Butterflyfish are a great choice for a saltwater aquarium because they are hardy, active, and come in a variety of beautiful colors. Butterflyfish are easy to feed, and they are especially responsive to foods that are supplemented with vitamins and minerals, which makes them a pleasure to watch. Butterflyfish are also relatively easy to breed in captivity. 

Butterflyfish get their name from their “wings”, which are actually their pectoral fins. These fins range in color and pattern, but the most common have a thin black stripe across the leading edge of the fin. The pectoral fins are usually about the same size and shape as the rest of the fish’s fins, but they can also develop into large, colorful fans. They are smaller, more peaceful fish, and usually get along well with other fish.

Butterflyfish are one of the most colorful types of fish that you can keep in your home aquarium. They are brightly colored with shades of orange, yellow, black, blue and purple on their bodies. 

The most beautiful part of butterflyfish is their fins. They have long, slender, colorful fins that are a delight to admire.  

If you are thinking about adding a butterflyfish to your aquarium, here are some things to think about. Butterflyfish are rare, colorful fish that add a fun splash of color and activity to any aquarium. They are also surprisingly easy to care for, and will thrive in most home aquariums. If you’re thinking about getting a new pet fish, consider the butterflyfish.

Information about Butterflyfish

  • Average Length: 4.7 to 8.7 inches
  • Scale Colors: Yellow, White, Blue, Red and Orange.
  • Attention Needs: High
  • Good tolerance to Heat and Cold: No
  • Good Pet: Yes
  • Good with Other Butterflyfish: No
  • Good with Other fish species: Depends on Butterflyfish species.
  • Suitable for First-Time fish Owners: No
  • Health Concerns: They tend to have health issues like Nitrate poisoning and Dropsy.
  • Average Life Span: 8 to 10 years

Physical Appearance of Butterflyfish

Butterflyfish look very similar to the Angelfish but lack the elongated nose that Angelfish have. They are one of the most colorful saltwater fish species which makes them a popular fish for fish tank owners. Butterflyfish come in a wide variety of colors and patterns, with more than 114 recognized types.

Most Butterflyfish species come in bright shades of white, yellow, orange, black and blue, while few species can also have the same colors but a lighter shade. They have dark bands across their eyes and round dots on their bodies. The dots are sometimes mistaken as eyes by predators, making it difficult for them to guess in which direction the fish will swim.

Threadfin or Auriga Butterflyfish are one of the popular species kept in fish tanks. They have a bright white shade on the front which fades into a bright yellow shade towards the rear. The dorsal, anal, tail and fins also have yellow coloring. They have several black lines on their body that are perpendicular to each other. It gives a chevron-like pattern.

Another popular variety is Klein’s Butterflyfish, also known as Sunburst Butterflyfish. They have a yellowish-brown color with one or two broad white bands running down their body. Klein’s also have several stripes and white spots on the sides of their body.

These fish have thin, disk-shaped bodies with a single dorsal fin. They have a small mouth with bristle-like teeth. It helps them to look for food and grab it from narrow openings in rocks, coral and substrate.

Young Butterflyfish have armored plates that protect them from predators. Once the young fish matures, the plates fade away.

Temperament and Behavior of Butterflyfish

The temperament of Butterflyfish varies between different species. Most are peaceful and will not act aggressively with other fish in the tank. Klein’s Butterflyfish and Auriga Butterflyfish are popular peaceful species. They are also easy to care and great for beginner fish tank owners. Since they are non-aggressive, they should have a lot of hiding places inside the tank to make them feel safe from other fish.

Some species tend to become territorial and attack other fish who invade their area. These territorial species will mostly be fine living with their mating pairs or in a small group of their species. Mixing them with other Butterflyfish species can make them aggressive and violent.

The smaller fish species tend to stay in pairs or a small group while the larger species are solitary. Larger species tend to look for a mate. Once they find a mate, they will move around, hunt for food, feed and breed together for the rest of their lives. This type of monogamous behavior is found in very few other fish species.

a blue, yellow and black butterflyfish
a yellow and white butterflyfish

Best Habitat for Butterflyfish

Butterflyfish are generally found in the coral reefs.  Coral are a source of food and also provide them with lots of hiding places. Fish tank owners are often advised to add coral in Butterflyfish tanks as it helps to mimic the conditions found in their natural homes.

Different species of Butterflyfish need different tank conditions. Half of the 114 recognized species are suitable to be kept in captivity. Find out about the specific  conditions needed by the type of Butterflyfish you get before setting up a tank for them.

Tank size

Butterflyfish should be kept in a large tank as they need a lot of space to swim. Some species are territorial which makes it even more important to keep them in a large tank. For smaller Butterflyfish like the Fourspot Butterfly, at least a 75-gallon tank is needed. Larger species like the Auriga Butterfly need a minimum of 125-gallon one. 


Most species will do fine in temperatures between 72 to 78°, but it can slightly vary for different Butterflyfish. 

Water Hardness and PH

The carbonate hardness of the water should be between 8 to 12 dKH and pH should be in the range of 8.1 to 8.4.


Butterflyfish need a lot of hiding spaces. There should be plenty of small caves, rocks or coral inside the tank. For rocks, it is recommended to use live rocks. 

Live rocks are rocks taken from the ocean waters. These have skeletons of dead coral, bacteria, algae and invertebrates that act as biological filters for fish tanks. Live rocks help to introduce bacteria, invertebrates and algae into the tank, which replicate the natural environment of Butterflyfish. Besides giving them a place to hide, live rocks can also be a good source of food as they are home to algae and other aquatic organisms. 

Adding decorative or living plants and it will also make your tank look good and create more places to hide from other fish.

Tank conditions

Depending upon the species, Butterflyfish can be difficult to care for. Measure the temperature, pH level, water hardness every day. The level of dissolved ammonia, nitrates and salt in the water should also be measured regularly. Keep a water testing kit that helps you measure all the above water conditions. 

Tank Maintenance 

Perform 10% water change every week to keep the level of ammonia and nitrates in control.

A deep clean with a 25% water change should be performed once a month. Use a soft brush to remove the algae cover and other waste from the tank walls. Clean the filter regularly to make sure it works properly. Most filters can go at least two months between cleanings or filter replacements.

Best Tank Mates for Butterflyfish

The non-aggressive behavior of most Butterflyfish species allows them to be kept with other peaceful fish. A large tank with lots of hiding places will help the Butterflyfish to feel safe inside the tank.

a yellow butterflyfish
a butterflyfish swimming in an aquarium

Some ideal tank-makes for Butterflyfish are mentioned below: 

Health Issues

Butterflyfish are susceptible to parasite infections. Cleaning the tank regularly and performing regular water changes can help prevent the fish from having health issues. In their natural environment, they generally live up to 7 years. With proper care they can live between 8 to 10 years in captivity.

Some common diseases in Butterflyfish are mentioned below:

Nitrate Poisoning 

Nitrate poisoning happens due to poor water conditions. Not cleaning the tank regularly is the most common cause of nitrate poisoning. Symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid gill movement
  • Listless fish (staying still or lethargic)
  • Fish curling
  • Loss of equilibrium

To deal with this condition, perform a small water change. Decreasing the amount of food and improving the aeration inside the tank can also help. Make sure you do this gradually, as any sudden changes can make them sick. To prevent the fish from having nitrate poisoning, perform weekly water changes. It will help to keep nitrate levels low in your tank.


This illness is caused by a bacterial infection that can affect both the internal and external organs of the fish. The disease usually results in swelling of the stomach area which can sometimes even result in the scales of the fish coming out from the skin. It can result in a pine-cone shape which can be very painful for them. 

High amounts of salt, poor water conditions and overfeeding can lead to this disease. It is easier to treat the disease if detected early. If the swelling increases, then it can be difficult to treat the disease. If not treated properly Dropsy can be fatal for the fish. Consult your vet if you see signs of swelling on their skin or unusual behavior. In most cases, medications will help to treat the condition.

Feeding Butterflyfish 

Butterflyfish are omnivores and feed on a variety of plants, crustaceans, coral and tubeworms in the wild. Their long and pointed noses help them to scavenge for food from small crevices inside the rocks or coral. They have bristle-like teeth that allow them to nip their prey. 

The dietary needs of the Butterflyfish depend upon the individual species. Most will feed on algae, invertebrates and crustaceans.

Some species will strictly feed on algae, coral or sponges. So if you are unable to add coral to your tank, do not get Butterflyfish species that feed only on coral.

Others, who do not have a coral only diet, can be fed frozen food like sponges or other fish food. Flakes, live brine shrimp and plankton can also be given to them. If you are giving them meat-based food make sure you chop it into fine pieces before feeding it to them

They should be fed 2 to 3 times a day. Avoid overfeeding, as it can result in health issues like swelling of the stomach (Dropsy).

a pile of fish flakes

Related Questions:

Are Butterflyfish easy to care for?

The specific feeding requirement of different species and tank conditions can make it difficult for beginner fish tank owners to care for them. With the increased difficulty, Butterflyfish are only recommended for experienced tank owners.

Are African Butterflyfish different from Saltwater Butterflyfish ?

Many seem to get confused between the two because of the similarity in names, but the fact is, they are different. Saltwater Butterflyfish come under the Chaetodontidae family that includes Coralfish and Bannerfish, consisting of hundreds of marine fish species. African Butterflyfish comes from the Pantodontidae family which is a group of freshwater fish. The African Butterflyfish are also called Freshwater Butterflyfish.

Is it easy to breed Butterflyfish?

When they breed, the female will release the egg into the water but will not take care of the eggs or wait for  them to hatch. The male will also not look after the hatchlings. It can result in the eggs being eaten by other fish which makes breeding a difficult task for even an experienced aquarist.

C&R Family Pets logo
Quick Links