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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Bannerfish Butterflies, The Genus Heniochus

By Bob Fenner

Heniochus acuminatus

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

Saltwater Butterflyfishes are so hard to keep; they have narrow chemical and physical water quality tolerances, are finicky eaters & die for mysterious reasons....." This statement may be so for some species, especially for some of the coral-feeders, but certainly not for the Butterflyfishes in the genus Heniochus. They are superbly adaptable aquarium specimens which acclimate quickly, thrive under a variety of conditions, are not quarrelsome & readily accept all foods.


The eight known species of the genus are members of the butterflyfish family Chaetodontidae, meaning "bristle teeth" in reference to their prising snout and dentition. All eight species are similarly shaped with laterally compressed sides, a pointed rostrum and a lengthened fourth dorsal ray. Their German common name is "Wimplefish" (like Wimple's piranha) meaning "Pennantfish" or "Bannerfish". A wimple is a type of hat with feathers of which the heightened dorsal is reminiscent.

For various structural similarities Heniochus spp. are considered derived from and closely related to another butterfly genus Hemitaurichthys which in turn is from the mega-genus Chaetodon.

Some brief notes on the various species:

Heniochus acuminatus (Linnaeus 1758), the Long-Fin Bannerfish, or "Poor Man's Moorish Idol". (1) Widespread, central Pacific to east coast of Africa. Not in Hawai'i. To ten inches overall length. Cleaners as juveniles. Andaman Sea and Mabul, Malaysia images.

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Heniochus chrysostomus Cuvier 1831, Pennant Butterflyfish.(1) Central to western Pacific distribution. To six inches long in wild. Similar to H. varius, which is much more commonly offered in the trade. One in Australian waters, another in Fiji, a third in N. Sulawesi.

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Heniochus diphreutes Jordan 1903, Schooling Bannerfish.(1) Similar to the "common Heni", H. acuminatus, but with smaller mouth and more rounded breast area. Zooplanktivore that excels in a large, un-crowded system. Cleaners as juveniles. This one in Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia.

Heniochus intermedius Steindachner 1893, the Red Sea Bannerfish.(1) Eager feeder on all types of meaty foods; feeds on zooplankton and benthic invertebrates in the wild. Only found in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to the south. To seven inches overall length.

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Heniochus monoceros Cuvier 1831, the Masked Bannerfish.(2). To nine inches long, and "beefy" in profile. Mid-Pacific to east African coast. Takes all foods with gusto. Here in the Maldives and Mabul, Malaysia.

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Heniochus pleurotaenia, Ahl 1923, the Phantom Bannerfish.(2) The two horn-like projections on this species head are definitive. To six inches overall length. Shy, needs plenty of hiding places to feel comfortable in captivity. Northerly coasts, islands of the Indian Ocean. This young individual in the Maldives.

Heniochus singularius Smith & Radcliffe 1911, the Singular Bannerfish. (2) Similar to H. monoceros, but easily identified by its black mid-body band starting in front, versus behind the dorsal fin. Indo-west and central Pacific.

Heniochus varius (Cuvier 1829), Humphead Bannerfish.(2) Western and central Pacific; commonly shipped out of the Philippines and Indonesia. Does eat coral polyps in the wild. One off of Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia and Mabul, Malaysia.

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Is best done from one dealer's tank, buying all the desired individuals of the genus and introducing them all at once. Though most Heniochus are not quarrelsome per species or individual, they can become territorial in small systems. Fifteen to twenty gallons of space per copy is a suggested minimum. Many species can attain a length of ten inches.

Buy smaller specimens (three to four inch in total length) if possible as these adapt best. Be wary of slightly smaller ones; particularly if they are thin of musculature between the eyes in the head region. These may eat, but not recover to full health.


The several species of Heniochus live in shallow water near the sea bed; typically near broken shorelines. Their slim bodies make them well-disposed to quick passage and safety between the rocks and corals of their wild environs.

They have a wide tolerance of salinities as Butterflyfishes go, but appreciate one that are not too consistently low. 1.025-1.021 is a tolerable range. Higher pH's, 8.2-8.4 are recommended.

Chemical parameters are likewise not a problem with these species. They are more tolerant of endogenous pollution than most commonly kept aquarium species. Your charges will be healthier and live better, longer if you maintain better water quality. Use of a skimmer and the presence/culture of algae, like Caulerpa goes a long way in ensuring suitable water.


These Butterflyfishes are social animals, being found in groups of a pair or more to veritable shoals of a few hundred individuals. It makes sense that they should not be kept solitarily if possible. Try to observe them in your dealer's tank and choose two or more that appear to associate readily. If room and/or finances restrict your selection, H. acuminatus seems to adjust best at being "the only Heni in the tank".

Heniochus as Butterflyfishes in general, are not aggressive; they have neither the teeth or the body armament for it. If enough habitat is provided, they will gladly choose flight over fighting. Heniochus, between and among species, may "butt" with their head projections, but this is generally not dangerous.

Another bonus: some species have been observed to be facultative cleaners; especially as young. This is yet another example of a "can-do" parasite remover, other than more obligate cleaner wrasses or gobies.


Actual spawning behavior has not been observed in the wild or captivity for Heniochus or any Chaetodontid to date (Burgess, 1978). It is postulated that 3000-4000 eggs are released in a spawning and scattered by currents in the upper water column, i.e. they are pelagic.


Heniochus may be eaten by typical large predatory fishes in whose mouths they can fit. Be wary of basses, Lionfishes, morays et al.. Though they are "quick on their fins " during the day, Butterflyfishes "sleep" peacefully on the bottom in the evenings and may become midnight snacks.


Heniochus are largely plankton eaters in the wild. They readily consume frozen, flake, fresh, freeze-dried, seemingly whatever foods offered- even directly from the surface by hand.

These Butterflyfishes should be fed a variety of foods as per the rest of their family; frequently, in small amounts, at least two, three times daily. Clean, pollution-free Tubificid worms are relished, after the fish have been trained on them. Use live freshwater foods as an occasional high-protein treat.

Some vegetable matter should be offered in the diet; best if grown in the system itself.

Vitamin supplements are useful applied to the food or water directly; fructose sugar may even be applied to bolster an ailing specimen (Baensch in Allen & Steene, 1979) as marine fishes "drink" environmental water.


This genus is relatively disease free. They are susceptible, as are most tropical marine fishes, to the two most common coral reef parasitic "plagues": Amyloodinium and Cryptocaryon; displaying their typical symptomology (rapid breathing, listlessness, clamped fins). Most reports show Bannerfishes to be easily treated with manipulation of temperature and specific gravity, and no great sensitivity to common therapeutics, like copper compounds.

Various external parasites may be present and become problematical in recently captured wild specimens, if over-stressed. Gill flukes and parasitic copepod crustaceans may be reduced/alleviated through quarantine, dips or other chemical treatment. More appropriately, they might be biologically controlled through the use of a "cleaner" relationship.

One condition that Bannerfishes are prone to is "lateral-line disease". Regardless of where you stand on the debates of "original" cause(s) (Vibrio, other bacteria, water quality, diet, genetics, combo, ...) this disease can lead to death within a few days. What to do? Standard Operating Procedure: Pick out healthy stock; ascertain that they've been at your dealer's at least a few days... or put down a deposit and leave them. Ask to see them eat what you're going to feed. Run them through a disinfecting freshwater dip. Acclimate to a viable system. Keep your organic load low..... & if your fish should begin "breaking down" I suggest a regimen of medicated food, such as Tetra (tm) or Sera's (tm) line of antibiotic-fortified prepared flake foods. Gram-negative antibiotics and Furacyn compounds have been found to be effective.


What about the specialized Tholichthys larvae of these species with their bizarre spines? Chaetodontids and Scatophagids (scats) are the only families with this trait. Will you be the first to spawn and rear or even just observe and photograph spawning in the wild?

By any and all means try this genus. Heniochus look delicate- they are not. They are indeed butterflies of the sea, who are hardy, undemanding and well-suited for aquaria.

Bibliography/Further Reading

Allen, Gerald R. and Roger C. Steene, 1978,79. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World. Mergus, W. Germany

Burgess, Warren E., 1978 Butterflyfishes of the World. T.F.H. Publ., Inc. USA.

Debelius, Helmut 1981 (?), Wimplefish, the genus Heniochus. Aquarium Digest International #25

Goldstein, Robert J. 1971. Heniochus. Marine Aquarist 2(3):71.

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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