Butterflyfish are beautiful, graceful, and delicate fish that are found in all the seas of the world!

Saltwater Butterflyfish are some of the most beautiful and exotic of all the reef fishes. The vivid colors and delicate shapes of these ornate wonders attract aquarists and divers alike. They are found in tropical to cooler waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, though primarily in the Indo-West Pacific.

They have a supple, elegant form and graceful swimming movements. Their appearance and mannerisms, and their name reference, aptly liken them to the beautiful winged butterflies, insects of the Order Lepidoptera. Many are brightly colored in hues of black, white, blue, red, yellow, and orange. They often sport bold diagonal stripes and eyespots on their sides, and many have masked faces.

These marine fish and the closely related Angelfish are collectively known as Coralfish. Both these fish have flat disc-like bodies that allow them to slip between rocky outcroppings and reef crevices. Butterflyfish will have a protruding snout, varying in length depending on the species that is tipped with a small mouth. This extended snout allows them to reach inside cracks and holes to feed small organisms hiding within.

There are over 120 described butterflyfish species, but only some of these can adapt to the aquarium. As a rule the butterflyfish are harder to keep than angelfish because of their specialized diet. Depending on the species, diets can include stony corals, anemones, non-coralline invertebrates, and algae. Some are obligate coral feeders, so unless you are willing to buy live corals for food, these ones should be avoided.

The list of butterflyfish below includes fish guides for many available aquarium species. They are placed in categories based primarily on the willingness of each fish to accept aquarium foods. But keep in mind that other environmental factors such as the water parameters, decor, and tank mates can also effect how successfully these fish will be adapted and sustained in the captive environment.

Each fish guide has in-depth information about their places of origin, habitats and behaviors as well as the fish care needed for successfully keeping them in the aquarium. Pictures are also provided within each guide to help with fish identification and aid in choosing the best pet fish.

For setting up a saltwater aquarium, see:
Marine Aquarium Basics: Guide to a Healthy Saltwater Aquarium

Butterflyfish: Adaptable Most Readily
Some may be reef safe. These are primarily noncoralline invertebrate feeders. Diversified and varied diets make them more likely to accept aquarium foods.
Click for more info on Black and White Heniochus
Heniochus acuminatus
Click for more info on Indian Butterflyfish
Chaetodon mitratus
Click for more info on Klein's Butterflyfish
Chaetodon kleinii
Click for more info on Long-nosed Butterflyfish
Forcipiger flavissimus
Click for more info on Raccoon Butterflyfish
Chaetodon lunula
Click for more info on Teardrop Butterflyfish
Chaetodon unimaculatus
Click for more info on Threadfin Butterflyfish
Chaetodon auriga
Click for more info on Vagabond Butterflyfish
Chaetodon vagabundus

Butterflyfish: Adaptable to Difficult
Most are not reef safe or only partially reef safe. They need a variable diet that may or may not include corals, but can include invertebrates and algae. Need special attention given to diet, some may require live foods.
Click for more info on Copperband Butterflyfish
Chelmon rostratus
Click for more info on Golden Butterflyfish
Chaetodon semilarvatus
Click for more info on Merten's Butterflyfish
Chaetodon mertensii
Click for more info on Pakistan Butterflyfish
Chaetodon collare
Click for more info on Pearlscale Butterflyfish
Chaetodon xanthurus
Click for more info on Pebbled Butterflyfish
Chaetodon multicinctus
Click for more info on Peppered Butterflyfish
Chaetodon guttatissimus
Click for more info on Saddled Butterflyfish
Chaetodon ephippium
Click for more info on South African Butterflyfish
Chaetodon marleyi
Click for more info on Spot Banded Butterflyfish
Chaetodon punctatofasciatus
Click for more info on Sunset Butterflyfish
Chaetodon pelewensis
Click for more info on White-face Butterflyfish
Chaetodon mesoleucos

Butterflyfish: Difficult to Impossible
Not reef safe. These Butterfly feed exclusively on stony corals. They almost never adapt to aquarium foods and very rarely survive in the home aquarium.
Click for more info on Bennett's Butterflyfish
Chaetodon bennetti
Click for more info on Chevron Butterflyfish
Chaetodon trifascialis
Click for more info on Rainford's Butterflyfish
Chaetodon rainfordi

Butterflyfish Habitat

Saltwater butteflyfish are found in tropical, subtropical, and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, though primarily the Indo-West Pacific. Most live along rocky and coral reefs at depths of less than 65 feet (20 m). There are a few that are found at very extreme depths, almost 10 times as deep, down to 590 feet (180 m).

For the most part, marine butterflyfish dwell among shallow reefs within a few meters of a home range. They are mostly diurnal, moving about and feeding during the daytime. At night they seek refuge among crevices in the reef and rocky outcroppings.

Many are solitary, but some are found in pairs, while some of the zooplankton feeders will gather together in large groups of their own kind. The corallivorous butterflyfish tend to form mated pairs and claim a coral head as their home, becoming very territorial.

Butterflyfish Facts

Butterflyfish have an oval shaped body that is very thin laterally. This shape along with a protruding snout, allows them to move among the rocks on a coral reef and find food within the nooks and crannies. They have a continuous dorsal fin and the tail fin is either rounded or truncated, but never forked.

Saltwater butteflyfish are very similar to the equally showy saltwater angelfish. But angelfish are distinguished by strong preopercle spines found on each of the lower gill covers, which are lacking on the butterflyfish.

Most butterflyfish are moderately sized, ranging being between 4 – 9 inches (12 – 22 cm) in length, though a few are larger. The largest species are the Lined Butterflyfish Chaetodon lineolatus and the Saddle Butterflyfish Chaetodon ephippium. These two can reach up to 12 inches (30) in length.

Many species are brightly colors with bold patterning though some have a less dramatic design. They sport shades of black, white, blue, red, yellow, and orange and there are often eyespots on the flanks. Many have a dark mask around the eye or a dark band running through it. By night while they are hiding in the reef, they can exhibit very different coloring.

A positive to keeping some species in a reef tank is that there are some individuals that may help rid the reef of those pesky Aiptasia species like the Glass AnemoneAiptasia pulchella. Some that are used for this are the Raccoon Butterflyfish Chaetodon lunula, Copperband Butterflyfish Chelmon rostratus, Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish Forcipiger flavissimus, and the Merten’s Butterflyfish Chaetodon mertensii.

Butterflyfish Species

Saltwatter Butterflyfish are members of the Perciformes Order, the perch-like, Ray-finned or Bony Fishes. This order of fishes originated more than 65 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period, also a time of the dinosaurs. Perciformes are comprised of more than 7000 species of fish with about 155 families.

Saltwater butterflyfish are members of the family Chaetodontidae with about 129 described species in 10 genera. These butterflyfish are ocean dwellers and are unrelated to the freshwater or African butterflyfish, which is a single species in the family Pantodontidae. Along with the closely related Angelfish, they are sometimes collectively known as Coralfish.

This is a large group of fish so several subgenera have been proposed. However based on a landmark assessment of osteology by S.D. Blum in 1988, followed by a range of DNA sequence data that appears to be in agreement with his findings, they may be split into several groups with various subgenera contained within. The type species, Foureye Butterflyfish Chaetodon capistratus, would still be the basis of the Chaetodon genus. Three new genera may be named Lepidochaetodon, Megaprotodon and Rabdophorus. A fourth genera that is yet un-named includes the Three-banded Butterflyfish Chaetodon robustus and its relatives. There are still some disparities on how to ultimately grouping them, so much is yet to be determined.

Butterflyfish classification (current as of 2013):

  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Class: Actinopterygii = Osteichthyes (Ray-Finned or Bony Fishes)
  • Order: Perciformes (Perch-Like fishes)
  • Suborder: Percoidei
  • Family: Chaetodontidae (Butterflyfishes)
  • Genera:
    Bannerfish, Coralfish
    • Amphichaetodon – 2 species
    • Coradion- 2 species
    • Chelmon- 3 species
    • Chelmonops- 2 species
    • Forcipiger- 4 species
    • Hemitaurichthys- 5 species
    • Heniochus- 8 species
    • Johnrandallia – 1 species
    “Typical” Butterflyfishes
    • Chaetodon- about 90 species
    • Prognathodes- 12 species

Butterflyfish Care

Many butterflyfish are best kept in a fish only (FO) or a fish only live rock (FOLR) aquarium, but make a poor choice for a reef, as they will nip on coral polyps. A few species like the Raccoon Butterflyfish, Copper-banded Butterflyfish, and Merten’s Butterflyfish are an exception. These types have been used to help rid reef aquariums of the pesky Aiptasia species of Glass Anemones.

Most members of this family are grazers that feed on algae, sponges and corals. Some are omnivorous and eat small and planktonic animals while many species are obligate corallivores and must have live coral polyps as the primary source of nutrition. So unless you are willing to buy live corals for food these ones should be avoided.

All butterflyfishes should be offered a large variety of food including live brine, flakes, and frozen foods of all kinds including Formula I, Formula II, Angel Formula and spirulina. Several sponge-based frozen foods are now available and can be fed to butterflyfish. Young fish may be easier to acclimate to aquarium conditions and should be fed several times a day.

Butterflyfish need a good sized tank. The aquarium needs plenty of hiding spaces created with corals or rocks, preferably live rock, but also open space for swimming. They are generally shy fish that need peaceful tank mates. Some species however, especially the obligate coral feeders, can get very territorial. These fish are fine when kept either singly, in pairs, or in small small groups but mixing them together with other Butterflyfish can be a problem. Great care is needed when trying to include different Butterfly fish in the same tank, and is often best avoided.

These fish are pelagic spawners. They release many tiny eggs into the planktonic water column where they float with the currents until they hatch. Once hatched the fry are in a post-larval where their body, extending from the head, is covered with large bony plates. This is a distinctive feature found only in this family, Chaetodontidae, and one other, the Scatophagidae Family of Scats.

Marine butterflyfish have not reportedly been spawned successfully in captivity. There are, however, reports of some success in rearing wild collected larvae of some of the corallivorous butterflyfish. It is hoped these captive reared fish will be adapted to accept aquarium foods, and thus broaden the species selections that can be sustained in captivity.

Featured Photo by David Clode, Unsplash