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Related FAQs: The Clown Trigger 1, Clown Triggers 2, Clown Trigger Identification, Clown Trigger Behavior, Clown Trigger Compatibility, Clown Trigger Selection, Clown Trigger Systems, Clown Trigger Feeding, Clown Trigger Disease, Clown Trigger Reproduction, Genus Balistoides Triggers: Balistoides Triggers, Balistoides Triggers 2, Balistoides Identification, Balistoides Behavior, Balistoides Compatibility, Balistoides Selection, Balistoides Systems, Balistoides Feeding, Balistoides Disease, Balistoides Reproduction, Triggerfishes in General: Triggerfishes in General, Identification, Selection, Selection 2, Compatibility, Behavior, Systems, Feeding, Diseases, Triggerfish Health 2, Reproduction,

Related Articles: A Cruiser and A Bruiser, the Clown Trigger, Balistoides conspicillum, Triggerfishes (Family Balistidae), Red Sea Triggerfishes, Triggers of the Cook Islands

/The Best Livestock for A Marine Aquarium (Series)

 A Cruiser and A Bruiser, The Clown Trigger, Balistoides conspicillum

Bob Fenner

 Balistoides conspicillum

Having spent what used to be considered "real money" for specimens and even art (!) depicting this species over many years, the Clown Triggerfish has got to be my favorite, if not close to favorite marine fish species... However, notice I did not say, "favorite marine aquarium" species. This gorgeous animal has intelligence, comical looks and behavior galore... but is indeed an alpha alpha organism.... that as young can, well... most of the times, does get along with other fish tankmates... but almost always becomes something of a total terror with growth/age.

    Unless you intend to commit a good to very large sized/volume system to just your Clown Trigger, it is strongly suggested that you start with a small to tiny (an actual designation in the trade... for less than one inch individuals) starter, and grow it up in the presence of the fishes (not invertebrates) you intend to try and keep it with... And hope... this "growing up together" promises nothing in the way of continuous harmony. Almost always, Clown Triggers graduate from a stance of benign neglect toward tankmates... to using them as so many chew-toys and food items.


    The Clown Trigger has gone through a few balistid names over its human history. You may still find it in older aquarium literature listed as Balistes niger, Balistoides niger, Balistes conspicillum... this last the original combination name of Bloch and Schneider in 1801.

    Balistoides conspicullum's ready-identification and range is reflected in its many common names: http://filaman.ifm-geomar.de/comnames/CommonNamesList.cfm?ID=2300&GenusName=Balistoides&SpeciesName=conspicillum&StockCode=2312 Oh, and yes, though there are some developmental differences in markings, coloration, with growth, and some regional variation, there is but one species of Clown Triggerfish.

The Clown Trigger, Balistoides conspicillum (Bloch & Schneider 1801), grows to nineteen or so inches in the wild. Below: A two inch aquarium specimen and  maximum size individuals in the Maldives and N. Sulawesi shown. Get one small, and feed it sparingly... and keep your eye on it and your other livestock... this is an Alpha Alpha species that typically takes over a system of any size... and woe be to the tankmates that don't get and stay out of its way. Indo-Pacific; East Africa to S. Japan, Indonesia, Noumea. http://fishbase.org/Summary/speciesSummary.php?ID=2300&genusname=Balistoides&speciesname=conspicillum
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    Curious, shy, reclusive... to outgoing, indefatigable, puppy-like could be used to describe just a bit of the range of this Triggers behavioral repertoire. Most small individuals tend toward avoiding notice at first, but in weeks become hand-feeders... Larger individuals are almost always "out"... ultimately becoming hand biters if you're not careful during feeding.

    Clown Triggers can get "down" at times though... even going off feeding for a while... but these bouts are generally short-lived, and if no other livestock is showing signs of duress, I would not be concerned if yours did not swim about or eat much for a few days. And it's not your eyes... their pattern itself doesn't change, but the brightness of color will vacillate on a "happy" vs. not-so-happy individual.

    About growth as a behavior... Some Triggers have been virtually "bonsaied" by being kept in too small settings, under-fed, bullied by tankmates... but most Clowns will grow a few inches a year the first few years of their captivity... reaching about a foot in length in a handful of years given good circumstances.


    In a word, variable... As stated, most specimens, growing up alongside other fishes, and invertebrates to a lesser degree... will leave such tankmates be... for a while. My fave example of this phenomena occurred back working in a shop in the early seventies. We had a "pet" Clown Triggerfish that we "brought up" in our mixed Pacific Damselfish tank (oh, for the days of 99 cent Pomacentrids!)... This fish grew to five inches or so in about a year, seemingly identifying itself as yet another damsel among many... Until one fateful feeding day... this Trigger, along with its tankmates eagerly came to the surface to feed, and it "accidentally" bit a Damsel in two! By next morning, you guessed it, most all the "other" Damsels had been snacked on like so much aqua-popcorn... The Trigger had learned that the other shiny moving objects in its world were delicious.

    Other fish groups often kept with Clown Triggers include basses/groupers, tangs, other triggers and larger wrasses, angels and puffers (Tetraodontids and Diodontids)... Often tried and chewed on are Lionfishes, Eels, Sharks and invertebrates of any/all kinds. I have seen Balistoides given wide berth in the wild, and in the act of sampling all major invertebrate phyla... Hermit crabs in their shells, corals, anemones, seastars... Would a larger system help? Am not so sure... it might when it's small. We once had to remove this species from a system of tens of thousands of gallons... as it was terrorizing (attacking, eating the eyes out of) its fish tankmates.


    Picking out a healthy Clown Triggerfish is relatively easy... small specimens of an inch or two are better, more easy to adapt to captive conditions... And most of these ship well, are "ready to go" within days to a week or two after arrival. Almost all readily feed on most any meaty food offered... and if their fins, particularly the spiny dorsal and anal spines are damaged (these are often covered in a bit of Styrofoam during transit, to prevent bag puncture... sometimes larger specimens are "wrapped" in plastic baskets, these rubber-banded... to prevent their biting through the bags...) these heal in short order.

    What to really look for? Personality really... that the one specimen is outgoing... interested in its environment... that it's not afraid of what's going on outside the tank. The only way to ascertain whether this is the case is to spend a good deal of time at the dealers in observation.

    Often enough, Triggerfishes that are pursued will swim into a tight spot and "lock up" their dorsal fins. If easily gotten to, they can be easily extricated by depressing the second (not the first) dorsal spine, effectively "unlocking" their trigger... If "too locked in" or difficult to get to, buy the rock the Trigger is wedged into and take this home... or borrow the ornament and return this some time after the fish has released itself in its new home.


    The usual "the bigger the better" advice goes here. I would not place even a tiny Clown Trigger in anything less than forty gallons... Particularly if you're of the mind to risk placing other livestock with it. Provide some places for your Trigger to "get away" out of your sight, and to "lock in" to sleep at night (likely in a rocky cave).

    Filtration of any/all kinds can be made to work with this and other Balistids... with a note here to encourage you to add at least some live rock... for filtration, buffering capacity, and its twin functions as entertainment (for your Trigger) and aesthetic (for you). A good, over-sized protein skimmer, a biological filter that can rapidly "ramp-up" in the circumstances of increasing ammonia (post feeding), and enhanced circulation, aeration are definitely called for.

    Lastly a note re Triggerfishes of size and glass versus acrylic tank construction... The eight large teeth in the forward jaws of Clowns can wreak havoc on acrylic panels... even scratch glass....


    All healthy, otherwise happy Clown Triggers will accept any meaty food items with gusto... For disease transmission and to avoid increasing agonistic behavior reasons I strongly advise the use of non-live (frozen/defrosted) items... For nutritional/digestive reasons, the use of aquatic source proteins... And for behavioral and nutritional reasons combined never the use "feeders" .

    Cut fish fillet pieces or whole small fishes, squid/octopus (messy), shellfish on the half-shell, crayfish et al... are all good foods. Grocery store frozen seafood stew, "gumbo" mixes with a blend of fish and shell-fish pieces that can be a great way to "fill up" your Trigger w/o emptying your bank account here.

    Small Triggers are best fed twice per day... larger ones can be fed once... best to train to take from a given spot, about the same time... to, hopefully, aid in differentiating your arm, hand from a feeding item.

Health/Disease Issues:

    Though Triggerfishes are susceptible to Crypt and infrequently Oodinium, the majority of their complaints health-wise fall into environmental abuse and mechanical injury categories. This first are resultant from inadequate filtration, or gear that they, the Trigger has disrupted (pulled up, out siphon tubes, air-lifts...)... resulting in "cloudy eyes", lethargy... measurable metabolites... The second, traumas, are most often the result of a blow to the head from swimming into a panel, rock... biting/breaking a heater (to be hidden... or put in a tied-in sump). Both sets of etiologies are best treated the same... with simple improvement, stabilization in water quality... and time going by. Protozoan complaints can be easily treated with pH-adjusted freshwater baths and use of copper compounds, even formalin dips and movement to new, parasite-free conditions.

    Worm afflictions, both external (trematodes) and internal (various phyla) can be treated efficaciously with antihelmenthics like Praziquantel and Mebendazole.


    I have on a few occasions seen this species congener, the Titan, Balistoides viridescens in the wild on nests... Okay, been chased by snapping males guarding same against all would-be comers... but have yet to witness the Clown breeding in the wild. It likely is also a "pit spawner" with the male building, enticing in breeding female/s, guarding the nest... with the young, once hatched out, becoming free-floating planktonic larvae... Balistoides Triggerfishes have not to my knowledge been bred, reared in captivity. The juveniles that occur in the trade seasonally, are collected in the wild.

The Titan Trigger, Balistoides viridescens (Bloch & Schneider 1801), tops out at about two feet. Here much more subdued hiding under an Acroporid coral... much better than leaving its nest to come bite you! One on a nest, the other cruising in the Red Sea.


    Beautiful? Yes. Hardy? To the extreme. Intelligent, interesting behaviorally? To the point of being comical, trainable like a young dog... There are many good points to keeping a Clown Trigger as a pet. The one damning downside to this species is its ultimate extreme territoriality. Yet, there are examples of folks having kept this species with other fishes.... even in reef settings... But these are few. Most Clown Triggers "grow up" to test all in their environment (with their mouth), consuming and destroying their tankmates. If you would keep this fish, and not risk it sampling other livestock there to death, plan on having a dedicated system of size for its sole occupation.

Bibliography/Further Reference:

Borsom, Michael. Clown triggers. The clown trigger, although expensive, could well become your favorite fish. FAMA 9/92.

Burgess, Warren E., Axelrod, Herbert R. & Raymond E. Hunziker. 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes Reference Book, v.1 Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, NJ.

Campbell, Douglas G. 1979. Fishes for the beginner; A guide for the new marine hobbyist -- part five; Triggerfish. FAMA 3/79.

Edmonds, Les 1994. Trigger happy fish. TFH 8/94.

Emmens, Cliff W. 1984. Triggerfishes. TFH 5/84.

Fenner, Robert. 1997. Rating the triggerfishes of the Red Sea. TFH 10/97.

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

Flood, Andrew Colin. 1997. The trouble with triggers. TFH 2/97.

Fong, Jack. 1992. The ten most aggressive triggers. TFH 12/92.

Fraser-Brunner, A. 1935A. Notes on the plectognath fishes I. A synopsis of the genera of the family Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist. Ser. 10, 15:658-663.

Frische, Joachim & Claudia Lissner. 1991. The clown triggerfish: A personal tale. TFH 12/91.

Herre, Albert W.C.T. 1924. Poisonous and worthless fishes. An account of the Philippine plectognaths. Phil. J.Sci. 25,no.2.

Holliday, L. 1987. Marine fish of the month. No. 7. Triggerfish. Practical Fishkeeping, April 1987, 62-63.

Krechmer, Michael 1995. The labyrinth triggerfish, Pseudobalistes fuscus. TFH 5/95.

Jordan, D.S. & J.O. Snyder. 1901. A Review of the Triggerfishes, filefishes and trunkfishes of Japan. Proc. U.S. Natl. Mus. 25:251-286.

Michael, Scott W. 1995. Trigger talk. SeaScope, v. 12, Summer 95.

Michael, Scott W. 1997. Triggerfishes. A great reason for having a saltwater tank. AFM 2/97.

Miklosz, John C. 1972. Trigger Fishes. Marine Aquarist Magazine. 3(2), 1972.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3d ed. John Wiley & Sons, NY. 600pp.

Pyle, Richard L. 1992. The clown triggerfish Balistoides conspicillum. FAMA 5/92.

Randall, J.E. & J.T. Millington. 1990. Triggerfish bite - a little known marine hazard. J. Wilderness Med. 1(2) 1990:79-85

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

Stratton, Richard F. 1989. The clown triggerfish. TFH 3/89.

Stratton, Richard F. 1995. The triggerfish mystique. TFH 11/95.

Tepoot, Pablo & Ian M. 1996. Marine Aquarium Companion, Southeast Asian Volume. New Life Publications, FL

Tyler, Jones. 1980. Osteology, phylogeny & higher taxonomy of the Order Plectognathi (Tetraodontiformes). NOAA Tech. Rept. NMFS Circ 434:1-422 /or Acad. Nat. Sci. Philad. Monog. 16, 364pp.

Triggerfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
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