Purple Tang

Yellowtail Tang ~ Yellowtail Sailfin Tang ~Yellowtail surgeonfish

Family: Acanthuridae Picture of a Purple Tang or Yellowtail Sailfin Tang - Zebrasoma xanthurumZebrasoma xanthurumPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Greg Rothschild
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I purchased a baby purple tang for my 75 gallon saltwater tank and at first it was very well mannered. There were other tangs in the tank of varying sizes, shapes,... (more)  Lisa

   Not only is the Purple Tang or Yellowtail Sailfin Tang a beautiful fish, it is one of the hardiest of the surgeonfish to keep in the aquarium!

   Gorgeous with its deep purple-blue body and a bright yellow tail, the Purple Tang or Yellowtail Tang is a great addition for a large aquarium. Once acclimated it is very hardy and disease resistant. It is also fairly easy to maintain with proper feeding and good water quality. However it is also rather rare, is expensive, and specimens imported these days are almost always adults so take more dedication to acclimate. This excellent prize is best for an experienced aquarist with deep pockets.

   The Purple Tang is a good sized agile fish so will need plenty of space for swimming along with crevices in rocks/ corals for retreat and to sleep. Though it is a good community fish, it does get territorial and can be aggressive to new additions to the tank as it gets older. Keep it singly as it does not mix with others of the same genus. Like all seven of the Zebrasoma species, though quite robust it has a tendency to develop Lateral Line Disease (LLD) if tank conditions or diet are neglected. It will need good nutrition along with lots of water movement to provide plenty of oxygen, good filtration, and regular water changes. It is also good at nibbling algae so can be asset in a reef environment, but this species has been known to nip at some of the large polyp stony corals. The bottom line, keep a sharp eye on its environment, diet, and behavior.

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: Zebrasoma
  • Species: xanthurum
Purple Tang 20+ years old, Zebrasoma xanthurum
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Adult in captivity

This beautiful fish is showing that yes, tangs that are well taken care of can live a very long time! In fact, they can live 30 to 45 years! This Purple Tang has a proud owner, who has taken very good care of him! You do not see aggression at all, as has been my experience with these tangs, because he is in an appropriately sized tank! They need 6 feet of tank and it needs to be 125 gallons or more. Housing with other tangs would necessitate the tank to be hundreds of gallons to keep everyone happy!

Purple Tang, juvenile, Zebrasoma xanthurum
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Juvenile for sale.

This video is great because it allows us the see the beautiful detail in this juvenile Purple Tang. The fish is not permanently housed like this, just to show it off. Before you balk at the price, know that these fish do VERY well in captivity if they are not stressed by more aggressive fish and you will have yours a long time if the water quality is stable and mature. Add your Purple Tang LAST to a community tank, which is okay because it will take a while to save up! Tank should be at least 125 gallons.

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Habitat: Natural geographic location:    The Purple Tang or Yellowtail Tang was described by Blyth in 1852. They are found in the in the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula to the Persian Gulf.
   In their natural habitat they are found at depths between 7 to 65 feet (2 - 20 meters). They are occasionally seen singly but more often in pairs and will also form schools. They live in rubble reefs and coral-rich areas. Juveniles are solitary and very secretive, dwelling among corals.

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

Description:    The Purple Tang has a disk like shaped body similar to all surgeonfish, but with giant dorsal and anal fins. When the fins of the sailfin tangs are fully extended, the height of these fish is about the same as the length. Like all the sailfin tangs, the Purple Tangs have a slightly extended snout. True to their name, the body is a beautiful dark blue to purple and the caudal fin is a bright yellow. There are black spots on the head and the front portion of the body extending onto the adjacent fins, and black scribbly horizontal lines on the rest of the body and fins with the exception of the caudal fin. There is also a yellow accent on the edge of the pectoral fins.
   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.

Length/Diameter of fish:    Adults can reach up to about 10 inches (25 cm), but captive specimens are generally smaller up to about 8.7 inches (22 cm).

Maintenance difficulty:    The Purple Tang is a great addition to the marine aquarium and fairly easy to keep if its diet and environment are well maintained.  It is quite robust but can develop Lateral Line Disease (LLD) if its diet or environment are allowed to deteriorate. Fortunately all seven of the Zebrasoma species respond well to treatment when ill. The Purple Tang 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 but on occasion they have been known to nip at large polyp stony 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 Purple Tangs are primarily herbivores, but will tend to eat more meaty foods than the other Zebrasoma species. In the wild they feed primarily on micro and macro algae, but also eat a small amount of protein foods such as fish eggs and small invertebrates. This genus can store fat in their body cavities so may go through periods of non-feeding.
   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 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 60 gallon (227 liters) for a small juvenile, a 100 gallon (378 liters) for an adult.
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 74 -82° F (23 - 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 Purple Tang is that they will graze on algae, so can be an asset to a reef environment. However they have occasionally been known to nip on large polyp stony corals, so they must be watched. They can also be kept in a large fish only community tank, and generally get along with with other tank mates except others of their own genus. But they do get cantankerous with age, sometimes they start bullying other fish and they can be intolerant of new additions to the tank.
   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.
   You may successfully pair this tang with different genus' as long as there are no similarities. One example of mixing genus in a large tank without incident would be to house a Naso Tang, Yellow Tang, and a Hippo Tang 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.

Picture of a Purple Tang or Yellowtail Sailfin Tang - Zebrasoma xanthurum
Photo courtesy: John Rice

Sex: Sexual differences:    For most of the Zebrasoma species there is no sexual differences noted, but for this species the males will often be larger than the females, and will change color during spawning.

Breeding/Reproduction:    The Purple Tang 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 spawning in home aquariums, but regular spawning 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:    The Purple Tang or Yellowtail Tang is only occasionally available. When they are available they are rather expensive, starting at about $75.00 USD and up.

Authors: David Brough, CFS and Clarice Brough, CFS
Lastest Animal Stories on Purple Tang

Lisa - 2007-01-04
I purchased a baby purple tang for my 75 gallon saltwater tank and at first it was very well mannered. There were other tangs in the tank of varying sizes, shapes, and color which it socialized with just fine. But after a few short years this fish grew much faster than any of the other fish. It would eat a variety of foods and soon devoured everything in site. It must have grown to at least 8 inches plus in body length and became too aggressive for the tank. Although this fish was just beautiful and I hated having to remove it, I had no choice. Besides the issue of competing with the other fish for food, it would swim so fast around the tank it started knocking things over (like various corals and rocks placed throughout). It was traded back to a local distributor and eventually found a new home in 200 gallon tank.

  • THEMAN - 2010-10-29
    I got a show tank i have a regal angle an elbi angle, 7 tangs with a large purple tang all of different species i have a wrasse that is hard to find cant remember its name a hurliqiun tusk hmmmmm cleaner wrasser a pair of gold banded morron clowns large sizes and wat else 2 blue croners if thats how u spell it anyway 16 fish all up dont even try to do this u wont be successfull im am a pro-and i dont even think i have a anyone that has been able to compete with this tank its 5ft by 2. 5-2. 5 (and its all mine suckerzzzzzzzzzzzz)
  • Rob - 2019-02-04
    Hey just wondering how your 16 fish have done in such a small tank with 7 different gangs.
    Years have gone by. Let me know.
    I had 5 8 inch tangs in a 150 .
CheMiKalZ - 2006-05-07
I have a young purple tang 1 1/2 inch side to side and he started getting ick. I raised my temperature, loweredd my salinity, and closed my light for 24 hours and now hes perfect. hes there for 2 weeks and has a so beautiful color :)

jen - 2003-12-20
You Guys Are geniuses! I had to do a project and then you guys did it for me ! thanx!

Anonymous - 2011-04-06
It's a dorie!

  • CRRose - 2011-04-13
    Not quite! Dory was a blue hepatus tang, not a purple tang.