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Related FAQs: Striped Sailfin Tangs, Striped Sailfin Tangs 2, & FAQs on:  Striped Sailfin Tangs IdentificationStriped Sailfin Tangs BehaviorStriped Sailfin Tangs CompatibilityStriped Sailfin Tangs SelectionStriped Sailfin Tangs SystemsStriped Sailfin Tangs FeedingStriped Sailfin Tangs DiseaseStriped Sailfin Tangs Reproduction, & the Genus Zebrasoma, Zebrasomas 2, Surgeons In General, Selection, Tang Behavior, Compatibility, Systems, Feeding, Disease,

Relate Articles: A Large Striped Sailfin Tang, Zebrasoma veliferum by Bob Fenner Tangs, Surgeons, Doctorfishes, family Acanthuridae, Yellow Tang, Zebrasoma flavescens, Purple Tangs, Z. xanthurumAcanthurus, Ctenochaetus, Paracanthurus, Prionurus, Algae Control

/A Fishwatcher's Guide Series:

The Striped Sailfin Tangs,  Zebrasoma desjardinii & Z. veliferum

Bob Fenner

  Zebrasoma desjardinii, Red Sea, Z. veliferum, Cooks

Surgeonfishes: Tangs for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

As far back as 1973 Warren Burgess introduced the notion that the Indo-Pacific striped Sailfin Tang was a separate species from the Pacific (Zebrasoma desjardinii and Z. veliferum respectively). To date (2002) they are two of the seven valid species of the genus; but there are folks who would still lump them as a single one. I side with the "greatest living ichthyologist", Dr. John (Jack) Randall (of Bernice P. Bishop Museum, O'ahu, Hawai'i) in delineating these two Surgeonfishes as distinct species. 

    For aquarists, depending on where you are in the world, one or the other is typically more available and favorably priced. Both species have about the same practical husbandry: food requirements, disease predispositions, selection criteria... And attain more-than-plate size in the wild (according to fishbase.org, maximum total lengths of some 40 cm./16 inches!). 

As Zebrasomas they're large species, as Surgeonfishes period, about "par" for aggressiveness/temperament, as aquarium specimens, generally hardy, beautiful and interesting. Here are my notes on their applicable biology and captive care.

The Two Species on Review/Comparison:

Zebrasoma desjardinii ("day-har-din-ee-eye") (Bennett 1835), Desjardin's Sailfin Tang. Seeing this fish and Z. veliferum at the same time might cause you to do a double take; they are very similar in color and markings. Desjardin's Tang comes to the trade mainly from the Indian Ocean or Red Sea, so one way to distinguish it is by source locale (or cost). It also has a few less soft dorsal and anal fin rays (28,29D and 22-24A versus 29-33D and 23-26A for the Pacific Sailfin) if you can get yours to hold still. Actually, the easiest discernible difference is the markings on the tail. The Pacific is white, yellow and gray banded, and Desjardin's is dark with whitish yellow spots. Juvenile below. Currently considered the same species as Z. veliferum by some authorities. Below: two, three, four and six inch individuals in captivity and ten and fourteen inch ones in the Seychelles and Maldives.

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Zebrasoma veliferum (Bloch 1795), the Pacific Sailfin Tang. Collected out of the Philippines and Indonesia, though better out of Hawaii, Ceylon and other places in the eastern Pacific. Some call this THE Sailfin tang for it's gorgeous flowing dorsal and anal finnage; these especially over-sized in appearance when young. Here are two two inch, a three and four inch juvenile in Fiji and  larger (8 and10") individuals in Hawai'i. As mentioned above D. desjardinii is considered a junior synonym of this species currently.
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I use five criteria when judging the acquisition of Zebrasoma; body conformation, size, color, behavior, and the length of time they've been in captivity.

1) Body Conformation: Appearance of a sunken stomach is not of itself an accurate indication, but healthy, freshly collected specimens of tangs appear well rounded. The upper body, above and behind the eyes should not be "shrunk in", or show loss of color.

About the scalpel-like caudal peduncle spines or "tangs": Often enough, conscientious collectors will snip off the peduncular spines of surgeons to prevent net fouling and damage from crowding/fighting. Don't be alarmed at this; they will grow back. Be careful yourself if/when netting these fishes! The "tang" is easily fouled on fine netting. Better to "drive" Tangs into a submerged doubled plastic bag underwater.

2) Size Range: The minimum purchase size for the genus for me is two inches in length for adaptability, maximum at five. Ideal is about three.

3) Color: From studying you should know the "normal" looks of a healthy specimen. Color ought to be intense and uniform. Zebrasoma display quite different stress, fighting, nighttime markings, and often-becoming barred, blanched in color. Avoid stressed specimens, and any showing red, eroded, or blotchy markings.

4) Behavior: Sailfin tangs that have been captured, transported, acclimated and kept properly are active and curious about their environment. Avoid sulking, sedentary individuals having "private parties" at the bottom or top of their aquarium.

Is the specimen feeding? On the types of foods you'll be offering? Make sure before taking it home.

5) Time in Captivity: A good week or two should go by before taking new Surgeons from your dealer. This period serves at least three critical functions; cleansing the fish of external parasites, acclimating it to aquarium conditions, testing to see if it can/will recover from capture/transport/captivity traumas.


Inter- and Intra-specific Aggression:

    As individuals, some Sailfin Tangs can become utter terrors, slashing, harassing-to-death tankmates, even eating/sampling corals. The vast majority of specimens thankfully are more easygoing. It is best to start them small (under three inches in length), avoid crowding, provide spacious quarters (at least sixty gallons, even for initially small Zebrasoma) with plenty of live rock to provide forage and hiding and sleeping spaces. I have seen both striped Zebrasoma species kept in LARGE (hundreds of gallons) reef systems. Other species of the genus are known to pick at, on occasion to have damaged LPS Corals, Xeniids, Featherduster Worms and Giant Clams, but not the striped Sailfins. Of principal concern with these species in reef aquariums is their large food requirements and copious waste production.

    To avoid compatibility problems it is best to place Tang's as last fishes to established systems, and then as small specimens (under three inches length). As is oft-stated, many fishes of similar shape, markings, particularly ones sharing similar ecological niches are best not mixed together. Unless you have a very large system with lots of break-up of the physical environment, this rule of thumb holds with these fishes. If you are still determined to mix, match these and other Tangs, you are encouraged to introduce them last, at the same time, as smaller specimens.


   Zebrasoma Tang species show sexual dimorphism, in these two species males being larger than females. They have been observed spawning in pairs and groups/schools in the wild. There have been attempts at spawning, rearing various Acanthurid members in captivity. Due to difficulties in feeding and long pelagic larval periods, they're all still wild-collected for the hobby interest.


    There are "gut content analysis" studies that reveal that the Pacific, Z. veliferum consumes more micro-algae in the wild and the Indian Ocean/Red Sea Z. desjardinii macro-algae... In captivity they both consume most all types; brown, diatom, reds, greens, even blue-green (Cyanobacteria) to an extent. Know that they may consume pest algae like Valonia, Bryopsis, but also your desired macrophytes like Caulerpa spp. Do supply your Zebrasoma's "green" foods daily.

    Two important notes re Zebrasoma digestion. These fishes consume bits of hard substrate to aid their grinding of ingested foods. Do supply their tanks with at least a bit of "sand" in a tray let's say, if you don't otherwise employ "gravel" in your display tanks. Secondly, be wary of continuous or extended exposure to copper compounds with these fishes. Tangs have beneficial microbes living in their "guts" that can be mal-affected by such treatment.


    Tangs are frequently (and appropriately) labeled as "ich magnets". As a group, they're quite prone to marine white spot and velvet (Amyloodiniumiasis) disease, calling for effective quarantine before introduction to main/display systems. The striped Zebrasoma species are less-inclined toward these twin scourges of marine aquarium and reef disease, but will likely be the first to show signs of these infestations, should your water quality slip, nutrition slide, or other challenge arise.

    In the genus the Purple Tang, Z. xanthurum is most noted for the environmental/nutritional disorder called head and lateral line erosion (HLLE); but all Zebrasoma are susceptible to degrees. This ailment is easily prevented, often cured by careful attention to improved water conditions (periodic use of activated carbon, use of mud, algal filtration for instance), augmentation of diet.


   Both species of striped Sailfin Tangs will do as micro- to macro- and filamentous algae eaters, hardy aquarium specimens. Just be aware of their capacity for growth and ultimate potential size. Don't have the room for such gargantuan species? Consider smaller members of the Zebrasoma genus or the Bristlemouth Tangs, genus Ctenochaetus.

A typically dark grouping of Z. desjardinii making their way in front of a nearshore reef slope in the upper Red Sea.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Blasiola, George C. 1990. A review of hole in the head disease of fish. FAMA 5/90.

Burgess, Warren E. 1973. Salts from the seven seas (re. Zebrasoma veliferum, Z. desjardinii). TFH 5/73.

Burgess, Warren E. 1979. The genus Zebrasoma. TFH 11/79.

Fenner, Robert. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.

Fenner, Robert. 2000. Surgeons, tangs, and Doctorfishes, family Acanthuridae. FAMA 12/00.

Fenner, Robert. 2001. Fische mit skalpell; teil 3 (Schluss): Seebader der gattung Zebrasoma und der palletten-doktorfisch, Paracanthurus hepatus. Das Aquarium Nr. 381, Marz, 01.

Michael, Scott W. 1992. A guide to the tangs of the genus Zebrasoma. Seascope vol.9, Fall 1992.

Michael, S.W. 1995. Fishes for the marine aquarium, part 7. Tangs of the genus Zebrasoma. A.F.M. 4/95.

Michael, Scott W. 1998. Surgeonfishes; Meet their strict care requirements, or else... AFM 9/98.

Randall, John E. 1983. Red Sea Reef Fishes. Immel Publishing, London.192pp.

Surgeonfishes: Tangs 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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