The Saddled Butterflyfish is one of the most colorful and widely known butterflyfish in the aquarium hobby!

The Saddled Butterflyfish Chaetodon ephippium is a very beautiful and unmistakably in shape, size, and color. A popular favorite, this is one of the most sought after butterflyfish in the aquarium hobby. It is also one of the easier butterflyfish to keep, though some technical care is needed to maintain it. This fish will even go up to the surface to take foods from its keepers once it is comfortable and familiar with its environment and routine.

This fish has a combination of bold features that make it an outstanding show piece. Its body has the typical butterflyfish disc shape compressed laterally. But it has a more pronounced snout than most species, giving it a rather ornamental aspect. A good sized specimen can reach a length of almost 12 inches (30 cm), though they are generally a bit smaller in the aquarium.

In color the body is yellowish gray adorned with a large black area on its back, edged by a broad white band. There are several wavy blue lines on the sides and strong orangish red markings that accent the rear fins and the base of the tail. Yet one of its most fantastic features, seen on full grown adults, is a long pennant type filament extension that streams from the soft dorsal fin. Thus a few more descriptive common names it known include Saddleback butterflyfish, Blackblotch Butterflyfish, Saddled Coralfish, and Saddle Butterflyfish,

This fish is a real eye catcher and once it is successfully acclimated it will become quite hardy. Successfully acclimating this fish however, can be quite variable between specimens. Smaller ones willoften not feed and larger ones need a lot of space to become comfortable. The best success is with the medium sized fish.

For an aquarist with some fish keeping experience this is a great choice. Being a large fish, when it attains its full adult size it will need a larger than average, well established aquarium. A 100 gallon tank is the minimum suggested size. Decorate the tank with rocks creating many caves for hiding places along with plenty of swimming space. It swims freely and usually spends a good deal of its time in the open water, moving in and out of crevices as it forages for food.

Many reef-keepers hope to keep this butterflyfish in a mini reef, but as it will be a coral eater it is best kept in a fish only community tank. The tank should be well decorated with rockscreating many places where this butterflyfish can hide, along with plenty of room to swim. This species itself is a non-aggressive fish except with other members of its own kind. It can be kept with a variety of other species with a similar temperament, as well as the larger and rather territorial angelfish like Pomacanthus and Holacanthus. Though not a very quick swimmer, it swims freely and usually spends a good deal of its time in the open water. It can be a long lived pet. The record life span in captivity for this fish is over 25 years in the Nancy Aquarium in France.

For more Information on keeping saltwater fish see:
Marine Aquarium Basics: Guide to a Healthy Saltwater Aquarium

Saddled Butterflyfish

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Saddled Butterflyfish (Chaetodon ephippium) Feeding on a Reef

The Saddled Butterflyfish is one of the more colorful, elegant and sought-after butterflyfish in the aquarium hobby! It is a very popular and widely known. Once it is successfully acclimated it will become quite hardy and is one of the easier butterflyfish to keep. This fish will even go up to the surface to take foods from its keepers once it is comfortable.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Chaetodontidae
  • Genus: Chaetodon
  • Species: ephippium
Saddled Butterflyfish – Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Minimum Tank Size: 100 gal (379 L)
  • Size of fish – inches: 11.8 inches (30.00 cm)
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.4
  • Diet Type: Omnivore
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Saddled Butterflyfish Chaetodon ephippium was described by Cuvier in 1831, and was first collected in the Society Islands. They are found in the Eastern Indian and Pacific Oceans; Sri Lanka, Christmas and Cocos-Keeling Islands, southern Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Southeast Asia, Palau, Great Barrier Reef, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Marshalls, Hawaii, Societies, Marquesas, Tuamotus, Rapa, and New South Wales of Australia.

This species is on the IUCN Red List as Least Concern (LC) as they have a very wide distribution and there are no major threats currently identified. Other common names they are known by include Saddleback butterflyfish Blackblotch Butterflyfish, Saddled Coralfish, and Saddle Butterflyfish.

This species is a member of a closely related group of butterflyfishes that belong to the subgenus Rabdophorus, which may eventually become a distinct genus. This is a large group that are being identified as related through modern DNA sequence data, though this species appears to represent a distinct lineage. Some members of the Rabdophorus subgenus that these fish are known to hybridize with are the Threadfin ButterflyfishChaetodon auriga, Yellowhead Butterflyfish Chaetodon xanthocephalus, and Dotted butterflyfish Chaetodon semeion.

Adults are usually are seen in mated pairs in their natural habitat, and only occasionally seen singly or in small groups. Juveniles are mostly solitary. They inhabit lagoons, rocky shores, clear open coral-reef slopes, and outer reefs at depths between 3 – 98 feet (1- 30 meters). They can also be encountered in the dirty areas of calm silty bays, especially when they are juveniles. They feed mostly on hard coral polyps, filamentous algae, sponges, and tunicates, but will also snack on a variety of benthic invertebrates including Polychaete worms, nematodes, and amphipods.

“I have seen some juvenile specimens in southern Japan in June to September, and they were seen in silty areas in calm harbors. Also I saw a very large adult in Oahu, the Hawaiian Islands. Larger specimens of about 12 cm are collected by friends year round in Miyazaki, eastern Kyushu, southern Japan.” …Hiroyuki Tanaka

  • Scientific Name: Chaetodon ephippium
  • Social Grouping: Pairs – They are usually seen in pairs, though occasionally alone or in small groups.
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Saddled Butterflyfish has the typical butterflyfish shape with an oval body that is laterally compressed. It has a long protruding snout tipped with a small mouth and a rounded tail fin. The dorsal fin is continuous, and has a long pennant type extension streaming from the soft dorsal filaments on mature adults.

Saddled Butterflyfish, juvenileSaddled Butterflyfish (Juvenile) Photo courtesy: Hiroyuki Tanaka

This species can reach almost 12 inches (30 cm) in the wild, but are generally a bit smaller in the aquarium. The lifespan for most of the Chaetodon species is between 5 – 7 years, and sometimes longer with proper care. This species actually has a record life span of over 25 years in the Nancy Aquarium in France.

The adult C. ephippium is yellowish gray with several narrow bluish lines on the lower side. There is a narrow slightly diagonal line just above the pectoral-fin base anda narrow vertical one behind the head. It has a bright orange area on chin. From the dorsal fin to the posterior part of the back is a large black area, with the lower and anterior part edged by a snowy white band and the posterior part by an orange stripe with a bluish edge.The caudal fin is blackish edged by a yellowish line, and the caudal peduncle has a reddish area. The anal fin is gray with a broader yellow margin and an orange sub marginal line. The pelvic fins are yellowish.

Juveniles are somewhat similar but with a silvery body, a black band through the eye, and a prominent black spot on caudal peduncle. The juvenile pictured here is a 3 cm specimen from of the Nichinan Coast of southern Miyazaki, Japan.

  • Size of fish – inches: 11.8 inches (30.00 cm) – Most specimens available are around 6 inches (15 cm).
  • Lifespan: 5 years – The average lifespan of Chaetodon species is between 5 – 7 years, and possibly longer with proper care. This species is recorded at 25 years in the Nancy Aquarium in France.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

This fish is suggested for an intermediate aquarist. Once acclimated it is one of the easier butterflyfish to keep in a captive environment, but some technical care is needed to maintain it. They also need a larger aquarium than others of their family. Medium sized specimens are best to obtain, as small ones often will not feed and larger ones need a large amount of space to become comfortable. Large specimens will acclimate better if there is a lot of filamentous algae in the tank.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate

Foods and Feeding

The Saddled Butterflyfish are omnivores. In the wild they feed on filamentous algae, small invertebrates, hard coral polyps, sponges, tunicates, and fish eggs. Provide Meaty foods, dried flakes, shrimps, and tablets. Japanese Nori (Asakusa-nori) will also be favored. Commercially prepared foods containing sponge and algae can also be provided, along with filamentous algae and sessile invertebrates in the tank.

Offer various foods quite frequently at first. Once it is successfully acclimated it will become very hardy and live for a long period. Feed it at least twice a day, and if it is a tiny juvenile, feeding should be tried three to four times everyday.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day – Offer various foods quite frequently at first. Once acclimated adults need at least 2 feedings a day and juveniles need 3 to 4.

Aquarium Care

Once adapted they will need good water quality. However frequent water changes are not necessary, rather normal water changes at 10% biweekly or 20% monthly are fine. Sudden massive water changes can cause trouble.

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly – Change 10% biweekly or 20% monthly, avoid sudden massive water changes.

Aquarium Setup

These fish need plenty of space to accommodate their size and to swim. As they can reach a whooping 12 inches in length, a 100 gallon tank is the minimum suggested size. The tank should be well decorated tank should be well decorated with lots of rocks creating numerous places for retreat and lots of rubble. They also need plenty of open space for swimming. This fish is a coral eater, nipping the polyps of hard stony coral species. Consequently it is not recommended for coral-rich reefs. It will also eat some sessile invertebrates.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 100 gal (379 L)
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Live Rock Requirement: Typical Plus Hiding Places
  • Substrate Type: Mix – Sand + Coral
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting – It is best kept under the normal lighting conditions, but can also be kept under very bright light as long as some dimly lit spaces are provided.
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8&deg C) – This species lives in both tropical and subtropical areas. Avoid temperatures higher than 86° F (30° C) or below 68 ° F (20° C).
  • Specific gravity: 1.020-1.025 SG
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.4
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Weak – Water movement is not a significant factor. It can tolerate a rather strong flow but slow-moving water will be more favorable.
  • Water Region: All – It swims freely and usually spends time in the open water.

Social Behaviors

The Saddled Butterflyfish is a non-reef safe fish. Though it does well in a coral-rich tank, it will nip some species of hard corals and will also eat sessile invertebrates. It will do well in a large fish only community tank that is well decorated with rocks/ corals and many hiding places.

This species is generally not an aggressive fish towards other species, but it is territorial with other members of its own kind. The exception to this is if you can initially obtain a pair, otherwise it is best kept singly. It may be fine with other boisterous species once it has become accustomed to them.

It is best to select other tank mates that are not overly territorial or aggressive. It can however be kept with the larger and rather territorial angelfish like Pomacanthus and Holacanthus. Centropyge, along with other angelfish members of Apolemichthys, Genicanthus, Chaetodontoplus and Pygoplites also can be good tank mates. Smaller non-aggressive fishes like cardinalfish, gobies, tilefish, fairy basslets, fairy and flasher wrasses are also good candidates as tank mates. Small but very territorial fishes like dottybacks should be avoided. Such fish as Basses or scorpionfish, even if they are small enough, should also be avoided.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: No – Best kept singly unless you can obtain a proven pair.
    • Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (anthias, clownfish, dwarf angels): Monitor
    • Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (tangs, large angels, large wrasses): Monitor
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (lionfish, groupers, soapfish): Threat
    • Monitor
    • Anemones: Monitor
    • Mushroom Anemones – Corallimorphs: Monitor
    • LPS corals: Threat
    • SPS corals: Monitor
    • Gorgonians, Sea Fans: Monitor
    • Leather Corals: Monitor
    • Soft Corals (xenias, tree corals): Monitor
    • Star Polyps, Organ Pipe Coral: Monitor
    • Zoanthids – Button Polyps, Sea Mats: Monitor
    • Sponges, Tunicates: Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat
    • Starfish: Monitor
    • Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Monitor
    • Clams, Scallops, Oysters: Threat
    • Copepods, Amphipods, Mini Brittle Stars: Threat

Sex: Sexual differences

No sexual difference is noted for this species. Butterflyfish species studied up to this time indicate that these fish are gonochoristic, meaning that each fish is either a male or a female and they do not change sex.

Breeding / Reproduction

This species has not been cultivated in captivity. In the wild butterflyfish are pelagic spawners that 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.

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. For more information see, Marine Fish Breeding: Butterflyfish.

  • Ease of Breeding: Unknown

Fish Diseases

Many of the Chaetodon members are often very colorful and attractive to aquarists. Unfortunately some of them are rather difficult to keep for a long period. Some are exclusively coral eaters, and sometimes they suffer from “ich” (white spot disease) and other infectious diseases. Problems with disease are reduced in a well maintained aquarium. Any additions to a tank can introduce disease, so it’s advisable to properly clean or quarantine anything that you want add to an established tank prior to introduction.

Diseases that marine Butterflyfish are susceptible to include Marine Ich (white spot disease), Marine Velvet, Uronema marinum, and Lymphocystis. Some can be treated successfully with medical care or copper drugs, but some species hate sudden changes of water including PH, temperature, or any drug treatment. 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.) can help them by providing this cleaning service in the home aquarium.

The Saddled Butterflyfish is a stony coral eater and it can also be sensitive to some drugs. Be sure to observe this fish closely when medicating it, so you can remove it if it shows signs of stress. For information about saltwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.

“I have kept more than ten specimens of the size ranging from 2-12cm in a fish community tank, and they were an eye-catching beauty in tanks without any trouble. White spot diseases attacked them on occasion, but most of them successfully recovered only by using an appropriate copper sulfate… however some seemed sensitive to drugs and could not tolerate it.” …Hiroyuki Tanaka


The Saddled Butterflyfish is very commonly available on line and in pet stores. They are moderately inexpensive, though price will vary depending on size. Most available specimens are around 6 inches (15 cm) long, though juveniles less than 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) are also obtainable. Adults are more scarce as well as a bit higher priced.


 Chaetodon ephippium (Image Credit: Leonard Low, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)