Please visit our Sponsors

Related FAQs: Butterflyfishes in General, Butterflyfish Foods/Feeding/NutritionButterflyfish Selection, Butterflyfish Disease, Butterflyfish Disease 2, Angels and Butterflyfishes & Crypt,  Hawaiian ButterflyfishesButterflyfish Reproduction,

Related Articles: Amphichaetodon; Chaetodon ( Auriga/Threadfin, Raccoon/Lunula, Double Saddle-Back), Chelmon, Chelmonops, Coradion, Forcipiger, Hemitaurichthys, Heniochus, Johnrandallia, Parachaetodon, Prognathodes

Regional Accounts of Butterflyfishes: Hawai'i, Cook Islands, FijiRed Sea, Maldives

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Butterflyfishes; Separating the Good Ones and Those You Don't Want

To: Good, Medium, Poor & Unknown Chaetodon Choices

Bob Fenner

Chaetodon auriga, one of the best.

Butterflyfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBooks on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here
by Robert (Bob) Fenner

        Some of the best loved marine aquarium specimens are Butterflyfish family members. Where would the hobby be without the raccoon, threadfin, teardrop and the several Heniochus species, among others? Impoverished for sure. These and several other Butterflyfishes are well-suited for captive systems; shipping and adjusting well, eating all types of foods, resisting disease and adapting to a wide range of water conditions.

However, of the some one-hundred twenty described species, the majority of B/Fs (industry shorthand for Butterflyfishes) are best avoided by hobbyists. These types have proven to adapt poorly to aquarium environments for differing reasons, and/or require obscure foodstuffs to thrive. Unknown to many aquarists the full-spectrum of hardiness is offered to the consumer; how can you tell which varieties to avoid? Herein is a collection of first and second-hand observations on what the B/Fs are, where the species lie left or right of being generally hardy, and notes on how to pick out healthy specimens and maintain them.


Butterflyfishes make up the family Chaetodontidae ("Key-toe-don-tah-dee") meaning "bristle-tooth" a telling allusion to feeding problems with many of these fishes. Their bodies are typically palm-shaped with a protruding snout of varying length tipped with their small mouths. This pancake body plan and apical mouth arrangement is ideal for zooming in and out of the shallow coral reef habitats where most species reside.

Distribution: Tropical to cooler seas, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific (principally Indo-West Pacific) along rocky and coral reef shores. Most live in depths of less than twenty meters, though a few have been recorded to ten times deeper.

Size: Adults span three to twelve inches total length depending on species.

Selection: General to Specific

This is a threshold level decision. You are committing to support another living thing by purchasing it. Your success depends at least on two considerations; the species and individuals you choose. If you can't be dissuaded to pass on any but the best adapted varieties of B/Fs, please do yourself and the biological world a favor by reading the following carefully:

Observe the fishes offered closely.

Do not buy small (less than 2,3"), or large (6"+) individuals. Leave thin ones alone. These adapt poorly.

Avoid fish showing any reddening at the mouth, body or fin origins. Abandon the whole tank if any butterfly is off-color in the system.

B/Fs need adequate room in shipping bags. Make sure yours can turn around completely; I believe that most are lost (prematurely) due to shipping/handling damage. Their mouths get beat from rough net-handling, thrashed by smacking against a too-small bag. Subsequent infection, non-feeding... spirals into a dead specimen. Most B/F's are caught in barrier nets, not cyanide. Collectors/Transshippers/Wholesalers who use proper manipulation and bag size have very small incidental losses.

Skip buying pairs, trios etc. of a given species unless they appear closely associated at the dealers.

I strongly suggest wholesale routine freshwater dipping, copper and antibiotic treatment of all new arrivals at the wholesale/importer/retail level; and at least a week quarantine for end-users.

Bob the Fishman's Hot/Cold List: 

 Everyone who has been in the trade and/or hobby has their own list of best and least liked organisms, one's that generally make it and those that don't. Here are my opinions re the chaetodonts after handling a few tens of thousands over the last thirty plus years. A couple of explanations. Common and scientific names are those most often used in the United States; no apology or vain attempt at completeness is offered. I know there is going to be no absolute agreement on what I'm putting forth here, but I'll gladly stand by my assessments; they are borne out of many individuals being examined from many origins, size ranges, shipping modalities...

For the purpose of our discussions here, we can place B/F species (not individuals) as such in distinct "boxes"; "good", "bad", "medium" and "unknown". "Good Butterflyfishes" I'll define as those that have been found to have a survival of fifty plus percent for three plus months (decent specimens shipped properly, passing alive wholesale through to the "end-user"). "Bad" B/Fs have less than twenty percent survival within the same parameters. Yes, the Butterflyfishes may be demarcated this didactically; the 'good' ones generally live, the 'bad' ones die easily. To save download time, click on the genera and FAQs links below.

Butterflyfishes of the genus Amphichaetodon & FAQs

Butterflyfishes of the Genus Chaetodon & FAQs  

To: Good, Medium, Poor & Unknown Chaetodon Choices pages: Split up to save download time... for now.

Butterflyfishes of the genus Chelmon & FAQs

Butterflyfishes of the genus Chelmonops & FAQs

Longnose Butterflyfishes, the genus Forcipiger & FAQs

Butterflyfishes of the Genus Hemitaurichthys & FAQs

Heniochus Butterflyfishes & FAQs

Johnrandallia nigrorostris, the Barber Butterflyfish & FAQs

Butterflyfishes of the genus Parachaetodon & FAQs

Butterflyfishes of the genus Prognathodes & FAQs

Collecting Your Own

 Collecting Your Own can be done if you're in the area. Do it like the pro's. Place a barrier/mist net in a prospective channel and 'drive' the butterflies against it. Hand net them off, decompress, and ship back home. You'll never complain about the high cost of livestock ever again.

Environmental: Conditions


First of all, the system should be as large as possible. Butterflies are free-ranging fishes, with large lek territories. Next, but just as critically important, they need physical cover to feel secure; one or more cave hideaways.


These fishes are the analog equivalent to a "canary in a cave". They will show signs first and foremost when water quality is on a slide. Good water quality is a must with high, consistent pH (8.2, 8.3), little to no detectable organics. Towards these ends an efficient skimmer is required; I wouldn't have a closed marine system without one. Also, the use of a coarser coral sand for substrate is recommended for higher pH buffering capacity and ease of cleaning up meaty 'leftovers'. The use of external pH 'raisers' is encouraged.

For the bulk of species, temperatures of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit are recommended, with no worries if summer temporarily pushes this a bit higher. There are cooler and deeper water types of Butterflyfishes, so you'll want to investigate prospects before purchasing.

An important comment regarding "aged systems". Many authors cite lack of success with newly set-up systems and B/Fs. Who knows why, algae/detritus food, chemical anomaly(?)... but tanks that are six months and older enjoy greater survivability.


A vigorous, efficient mode whatever format is employed; with lots of current producing high dissolved oxygen concentration.


Overall, think of the circumstances of where most of the good, common Butterflyfishes are collected; the rough and tumble coral shallows: In this bright nook and cranny world the pH is high, the water clean, current brisk and temperature high. You want to duplicate this scenario.



Most of the 'good' Butterflyfishes make fine tankmates. The same cannot be said for the 'bad' others; they hide and are easy prey for tank bullies. Some (e.g. Heniochus species) are tolerant to appreciative of members of their own species; the vast majority fight with their own or similar kind unless crowded, put in huge systems with lots of cover...


A routine dipping and copper treatment has already been urged for passage through collection/wholesale to you, the end-user. Now the immortal question ala Shakespeare: "To quarantine or not? That is the question; whether it is worth the trauma to suffer the further slings and arrows of extra stress from the double moving. Or to take up arms..." All good marine aquarists should have an alternative treatment, quarantine, bully-recovering tank. Should you keep B/Fs (along with all other new entries) apart for a week or two? Sure you should. At least utilize a prophylactic dip to reduce the introduction of external parasites. See notes below concerning disease.

Hunziker, among others, suggests reducing light levels for the first day or two after arrival. This is a good idea. In fact leave some light on at night as well.

Regarding Handling:  

This is a very important matter that doesn't get enough coverage. It may not be as sensational as "cyanide poisoning" and the advertising and enmity that goes with that topic, but people who know the business of aquaristics will assure you that improper handling is without doubt the number one factor in the life/death of dealing in livestock. In particular the Butterflyfishes are doomed if thrashed either via netting or placed in a too-small bag. Once their mouths, fins, bodies are beat they "give up the ghost", refuse food and quickly expire.

Chaetodonts bear strong dorsal and anal spines at the anterior of these fins; giving would-be predators a potentially prickly mouthful. These stout spines are important to us as aquarists as well; they get caught in nets and puncture unwary hands. Professional aquarists develop a sense of how and when to lift Butterflyfishes (if need be) from the water when moving them. Supporting the fish, one at a time, with supple hand support behind the netting, gently restraining the fish from flopping about. Tearing of flesh and fin bases is often a fatal mistake.

Predator/Prey Relations

Small Butterflyfishes are readily eaten by larger predatory fishes. At some island groups I've visited the locals seek small B/Fs out as bait. Mix and match with triggers, basses et al. accordingly.

Almost all chaetodonts are fish-tank-system-only members. Except for noted species (Hemitaurichthys, Forcipiger, a handful of Chaetodons) that are generalist or plankton feeders they may pick apart nearly every invertebrate in time; maybe with the exception of hermit crabs. Definitely not for reef systems unless the systems are very large.


Some B/Fs as juveniles are celebrated 'cleaners' picking parasites and dead tissues off other species.

Reproduction, Sexual Differentiation/Growing Your Own:

From observations made in the wild some species of B/Fs are known to form monogamous pairs, others travel solitarily or in groups and either pair up or form loose temporary associations at spawning times. Gametes are released near nightfall at the apex of a quick swim toward the surface. There is little or no observable physical differences (non-fancy term for sexual dimorphism) between the sexes.

Butterflyfishes have a peculiar bony-armored larval 'Tholichthys' developmental stage. These little tanks float about via currents for months before metamorphosing into minuscule adult versions and settling down, hopefully at a fortuitous location. No successful recordings of spawning and rearing were found in the literature.

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

Even the best species of Butterflyfishes can be finicky eaters, especially on first introduction. It cannot be stressed enough that an adequate, sustainable food mix be found ASAP and offered often. Live brine shrimp is a good starter for newcomers as are various types of worms and crustaceans available in the trade, live and frozen. Other meaty foods such as squid, minced clam and prepared blends should be offered in small quantities only and removed in uneaten as they will quickly foul water.

Obligate coral eaters exist in the family. Some folks have kept these going for a while by providing Scleractinian (true, stony) corals, 'live rocks', anemones (cheapy Condylactis). Once again, I implore you, read up and avoid these species. Instead, focus on more generalized feeders.

The 'secret' to maintaining these fishes is to provide foods often and varied. Sorry, I can't help myself in re-emphasizing this point. Get your marines to eat quickly and offer algae, different foods in small amounts as frequently as practical.

Should you have a fish go on feeding 'strike' though others in the system are fine (indicating something other than water quality as the cause), try one or more of the following: 1) A fresh clam opened up and placed on the bottom, 2) Live white, Tubificid, or grindal worms set down in a small dish to prevent escape, 3) Chlupaty (1978) suggests temporarily lowering the specific gravity for a few days to stimulate appetite (1.025 down to 1.018) 4) Because marine fishes do "drink like a fish", you should apply vitamins directly to their water (and/or food); some are known to enhance feeding.

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

Butterflyfishes unfortunately are very susceptible to crypt, velvet, other common protozoal complaints (e.g. Glugea), bacterial infections, and "gill fluke" problems. Often they are the first fish(es) to show signs of such in a tank.

Thankfully, if caught in time, these are quickly cured by way of traditional remedies (copper, malachite green treatments). Some species are copper sensitive so be sure to us a test kit to avoid over-treatment.


Do you think an article of this nature, trying to dissuade aquarists from trying fishes that are almost guaranteed to die within a few weeks in captivity is worthwhile? Are you more likely to 'cast your vote' by spending your money and efforts on historically more appropriate species as a consequence? Good, then I have accomplished what I set out for.

There are many varieties of sea life offered to the pet hobby. How much range of average survivability does all this livestock demonstrate? Huge. As a conscientious marine aquarist you should at least be aware of the odds you are facing in attempting difficult organisms; and what has and has not worked for others. This is the advantage of reading.

If you're going to try the historically less hardy species, selecting good specimens, providing absolutely clean water and adequate feeding are requisite. Should you be unwilling or unable to provide these, please do not encourage their further collection by buying them.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Butterflyfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBooks on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here
by Robert (Bob) Fenner

Allen, G.R., 1979. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World, Vol. 2. Wiley & Sons, N.Y.

Allen, Gerald R., Roger Steene & Mark Allen. 1998. A Guide to Angelfishes & Butterflyfishes. Tropical Fish Research/Odyssey Publishing. 250pp.

Burgess, Warren, 1978. Butterflyfishes of the World. T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, N.J. 832 pg.

Burgess, W.E., H.R. Axelrod & R.E. Hunziker III, 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes, Vol 1. Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, Jersey.

Campbell, Douglas, 1980. marines: Their Care & Keeping. Butterflyfishes, Pt. 1, 2. FAMA 10,11/80.

Chlupaty, Peter, 1978. Keeping Butterflyfishes. T.F.H. 4/78.

Emmens, Cliff W., 1985. Keeping Chaetodons. T.F.H. 5/85.

Fenner, Bob, 1990. Bannerfish butterflies, the genus Heniochus. FAMA 6/90.

Fenner, Robert, 1995. El Barbero, the butterfly from Baja. T.F.H. 7/95.

Hunziker, Ray, 1992. The ten best Butterflyfishes. T.F.H. 6/92.

Mayland, Hans J., 1972. A portrait of two fishes (C. larvatus, semilarvatus). Marine Aquarist 3(5):72.

Michael, Scott, 1994. Bad Butterflyfishes. A.F.M. 7/94.

Miller, Gary, 1986. Butterflyfishes of the Caribbean. FAMA 9/86.

Moenich, David R. 1991. The Butterflyfishes. Aquarium Fish Magazine 1/91.

Nelson, Joseph S., 1994. Fishes of the World, 3rd ed. Wiley & Sons, N.Y.

Pyle, Richard L., 1991. Rare & Unusual Marines. Chaetodon daedalma Jordan & Fowler. FAMA 1/91.

Refano, Joe, 1983. The importer speaks: the Butterflyfishes pt. I, II. T.F.H. 10,11/83.

Siegel, Terry, 1973. Butterflies. Marine Aquarist 4(2):73.

Steene, Roger C., 1985. Butterfly & Angelfishes of the World, Vol. 1 Australia. Mergus Publ., Germany.

Stratton, Richard F., 1990. The teardrop Butterflyfish. T.F.H. 6/90.

Walker, Randy J., 1993. Rare & Unusual Marines. The white face Butterflyfish, C. mesoleucos Forsskal. FAMA 2/93.s.

Become a Sponsor Features:
Daily FAQs FW Daily FAQs SW Pix of the Day FW Pix of the Day New On WWM
Helpful Links Hobbyist Forum Calendars Admin Index Cover Images
Featured Sponsors: