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Related FAQs: Triggerfishes in General, Triggerfish: Identification, Selection, Selection 2, Compatibility, Trigger Compatibility 2, Behavior, Systems, Feeding, Diseases, Triggerfish Health 2, Triggerfish Health 3, Reproduction,

Accounts by Genera: Balistapus, Balistes, Balistoides, Canthidermis, Melichthys, Pseudobalistes, Rhinecanthus, Sufflamen, Xanthichthys,

Related Articles: Triggerfishes 2, Red Sea Triggerfishes, Hawaiian Triggerfishes, Queen Trigger,

/The Best Livestock for A Marine Aquarium (Series)

Bruisers and Cruisers, the Triggerfishes, Family Balistidae

Bob Fenner

 Balistoides viridescens

Triggerfishes for  Marine
Diversity, Selection &Care

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

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

As far as hardiness, intelligence and any measure of outgoingness, there is no doubt the Triggerfishes receive the highest of scores. As a group these fishes greedily consume any/all types and seemingly amounts of foods. Though they are susceptible to infectious disease, they're also among the fastest to recover and are not easily poisoned by aquarium "remedies".

About the only downside of Balistid keeping, and it's a big one is there overt, and at times agonistic personalities. Everyone has favorite stories to tell about these fishes. The "cute" spitting Clown Trigger that bit the bejeesus out of someone's finger. The big Undulatus that moved all the gravel and rock around the tank, pulled up the undergravel filter risers, then committed hara-kiri by smashing the aquarium heater against the tanks side. The Niger that spends all its spare time "locked in" with its trigger, upside-down!

Yes, these fishes ARE characters, and if anything else universal can be stated about them: they're individualistic. Some members of the same species can be kept in very peaceful surroundings. I've seen some housed in full-blown reef systems. Other specimens of the same species can be unholy terrors, outright consuming any real or potential "tankmates".

Here are my notes on their relative aquarium survivability, with (hopefully) useful notes on selection and practical husbandry.

Balistids Taxonomically:

You know the members of this group by their general body plan. Laterally compressed, rough, plate-like skin, square-tailed, with three dorsal spines that along with their distensible underside help them "lock" themselves in places where you and I can't pull them out. All have canine like teeth for crushing and if you're interested 18 vertebrae.

The family comprises eleven genera of approximately forty species, about half of which make it into marine aquarists tanks.

The Triggerfishes range in size as much as temperament. Some species stay under a foot in length, a few to three feet or so! Geographically they are found throughout the warm parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Some are circumtropical. 

Rating and Buying Triggerfishes:

As alluded to above, most Triggerfish species offered in the trade rank the highest score (a 1) in my book in terms of aquarium survivability. This is of course given a few, actually two provisos: One, that you secure initially healthy specimens (usually no problem), and two, that they are procured at a reasonably small (but not too tiny) size. For most species the latter practical range is a few to a handful of inches in total length. All triggers are wild collected, and most of only an inch or so to start will do all right, but the two to five inchers are more sure-fire for adapting to captive conditions. 

Aquarium Species: By Genera:

Abalistes stellatus (Bloch & Schneider 1801), the Starry Triggerfish,  is offered most often out of the Indian Ocean, but it is even better out of the Red Sea. To a length of two feet overall. Aq. pic.
Anthony Gill There are actually two species recognised in the genus. The other, A. filamentosus, was described in 2004 by Matsuura and Yoshino. Here's an image from their paper - A. is A. filamentosus; B,C are A. stellatus.
/Joe Fish: https://reefs.com/2017/03/08/extremely-rare-hairfin-triggerfish-abalistes-filamentosus-collected/?fbclid=IwAR01qJ8qQnoh9eozDbqXMVuuerQ49BtCGbQBo63A1-HaR3i9QmzaKcPxihQ

Photo by Grant Gray

The genus Balistapus: monotypic.

Balistapus undulatus (Park 1797), the Undulated  or Orange-Lined Triggerfish is both loved and vilified in our hobby. On the one hand it's a gorgeous species that is very hardy. On the other it can be a pure terror towards its tank-mates, eating or "sampling" them all to death. Don't despair if you have a penchant for keeping this fish. True, most Indo-Pacific ones are mean to a fault and must be kept only with like-mad-minded fishes, but do look for the more mellow Red Sea specimens if you can. These are much more peaceful toward other species. An Undulated Trigger in the Red Sea above, and a small individual ( three inches) in captivity, six inch specimens in French Polynesia and the Red Sea respectively below. Link To Larger Pix.

The genus Balistes: four species.

Much more beautiful but the embodiment of aggression in a marine tropical is the Queen Triggerfish, Balistes vetula Linnaeus 1758,  from the Atlantic. This is a MEAN fish, biting machine that must be kept with basses, puffers and other animals too unpalatable to bite or mean and smart enough to bite back. To two feet in length. Pictured below: A two inch "tiny" specimen, a fifteen inch monster in captivity, and a foot long beauty in the Bahamas. Link To Larger Pix

The genus Balistoides: two species.

The Clown Trigger, Balistoides conspicillum (Bloch & Schneider 1801), grows to sixteen or so inches. A two inch aquarium specimen and  maximum size individuals in the Maldives and N. Sulawesi shown. Get one small, and feed it sparingly... and keep your eye on it and your other livestock... this is an Alpha species that typically takes over a system of any size... and woe be to the tankmates that don't get and stay out of its way. Link To Larger Pix

The genus Canthidermis: three species.

Another all-gray contender is the tropical West Atlantic Ocean Triggerfish, Canthidermis Sufflamen (Mitchell 1850). This is another candidate for regional Public Aquariums with space to spare. To twenty six inches in length. Open ocean species. Bahamas pic.

The genus Melichthys: three species.

Melichthys indicus (Randall & Klausewitz 1973), the Indian Triggerfish. Indian Ocean, Red Sea including east African coast. To ten inches in length. A good fish-only aquarium species. This one in the Maldives.

The genus Odonus: monotypic.

The Red-Toothed or Niger Trigger, Odonus niger (Ruppell 1836), gets its first name from the color around the mouth that develops as the fish attains maximum size (to 18 inches). Indo-Pacific, Red Sea.  This is generally a medium aggressive species, safe for rough and tumble fish-only systems. Below: an aquarium specimen, one in Moorea, French Polynesia, another in the Red Sea. 

The genus Pseudobalistes: three species.

The Blue Line Triggerfish ("Yellow-Spotted Triggerfish" to science), Pseudobalistes fuscus (Bloch & Schneider 1801). Indo-Pacific, Red Sea, east African coast to South Africa. To twenty two inches in length. Below  juveniles of four and eight inches in captivity and a full size adult in the Red Sea shown.

The genus Rhinecanthus: seven valid species.

From further out in the western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea comes another "Picasso", or (preferably) the Assasi Trigger, Rhinecanthus assasi (Forsskal 1775). This one in the Red Sea. To one foot in length.

The genus Sufflamen: five species.

Bluethroat or Whitetail Trigger, Sufflamen albicaudatus (Ruppell 1829). Western Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman. A beauty and peaceful as triggers go. Have even seen this species kept in reef systems. To eight inches in length. Female and male in the Red Sea pictured.

The genus Xanthichthys: five species.

Like the Blue Throat or Gilded Triggerfish, Xanthichthys auromarginatus (Bennett 1832), that are true reef dwellers. Here is a female and a male off of Maui, Hawai'i. Indo-west Pacific. To about a foot total length.

The genus Xenobalistes: monotypic.

Xenobalistes punctatus Heemstra & Smith 1983, the Outrigger Triggerfish. The smallest member of the family at under four inches total length. Southeast Atlantic off South Africa. Pelagic, associated with flotsam.

No pic.


Are there more triggers than you thought? Definitely many that get a LOT bigger then you previously were aware of. My advice (the garbage mail of conversation?) is self-evident: stick with the smaller, more peaceful genera Rhinecanthus and Sufflamen triggers unless you have a HUGE system with TOUGH, TOUGH, TOUGH tankmates to go along with the big and bad species. Sure, they may seem cute and easygoing enough at the dealers when they're small, but they do get as large as I've listed here, and often "mean" along with growth. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Anon. The red-toothed trigger fish. Aquarium Digest Intl. #31.

Berry, F.H. & L.E. Vogele. 1966. Triggerfishes (Balistidae) of the E. Pacific. Calif. Acad. Sci. Ser. 4, 34:429-474.

Borsom, Michael. Clown triggers. The clown trigger, although expensive, could well become your favorite fish. FAMA 9/92.

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

Campbell, Douglas G. 1979. Fishes for the beginner; A guide for the new marine hobbyist - part five; Triggerfish. FAMA 3/79.

Chlupaty, Peter 1991. The blue-and-gold triggerfish, Pseudobalistes fuscus. TFH 4/91.

Clothier, C.R. 1939. The trigger mechanism of a triggerfish (Capriscus polylepis). Calif. Fish Game 25:233-236.

Dareste, C. 1872B. On the natural affinitions of the Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat Hist. Ser. 4, 10:68-70.

Dareste, C. 1872B. On the natural affinitions of the Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat Hist. Ser. 4, 10:68-70.

Edmonds, Les 1994. Trigger happy fish. TFH 8/94.

Emmens, Cliff W. 1984. Triggerfishes. TFH 5/84.

Fenner, Robert. 1997. Rating the Triggerfishes of the Red Sea. TFH 10/97.

Fenner, Robert M. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist; A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.

Flood, Andrew Colin. 1997. The trouble with triggers. TFH 2/97.

Fong, Jack. 1992. The ten most aggressive triggers. TFH 12/92.

Fraser-Brunner, A. 1935A. Notes on the plectognath fishes I. A synopsis of the genera of the family Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist. Ser. 10, 15:658-663.

Frische, Joachim & Claudia Lissner. 1991. The clown triggerfish: A personal tale. TFH 12/91.

Fukui, et al. Occurrence of polytoxin in the triggerfish Melichthys vidua. Toxicon. 25(10):1121-1124.

Heemstra, P.C.; Smith, M.M. 1983. A new species of the triggerfish genus Xenobalistes

Matsuura (Tetraodontiformes: Balistidae) from South Africa. Spec. Publ. J.L.B. Smith Inst. Ichthyol.; no. 26.

Herre, Albert W.C.T. 1924. Poisonous and worthless fishes. An account of the Philippine plectognaths. Phil. J.Sci. 25,no.2.

Holliday, L. 1987. Marine fish of the month. No. 7. Triggerfish. Practical Fishkeeping, April 1987, 62-63.

Krechmer, Michael 1995. The labyrinth triggerfish, Pseudobalistes fuscus. TFH 5/95.

Jordan, D.S. & J.O. Snyder. 1901. A Review of the Triggerfishes, filefishes and trunkfishes of Japan. Proc. U.S. Natl. Mus. 25:251-286.

Manooch, C.S. III & C.L. Drennon. 1987. Age & Growth of yellowtail snapper and queen triggerfish collected from U.S. Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico. Fish Res. (Amst.) 6(1):53-68.

Michael, Scott W. 1995. Trigger talk. SeaScope, v. 12, Summer 95.

Michael, Scott W. 1995. Bad beauty; a triggerfish that is bad to the bone (B. undulatus). AFM 12/95.

Michael, Scott W. 1997. Triggerfishes. A great reason for having a saltwater tank. AFM 2/97.

Miklosz, John C. 1972. Trigger Fishes. Marine Aquarist Magazine. 3(2), 1972.

Murray, J.; Griffith, O.; Johnson, J. 1984. Triggerfish: The snow white challenge. Sea Grant Publ. N.C. Univ. Sea Grant Prog. A brochure on preserving, dressing and preparing Balistids for recreational fisherpeople.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3d ed. John Wiley & Sons, NY. 600pp.

Parker, Nancy J. 1977. Picasso trigger. Marine Aquarist 8:1(77).

Pyle, Richard L. 1992. The clown triggerfish Balistoides conspicillum. FAMA 5/92.

Randall, John E. & Roger C. Steene. 1983. Rhinecanthus lunula, A new species of triggerfish from the South Pacific. FAMA 7/83.

Randall, J.E. & J.T. Millington. 1990. Triggerfish bite - a little known marine hazard. J. Wilderness Med. 1(2) 1990:79-85

Randall, John E. 1996. Shore Fishes of Hawai'i. Natural World Press, OR.

Stratton, Richard. F. 1988. The queen of the seas. TFH 8/88.

Stratton, Richard F. 1988. The Picasso triggerfish. TFH 12/88.

Stratton, Richard F. 1989. The clown triggerfish. TFH 3/89.

Stratton, Richard F. 1989. The masked triggerfish, Rhinecanthus rectangulus. TFH 12/89.

Stratton, Richard F. 1990. The enchanting rogue (B. undulatus). TFH 10/90.

Stratton, Richard F. 1991. The white-lined trigger. TFH 5/91.

Stratton, R.F. 1993. Another look at the Picasso triggerfish. T.F.H. 3/93.

Stratton, Richard F. 1995. The triggerfish mystique. TFH 11/95.

Takai, A. & Y Ojima. 1987. Comparative chromosomal studies in three Balistid fishes. Kromosomo (Tokyo) Nos. 47-48. 1987. 1545-1550, illustr.

Taylor, F.J.R. 1984. Human and domestic animal fatalities, as well as skin reactions, associated with the "rough triggerfish", Canthidermis maculatus (Bloch) in

Dominica, West Indies, following Hurricane David.

Tepoot, Pablo & Ian M. 1996. Marine Aquarium Companion, Southeast Asian Volume. New Life Publications, FL

Tyler, Jones. 1980. Osteology, phylogeny & higher taxonomy of the Order Plectognathi (Tetraodontiformes). NOAA Tech. Rept. NMFS Circ 434:1-422 /or Acad. Nat. Sci. Philad. Monog. 16, 364pp.


Triggerfishes for  Marine
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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