky mask. Pelvics, the anal, caudal fin, and rest of the body are creamy white. Though H. polylepis is found widely in the western Pacific and East Indies; it is mainly imported from Hawai'i where it is found in good numbers.

The Brown and White Butterfly, though it does live up to it's name color wise, is still a striking fish with a broad white band mid-body, separating two blocks of dark brown banding. Often the spiny dorsal is brilliant yellow. It's distribution is limited to the Indian Ocean. A direful note here regarding the mis-labeling of Hemitaurichthys polylepis: the Pyramid B/F is often sold as H. zoster. "What's in a name?" Not much; just be aware.

The Five Species of Genus Hemitaurichthys Butterflyfishes:

Hemitaurichthys multispinosus Randall 1975, the Many-Spined Butterflyfish. Not terribly attractive at overall gray. To eight inches in length. Distribution only known from Pitcairn Island in the southern mid-Pacific. Not seen in the trade.

"Mr. Christian, take that Butterfly's picture for me"

Hemitaurichthys multispinus Burgess & Randall 1978. The Spiny Butterflyfish. Also only known from Pitcairn Island in the southern Mid-Pacific. Similar to H. thompsoni, but lacking head band and possessing more spines in the dorsal (15-16) and anal fins (5). Not seen in the trade.

"Mr. Christian, are you still down there?"

Hemitaurichthys polylepis (Bleeker 1857), the Pyramid (often sold as H. zoster) Butterflyfish. Zooplanktivore, living in midwater and feeding in shoals. Central and western Pacific, including Hawaiian Islands. To seven inches in length. Aquarium and Fiji images.

Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.
Hemitaurichthys thompsoni Fowler 1923, Thompson's Butterflyfish. Called the Businessman's B/F in Japan for its gray-suit appearance. To seven inches long. Plankton feeder. Central Pacific including the Hawaiian Islands.

Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Hemitaurichthys zoster (Bennett 1831), the Black Pyramid or Zoster Butterflyfish. Indian Ocean from Andaman Sea to Africa. Zooplanktivorous, feeding in aggregations in midwater. Here in captivity and the Andaman Sea.

Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.


These are some of the larger chaetodonts, adults may span nine inches total length, and specimens offered are generally a good four to five inches.

Selection: General to Specific

Two considerations regarding this genus need to be hammered home; they get pretty big and live in open, outer reef margins. In practical terms, the first point is, you and they need a large system; I'd say a hundred gallons minimum. Secondly, a note re these species social habits; they are generally found in large schools and "show" and do best when maintained in a small group, or at least two, rather than singly.

Don't buy small (less than 3"), or large (6"+) individuals. Likewise, leave thin ones alone; these adapt poorly.

Avoid fishes showing any reddening at the mouth, body or fin origins; this is evidence of beating, possible mis-shipping, or just general breakdown. Whatever the cause, leave these specimens to recover or perish.

Ask that the B/Fs be fed in your presence; Hemitaurichthys are zooplankton feeders that readily accept food. If the ones at the dealers aren't eating, come back some other time.

Environmental: Conditions


First and foremost the system should be as large as possible. These Butterflies live on the outer reef margin and are free-ranging fishes, covering large areas. Also, they need physical cover to feel secure. Hemitaurichthys B/Fs are quick to duck into coral, rock hideaways in the wild; they need to feel they can do the same in your system.


As chaetodonts run/swim the butterflies of this genus are not very touchy as regards to absolute absence of detectable biological pollution, temperature and pH. Still moderation is warranted; pH (8.2, 8.3), little to no detectable organics.


A vigorous, efficient circulation is appreciated; lots of current producing high dissolved oxygen concentration and sweeping wastes for processing/removal.


For Butterflyfishes, the Hemitaurichthys are a breeze; after routine dipping and/or quarantine they may be simply placed into the main/display system.

Predator/Prey Relations 

Perhaps owing to their spiny-ness these Butterflyfishes are rarely eaten or bothered by larger predatory fishes.

Due to size and eating habits these B/Fs are fish-tank only members; they will pick apart nearly every invertebrate in time.


Butterflies come in many feeding modes and grades, some strictly coral polyp eaters, others sponge, benthic invertebrates, algae...

Hemitaurichthys spp. are zooplanktivorous, picking out small swimming or suspended animal matter as the currents bring them their way. In aquariums they quickly learn to accept all forms of meaty live, frozen, freeze-dried and flake foods. Take care that yours get adequate volume of feed; these are large, active animals that forage for food all during daylight.

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

Butterflyfishes unfortunately are very susceptible to crypt, velvet, other common protozoal complaints as a rule, but Pyramids and Black & Whites are surprisingly resistant to these scourges.

If caught in time (through diligent observation of your stock) these are also quickly cured by way of traditional remedies (copper, malachite green treatments).


There are many varieties of butterflies you will find offered to the hobbyist; with a huge range of survivability, good to doomed. Not only this proviso should be in effect when making livestock selections; what is available at the dealers is not all "the fish in the sea"; not by a very long shot. The butterflies of the genus Hemitaurichthys are one case in point; they're hardy zooplankton feeders whose only "special" requirement is a suitably large habitat.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Allen, G.R., 1979. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World, Vol. 2. Wiley & Sons, N.Y.

Allen, Gerald R., Roger Steene and Mark Allen. 1998. A Guide to Angelfishes & Butterflyfishes. Odyssey Publishing, San Diego. 250pp.

Burgess, Warren, 1978. Butterflyfishes of the World. T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, N.J.832pp.

Burgess, W.E., H.R. Axelrod & R.E. Hunziker III, 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes, Vol 1.Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, New Jersey.

Campbell, Douglas, 1980. marines: Their Care & Keeping. Butterflyfishes, Pt. 1, 2. FAMA 10,11/80.

Chlupaty, Peter, 1978. Keeping Butterflyfishes. T.F.H. 4/78.

Emmens, Cliff W., 1985. Keeping Chaetodons. T.F.H. 5/85.

Fenner, Bob, 1990. Bannerfish butterflies, the genus Heniochus. FAMA 6/90.

Fenner, Robert, 1995. El Barbero: the butterfly from Baja. TFH 7/95.

Fenner, Robert, 1995. The yellow longnose Butterflyfishes. TFH 11/95.

Fenner, Robert M. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist; A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists. Microcosm, VT 432pp.

Moenich, David R. 1991. The Butterflyfishes. Aquarium Fish Magazine 1/91.

Nelson, Joseph S., 1994. Fishes of the World, 3rd ed. Wiley & Sons, N.Y.

Randall, John E. 1996. Shore Fishes of Hawai'i. Natural World Press, OR. 216pp.

Refano, Joe, 1983. The importer speaks: the Butterflyfishes pt. I, II. T.F.H. 10,11/83.

Steene, Roger C., 1985. Butterfly & Angelfishes of the World, Vol. 1 Australia. Mergus Publ., Germany.

Tinker, Spencer, W., 1978. Fishes of Hawaii. Hawaiian Service, Inc. HI.

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

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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