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Related Articles: RabbitfishesSiganids of the Malay-Indonesian Region

/The Conscientious Reef Aquarist

Rabbitfishes, Family Siganidae of the Indo-Malay Region

Bob Fenner

  Siganus virgatus

Most any reefer in the know is aware of the better species and genera of Surgeonfish/Doctorfish/Tangs (family Acanthuridae) that do a good to great job of eating filamentous and encrusting green and diatom algae. The Comb-Tooth and Sailfin genera Ctenochaetus and Zebrasoma rank supreme in this maintenance duty... with a few notable Acanthurus vying for top spots. Well, this is a tale of a related family of fishes (same Sub-order, Acanthuroidei) the Rabbitfishes, and their facility as avid algae eaters for marine systems as well.

    The family of Rabbitfishes, Siganidae includes 27 species of mainly marine (some venture into estuaries) tropical Indo-Pacific and eastern Mediterranean fishes. Among other unifying structural characteristics are their single row of bicuspid incisiform teeth in both jaws used for their principally herbivorous diet. 

    Thirteen Siganids are schooling species, fourteen are associated more with coral reefs. Here we'll cover the ones of both varieties found in the vicinity of Malaysia and Indonesia in the South Pacific. 

Indo-Malayan Reef Species for Aquarium Use: There are other, larger, less beautiful, more-schooling/open water species. The following are the best choices for captive systems. 

Siganus argenteus (Quoy & Gaimard 1825), the Streamlined Spinefoot. Indo-Pacific, including the Red Sea. To sixteen inches maximum length. Feeds almost exclusively on algae in the wild. Pictured: a specimen in Pulau Redang, Malaysia.

Siganus corallinus (Valenciennes 1835), the Blue-Spotted Spinefoot. Indo-West Pacific; Seychelles to New Caledonia. To eleven inches long in the wild. Lives in and amongst corals. This one off of Pulau Redang, Malaysia. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Country/

Siganus doliatus Guerin-Meneville 1829-38, the Barred Spinefoot. Western Pacific. To nine or so inches in length. A beauty that is often collected for the trade out of Vanuatu, Tonga and Fiji, the last where this photo was made.

Siganus guttatus (Bloch 1787), the Orange-Spotted Spinefoot. Indo-west Pacific. To sixteen inches long in the wild. A species of increasing popularity with reef-keepers for its beauty and algae eating activity. One in Pulau Redang, Malaysia, another in S. Sulawesi. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Country/

Siganus javus (Linnaeus 1766), the Streaked Spinefoot. Indo-Pacific; Persian Gulf to India to the Philippines, Indonesia. This one in Pulau Redang, Malaysia. to a maximum length of twenty one inches. 

Siganus magnificus (Burgess 1977), the Magnificent Rabbitfish. Eastern Indian Ocean, known from Thailand's western coast. To nine inches in length. A super aquarium/reef specimen. This one in captivity.

Siganus puellus (Schlegel 1852), the Masked Spinefoot. Indo-west Pacific. To fifteen inches in length. Another good choice for marine aquarium and reef system use. Australia, off Heron Island on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef and Pulau Redang, Malaysia. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Country/

Siganus punctatus (Schneider 1801), the Goldspotted Spinefoot. Western Pacific and eastern edge of the Indian Ocean. To sixteen inches long in the wild. These ones in aquariums. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Country/

Siganus stellatus (Forsskal 1775), the Brownspotted Spinefoot, or more often in the pet-trade, the Stellar Rabbitfish. Western Indian Ocean. To sixteen inches long in the wild. Shown below are specimens in the Red Sea, and a night/fright colored individual in captivity.

Siganus virgatus, the Double-Barred Spinefoot, is named for its twin oblique barring pattern and the experience of unfortunate beachcombers who have stepped on it. S. virgatus is a great marine "algae eater", and more outgoing than the Foxface. Occurs mainly in pairs as larger juveniles, adults.  To a foot in length in the wild. 

The Foxface or Fox-fish, Siganus (Lo) vulpinis is the Rabbitfish to many. Amongst its family the Foxface has a longer tubular snout. A contrasting golden yellow body is offset by a dark diagonal eye-band and chest patch, emarginated in white. Your Foxface can serve as a good bio-indicator, as they quickly lose color and "blotch out" depending on their mood. Image on Pulau Redang, Malaysia.  http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Country/

    Selection: General to Specific

Size is a strong criterion; smaller individuals are more colorful and adapt more readily to the vagaries of aquarium life. An ideal range for purchase is somewhere between 3-4 inches overall length.

Color can be deceiving as individuals are very labile in changing such with their immediate mood. A "happy" specimen is to be selected for, but don't necessarily disqualify a fish as unsuitable due to temporary fright or nighttime coloration; they change dramatically and fast.

Damage like red spots contraindicate a purchase, though torn fin membranes are not a danger sign, and quickly repair. 

Environmental: Conditions


Of the twenty seven described species, 13 are open-range schooling, with the other 14 mainly living among coral reefs. How to tell which you're looking at? See above, trust your dealer, read up, look at enough printed images, get a very large tank... The species currently offered in the trade (and all the others I've had occasion to view in Public Aquariums) generally adapt supremely to captive conditions. All should be offered sufficient caves and crannies for shelter.

Chemical/Physical: Filtration

Rabbitfishes are not particularly fussy as regards general water quality. Due to their continuous daytime browsing and waste production, medium to strong circulation and oversized power filtration is a plus.


Of the few dozen species of marine fishes our service company used, the Foxface, Lo vulpinis was a ready favorite. Though shy, its inquisitive nature and bright pattern made it a finger-pointing favorite of customers and their visitors. Two conditions allowed for successful keeping and show; a large, and stress-free environment. Physically the tank has to be big for swimming and growing space; and emotionally tankmates have to be matched that are not too rambunctious. We employed many 75 and 90 hexagons and 60 plus gallon regular tanks with Lions, gentler Tangs and Batfishes with Rabbits.

Behavior: Territoriality

Due to their venomous spines and readiness to use them, most predators give Rabbitfishes wide berth; alternatively, they are typically casual toward other fishes... with one exception; members of their own kind. Though many species school together in the wild and may be presented to you as more than one to a tank at the dealers, you are best advised to maintain them solitarily (or as a pair if they are) unless blessed with a system of several hundred to thousands of gallons in volume.

If you must have more than one specimen, or species of siganid, provide plenty of crevices, do your best to place them all at once, and/or select individuals of different size.


First a note re netting: as with other venomous aquatics, I strongly suggest you utilize two nets to direct these fishes into a stationary underwater container (jar, specimen box, bag), rather than lifting the animal into the air. Do not risk painful envenomation by cradling or placing your hand in harms way, gloved or not. Punctures are painful, immediately, and may require medical inspection.

Once the fish is "home" it is best placed and left alone unfed in an unlighted system for a day. Rabbitfishes are one of my exceptions to the general rule of quarantine; most are clean and ready to go with just a preventative freshwater dip. Put another way, moving them again is not worth the damage that the small potential for disaster warrants from simple introduction to the main/display system.

Predator/Prey Relations

Rabbitfishes are not to be trusted with non-fishes as their grazing habits often extend to macro-algae, and invertebrates of all kinds. If you employ a small individual to keep your reef system tidy, do keep your eye on it should it sample your corals, et al to destruction.

Reproduction, Sexual Differentiation/Growing Your Own:

There are reports of aquarium captive spawning brought on by changes in water depth and salinity; and evidence of estuarine reproduction in the wild in some species. Several species are regularly spawned by mariculture concerns as food fishes.

Like the other families in their suborder (see above), siganid young pass through a transparent planktonic larval stage termed the acronurus.

Some species show difference in color and size, females being slightly larger, less colorful, when about the same size and age.

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

Rabbitfishes have small mouths specially adapted for browsing on their principal food, algae. They must have rough or prepared vegetable material in their diet daily. This is not to dissuade you from offering meaty, flake or even pelletized foods as these are largely accepted; but without their greens Siganids tend to dwindle and fade.

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

The Rabbitfishes are amongst the most sturdy, disease-free animals the hobby can get; they are generally the last in the tank to die from any given cause.


The Rabbitfishes are not as showy or outgoing as marine Angels or Butterflyfishes, but don't pass them off as undesirable aquarium specimens. They readily adapt and make hardy additions; just remember the poison glands at the base of their spiny rayed fins when handling these fishes.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Baensch, Hans & Helmut Debelius, 1994.Marine Atlas, v. 1.. Mergus, Germany.

Burgess, Warren E., 1977. The genus Lo. TFH 10/77.

Burgess, Warren E., Herbert R. Axelrod & Raymond E. Hunziker III, 1990. T.F.H. Publications, Inc. NJ.

Jones, Lawrence Lee Cooke, 1981. A review of the Rabbitfishes. FAMA 10/81.

Nelson, Joseph S., 1994. Fishes of the World, 3rd Ed. John Wiley & Sons, NY.

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