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Related FAQs: Surgeons In General, Tang ID, Selection, Tang Selection 2, Tang Behavior, Compatibility, Tang Compatibility 3, Tang Compatibility 2, Systems, Feeding, Feeding Tangs 2, Disease, Tang Health/Disease 2, Tang Health/Disease 3Tang Health/Disease 4, Tang Health/Disease 5Tang Disease 6, Tang Disease 7, Tang Disease 8, Tang Health 9, Tang Disease 10, Tang Disease 11, Tang Disease 12, Tang Disease 13, & Tangs/Rabbitfishes & Crypt, Yellow Tang Disease

Related Articles: Acanthurus, Ctenochaetus, Naso, Paracanthurus, Zebrasoma , Prionurus, Surgeonfishes of Hawai'i, Surgeonfishes for Reef Systems,  

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/The Best Livestock for A Marine Aquarium (Series)

Surgeons, Tangs and Doctorfishes, Family Acanthuridae

Bob Fenner

Zebrasoma veliferum

Surgeonfishes: Tangs for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

Whatever common name applied to these razor-wielding fishes, the Surgeons, Tangs or Doctorfishes span the entire bandwidth of aquarium suitability. A few ship so poorly they rarely recover from the rigors of capture and transport from the wild. Then there are the members of the family that should be disqualified on the basis of growing too large (quite a few to more than a foot and a half in length), and/or outright agonistic behavior... The majority, though tough as proverbial "nails", must still be qualified as through careful individual selection on the basis of apparent condition and proven feeding.

Not to worry, here we'll sort out which are suitable for aquarium use.

Classification: Taxonomy, Relation with Other Groups

The Surgeonfishes' family Acanthuridae comprises six genera and about seventy two species. Many are important food and aquarium fishes. Where would our hobby be without such favorites as the Yellow Tang and other Zebrasoma, the Yellowtail Blue Paracanthurus, various Naso and Acanthurus and lesser-known Bristlemouth (Ctenochaetus) Surgeonfishes in addition to the Prionurus?

<Prionurus punctatus

All Surgeonfishes are laterally compressed covered with very small scales giving their bodies a leathery appearance. They have long continuous dorsal fins, and small terminal mouths with fine teeth. What really distinguishes the whole family though is the presence of one or more spines on the caudal peduncle (the part of the body right before the tail fin), hence their scientific name from the Greek, acanthus = "thorn". With a twist of the tail these spines are used to as a formidable weapon when needed.*

Modern classification schemes divide the six genera of acanthurids into two subfamilies (names ending in "inae") and three tribes (ending in "ini").

The subfamily Nasinae, with one genus (Naso, the unicornfishes) and seventeen species have two anal fin spines and three soft pelvic fin rays. Several have a frontal "horn" protuberance that gets larger with age. Four branchiostegal (gill supports) rays.

Naso unicornis

The subfamily Acanthurinae, the rest of the surgeonfishes, bear three anal fin spines and five soft pelvic fin rays. Five branchiostegal rays.

Tribe Prionurini; one genus (Prionurus), six species, rarely offered in the trade. Have 3-10 non-retractile bony plate "scalpels" on their caudal peduncles.

Tribe Zebrasomini; containing the genera Paracanthurus (one species, the Yellowtail blue), and Zebrasoma of seven species.

The Tribe Acanthurini, genera Acanthurus and Ctenochaetus can be discerned from each other by the six species of Bristlemouths (Ctenochaetus) peculiar long, comb-like teeth.

Surgeonfishes as a family are circumtropical. They are prominent species in shallows to a few hundred feet on rocky and coral reefs worldwide. Most are found in the western Pacific, with only nine species in the Atlantic and four in the eastern Pacific.

Size-wise they are from a few inches to a couple of feet in total length.

Captive Suitability Scoring:

After long thought, investigation of others declared opinions, and handling thousands of these fishes over the last thirty some years in the trade I've come up with the following scheme of "scores" for each on its likelihood of surviving the rigors of aquarium care. To a 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 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 score of two (2) is indicative of a 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 and provide the best possible circumstances for these animals.

I'm aware that other authors, even highly respected scientists' ratings are different than your dealer(s) and mine probably consider my "judgments" too harsh. My advice is indeed, not to rely on what's stated here and/or any one other source of information. Before purchasing these (or other livestock) do your best to gather as much pertinent "accurate, significant, and meaningful" information as you can from reading, other hobbyists and the industry.

About handling and netting acanthurid species: TAKE CARE! The caudal peduncle "tangs" or spines of these fishes are incredibly sharp and have been associated with nasty infections. Watch your hands around them while either cleaning their tanks or netting them. Utilize either fine, but tough netting or larger diameter mesh to avoid fouling their spines. Shown: a Ctenochaetus hawaiiensis adult with a torn region about the spine from rough netting. 

Genus Acanthurus ("Ah-Kan-Thur-Us") Species; the Good, The Bad, and The Unknown:

How many Surgeonfishes in the genus Acanthurus do you know? There are Powder Browns (Acanthurus nigricans (nee glaucopareius) and Acanthurus japonicus), the Powder Blue, Atlantic Blue, Achilles, Oriental... any others? Hey, no cheating by looking below. All told there are some forty described species in this genus; including two "mimics" often mistaken for dwarf angels!

Some Acanthurus make hardy captive specimens, others have a dismal aquarium history; a handful are too poorly known to be judged as yet.

"Good and Bad and Unknown" Acanthurus (One's That Generally Live)(1's): Click on Genus name... files getting too large to download at once!

The genus Ctenochaetus ("ten-oh-key-tus") (most all 2's)

Genus Naso Tangs

Genus Paracanthurus Tang:

Genus Prionurus Tangs:

The six species of this genus most resemble a generalized Acanthurus body plan, and are considered most closely related to that group. All get too big (one to two feet eventually) to be of use to the home hobbyist. Be that as it may, one species that comes out of the tropical eastern Pacific does come into the trade from time to time. This is the Yellowtail Surgeonfish, Prionurus punctatus Gill 1862 (3). Even if you can find healthy, suitably small (3-5") individuals to purchase, the fishes of this genus don't adapt well to the confines of small captive systems. This fish grows to two feet in length.

Prionurus punctatus

Genus Zebrasoma Tangs: (All 1's)


Surgeonfishes span the range of usefulness and adaptability for captive marine systems. Some are relatively tough environmentally, and easy-going in terms of tankmate behavior. Others have proven to be difficult for all but the most attentive aquarists with large, optimized systems.

Consequential in their successful care is choosing properly captured and transported specimens, providing adequate space, aged, highly circulated and aerated water, and constant provision of appropriate foods, mainly greens, but best provided as a mix of live rock.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Anon. 1993. response to an inquiry re numbers of species of unicornfish. Sea Frontiers. 3,4/93.

Blasiola, George C. 1988. Description, preliminary studies and probable etiology of head and lateral line erosion (HLLE) of the palette tang, Paracanthurus hepatus (Linnaeus, 1758) and other acanthurids. Bull. of l'Institut oceanographique, Monaco. Spec. Pub. 5:255-263.

Blasiola, George C. 1990. A review of hole in the head disease of fish. FAMA 5/90.

Burgess, Warren E. 1973. Salts from the seven seas (on the Species Z. veliferum & Z. desjardinii. TFH 5/73.

Burgess, Warren E. 1977. The chevron tang. TFH 3/77.

Burgess, Warren E. 1979. The genus Zebrasoma. TFH 11/79.

Burgess, W.E. 1980. Surgeonfish and angelfish mimics. TFH 29(2):52-56, 58.

Burgess, Warren E., Herbert R. Axelrod & Raymond E. Hunziker III.1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes Reference Book, v. 1 Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, NJ. 768pp.

Campbell, Douglas G. 1979. Fishes for the beginner, A guide for the new marine hobbyist, Parts three and four, Tangs. FAMA 1,2/79.

Chlupaty, Peter. 1979. Keeping the yellow tang. T.F.H. 7/89.

Colin, P.L.; Clavijo I.E. 1988. Spawning activity of fishes producing pelagic eggs on a shelf edge coral reef, southwestern Puerto Rico. Bull. Mar. Sci. vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 249-279.

Collins, Steve. 1995. Dietary control of HLLE in blue tangs. SeaScope Summer 95.

Debelius, H. 1975? Useful information on surgeon fish. Aquarium digest Intl. #29, pp 31-33., #31, pp 28-29.

Debelius, Helmut. 1993. Indian Ocean Tropical Fish Guide. Aquaprint Verlags, Germany.

Debelius, Helmut & Hans A. Baensch. 1994. Marine Atlas. Mergus, Germany. 1,215 pp.

Duarte, C.S.A. & P.A. Acero. 1988. Feeding behavior of the Acanthurus (Perciformes: Acanthuridae) fish genus in the Santa Marta region from the Colombian Caribbean. Rev. Biol. Trop. vol. 28, pp. 399-405. 1988.

Emmens, C.W. 1985 Surgeonfishes. TFH 1/85.

Fenner, Robert. 1996. Will the real powder brown tang please swim up? TFH 3/96.

Fenner, Robert. 1997. Unicorn tangs, genus Naso, family Acanthuridae. SeaScope v.14, Spring, 1997.

Fenner, Robert. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.

Fenner, Robert. Surgeons, tangs, and Doctorfishes, family Acanthuridae. FAMA 12/00.

Fishelson, L., Montgomery, W.L., Myrberg, A.A. 1985. A unique symbiosis in the gut of tropical herbivorous surgeonfishes (Acanthuridae: Teleostei) from the Red Sea. Science (Wash.) vol. 229, no. 4708, pp. 49-51; 1985.

Fishelson, L., Montgomery, W.L., Myrberg, A.A. 1985. A unique symbiosis in the gut of tropical herbivorous surgeonfishes (Acanthuridae: Teleostei) from the Red Sea. Science (Wash.) vol. 229, no. 4708, pp. 49-51; 1985.

Fong, Jack. 2000. The Powder Blue Tang- hardy or delicate? FAMA 3/00. 

Fouda, M.M. El Sayed, A.A. & Z.T. Zaki. 1988. Reproductive biology of a Red Sea Surgeonfish, C. striatus (Quoy & Gaimard, 1824). Proceedings of the Sixth Intl. Coral Reef Symposium. Vol. 2 pp. 679-683.

Guiasu, Radu C. & Richard Winterbottom. 1993. Osteological evidence for the phylogeny of recent genera of surgeonfishes (Percomorpha, Acanthuridae). Copeia 1993(2):300-312.

Herre, Albert W. 1928. Philippine Surgeonfishes and Moorish Idols. Philippine J. of Sci. 34(4) pp 403-478. Avail./TFH

Howe, Jeffrey C. 1991. Field observations of death feigning in the convict tang, Acanthurus triostegus (Linnaeus), with comments on the nocturnal color pattern in juvenile specimens. J. of Aquariculture and Aquatic Sciences VI(4):13-15.

Jones, Lawrence L.C. 1988. Care and maintenance of tangs in captivity. Part one: Food and feeding. FAMA 10/88. Part II. Behavior, FAMA 3/84.

Kent, M.I. and A.C. Olson. 1986. Interrelationships of a parasitic turbellarian, (Paravortex sp.) (Grafillidae, Rhabdocoela) and its marine fish hosts. Fish Pathol. 21:65-72. Lobel, Phillip S. 1984. The Hawaiian chevron tang, Ctenochaetus hawaiiensis. FAMA 3/84.

Kuiter, Rudi & Helmut Debelius. 2001. Surgeonfishes, Rabbitfishes and their Relatives. A Comprehensive Guide to Acanthuroidei. TMC Publishing, Chorleywood, UK. 

Maisey, John G. 1996. Fossil surgeonfishes. TFH 4/96.

McKenna, Scott. 1987. Keeping the powder-blue surgeonfish. TFH 36(3):22-25,27.

Meyer, K.D., Paul, V.J., Sanger, H.R. and S.G. Nelson. 1994. Effects of seaweed extracts and secondary metabolites on feeding by the herbivorous surgeonfish Naso lituratus. Coral Reefs 13(2):105-112.

Michael, Scott W. 1992. A guide to the tangs of the genus Zebrasoma. Seascope vol.9, Fall 1992.

Michael, S.W. 1995. Fishes for the marine aquarium, part 7. Tangs of the genus Zebrasoma. A.F.M. 4/95.

Michael, Scott W. 1998. Surgeonfishes; Meet their strict care requirements, or else... AFM 9/98.

Michael, Scott W. 1998. The surgeonfishes. Getting to the point- the species. AFM 10/98.

Montgomery, W.L., Myrberg, A.A., Fishelson, L. 1989. Feeding ecology of surgeonfishes (Acanthuridae) in the northern Red Sea, with particular reference to Acanthurus nigrofuscus (Forskaal). J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. vol. 132 no.3 pp 179-207.

Moosleitner, Horst. 1992. The brown-eared surgeonfish: A meat eater! TFH 40(6):64-66.

Myrberg, A.A., Montgomery, W.L,. Fishelson, L. 1988. The reproductive behavior of Acanthurus nigrofuscus (Forskaal) and other surgeonfishes (fam. Acanthuridae) off Eliat, Israel. (Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea). Ethology; vol. 79, no.1 pp. 31-61. 1988.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World. 3rd Ed. Wiley. 600pp.

Nelson, S.G. & S.D. Wilkins. 1988. Sediment processing by the surgeonfish C. striatus at Moorea, French Polynesia. J. of Fish Biology 32(6) 1988:817-824.

Nelson, S.G. & Y.M. Chiang. 1993. An exploratory analysis of the food habits of herbivorous surgeonfishes (Acanthuridae) from French Polynesia. Proceedings of the Seventh Intl. Coral Reef Symposium, v. 2:920-926. Univ. of Guam Press.

Polunin, N.V.C., Harmelin-Vivien, M. & R. Galzin. 1995. Contrasts in algal food processing among five herbivorous coral-reef fishes. J. of Fish Biology 47(1995):455-465.

Purcell, S.W. & D.R. Bellwood. 1993. A functional analysis of food procurement in two surgeonfish species, Acanthurus nigrofuscus & C. striatus (Acanthuridae). Env. Biol. of Fishes 37(2) 1993:139-159.

Pyle, Richard L. 1990. The gem tang Zebrasoma gemmatum (Cuvier and Valenciennes). FAMA 8/90.

Pyle, Richard L. & Lisa A. Privatera. 1990. The black longnose tang Zebrasoma rostratum (Gunther). FAMA 4/90.

Randall, J.E. 1955. A revision of the surgeonfish genus Ctenochaetus, Family Acanthuridae, with descriptions of five new species. Zoologica 40:149-165.

Randall, J.E. 1955. A revision of the surgeonfish genera Zebrasoma and Paracanthurus. Pac. Sci. 9:396-412.

Randall, J.E. 1956 A revision of the surgeon fishes genus Acanthurus. Pac. Sci. 10:159-235.

Randall, J.E. 1975 Hawaiian fish profiles. ADI 3:2, pp 12,13.

Randall, John E. 1981. Palette surgeonfish, Paracanthurus hepatus. FAMA 3/81.

Randall, J.E. 1986. Acanthuridae; in Smith's Sea Fishes. Springer-Verlag, Germany. pp. 811-823.

Randall, J. 1988. Three nomenclatorial changes in Indo-Pacific surgeonfishes (Acanthurinae). Pacific Science 41:54-61.

Randall, J.E. 1994. Unicornfishes of the subgenus Axinurus (Perciformes: Acanthuridae: Naso) with description of a new species. Copeia 1, 1994:116-124.Randall, J.E. &

L.J. Bell. 1992. Naso caesius, a new acanthurid fish from the central Pacific. Pacific Science 46(3):344-352.

Ranta, Jeffrey A. 1996. Dealing with HLLS. TFH 1/96.

Recksiek, Conrad W., Appeldoorn, Richard S. and Ralph G. Turingan. 1991. Studies of fish traps as stock assessment devices on a shallow reef in south-western Puerto Rico. Fisheries Research 10(1991):177-197.

Sands, David. 1994. Superb surgeons. FAMA 10/94.

Shepherd, A.R. Dawson. 1978. Powder Blue Tang from Kenya. Marine Aquarist 8:5/78.

Smith, J.L.B. 1966. Fishes of the sub-family Nasinae with a synopsis of the Prionurinae. Ichthyological Bull. Rhodes Univ. 32:635-682.

Spencer, Gary C. 1973. The tang and I. Marine Aquarist 4(4):73

Stratton, Richard F. 1988. The blue tang. TFH 1/88.

Stratton, Richard F. 1989. The achilles tang. TFH 1/89.

Winterbottom, R. 1993. Myological evidence for the phylogeny of recent genera of surgeonfishes (Percomorpha, Acanthuridae), with comments on the Acanthuroidei. Copeia 1993(1):395-414 

Surgeonfishes: Tangs 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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