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Chaetodon ornatissimus, the Ornate Butterflyfish. Scott W. Michael


The butterflyfishes have a laterally compressed body, no spine on the preopercle, stout dorsal and anal fin spines, a continuous or slightly notched dorsal fin, scales extending onto the dorsal and anal fins, a small mouth at the end of a snout (which can vary in length), and brushlike teeth.

The largest member of the butterflyfish family attains a maximum length of 30 cm (11.8 in.). Most butterflyfishes are brightly colored, often sporting false eyespots and obliterative eye lines to deflect the attacks of predators. These fishes all occur in marine habitats and reach their apex of diversity on coral reefs. The majority of species are most abundant at depths of less than 20 m (65 ft.), although there are some deep-water forms that range to depths of at least 200 m (650 ft.). Long-term pair bonding appears to be common in this family, with pair members defending a large territory from conspecifics and food competitors.

With the butterflyfishes, it is essential to select the species to be kept very carefully. While some butterflyfishes adapt well to captive conditions, many other species offered for sale have very narrow feeding requirements that are difficult—if not impossible—to meet in an aquarium.


Native range:

Taxonomic rank: Family

Common name: Butterflyfishes

Total known Total profiles
Subfamilies 0 0
Genera 11 4
Species 122 27

Captive care: The butterflyfishes vary greatly in their suitability to aquarium life. In many cases, this is a function of their diet. Some species (the obligate coral feeders) rarely, if ever, survive in captivity, while others are durable aquarium inhabitants. These fishes are best kept by the more experienced aquarist. Provide a large aquarium with plenty of swimming room and a number of “bolt holes”—hiding places into which they can dash if threatened. Do not keep with overly aggressive tankmates, or add the butterflies first to let them become established before introducing any potentially belligerent species.

Feeding: The butterfly species that typically do well in captivity will eat many different live, fresh, and prepared foods. Offer a varied diet and feed frequently—at least twice per day.

Many are specialized feeders that consume coral polyps (obligate corallivores) and/or other sessile invertebrates; others are also omnivores, while a smaller number are zooplankton feeders.

See Butterflyfishes for species to avoid.

Notes: Butterflyfish larvae (known as the tholichthys stage) are both different from their parents and distinct from other reef fishes. They have bony head armor that often sports serrated spines.





Reference: Reef Fishes Volume 3
Image credit: SWM
Text credit: SWM