The White-face Butterflyfish is a rare find for the aquarium, and is uncommon in the ocean too!

The White-face Butterflyfish Chaetodon mesoleucos is a shy, secretive fish in the wild. That makes it a challenge for divers to locate, and when they do spot one it is difficult to approach with a camera as it quickly darts into hiding. It also has a rather restricted range where it occurs. It is one of only a handful of butterflyfish that are found in the Red Sea. It is alsofound in the Western Indian Ocean from the Gulf of Aden eastward to the island of Socotra, Yemen. If you can obtain this species, it will be rather costly but it will make a wonderful display.

Thisbutterflyfish is moderate in size, growingto just over 6 inches (16 cm) in length, but is very distinguished in appearance and easily recognized. Some other common names it is known by are the White-fronted Butterflyfish, Paleface Butterflyfish, and Mesoleucos Butterfly. Asits common names aptly describe, it is white towards the front and has a pale bluish gray face with a dark vertical black band running through they eye. The rest of the body is a darker hue marked with thin vertical black striping. The tail fin has a white band near thebase and the rest is black.

This is an unusual attraction and an interesting addition to a community aquarium. Basically it is beautiful but quarrelsome. The reserved demeanor it displays in natural translates into a rather solitary, shy fish that needs a lot of space. But it also gets a belligerent attitude. It can be a rather scrappy fellow with its tankmates, particularly other butterflyfish, including its own kind. It is best to keep only one specimen unless you have a proven pair, Its also helps to add this fish to the aquarium last.

If properly cared for it is known to be a hardy fish to keep and is a good choice for an intermediate aquarist with some fish keeping experience. In nature this butterflyfish is thought to feed on coral polyps as well as worms, clams, and crustaceans. Like other butterflyfish that adapt well to a variety of foods in the aquarium, theymost likely feed on algae and other invertebrates. In captivity however, they vary in their willingness to accept food substitutes. Those that do accept offered foods make durable aquarium fish.

They need a good sized aquarium that is well established. A 75 gallon tank is the minimum size suggested for a single fish, and a larger tank of 100 gallons or more if keeping it with any other butterflyfish. Decorate the tank with rocks and/or corals with many hiding places, along with plenty of swimming space. Keeping this butterflyfish in a reef environment is a judgment call. If the reef tank is large, well stocked, and they are provided with a proper and nutritious diet it may work out. But in nature it is a coral eater,and will most likely snack on all othertypes of reef inhabitants as well. It is really best kept in a fish only community tank.

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

White-face Butterflyfish (Chaetodon mesoleucos)

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Short and relaxing video following a White-face Butterflyfish.

This is an interesting video, with a relaxing and somewhat mysterious soundtrack and very pale blue atmosphere, it almost looks like a snowglobe! The video showcases a few different fish but focuses on the White-face Butterflyfish as it cruises around and picks at the corals, looking for food.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Perciformes
  • Family: Chaetodontidae
  • Genus: Chaetodon
  • Species: mesoleucos
White-face Butterflyfish – Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately Difficult
  • Minimum Tank Size: 75 gal (284 L)
  • Size of fish – inches: 6.3 inches (16.00 cm)
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Temperature: 74.0 to 82.0° F (23.3 to 27.8&deg C)
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.4
  • Diet Type: Omnivore
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The White-face Butterflyfish Chaetodon mesoleucos was described by Forsskal in 1775. They have a relatively restricted range encompassing the central Red Sea and the Western Indian Ocean in the Gulf of Aden and east to the Island of Socotra, Yemen.

This species is on the IUCN Red List as Least Concern (LC). They have a relatively restricted range and are uncommon but there are no major threats identified. Other common names they are known by include White-fronted Butterflyfish, Paleface Butterflyfish, and Mesoleucos Butterfly.

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 include two popular species, the Raccoon ButterflyfishChaetodon lunula and Threadfin ButterflyfishChaetodon auriga, and some other favorites like the Saddled ButterflyfishChaetodon ephippium, Vagabond Butterflyfish Chaetodon vagabundus and the Pakistan ButterflyfishChaetodon collare.

These butterflyfish inhabit rocky areas and coral reefs at depths between 10 – 82 feet (3 – 25 m). Adults are mostly seen in pairs, though some older reports also say they are occasionally seen in small groups. They are thought to feed on coral polyps as well as worms, algae, clams, and crustaceans. Like other butterflyfish that adapt well to captivity, they most likely also eat filamentous algae and other types of invertebrates.

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


The White-face 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 6 inches (16 cm) in length. The lifespan for most of the Chaetodon species is between 5 – 7 years, but sometimes longer with proper care.

The adult C. mesoleucoss is white on the front portion of the body and has a pale bluish gray face with a dark vertical black band running through they eye. The rest of the body is a bluish gray in the center and becoming a warm brown onto the dorsal and anal fins and onto the base of the tail fin.These areas are marked with thin vertical black stripes. The tail fin has a white band at the base and the rest is black.

  • Size of fish – inches: 6.3 inches (16.00 cm)
  • Lifespan: 5 years – The average lifespan Chaetodon species is between 5 – 7 years, and possibly longer with proper care.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

This fish can be hardy if properly cared for. This means plenty of algae to graze on and lots of food variety. However some individuals will refuse aquarium foods, and so consequently they are suggested for the more experienced, intermediate aquarist. It is not suggested for the reef aquarium as corals and other invertebrates are part of its natural diet.

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

Foods and Feeding

The White-face Butterflyfish are omnivores, in the wild they feed on coral polyps, worms, clams, crustaceans and most likely algae and other invertebrates. In the aquarium some specimens will be refuse to eat, but most are wiling to accept aquarium food. For the best success provide a tank with lush filamentous and initially you can offer various live foods such as clams with their shells cracked open, to entice them to start browsing.

Once it is adapted to aquarium foods 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

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 a lot of space to accommodate their size and to swim asthey can reach over 6 inches in length. A 75 gallon tank is the minimum size for a single fish, and a bigger tank will be needed if you want to keep more than one. 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: 75 gal (284 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: 74.0 to 82.0° F (23.3 to 27.8&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 will be more favorable.
  • Water Region: All – It swims freely and usually spends time in the open water.

Social Behaviors

The White-face Butterflyfish is a non-reef safe fish. Though it does well in a coral-rich tank, it will nip the polyps of coral species as well as snack on other invertebrates. It is best kept in a large fish only community tank that is well decorated with rocks/ corals and many hiding places.

This is a very shy fish in the wild, but in the aquarium they are known to be belligerent with other tankmates. It should be kept singly unless the tank is very large. It can be territorial and aggressive towards other of its own kind unless it is a proven pair, and is aggressive towards other butterflyfish. It helps to introduce this fish to the aquarium last. Thentake care and watch that it isn’t too aggressive towards the other fish.

Smaller non-aggressive fishes like cardinalfish, gobies, tilefish, fairy basslets, fairy and flasher wrasses are possibly good candidates as tank mates. Someof the more aggressive smaller fish like clownfish, damsels, and anthias could also work well. Larger and rather territorial angelfish like Pomacanthus and Holacanthus can be kept together with this species. Also other angelfish like members of Centropyge, Apolemichthys, Genicanthus, Chaetodontoplus and Pygoplites also can 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 also be avoided.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: No – Only keep it with is own kind if you have a proven pair and the tank is very large.
    • Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Monitor – This fish can be rather belligerent with tankmates, so its best to add it to the aquarium last after the other fish are established.
    • 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: 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: Threat
    • 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

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 White-face 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 rarely available online and in pet stores, and when it can be obtained it is usually expensive.