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Related Articles: The Genus Chaetodon

A Treasure From the Red Sea, The Blue Mask, Golden or Semilarvatus Butterflyfish, Chaetodon semilarvatus

Bob Fenner

Two pair!

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

    Amongst a mix of suitable species of Butterflyfishes hailing from the area, the Blue Mask or Semilarvatus (Chaetodon semilarvatus) Butterfly ranks supreme. It is superlatively suited for captive use amongst its family members in the Red Sea; accepting worm, crustacean, small mollusc and zooplankton type foods, bearing up well under conditions of capture, holding, shipping and processing, and in more modern times, coming down in price to suit a broader range of pocketbooks. About the only trait/characteristic working against its selection, is its "up to plate size" potential growth.

    There is the usual "mix" of appropriate and not species of Chaetodontids (the family of Butterflies, meaning "bristle teeth"... in reference to their prising jaws, modified for picking out small animals in nooks and crannies) in the Red Sea... Some like our star species here are "good" choices for aquarium use, being generalized omnivores... taking all kinds of foods readily. As you will find below, there are some "medium choices" that tend to not adapt as well to captive conditions, more than half perishing historically within a month of capture. And lastly there are the resounding "poor choices", those that do dismally in most cases, more than half dying within a week in captivity. This last group of largely obligate corallivores (i.e. only feeding on live coral polyps) should be avoided, or only tried by folks who know ahead what they are up against and are able, willing to meet the needs of these touchy species.

Classification Notes:

The Butterflyfish family Chaetodontidae are a very important part of the marine aquarium world. Several species are 'stock' items (the Longnoses, Raccoon, Threadfin, Heniochus, among others) due to their overall beauty, adaptability, availability, and hardiness against disease.

There are, however, many varieties of chaetodonts that are near impossible to keep in captivity. Some are known to only eat live coral polyps, others just don't take captive handling and/or life in a small artificial environment.

Of the 'good' B/Fs (industry shorthand for the family of butterflies) there are more than a handful that can be gotten from the Red Sea. The following is my tally of the best, medium and worst varieties; my opinions from handling thousands of specimens, traveling and writing in the interest of aquaristics for going on thirty years. Our "Shining Star", The Golden BF:

Chaetodon semilarvatus Cuvier, 1831, the Golden, or Blue Mask Butterflyfish. A fabulous fish for beauty, swimming grace and hardiness. A large species (to plate size) that accepts all types of foods in captivity, feeding mainly on polyps of hard and soft corals in the wild. A Red Sea, Gulf of Aden endemic species.

Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Amongst The Best Butterflyfishes From the Red Sea:

Chaetodon auriga auriga, Red Sea

Chaetodon auriga, Hawai'i, Indo-Pacific

Chaetodon auriga Forsskal, 1775,  the Threadfin Butterflyfish; so named for a trailing filament that grows from the posterior dorsal fin. Some writers recognize a subspecies, Chaetodon auriga auriga confined to the Red Sea; this form lacks the "regular" auriga's dark spot on the soft dorsal fin. (see pix for examples). Feeds on a wide range of sessile invertebrates, including coral polyps.

Chaetodon fasciatus, Red Sea Raccoon 

Chaetodon lunula, Hawai'i, Indo-Pacific

Chaetodon fasciatus Forsskal, 1775, the Red Sea Raccoon Butterflyfish, an almost dead ringer for the wider spread Hawaii to Indo-Pacific Chaetodon lunula (Lacepede 1803), the Raccoon Butterflyfish to folks in the west. The Red Sea form is much brighter yellow, lacks the tail band of the wider-ranging species and has much smaller white and black head bands.

Chaetodon melannotus Bloch & Schneider 1801, the Black-Backed Butterflyfish. Once acclimated, some folks swear by these; I'm one of them. Widespread throughout the tropical Indo-west Pacific. To about six inches maximum length.

Chaetodon mesoleucos Forsskal 1775, the White-Face Butterflyfish. Though not very colorful, and a frequent bully, a good feeder if/when it settles in. Red Sea and Gulf of Aden endemic. To about six inches total length.

Chaetodon paucifasciatus Ahl 1923, the Red-Back or Crown Butterflyfish. Only from the Red Sea and one of my favorites. An opportunistic omnivore, feeding on benthic marine invertebrates of all kinds, including coral polyps. To five inches in length.

Forcipiger flavissimus Jordan & McGregor 1898, the Forcepsfish, often sold as the Longnose Butterflyfish in the west, though this name should be reserved for the congener with a longer snout, Forcipiger longirostris (Broussonet 1782). An aquarium standard over it's broad collection range. Broad feeder on tube-feet of echinoderms, tentacular crowns of Polychaete worms, fish eggs, small crustaceans... To a maximum length of eight inches overall.

Heniochus intermedius

Heniochus diphreutes

Heniochus intermedius Steindachner 1893, and Heniochus diphreutes Jordan 1903, also variously called Bannerfishes, Wimplefisch, Poor-man's Moorish idols. The first is the Red Sea Bannerfish, the latter the Schooling Bannerfish; banners for their long, trailing dorsal fins. What great aquarium species.

Medium Choices: This category is not altogether doomed in captivity, but in my opinion is far and away less suitable for the home aquarist; most specimens live less than a month, very few more than three.

Chaetodon lineolatus Cuvier 1831, the Lined Butterflyfish. Dear Reader, I know I've written that this species doesn't make it when imported from elsewhere (Hawaii, Indonesia), but it does better when from the Red Sea. Up to a foot long, the largest Butterflyfish species. For well-established, very large systems only.

Chaetodon vagabundus Linnaeus 1758, the Vagabond Butterflyfish. The ichthyologist Jerry Allen likes this one better than myself and other industry types. Widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific to the central Pacific. Not to be confused with the much hardier Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish, Chaetodon decussatus Cuvier 1831.

Butterflies From the Red Sea You Want To Avoid: these species do poorly, the vast majority rarely living more than a month. For those who enjoy a challenge I say; study up before you buy. These are by and large impossible aquarium species, most specimens refuse all food in captivity. They are all, regrettably, commonly imported and offered for sale.

Chaetodon austriacus Ruppell 1835, the Exquisite Butterflyfish. A coral eating Red Sea, Gulf of Aden endemic; leave it there. To five inches overall length.

Chaetodon larvatus Cuvier 1831, the Redhead or Orange-Face Butterflyfish. Don't confuse this beautiful but difficult species with the other endemic with a similar name, Chaetodon semilarvatus which does very well in captivity.

Chaetodon trifascialis Quoy & Gaimard 1824, the Chevron or Chevroned Butterflyfish. Widespread in the Indo-Pacific to Central Pacific. To seven inches overall length.

Golden BF Selection

The Semilarvatus is almost always a "ready to go" species in our interest; shipping well consistently, and quickly "coming to" from the long haul (most are transshipped from/through Europe, from the Red Sea... often a haul of 48 hours or more).


     Butterflyfishes offered from countries bordering the Red Sea are typically of medium to large proportions. Most Goldens imported to the west are within an ideal range of 3-4 inches overall length. I would avoid specimens much smaller or larger than this... as these ship poorly and there is a quickly diminishing tendency for these to survive, adapt to captive conditions.

Index of Fitness:

    Take care to not select "too skinny" specimens... Many dealers don't feed much of anything to their Butterflyfishes... and this shows up most sorely as a thinning about and above the eyes... Look for robust individuals, with an overall convex profile when seen head-on.

Environmental: Conditions


Chaetodon semilarvatus is a large fish (ultimately) that requires uncrowded space to hide, move about. A good rule of thumb is about fifty gallons per individual... for themselves. If you look at photographs of this species in the wild, you'll notice it is often found under overhangs or within large cave-like openings, under table Acropora colonies... Your system should afford this same sort of environment, protection.


A very pertinent note regarding Red Sea livestock and specific gravity. Seawater here is saltier, up to some 10% (about 4.2% percent of total) more than the rest of the worlds oceans. Your system should be too. Many folks keep their Spg artificially low (1.018-1.023) to increase carrying capacity, lower the incidence of disease, save money on salt mix... don't do it with these fishes! A good "low" for Red Sea stock is 1.025-1.027.



If you have a large enough (hundreds of gallons) uncrowded setting you can have a pair to multiple specimens, otherwise Goldens are best kept as individuals unless the system is as stated. Generally this fish is not aggressive towards members of their own, or similar appearing species.


All Butterflyfishes are best placed in aged (months) systems, initially with subdued lighting. They should also be placed ahead of more aggressive species. Even then, keep an eye out that newcomers are not being bullied.

Predator/Prey Relations

Most everything leaves these Butterflyfishes alone though they are eaten by larger predatory fishes in the wild and may be in aquariums. As for "reef-safeness", like most Butterflyfish species that are largely worm and zooplanktivorous, the Blue-Mask will leave most all alone, save for Featherduster crowns, the occasional small crustacean. Should you worry about your corals? Not much. Chaetodon semilarvatus are omnivorous, can/will eat SPS polyps at times, but generally prefer other foodstuffs.

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

    The Butterfly species listed as "good" are ready eaters of all forms of prepared and frozen aquatic foods. New specimens may have to be trained onto non-living items by first feeding live (e.g. brine shrimp, worms et al. mixed in with other prepared foods to wean them onto these). The Golden readily feeds on most all, but a good amount of healthy live rock AND a good-sized refugium with macroalgae, a DSB...

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

    This species is quite susceptible to the twin scourges of the reef, Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium. Routine dipping (freshwater with or without, copper, formaldehyde) and quarantine are encouraged over copper treatments. Butterflyfishes are sometimes sensitive to chemical therapeutics, therefore the emphasis on dips/baths and quarantine.


    The Golden Butterflyfish is one of a few Chaetodontids hailing from the Red Sea that ranks high for (large) aquarium use. Generally undemanding, all the Blue-Mask/Chin BF needs is space, an established system, and conditions that favor reef organisms.

    Some of the best fishes come from the Red Sea, even if their geographic distribution extends to elsewhere; what's more, many of the fishes there are found only there, including some real beauties. Happily for us, other countries and collecting companies are cashing in and shipping more Red Sea livestock and for much better prices than ever before.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

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

Burgess, Warren E. 1978. Butterflyfishes of the World. TFH Publ., N..J.

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

Fenner, Robert, 1995. The yellow Longnose Butterflyfishes. TFH 11/95.  

Hough, Dennis. 1996. The Red Sea's Gulf of Eilat. TFH 6/96.

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

Mayland, Hans J., trans. by U. Erich Friese. 1976. Some Red Sea fishes. Marine Aquarist 7:5, 76.

Rashad, Byron K. 1996. Red Sea Fish for the reef aquarium; Jewels of the desert sea. FAMA 5/96.

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

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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