Ask the WWM Crew
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What would you do if you lived in a country of some 40,000 square miles of surface area, but only a few or so of which were land… spread out over about 2,000 small islands… a great deal of which is shallow tropical reef? Go diving? Me too!
What and where is this pet-fish and divers paradise? The Maldives is a series of large atolls (sunken volcanoes in origin) in the Indian Ocean, running up and down latitudinally (80-510 miles) just southwest of the end of the subcontinent of India. Look close at that atlas and across the horizon… these are small islands, of about six feet elevation above sea level.
Due to distance from major markets, there is not much marine ornamental collection in this region at present, and that's a great shame. The Maldivians have good, regular intercontinental air service, back haul little, have a tremendous sustainable resource in pet-fish livestock, and have a need for hard currency. With a population of some 290,000 citizens and not much land, tourism is the single largest source of national income (some 85 islands… and counting, are designated "Holiday Resorts"… and very worthwhile visiting). Perhaps as their government comes to recognize the enormous opportunities involving sharing their living world with others, concessions can be found for lowered cost of air-freight as exists in Fiji.
Much of the fish, and non-vertebrate life found here that occurs in the wider Indo-Pacific is hardier and more colorful than when it occurs elsewhere. Additionally apart from species with Indo-Pacific ranges, there are some Indian Ocean-only organisms that are valuable in terms of beauty and survivability.
Here are my notes and photographs on the thirty-two species of Butterflyfishes found in the Maldives, with the exception of a few deepwater forms.
The Butterflyfish family Chaetodontidae is a very important part of the marine aquarium world. Several species are 'stock' items (the Longnoses, Raccoon, Threadfin, genus Heniochus, among others) due to their overall beauty, adaptability, availability, and relative hardiness against disease.
On the other hand, there are many varieties of chaetodonts that are near impossible to keep in captivity. The reasons for this poor historical survivability are several. Some species of Butterflyfishes are known to have restricted diets, many principally or only eating live coral polyps. Others just don't take the rigors of capture, handling and transport. Still others just don't seem to take to life in a small artificial environments.
Captive Suitability Scoring:
After long thought, investigation of others declared opinions, and handling of thousands of these species I've come to a set of "scores" for each species on its likelihood of surviving the rigors of aquarium care. To some degree this information is necessarily historical (what has happened, may not be the general trend to come), and is subject to "improvement" on the keepers' side as a consequence of providing larger, more stable quarters (like public aquariums do), and more diligent husbandry. But, by and large a relative score of one (1) indicates the "highest and best" survivability under captive conditions; let's say most of the specimens of this species collected surviving more than three months. A two score (2) is indicative of mortality of more than fifty percent between one and three months. Lastly, and sufficient for our purposes, a three (3) is the worst score, with more than 50% of the species perishing before a months time of capture. I entreat you to leave the latter group to the sea, or at least to study about their care ardently and provide the best possible circumstances for these animals.
The Best Butterflyfishes From the Maldives (1's):
Of the 'good' Butterflyfish species there are more than a dozen that can be gotten from the Maldives. These are the ones that given choosing specimens of good initial health, more than half historically live more than three months.
Heniochus genus Butterflyfishes are variously called Bannerfishes, Wimplefisch, Poor-Man's Moorish Idols for their long, trailing dorsal fins. These are great aquarium species, given you have room to accommodate them. Some species get quite large!
This category is not altogether doomed in captivity, but in my opinion is far and away less suitable for the home aquarist; most specimens live less than a month, very few more than three.
Butterflies From the Red Sea You Want To Avoid:
These species do poorly, the vast majority rarely living more than a month. For those who must take on the challenge I say; "Study up before you buy".
This last category are impossible aquarium species, most specimens refuse all food in captivity. Most are, regrettably, commonly imported and offered for sale.
Butterflyfishes offered from the Indian Ocean are typically of medium to large proportions, 5-9 inches overall length.
You will want and need to do more research than what is offered here to determine space requirements for these fishes. Some grow several inches to a foot in length; that's a big butterfly. A good rule of thumb is to purchase individuals no less than a third, nor greater than half their maximum size. Overall, three to five inch individuals adapt best to aquarium conditions.
Maldivian Butterflyfishes need large (fifty plus gallon) systems with oversized filtration and circulation. A good rule of thumb is to provide each specimen with at least twenty gallons of space.
A few pertinent notes here regarding water quality and Butterflyfishes Systems need to be fully established, aged if you will, for a good six months to optimize your chances of success with these animals. Similarly seawater should be saltier than what many folks keep their specific gravity at (artificially low (1.018-1.023) to increase carrying capacity, lower the incidence of disease, save money on salt mix)... don't do it with these fishes! A good constant spg reading is NSW (Near natural Sea Water), 1.025.
Most species (with the exception of the two Heniochus mentioned) are best kept as individuals unless the system is huge or the specimens are observed associating as pairs at the dealers. Generally these fishes are only aggressive towards members of their own, similar appearing, or like-resource-using species.
Once again, all Butterflyfishes are best placed in aged (months) systems, initially with subdued lighting. Keep an eye out that newcomers are not being bullied.
Most everything leaves Butterflyfishes alone unless they are large enough to swallow them in one go.
Feeding/Foods/Nutrition: Types, Frequency, Amount, Wastes
The species listed as "good" are ready eaters of all forms of prepared and frozen aquatic foods. New specimens may have to be trained onto non-living items by first feeding live (e.g. brine shrimp, worms).
Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social
All Butterflyfishes are quite susceptible to those twin scourges of the reef, Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium. Routine dipping (freshwater with or without, copper, formaldehyde) and quarantine are encouraged over copper treatments. Butterflyfishes are sometimes sensitive to chemical therapeutics, therefore the emphasis on dips/baths and quarantine.
Some very good fishes come from the Maldives, and many more could, even though their geographic distribution may extend to elsewhere. With study, careful collection, the possibility of low-cost air-freight from the area, the hobby should look forward to a future of more livestock from the Maldives at ever-improving prices.
Do yourself and the environment a favor and investigate the needs of Butterflyfishes that you intend to keep. As you can see, there is a huge range of historical survivability in this family. Most specimens are lost for a lack of providing a suitable environment, proper husbandry, and initial selection of appropriate species.
Allen, Gerald R, Steene, Roger and Mark Allen. 1998. A Guide to Angelfishes & Butterflyfishes. Odyssey/Tropical Reef Research, San Diego, Calif.250pp.
Allen, G.R., 1979. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World, Vol. 2. Wiley & Sons, N.Y.
Burgess, Warren E. 1978. Butterflyfishes of the World. TFH Publ., N.J.
Fenner, Bob, 1990. Bannerfish butterflies, the genus Heniochus. FAMA 6/90.
Fenner, Robert, 1995. The yellow Longnose Butterflyfishes. TFH 11/95.
Fenner, Robert. 1997. Rating the Red Sea Butterflyfishes. TFH 3/97.
Fenner, Robert. 1998. Butterflyfishes you don't want. TFH 9/98.
Fenner, Robert M. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. Microcosm Ltd., VT.
Hunziker, Ray. 1992. The ten best Butterflyfishes. TFH 6/92.
Kuiter, Rudie H. 1998. Photo Guide to Fishes of the Maldives. Atoll Editions, Victoria, Australia. 257pp.
Michael, Scott. Bad butterflies. There are lots of problems when keeping many species of Butterflyfish. AFM 7/94.
Michael, Scott W. 1998. Butterflyfishes. The secret is to choose the right species. AFM 2/98.
Michael, Scott. W. 1998. Butterflyfishes. Recommendations for your aquarium. AFM 3/98.
Moenich, David R. 1991. The Butterflyfishes. A survey of these beautiful but delicate saltwater fishes. AFM 1/91.
Steene, Roger C., 1985. Butterfly & Angelfishes of the World, Vol. 1 Australia. Mergus Publ., Germany.
Taylor, Edward C. 2000. Focus on Chaetodon butterflies. TFH 4/00.