When it comes to my Saltwater Aquarium Advice facebook  page everyone always goes gaga over Tang posts.


I thought providing some of my top tips for Tangs would make a great blog post this week

Tangs are one of my favorite fish families because of their active, inquisitive and playful natures, stunning markings, colors on most species and intelligence.

They also eat pest algae, are reef safe and usually quickly bond to their owners (or should I say servants).

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The ubiquitous Powder Blue is probably the most Ich-prone Tang of all.

This stunning family of fish are known as Tangs in the USA (and most of the rest of the world) but are called Surgeonfish in the UK and are sometimes known as Doctorfish just to make things even more complicated!

Most species in our tanks come from coral reefs in the western pacific ocean.


Tangs are usually selected for marine systems because they are:

  • Great around coral
  • Help control pest algae growing on rocks, ornaments and coral
  • Are aggressive enough to deal with Damsels, Wrasses and Angelfish but will not be too aggressive to more timid species
  • Being predominantly herbivores they are not predatory to any fish species

For these reasons Tangs are suitable in either a reef tank or community tank.


Introducing, the Tangs

The family Acanthuridae includes the Tangs and the Unicorn fish (which have a unique horn-like appendage that grows from the front of their heads); this family name literally means “thorn tail” which refers to the defensive scalpel-like blades on either side of the base of the tail, also called a tang, which flare out when the fish feels threatened.

These blades are very sharp and have cut many a saltwater hobbyist not handling them carefully (hence the name surgeonfish and Doctorfish), so beware of the base of the tail!

A fine mesh net should be used when capturing these fish so as to avoid catching and ripping the spines.

Most species grow quickly to an adult size of 15 to 40 cm in length depending on species, some Unicorn fish grow to more than 3 feet, so check the full grown size of the Tang you want to ensure you will have enough space. They also like hiding places.

Some species of Tangs are hardy and relaxed in the marine aquarium, yet others can be fussy, tricky to care for and are delicate. Generally Tangs enjoy being the dominant alpha fish in your aquarium and like to take up the spotlight!

Aquarium Tangs

Sailfin Tangs can get BIG, so make sure your tank is big enough (pic credit: Praline 3001)

The Saltwater Aquarium Advice top tips for keeping Tangs healthy

1. To be optimally happy these fish need an aquarium of at least 75 gallons in volume because they are active swimmers. They love hiding places and enjoy playing tag and hide and seek messing with the other fish’s heads.

2. Tangs are best kept one to a tank but if you want to add more either keep them in schools of the same species of social Tangs (added at the same time, so all are equal) or keep individuals that are as different looking as possible (for example different Genus; and so different body shape, size and niche occupied in the wild) to avoid any aggression. If you want to keep multiple Tangs ensure your system is 100 gallons (379 litres) or bigger ideally with plenty of hiding places, so they can get of each others line of sight for a bit.

3. New Tangs are very prone to parasitic disease especially Marine Ich possibly because of their tiny-scaled leathery skin but also because they don’t handle shipping very well. You DEFINITELY should quarantine a new Tang for at least 30 days before introducing it into your display tank. After that a good diet of macroalgae and clean, regularly maintained water should keep them disease free.

Marine fish disease

Once you’ve found Dory, the trick is to keep her healthy. (pic credit sj liew)

4. As Tangs primary eat macro-algae a great way to feed them is to cultivate macroalgae species in your sump or refugium (or even the display tank), when its not being used to fuel your Tangs shenanigans the algae filters the water of polluting nitrates and phosphates; win-win!

5. Tangs are quite active and therefore prefer highly oxygenated water, make sure you have a combination of multiple powerheads, airstones and surface agitation giving multi-directional water flow. This will keep your tangs very happy.

6. As I have said Tangs primarily eat macroalgae in the wild, to keep them in peak condition in your tank vary their diets often. For example by adding regular fresh lettuce (and other fresh greens like spinach), sushi nori and occasionally meaty foods to their usual meals. Use a veggie clip to attach veggies in the tanks for them. A Tangs belly should be round after feeding and they need to be feed a lot as they are active and get relatively low nutrients from their veggie foods. Tangs also really love Live rock as they can graze the algae off it. So having lights that promote algae growth will keep your Tangs optimally happy.

7. It is very easy to get Tangs caught in your net due to their spines, ensure your net has very fine mesh or very large mesh to avoid ripping their scalpels. If your Tang is stuck just gently move the net forward and back in the water, eventually the fish will relax its spines and swim out. Alternatively you can use a jar or container to catch them.

8. Major Tang aggression can easily result in a fish literally sliced to pieces, so make sure you do your homework when it comes to fish compatibility! Timid fish species will usually be very stressed by Tangs. Often a pair of any Tang species will be highly aggressive toward each other and fight, keep a single fish or a group if your tank is big enough.


My favorite Tangs for saltwater aquariums

Not all are easy to care for, some are even a mistake for the beginner to attempt, but all are stunning to look at and are loaded with personality, each one is sure to be a star in your tank:

1. Powder blue Tang (Acanthurus leucosternon): Quite simply the most gorgeous fish in a saltwater aquarium as far as im concerned, powder blue body with yellow dorsal fins and black head and white highlights sure is pretty. But, expensive (about US$70), prone to parasitic infection and intolerant of any other Acanthurus tangs; this fishes beauty comes at a price! Keep one to a tank and only keep other tangs with it if your tank is really big, even then it may be pretty aggressive.

It is reef compatible, grows to about 9 inches and is classed as semi-aggressive, please keep this fish in a system about 125 gallons with good water quality. Feed lots of many types of veggies to boost immune response and help keep aggression to a minimum, it will also take shellfish and shrimp. Take time acclimating and quarantining this fish to avoid Ich. This fish is not for beginners but will be a stunning addition to your tank.

Tang health

Beautiful, elegant but prone to Ich…

2. Regal Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus): Also known as blue Tang/surgeonfish, Pacific blue tang, hippo tang, palette tang… This colorful, electric blue and black Tang of many names has found fame as a result of the character “Dory” from Disney’s Finding Nemo.

I think that next to the Powder blue, this is the best-looking Tang, and is easy to keep.

This Tang like to wedge itself in coral and lie on its side when sleeping, so don’t be alarmed if you witness this behavior! It is important to keep an eye on Regals as they are also prone to skin parasites, but they are quite hardy when acclimated correctly.

Regal Tangs are some of the most active swimmers in the Tang family so again need a larger tank (over 75 gallons or 284 litres), they also love to frequent a particular hiding place when they’re not curiously roaming their environment. They are peaceful toward their tankmates, but will be aggressive towards other Regal tangs, again if you want to keep multiples add them at the same time. These fish are great choices for large community tanks because of their peaceable nature, they are probably the most peaceful of all Tangs.

They grow to 12 inches (30 cm) in length and are easy to keep happy. Feed them a lot of a good varied marine alga based diet to keep their colors vivid.

Keeping Tangs

The Blue Tang is easy to care for once it is established (pic credit: Stéphane Duquesne)

3. Purple Tang: (Zebrasoma xanthurus): This is one of the most popular Tangs kept in reefs, but my liking for it is much more unsophisticated – its my favorite color (well, usually some are actually blue) purple! These Tangs have been noted to nip at large-polyped-stony (LPS) corals however…

Zebrasoma Tangs (the sailfin Tangs) have large dorsal and anal fins which they erect when danger is near to make them appear larger than they are, this becomes an amusing characteristic in an aquarium; trying to appear more impressive to other fish.

Purple Tangs grow to 10 inches (25 cm) and are pretty expensive (they usually start at around US$150) because they are only found around the Red sea and are highly prized, these yellow-tailed purple fish are highly sought after in the hobby because they are mostly reef friendly and colorful. Juveniles will have dark horizontal striping that will fade away.

Again these Tangs are very active and constantly swim so need a large tank (around 100 gallons) with plenty of rocky hiding places (where they sleep) and prefer to have live rock to graze for algae (although purple Tangs will take more meaty foods like flake, dried and frozen than other Tang species.) between meals.

The downside to this Tang is its territorial aggression to other Tangs (especially Zebrasoma the sailfin tangs) and fish of a similar body shape, most notably the popular Yellow Tang; putting these two together will result in lots of fighting. This fish is aggressive, so care needs to be taken with compatibility. The purple Tang will do very well in a large enough tank with good water quality. Purple Tangs are susceptible to head and lateral line erosion (HLLE) disease so keep and eye out for open wounds around the head, this disease usually occurs from poor water quality and/or poor nutrition.

Tang fish

Purple tangs are popular in reef tanks

4. Naso Tang: (Naso lituratus) The Naso Tang (also known as Lipstick tang and Orangespine Unicorn fish) comes from yet another genus; Naso – the unicornfishes. This Tang has probably what I think is the coolest looking head in the ocean, with a yellow and black mask that changes as it turns into an adult also it grows cool streamers from the ends of its tail!

The Naso gets darker as it gets older and will grow to a whopping 1 foot 6 inches (45 cm) so therefore is ideally suited to a tank of about 180 gallons. Unless you have a huge system keep just one!

The Naso is not really suited to reef tanks because it gets so big and is boisterous, it has also been known to nibble on invertebrates.

It is one of the most peaceful tangs only acting aggressive to its own kind or similar tangs. A word of warning though; its scalpel is always erect so watch out for this. This is a highly mobile fish; always swimming around the tank, only put it into a big tank and avoid purchasing a specimen smaller than 4 inches.

Unicornfish will take more meaty foods than the rest of the Tangs and will indeed eat a great deal once trained on aquarium foods. Don’t feed them too much because they will grow huge!

Fish disease

The Naso Tang is not very reef friendly

Hopefully you are now more informed about Tangs and why they are such a damn good choice for a reef tank.

These fish are very intelligent, entertaining and are excellent at controlling pest algae. But they are very poor travelers and need to be acclimated correctly and quarantined for at least 30 days because they are so prone to Ich, Velvet and HLLE.

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Andrej Brummer, the #SaltwaterScientist
Saltwater Aquarium Advice Scientist




The post Tips For Terrific Tangs In Your Tank by Andrej Brummer first appeared on Saltwater Aquarium Advice.