White-faced Surgeonfish

Japan Surgeonfish ~ Powder Brown Tang<br /> White-nose Surgeonfish ~ Powder Black Surgeon

Family: Acanthuridae Picture of a White-faced Surgeonfish or Japan SurgeonfishAcanthurus japonicusPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Greg Rothschild
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I just purchased a White-faced Surgeonfish. Now I have a Sail-fin tang in the tank as well. Sailfin is constantly chasing the Surgeonfish. Are Sail-fin... (more)  Luis Rosario

   After the Powder Blue Tang, the White-faced Surgeonfish Japan Surgeonfish is the next in line on many aquarist's search lists because of its nice personality!

   The White-faced Surgeonfish is a very beautiful fish. It has very nice markings with the dorsal and anal fins having a beautiful blue edging, a red band near the back of the dorsal fin, and a yellow stripe running along the body just above and below these fins. When purchasing this tang, you will want to be sure you are getting the correct species. Both the White-faced Surgeonfish and the Gold-rimmed Tang (Whitecheek Surgeonfish) A. nigricans are regularly sold as the 'Powder Brown Tang'. Though they look very similar the White-faced Surgeonfish will show a pronounced "white-face" along with its red stripe on the dorsal fin, these markings will be lacking on the other. Also the White-faced Surgeonfish is a relatively hardy aquarium inhabitant once acclimated while its almost 'look-alike' cousin is more difficult to sustain in captivity.

   Due to its relatively small size, the White-faced Surgeonfish is a good choice for the home aquarium. It is one of the more peaceful surgeonfish and its moderate behavior makes it a good companion in a community tank. It can be kept with a variety of tank mates but will be aggressive towards others of its own genus, so should be kept singly. Depending on the individual, it may get along with some of the other genus' of peaceful surgeonfish but will have trouble with other aggressive tangs.

  The White-face Surgeonfish likes a lot of water movement rather than a placid aquarium. A quick and agile swimmer it will need plenty of swimming space, and like all surgeonfish it needs corals/ rocks with crevices for retreat and sleeping at night. Initially it can be a rather finicky feeder though it will be hardy once it gets settled. Offer it lots of marine algae such as Japanese Nori, macroalgae, and spirulina. Being a voracious algae eater once acclimated, a good algae growth in the aquarium also helps provide for its nutritional needs as well as making it an excellent candidate for a reef environment.

For more Information on keeping marine fish see:
Guide to a Happy, Healthy Marine Aquarium

Geographic Distribution
Acanthurus japonicus
Data provided by FishBase.org
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Acanthuridae
  • Genus: Acanthurus
  • Species: japonicus
White-faced Surgeonfish, Powder Brown Tang, Acanthurus japonicus

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Full size A. japonicus in captivity.

This White-faced Surgeonfish, also called the Powder Brown Tang, demonstrates the reason for a 6 foot long tank that is at least 150 gallons! They have high energy and need lots of food, space and clean water. There are a few other tangs in the tank that are different genus and seem smaller, so this may go well for this aquarist. At times, other tangs can be more aggressive and stress your peaceful White-faced Surgeonfish out, causing it to become ill. These tangs do not do as well as the Whitecheek Surgeonfish that has only a little white under the eye and around the mouth.

Habitat: Natural geographic location:   The White-faced Surgeonfish or Japan Surgeonfish was described by Schmidt in1930. They are found in a large geographical range in the Indo-West Pacific; southern Japan, Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan; Sulawesi (Indonesia) to the Philippines; Tuamoto and Hawaiian Islands; New Caledonia and Rapa.
   In their natural habitat they are found at depths between 16 to 65 (5 - 20 meters) feet along outer reefs, in coastal areas, and in lagoons. They inhabit areas of full coral, and live singly or in small to large groups.    They co-occur with their similar looking cousin, the Gold-rimmed Tang (Whitecheek Surgeonfish) A. nigricans, in southern Japan and the Bonin Islands.  

Status:    These fish are not listed on the IUCN Red List.

Description:    The adult White-faced Surgeonfish or Japan Surgeonfish has a disk shaped body of varying browns to black. The dorsal, anal, and ventral fins are black and edged with a beautiful blue. There is a red band near the back of the dorsal fin and a yellow stripe running along the body just above and below the dorsal and anal fins. There is a yellow spot just under the pectoral fin and a white band from just under the eye to the top of the mouth. The caudal fin is white fading to blue and is edged with white.
   On each side of the caudal peduncle is a single spine or "scalpel" used for defense or dominance. When not in use the spine is folded down into a groove. Caution needs to be exercised when handling surgeonfish as a cut from its scalpel can cause discoloration and swelling of the skin with a high risk of infection. The pain lasts for hours then still ends up having a dull ache.
   The juvenile is where we get the name "Powder Brown Tang ". It is very colorful as well, with shades of yellow around the top and bottom of the body shading into a light brown in the middle. The anal fin has a yellow and dark brown combination. The yellow dot at the pectoral fin is present as well as the white on the face, but not as pronounced as the adult; and there is a little line of white extending from the head to about mid dorsal.

Dr. Jungle says, "Will the real 'Powder Brown Tang' ... please step up!"
  Two very similar looking fish, and both claim the title of 'Powder Brown Tang'. As both of these fish have a very similar appearance overall in body and fin colorations and both have white on the face, a closer observation is needed to distinguish them.
  • Gold-rimmed Tang - Acanthurus nigricans (also known as the Whitecheek Surgeonfish)
  • White-faced Surgeonfish - Acanthurus japonicusis (also known as the Japan Surgeonfish)

   One difference, represented in their common names of 'White-faced' and 'Whitecheek', is the extent of the white on the face; the Gold-Rimmed (Whitecheek) has just a white patch under the eye while this same patch extends down to the mouth on the White-faced.
   There are some other markings that also distinguish these two. The White-faced has a red band along the back of the dorsal fin and a yellow spot just under the pectoral fin, both missing from the Gold-Rimmed. The Gold-Rimmed has a yellow band on the back third of the caudal fin that is missing from the White-faced. Also the brown coloration tends to extend over the entire body to the tail fin on the Gold-rimmed, while it fades into a yellowish color towards the back on the White-faced. A not so noticeable difference is that the White-faced has a more oval shaped body as well.

Length/Diameter of fish:    Adults reach 8.3 inches (21 cm).

Maintenance difficulty:    The White-faced Surgeonfish is a delicate fish when first obtained and can be difficult to acclimate. Though it is unknown exactly why, it is possibly related to stress induced during collection and shipment. They are not too picky about foods once they get settled. Offer lots of marine algae, a really good macro algae to get them eating initially like gracillaria is a good idea as most tangs can't resist it. Other good algaes are Japanese Nori, kombu, and spirulina. Make sure there are plenty of crevices for the fish to hide in to feel secure
   It is generally hardy and can handle a wide range of water parameters once it is acclimated. However it will do best in an environment that provides consistency, not only in water conditions and quality, but also in decor and fellow inhabitants. It can be housed in a fish only tank or in a reef environment as it will not harm corals.
   There are some Acanthuridae members that are delicate and will require more specific care, but most will respond well if you employ a few technical considerations. All surgeonfish need an aquarium with plenty of aeration, a strong current will help to provide good oxygenation. Provide plenty of space, especially for adult specimens, along with lots of rocks/ corals with crevices for retreating and for sleeping. This decor will also lend itself to algae growth which surgeonfish enjoy grazing on, making them a valuable addition to a reef environment.
   Surgeonfish and tangs are continuous feeders and they need to be provided a proper diet. They are susceptible to nutritional disorders which may cause color loss and LLD (lateral line disease). Supplementing their diet with the addition of vitamin C to their food or adding a vitamin supplement directly to their water can help to avoid or aid in reducing these ailments. They are also susceptible to bacteria resulting from organic buildup which deteriorates water quality. Consequently they will need vigorous filtration, protein skimming, and regular small water changes.
   Many of the Acanthuridae members are very colorful, active, and attractive to aquarists. But they do not produce as much skin mucus on their bodies as other fish and can be susceptible to diseases such as Marine Ich and Marine Velvet. Surgeonfish are definitely a candidate for quarantine when you first receive them. They can be treated successfully with medical care or copper drugs, but because they have an important microfauna in their digestive system, prolonged or continuous use of a copper treatment is not advisable.
   In the wild a cleaner wrasse (Labroides sp.) will help them by taking parasites from their bodies, however these wrasses are extremely difficult to sustain in captivity. Alternative fish such as Neon Gobies (Gobiosoma spp.) or cleaner shrimp can help them by providing this cleaning service in the home aquarium.

Diseases that Surgeonfish and Tangs are susceptible to:
Marine Ich (white spot disease), Marine Velvet
and Lateral Line Erosion (LLE)

Foods:    The White-faced Surgeonfish are primarily herbivores. In the wild they mostly graze on algae. In the aquarium the majority of their intake will be vegetable matter, but they do need some meaty foods as well. Provide lots of marine algae, prepared frozen formulas containing algae or spirulina, frozen brine and mysid shrimp, and flake foods. Japanese Nori, kombu, or other seaweed can be adhered to the aquarium glass with a vegetable clip. An occasional live rock with micro and macro organisms will be greatly appreciated. Culturing macro algae like chaetomorphia in the tank is also a great idea. Feed 3 times a day in smaller amounts instead of a large quantity once a day. As continuous grazers, they will benefit from this and it will also keep the water quality higher over a longer period of time.
   Providing a vitamin supplement (including vitamin C) can help provide for their nutritional needs, and vitamin C can help prevent or reduce Lateral Line Erosion (LLE). This can be done by soaking dried pellets with liquid vitamins, adding vitamins to the food, or adding a liquid vitamin into the water. It is also said that pellets soaked in garlic may help fend off Marine Ich. Some hobbyists also report success with supplemental foods such as previously boiled or frozen zucchini, broccoli, spinach, and leaf lettuce.

Maintenance:    A quick and agile swimmer it will spend a good deal of its time in the open water and moving in and out of crevices. Frequent water changes are not necessary, rather normal water changes at 10% biweekly or 20% monthly are fine.
   For more information see, Marine Aquarium Basics: Maintenance

Aquarium Parameters:
   All surgeonfish/ tangs are quick agile swimmers and need lots of open areas. To feel secure they also need rocks/ corals with many nooks and crannies to hide in and to wedge themselves into at night for sleeping. This fish will not bother corals or inverts but it will graze on algae, so it highly useful in a reef environment. However keep corals glued down, as their quick speeds may topple a coral or two. They thrive well in tanks with algae growth.
Minimum Tank Length/Size:
   A minimum 75 gallon (284 liters).
Light: Recommended light levels
   It nature it is found in areas of full sunlight. It can be kept under normal lighting conditions in the aquarium, but can also be kept under very bright light as long as some dimly lit spaces are provided.
   This species lives in tropical areas. Temperatures between 76 -82° F (24 - 28° C) will serve them well.
Water Movement: Weak, Moderate, Strong
   All surgeonfish and tangs thrive with good water movement, need lots of oxygen, and love to have the water rushing over their gills at times. Provide strong movement in at least one area of the tank.
Water Region: Top, Middle, Bottom
   Swims in the middle of the aquarium. It will spend time in the open water and darting in and out of the rocks/ corals. It will sleep in crevices at night.

Social Behaviors:    The great thing about the White-faced Surgeonfish is that they are fine in a reef setting with corals and they will graze on the algae. It is one of the more peaceful surgeonfish and its moderate behavior makes it a good companion in a community tank. It can be kept with a variety of tank mates, but will be aggressive towards others of its own genus so should be kept singly. Depending on the individual, it may get along with some of the other genus' of peaceful surgeonfish but will have trouble with other aggressive tangs. Avoid lionfish and groupers as tank mates.
   Surgeonfish and tangs can be territorial, sometimes just with their own kind and sometimes with other species. Introducing a new surgeonfish into an aquarium that already houses one or more is usually a problem. It is best to initially introduce several species together rather than adding a new one later on. Though a large aquarium can help alleviate many problems, be aware of the social behaviors of any species you are considering to prevent compatibility problems.
   At times you may put surgeonfish and tangs together with different genus' as long as there are no similarities. For example a large tank can house a Naso Tang, Yellow Tang, and a Hippo Tang with out incident. Adding them together initially works best. When adding a new member to an established group, changing the rock work will often alleviate any aggression to the "new guy". A little chasing will occur, but usually nothing detrimental.

Sex: Sexual differences:    No sexual difference is noted for this species.

Breeding/Reproduction:    Some species of surgeonfish have spawned in public aquariums and there have been a few scattered reports of spawnings in home aquariums, but regular spawnings and the rearing of the young has not yet been reported.
   Though the White-face Surgeonfish has not yet been bred in captivity, this species has been observed performing group spawnings in the ocean. Usually in the evening these fish will form a group and spawn in the open water, scattering fertilized eggs. Each egg has a single oil droplet to keep it floating, thus making them pelagic.  In 26 hours they hatch into little clear larvae 2 millimeters in length. After a few days then evolve into a post larvae stage called "acronurus". Over several weeks time they gradually evolve, changing into juveniles at 20 mm.
   For information on breeding and the development of the fry, see: Marine Fish Breeding: Tangs. Picture of a White-faced Surgeon or Powder Brown Tang - Acanthurus japonicus

Availability:    The White-face Surgeonfish or Japan Surgeonfish is often available at retailers and it is also possible to order one. They are priced around $40.00 USD and up.

Authors: Carrie McBirney and Clarice Brough, CFS
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Lastest Animal Stories on White-faced Surgeon

Luis Rosario - 2011-07-27
I just purchased a White-faced Surgeonfish. Now I have a Sail-fin tang in the tank as well. Sailfin is constantly chasing the Surgeonfish. Are Sail-fin territorial? Will the Sail-fin continue, till it harm the White-faced Surgeonfish or will they get along in time? Thank u.

  • Paul - 2011-08-29
    The size matters here. Tank size and addition timing as well. The A. Japonicus will be more timid, and bullied by other tangs. I had mine just over a year, and just got rid of it, as it developed coral grazing habits in an undersized system, waiting on a larger build. So I'm afraid to add it to the new tank. It was the only lg fish in the tank out of a total of 3 fish. One being a chromis, and the other a blenny (LMB). So it was the show fish.

    You might be ok in time. Both are superiorly beautiful! I've owned both.
    But each time, one was the show fish. What you have is like a purple tang with a sailfin, the sailfin will lose to a purple. And a Japonicus will lose to a sailfin. Sexing may also be a problem. Only time will tell. There's not set rule that never breaks.

    Yes the Sailfin will be territorial
  • Michael - 2012-03-09
    I got the same problem before and same fish like you too. well in a couple of days the sailfin will calm down and stop harrassing the white-face. but the best way is ( if possible) you have to take all the fish out from the tank and using the water from the tank , put in a separate container with a heater so the water doesn,t get cold. then you take all the fish out, leave them out for about half an hour together. Keep an eye on them, then put the white-face back in the tank first , leave it in the tank for about another half an hour then you put the sailfin back in and the rest of the other fish if you have any. This is the best solution. Good luck. Hope this helps.
Dhritiman Datta - 2007-12-06
I have one of these in my 200 litre Fish Only tank. He is very aggressive towards my Pakistani Butterfly and Sebae Clown and other fish of its same size! But they are a really hardy species, very rarely attacked by diseases. Just make sure to provide a good amount of green.

Matt - 2010-02-19
I might have a problem, I HOPE NOT. I've got a 135 set up, been going for about 5 years now. I do water changes, pull the coral at different times and bleach it, take out 1/3 of the crushed coral, and replace it every 6-9 months, What I'm saying is the tank is doing good. NOW my problem, my local retailer had, I say HAD a white faced(powder Brown tang in his store for about 3 weeks, eats great, looks great. He gave me a deal, 25 bucks. I brought it home, put it in my quarrantine tank. It's been there about 3 weeks. I'm ready to put in the big tank, and it hit me.....There is a Scopas tang in there. Are they going to fight?

Chris Phillips - 2005-12-20
I have had a brown powder tang in my 150 gal reef for 4-5 years. Great Fish and very hardy once established. Not shy at all. Somewhat aggressive towards new tank-mates that are tangs (must isolate them for 3-4 weeks) to prevent the initial fighting. Most beautiful fish in my tank.