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Related FAQs: Surgeons In General, Selection, Compatibility, Systems, Feeding, Disease,

Related Articles: Surgeonfishes, Acanthurus, Ctenochaetus, Naso, Zebrasoma,

Marine Aquarium Use of Fiji Islands Surgeonfishes, Tangs and Doctorfishes, family Acanthuridae

Bob Fenner

Fiji Underwater

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

Fishermen/women/folk be they seeking aquatic source protein for human consumption or ornament are actually "fishing for money" in the modern world. As such, it is imperative to understand ones potential catch/resource, catch gear, nature of the environment and market. For local collectors and the pet-fish interest, acanthurids from Fiji make tremendous sense. The mix of species includes some standard Tangs, the bottom is amenable to current collection equipment and practices, the fishes are plentiful, albeit not concentrated in large numbers like the Yellow Tang, Zebrasoma flavescens of Hawai'i... What's more and very important, the country of Fiji has a need for hard currency, good jobs, has many skilled divers... and established businesses that have demonstrated their diligence in proper holding and shipping facilities and practices. More tangs, surgeonfishes, Doctorfishes should be bought out of this South Pacific nation.

    Fiji is blessed with some 333 islands, an expansive area in-between with relatively shallow (fish-able) waters, good, regular, even inexpensive air-freight service to major international marine livestock wholesale distribution businesses. Having dived there on numerous occasions and met with most of the folks involved in the trade of pet-fish in the country, I assure you that Fiji is a wonderful, sustainable source for many if not most of the livestock (fishes and non-fishes) of interest/use to aquarists. 

    Here I will make a lucid presentation of what the country has to offer in the family Acanthuridae found here, with notes on individual species suitability, husbandry, and collection.

Fijian Tangs on Parade: 

    All told there are some fifteen species of Surgeonfishes found in Fijis waters... a few more in sporadic numbers not yet accounted by science (as evidenced by my diving, FishBase.org's enumeration). Not all of these are currently used or even of use to the general marine hobbyist.

Acanthurus guttatus Forster 1801, the Spotted or Mustard Surgeonfish you might easily take for a Sailfin Tang (Zebrasoma) member for its circular outline, broad bars and active swimming behavior. I've encountered mixed results with this species; some batches living well others dying mysteriously. To about ten inches total length. HI image.

Acanthurus lineatus (Linnaeus 1758), the Clown, Pajama, or Oriental Surgeon is a bad fish for something in addition to lack of feeding and high mortality; its territoriality. This fish can become an unholy terror towards its tankmates, getting progressively worse with growth. Can grow to fifteen inches long in the wild. FJ image.

Acanthurus (glaucopareius) nigricans (Linnaeus 1958), the Powder Brown or Gold-Rimmed Surgeon. The corrected scientific name of this species is A. nigricans (per Randall, 1988); a revision no doubt as unpopular to some as my labeling the species as "bad". The very similar A. japonicus is a far better aquarium fish; A. nigricans rarely lives for more than a few months in captivity. Adult in captivity shown.

Acanthurus nigricauda Duncker & Mohr 1929, the Brown-Eared Surgeonfish; the most carnivorous surgeon. Found in close association with barracudas, even sharks in the Red Sea. Feeds on meat scraps and small demersal animals. Grows to a length of twenty inches; too big for most aquariums. This one off of Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia.

Acanthurus nigrofuscus (Forsskal 1775), the blackish Brown or Spot-Cheeked Surgeonfish. Manageable size (to eight inches), and moderate behavior toward other fishes qualify the Brown Tang as a desirable aquarium species especially as an algae controller.. Unfortunately it is a rather plain fish. Cook Islands image.

Acanthurus olivaceus Forster & Schneider 1801, the Orange Spot/Shoulder Tang. A hardy fish out of here and elsewhere, but unfortunately, a behavioral terror in the ranks of A. lineatus. This is an active fish that grows to more than a foot in length. Place only with MEAN tankmates. A juvenile and adult pictured, Fiji and Hawai'i respectively.

Acanthurus pyroferus Kittliz 1834, the Chocolate Surgeonfish. Indo-Pacific; Seychelles to the French Polynesia, down to the GBR. To ten inches in length. A successful mimic of three (four if you count C. vrolikii in Palau where C. flavissimus is absent and it mimics the other!) Centropyge Angels. Shown here as a wild type on the right, mimics in captivity below and below them, the Dwarf Angels that Acanthurus pyroferus most typically mimics; Eibl's,  the true Lemonpeel, and Herald's. All aquarium images.

Centropyge eibli Centropyge flavissimus Centropyge heraldi

Acanthurus triostegus (Linnaeus 1758), (manini) Convict Tang or Manini (Hawaiian). One of the best Acanthurus for use in reef tanks for its size, easy going temperament and habit of consuming fine, filamentous algae. Reserved for native Hawaiian use in Hawai'i, but available from elsewhere. Juvenile in Hawai'i and a marauding school on the prowl in the Cooks.

Acanthurus xanthopterus Valenciennes 1835, the Yellowfin Surgeonfish. Similar to the Ringtail and Eyestripe Surgeonfishes, but lacks the other two's light caudal coloration. This is the largest member of the genus Acanthurus, to about 22 inches long. A specimen in the Cooks. 

Ctenochaetus binotatus Randall 1955, the Blue-Eye or Two-Spot Bristletooth for the two dark areas at the rear of the dorsal and anal fin bases. Sometimes brought in from the Philippines. Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia and Fiji pix.

Ctenochaetus striatus (Quoy & Gaimard 1828) the Striped Bristletooth, is the one member of the genus found extending into the Red Sea (but also found in the Indo-Pacific to Oceania and the Indian Ocean); it is the most frequently imported species in Europe. It's body color is overall drab olive sporting wavy blue lines. Small orange dots are sprinkled on the head. Here are two specimens interacting in the Red Sea.

Ctenochaetus strigosus Bennett 1828, the Yellow-eyed or Kole Tang; since this and the Chevron Tangs range encompass the principal islands of Hawaii they are the principal species utilized in the West (though the Kole is found from all the way over in the Indian Ocean). The Kole ("coal-ay") is more shallow water, surface to sixty feet or so.

Naso brevirostris (Valenciennes 1835),  sometimes called the Shortnose Unicorn Tang, is mis-named both scientifically and colloquially; it has a long nose as an adult. There are Naso species with much shorter, even absent the "horn" on the head. This grayish-green bodied fish is occasionally imported from Hawaii and the Indo-Pacific. To two feet long.  Fiji pix.

Naso lituratus, the Naso Tang to most aquarists; it is also known as the tricolor or lipstick tang. There are some who claim that "blonde" and "streamer" versions are different species; they're all Naso lituratus. To eighteen inches in the wild.  Shown; a Naso in Hawai'i, a beautiful "streamer" (male) there getting cleaned by a Cleaner Wrasse. 

Zebrasoma veliferum (Bloch 1795), the Pacific Sailfin Tang. Collected out of the Philippines and Indonesia, though better out of Hawaii, Ceylon and other places in the eastern Pacific. Some call this THE Sailfin tang for it's gorgeous flowing dorsal and anal finnage; these especially over-sized in appearance when young. Here's are two, four and six inch juveniles in Fiji and a larger (10") individual in Hawai'i.

Good to Bad: Your Choices in Tangs

Best Tangs for Aquarists From Fiji:

    By "best" I mean the species and individuals most likely to survive and do well in the arduous process of collection, holding, shipping... to adaptation to the conditions of captive care... and of course look nice, have interesting (and not terrible) behaviors.

    Highest on this list are the three members of the genus Ctenochaetus, the Bristle-Mouth Tangs. These handy, hardy tangs are fastidious green filamentous and diatom algae eaters. To their credit, they are rarely aggressive, perhaps showing a bit of "jousting" with other closely related forms, but rarely rendering injury. Also, they stay quite small... rarely exceeding six inches in length in captivity.

    Of the ten Acanthurus from the region, the mimic tangs, A. pyroferus are exemplary, and quite common in Fiji, the most individuals, density I've seen anywhere. They're reef-friendly and highest-rated for temperament and hardiness. The Spot-Cheeked Surgeonfish, A. nigrofuscus I've written about for years... for its small size, suitability for aquariums. It is a great choice, though drab in appearance somewhat. To a lesser extent, I'll give a "plug" to the Convict Surgeon, A. triostegus. This fish is also an industrious algae picker, but does well really only in large systems (a few hundred gallons) in a small grouping of its own species. Lastly for "plus" Acanthurus species, the relatively unknown Spotted Surgeonfish, A. guttatus deserves a mention. Given a system of good size (a couple of hundred or more gallons), plenty of live rock, this is an interesting, "oddball" surgeonfish.

Not So Good Fijian Tang Choices & Reasons Why:

    The "other" Acanthurus species found in Fiji prove much more difficult to keep, by virtue of their belligerent natures, too-large size, easy-susceptibility to disease/anomalous loss or a combination of these factors.

    Though they are darlings of many LFS and hobbyists as juveniles (the fish, not their owners), the Clown and Orange-Shoulder Tangs (A. lineatus and A. olivaceus respectively) often become pure terrors with growth... their advancing size accompanied by fish tank-mate slicing maneuvers. If you try these fishes, be on the look-out for signs of starting overt aggression.

    For the most part, the Gold-Rim or Powder Brown Surgeonfish (A. nigricans) deserves its reputation as an "ich magnet"... this and the congeneric Powder Blue (A. leucosternon) of the Indian Ocean are probably responsible for a sizable percentage of hobbyists leaving this vocation... out of losses and frustration. Not easily kept... needing to be kept in well-established, large, stable surroundings... should be on the label of this/these fish/es at stores. A much better, hardier, and very-similar appearing choice is the White-Cheek Tang, A. japonicus. Select it instead of the Gold Rim.

    The remaining Acanthurus, the Brown-Eared, A. nigricauda and Yellowfin, A. xanthopterus I list as unsuitable for their poor adaptability to typically small aquarium sizes, as well as their propitious proportions.

    The Pacific Sailfin, Zebrasoma veliferum, is one of my favorite species of a much favored genus. Best acquired small ( a few inches in length), this fish can be spectacular kept in sizable surroundings and fed sufficient marine greenery.

"So-So Choices, The Naso Tangs From Fiji:

    Here again I know folks will scream, "I've kept a Naso in a fifty-five gallon system"... but most members of this genus don't do at all well in the short or longer term in small confines. Imperative in their keeping is receiving not beaten up (by collection, holding, moving) specimens, quick acclimation to permanent housing, and immediate training on captive foods. Yes, both THE Naso (N. lituratus) and Shortnose Unicorn  (N. brevirostris) Tangs can be kept in captivity... but large systems (six feet plus long) and capacities should be the rule, along with the above stated provisos in their selection and care.

Collecting Tangs in Fiji:

    Can and should be done with conventional fence/barrier nets. These are transparent, one or so inch draw size nets of four-six feet height with a continuous lead line (to keep the bottom down snug) and float line that collected fishes are "pushed off their territory", the net set in an arc, and allowed to return to, then carefully pushed into and hand-netted off of.

Selection, Care Notes:

   As stated at the beginning, Fiji is a good place to get your Surgeonfishes from for manifold reasons. There are good collectors, wholesale businesses, air freight service in the region... good numbers of suitable species to be found, in relatively shallow water (less stress, strain on the decompressed livestock), with ready access/time/distance to established markets worldwide. This being stated, the onus is upon you (as always) as the consumer to pick out the best of what you can find.

Time on hand: is still critical. Don't be too anxious to buy "just arrived" fishes even from Fiji. If there are going to be losses, anomalous perhaps, they will generally occur within a day to two days of arrival. Wait.

Looks: are important... as static photographs as well as kinetic behavior. Check out as many of the "new" shipment organisms as you can find... do any of them look shabby, frayed fins, swollen mouths, eyes, bloody markings....? These are strong warning signs that the whole batch may have been "delayed" in shipment, roughly handled. As a buyer of just one individual, it can be trouble to introduce a compromised animal into an established system. For a dealer, greatly multiplied.

About Coppering: Many businesses and individuals have developed and adhere to a "copper habit" to treat, prevent external parasitic problems in their "fish only" systems. Please don't do this with Tangs and their relatives (e.g. Rabbitfishes, family Siganidae). These fishes often suffer more than benefit from such exposure. Particularly should the "treatment period" exceed two weeks... beneficial microfauna in their guts may be impugned to the point that their capacity for nutritional uptake be disrupted (think of E. coli in your own intestines here). Don't over-copper Tangs dosage or time-wise, and avoid ones that have been treated thus.


    The best livestock from the better locales should be presented to our interest, hobby and business. Such are some of the species of Tangs listed above hailing from Fiji. This island/s nation has all the other elements of infrastructure to support more vigorous trade in ornamental aquatics... ready trained personnel, wide-body jets (my fave Boeing 747's), and a steady need for foreign currency and trade. I encourage you to press for, select your livestock from Fiji.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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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