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Surgeonfish (Acanthuridae)

The Surgeonfish, belonging to the family Acanthuridae, are a group of bony fish found exclusively in marine waters. There are about 80 species within this family, primarily inhabiting tropical waters, especially around coral reefs. Most species are found in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and some in the Atlantic Ocean. They are typically found at depths of up to 100 meters. Surgeonfish are long-lived, sometimes reaching up to 30 years of age. Their vibrant, contrasting colors make them highly attractive, and they are commonly kept in saltwater aquariums worldwide.

In their natural habitat, Surgeonfish swim in small groups. However, it is recommended to keep them individually in aquariums as they require ample space to establish their territory. They are well-suited for cohabitation with corals and are often found grazing on algae in large tanks. An ideal aquarium for Tangfish is approximately an 800-liter tank.


All species of Acanthuridae have a long dorsal fin and narrow body, very small scales, small mouths with tiny teeth used for scraping algae from corals and small organisms. They also have spines resembling sharp scalpels at the base of their tail fins, which serve for defense or deterrence. Surgeonfish are constantly foraging for food, such as algae covering the bottom. They feed on benthic algae, zooplankton, frozen foods, dry foods based on seaweed, and many other foods.

Below are some examples of the most popular fish from the Acanthuridae family:

Paracanthurus hepatus

The Royal Blue Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus) is one of the most well-known species of marine fish from the Surgeonfish family. Its characteristic feature is its coloring: a blue body with a black back and yellow fins. It is distinguished by sharp spines located on the tail, one on each side, which serve for defense. In its natural habitat, it often lives in pairs or forms small groups of 8 to 14 individuals. The maximum body length of the Tang is 31 cm, but it typically grows up to 20 cm, requiring a relatively spacious tank. It thrives best at temperatures between 24 to 26°C and salinity levels ranging from 1.021 to 1.024. The Tang also enjoys hiding spots in the aquarium where it can retreat when startled. Its blue coloring fades at night, likely as a means to avoid nocturnal predators. While not the most difficult fish to maintain among Surgeonfish, it’s worth noting that it can be skittish, and if overly stressed, it may develop ich. It’s recommended to introduce this species into a stable aquarium, so beginner aquarists should be patient.

Zebrasoma flavescens

Zebrasoma flavescens

The Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens) is one of the most popular Surgeonfish found in aquariums. It has a lemon-yellow coloring covering its entire body. The dorsal and anal fins are rounded and quite tall, giving the fish an elongated shape. It is very social and sometimes slightly aggressive, but once properly acclimated, it is very resilient and makes an excellent resident of marine aquariums. A small specimen requires at least a 300-liter tank with plenty of swimming space. It thrives best at temperatures between 24-28°C and salinity levels between 1.021-1.024. Like other Surgeonfish, its diet primarily consists of plant-based foods, particularly algae. Due to its hardiness, it is suitable for beginners to keep.

Naso elegans

Naso elegans

The Naso Elegans is a species of marine fish from the Surgeonfish family. It’s a stunning fish characterized by its contrasting coloration, with a dark head featuring a broad yellow stripe above the eyes, yellow dorsal fins, dark brown anal fins, and a yellowish tail fin with a black border. There are two orange spots at the base of the tail. Like other Surgeonfish, it primarily feeds on algae and plant-based foods. It can be aggressive towards others in its family but is generally gentle towards other reef inhabitants. A small specimen requires at least a 500-liter tank with plenty of swimming space. Due to its somewhat territorial nature, only one individual should be kept in a tank. It thrives best at temperatures between 24-28°C.

Acanthurus leucosternon

Acanthurus leucosternon

The White-faced Surgeonfish, also known as the Blue Tang, is a highly popular fish among hobbyists. It stands out with its beautiful light blue body and yellow dorsal fin. Similar to other Surgeonfish species, the White-faced Surgeonfish has sharp spines on both sides at the base of its tail. Like other species in the Surgeonfish family, it feeds on algae and requires plenty of space to swim. It grows to a considerable size, reaching up to 50 cm in the wild, although in aquariums it usually stays under 30 cm. It prefers water temperatures between 24-26°C and is sensitive to water quality. If an aquarist decides to keep the White-faced Surgeonfish, it’s crucial to carefully select other fish for the tank. Even in large aquariums, White-faced Surgeonfish often become the most dominant fish. Therefore, if you choose to have one, it should be introduced to the aquarium as the last fish. It’s sensitive to changes in water quality, so it’s not recommended for beginners. The White-faced Surgeonfish should only be kept by experienced individuals. If it contracts ich, which can be difficult to treat, it can quickly infect the entire tank population.

Zebrasoma xanthurumZebrasoma xanthurum

One of the representatives of the most popular Surgeonfish family, this beautiful fish is characterized by its contrasting colors – a purple body with intensely yellow tail and tips of pectoral fins. In the wild, they inhabit the Indian Ocean, Western Ocean, Red Sea, Maldives, Israel, Yemen, Oman, Somalia, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf. They grow on average to about 22 cm in body length. They require at least an 800-liter tank with plenty of swimming space, although you can try to breed them in a tank of about 600 liters, but remember that as the individual grows, a larger tank should be found over time. Like other Surgeonfish, Xanthurum should be fed plant-based foods, especially algae. They also eat pressed seaweed, copepods, and artemia. They require regular feeding and a large amount of food. Water parameters should be stable, with the recommended temperature ranging from 23°C to 27°C. Although they are moderately aggressive towards other tank inhabitants, they should be provided with ample swimming space.

Zebrasoma scopasZebrasoma scopas

Zebrasoma scopas is a large surgeonfish that can grow up to 40 cm in the wild. Its body structure is similar to Zebrasoma flavenscens. Its body shimmers with shades of brown, yellow, and gray. In aquariums, it usually does not exceed 25 cm. It is commonly found throughout the Indo-Pacific region. The fish is easy to maintain and quickly acclimatizes. It is recommended, like other surgeonfish, to be placed in a large tank of at least 600 liters, with plenty of swimming space. Zebrasoma scopas feeds on plant-based food and readily consumes unwanted algae growing on rocks. Individuals kept in smaller tanks may become aggressive. Scopas thrives best in water temperatures ranging from 24°C to 28°C.

Zebrasoma valiferumZebrasoma valiferum

Veliferum is a beautiful fish with interesting markings on its body. Its characteristic feature is its high and wide banded dorsal and anal fins. Young individuals have yellow and black stripes on their bodies. Zebrasoma veliferum is found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They should be housed in a minimum 600-liter tank with plenty of swimming space, and as they grow, it is necessary to transfer them to a larger aquarium. These individuals can grow up to 40 cm and are one of the larger species of the Zebrasoma genus. Veliferum’s diet consists of brine shrimp and algae. Among surgeonfish, they are one of the calmer species, making them excellent and undemanding companions for other aquarium inhabitants. In addition to ample swimming space, the species requires a large number of rocks arranged to create numerous caves.

Acanthurus achillesAcanthurus achilles

The Achilles tang is considered one of the most beautiful marine fish. It is found in the Central and Eastern Pacific (Oceania Islands, Hawaii, Mexican Coast). The body of the fish is usually dark brown, dark gray, or matte black. At the base of the caudal fin, there is an orange or dark yellow spot (in some variations, it can even be red) in the shape of a teardrop. At the base of this fin, there is also a sharp, folding spine. It is a very aggressive fish towards other tangs and often towards other larger fish (e.g., triggers). It has a warrior nature and loves to swim energetically. It is recommended to keep only one individual of this species. It requires a large tank, preferably 800 liters. The recommended water temperature is 24°C-28°C. Its natural diet consists of algae covering the rocks, and it also eagerly eats plant-based foods such as pressed marine algae, brine shrimp, and mysis shrimp.

Acanthurus sohal

Acanthurus sohalThe Sohal tang is a large tang with a very attractive coloration. It is susceptible to diseases, so it should be mainly fed with plant-based foods rich in vitamins, especially beta-carotene, which can help prevent disease development. In addition to that, it is important to supplement their diet with marine algae-based foods to strengthen their immune system, reduce aggression, and improve overall fish health. The Sohal tang is aggressive and requires a large tank with plenty of space to swim. Due to its aggression level and size, it should only be kept by experienced aquarists and in a large tank. The recommended water temperature is 22-26°C.

Aggression in the aquarium

Tangs are not the easiest fish to keep. Most of them, once acclimated, pose no threat and can coexist easily with other fish, but it’s important to know which ones can be introduced first. In smaller tanks, it’s best to keep single species of larger tangs. It’s important to introduce them into a large tank with an ample food supply. Additionally, it’s crucial for them to vary in size to establish a hierarchy easily. Large fish, such as Naso elegans, are generally outside any species hierarchy because it’s rare for another tang to dare to attack them. Dominant species include, for example, the Yellow Tang or the Sohal Tang.

Role in a saltwater aquarium

Tangs play an important role in the marine environment by cleaning corals from algae growth. They are a family of territorial and aggressive fish towards their own species. It’s recommended to add them as one of the last fish in the tank. Space is a priority for them, allowing them to move freely and establish their own territory. The optimal temperature ranges from 24°C to 26°C. Adequate lighting and proper filtration are also crucial for their well-being.


Tangs are beautiful fish highly sought after by aquarium enthusiasts. However, before purchasing them, it’s essential to research their requirements and aggressiveness thoroughly. Buying them without checking all the information can lead to problems. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a marine aquarium without these stunning tangs.

About the author

Picture of Marek Protasewicz

Marek Protasewicz

Reefkeeping has been my passion for over 10 years now. I love learning. The hobby has taught me many valuable lessons, patience being the best example. Combining work and passion is my path. I run Crazy Coral, a marine aquarium shop, for a number of years. Building this business from the scratch I learnt from my own mistakes at a heavy cost.
Later I managed a project aimed at development of methods for quick growth of Corals in non-natural conditions. The project was carried out by Get Sales, Poland. Presently, I am responsible for distribution strategy at Reef Factory, of which I am a co-founder. The company produces smart devices for marine aquaristics. The last projects I have been involved in are Social Reef and ReefPedia.

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