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Related FAQs: Fishes of the Tropical West Atlantic, Tropical West Atlantic 2

Related Articles: TWA Invertebrates, Algae, Vascular Plants, Introduction to Fishwatcher's Guide Series Pieces/Sections, Lachnolaimus maxiumus/Hogfish, Hogfishes of the Genus Bodianus

Fishes of The Tropical West Atlantic: Bahamas to Brazil, Part 1

To: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11,

Bob Fenner

    Cuban Hogfish

The Tropical West Atlantic (TWA henceforth), encompasses a huge area of shallow marine waters from Massachusetts, during the warmest periods of the year, on down to Brazil. You might presume that there are enormous differences in the mix of life forms found along such an expanse of sea. But by and large, much of the fish life detailed here can be found in the Bahamas, Caribbean, down along the northern South American east coast, and all the way past New Jersey in warm months.

The TWA is the most visited and dived place in the world, with some six million travelers a year. Not surprising for an area of dozens of countries and hundreds of islands, the Tropical West Atlantic is a year round destination. Excepting far northern and southern parts of geography, the waters here range in the seventies to eighties F..

What's in this area of interest to saltwater aquarists, collectors and the distribution businesses in-between them? Here is my listing of what fishes are utilized currently, some notes regarding their husbandry and appropriateness in our avocation, and a stab at encouraging all to consider other species not presently employed.

Ecotype Statements

I've offered some broad strokes here in describing very generally where the various fish groups and species are typically found. Other authors have been much more specific in defining reef geographies and particular niches, but I'll assure you that duplicating biotopes is not essential. Indeed, almost all hobbyist arrangements are a mish-mash of mixed species that would never meet in the wild, and most get along just fine.

On the other hand, I cannot encourage you enough to go beyond the simple statements offered here in investigating and doing your best to mimic a physical and biological slice of the TWA (or any part of the "real" world you'd like to recreate in miniature). The printed works listed here, Internet, and actual travel to the area are the best means of gaining knowledge of what makes up a given TWA biotope.

Captive Suitability Scoring:

After long thought, investigation of others declared opinions, and handling tens of thousands of these species I've come to a set of "scores" for each on its likelihood of surviving the rigors of aquarium care. Yes, to some degree this information is necessarily historical (what has happened, may not be the general trend to come), and is subject to "improvement" on the keepers side as a consequence of providing larger, more stable quarters (like public aquariums), and more diligent husbandry. But, by and large a relative score of one (1) indicates the "highest and best" survivability under captive conditions; let's say most of the specimens of this species collected surviving more than three months. A score of two (2) is indicative of a mortality of more than fifty percent between one and three months. Lastly, and sufficient for our purposes, a three (3) is the worst score, with more than 50% of the species perishing before a months time of capture. I entreat you to leave the latter group to the sea, or at least to study and provide the best possible circumstances for these animals.

Family/Species Accounts of Fishes Suitable for Aquariums Of the Tropical West Atlantic

Sharks, Subclass Elasmobranchii. Without a doubt the most commonly traded shark species in the aquarium hobby is the Nurse Shark, Ginglymostoma cirratum (family Ginglymostomatidae) (3)., a usually docile gray to tan colored animal that spends a great deal of time lying on the bottom under ledges. The problem in keeping the Nurse is the same as for most shark species; they get big (several feet), fast (depending on feeding to a degree), jump out (in all honesty, a better way to die), all in all, requiring very large quarters and special care. Another shark "utilized" from the area, and if possible, even more of a shame, is the Lemon Shark, Negaprion brevirostris, fittingly of the Requiem Shark family, Carcharhinidae (3).. This species requires even larger quarters (several thousand gallons) of circular configuration. Obviously both these sharks should only be exhibited in Public Aquariums.

Ecotype for both species: All types, shallows to open water.

Ginglymostoma cirrhatum (Bonnaterre 1788), the Nurse Shark. Most often collected out of the tropical West Atlantic as the most commonly (mis)offered shark species for aquarium use, though found in the Eastern Atlantic and Eastern Pacific coasts. To nearly fourteen feet in length (not a misprint). Unbelievable to me that folks would offer or buy this animal in place it in tiny systems. Jumps out or dies unhappily... Bahamas and aquarium images.
Carcharhinus perezi (Poey 1876), the Caribbean Reef Shark. Tropical West Atlantic, Florida to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico. A large shark with a small first dorsal fin which bears a small rear tip itself. Known to bite, but not eat humans. To about ten feet in length. Here in the Bahamas. 

Sphyrna lewini (Griffith & Smith 1824), the Scalloped Hammerhead. Found around the world in cool to tropical waters. To thirteen feet in length. This visitor off Hurghada, Egypt, Red Sea was about eight feet long. 

There are a few other species of Atlantic sharks; none of them suitable for home aquariums. If you must try a marine shark, please look at the few smaller Cat Shark (family Scyliorhinidae) (2) and Bamboo Shark (family Hemiscyliidae) (2) species offered in the trade; and do your husbandry homework in advance.

Of the several Rays, Order Rajiformes, found in the TWA a single species is of use to aquarists. The Yellow Stingray, Urolophus jamaicensis (2) is certainly not the only good-looker amongst the handful of dorso-ventrally compressed cartilaginous fishes found here, but it is the only one that stays small enough (to 2.5 feet) for aquarium use. Yes, they're venomous.

Ecotype: Found in shallow, sandy habitats, generally at least partly covered.

Dasyatis americana (Hildebrand & Schroeder 1928), the Southern Stingray. Western Atlantic; New Jersey to Brazil. To over six feet in diameter. Below: A full and business end view of a specimen in Tobago in the Lower Antilles and one in the Bahamas. 
Manta birostris (Donndorff 1798), a/the Manta Ray. The paddle-like extensions on the head used for directing food into this filter feeders mouth. Third largest fish species at more than 6.7 meters in width, two tons in weight. Circumtropical. One at a cleaning station in Australia, another in Hawai'i in shallow water shot by MikeK.

Urobatis jamaicensis (Cuvier 1816), the Yellow Stingray. Western Atlantic; North Carolina to Venezuela. To thirty inches wide. Aquarium and Cozumel photos. 

Narcine brasiliensis (Olfers 1831), Brazilian Electric Ray. To 54 cm. Tropical west Atlantic. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/
SpeciesSummary.cfm?ID=2551& genusname=Narcine&speciesname=brasiliensis. Aquarium pic. 

Raja eglantiera Bosc 1800, the Clearnose Skate. Western Atlantic; Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico. To two feet in diameter. This one in the shallows in the Bahamas.

Morays, family Muraenidae. The reefs of the TWA are home to a handful of moray eels, and almost all are offered for sale at times in the trade. I break with other authors in my appraisal of all but one of these animals. In my opinion, the Chain Moray, Echidna catenata and Goldentail, Gymnothorax miliaris (1's), ought to be considered for home aquarium use. It stays relatively small (about two feet) and like other members of its genus, gladly accepts fresh and prepared (or live) crustacean foods, leaving fish livestock alone.

Most of the other West Atlantic morays get too big, jump out too readily and gladly eat their fishy tankmates (2).. Nevertheless, because these "big nasties" are available we'll list them here. The Spotted (G. moringa), Purple Mouth (G. vicinus), even "monster" Green or Golden Moray Eels (G. funebris). Other names, including the infamous "assorted" and "miscellaneous" are applied to these and a few other eel species imports. If you get one of these escape artists, watch your hands and your piscine livestock!

Ecotype: Shallow to mid-depth reefs to bays, rocky habitats. Hide in recesses by day, coming out at night to feed.

Gymnothorax funebris Ranzani 1840, the Green Moray. Tropical Eastern and Western Atlantic and Eastern Pacific. To about eight feet in length (250 cm.) and 29 kg. A dangerous biting Moray that mainly eats crustaceans and fishes in the wild... most everything in captivity. Best left in the sea or the occasional public aquarium display where this shot was made. 

Gymnothorax lentiginosa Jenyns 1842, the Jewel Moray. Eastern Pacific; Mexico's Baja to Peru. To about two feet in length. Another delightfully small member of the genus. Shown: a one foot juvenile, a near maximum size individual in captivity, and a mottled patterned one in the Galapagos.

Gymnothorax miliaris Kaup 1856, the Golden Tail Moray. Western Atlantic; Florida to the Antilles. To twenty eight inches in length. One of my favorite aquarium members of the family due to its inherent small size, good looks, and good numbers to be found in the wild. A head of one off of Bimini, and a tail for show in Cozumel. Also occurs as a "golden morph" principally in Hawai'i, shown below.
Gymnothorax moringa Cuvier 1829, the Spotted Moray Eel. Tropical eastern and western Atlantic coasts. To four feet in length. Common in the wild. Bahamas and St. Thomas pix. An easy-going species for aquarium use.

Muraena retifera (Goode & Bean 1882), the Reticulated Moray. New England to Venezuela. To 60 cm. in length. Feeds on fish, squid and crustaceans in the wild. Aquarium photo. 

Snake eels, Family Ophichthidae. Two of the four species of snake eels that occur on reefs in the TWA make their way into the trade (along with a few Pacific ones). The Sharptail (Myrichthys breviceps)(3). and Goldspotted Snake Eels (M. ocellatus)(3). Are supreme escape-artists that should be avoided for aquarium use. If you try a snake eel, assure yourself that the specimen is feeding.

Ecotype: Shallow bays to rocky reefs. These fishes are recluses by day, foragers by night; and sand-burrowers that appreciate the same in captivity.

Myrichthys breviceps (Richardson 1844), the Sharptail Snake Eel. Tropical West Atlantic. To a bit over three feet in length. Rarely survives for any period of time in captivity due to a lack of feeding, collateral damage from collection, handling. Needs large, sandy-bottomed quarters, ghost shrimp, small crabs for food. May eat mouth-size or smaller fish tankmates. Wild photos below at night off of St. Lucia, and an aquarium image.

Conger and Garden Eels, Family Congridae:

Conger triporaceps Kanazawa 1958, the Many-tooth Conger. Western Atlantic; Florida to Brazil. To a meter in length. Found in association with rocky, coral bottoms. Bahamas pic at night.

Heteroconger longissimus Gunther 1870, Garden Eels. Tropical Eastern and Western Atlantic. To 51 cm. Found living in colonies near reefs in the sand in which they burrow, retreat. Feed on plankton and detritus.

The Frogfishes or Anglers, Family Antennariidae. All seven legitimate species of TWA frogfishes are utilized in the trade, though, like their numbers in the wild, present only in small numbers. Rather than being sold by the species, they are almost always offered as "Assorted Caribbean" and "Colored: Caribbean/South American" being one of a handful of possible species, with the Wartskin (Antennarius maculatus) (2)., and Sargassumfish (Histrio histrio) (2). possibly lumped in with the bunch or identified seperately. Species identifications can be trying, with much confusing overlapping of physical traits, color, and patterns; luckily all these globose animals' care is similar. Providing cover for perching and cryptic matching is desirable and one constant in their husbandry: they will gladly inhale any/all other tankmates small enough to get into their capacious maws. Yes, they can ingest fishes actually longer than themselves.

Ecotype: The Sargassumfish is found floating about in its namesake algal-weed. Other species inhabit reefs, sand to muddy shoals very often matching their surroundings so well that divers pass them by unaware of their presence.

Histrio histrio (Linnaeus 1758), the Sargassum Anglerfish, or if it were up to me, "The Incredible Eater Upper"... To only 13 cm. but able to eat most any animal near its length. Known from all tropical oceans, typically found "floating" in kelp canopies or bits that are broken off. Aquarium photos, first by RMF, second by Mike Giangrasso. 

Antennarius multiocellatus (Valenciennes 1837), the Long-lure Anglerfish. Tropical West Atlantic; Florida to northern South America. Most common frogfish in the TWA, found disguised around sponges. Fishing rod (illicium) about twice the length of first dorsal spine. Feed on fishes and crustaceans. Eggs laid in ribbon like masses. Here are two colored varieties in Bonaire. 
Antennarius striatus, Striated Frogfish. Tropical West Atlantic and Indo-Pacific; South Africa to Japan and New Zealand, in mud or sand bottoms, often associated with sponges. To seven inches. Aquarium and N. Sulawesi photos. Distinguished from the similar appearing A. hispidus by its worm-like esca. Many pseudonyms (28) exist for this species, including A. scaber. Males with more tufts/camouflage than females. 

Toadfishes or Midshipmen, Family Batrachoididae (2). There are two spectacular members of this family hailing from the TWA, but both have very restricted ranges and are rarely available. These are the Splendid Toadfish, Sanopus splendidus from Cozumel, and to the south, the Whitelined Toadfish, S. greenfieldorum of Belize. Two pug-ugly toadfishes that do make it into the hobby, though often sold as "sculpins" (which they resemble somewhat) are the Oyster Toadfish, Opsanus tau, and Sapo Cano, Thalassophryne maculosa. These fishes should be handled with care (if at all). Their anterior dorsal spines and preoperculum bear venom, and they will bite other fishes and you.

Ecotype: Rocky to sandy bottoms hiding with just head exposed or under the sand.

Opsanus pardus (Goode & Bean 1880), the Leopard Toadfish. Tropical West Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico. To fifteen inches in length.


Opsanus tau (Linnaeus 1766), the Oyster Toadfish. Western Atlantic. Massachusetts to Florida. To fifteen inches in length. One in the Florida Aquarium and the other under a pier in Belize.

Sanopus splendidus Collete, Starck & Phillips 1974, the Coral or Splendid Toadfish. Tropical West Atlantic; endemic to Cozumel. To 24 cm. Cozumel pic. 

Trumpetfishes, Family Aulostomidae: Though not as commonly available as its Pacific counterpart, Aulostomus chinensis (3). the single Atlantic Trumpetfish species, A. maculatus (3) is making its way more and more frequently into pet-fish markets. This "hide and seek" expert is a real master of deception, changing color rapidly, hanging out amongst vertical elements, even swimming in parallel, co-stalking with other predatory fishes.

Ecotype: Coral reefs, typically still in a vertical orientation.

Aulostomus maculatus Valenciennes 1837, the Trumpetfish. Tropical West Atlantic; Florida to Venezuela. To a meter in length. Occurs in many and changeable colors, markings; brown, yellow, bluish striped... Right: off of the Bahamas. Below, some examples of differences in color, pattern. Antigua, Bahamas, and St. Lucia.

Other tube-mouthed fishes, the Seahorses, Family Syngnathidae. Cute, but amongst the most difficult marine fishes to keep, the Seahorses from the TWA fare no better coming from here than their congeners from the Indo-Pacific. Thankfully, the trade in the tiny Dwarf Seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae (3). is but a mere shadow of its previous years. The two larger endemics are not so fortunate. The Slender or Longsnout (H. reidi) (3). and Lined Seahorses (H. erectus) (3). both require specialized housing, dedicated "species" biotopes with considerable effort at culturing and preparing foods. Please don't attempt these animals without knowing full well what you're getting into, and dedicating the resources to their basic needs.

Ecotype: Amongst attached (gorgonians, seagrass) or floating sargassum, in shallows.

Hippocampus erectus Perry, 1810, the Lined Seahorse. To 19 cm. in height. Numerous lines on head, possibly down nape, body. Western Atlantic: Nova Scotia to Panama. Found in Zostera beds and on gorgonians, even floating Sargassum. SIO Aquarium photo.

Hippocampus reidi Ginsburg 1933, the Long Snout Seahorse (often sold in the hobby as "Brazilian"). Western Atlantic, North Carolina  to Rio/Brazil. To six inches in height. Variable in color... mostly warm colored individuals offered in the trade. Aquarium and last, Cozumel pix. 

Hippocampus zosterae Jordan & Gilbert, 1882, the Dwarf Seahorse. To 5 cm. in height. Very short snouts. Western Atlantic: Bermuda, southern Florida (USA), Bahamas and the entire Gulf of Mexico. Found in Zostera beds near shore. THE dwarf seahorse of past comic book fame... only lives a year. Aquarium image. 

Cosmocampus sp. One of twenty or so species of Pipefishes in the Tropical West Atlantic. This one off of St. Thomas. 

Squirrelfishes and Soldierfishes, family Holocentridae (2).. At times two or three species of squirrels found here are collected and sold in the trade. Most commonly encountered by far are the Longjaw Squirrelfish, Holocentrus ascensionis; the Longspine Squirrelfish, H. rufus; and the Blackbar Soldierfish, Myripristus jacobus. All make moderate, if secretive aquarium specimens. Two things to keep in mind with these fishes, they're very spiny and large-mouthed. Watch your handling of them and make sure tankmates are more than mouth size.

Genus Holocentrus

Holocentrus adscensionis (Osbeck 1765), Squirrelfish. tropical western and eastern Atlantic. A regular offering out of the TWA, and a beautiful addition when small, but grows to about two feet if fed abundantly. This one photographed in the Bahamas. 4-40 feet.

Holocentrus coruscus (Poey 1860), Reef Squirrelfish. Tropical western Atlantic; Florida to northern South America. A delightful offering out of the TWA. To six inches overall length. Bonaire pic taken during a night dive.

Holocentrus rufus (Walbaum 1792), Longspine Squirrelfish. Another steady catch for the pet-fish trade out of the tropical West Atlantic, at a much more manageable maximum length of fourteen inches (in the wild). Note white tips of hard dorsal fin spine membranes. Bahamas pix. 4-100 feet.

Genus Myripristis

Myripristis jacobus Cuvier 1829, the Blackbar Soldierfish. Tropical West Atlantic. To ten inches maximum length. These images shot in the Bahamas. 15-60 feet. 

Neoniphon marianus (Cuvier 1829), the Longjaw Squirrelfish. Tropical West Atlantic. To seven inches in length. Distinctive yellow body lines. This one in Jamaica.


Ecotype: Shallow to deep reefs under overhangs and in caves by day, foraging outside by night.

Scorpionfishes, Rockfishes, Family Scorpaenidae: Most of these lionfish relatives come out of the Indo-Pacific, but occasionally an Atlantic Scorpionfish is sold under the "miscellaneous" moniker. Most often this is the drab Spotted Scorpionfish, Scorpaena plumieri (2) , a real "stealth" fish if ever there was one. For completeness sake, we'll mention the Bandtail Searobin, Prionotus ophryas (2); sold as a Scorpion, though it's a member of the Searobin (or Gurnards) family, Triglidae.

Ecotype: Like their second common name, Rockfishes are found on the bottom, generally motionless amongst the rocks. Virtually undetectable to prey and divers.

Scorpaena plumieri mystes Bloch 1769, the Spotted Scorpionfish. To eighteen inches in length. Western Atlantic: Massachusetts, northern Gulf of Mexico to southern Brazil, Ascension and St. Helena. Found sitting on rocky bottoms 5-55 meters of depth... ambushing fishes and crustaceans for food. Occasionally imported as an aquarium species. Bahamas pix of a view above and close-up.

Bigger PIX: The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size. Here's a invasive, non-indigenous Volitans Lion in Cozumel...

To: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11,  

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