By Bob Goemans
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Two Little Fishies 

Butterflies in My Aquariums

Authored by: Bob Goemans

First printed in TFH, June 2006

These marine fish belong in the Order Perciformes and Suborder Percoidei as members of the Family Chaetodontidae (Butterflyfish), which contains 13 genera and almost 130 species, both described and yet undescribed.

This is a very large family, and probably contains the most colorful marine fish to be found in the wild. They are laterally compressed disc-shaped fish and most don’t get overly large, as most don’t exceed 6 inches (15 cm). Besides size and coloration, they generally make good community fish. Nevertheless, many require excellent water quality and some are difficult to feed, as their diet consists mostly of live foods such as coral polyps and crustaceans.

Most appear to do better near the higher level of their species temperature range and also seem to do better in specific gravity levels found in most reef systems, i.e., 1.025 than what is found in most fish-only systems (about 1.022 – 1.023). If possible, it is better to attain most of them as juveniles, as there is a greater chance they will adapt to available aquarium foods.

In the many different style marine aquariums that I have kept over the past forty years, there’s only a few that I would recommend to new aquarists, and about a dozen more to experienced aquarists. Most others should be left in the wild, or at a minimum, be maintained only by professional aquarists.

Those that I have personally maintained and had much success with include Chaetodon auriga, C. argentatus, C. lunula, C. melannotus, C. miliaris, C. rafflesi, Forcipiger flavissimus, Heniochus acuminatus, and Chelmon rostratus. Those maintained, but proving to need more specialized care than the species mentioned above were Chaetodon ephippium, C. collare, and C. ocellatus.

As for those that I would recommend to new aquarists, the Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish Forcipiger flavissimus would be fairly high on my list. It does well in mixed company and feeds on a variety of foods, including flake foods. I’ve never attempted to keep more than one in the same aquarium as I’ve always heard that they would fight among themselves. But in large aquaria, such as something above 125 gallons with many hiding places, I would think it possible to successfully maintain more than one in the same tank. I found its favorite food to be black worms, which I would place in an old plastic butter dish weighted down with a small rock, and then slowly lower into the aquarium’s water and placed on the aquarium bottom. The Yellow Longnose would then swim into the high-rimmed dish and eat its fill of worms. The dish simply kept the worms, which died as soon as they entered the saltwater, from getting blown all over the aquarium. In fact, it was always the meeting place for most of the fish in the aquarium where the biggest ruled at dinnertime! Besides being fairly disease resistant, these fish were usually reasonably priced.

Another that I would recommend to new aquarists is the Raccoon Butterflyfish, Chaetodon lunula. I’ve kept three in a 125-gallon general invertebrate system with lot of mushrooms. They liked various meaty foods, including black worms. And found them especially fond of Aiptasia anemones! They also seemed to like swimming in and out of caves and crevices and would sometimes retreat to these areas when there were a lot of aquarium viewers. I found them fairly easy to acclimate and to get them feeding, besides being quite hardy.

The third that I would recommend to new aquarists is the Longfin Bannerfish Heniochus acuminatus, and/or the Schooling Bannerfish H. diphreutes. If the choice were H. acuminatus, I would limit their use to fish-only systems, as it is said they can be destructive in reef systems. For invertebrate systems, H. diphreutes would be a better choice. As for H. acuminatus, I’ve kept five in a 75-gallon fish-only system, making for an excellent display. In fact, some viewers thought them Moorish Idols! And they ate just about any food I put in the aquarium, as flake food and various meaty foods were quickly gobbled up.

Another easy to maintain and probably well suited for the new aquarist is the Lemon Butterflyfish Chaetodon miliaris. The species hails mostly from Hawaii, insuring it’s not cyanide caught. Besides being a good tankmate, it’s a very pretty fish and took a wide variety of meaty foods. I found it to be hardy and disease resistant and maintained it in a 75-gallon fish-only aquarium where it proved to be a good community fish.

For more experienced aquarists, the Threadfin Butterflyfish Chaetodon auriga did well in a fish-only 125-gallon aquarium. Unfortunately, its not suited for reef systems, as it will dine on various corals and other tasty invertebrates. It requires a wide variety of meaty foodstuffs, along with several feeding per day. I even ‘lent’ one to another aquarist to get rid of his Aiptasia anemones. However, because it did such a great job and appeared so happy in its new home, we decided to leave it there. This was another Butterflyfish that I found liking a rocky environment with lots of hiding places or areas to cruse through. The only reason I prefer not to see new aquarists utilize these species is that it’s somewhat bold and bossy and in mixed company it might cause some undue stress to its tankmates.

Another Butterflyfish I had very good success with was the Black Pearl Butterflyfish Chaetodon argentatus. Although not too colorful, it took a variety of foodstuffs including flake foods, and really enjoyed an occasional meal of fortified adult brine shrimp, as did many of my other Butterflyfish. It also seemed to like picking on various forms of algae. The only thing I did not like about this species, which was given to me by another aquarist not wanting it any longer, was that it would tend to occasionally chase smaller tankmates. It was maintained in a 320-gallon fish-only environment with rocky aquascaping and proved to be very disease resistant.

The Blackbacked Butterflyfish Chaetodon melannotus was another species I kept in this same fish-only environment, as it was not suited for reef systems. It was well behaved, accepted a wide variety of foodstuffs and also proved to be hardy and disease resistant.

The last Chaetodon genus species that I had good results with was C. rafflesi , which is called the Latticed Butterflyfish. This was another species given to me because a fellow aquarist was closing down his aquarium and moving out of state. It actually went into this same fish-only tank containing some other butterflies. It got along well with all its tankmates and took a wide variety of meaty foods. In fact, it was ‘almost’ always first into the dish containing the black worms.

One of my favorites was the Copper-banded Butterflyfish Chelmon rostratus. I’ve kept this species in several reef tanks, and never had any serious problems with it. It is said to be prone to Lymphocystis, however, never experienced that malady with any of my specimens. Could be that their environments were quite stress free and that virus never appeared in my aquariums. They ate almost all type foods including various flake foods. However, they really liked black worms! It also kept those aquariums free of Aiptasia anemones.

There are some other ‘good’ butterflies that should be considered, and they are Chaetodon auripes, C. blackburnii, C. burgessi, C. capistratus, C. decussatus, C. kleinii, C. mertensii. C. mesoleucos, C. mitratus, C. speculum, C. vagabundis, and C. wiebeli (a good reef aquarium species).

There were some butterflies that I tried and did not have what I would call very good success with, e.g., Chaetodon ephippium, C. collare, and C. ocellatus. As for the Spotfin Chaetodon ocellatus, I initially had some difficulty in getting this Atlantic Ocean species to feed, but once settled in, it proved to be a good tankmate and even took flake food. However, it took black worms and fortified adult brine shrimp to get it to settle down. The Pakistani Butterflyfish Chaetodon collare proved to be a difficult fish to get feeding, and even then remained quite picky when it came to mealtime. Another that proved to be somewhat troublesome was Chaetodon ephippium, the Saddled Butterflyfish. It was a quite young specimen and also proved to be quite picky when it came to mealtime. It even turned up its nose at black worms! Even though these three species required more care, e.g., numerous feeding per day, they were well worth the effort.

And when it comes to butterflies not suited for the average home aquarium, there are many! What’s so sad about this is that they are probably the most beautiful in their family. Unfortunately, some of these species that either feed exclusively or mostly on live corals, are sometimes available in local shops. To say they are tempting additions to your tank would be an understatement! Nevertheless, the following are only some that should either be left in the wild or maintained by professional aquarists that are willing to provide their particular nutritional needs along with the water quality these beautiful fish deserve. These would include, but not be limited to: Chaetodon meyeri, C. melapterus, C. triangulum, C. ornatissimus, C. baronessa, C. octofasciatus, C. larvatus, C. austriacus, C. bennetti, C. citrinellus, C. flavirostris, C. lunulatus, C. multicinstus, C. ocellicaudus, C. trifascialis,

If you would like more information on various species and/or want to view the worlds most recent organization (August 2004) of the entire Butterflyfish family, visit my website at I want to personally thank those involved with this reclassification, i.e., Vincent Hargreaves Ph.D., and those assisting him such as John Randall, Frank Schneidewind, Peter Wirtz, and Hiroyuki Tanaka for their dedication to perfection, and for allowing my website to be the “first in the world” to post it!

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