Butterflyfish and Coral Compatibility

Many butterflyfish are considered reef-safe. . . but there is always a chance your corals can get nipped.

AFIAquarists are attracted to colorful fish, especially those in the family Chaetodontidae, which contains 13 genera and almost 130 species. In fact, this large family contains some of the most colorful fish in the ocean. Species such as the Pakistani or collare butterflyfish (Chaetodon collare) and latticed butterflyfish (C. rafflesi) are good examples of colorful butterflyfishes. However, not all can be considered reef-safe, as soft and hard coral polyps are on the menu of many of these species like C. semilarvatus.

But unlike many obligate coral-feeders, C. semilarvatus can be switched over to a captive diet. When selecting butterflyfishes, take care to select the most reef-safe specimens available. No species poses zero threat to sessile invertebrates, so when I say a fish is “reef-safe,” I mean it is “relatively” reef-safe.  This means that in appropriately sized, well-managed and well-fed systems, the chances of coral damage will be extremely low.

Chaetodontidae Success
Butterflyfishes are some of the most beautiful fish found on the reefs; unfortunately, many of these can be moderate to difficult to acclimate to captive conditions. Butterflies are generally good community fish, though some more pugnacious species may terrorize smaller or more docile fish. There are a few species considered easy to keep.
Aquariums: To increase the chances of success, place butterflyfishes in large, mature tanks (six months minimum). Keep a good supply of quality live rock, and do not include competing or aggressive tankmates. Choose tankmates carefully so that no territorial issues arise. Some butterflyfish species do better kept in pairs or groups. Acquire at least a 70-gallon tank or larger, as this will increase your chances of long-term survivability and success with any new butterflyfishes.
Feeding: Feed these fish a proper and nutritious diet in small amounts several times per day. It can be difficult to get some butterflyfishes to eat prepared foods, especially during acclimation, so frequently offer them an adequate, sustainable food mix. Live brine shrimp and copepods are good starter foods for fussy newcomers, as are the various types of worms and crustaceans available (both live and frozen). Other meaty foods, such as squid, minced clam and prepared blends, can also be offered in small quantities. For stubborn feeders, mix up a paste including the above foods and then apply this paste to a “feeding stone.” This will help trigger feeding and shorten the acclimation time toward feeding them prepared foods. There are a handful of these fishes that will easily acclimate to prepared foods, and most of these are commonly seen at fish stores.
Water parameters: Water quality must be excellent in order to improve butterflyfish health and resistance to parasitic and fungal diseases. Maintain a consistent pH range of 8.2 to 8.3 and a temperature of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a few deeper-water species that fare much better with cooler temperatures. Use an efficient protein skimmer, and ozone is recommended but not absolutely necessary for success.

Safe for Stony and Soft Corals
Scientific name: Chaetodon punctatofasciatus
Common name: Spot-banded butterflyfish
Distribution: Indo-Pacific; Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean to the Line Islands, north to the Ryukyu Islands, south to Rowley Shoals and the northern Great Barrier Reef; throughout Micronesia. Replaced by C. guttatissimus in the Indian Ocean.
Minimum tank size: 60 gallons
Size: To 5 inches
Natural foods: Zoobenthos, filamentous algae, corals and benthic invertebrates
Associations: Common in coral-rich areas and clear waters of lagoon and seaward reefs. Sometimes found on outer subtidal reef flats. Often seen in pairs during breeding. Juveniles are secretive.
Care level: Easy to moderate
Notes: Provide numerous hiding places and calm tankmates. Most spot-banded butterflies will relish chopped seafood meats, as well as algae-based meals.

Scientific name: Chaetodon rafflesi
Common names: Raffles’ or latticed butterflyfish
Distribution: Indo-Pacific; Sri Lanka to the Tuamoto Islands, north to southern Japan, south to the Great Barrier Reef; Palau (Belau) to the eastern Caroline Islands in Micronesia.
Minimum tank size: 70 gallons
Size: To 6 inches
Natural foods: Anemones, polychaetes and octocorallians. Scleractinian coral polyps may be sampled.
Associations: Found in areas of rich coral growth of lagoon and protected reef flats and seaward reefs.
Care level: Easy to moderate
Notes: This fish should be offered algae stones and so-called “feeding stones” prepared by spreading food pulp over the stone. Chopped seafood meats are recommended. This fish will display a dark spot on the front of the body when stressed and sleeping. Provide hiding places for when it is stressed. Not to be trusted with sea anemones.

Scientific name: Hemitaurichthys zoster
Common name: Black pyramid butterflyfish
Distribution: Indian Ocean; East Africa to Guam, north to India, south to Mauritius
Minimum tank size: 120 gallons
Size: To 6 inches
Natural foods: Zooplankton, algae
Associations: Inhabits open water off the reef edge to depths greater than 150 feet. Forms large schools and forms pairs during breeding.
Care level: Easy
Notes: One of the hardiest butterflyfishes that is safe with all corals. Mainly a plankton-feeder.

Safe for Stony Corals
Scientific name: Chaetodon collare
Common names: Pakistani butterflyfish, red-tail collare or brown butterflyfish
Distribution: Indo-West Pacific; Persian Gulf and Maldives to Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia
Minimum tank size: 120 gallons
Size: To 6.5 inches
Natural foods: Live polyps, other cnidarians, gorgonians, tunicates, worms and crustaceans
Associations: Occurs in coral reefs in pairs or several aggregations, though in captivity they may act aggressively toward members of their own species. The reticulated butterflyfish (C. reticulatus) is a near match of C. collare in appearance, but it has a less of a brown hue and light blue instead of red in its black-based tail. These two species are occasionally found in association in the Western Pacific. This species is usually found on the reef edge and upper slope. Pairs form during breeding.
Care level: Moderate to difficult
Notes: Groups of two or more increase your success rate in keeping this species long-term.

Scientific name: Chaetodon striatus
Common name: Banded butterflyfish
Distribution: Western Atlantic; Massachusetts to Santa Catarina, Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Also found in the Eastern Central Atlantic at St. Paul’s Rocks.
Minimum tank size: 70 gallons
Size: To 6.5 inches
Natural foods: Polychaete worms, coral polyps, crustaceans and also mollusk eggs
Associations: Adults may form plankton-feeding aggregations of up to 20 individuals. They occasionally clean other reef fish that join the group, such as grunts, parrotfishes and surgeonfishes.
Care level: Moderate
Notes: Can be difficult to acclimate to prepared foods, but once acclimated, this fish is quite hardy and well-behaved toward other fish members of the tank. Provide them with a vitamin-enriched diet of meaty foods and plenty of nooks and crannies. This fish prefers lower water temperatures from 70 to 79 degrees.

Scientific name: Forcipiger longirostris
Common name: Longnose butterflyfish
Distribution: Indo-Pacific; East Africa to the Hawaiian, Marquesan and Pitcairn islands, north to the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands, south to New Caledonia and the Austral Islands; throughout Micronesia
Minimum tank size: 150 gallons
Size: To 8 inches
Natural foods: Feeds mainly on whole organisms, such as small crustaceans
Associations: A generally uncommon species that inhabits seaward reefs to depths greater than 200 feet.
Care level: Moderate to difficult
Notes: Occasionally seen in the trade. Do not confuse with F. flavissimus, which is not suitable for reef systems. Plenty of healthy live rock is suggested for this species. Small frozen foods such as Cyclop-eeze may entice it to feed. Apply a seafood paste onto a brain coral skeleton or rock. Live pods are generally irresistible.

Scientific name: Hemitaurichthys polylepis
Common name: Pyramid butterflyfish
Distribution: Pacific Ocean; Christmas Island in the Eastern Indian Ocean to Indonesia and the Hawaiian, Line, and Pitcairn islands, north to southern Japan, south to Rowley Shoals and New Caledonia. Replaced by H. zoster in the Indian Ocean.
Minimum tank size: 150 gallons
Size: To 7 inches
Natural foods: Zooplankton
Associations: Occurs in large schools that may extend a few feet above the edges of steep current-swept outer reef slopes. Forms pairs during breeding.
Care level: Moderate
Notes: Likely one of the safest butterflyfishes to keep with both hard and soft corals. It usually will accept most foods offered to it, including finely chopped seafood, frozen or live brine shrimp, frozen preparations, crustacean flesh, mysid shrimp, frozen preparations and even flake food.

Safe for Soft Corals
Scientific name: Chaetodon auriga
Common name: Threadfin butterflyfish
Distribution: Indo-Pacific; Red Sea and East Africa (extending to Mossel Bay, South Africa) to the Hawaiian, Marquesan and Ducie islands, north to southern Japan, south to Lord Howe and Rapa islands
Minimum tank size: 120 gallons
Size: To 8 inches
Natural foods: Feeds mainly by tearing pieces from polychaetes, sea anemones, coral polyps and algae.
Associations: Benthopelagic. May be seen in a variety of habitats ranging from rich coral reefs to weedy and rubble-covered areas. May be found singly, in pairs and in aggregations that roam over large distances in search of food. Forms pairs during breeding.
Care level: Easy
Notes: Juveniles have a black bar over the head that hides the eyes and an eye-sized black spot on either side of the soft dorsal fin. This species requires numerous feedings per day. If introduced first into the aquarium, it will establish its territory and aggressively defend it. If this fish is to be kept with other butterflies, introduce it last. It needs plenty of rockwork with caves for security. It readily accepts most foods and is one of the hardiest butterflies in the trade. Not to be trusted with sea anemones.

Scientific name: Chaetodon kleinii
Common name: Klein’s butterflyfish
Distribution: Indo-Pacific; Red Sea and East Africa south to Coffee Bay, South Africa, to the Hawaiian Islands and Samoa, north to southern Japan, south to New South Wales, Australia, and New Caledonia. Found in the Eastern Pacific in the Galapagos Islands.
Minimum tank size: 70 gallons
Size: To 5.5 inches
Natural foods: Feeds mainly on soft coral polyps (mainly on Sarcophyton trocheliophorum and Litophyton viridis), algae and zooplankton.
Associations: Occurs in deeper lagoons and channels, and seaward reefs. Benthopelagic. Occurs singly or in pairs. Forms pairs during breeding.
Care level: Easy
Notes: Can be quite shy on introduction but once acclimated can be quite hardy. Requires a variety of frozen foods, both meaty and green, and its diet can be supplemented with quality flake foods with numerous feedings per day. Does well with conspecifics and other butterflyfishes. One of the easier butterflyfishes to keep.
Scientific name: Chelmon rostratus
Common names: Copperband butterflyfish
Distribution: Western Pacific; Andaman Sea to Ryukyu Islands and Australia
Minimum tank size: 70 gallons
Size: To 8 inches
Natural foods: Tubeworms, benthic invertebrates
Associations: A common species found singly and in pairs along rocky shores and coral reefs; it also occurs in estuaries and silty inner reefs. Forms pairs during breeding.
Care Level: Easy to moderate
Notes: A territorial species. Distinguished from C. marginalis by the color pattern and number of dorsal fin rays (fewer in C. rostratus). Easily maintained in the aquarium if the right conditions are provided; it accepts a wide variety of foods. It relishes Tubifex worms and Aiptasia anemones. It will decimate tubeworm populations. Peaceful tankmates recommended.

Not-Reef-Safe Butterflyfishes to Avoid
These butterflyfishes should not be purchased because of their specific dietary needs. All are obligatory coral-feeders and are difficult to keep.

Chaetodon aureofasciatus
C. austriacus
C. baronessa
C. bennetti
C. larvatus
C. melapterus
C. meyeri
C. octofasciatus
C. ornatissimus
C. plebeius
C. reticulatus
C. speculum
C. trifascialis
C. trifasciatus
C. triangulum

Your captive reef may be calling out for the added splashes of color and movement that select butterflyfishes can provide. However, do your homework, as some species will coexist with most soft and hard corals, while others will nosh on select sessile reef invertebrates. Still others will eat a captive reef alive. It is up to individual reefkeepers to make sure they keep the most compatible mix of fishes and invertebrates that they can. Click here for more butterflyfish references. FAMA

James Gasta has been in the marine hobby for more than 30 years. For the past four years, he has been a volunteer on wetwebmedia.com, answering queries from marine aquarists. He has also written articles for online and print magazines.  

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Fish · Freshwater Fish