Butterflyfishes are a beautiful addition to any tank…


To me they are some of the most stunning and ubiquitous marine fishes in the hobby – No elegant Fish-Only tank set-up should be without a Butterflyfish or two.

Butterflyfish prefer larger systems with places to get away from other fish. Chaetodontidae (means bristle teeth) species range from being extremely hardy and easy to care for to having very low captive survival rates.

Choose your species wisely!

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Not all Butterflyfish are good pets

Most of the hundred-odd recorded species of Butterflyfish have very specific requirements which means they can often be hard for beginners to keep and are probably best not to purchase.

These particular species can be very hard to feed, many of them feed on coral polyps in the wild and they will be among the first fish in your saltwater aquarium to be negatively affected if water quality drops.


Marine Butterflyfish

The Threadfin is a beautiful and hardy choice


Many species are  also are very timid, hide a lot and can be easily bullied by other fish.

Also many species do not tolerate their own kind or similar species and can fight a lot.

– These reasons combined with the fact that many Butterflyfish are not reef safe and will snack on invertebrates mean you need to choose the right Butterflyfish.


Butterflyfish tips

Butterflyfish are amongst the most sensitive fish to poor water quality. (photo credit: Nick Sharrat)


Butterflyfish species you should avoid

  • Golden-striped Butterflyfish (Chaetodon aureofasciatus)
  • Panda Butterflyfish (Chaetodon adiergastos)
  • Bennetts Butterflyfish (Chaetodon bennetti)
  • Chevron Butterflyfish (Chaetodon trifascialis)
  • Banded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon striatus)
  • Rainford’s Butterflyfish (Chaetodon rainfordi)
  • Yellow-Faced Butterflyfish (Chaetodon flavirostris)
  • Baroness Butterflyfish (Chaetodon baronessa)

Up to 90% of the above species will die after being wild-caught because they are so unsuited to captive life and/or eat mostly coral polyps and anemones; very hard for the home aquarist to provide!

But, there are quite a few Butteflyfish species that are hardy, ship well and adapt easily to captive environments as well as eat many types of food:


Good Butterflyfish species for your saltwater tank

  • Threadfin Butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga )
  • Raccoon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula)
  • Black-Backed Butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula)
  • Latticed or Raffles’ Butterflyfish (Chaetodon rafflesi)
  • Golden or Blue-Mask Butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus)
  • Pacific Double Saddleback Butterflyfish (Chaetodon ulietensis)
  • Lemon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon miliaris)
  • Saddle-Back or Falcula Butterflyfish (Chaetodon falcula)
Raccoon Butterflyfish

The Raccoon Butterflyfish is a good aquarium choice


My top Butterflyfish tips

With attention to detail, close monitoring and a varied diet, a good Butterflyfish choice can thrive in your aquarium and are well worth the effort.

The most common problem is dietary, some are very fussy and won’t accept substitute aquarium foods, so this means it’s very important to observe your potential fish feeding before buying it.

  1. Dont buy a too small (less than 2 inches) or too big (more than 6 inches) specimen as it will be particularly hard for them to adapt to tank life.
  2. Avoid individuals with any red areas around the mouth as these have been damaged during capture/shipping and may well not eat.
  3. Dont purchase Butterflyfish in pairs or groups unless they get along well at the local fish shop.
  4. Always freshwater dip and quarantine new arrivals to your display tank.

In the wild Butterflyfishes eat benthic algae, polychaete worms, nudibranchs, small crustaceans, zooplankton and coral polyps.

They need a varied diet of brineshrimp, mysis, tubeworms, algae, shellfish and it is often recommended to feed them enriched forms if possible.

It is a good idea to introduce them to your tank before more aggressive species such as Surgeonfishes and Tangs.

They can be kept in fish only set-ups and fish only with live rock. Some can be kept in reef aquariums with care. They require water temperature of 26-28° C (79-82° F), pH 8.2 – 8.3 and Specific Gravity 1.021 – 1.024.


My favorite Butterflyfish

Copperband Butterflyfish (Chelmon rostratus)

Butterfly fish

My personal favorite: the Copperband Butterflyfish (photo credit: Pinke)

Found in the Eastern Indo-Pacific, and grows to 20cm (8 inches). Can be a hardy species despite its reputation as hard to keep, as long as you provide a varied diet and supplement regularly with vitamins.

A peaceful species that will become more confident with time in your aquarium. Will swim around the rocks and will generally ignore sessile invertebrates.

Will eat Aiptasia anemones and sometimes they are introduced into aquariums to control these pests. Excellent water quality will help you maintain this striking butterflyfish.


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Saltwater aquarium advice