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Gorgeous, Intelligent, But Not Easy to Keep... The Sand Tilefishes, Family Malacanthidae

Bob Fenner

Hoplolatilus purpureus

The Tilefishes present a true challenge to advanced marine aquarists... sure, there are small species in this family, and yes... they do accept most all fresh, frozen/defrosted and dried-prepared foods... but these exotic piscines are so nervous of nature, so deft of rapid swimming AND jumping, not to mention most of them digging and diving into the substrate. In terms of historic survivability they collectively score low points, most dying within a few weeks of capture from damage in collection, cumulative stress... or JUMPING OUT.

Classification Notes: 

    Slender, laterally compressed to tubular-bodied fishes with rounded to blunt heads Long, continuous dorsal and anal fins. Forty two species in five genera, divided into two subfamilies. The Tilefishes, Latilinae (Branchiosteginae of older literature), with three genera, twenty eight species are used as foodfishes rather than ornamentals. 

    The fourteen members of the Malacanthinae are called the Sand Tilefishes for their habit of rapidly, make that lightning quick habit of diving into burrows they fashion in rubble substrates. Two genera of fourteen described species. 


    All marine, found in the tropical to cool shallows of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, generally over broken rubble bottoms where they build shelters in the substrate. 


    Most to about half a foot in length, but do check ahead of purchasing as some exceed two feet in the wild.

Genus Hoplolatilus:

Hoplolatilus chlupatyi Klausewitz, McCosker, Randall, Zetzsche 1978, the Chameleon Sand Tilefish. Western Central Pacific; Batangas, Philippines. To a bit over five inches in length. Commonly named for its ability to rapidly change color. Aquarium image. 

Hoplolatilus luteus Allen & Kuiter, the Yellow Tilefish. Indo-West Pacific; Indonesia. to a little over four inches in length. This one in captivity. 

Hoplolatilus marcosi Burgess 1978, the Redback Sand Tilefish. Western Central Pacific. To nearly five inches in length. Aquarium image.

Hoplolatilus purpureus Burgess 1978, the Purple Sand Tilefish. Western Central Pacific; Philippines and Solomon Islands. To a little over five inches total length. One of the more common  Tilefish offerings in the aquarium trade. Lives no better than the rest. 

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

Hoplolatilus starcki Randall & Dooley 1974, Starck's or Blueface Tilefish. Western Pacific; Moluccas, Philippines to Timor. To six inches in length. Variable in color from light blue overall to dark blue headed with a cream to yellow body. Aquarium and N. Sulawesi images below. 

Genus Malacanthus:

Malacanthus brevirostris Guichenot 1848, the Quakerfish. Found widely in the Indo-Pacific; Red Sea to Panama, including Hawai'i. To almost thirteen inches in length. Aquarium, Hawaii and S. Sulawesi pix.  http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Summary/speciesSummary.php?ID=5795&genusname=Malacanthus&speciesname=brevirostris
Malacanthus latovittatus (Lacepede 1801), the Blue Blanquillo. Indo-Pacific; Red Sea, east Africa to the Hawaiian Islands, but not off Australia. To eighteen inches in length. A juvenile in N. Sulawesi and semi-adult one in captivity. 

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

Malacanthus plumieri (Bloch 1786), the Sand Tilefish. Tropical West Atlantic; Carolina to Uruguay and Ascencion Isl. To twenty eight inches in length. Bahamas, St. Thomas and Cozumel pix of six and ten inch individuals. 
Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.


Looks: Appearances can be deceiving with the Sand Tilefishes... examine prospective purchases very carefully for signs of damage... cloudy eyes, any bloody marks on the body or fin origins, damage to the mouth should exclude buying those specimens. Avoid too-thin ones as these rarely rally to full fitness. 

Feeding: Do ask that the fish/es in mind be fed in front of you... most all Tilefishes in living condition will greedily eat all types of foods, but make sure that they are eating... the types of foods you intend to offer.

Behavior: These are skittish species that will definitely be reacting to your presence... as in leaving, diving into cover... If they "just sit there" something is wrong. Leave them. 


Be sure to move sure and steadily using two nets (one to guide, the other to lift) in moving these fishes... as they are very quick and exceedingly willing to launch themselves out of their tanks. And one more note re their handling; they bite... larger ones can draw blood. 

    The Sand Tilefishes must be double or triple bagged (spines in the forward parts of their fins) in large bags with plenty of water and pure/straight oxygen... and packed in the dark... to survive being shipped any long period of time (more than minutes). 

Captive Environment:

These active fishes need ROOM, and lots of it... Even small specimens of the diminutive species should be placed in at least fifty five un-crowded gallon systems... With plenty of rubble depth to borrow in, other rocky cover to hide in. 

Filtration/Aeration/Circulation: Need to be brisk. These fishes are messy eaters, diggers... and need good water movement and gaseous exchange to keep up with their active metabolisms. 

General Conditions: No special chemical, physical water quality preferences, but most species do best in subdued lighting. 

Reef Use: Fine in all types of reefs, but will consume small enough crustaceans.

Other Fishes: Fine with most all fish life, including conspecifics, other Sand Tilefishes if there is sufficient room. Most effectively displayed in/as pairs/couples without other fish life, unless the system is huge. Do not place with larger, active, aggressive tankmates like Triggerfishes. 


As you might assume with such active animals,  Sand Tilefishes need regular, hearty, meaty meals. They should receive food at least three times per day, ideally on an almost constant basis as through a thriving refugium sump and/or live sand bed attached to their main system. At right a Malacanthus brevirostris starving in a dealer's tank. A very common plight. 


These fishes show little "gray area" in their health... they're either in the "pink of health" or "dead and dying"... Sand Tilefishes do contract parasitic infestations but are happily just as susceptible to treatment with the common medications, protocols for curing same. Once "going downhill" with evidence of bacterial (secondary) complaints they rally recover. Enough quotation marks and similes for one article, eh?


Not spawned, reared in captivity. Eggs and sperm are released into the environment, larvae float in the upper water column as plankton for several days... swimming down to suitable bottom if fortunate with development. Not sexually differentiable externally.   


    Our now-defunct retail outlets, Wet Pets left these fishes out of our "assortment" entirely as most were so apparently touchy as to perish with the best of care offered. However, if one can secure initially healthy Sand Tilefishes, place them in large COVERED settings, feed them frequently on meaty foods, and put up with their reclusive natures, these can prove to be sturdy long-lived captives. As I re-state though, these are not easy fishes to keep, and most all do perish in inexperienced, unknowing hands. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Baensch, Hans & Helmut Debelius. 1994. Marine Atlas, v.1. MERGUS, Germany. 1215pp.

Fenner, Robert. 2001. The sand tilefishes. FAMA 7/01.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World. 3rd Ed. Wiley. 600pp.

Randall, John E. 1981. A review of the Indo-Pacific Sand Tilefish. FAMA 12/81.

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