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Related FAQs: Maldives Butterflyfishes, Butterflyfish Identification, Butterflyfish Foods/Feeding/NutritionButterflyfish Compatibility, Butterflyfish Behavior, Butterflyfish Systems, Butterflyfish Selection, Butterflyfish Disease,

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Rating the Butterflyfishes of the Maldives, Indian Ocean

Bob Fenner

Chaetodon kleinii

Butterflyfishes for Marine

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

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.

Classification Notes:

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.

Chaetodon auriga Forsskal 1775, the Threadfin Butterflyfish; so named for a trailing filament that grows from the posterior dorsal fin. Some folks use this hardy species to rid their systems of pest anemones of the genus Aiptasia, but in the wild it is known to consume some coral polyps as food. Widely found in the Indo-west and central Pacific, coastal Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Chaetodon collare Bloch, 1787, the Head-band or Collare Butterflyfish. This is one of the butterflies that looks touchy due to its attractiveness but is quite tough. Will eat coral polyps, but also readily feeds on other invertebrate foods.

Chaetodon decussatus adult

Chaetodon decussatus juvenile, aquarium

Chaetodon vagabundus

Chaetodon decussatus Cuvier 1831, the Blackened or Indian Ocean Vagabond Butterflyfish. This is a much hardier, and in my opinion, more beautiful close-relation to the wider-ranging "regular" Vagabond Butterflyfish, Chaetodon vagabundus, which can also be found in the Maldives. It is very nice shipped out of Sri Lanka, where it is the most common Butterflyfish.

Chaetodon kleinii Bloch 1790, the Brown or Klein's Butterflyfish, is a winner coming from the east coast of Africa all the way across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands. This species is a generalized feeder on benthic invertebrates and algae, but will sample soft corals (which it eats in the wild).

Chaetodon lunula,

Chaetodon lunula, Raccoon Butterflyfish  


Chaetodon lunula the Raccoon Butterflyfish. Also used to eat Aiptasia, and though more "reef safe" than the Auriga, still not to be entirely trusted… as it also eats coral polyps on the reef. Similar in distribution as the Threadfin as well, but supplanted by another species, the Red Sea Raccoon Butterflyfish, Chaetodon fasciatus in the Red Sea, a form that is much brighter yellow and lacks the regular Raccoon's black ocellus on the caudal peduncle. To ten inches long.

Chaetodon madagaskariensis (mertensii), Ahl the Madagascar Butterflyfish. According to recent works, this species is synonymous with Chaetodon mertensii Cuvier 1831, Merten's Butterflyfish. In other words, the Indian Ocean Madagascar Butterfly is the same species, a color variant of Merten's Butterflyfish.

Chaetodon melannotus Bloch & Schneider 1801, the Black-Backed Butterflyfish. Once acclimated, some folks swear by these; I'm one of them; though in the wild this fish mainly feeds on Soft and Hard Coral polyps.

Chaetodon mitratus, the Indian Butterflyfish, One of a complex (sub-genus Roa: C. burgessi, C. flavocoronatus, C. tinkeri, C. declivis) of deep (generally more than 50 meters down) water Chaetodont species that make superb aquarium specimens. These are generalized zooplanktivores and feeders on benthic invertebrates. Cost m7ore money, and well worth it.

Forcipiger flavissimus

Forcipiger longirostris

Forcipiger flavissimus

Forcipiger flavissimus Jordan & McGregor 1898,

Hemitaurichthys zoster, (Bennett 1831), the Black Pyramid Butterflyfish, like the other members of its genus, appears oblique in shape, but is a sturdy species for aquarium use. This fish is a very common fish all over the Maldives, a schooling zooplanktivore. To seven inches overall, only found in the Indian Ocean. Pictures to the right, wild, aquarium.

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!

Heniochus acuminatus 

Heniochus diphreutes

Heniochus acuminatus (Linnaeus 1758)and Heniochus diphreutes Jordan 1903, are most often seen in the hobby and trade. Their most common, common names are Reef and Schooling Bannerfish, but both are found in pairs to groups in the wild. The latter species can be distinguished by its much smaller snout/mouth, and more angular anal fin. Juveniles are facultative cleaners in the wild.

Heniochus pleurotaenia Adult

Heniochus pleurotaenia Juvenile

Heniochus varius

Heniochus pleurotaenia Ahl 1923, is the Phantom Bannerfish, easily confused in the west by the more commonly imported Humphead Bannerfish, Heniochus varius (Cuvier 1829) from the western and central Pacific. (both shown for comparison). To six inches overall length.

Heniochus monoceros Cuvier 1831, the Masked Bannerfish, to a large nine inches long, is a real striker with its single dark body band. A hardy feeder on frozen and fresh small invertebrate life and algae.

Heniochus singularius, Smith & Radcliffe 1911, the aptly named Singular Bannerfish. This large species (to a foot long) eats coral polyps, other bottom-dwelling invertebrates and algae. Shy as the rest of the genus.

Medium Choices:

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.

Chaetodon citrinellus Cuvier 1831, the Speckled Butterfly. Sometimes lives, often not… and can be surprisingly aggressive. Feeds on coral polyps, algae and various types of worms in the wild. Widespread in the Indo-Pacific, out east to Hawai'i.

Chaetodon falcula Bloch 1793, Saddle Back Butterfly. Some authors rate this species more highly, right up with the highest survival-scored Pacific Double Saddle Butterflyfish, Chaetodon ulietensis Cuvier 1831, one of my favorite butterfly species. I disagree with this, and label it here as "sometimes good".


Chaetodon guttatissimus Bennett 1832, the Spotted Butterflyfish, is a small (four inches) beauty that can do well in captivity once settled in. This is another generalized feeder, eating worms (including tube types like feather dusters), other benthic invertebrates (including some coral polyps) and algae on the reef. Indian Ocean only species. Adult and juvenile to right.


Chaetodon interruptus, Indian Ocean 

Chaetodon unimaculatus, Pacific Ocean 

Chaetodon interruptus Ahl, 1923, the Yellow or Indian Ocean Teardrop Butterflyfish, was formerly classified as a subspecies along with the Pacific Teardrop, Chaetodon unimaculatus Bloch 1787, but is currently recognized as a separate species. Readily feeds on many foodstuffs in captivity (sponges, algae, and some coral fragments in the wild), but frequently lost due to mouth damage consequent to capture/handling.

Chaetodon xanthocephalus Bennett 1832, the Yellow-Head Butterflyfish. Though this fish feeds easily on invertebrates and algae, it doesn't rank as high as the Saddleback Butterflyfish (Chaetodon ephippium) of which it is closely related. This is a large species (to eight inches) that frequently takes a beating in-between capture to end-user… often being shipped too large, in a too-small bag.

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".

Chaetodon, bennetti Cuvier 1831, Bennett's Butterflyfish is a beauty for sure, but just as assuredly almost only eats coral polyps (the rest, Corallimorpharians), usually Acroporids in the wild. Unfortunately also collected out of the Indo-west and central Pacific.

Chaetodon lineolatus Cuvier 1831, the Lined Butterflyfish. This is the largest species amongst the Butterflyfishes. Growing to more than a foot in length. The Lined B/F is a big eater of benthic invertebrates, corals, anemones and algae.

Chaetodon meyeri, Bloch & Schneider 1801, Meyer's Butterflyfish. An exclusive feeder on coral polyps. Central Pacific to the east coast of Africa. To seven inches overall length.

Chaetodon ornatissimus Cuvier 1831, the Ornate Butterflyfish. Another strict corallivore that should be left in the seas. Also (mis) shipped out of Hawaii, Indonesia, the Philippines.

Chaetodon oxycephalus Bleeker, 1853, the Spot-Nape or, my favorite name for this species, the Pig-Face Butterflyfish. To ten inches and destructive, eating anemones and corals in the ocean.

Chaetodon cf. plebeius Cuvier 1831, the Blue-Spot Butterflyfish, is more appropriately named the Yellow Butterflyfish in the Indian Ocean. This is a species that is in the process of likely being divided into two distinctly identified populations. The I.O. variety is identical to the Indo-Pacific (pictured) except it lacks the blue body dash. Mainly feeds on… coral polyps.

Chaetodon triangulum Cuvier 1831, the Triangular Butterflyfish, an obligate coral polyp feeder. (No picture.)

Chaetodon trifascialis, Quoy & Gaimard 1824, the Chevroned Butterflyfish, is unmistakably marked with backward slanting chevrons, and just as clearly an impossible-to-keep species that in the wild hangs out with plate-like Acroporids on which it feeds. Also collected for the trade in the Indo-west and central Pacific Ocean.

Chaetodon trifasciatus, Indian Ocean

Chaetodon lunulatus, western Pacific to Hawai'i

Chaetodon trifasciatus Park 1797, the Indian Ocean Redfin Butterflyfish, like its Pacific congener/look-alike, Chaetodon lunulatus Quoy & Gaimard 1894, it is a strict corallivore, exclusively feeding on coral polyps.

Chaetodon vagabundus Linnaeus 1758, the Vagabond Butterflyfish. The ichthyologist Jerry Allen likes this one better than myself and other industry types. This animal will/does eat coral polyps, as well as other benthic invertebrates, algae, but on the positive side, exhibits wide environmental tolerance. My advice is to get the much hardier, similar-appearing Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish, C. decussatus instead (see above for images of both).


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.

Environmental: 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.

Behavior: Territoriality

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.

Predator/Prey Relations

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.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Butterflyfishes for Marine

Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

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.

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