By Bob Goemans
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Hawks in My Aquariums

Authored by: Bob Goemans

First printed in TFH, May 2007

These fishes belong in the “Order Perciformes” and “Suborder Percoidei” as members of the “Family Cirrhitidae” (Hawkfishes) consisting of approximately 11 genera with about 35 species. Most occur in the Indo-Pacific where the majority are found in shallow reefs zones, however, there are three species found in the Tropical Atlantic and Caribbean.

Their members are generally small, fairly peaceful, hardy, and colorful. All have stocky bodies with prominent heads and fairly large eyes for their size. The name ‘Hawkfish’ is derived from their hawk-like perching behavior, as ‘adults’ (larval hawkfishes ‘do’ possess a swim bladder!) lack a swim bladder (the specialized organ that enables them to regulate their position in the water column), therefore perch/sit on various types of substrates while viewing the passing traffic in hopes that something eatable will come into range. When it does, they dart short distances to capture it. Their strong pelvic fins are used as supports when perching and will defend their feeding territory, which includes the area around its favorite perching place. All have "cirrhi" in their names, which refers to the small hairy tuffs on the tips of their dorsal fins. All begin life as females with the largest and more dominant becoming a male. They live and spawn in harems, with one male interacting with several females. Unless you can sex them, it’s one hawkfish, in any genus, per tank, unless it's a very large tank.

They should be maintained in systems with plenty of hiding areas and places to sit and watch the traffic go by so to speak. They are undemanding when it comes to water quality; however, they are predators and prefer meaty foodstuffs, e.g., mysis shrimp, shredded fresh marine fish/shrimp/clam flesh, live enriched brine shrimp, krill, Cyclop-eeze, and even enriched flake foods. Unfortunately, they cannot be trusted with very small fish such as Neon Gobies, or small shrimp and crabs because they could windup as a meal.

I’ve only kept four species, with the Long-nosed Hawkfish Oxycirrhites typus, which attains a 5 inch (12.5 cm) length in the wild, one of my two favorites. It hails from the Tropical Indo-Pacific: Red Sea to the Hawaiian Islands, and north to southern Japan, south to New Caledonia, and throughout Micronesia. Its also found in the Eastern Pacific: Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) to northern Colombia and the Galapagos Islands where it’s always found in deeper waters than others in its family, mainly because it prefers the areas where gorgonian and black corals are found, which are not found in shallow reef zones. In fact, their favorite perching spot is on these corals, as that is where their crustacean/plankton-like food sources seem to be at its highest level.

This is a very elongated fish with a red-checkered body pattern, making it an easy fish to identify. It’s a beautiful fish that is extremely hardy, peaceful where other fish large enough not to be eaten are concerned, and does not harm corals. Nevertheless, it may pester some corals if it finds a perching spot it continues to use, as the coral may close up. In fact, this is true for all hawkfish species. However, I’ve not found that to be true with those that I‘ve kept, as they would use many different perching places so as to get different views of the passing traffic. Keep in mind that it’s not safe with small shrimp or small fish, e.g., Goby Gobiosoma and Gobiodon species, and is said to attack other fish with similar or elongated bodies, e.g., Firefish and Dart Gobies (Scott Michael, 2004). However, that did not occur in my reef aquariums that contained Firefish. It could have been it was a large aquarium, 200 gallons, and each had the opposite ends of the aquarium staked out as their territories. Other tankmates included damselfish, tangs, angelfish, and a large wrasse.

As for feeding, it was never bashful about getting its share of meaty foods, and especially liked mysis shrimp, besides other meaty foods such as shredded marine fish and shrimp flesh, and live brine shrimp. And since I’ve had this species three times over the past 15 years, use to feed once per day on workdays, and two to three times per day, with smaller quantities, on weekends. Once I retired, I simply feed all tanks small amounts several times a day, as I can’t past them up without putting a small amount of food in the aquarium. Unfortunately, this species is known for jumping out of the aquarium, which I can attest to, as I did lose one because it jumped out of the tank at night. And keep only one per tank, as they have little patience with others in their family unless it’s a mate. As for sexing this species, the male is actually smaller than the female, which is quite the opposite in other members of this family. The male may also have a black margin to the ventral and caudal fins, which the female does not posses. And often, the males are more colorful than females. Yet, it’s still a case of trail and error, and if one guesses wrong, good luck on getting it out if it’s not a mate! Usually readily available, and has been captive bred.

I’ve also kept the Arc-eye Hawkfish Paracirrhites arcatus in a large reef aquarium about ten years ago. It attains 5.5 inches (14 cm) in the wild and is widely distributed from East Africa to the Hawaiian, Line, and Mangareva Islands north to southern Japan, south to Australia and Rapa, and throughout Micronesia. It’s usually found in fairly shallow, less than 40 feet (12 m) depths on lagoon patch reefs, reef faces and fore-reef slopes. This was not a fish I purchased, as another aquarist gave it to me. He had it, a 3 inch (7.5 cm) specimen, in a fairly barren fifty-five gallon fish-only tank where it was becoming a pest. Since I had 125-gallon aquarium filled with various invertebrates and lots of live rock, he felt it would be better in my tank than his. He was right, as it really liked to perch on my porites coral specimens, where it eyed everything going by or became the first to eat when food came into the tank! In fact, in those days I use to visit the shorelines of Mexico quite frequently, and would collect small grass shrimps, crabs and redheaded gobies, and would put them into the aquarium when I returned. I believe this fish smiled when I did that, and it was always quite plump looking for many days thereafter. And as things go, this fish just happened to be the last in this aquarium, as it is said this is a feisty species and should always be added last to the tank, and/or kept with more aggressive species. There was a wide array of fish in this aquarium, with nothing smaller than some damselfish, and this Hawkfish was quite well behaved.

The prettiest hawkfish I’ve ever had, and my other favorite, was the Flame/Scarlet Hawkfish Neocirrhites armatus. It hails from the Ryukyus to the Line Islands, south to the Great Barrier Reef, Caroline, Mariana, and Wake Islands in Micronesia and only gets to about 3.5 inches (9 cm) in the wild. It inhabits the shallow waters of upper reef slopes where is always found in association with stony corals. In fact, its favorite perching place is on the braches of Pocillopora or Stylophora corals, where one male sets up a harem with a varying number of females per coral head. Fortunately, this hawkfish, which is always quite expensive, was never kept in an aquarium containing these stony corals! As mentioned above, once they find a perching place they like, they may continue to visit it causing the coral to close up. And I’m sure if this species coral were in the aquarium, the Flame would have made it home! Furthermore, since the sizes of coral specimens in aquaria do not come near in size as they are in the wild, I’m pretty sure it would have irritated a much smaller size coral colony!

This Flame was kept in 75-gallon aquarium, a more or less ‘invertebrate’ style aquarium with some live rock, mostly soft corals, 12 green Chromis and two yellowtail damsels. It’s diet was the same as those hawkfish mentioned above, and it never pestered its tankmates, but did wipeout some duster-cluster feather worms. I should also mention it’s possible for the intensity of its red color to fade, therefore mysis shrimp, which is high in pigmentation enhancers for red colored fish, should be on its menu quite often. Of course, other meaty foods with various vitamin and mineral supplements applied should also be fed so as to help keep its vibrant colors. And keep in mind, it will also feed on hermit crabs, tubeworms (including Christmas Tree worms), snails, small shrimp and crabs, and of course, fish that are smaller. Again, one to a tank, and I don’t know of any way to sex them except the male is larger. Therefore, if you want a mated pair, two, one quite small and another much larger, in a very large tank may be the way to go.

The last to be tried was the Black-side, Freckled, or Forster’s Hawkfish Paracirrhites forsteri. It hails from the Red Sea and East Africa to the Hawaiian Islands, and from southern Japan south to Norfolk and Austral Islands. It is one of the larger hawkfish as it attains a length of about 9 inches (22.5 cm) in the wild. It inhabits lagoons and seaward reefs where there are substantial growths of Acropora, Pocillopora, and Stylophora corals, as they are its favorite perching places. There are also many different color forms (Scott Michael, 2004), with males having nine and juveniles having three. Therefore, it can be quite confusing at times when it comes to identifying the species. This larger species feeds mainly on smaller fish, including damsels and wrasses, and of course, shrimp and crabs. The male is considerably larger than the female, and in the wild, patrols a large area often containing numerous coral heads where they hunt and ambush prey, and interact with females in the area.

It is nothing you want to put into the average reef aquarium with smaller tankmates! In fact, large angelfish, tangs, triggerfish, puffers, moray eels, etc., are better-suited tankmates, and even with these type fish, it should be introduced last. My specimen was maintained in a 55-gallon aquarium by itself, and that only happened because a local shop was closing and ‘talked’ me into taking it. Knowing its requirements, I quickly set up this tank (the only one I had empty at that time), which was standing empty in the garage, with a shallow sandbed and live rock from another ongoing tank and made a home for this fairly large 4-inch (10 cm) specimen. In one year, it was much larger and decided I wanted the tank for something else and ‘convinced’ another local shop to take it. It should be said that most of these Freckled Hawkfish show up in the trade as very small fish, probably at about 2 inches (5 cm), therefore one could purchase them not realizing how large their body and appetite will get! One must keep in mind, that besides being an extremely hardy fish, it has a massive appetitive and can be quite aggressive, especially at feeding time. And of course, it cannot be trusted with shrimp, crabs, snails, tubeworms, and only one per aquarium should go without saying. For what its worth, in some areas in the world it’s actually a human food fish.

In closing, all hawkfish are ambush predators that like to perch on rock or corals and constantly scan the environment for a meal, or the competition for a meal. Unfortunately, in some captive systems, this meal could easily be an ornamental shrimp, hermit crab, snail, tubeworm, or another smaller fish. Therefore care must be taken as to its tankmates. Otherwise, they are hardy, disease resistant, and easy to feed, besides being quite colorful.

References/Good sources of information:

Burgess, Warren E., Herbert R. Axelrod & Raymond E. Hunziker. 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes. TFH Publications

Delbeek & Sprung. 1997. The Reef Aquarium Volumes 1 & 2. Ricordea Publishing

Fenner, Bob. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. Microcosm, Shelburne, VT.

Hargreaves, V.B. 2002. The Complete Book of the Marine Aquarium. Salamander Books Ltd., London.

Kuiter & Debelius. 2001. Marine Atlas Vol. 1. Mergus Publishing

Michael, Scott W. 1998. Reef Fishes, Vol. 1. Microcosm, Shelburne, VT.

Michael, Scott W. 1999. Marine Fishes, A PocketExpert Guide. Microcosm, Shelburne, VT.

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Actinopterygii

Order: Perciformes

Suborder Percoidei

Family: Cirrhitidae

Genera: Amblycirrhitus; Cirrhitichthys; Cirrhitops; Cirrhitus; Cristacirrhitus; Cyprinocirrhites; Isocirrhitus; Neocirrhites; Notocirrhitus; Oxycirrhites; Paracirrhites

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