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Related FAQs: Lipstick Tangs 1, Lipstick Tangs 2, Lipstick Tang Identification, Lipstick Tang Behavior, Lipstick Tang Compatibility, Lipstick Tang Selection, Lipstick Tang Systems, Lipstick Tang Feeding, Lipstick Tang Disease, Lipstick Tang Reproduction, & & Naso Tangs, Naso Tangs 2Naso Tangs 3, Naso ID, Naso Behavior, Naso Compatibility, Naso Selection, Naso Systems, Naso Feeding, Naso Disease, Naso Reproduction, Surgeons In General, Tang ID, Tang Behavior, Compatibility, Systems, Feeding, Disease,

Related Articles: Naso Genus Tangs, Surgeon Family, Acanthuridae, Ctenochaetus, Paracanthurus, Zebrasoma

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

The Naso, Orangespined or Lipstick Tang, Naso lituratus...
Give Me Room!

Bob Fenner

Naso lituratus, Red Sea

Surgeonfishes: Tangs for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

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by Robert (Bob) Fenner

    The Naso Tang of aquarium keeping is a regal beauty of grand proportions... and active ones at that! This species really only does well in systems that allow it to move, and grow... Of at least some six feet/two meters in length. Specimens attempted in smaller/shorter settings often "die mysteriously"... If you could come out and visit with them in the wild you would understand why this is so immediately.

    Other than room outstanding, the Lipstick Tang is quite undemanding. Most individuals take readily to captive conditions and a wide range of foods. The species is susceptible to the "usual suspects" that afflict reef fishes in general, and Surgeonfishes in particular. But this genus and species are actually more naturally disease-resistant and amenable to capture/holding/shipping (all are wild-collected at this point) than some of the touchy Acanthurus (e.g. the Powder Blue and Brown, the Achilles...).

    What you are challenged with is providing an adequate sized home and the basics of aquarium care... along with much in the way of food with growth/size... to have a true "horse of a fish" for years.

Lipstick Tang Identification,

    Nasos are members of the family of Surgeon, Doctorfishes or Tangs, Acanthuridae ("Ah-kan-thur-id-ee"), a group of  immense interest and use to the saltwater aquarium hobby.

    They further belong to the sub-family Nasinae, of one genus (Naso) and about seventeen species. These fishes are otherwise known as the Unicornfishes, as many species have a to-a-degree prominent "horn" that extends from their forehead. This subfamily may be externally distinguished from all other Surgeonfishes by their possession of two anal spines (versus three), and three soft pelvic rays (rather than five). Like all surgeons, those of the genus Naso sport sharp spiny processes (one or two) on their caudal peduncles; a formidable weapon.

Genus Naso ("Nay-zoh") for the most part is unknown to hobbyists with the exception of N. lituratus. Though this celebrated species is the acknowledged "pick of the litter" in color and markings, there are some other worthwhile Nasos. A few that make it into the hobby on a more or less regular basis are shown below:

Naso annulatus (Quoy & Gaimard 1825), the Whitemargin Unicornfish. Indo-Pacific; East Africa to Hawai'i. To a meter in length. This eight inch one off of Heron Island, Australia's Great Barrier Reef. 

Naso brachycentron (Valenciennes 1835), the Humpback Unicornfish. Indo-Pacific; eastern Africa to the Marquesan and Society Islands. To thirty six inches in length... yes a yard long. Off of Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia and N. Sulawesi. 

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. Hawai'i and Fiji pix.

Naso unicornis (Forsskal 1775), the Bluespine, Large or Bignose Unicornfish, is a deep-bodied species that develops a prominent rostral horn starting at about five inches length. The body is light olive to gray with yellowish highlights on the abdomen; to more than two feet. Adult and juvenile shown in Hawai'i.

Naso vlamingi (Valenciennes 1835), Vlaming's Unicornfish has naught but a convex nose bump for a horn. Adult males are especially beautiful with bright blue and white highlights over a dark blue body. Juvenile in Moorea, French Polynesia and Female in Pulau Redang, Malaysia shown.

And of course the "Star" of this article:

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, with males growing longer streaming caudal filaments. To some twenty inches long (w/o the tail!) in the wild. Below, a Naso in an aquarium, he business end of a Naso in Hawai'i, and a beautiful "streamer" (male) there getting cleaned by a Cleaner Wrasse. 

Natural Range Indo-Mid-Pacific; from Hawaii (the similar Indian Ocean, up into the Red Sea ones are now known as N. elegans; see coverage under the genus). This species and most of its subfamily associate with steep coral and rocky reefs; occasionally into deep open water. In recent ichthyological work, the Indian Ocean/Red Sea populations of Naso lituratus are now considered to represent a separate species, Naso elegans (Ruppell 1829), however, in the trade/hobby both are referred to as N. lituratus.

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The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.


And, the other Lipstick Tang (I.O. and Red Sea): Naso elegans
Naso elegans the Indian Ocean (and Red Sea) Orange-spined Unicornfish. To 45 cm.; similar to N. lituratus but found in I.O. and RS. Also similar feeding (on macroalgae). Mauritius 2016.

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The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Lipstick Tang Behavior

    Can you say cruising? And speed? Other than picking about on the reef all day time for their favorite foods (Brown Algae), Naso lituratus enjoy swimming over the reef, nearshore drop-offs and immediate open ocean. In captivity, much of the time is occupied in similar pursuits, with night time finding the species resting on the bottom, often under a ledge or against a rock.

     Concerning size in captivity and growth rate, most Naso lituratus top-out at about a foot standard length... this is a fisheries, ichthyological term: from the end of the snout/mouth to the bones of the tail called the hypurals... basically the caudal peduncle... the narrowing... Not the long elements of the tail fin itself... This species can grow surprisingly quickly, given space, food, good conditions overall... to this length in a couple of years.

Lipstick Tang Compatibility
    Though this species appears "cool, calm and collected" in the wild and most of the time in captivity, it can be a real "alpha" animal should it feel threatened, or too crowded... Again, large-enough quarters (at least  a six foot length "run") with not too many other fishes present... and placing it near or at as the very last specimen are suggested.

    And though this species is found at times in the wild in shoals of several individuals, it is indeed overtly territorial, particularly the "streaming" tail-finned males... and unless you have a system of humongous proportions (1000's of gallons), you should settle on keeping one specimen to a tank. The Lipstick Tang can go with other Naso species, as well as all other Tang genera/species.

    By and large, invertebrates are left alone by Nasos... including shrimps and crabs of more than mouth-size. Your Cnidarian sessile invertebrates may suffer from the copious wastes of this animal however.

Lipstick Tang Selection

1) Body Shape & Size: Have you ever seen full-size tangs, either diving in their domain, at a public aquarium, or an underwater photo? They're outright porky. The stomach areas of healthy surgeons may be pinched in, but they should be otherwise well-fleshed in appearance. Speaking from first hand experience, I can tell you that these marines often go unfed from collection to the wholesaler for days to weeks; this is wrong, and is too often the cause of later mortality. The practical implication here? Don't buy skinny Tangs!

Size at purchase I've lumped here to illustrate the link between it and body conformation. Smaller than 4" Naso tangs rarely live adapt to living in captivity, unless they're un-starved and placed in a setting with unlimited access to food. My advice? Buy larger (four plus inch) Unicornfishes. Can you get one that's too big? Sure, depending on the spatial assets of your set-up. I have seen more-than-a-foot Naso (lituratus) "streamers" (with long, trailing ends to the upper and lower margins of their caudal fin), placed with success in humungous systems. The same fish would die "mysteriously" of "behavioral problems" put in a six foot system. at purchase I've lumped here to illustrate the link between it and body conformation. Smaller than 4" Naso tangs rarely live adapt to living in captivity, unless they're un-starved and placed in a setting with unlimited access to food. My advice?

Like Goldilocks and the three bears... you want to avoid "too small" and too large specimens... Little and large/r ones ship poorly, starve easily, and poorly adapt to captive conditions... You want porridge and Naso lituratus tangs that are "just right", in terms of temperature and size range respectively. Something in the body length (not counting the caudal/tail fin) of four to five inches is about ideal. 

2) Swimming Behavior: Healthy, happy Unicornfishes are out and about during daylight, briskly moving horizontally along the length of their system. Sulking, hiding specimens should be refused. It may be that they've just been/are being cramped space-wise, but these fishes can be pushed over the edge psychologically to where they don't recover.

3) Feeding: is a prime concern with Naso species; they must be eating to qualify for purchase. Please refer back to the above criteria regarding.

4) Source Location: The best Naso lituratus, bar none, come out of the Red Sea; the second, the Hawaiian Islands. Talk to your supplier regarding the relative merits of added cost versus the likelihood of success of where they can get you surgeons.

5) Color: I want to mention as not being very important. The patterns and hues of Unicornfishes quickly change with for reasons apparent and not. They have fright, sleeping (on the bottom), feeding, fighting and more mood shifts. Should one be off-color at the moment, don't automatically count it out.

A note regarding moving members of the genus Naso: Be careful; if not for the fish, for yourself. These are powerful fishes that all too often launch themselves missile style when cornered or netted. They're skin is thick and tough, and those scalpel-like processes really sharp. Better to net guide would-be-caught fish into large double-bags underwater.

 Often you'll find that the "tangs" of a Naso seem to be missing or at least cut off to a degree... as if someone used a large "toe nail clipper" to snip them off... Well, this is actually likely the case. To avoid very nasty gashes, especially with larger specimens, the scalpel like processes are best clipped... And almost always (unless clipped "too far back"), will re-grow in time. An added advantage of this "clip job" is avoiding the very real potential of shipping bags being punctured as well... A note here for you... do avoid being sliced yourself... if/when netting a Naso (or any Tang for that matter). They are very sharp processes, and the owners do know how to use them.

Lipstick Tang Systems

    Lipstick tangs, like their congeners need high Dissolved Oxygen; as in their natural  habitat. Practically speaking there cannot be too much water movement, aeration.  Twenty times circulation is a good minimum, starting point... by way of filtration/recirculating pumps, powerheads and dedicated closed-loop circulation.

Lipstick Tang Feeding

    In the wild Naso lituratus mostly consumes Brown (Phaeophyte) macro-algae (e.g. the genera Dictyota, Sargassum), along with some Reds and Greens and some incidental and planktonic animal material. In captive settings, all sorts of foods, e.g. Mysid shrimp, Spirulina flake, Nori and other cultured or prepared for human-consumption algae are accepted. Feeding strikes may occur, and these should be met with foods soaked in Zoe, Selcon... vitamin prep. or appetite stimulants. Oh, and a "plug" for Pablo Tepoot's "Spectrum" fish foods... Have seen many fishes, including this and other tangs that you'd think would not be interested in feeding on pelleted foods, consume Spectrum with savor! And this fine line of foods is nutritionally complete.

    For such high-metabolism/movement animals, more frequent feedings are desirable... a few times daily is easily achieved with an automatic feeder. An ideal situation would be to have a VERY large lighted refugium associated with your main/display tank... where you could grow a bunch of live macroalgae and make parts of these colonies available for foraging every few days.

Lipstick Tang Disease

    The vast majority of "incidental losses" of this species in captivity are environmentally mediated... Caused by placing this animal in inappropriate circumstances... The road to heck may be paved with good intentions, but meaning to move a Naso into suitable quarters will not save it... even when small, this species needs room... Even a tiny specimen should be kept in nothing shorter on a length than four feet... Many die from "psychological stress" with little warning, or understanding by their hapless keepers, when kept in smaller, shorter confines. Related to too-small surroundings are the ills of low (hyp-) and a lack of (an-) -oxic, oxygen situations... often showing as gasping/panting behavior, pale color... and death. Of course, a larger volume also allows for dilution of such a large, active animal's copious waste production.

    Many Nasos develop "Pop-eye" problems, mechanical injuries from rough handling, small bag/shipping traumas... These by and large can/will heal themselves, given, once again, adequately large settings, and good, clean, well-oxygenated water. Oh, and a note re the practice of "de-clawing" just-collected Nasos... often their tangs are "clipped" (yes with "toe nail clippers") to prevent damage to the collector, other fishes in the collecting/holding gear. No long-term problem should arise from this practice. The "tangs" do grow back... in a few months time.

    Naso Tangs are susceptible to the twin common scourges of tropical Coral Reef parasitic Disease, Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium. Happily, as Surgeonfishes go, this genus is far less sensitive to the common toxic remedies for such (Copper compounds, Formalin...). Like their more touchy family members of the genera Zebrasoma, Ctenochaetus and some Acanthurus though, they should be administered with careful ongoing testing just the same, and at the lower end of physiological dose (e.g. 0.20 or so ppm of free Cupric ion).  The use of Copper with these fishes is important for more than external reasons. Exposure for more than a treatment interval (two weeks usually) can result in the destruction of their needed gut fauna... akin to our E. coli... and re-introduction of same (via coprophagous behavior likely) is necessary.

Lipstick Tang Reproduction

    I ran across a gentleman years back on Hawai'i's Big Island (at NELHA, formerly OTEC on the west coast) who was investigating the reproduction and rearing of this species as an aquaculture specimen... Unfortunately, tangs have quite long pelagic larval stages, resulting in a good deal of cost to house and feed them... raise them up to commercial size.

    I know of folks in Polynesia that do catch this fish as post larvae at times, but as far as I'm aware, all Surgeonfishes are wild-collected (at this time).


    The Naso is not a fish for anyone... This species is too-often lost for simple lack of knowledge and follow-through in providing sufficient space (a minimum of a six foot run... much larger when adult), useful/recognized foods (macroalgae) which can be grown, and/or purchased from your LFS, etailers of the oriental food store, and vigorously moved, well-filtered water. If you don't have these conditions, look for other species.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

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

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, H. 1975? Useful information on surgeon fish. Aquarium Digest Intl. #29, pp 31-33., #31, pp 28-29.

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

Debelius, Helmut & Hans A. Baensch. 1994. Marine Atlas. Mergus, Germany. 1,216pp.

Jones, Lawrence L.C. 1988. Care and maintenance of tangs in captivity. Part one: Food and feeding. FAMA 10/88.

Maisey, John G. 1996. Fossil Surgeonfishes. TFH 4/96.

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.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World. 3rd Ed. Wiley.

Nelson, S.G. & Y.M. Chiang. 1993. An exploratory analysis of the food habits of herbivorous Surgeonfishes (Acanthuridae) from

Smith's Sea Fishes. Springer-Verlag, Germany. (Acanthuridae) pp 811-823.

Sands, David. 1994. Superb surgeons. FAMA 10/94.

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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