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Related FAQs: Johnrandallia Butterflyfishes, Butterflyfish Identification, Butterflyfish Foods/Feeding/NutritionButterflyfish Compatibility, Butterflyfish Behavior, Butterflyfish Systems, Butterflyfish Selection, Butterflyfish Disease, Butterflyfish Reproduction,

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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

El Barbero, Johnrandallia nigrirostris

Bob Fenner

Johnrandallia in Cabo

Butterflyfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
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by Robert (Bob) Fenner

The marine family of Butterflyfishes, Chaetodontidae ("Key-toe-dawn-tid-ee") runs the gamut in the way of aquarium suitability. Some species notoriously refusing to eat anything but live coral polyps, or nothing at all in captivity. Some types are known to have died of fright from the sight of a net or pointed hobbyist finger.

Thankfully this large, circum-tropical family includes some real stalwarts as well. In this article we'll explore one such species that hails from Mexico's Pacific coast, the beautiful and hardy Barberfish, Johnrandallia nigrorostris.

Johnrandallia nigrirostris (Gill 1862), the Blacknosed Butterflyfish or El Barbero (Barberfish). Sea of Cortez to Ecuador, including the Galapagos, 10 to 120 feet. To six inches overall length. A facultative cleaner as juveniles. Pictured here at the tip of Baja and the Galapagos, the latter where it is most common.
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Classification: Taxonomy, Relation With Other Groups

The ever-popular marine aquarium fishes in the family Chaetodontidae derive their common name, Butterflyfishes consequent to their great beauty and flitting swimming behavior. The scientific basis, "bristle-like" "teeth" for "Chaeto"-"don't" is in reference to their prise-like snouts and dental apparatus.

Butterflyfishes, or B/F's as they are denoted in the aquarium trade are closely related to the marine angelfish family, Pomacanthidae. Indeed, in older references you may find them lumped together in one family. Other associated families of fishes include the dung-eating scats and Spadefishes. For a thorough dissertation of the groups science including higher and lower taxonomy I refer you to Burgess's doctoral tome, Butterflyfishes of The World, cited below.

There are about one-hundred twenty described B/F species in ten genera. Many of these should be familiar to you. The Copperband, several Heniochus, tear-drop, saddle-back, long-nose, auriga/thread-fin, dot-dash, raccoon butterflies among others are common aquarium store offerings.

Our species, the Barbero B/F is restricted in range to the coastal Eastern Pacific from Baja, California southward to Columbia. Formerly classed with the banner or wimplefish genus of Butterflyfishes, Heniochus, el Barbero was at one time reassigned to it's present Johnrandallia, in honor of that all-around pet-fish/ichthyologist/naturalist paragon of excellence Dr. John E. Randall of Hawaii's Bishop Museum. The rules of nomenclature had at one time placed this fish  in the genus Pseudochaetodon.

There are three other species of Eastern Pacific butterflies but they pale in comparison in terms of color and adaptability to the Barberfish, and are therefore rightly infrequently collected/offered.

The Barberfish attains a typical B/F overall length of about six inches.

Selection: General to Specific

As noted above, this is one of the toughest of species of its family; however, an improperly captured, held, transported or handled specimen is as surely doomed as a cyanide-squirted Ornatissimus Butterflyfish from Indo..

What to look for: Bright, consistent color and scale pattern. Good feeding behavior (they're eager eaters of all foodstuffs). Three to five inch size.

What to avoid: Red, obviously damaged mouth and fin-ray spines, any sores/ulcerations. Rapid, shallow breathing. Hiding in corners. Any blood or other obscurity in the eyes.

Collecting Your Own

Is easily done if you're in the neighborhood. Single appropriate hand-nets by themselves with a "gooser" rod to scare holed up specimens or in conjunction with a barrier/mist-net are prodigious.

Environmental: Conditions

The Barberfish is an undemanding species that prefers larger quarters with as much rock and coral rubble cover as you can provide.


Of the Barberfish is rocky reefs ten to eighty feet of depth by day and night. I have never observed them in open, sandy or other environs.


 Very tolerant relative to other butterflies. Low nitrogenous, other bio-load mal-indicators as you might strive for anyway. Higher pH's (high 7's, low 8's) are called for. Temperature range is virtually unimportant to this species, given that it doesn't vacillate a lot in a short period of time. The upper sixties to seventies are fine, with forays above and below well-tolerated.


That incorporates a maximum of water movement is a good idea. These B/F's can be messy eaters and defecators depending on what is fed, how much, how often... These are active, high-energy fish. My standard marching orders bear repeating here: "I wouldn't have a marine system without a protein skimmer".



Not bullies or generally bullied by any but the biggest/meanest of tankmates. Tolerant of their own kind in any size, number.


Should be put in the system only after it has cycled for a few months. Butterflies appreciate a not-too-tidy maintenance program for their tanks; enjoying rooting around in mulm and algae patches. Don't be too fastidious about cleaning, cleanliness is not sterility, for this species.

Reproduction, Sexual Differentiation/Growing Your Own:

See Burgess for more. There is no apparent structural or color difference between sexes. Never cultured; make that not yet aquacultured.

Other Interesting Behavior

That is worth mentioning in a brief example piece like this has got to include the origin of this fish's namesake, the Barberfish (in Mexican/Spanish el Barbero) is a facultative cleaner, removing parasites and dead tissue from other species, setting up temporary and permanent cleaning stations grooming reef and pelagic fishes. They otherwise consume benthic crustaceans, snails, algae, et al. in the wild.

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

Barberfish accept all manner of food types; frozen, flake, pellet, live, fresh... you name it; in good quantity.

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

This is one of the most resistant species for the usual captive scourges parasite (Amyloodinium, Cryptocaryon) and infectious diseases of captive marines. Similarly they are remarkably tough as regards "environmental" and the more elusive "anomalous" causes of mortality, that is hobbyist-generated.

Keep up with regular water quality checks and changes, and feedings and the Barberfish will give you no problems. Over the years of dealing with this and most other Baja fish species, routine freshwater dips, low-specific gravity quarantines and copper-based medications have proved simple and efficacious.


A super suitable species for the marine aquarist with adequate space (@20+ gallons per specimen), at low cost, and more and more available through growing collection sites in Mexico, Costa Rica...

Looking for a butterfly that's no hassle and long lived; check out the Barberfish, Pseudochaetodon/Johnrandallia nigrirostris. Here is one of many in the Galapagos.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Allen, Gerald R., 1985. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World Volume 2, 3rd Ed.. Aquarium Systems, Mentor, Ohio.

Burgess, Warren E., 1978. Butterflyfishes of The World, A Monograph of the Family Chaetodontidae. T.F.H. Publications Inc. Ltd.

Kerstitch, Alex, 1982. Barberfish, Johnrandallia nigrorostris. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium, 12/82.

Thomson, Donald A., Findley, Lloyd T. & Alex N. Kerstitch, 1979. Reef Fishes of the Sea of Cortez, The Rocky-Shore Fishes of the Gulf of California. John Wiley & Sons, N.Y. 

Butterflyfishes 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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