Butterfly Fish Care and Breeding Guide

A hobbyist with a preference for colored fish may find the Butterfly a suitable tank pet. Considered an exotic beauty, Butterfly fish belongs to the family of Chaetodontidae and comes in varieties. In fact, there are more than 114 butterfly fish species around the globe.

Apart from their intricate patterns, the butterfly are also agile swimmers. They are relatively small sized, rarely measuring beyond 20cm. When kept inside a tank in a group, they are some of the liveliest creatures to watch. One point to note though; the small sized species are friendly while in groups. The same does not apply to their big-sized counterparts. The latter only prefer to stick in the company of mating partners.

Appearance and Behavior of Butterfly Fish

butterfly fish

The fish is extremely lovely with beautiful patterns on the body. It is quite thin with an almost round shape. The mouth is relatively small. Within it (mouth) are bristle-like teeth that are somewhat tiny. The jaws are drawn out subsequently forming a long snout. This allows them to invade tiny crevices in order to feed. They only have a single dorsal fin.

Most butterfly fish species have outstretched spines on the front part of their dorsal fins. They are a trifle tiny, seldom measuring more than 8inches in length. The most dominant colors on their profiles are black and yellow. Dark bands are found on the posterior of the dorsal area. It uses this as a camouflage to evade predators.

Across the eyes are dark bands. On their flanks are round dots that sometimes confuse predators.

While a big percentage of the butterfly fish are brightly colored, some have dull tints. Some common colors for the fish include white, orange, yellow, blue, black and grey. All of them spot at least a mixture of three or more colors, perhaps explaining their popularity with most hobbyists.

As agile swimmers, they move by darting and flitting about. As they do this in groups, they make a lovely spectacle. That is why it is often recommended to stock at least five or more of them in the same tank.

They are considered diurnal animals. This means they feed aggressively during the day and spend their entire night resting. Their preferred resting place is the coral. If well taken care of at the aquarium, they can live for 10 years or more.

Origin and Habitat

Butterfly fish is an original inhabitant of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It is a salt water fish. In its natural habitat, it inhabits coral reefs in sub-tropical and tropical waters. They are found in many countries of the world.

Tank Requirements

Butterfly fish are salt water fish. Since they come in variety, it is important to identify the specific ones before arranging the tank. Remember, for them to do well, the tank should mimic their original environment.

For the standard butterfly fish, the size of tank largely depends on the number of fish to be stocked. A school of five can be comfortably housed in a 100 gallon tank. There should also have sizeable live rocks and plenty of corals with enough cave-like crevices. These must be well arranged to offer it sufficient swimming space. Sand can be added to the substrate too.

Put in a bit of plant life. They may interfere with rooted plants owing to their agility. This makes well arranged floating plants on the sides of the tank ideal. Plants often add aesthetic value to the tank, giving it a more pleasant look. They also add realness into the tank.

Sufficient lighting during the day when they are most active. The light can be subdued at night when they are docile and prefer to take a nap. In their natural habitat, they are used to sunlight in the open seas. At night, they use darkness to rest. A strong filter to help keep the water clean and conducive to them. Since they are used to strong currents, this should be offered in their tank.

Water Parameters

Water temperature should be maintained at between 72 and 78F. A pH of 8.1- 8.4 should be suitable. Water hardness of between 8 and 12 dKH should be ideal. Like most types of fish, the butterfly needs a hygienic environment to thrive. Not changing the water regularly may lead to infections that can cause death.


They are omnivores that feed on both plants and flesh. They can be fed various foods including:

  • Crustaceans
  • Finely chopped meat from various animals
  • Mollusk flesh
  • Live algae
  • Spirulina
  • Nori
  • Vegetable matter. Lettuce, broccoli and cucumber
  • Blanched spinach
  • Fish pellets
  • Flakes

The fish should be fed at least three times a day, more so when they are juveniles. As they mature, this can be reduced to twice.


They form mating pairs and stick to them for life. They can be bred with difficulty. Maintaining the hatched fry to maturity is even the hardest part.

The female releases the eggs into the water. They form planktons. Animals that eat plankton often find the eggs delicious and may consume them. To be successful therefore, separate the two breeding fish from the rest of the group in the tank for success.

Once the eggs hatch, tiny butterfly fish in the form of fry are noticeable. They are usually so tiny and may not be easily seen by the naked eye. Straight from the eggs, the fry develop armored plate-like features on their bodies. They use these for protection as they are usually very vulnerable.

As the fry mature, the plates disappear. Within the first few days, they can be fed on crushed fry algae wafers. As they advance, they begin to eat crushed vegetables and finely crushed meat substances.


Butterfly is a schooling fish. It adores the company of its look alike. They are tolerant of other peaceful fish species. Care however, must be taken as they are predated upon by many fish types. Ideal tankmates include gobies, damsels, tangs, clownfish and parrotfish.

Important points to note

While some species are relatively easy to care for, some are extremely difficult to stock. Choose types that are suitable.

They are vulnerable to disease especially if the tank does not meet specific requirements. Use cleaner fish to help keep the tank hygienic.

If the following signs are noted, there is need to seek professional help:

  • Fish curling
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid movement of gill
  • Laying at the tank bottom

All in all, butterfly fish are adorable. They can be very beautiful tank additions.

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