The Sailfin Tang is a hardy, attractive tank buster that can hold its own and rivals the Lipstick Naso Tang in size!

The juvenile Sailfin Tang starts out life with a bright yellow body, narrow grayish black vertical bars on the body and two vertical black bars on the face.  As they age, the bright yellow fades on the body, head and body becomes a dark brown to gray-black with narrow vertical yellow bands that alternate with wider dark brown to gray-black.  There is a black dot surrounded by blue at the base of the caudal fin where their short tail spine is located, along with an all yellow tail.  Their dorsal and anal fins curve sharply away from the body, forming a “sail” look with the coordinating colors forming a dotted or broken line pattern. These fish will grow to 15.7″ (40 cm) if it is a male, and he will reach 12.5″ by 4 years old.  Females are smaller and tangs have a life span of 30 to 45 years (Choat and Axe, 1996).  Due to the needed tank size, these beginner fish may be better listed as intermediate.

Among its many attributes, the beauty and personality of the Sailfin Tang make it an outstanding addition to a marine aquarium. Like all seven of the sailfin tang species, when the fins of the Sailfin Tang are fully extended its height is about the same as its length, giving it a disk-shaped appearance. Though very similar looking to its close relative the Desjardin’s Sailfin Tang or Red Sea Sailfin Tang, (Z. desjardinii), the Sailfin Tang is more common and is less expensive. It is hard to tell the difference between these two when they are young.  As adults, the Sailfin Tang retains its attractive juvenile appearance though becoming less yellow, while the Desjardin’s Sailfin Tang will change some stripes for more spots and lightens in color. They will both get quite large, in fact they are the largest of the Zebrasoma species.

These fish are best kept for aquarists that can care for very large tanks.  Tank should be mature with plenty of macroalgae should be growing when your Sailfin Tang is first introduced to help it adjust.  One of the hardiest of the surgeonfish, it is highly disease resistant and responds well to treatment. Be careful that tank mates are not super aggressive and stressing your Sailfin Tang out, which can make them ill.  Caution needs to be exercised when handling surgeonfish, since 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 Pacific Sailfin Tang is relatively peaceful and will get along with a wide variety of non-tang tank mates in a large community aquarium, but should be added last.  Keep it singly as it does not mix with others of its same genus.  They will get along with other large mellow tangs in a tank that is 400 gallons or more, such as the Naso (Lipstick) Tang and Regal Tang.  Avoid the Sohal Tang and similarly angry large tangs who will eventually attack other tangs when they are full grown.  THey can also be kept with other semi-aggressive fish.  In a reef, they are excellent choices, however keep an eye on them around LPS and some low growing soft corals like zoanthids, star polyps and gorgonians since a hungry tang can pick on these corals.

Provide a minimum tank size of 180 gallons, and start them out in this size tank as juveniles, since they grow very fast.  The tank should be minimum 6 feet long and deep enough to accommodate the “tallness” of this fish’s fins which can be around 15″ in height when extended.  Rightly called “sea cows,” the large amounts of food in equals large amounts of waste!  This requires vigorous water movement and filtration, along with lots of water volume to dilute the waste.  They like plenty of water movement to provide an oxygen rich environment rather than a calm water aquarium. They are quick and agile swimmers so will need lots of swimming space along with plenty of crevices among corals/ rocks to retreat into and for sleeping at night. Being voracious algae eaters, an aquarium with good algae growth will provide for their nutritional needs.

Scientific Classification

Species: veliferum

Sailfin Tang – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Intermediate
Aquarium Hardiness:Moderately hardy
Minimum Tank Size:180 gal (681 L)
Size of fish – inches:15.7 inches (39.88 cm)
Temperature:72.0 to 78.0° F (22.2 to 25.6&deg C)
Range ph: 8.1-8.4
Diet Type: Herbivore
Sailfin tang
Image Credit: Vladimir Wrangel, Shutterstock

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Sailfin Tang or Pacific Sailfin Tang, Zebrasoma veliferum was described by Bloch, in 1795.  The genus Zebrasoma means “horse body,” which comes from the word Zebra or horse in African and soma or body in Greek.  The common names refer to it’s coloring, body type (sailfin) or location and they are:  Pacific Sailfin Tang, Sailfin Tang, Eastern Sailfin Tang, Ringed Tang, Purple-lined Tang and Sail Fish Tang.  These names are descriptive of their features or location.  

Sailfin Tangs are found in the Pacific from the Indonesia and Australia area to Japan, Hawaii, and Tuamotu.  In the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea it is replaced by its close relative the Desjardin’s Sailfin Tang or Red Sea Sailfin Tang, (Z. desjardinii).  In their natural habitat, adults are found in lagoons and in both seaward and shelter reefs; while juveniles are usually found in dense coral areas with strong currents.  Saifin Tangs can be found from depths of 6 to 98 feet (5 – 30 meters) feeding on benthic weeds and algae such as leafy macroalgae.  Adults are seen singly or in pairs in lagoons and may school in outer areas, while the juveniles are usually seen singly in dense coral areas, and are often found in areas with strong currents.

These fish are on the IUCN Red List for Endangered Species under Least Concern with a stable population trend.

   The Sailfin Tang is very similar to the Desjardin’s Sailfin Tang also called Indian Ocean or Red Sea Sailfin Tang, (Z. desjardinii) when they are both young.  The differences appear as the adult Desjardin’s Sailfin Tang will change some of their stripes for spots and will lighten in color.  As the adult Pacific Sailfin Tang ages, it retains its yellow tail fin and most of it’s juvenile coloration only with less yellow and wider darker brown to grayish black stripes depending on location.

  • Scientific Name: Zebrasoma veliferum
  • Social Grouping: Varies – Found alone, in pairs or in schools. Juveniles are found alone.
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Sailfin Tang or Pacific Sailfin Tang has a disk like shaped body similar to all surgeonfish, but with giant dorsal and anal fins that are approximately the same size as its body. When the fins of the sailfin tangs are fully extended, the total height of these fish is about the same as the length.  All the sailfin tangs have extended snouts.

The body of this fish has a beautiful striped patterning, broad pale yellow bands alternating with darker bands, all of which extend and blend into the dorsal and anal fins. The dark bands have some yellow markings, dots and stripes. The head is white with yellow spots and has the darkest band running though the eye with the a second very dark band just behind it. These bands also have yellow dots and lines in them. The caudal fin is yellow. Juveniles are similar to the adults, only with a more yellow coloring overall.   On each side of the caudal peduncle is a single spine or “scalpel” used for defense or dominance and is shorter than others in this genus. When not in use the spine is folded down into a groove.  These fish grow to 15.7″ inches if they are male, and are one of the largest species in the Zebrasoma genus.  Males, since they are bigger than females will reach about 12.5″ by the time they are 4 years old and these tangs will live 30 to 45 years. 

  • Size of fish – inches: 15.7 inches (39.88 cm)
  • Lifespan: 45 years – 30 to 45 years.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Sailfin Tang is a great addition to the marine aquarium and is easy to keep if its diet and environment are well maintained.  The biggest challenge is the 180 gallon tank that will be needed for this tang, who needs to be introduced in the tank as a juvenile to curb aggression.  They do well in an environment that has consistent water, quality, temperature, decor and fellow tank mates.  It can be housed in a fish only tank or in a reef environment, but on occasion they have been known to nip various corals/inverts.  (See Social Behaviors)  Provide plenty of space, especially for adult specimens, along with lots of rocks/ corals with crevices for retreating, feeding from and for sleeping.  All surgeonfish need an aquarium with plenty of aeration, a strong current will help to provide good oxygenation, especially due to their large food intake and waste export.  

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) and bacterial infections resulting from poor water quality.  Consequently they will need vigorous filtration, protein skimming, and regular small water changes.  Tangs 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. (See Diseases)

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate – Due to needed large tank size.
Sailfin tang
Image Credit: Vladimir Wrangel, Shutterstock

Foods and Feeding

The Sailfin Tangs are primarily herbivores. In the wild they feed primarily on leafy macroalgae algae. 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, and in a reef they will get copepods or meaty foods naturally.  In a fish only tank, only provide scant amounts of meaty foods since their stomach contents on only recorded algae and nothing else.  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.

  • Diet Type: Herbivore
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet / Pellet: Yes
  • Vegetable Food: All of Diet – Natural marine sources are best, such as macro algae and even Nori sheets used to wrap sushi.
  • Meaty Food: – In a fish only tank with no copepods, very lightly supplement their diet with mysis or brine.
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day

Aquarium Care

Reef tanks

-Large Tanks 100 gallons and over, once water is aged and stable can be changed 10% bi-weekly to 20% monthly, depending on bioload.

Fish only tanks*

-Large Tanks 100 gallons and over, once water is aged and stable can be changed 20% to 30% every 6 weeks depending on bioload.

For more information on maintaining a saltwater aquarium see: Saltwater Aquarium Basics: Maintenance. A reef tank will require specialized filtration and lighting equipment. Regular water changes done bi-weekly will help replace the trace elements that the fish and corals use up.  

*Note:  If this is the ONLY fish in the tank, with no corals or other fish you can get away 20% monthly.

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly

Aquarium Setup

Your eventually very large, yet very active fast swimming Sailfin Tang needs a minimum tank size of 180 gallons.  Juveniles should be started out in this sized tank because they grow so fast.  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.  Provide areas that are large enough for them to sleep in as they grow.  Provide an open area towards the top for them to swim in as well.  It will mainly graze on algae if it is available.  Keep corals glued down, as their quick speeds may topple a coral or two.  Because they thrive well in tanks with algae growth, the tank should be mature and if it is a fish only tank, provide lighting to help algae growth.  The temperature they prefer is 72 to 78˚F (22 to 26˚C), normal ocean salinity of at least 1.023, and a pH that is 8.1 to 8.4.

Provide an area of strong linear water flow for them to swim against and be sure the water quality stays high.  They are found on all levels of the tank.  Tangs produce a lot of waste, so the larger the tank, the easier it is to keep clean.  A strong skimmer and good filtration is recommended for long term health.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 180 gal (681 L) – Start them out in this tank as juveniles.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Live Rock Requirement: Typical Plus Hiding Places – Make sure there is a large enough space for them to sleep in as they grow.
  • Substrate Type: Any
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate – normal lighting – Enough to promote macroalgae growth.
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 78.0° F (22.2 to 25.6&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: – unknown
  • Specific gravity: 1.023-1.025 SG
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.4
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Strong
  • Water Region: All
Pacific Sailfin Tang
Image Credit: PAUL ATKINSON, Shutterstock

Social Behaviors

Sailfin Tangs are about a 4 on the scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most aggressive for the Zebrasoma genus.  While they are listed as more aggressive, they do not bother other fish, unless the tank is too small.  There should only be one per tank, unless it is a mated pair and the tank is over 400 gallons.  Do not keep with others from this genus.

If you wish to house them with other tangs, choose those who eat different foods.  For example, those from the Bristletooth group like the Yelloweyed Kole Tang, is a perfect complimentary tang to add if the tank is over 200 gallons and the Bristletooth is added first.   You may also pair this tang with different genus’ as long as there are no similarities. One example of mixing genus in a very large tank, over 400 gallons without incident would be to house a Naso Tang, Yelloweyed Kole Tang, and a Hippo Tang.  Adding them together as juveniles is best (again adding the bristletooth first), rather than adding a new one later when territories have been established.  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 with other tangs.  Adding a tang to a tank that already has tangs that have staked out there territory can cause problems, however, rearranging rock work can help alleviate the stress.  There will be aggression towards the new tang, so keep an eye on their behavior and remove them if they are constantly hiding or up in the corner of the tank.  Avoid triggers, puffers, and other aggressive fish which can stress your Purple Tang out.  If your tang is “posturing” and using his scalpel to whack a tank mate, then remove that tank mate or the tang.

The Sailfin Tang will graze on various algae, but prefer macroalgae, so can be an asset to a reef environment if some caulerpa is getting out of control!  The downside is that have been known to nip on large polyp stony corals.  They have been known to occasionally go after star polyps, gorgonians, and zooanthids but that is rare with this species.

Some inverts are also at risk.  Zebrasoma have been known to pick on the mantels of clams.  They have been known to eat very small fan worms and have accidentally chewed through the tubes of Feather Dusters that had algae on them.  

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive – Peaceful towards non-tangs.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Sometimes – Male and female pair only in a tank that is over 400 gallons.
    • Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (anthias, clownfish, dwarf angels): Safe
    • Safe
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (tangs, large angels, large wrasses): Monitor – Do not house with same genus or aggressive tangs like Sohal Tang.
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (lionfish, groupers, soapfish): Monitor – Lionfish should be in their own tank. Others are fine as long as they are not as long or longer than the tang. Frogfish and toadfish should be smaller than the tang or it will be eaten.
    • Monitor – They shouldn’t bother mandarins, however mandarins do not like swift moving water and seahorses and pipefish should have their own tank.
    • Anemones: Safe
    • Mushroom Anemones – Corallimorphs: Safe
    • LPS corals: Monitor – They have been known to nip at LPS.
    • SPS corals: Safe
    • Gorgonians, Sea Fans: Monitor – They may occasionally nip if not well fed.
    • Leather Corals: Safe
    • Soft Corals (xenias, tree corals): Safe
    • Star Polyps, Organ Pipe Coral: Monitor – They may occasionally nip if not well fed.
    • Zoanthids – Button Polyps, Sea Mats: Monitor – They may occasionally nip if not well fed.
    • Sponges, Tunicates: Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe
    • Starfish: Safe
    • Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Monitor – They have been known to chew through the Feather Dusters tube.
    • Clams, Scallops, Oysters: Monitor – They have been known to nip at clam mantles.
    • Copepods, Amphipods, Mini Brittle Stars: Safe

Sexual differences

The male Zebrasoma is larger than the female and the males have white setae (hair-like bristles) in front of their peduncular spines.  Females also have larger cloacas (reproductive/intestinal opening) than males. 

Breeding / Reproduction

Male and female Sailfin Tangs have been known to spawn in groups, having multiple partners; however, they have also been seen spawning only in pairs.  Large groups will start to form right before they spawn, as males start changing color.  This all coordinates with the lunar cycle in winter or early spring, however in warmer waters it can occur all year long.  Once they have shot up to towards the surface and released their gametes, the eggs form and are very small, less than 1 mm; with a single oil droplett that helps them stay afloat.  They hatch in only 24 hours and the larvae are poorly developed.  The order in which they form into a recognizeable Sailfin Tang is a step by step process.  First they develop serrate ridges on the head, then the pelvic fin and second dorsal spines form followed by a second anal spine.  Next, the head and body deepen becoming kite-shaped, with a long pelvic spine, dorsal spine and anal spine.  After that, triangular scales appear in vertical rows on the body and last, the juvenile coloring starts to show along with the base of their tail fin forming their little spine or scalpel.  At this point, they are ready to settle into the reef and have to wait 1 to 2 years before they can have their own offsrping.

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.

  • Ease of Breeding: Unknown
Sailfin Tang
Image Credit: Feng Cheng, Shutterstock

Fish Diseases

Tangs produce less body slime than other saltwater fish and have been termed “dry skinned” fish by some.  This makes them very susceptible to Cryptocaryon (saltwater ich) and other diseases.  The most common ailments are bacterial diseases, Lateral Line Disease, and parasitic infections such as protozoas (including Cryptocaryon), worms, etc.  

For Crypt, 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.  As for treatment, some tangs are sensitive to copper because they have an important microfauna in their digestive system, soprolonged or continuous use of a copper treatment is not advisable.  It is also said that pellets soaked in garlic may help fend off Marine Ich

Providing a vitamin supplement (including vitamin C) can help provide for their nutritional needs, and vitamin C can help reduce Lateral Line Erosion (LLE) which may be caused by activated carbon. Enriching foods can be done by soaking dried pellets with liquid vitamins, adding vitamins to the food, or adding a liquid vitamin into the water.  Some hobbyists also report success with supplemental foods such as previously boiled or frozen zucchini, broccoli, spinach, and leaf lettuce.

The best routine is a quarantine tank and a stress free environment with good quality veggie foods, places to hide and a quiet area for the aquarium.  

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

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Featured Image Credit: PAUL ATKINSON, Shutterstock