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Related FAQs: Red Sea Butterflyfishes, Golden Butterflyfish, & 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, Hawai'i, Maldives

To: A Fishwatcher's Guide to the Red Sea, Red Sea Aquarium Biotopes: Reef Flats, Reef Slope, Sandy Slope,

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

The Best Butterflyfishes From the Red Sea

Bob Fenner

Two pair!

Butterflyfishes for Marine

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

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

With normalization of international relations in and around the Middle east, improvement of transport, and general "waking-up" to the realization of its potential, the aquaristic trade is seeing more collection from the Red Sea than ever before. This is a real boon for the hobbyist for it has done what free-market pressures do; increase availability and decrease costs. Many varieties of livestock, a great deal of which is endemic (only found there), are finally to be had, and for less than a mortgage payment.

Where and what is this magical place? The Red Sea is a narrow (20-190 miles) body of seawater extending and forking up from the Indian ocean. It is about 1,200 miles length largely between Africa (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti) and Arabia (Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen), forming the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez to the north. Intact coral reefs run almost unbroken along the shallows of it's coast.

Due to high and dry weather, there is some 1,600 inches of evaporation a year, resulting in an elevated consistent water density... Due to isolation and concurrent lack of genetic recruitment, this area has the second (behind Hawaii) highest degree of endemism (some 17-32 percent of species of inshore fishes are found only there).

The underwater life is bolder and more colorful than anywhere else on the planet; one colorful explanation states that when the angels were going about painting the world, they took un poco siesta at the site and accidentally spilled all the leftover paints in the Red Sea... The fish and corals and most everything else is brighter and sturdier coming from here.

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, Heniochus, among others) due to their overall beauty, adaptability, availability, and hardiness against disease.

However, there are many varieties of chaetodonts that are near impossible to keep in captivity. Some are known to only eat live coral polyps, others just don't take captive handling and/or life in a small artificial environment.

Of the 'good' B/Fs (industry shorthand for the family of butterflies) there are more than a handful that can be gotten from the Red Sea. The following is my tally of the best, medium and worst varieties; my opinions from handling thousands of specimens, traveling and writing in the interest of aquaristics for going on thirty years.

The Best Butterflyfishes From the Red Sea:

Chaetodon auriga auriga, Red Sea

Chaetodon auriga, Hawai'i, Indo-Pacific

Chaetodon auriga Forsskal, 1775,  the Threadfin Butterflyfish; so named for a trailing filament that grows from the posterior dorsal fin. Some writers recognize a subspecies, Chaetodon auriga auriga confined to the Red Sea; this form lacks the "regular" auriga's dark spot on the soft dorsal fin. (see pix for examples). Feeds on a wide range of sessile invertebrates, including coral polyps.

Chaetodon fasciatus, Red Sea Raccoon 

Chaetodon lunula, Hawai'i, Indo-Pacific

Chaetodon fasciatus Forsskal, 1775, the Red Sea Raccoon Butterflyfish, an almost dead ringer for the wider spread Hawaii to Indo-Pacific Chaetodon lunula (Lacepede 1803), the Raccoon Butterflyfish to folks in the west. The Red Sea form is much brighter yellow, lacks the tail band of the wider-ranging species and has much smaller white and black head bands.

Chaetodon melannotus Bloch & Schneider 1801, the Black-Backed Butterflyfish. Once acclimated, some folks swear by these; I'm one of them. Widespread throughout the tropical Indo-west Pacific. To about six inches maximum length.

Chaetodon mesoleucos Forsskal 1775, the White-Face Butterflyfish. Though not very colorful, and a frequent bully, a good feeder if/when it settles in. Red Sea and Gulf of Aden endemic. To about six inches total length.

Chaetodon paucifasciatus Ahl 1923, the Red-Back or Crown Butterflyfish. Only from the Red Sea and one of my favorites. An opportunistic omnivore, feeding on benthic marine invertebrates of all kinds, including coral polyps. To five inches in length.

Chaetodon semilarvatus Cuvier, 1831, the Golden, or Blue Mask Butterflyfish. A fabulous fish for beauty, swimming grace and hardiness. A large species (to plate size) that accepts all types of foods in captivity, feeding mainly on polyps of hard and soft corals in the wild. A Red Sea, Gulf of Aden endemic species.

Forcipiger flavissimus Jordan & McGregor 1898, the Forcepsfish, often sold as the Longnose Butterflyfish in the west, though this name should be reserved for the congener with a longer snout, Forcipiger longirostris (Broussonet 1782). An aquarium standard over it's broad collection range. Broad feeder on tube-feet of echinoderms, tentacular crowns of Polychaete worms, fish eggs, small crustaceans... To a maximum length of eight inches overall.

Heniochus intermedius

Heniochus diphreutes

Heniochus intermedius Steindachner 1893, and Heniochus diphreutes Jordan 1903, also variously called Bannerfishes, Wimplefisch, Poor-man's Moorish idols. The first is the Red Sea Bannerfish, the latter the Schooling Bannerfish; banners for their long, trailing dorsal fins. What great aquarium species.

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 lineolatus Cuvier 1831, the Lined Butterflyfish. Dear Reader, I know I've written that this species doesn't make it when imported from elsewhere (Hawaii, Indonesia), but it does better when from the Red Sea. Up to a foot long, the largest Butterflyfish species. For well-established, very large systems only.

Chaetodon vagabundus Linnaeus 1758, the Vagabond Butterflyfish. The ichthyologist Jerry Allen likes this one better than myself and other industry types. Widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific to the central Pacific. Not to be confused with the much hardier Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish, Chaetodon decussatus Cuvier 1831.

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 enjoy a challenge I say; study up before you buy.

Chaetodon austriacus Ruppell 1835, the Exquisite Butterflyfish. A coral eating Red Sea, Gulf of Aden endemic; leave it there. To five inches overall length.

Chaetodon larvatus Cuvier 1831, the Redhead or Orange-Face Butterflyfish. Don't confuse this beautiful but difficult species with the other endemic with a similar name, Chaetodon semilarvatus which does very well in captivity.

Chaetodon leucopleura Playfair 1866, the Somali Butterflyfish. Allen gives this species higher marks than I do; I've yet to see any live very long. Distribution: western Indian Ocean into lower half of the Red Sea.


Chaetodon trifascialis Quoy & Gaimard 1824, the Chevron or Chevroned Butterflyfish. Widespread in the Indo-Pacific to Central Pacific. To seven inches overall length.

These are impossible aquarium species, most specimens refuse all food in captivity. They are all, regrettably, commonly imported and offered for sale.


 Butterflyfishes offered from countries bordering the Red Sea are typically of medium to large proportions.

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


Red Sea butterflies need large (fifty plus gallon) systems with oversized filtration and circulation. A good rule of thumb is to provide each with at least twenty gallons of space.


A very pertinent note regarding Red Sea livestock and specific gravity. Seawater here is saltier, up to some 10% (about 4.2% percent of total) more than the rest of the worlds oceans. Your system should be too. Many folks keep their spg 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 "low" for Red Sea stock is 1.025-1.027.



Most species (with the exception of the two Heniochus) 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, or similar appearing species.


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 these Butterflyfishes alone though they are eaten by larger predatory fishes in the wild and may be in aquariums.

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

Quite susceptible to the 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 of the best fishes come from the Red Sea, even if their geographic distribution extends to elsewhere; what's more, many of the fishes there are found only there, including some real beauties. Happily for us, other countries and collecting companies are cashing in and shipping more Red Sea livestock and for much better prices than ever before.

The several Butterflyfishes that come from the area suffer from the general conditions of their family: some are far more suitable for aquarium keeping than others. You can help yourself and the environment by casting your votes/dollars by being a conscientious marine aquarist; providing a suitable environment, proper husbandry, and 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, 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.

Hough, Dennis. 1996. The Red Sea's Gulf of Eilat. TFH 6/96.


Mayland, Hans J, trans. by A.K. Hagenlocher, 1972. A portrait of two fishes (C. larvatus & semilarvatus). Marine Aquarist 3(5):72.

Mayland, Hans J., trans. by U. Erich Friese. 1976. Some Red Sea fishes. Marine Aquarist 7:5, 76.

Rashad, Byron K. 1996. Red Sea Fish for the reef aquarium; Jewels of the desert sea. FAMA 5/96.

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

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