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

Over to other Regional Accounts of Butterflyfishes: Cook Islands, Red Sea, Maldives

To: A Fishwatcher's Guide to the Fishes of Hawai'i

/The Fishwatcher's Guide Series

The Best Butterflyfishes From Hawaii

Bob Fenner

Hawai'i underwater. Lots of Butterflyfishes, here mainly Chaetodon miliaris

Butterflyfishes for Marine

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

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

When asked at the most recent Marine Aquarium Conference at Southern California (I gave a pitch on the "ethics of marine collection" with Craig Hooker of the Fish & Wildlife Service and Steve Robinson, formerly of Cortez Marine, in 1995) what people can do in the trade and hobby to promote sustainable collection practices, many of the retailers and hobbyists there expressed frustration with the current state of affairs.

Is it just a presumption that there is a higher percentage mortality of livestock originating from the Philippines and Indonesia? Whoever, whatever you believe re the validity of cyanide claims, cumulative effects of rough handling, long shipping time frames, other sources of loss of vitality, certain facts stand: The longer organisms stay 'in the bag' the more they die. Ready, inexpensive, efficacious assays for cyanide and other commonly used collection poisons do not exist.

There seems no definitive end to the accusations of whose livestock are 'worse', what sources are to be avoided... There are suppliers who buy weekly from the Philippine Islands with almost no incidental losses. For instance Quality Marine of Los Angeles. I've been at their facilities at random times and experienced zero Dead On Arrivals in their P.I. shipments first hand.

How do they do it?

1) They've been clear with their sources regarding what they want, will pay for.

2) Including instruction on how to pack their livestock properly; i.e. loose to allow the organisms to move, the bags to expand with lowered cabin pressure, with adequate water volume to dilute wastes during shipment. 3) In preparing the livestock to only send "A" specimens which they are willing to pay market price for... Holding them for an appropriate period of time to assess their likelihood of survival... Purging them (by not feeding) for a species & size-determined period of time prior to shipping.

4) Have ongoing provision (cargo container space reservation) with the airline carriers for weekly shipments, customs in the U.S.

5) Engage trained personnel with facilities for properly acclimating, handling and shipping livestock.

By visiting, helping set up collecting/shipping stations around the tropical world, Quality Marine has been a pre-eminent player in the trade. Sad to say, all companies in the industry have not been able/willing to put their money where their hearts should be.

But on with the topic of this article and the constructive advice I want to pass on to you. If you can't be at all sure as to the quality of livestock you're buying in any other way, pay close attention to its place of origin. Many of the organisms sold in the trade have wide geographic ranges. You don't have to buy fishes from the Philippines or Indonesia. Allow me to make this point in a different way; "Where do the best yellow tangs come from?" Answer: Hawaii. Why? On average they're larger, fuller, more yellow... and they live.

What I'm getting at is the fact that livestock from U.S. controlled areas is a better ultimate buy than from apparently (initially) 'cheaper' sources. Guam, Florida, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, California among others are tightly regulated requiring permits, inspection and operation of adequate facilities, and a full accounting of the disposition every single organism collected; yes, each individual.

How can the end-user be sure they're not contributing to cyanide and other poisoning of the reefs? One definite way; buy American. In Hawaii and other states and 'protectorates' all drugs are prohibited for collection; and these laws are enforced.

Not to leave them out, Australia, Singapore, Sri Lanka... also provide consistently good clean livestock.

Thank-you for granting me the opportunity to make this overall statement. Now on with the practical exercise; a few of the species which you can utilize this choice, the Butterflyfishes of Hawaii.

Classification Notes:

The Butterflyfish family Chaetodontidae are a very important part of the marine aquarium world. Several species are 'stock' items (the Longnoses, Raccoon, Threadfin, Poor Mans Moorish Idols or Heniochus, among others) due to their overall adaptability, willingness to eat, and hardiness toward disease.

Unfortunately, there are many varieties of chaetodonts that are offered in the trade that are nigh impossible to keep in captivity. Some are obligate corallivores, others just can't take the vagaries of captive handling and/or life in a small transparent box.

Of the 'good' B/Fs (industry shorthand for the family of butterflies) we are blessed with having some of the best available from the aloha state, Hawaii.

Natural Range: 

About a third of all the native animals and plants in Hawaii are endemic; that is, they're found only there. Hawaii has the amongst the world's highest percentage of unique flora and fauna. Of the twenty or so B/Fs from Hawaii three are endemic, the blue-stripe, lemon and multi-band are found nowhere else. You'll have to go to the source for these whereas the others may be bought from other places, but why?

Butterflyfishes from Hawaii span the range for their family; four (e.g. corallicola) to twelve inches (e.g. ephippium) as adults. Their size belies their need for large spaces. Please see notes under habitat.

The Best Butterflyfishes From Hawaii: (Hawaiian names in bold in parentheses)

Chaetodon auriga Forskaal, 1775, (kikakapu), the Threadfin Butterflyfish. With age grows a trailing filament from the posterior dorsal fin. To eight inches long. Feeds principally on sessile invertebrates, including cnidarians and algae. Hawai'i image.

Chaetodon lunula (Lacepede, 1802), (kikakapu), Though not as attractive as its namesake in the Red Sea (C. fasciatus), the Indo-Pacific Raccoon is just as hardy, and a very good choice for eating pest Aiptasia anemones in reef tanks, though it will consume coral polyps in some cases. Hawai'i image.

Chaetodon miliaris Quoy & Gaimard, 1825, (lau wiliwili), the Lemon or Milletseed Butterflyfish. Light yellow overall with pinhead black spots over the entire body. Mainly a feeder on zooplankton, cleaner as a juvenile. Hawaiian endemic species. Most common member of family in the islands. Hawai'i image. 

Chaetodon (Roaops) tinkeri Schultz 1951, Tinker's Butterflyfish. Mainly found and collected in deep water in Hawaii, but also found in Johnston Atoll, the Marshalls... A hardy species where caught, acclimated properly to captive conditions. Aquarium and Hawai'i photos.

Forcipiger flavissimus  Jordan & McGregor 1898, Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish, Forcepsfish. Wide variety of foods taken, rarely corals. Widest distribution of B/Fs, from east coast of Africa to west coast of Central America. To eight inches overall length. Hawai'i image. 


Forcipiger longirostris (Broussonet 1782), Yellow Longnose, Long Longnose Butterflyfish. With a longer snout than its congener and patch of dark spots on the chest to distinguish the two. Also hardy and about the same size. From east African coast to mid-Pacific. Dark color males seasonally seen. Below: Bunaken, Indo. and two Hawai'i images. Note the small dark chest spots on middle specimen.

Heniochus diphreutes Jordan, 1903, the Pennantfish. What a great species. Though not often available from Hawaii in any quantity, and aka the Bannerfish, "Poor Man's Moorish Idol" is a sure winner from here. Hawai'i images.

Heniochus diphreutes; HI      1/29/14
Hello Bob & Crew!
Hope that things are well with you!
Just wanted to run a question by you since I know that you're quite familiar with Hawaii. I've contacted Kevin at Pacific Island Aquatics and he says that he is able to get Heniochus diphreutes quite easily which I've long been searching for my reef tank. In regards to species identification comparisons to H. acuminatus, he says that it doesn't matter due to the fact that only H. diphreutes inhabits the islands.
He says that it is impossible to find H. acuminatus there. I was not aware of this and wanted to see if you agree or not.
Thanks so much!
Joe W.
<Tis so: http://www.fishbase.org/summary/Heniochus-diphreutes.html
Bob Fenner> 

Medium Choices:

Though better than most western Pacific butterflies, the following are my less favored choices of Hawaiian B/Fs.

Chaetodon citrinellus Cuvier, 1831, (lauhau) the Speckled  Butterfly. Similar in appearance to the "true" lemon, but not as hardy. Feeds on coral polyps, other sessile invertebrates and algae. Range: all of the tropical Indo-Pacific. To five inches overall length. Cook Islands image.

Chaetodon excelsa, the Hawaiian Brown-Banded Butterflyfish. Generally found in depths of 300-600 feet. Listed here for completeness.

Take a very deep breath... go!

Chaetodon ephippium Cuvier, 1831, the (kikakapu), the Saddleback Butterflyfish To a large size (9") and too often collected too large for aquarium use (get one 3-4" best). Central and western Pacific. Very nice out of Hawai'i for use in the U.S. Broad feeder on benthic invertebrates including coral polyps. Gili Air, Indo. and HI photos.

Chaetodon kleinii Bloch, 1790, (lauhau) the Blacklip or Klein's Butterflyfish. Feeds principally on zooplankton and soft corals in the wild. Widespread in the central Pacific and tropical Indian Ocean To five inches in length.

Chaetodon multicinctus Garrett, 1863, (kikakapu), Pebbled or Multi-Banded Butterflyfish. Some other writers rate the pebbled with high marks in terms of beauty and hardiness. I cannot. To about five inches in length. A species restricted in distribution to the Hawaiian Islands.

Chaetodon unimaculata Bloch, 1787, (kikakapu), the Teardrop Butterflyfish. At its best, the Teardrop is an ideal aquarium fish, accepting all types of food readily, adapting well. Unfortunately, like the Saddleback, this species is received all too often in too beat up condition, perishing from bacterial infections (secondarily from physical trauma) and lack of feeding consequent to mouth damage. Cook Is. and HI images.

Hemitaurichthys polylepis (Bleeker, 1857) & Hemitaurichthys thompsoni Fowler, 1923, the Pyramid and Thompson's Butterflies. Unusual looking, but good species when acclimated properly. Both to about seven inches in length. Zooplanktivores.

Butterflies From Hawaii You Want To Avoid

These species historically do poorly, the vast majority rarely living more than a month.

Chaetodon fremblii Bennett, 1829, (kikkapu) the Bluestripe Butterflyfish. A lovely relic species; light yellow with blue lateral bands. Primarily a feeder on featherduster et. al. worm tentacles, other sessile invertebrates and algae. A Hawaiian Islands endemic. Hawai'i day and night images.

Chaetodon lineolatus Cuvier, 1831,  (kikakapu) the Lined Butterflyfish. The largest Butterfly (twelve inches), and a touchy species. Feeds principally on coral polyps and anemone tentacles in the wild. Widespread in the Indo-Pacific, usually near shore. Hawai'i image.

Chaetodon lunulatus Quoy & Gaimard 1824, the Redfin Butterflyfish. Easily confused with the Indian Ocean Redfin Butterflyfish, Chaetodon trifasciatus, this western Pacific to Hawaii congener fares no better in captivity. To about six inches long in the wild... leave it there. Here's a specimen in Fiji.

Chaetodon ornatissimus Cuvier, 1831, (kikakapu), the (most) Ornate Butterflyfish. A gorgeous strict coral eater. Best to go visit in its habitat. Almost always starves to death in captivity within weeks. Central to western Pacific distribution. To eight inches if it lives. Hawai'i image.

Chaetodon quadrimaculatus Gray, 1831 (lauhau), the Fourspot Butterflyfish. Mainly a feeder on... you guessed it, coral polyps. Widespread in the tropical central Pacific Ocean, an area otherwise known as Oceania. To about six inches total length. Juvenile and adult Hawai'i images.

Chaetodon reticulatus Cuvier, 1831, the Reticulated Butterflyfish. Also an obligate corallivore, only feeding on live coral polyps (and a small amount of algae, to be fair). Distributed throughout the tropical central and western Pacific. Cook Islands image.

Chaetodon lunulatus
Quoy & Gaimard, 1825, (kapuhili) and Chaetodon trifascialis Quoy & Gaimard, 1825, are the Melon and Chevron Butterflies. Besides being named by the same French shipmates in the early 19th century, these two are both impossible aquarium species, most refusing all food in captivity... except... live coral polyps! The Chevron is extremely rare from Hawai'i.

Chaetodon trifascialis Quoy & Gaimard 1824, Chevron Butterflyfish. This fish is way too often offered in the trade, belying it's wide distribution, mid-Pacific to the east coast of Africa and the Red Sea. Almost exclusively lives on eating Acroporid polyps. To seven inches in length.

Selection: General to Specific

Careful observation combined with knowing what to look for is key to all livestock purchase, especially so with the butterflies. Cuts and reddening, especially around the mouth, is almost always a harbinger of doom.

Shoot for specimens that are neither too little (less than 3") or too large (over 5"). Three to five inch individuals adapt best to aquarium conditions.  

Environmental: Conditions


Large (fifty plus gallon) systems with oversized filtration and circulation. Do provide open spaces and caves, slots to give the butterfly a sense it can "get away".


Butterflyfishes enjoy large clean water areas with little measurable organic load. They do well only with such water quality. If yours goes "off-color" check your water.

Behavior: Territoriality  Most species (with the exception of Heniochus) are best kept as singles unless the system is huge or the specimens are observed associating at the dealers. Generally only aggressive towards members of their own, or similar appearing species.


Best placed in aged (six months plus) systems with subdued lighting. Watch that newcomers are not being bullied.

Predator/Prey Relations

Eaten by larger predatory fishes in the wild and in aquaria.

Reproduction, Sexual Differentiation/Growing Your Own:

Some species have spawned in captivity, but the families' weird 'tholichthys' larval stage has resisted rearing to sub-adult size.


Butterflyfishes are one of the most accurately named groups. Their tremendous beauty in color and markings is similar to the Lepidoptera (the insect butterflies), as is their flitting swimming around and through their coral and rocky haunts.

Feeding/Foods/Nutrition: Types, Frequency, Amount, Wastes

A critical concern for these fishes is getting them established eating as soon as possible. Take a look at their mouths, the family name means "bristle-teeth". Their primary activity during light is searching for food. Make feedings frequent and varied to lessen boredom and the chance of mal- and lack of nutrition. Most good and 'medium' species accept all meaty foods in small enough sizes. Poor feeders, new specimens can be trained with live brine shrimp, living 'worms' of all sorts. A favorite trick of importers is offering a freshly opened clam or mussel intended for human consumption. Obviously even the smallest of butterflies will slowly consume a 'reef system'.

Be sure your butterflies are getting their share of foods. By and large they are not as aggressive as many fishes kept.

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

Quite susceptible to Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium. Routine dipping (freshwater with or without, copper, formaldehyde) and quarantine are encouraged.


It just makes better dollars and sense for wholesalers, retailers, hobbyists, aquarium service companies to buy 'local', from United States controlled areas, if the livestock they want can be gotten there.

Cast your votes for sustainable practices. Try the 50th state.

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, 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.

Burgess, Warren E. 1979. The raccoon butterflyfish, Chaetodon lunula. TFH 8/79.

Fenner, Robert. 2000. A Fishwatcher's Guide to the Tropical Marine Aquarium Fishes of the World. WetWebMedia, San Diego. 192pp. 

Gaffney, Rick. 1995. Like nowhere else (on Hawaii's endemics). Sport Diver 8,9/95.

Hoover, John. 1993. Hawaii's Fishes. A Guide for Snorkelers, Divers and Aquarists. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, HI. 183pp.

Hoover, John. 1995. Hawaii's butterflyfishes. FAMA 11,12/95.

Miklosz, John C. 1976. Hawaiian butterflies. Marine Aquarist 7(2):76.

Parker, Nancy J. 1976. Lemon butterfly. Marine Aquarist 7(7):76.

Refano, Joseph, 1985. Butterflies from Hawaii. FAMA 7/85.

Steene, Roger C., 1985. Butterfly & Angelfishes of the World, Vol. 1 Australia. Mergus Publ., Germany.

Stratton, Richard F., 1990. The teardrop butterflyfish. TFH 6/90.

Tinker, Spencer W. 1978. Fishes of Hawaii. Hawaiian Service, Inc.


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