Yellowfin Surgeonfish

Yellow-mask Surgeonfish ~ Purple Surgeonfish

Family: Acanthuridae Picture of a Yellowfin Surgeonfish, Acanthurus xanthopterusAcanthurus xanthopterusPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Greg Rothschild

   The Yellowfin Surgeonfish is one very big fish, suited more for a public aquarium or a very large show display than for the average home aquarium!

   Just about everything to do with the Yellowfin Surgeonfish is extensive and big. They are the largest of the Acanthurus genus, reaching up to over 27 inches. They are found over the largest geographic area of the globe and at some of the greatest depths, having reportedly been observed by submarines at 295 feet (90 meters) deep. Their diet consists of about the widest variety of foods for the surgeonfish, and they are said to be one of the few that will take bait from a fisherman.They are capable of enormous changes in color pattern and they grow very quickly.

   Not much is known of their personality as they are not generally kept in captivity, but as with other Acanthurus the Yellowfin Surgeonfish is probably not overly aggressive, except toward its own genus. It may also fight with other surgeonfish or tangs, especially new additions to their aquarium. It can be kept in a fish only tank as long as there is plenty of swimming room and some rocks/ corals with nooks and crannies to hide in. Surgeonfish like water turbulence, juveniles especially, and they are not too picky about foods once settled. Like with most surgeonfish, this can be accomplished by initially offering a good macro algae.

   A voracious algae eater, the Yellowfin Surgeonfish can be also be kept in a reef environment. They are one of the Acanthurus species with a gizzard-like stomach, which lends itself to eating habits similar to those of the Ctenochaetus species, such as the Yellow-eyed or Kole Tang. They will sift or 'suck' the sand ingesting detritus, algae, pieces of fish, and any other food that presents itself.

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

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Acanthuridae
  • Genus: Acanthurus
  • Species: xanthopterus
Yellowfin Tang, Acanthurus xanthopterus

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In the wild!

This is a beautiful fish with a huge personality to go along with it's huge size! The Yellowfin Tang grows to 27.5" and starts out as a little yellow baby, however as an adult their pectoral fins and face mask are the only thing left of their yellow coloring! They are high energy fish that need to be fed 3 times a day or more and housed in a minimum tank size of 360 gallons. That size is if they are the only tang in the tank! Want more tangs, try 500 gallons or more.

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Habitat: Natural geographic location:   The Yellowfin Surgeonfish was described by Valenciennes in 1835. This is one of the most widely distributed surgeonfish. Their range basically stretches to most tropical waters from the lower Gulf of California all the way around to East Africa, heavily concentrated from Japan to Northern Australia.
   They are found at depths of 3 to 328 feet (1 - 100 meters). In their natural habitat adults are sometimes found singly but they also like to school and will be seen in loose aggregations. They live in various habitats including the deeper waters of outer reefs and reef slopes, and also in sandy bottomed bays and lagoons. Juveniles enjoy more turbid waters that are shallow and protected.
   Juveniles are initially quite wary, hiding in crevices among rubble and rocks, but soon the need for feeding draws them into small mixed groups. Seeking protection in numbers, these groups will consist of surgeonfish and various other like sized fish that will feed on the bottom and roam the edges of shallow reefs. Larger juveniles will begin teaming up with others of their own species.
  One of the larger Acanthurus, this species of surgeonfish is one of the few that is poisonous.

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

Description:   The Yellowfin Surgeonfish are enormously variable in color. The body can range from a purple-gray to brown base on their oval disk like bodies, to a pattern of irregular longitudinal narrow bands. They have a few distinguishing features that make them easy to identify such as yellow on the outer third of their pectoral fins, and sometimes a yellow band over the eye. The have a blue stripe that runs along the base of the dorsal fin and the dorsal and anal fins sport four to five alternating blue and yellow bands. The moon shaped caudal fin is a dull purplish color, often the inside edge of the crescent is a faint white. On each side of the caudal peduncle is a relatively small single spine or scalpel, it is dark sometimes circled with a light coloration.
   They go through beautiful coloration as they grow from juvenile to adult. The fins on the juvenile are yellow, which is retained only on the outer third of the pectoral fins when they mature. They caudal fin is also yellow, changing to the dull purplish color as an adult.
   The yellow patch across the eye can also be seen on some very similar species, the Ringtail Surgeonfish A. blochii and the Eyestripe Surgeonfish A. dussumieri. But the Yellowfin Surgeonfish can be distinguished from these others by the lack of spots on its caudal fin and its yellow pectoral fins.

Length/Diameter of fish:    According to Fishbase adults reach 27 1/2 inches (70 cm). Authors Kuiter and Debelius in Surgeonfishes, Rabbitfishes and Their Relatives. A Comprehensive Guide to Acanthuroidei (2001), show it somewhat smaller reaching 22 inches (56 cm).

Maintenance difficulty:    This particular surgeonfish is only suitable for a very large aquarium. The Yellowfin Surgeonfish is generally not kept as a pet, but like other large Acanthurus can be a challenge to feed the quantity of food that a 2 foot" fish would need. It is moderately easy to care for as long as it has an adequate environment and its nutritional needs are met.
   It is quite hardy, fairly disease resistant, and can handle a wide range of water parameters. 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 or invertebrates.
   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 Yellowfin Surgeonfish are omnivores. In the wild they feed on diatoms and the thin layer of detritus on the sand, filamentous algae, hydroids, and pieces of fish . In the aquarium they will eat algae, small crustacea, flakes, tablets, and a variety of other foods. Provide prepared frozen marine formulas including those containing marine algae or spirulina, frozen brine and mysid shrimp, flake foods, and tablets. Japanese Nori or other seaweed can also be offered. 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 at least three times a day.
   Providing a vitamin supplement (including vitamin C) can help provide for the nutritional needs of surgeonfish, 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 for their surgeonfish, 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 but it will graze on algae, so it highly useful in a reef environment.
Minimum Tank Length/Size:
   A minimum 200 gallon (757 liters) and 8 to 10 feet (2.5 - 3 meters) long.
Light: Recommended light levels
   It nature it is found in sunlit areas. 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
   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 Yellowfin Surgeonfish is that they are fine in a reef setting with corals, and they will graze on the algae. They can also be kept in a fish only aquarium and their personality is not overly aggressive with most tank mates. Though they are aggressive towards others of their own species, they will tolerate other genus' like the Zebrasoma, Paracanthurus, Naso, and Ctenochaetus. They can also handle themselves just fine with more aggressive fish like triggers, large wrasses, and puffers.
   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:    The Yellowfin Surgeonfish has not yet been bred in captivity. 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.
   For information on breeding and the development of the fry, see: Marine Fish Breeding: Tangs.

Availability:   Not generally sold for aquarist use.

Authors: Carrie McBirney and Clarice Brough, CFS
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