The Vagabond Butterflyfish has a friendly disposition and is an easier butterflyfish to keep, but it gets quite large!

The Vagabond Butterflyfish Chaetodon vagabundus has a pleasing appearance and a pleasant personality to match. In nature it is calm and quite unafraid, readily allowing divers to approach and photograph it. Its demeanor is even almost cheeky. It claims a portion of the reef as its territory and will hold its ground rather than retreating if a diver tries to mess around with it. In the aquarium it is equally forthcoming once its adapted and makes a friendly and attractive pet.

Some very close relatives are the popular Threadfin Butterflyfish or Auriga ButterflyfishChaetodon auriga and the Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish Chaetodon decussatus. These three are similar in appearance, sharing the characteristic chevron type patterning, but they have noticeable differences in the colors of their hind parts.

The color pattern of this species is very attractive, being bright pearly white in front and becoming bright yellow to the rear and onto the dorsal, anal and tail fins. It’s marked with a number of diagonal black lines that meet at right angles to one another, creating a chevron-type patterning. This is accented with a bold black eye bar running vertically across its face, another across the rear, and a third running through the tail fin. Other descriptive names it is commonly known by include Criss-cross Butterflyfish or Crisscross Butterflyfish and Vagabond Coralfish.

This butterflyfish is quite hardy and will readily adapt to life in the aquarium. It will feed on all sorts of aquarium foods, making it one of the best species for a beginner. But it does get pretty big, reaching a length of just over 9 inches (23 cm). 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 places for retreat 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.

This is one of the best all around butterflyfish. It has a peaceful demeanor and makes a nice addition to a roomy community marine aquarium. It gets along with most other marine fishes, basically just ignoring them. Even with moderately aggressive tankmates it is quite capable of holding its own. It can be kept in pairs and with other butteflyfish. Many reef-keepers hope to keep it in a mini reef, but as it is a coral eater and will snack on all types of other reef inhabitants, it is best kept in a fish only community tank.

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

Lemonpeel Angelfish Rare Half Back Hydrid, Vagabond Butterflyfish

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Skip to about 50 seconds in to see a beautifully colored and healthy looking Vagabond Butterflyfish picking among the coral.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Chaetodontidae
  • Genus: Chaetodon
  • Species: vagabundus
Vagabond Butterflyfish – Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Minimum Tank Size: 100 gal (379 L)
  • Size of fish – inches: 9.1 inches (23.01 cm)
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 81.0° F (22.2 to 27.2&deg C)
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.4
  • Diet Type: Omnivore
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Vagabond Butterflyfish Chaetodon vagabundus was described by Linnaeus in 1758. They are found in the Indo-Pacific Oceans from East Africa and the Red Seas on the west ranging to the Line, Tuamoto, and Gambier Islands in Polynesia on the east, north to southern Japan and south to the Lord Howe Islands, Central New South Wales, and the Austral islands including Rapa Iti (Little Rapa).

This species is on the IUCN Red List as Least Concern (LC). They have a very wide distribution and although there has been some localized declines, there are no major threats currently identified throughout its range. Other common names they are known by include Crisscross Butterflyfish, Vagabond Coralfish, Criss-cross Butterflyfish, and Vagabond’s Butterflyfish.

This species is one 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. Some very close relatives of this fish that are similar in appearance are the popular Threadfin Butterflyfish or Auriga Butterflyfish Chaetodon auriga and the Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish Chaetodon decussatus. These three share the characteristic chevron type patterning, but have noticeable differences in their hindpart coloration.

These butterflyfish are mostly seen in pairs at depths between 3 – 98 feet (1- 30 m). They occur in an assortment of natural habitats from back reefs, reef flats and fore-slope reefs to coastal reefs and lagoon reefs. They have even been found in the more brackish conditions of estuarine waters, this is where there is an influx of freshwater near the mouth of streams. Juveniles will often be found off sandy beaches living among debris. They feed on a variety of foods including hard and soft coral polyps, anemones, filamentous algae, the tentacles of polychaete worms and sea cucumbers, peanut and nemertean worms, hydroids, sponges, mollusc eggs, opisthobranch gastropods, tunicates, and shrimps.

  • Scientific Name: Chaetodon vagabundus
  • Social Grouping: Pairs
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern


The Vagabond Butterflyfish has the typical butterflyfish shape. Its body is oval and laterally compressed. It has a protruding snout tipped with a small mouth. The dorsal fin is continuous and it has a rounded tail fin. This species can reach just over 9 inches (23 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, but sometimes longer with proper care.

The body of the adult C. vagabundus is a bright white to the front and becomes bright yellow to the rear and onto the dorsal, anal and tail fins. It has a number of diagonal black lines that are perpendicular to one another, creating a chevron-type patterning. There is a bold black eye bar running vertically across its face, another across the rear, and a third running through the tail fin. It may or may not have a black eye spot high up on the later half of the dorsal fin, it is lacking in the adults originating from the Red Sea. Juveniles are similar to adults, but have a black spot at the rear of the dorsal fin.

  • Size of fish – inches: 9.1 inches (23.01 cm) – Usually a bit smaller in the aquarium.
  • Lifespan: 5 years – The average lifespan Chaetodon species is between 5 – 7 years, and possibly longer with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

This is a hardy butterflyfish and is one of the best of its family for the beginning aquarist. They will generally acclimate quickly and readily eat all sorts of aquarium foods. They do need a larger aquarium than others of their family. They are disease resistant and will prove to be a sturdy aquarium fish as long as the tank is maintained with regular water changes.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner

Foods and Feeding

The Vagabond Butterflyfish are omnivores, in the wild they feed on algae, stony coral polyps, soft corals, anemones, and all sorts of non-coralline invertebrates. In the aquarium it is important that you feed a good variety of live, frozen, and prepared formula foods with emphasis on vegetables and spirulina. These foods can include live brine, flakes, and frozen foods of all kinds including Formula I, Formula II, Angel Formula and spirulina. Japanese Nori will also be favored. Several sponge based frozen foods are now available and can also be fed to butterflyfish. Feed it at least twice a day, and if it is a tiny juvenile feed it 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 no special care or technique is needed to maintain this fish in the aquarium. 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 9 inches in length, so a 100 gallon tank is the minimum suggested size. The tank should be established and a good algae growth will help in keeping this fish. It 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. It will also tear apart most other invertebrates it finds. Consequently it is not recommended for reef aquariums.

  • 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 81.0° F (22.2 to 27.2&deg 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 is recommended.
  • Water Region: All – It swims freely and usually spends time in the open water.

Social Behaviors

The Vagabond Butterflyfish is best kept in a large fish only community tank. This fish is non-aggressive towards other fish, and will basically ignore non-related tankmates. With moderately aggressive tankmates they are quite capable of holding their own. They can be kept in pairs and with other butteflyfish. They are not suited for the reef aquarium as they will feed on coral polyps, anemones, and a wide range of other invertebrates and crustaceans,

Smaller non-aggressive fishes like cardinalfish, gobies, tilefish, fairy basslets, fairy and flasher wrasses are good candidates as tank mates. Larger and rather territorial angelfish like Pomacanthus and Holacanthus can be kept together with this species as well as other angelfish like members of Centropyge, Apolemichthys, Genicanthus, Chaetodontoplus and Pygoplites can also be good 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 be avoided as should larger frogfishes that can swallow everything.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes
    • Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (anthias, clownfish, dwarf angels): Safe
    • Monitor
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (tangs, large angels, large wrasses): Safe
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (lionfish, groupers, soapfish): Threat
    • Monitor
    • Anemones: Monitor
    • Mushroom Anemones – Corallimorphs: Monitor
    • LPS corals: Threat
    • SPS corals: Threat
    • Gorgonians, Sea Fans: Threat
    • Leather Corals: Threat
    • Soft Corals (xenias, tree corals): Threat
    • Star Polyps, Organ Pipe Coral: Threat
    • Zoanthids – Button Polyps, Sea Mats: Monitor
    • Sponges, Tunicates: Threat
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Threat
    • Starfish: Monitor
    • Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Threat
    • 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

The Vagabond Butterflyfish are generally hardy and problems with disease are minimal 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.

This 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.


This fish is generally readily available in pet stores and online, and are relatively moderate in price.


 Vagabond butterflyfish (Chaetodon vagabundus) (Image Credit: Rickard Zerpe, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)