Butterflyfish: Characteristics, Behavior and Species

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Meyer's Butterflyfish (Chaetodon meyeri)

Butterflyfish (Scientific name: Chaetodontidae) are among the most colorful and widely recognized coral reef fishes. Their vivid coloration and striking patterns make them popular in the aquarium trade, although some species are difficult to maintain in aquaria. No specific information was found on butterflyfish longevity, but it can be surmised that most species live at least three years and probably longer, since they reach sexual maturity after about a year and many pairs are reported to be stable for at least three years. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

The fossil record for butterflyfishes dates back to the Lower Tertiary Period (66 million to 56 million years ago) and Lower Eocene Period (56 million to 47.8 million years ago). Butterflyfishes, like many other reef fishes, have coevolved with other organisms in their environment. Reef creatures have developed toxins, spines, heavy armor, and adherence to the substrate for protection and access food. Butterflyfishes have evolved a number of countermeasures and reef adaptions such as jaws that allow them to penetrate narrow crevices to reach hiding animals and secure coral polyps. Herbivorous members of the family help the reef by keeping algae growth — that could otherwise smother the reef — in check. /=\

Butterflyfishes are one of the most popular tropical fishes with snorkelers, divers and aquarium enthusiasts. Some adapt well to aquariums but those that eat only coral are almost impossible to keep successfully in captivity. Butterflyfish are dependent on coral reefs to obtain much of their food. The number of butterflyfish in an area is largely dependent on the amount of coral in a particular reef ecosystem In addition, butterflyfish and their eggs and larvae are important food items for marine predators. As of 1994 there were five species of butterflyfish listed as vulnerable to extinction, all in the genus Chaetodon. Their vulnerability is based on the limited ranges in which they are found, making them extremely susceptible to human activities in those areas. /=\

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se ; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute whoi.edu ; Cousteau Society cousteau.org ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Butterflyfish Habitat and Where They Are Found

bluelashed butterflyfish (chaetodon_bennetti)

Butterflyfishes are found primarily tropical waters but some species occur in temperate regions around the globe. Most species occur in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean from Australia to Taiwan. Only four species occur in the eastern Pacific, and 13 species in the Atlantic. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Butterflyfishes are found in reefs, coastal areas and on or near the sea bottom as well as in estuaries. Some occur in the brackish water of estuaries and protected bays, commonly along steep parts of rocky reefs. They are most often found in shallow water near coral reefs less than 20 meters (66 feet) deep, but some deepwater dwellers live in water up to 200 meters (660 feet) deep.

Some butterflyfish reside in seagrass habitats, deep mudflats, or shallow lagoons. Juveniles of many species occupy different areas than adults, such as tidal pools, boulder reefs and shallow areas without coral. Some investigators hypothesize that butterflyfishes may have originally been pelagic (living in the open ocean, far from land), non-reef fishes that colonized coral reefs on two or more separate occasions. /=\

Butterflyfish Physical Characteristics

A close relative of angelfish, but generally smaller, butterflyfih they share many physical characteristics but differ from angelfish in that have thinner, more elongated “noses” which tend to jut out from their main body and lack preopercle spines at the gill covers that angelfish have. . [Source: Great Barrier Reef.com, Wikipedia]

Butterflyfish have high flat bodies and long snouts ideal for slipping into crevices and picking out small animals and hard to reach food. Depending on the species, butterflyfishes range from nine to 30 centimeters (3.5 to 12 inches) in length.: Both sexes are roughly equal in size and look similar. Occasionally males are larger than females. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

(Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish Forcipiger flavissimus) in Papua New Guinea

Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna wrote in Animal Diversity Web: These fishes are laterally compressed (very thin when viewed from the front) but deep-bodied, appearing almost circular from the side. Strongly sheathed dorsal, pelvic, and anal fin spines accentuate the disk-like body shape. The continuous or slightly notched dorsal fin contains six to 16 spines and 15 to 30 soft rays. The caudal fin is rounded and has 15 branched rays. The body is covered with small ctenoid scales that extend well onto the dorsal and anal fins.

Butterflyfishes have small mouths filled with brushlike, close-set teeth. Their snouts are pointed, with the degree of elongation depending on the species and the type of food it consumes. Some, such as Forcipiger flavissimus, have extremely long jaws like tweezers that can grasp invertebrates from narrow crevices. Others, such as Chaetodon ornatissimus, have short jaws for nipping off live coral polyps. The jaws of some butterflyfishes can measure more than 25 percent of their body length.

Butterflyfish Colors and Patterns

Similarly vibrantly coloured and patterned, butterfly are usually bright yellow. The common name butterflyfish is a references colored and strikingly patterned bodies of many species, which often include black, white, blue, red and orange. Many have eyespots on their flanks and dark bands across their eyes, similar to patterns on butterfly wings. Some species however are dull in color. The bodies of butterflyfish are very thin, which help them navigate in narrow reef crevices to escape predators and eat their favored food, coral polyps and algae growing on the reef.Butterflyfish are also known for being incredibly loyal to their mates, and stay with them for life.

Butterflyfishes are brightly-colored, often yellow or white, with darker contrasting markings that may conceal the eye. They, like some other reef fishes, are sometimes described as “poster-colored” due to their vivid coloration. Most species have a dark band obscuring the eye, and often have a false eye spot in contrasting colors near the tail. These may have evolved to confuse predators. The eye spots (ocelli), may serve as a decoy, reducing injuries predators by mimicking the head. Another possibility is that the ocelli are a signal to help maintain cohesion in shoaling groups. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Each species of butterflyfish has a unique combination of eye-sports, patches, bars and dots that butterflyfish of the same species can recognize at a considerable distance. On the crowded reef these identify marks prevent confusion over the selection of mates and offer protection from enemies in an environment, where many species of butterflyfish hang out at close quarters and crop particular food sources.

Copperband butterflyfish (Chelmon rostratus)

The patterns on young emperor butterflyfish — ultramarine flanks with white concentric lines — is different from that of adults — parallel lines of yellow and blue. This is probably the case so young fish can show males there are not old enough to be a threat for females or a territorial rival.

The copperband butterflyfish has three orange bands ons its sides and narrow black band at the base of its tail these markings and the black eyespot on the dorsal fin are designed to confused predators. At night is develops a blotchy coloration so its blends in with the background of the reef.

Butterflyfish colors diminish among species found in deep water and may become less vibrant as climate change warms the world’s oceans. . National Geographic reported: As seas warm, some fish are descending to cooler waters and may see less color, study models show. Photos simulate what copperband butterflyfish may see at depths 20 meters (66 feet) apart; one researcher likens the dimming effect to “going back to the days of black-and-white TV.” Reduced color perception can jeopardize a fish’s critical ability to identify others — to tell prey, predator, and potential mate apart. [Source: Hicks Wogan, National Geographic, October 14, 2021]

Butterflyfish Behavior, Feeding Perception and Communication

Butterflyfishes are diurnal (active mainly during the daytime), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), and social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups). They are usually observed in stable heterosexual pairs, although some species move in schools or foraging groups. Sometimes a single species will school in one geographic region, and only occur in pairs elsewhere. Juveniles are typically solitary, and some act as cleaner fishes. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Butterflyfishes move actively around the reef. They communicate with vision and sense using vision, touch and chemicals usually detected with smell. Daytime feeders, butterflyfishes use vision to find their prey. Pairs also communicate visually; if a pair becomes separated, one may swim upwards in a display that helps the two locate each other. During agonistic encounters between raccoon butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula), the fishes’ yellow colors intensify and their countershading fades, a visual signal of aggressive interaction. When threatened by predators, butterflyfish can dart into the coral in a fraction of a second. Some species have been observed swimming short distances tail first, and then rapidly swimming off in the opposite direction in order to confuse and escape potential predators /=\

20110307-NOAA reef fish butterfly fish 2030.jpg Many butterflyfishes eat small invertebrates, sponges or polychaete worms. Some feed on zooplankton, and others exist exclusively on coral polyps. Some feed by scraping the surface of live coral to obtain algae, attached invertebrates, and mucus from the coral. Others are herbivores, grazing on the filamentous algae covering coral reefs. A few consume seagrasses and algae on reef flats.

A butterflyfish’s flat body and long snouts ideal for slipping into crevices and picking out small animals and hard to reach food. Jaw shape and mouth size correlates with the type of prey consumed. Long-snouted butterflyfish use their long snout to suck out coral polyps. The length of the snout of a species often depends on the type of food it consumes. The yellow longnose butterflyfish or forceps butterflyfish (Forcipiger flavissimus) have extremely long tweezer-like jaws that can grasp invertebrates from narrow crevices. Others, such as ornate butterflyfish (Chaetodon ornatissimus), have short jaws for nipping off live coral polyps. Another species has a jaw specialized for eating a particular kinds of crustacean.The jaws of some butterflyfishes can measure more than 25 percent of their body length. /=\

Butterflyfish Development

Butterflyfish are unique among reef fishes in that the larvae pass through a stage termed tholychthys during which a bony sheath encases the head. According to Animal Diversity Web (ADW): Butterflyfish eggs are spherical, buoyant, and transparent, and, for those species observed, hatch in 28 to 30 hours. A drop of oil behind the yolk suspends the newly-hatched fish upside down just beneath the surface. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

By the time an individual reaches 5.5 millimeters, it enters the tholichthys larval stage, unique among reef fishes, in which bony armor covers the head. The sheath of thin bony plates extends beyond the head to form spines dorsally and ventrally. The shape and form of the plates and spines varies from species to species, but in general tholichthys larvae are silver-colored, deep bodied, and laterally compressed.

20110307-NOAA  reef fsih Butterflyfish_100.jpg
butterfly fish
These pelagic (living in the open ocean, far from land) larvae may be planktonic for two or more months. The bony plates are absorbed within a few weeks after the fish settle to the bottom. The larvae settle at night and transform quickly into juveniles. In many species of butterflyfish, juveniles have a color pattern that is quite distinct from their adult form. Butterflyfishes most likely reach sexual maturity when they are about a year old.

Occasionally pairs have been observed accompanied by a juvenile, which allows for the possibility that juveniles may be ambisexual, or able to mature into male or female depending on which sexually mature fish in a pair dies and needs to be replaced. However, there is no definitive research indicating whether this actually occurs or not. In many species pairs are stable for at least three years, and some butterflyfishes may pair for life. /=\

Butterflyfish Mating, Reproduction and Offspring

Butterflyfish are largely pair-forming, pelagic spawners. Some species are well known for being monotonous for life. During the mating season butterflyfish males often head for open water and dilate their pigment granules and become even brighter in color than usual. During fights males beat their tails to send pressure waves and respond to the patterns on the opponents tails. Losers signal surrender by changing their body patterns and colors. Winner are free to court the females. They use the same colors and patterns they did when fighting other males except that their colors and patterns elicit a different response among females that usually results in sex. Male and female butterflyfish often live together in pairs and keep the same hiding places in the reef for years.

Butterflyfish are oviparous (young are hatched from eggs) and iteroparous (offspring are produced in groups). They engage in seasonal breeding and year-round breeding. Reproduction is external, meaning the male’s sperm fertilizes the female’s egg outside her body. There is no parental involvement in the raising of offspring. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

threadfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga) in Micronesia

According to Animal Diversity Web (ADW): Research on butterflyfish reproductive behavior has been limited to a few species, but available information suggests that tropical spawning activity peaks in winter and early spring, while species in more temperate areas spawn in midsummer. Some groups spawn throughout the year. Spawning usually occurs at dusk. Females are often visibly distended with eggs when they are ready to spawn. The male swims behind and below the female, and here he uses his snout to nudge her abdomen. Spawning pairs of the Caribbean longsnout butterflyfish (Prognathodes aculeatus) have been observed chasing each other around a large sponge. A common element among species seems to be an ascent into the water column to release gametes (eggs and sperm). After a few “false starts” the pair rises up into the water, the male’s snout against the female’s abdomen. They release a white cloud of gametes and rush back toward the bottom. In some species other males have been seen dashing over to a spawning pair to add their own sperm to the cloud. /=\

No specific information on parental care in Chaetodontidae was found. However, it is unlikely that butterflyfishes care for their eggs or young, because eggs are released and fertilized in the water column 10 or 15 meters above the fishes’ normal habitat, and the pelagic (living in the open ocean, far from land) tholichthys larvae are well-equipped with their own protective armor.. /=\

Butterflyfish Species and Genera

The Chaetodontidae (butterflyfishes) family is made up of 10 genera with 114 species according to Animal Diversity Web (AWB) and 12 genera with 129 species according to Wikipedia. The genus Chaetodon contains 89 of these species (AWB number), distributed among 13 subgenera. Butterflyfishes formerly were placed in one family with angelfishes , but have since been separated on the basis of numerous morphological differences. Butterflyfishes are part of an unranked group named the Squammipinnes, so called for the scales that cover the soft-rayed portions of the dorsal and anal fins. [Source: Monica Weinheimer and R. Jamil Jonna, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

The Chaetodontidae family can be, but usually is not, divided into two lineages: Chaetodontidae contains the "typical" Chaetodon butterflyfish while the other unites the bannerfish and coralfish genera. Butterflyfish mostly range from 12 to 22 centimeters (4.7 to 8.7 inches) in length. The largest species, the lined butterflyfish and the saddle butterflyfish (C. ephippium) grow to 30 centimeters (12 inches).

Members of this family vary considerably in terms of color, but all butterflyfishes share certain morphological traits such as a deep, laterally compressed body, ctenoid scales that extend onto the soft-rayed portions of the dorsal and anal fins, and jaws that may be slightly or extremely elongated There are several species that are all approximately the same size (only a few centimeters long) and roughly the same shape (slim, rectangular with high foreheads and small mouths). Each species has its own particular place on the reef and a particular favorite food. Vivid color patterns distinguish one species from another and help each species remain with is own kind.

threadfin butterflyfish

Threadfin Butterflyfish

Threadfin butterflyfish (Scientific name:Chaetodon auriga) are also known as the diagonal butterflyfish, cross-stripe butterfly and whip butterflyfish. They are found throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans, ranging from the Red Sea and the coast of eastern Africa to the coasts of Australia and New Guinea. They have been observed as far as the Hawaiian, Marquesan, and Ducie islands, as far north as southern Japan, and south to the Lord Howe and the Rapa islands. [Source: Alison Rauss, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Threadfin butterflyfish are found in tropical coral reef habitats typically at depths of one to 35 meters (3.28 to 114.83 feet). Although they are usually found where there is lots of coral, they are sometimes seen in places where coral is sparse. Omnivorous, they mainly feed on fish that mainly eat plankton but also consume coral polyps, algae, shrimp, gastropods, nemertime worms, and polychaetes,

There are few documented predators of threadfin butterflyfish. Their spiny fins and quick speed make them difficult prey. The threadfin butterflyfish has colorations and patterns that help it to deter and avoid potential predators. The dark bands over their eyes, as well as the posterior eyespot are thought to confuse potential predators, making their tails seem to be their head and visa versa.

Threadfin butterflyfish are utilized by humans for the pet trade, research and education. They are other butterflyfish species have been used as bio-indicators in order to monitor coral reef ecosystems. They are also kept as pets in aquariums and are not regarded threatened at this time (International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List: Least Concern; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES): No special status). However, it is believed that the density of butterflyfish correlates with the amount of live coral in a particular region. If reef habitats are destroyed, this will threaten butterflyfish populations.

Threadfin Butterflyfish Characteristics, Behavior and Reproduction

Threadfin butterflyfish are small, brilliantly colored fish. They reach lengths of 23 centimeters (9 inches). Males and females are roughly equal in size and look similar. According to Animal Diversity Web: They have a dark band running across the eye from the top of the head to the jaw, and a dark eyespot on the posterior part of the body They have black lines and a yellow coloration on the posterior part of the body. Although young have patterns similar to adults, adults have a long filament extending from their dorsal fin. [Source: Alison Rauss, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

comparison of the three similar species: the moorish idol (left), schooling bannerfish (top), and pennant coralfish (bottom)

Threadfin butterflyfish have broad, laterally compressed bodies and elongated snouts with small protractile mouths that are filled with many small, sharp teeth. They use their elongated snouts to scrape the surface of coral to obtain algae and other small prey and to poke into coral holes and crevices in order to get at hard-to-reach prey

Threadfin butterflyfish are found in pairs, but are sometimes found singly or in large feeding groups. They are active during the day and are non-migratory. Threadfin butterflyfish communicate with vision and sense using vision, touch and chemicals usually detected with smell. They are visual predators, and they use their appearance to fool potential predators.

Threadfin butterflyfish breed frequently throughout the year but the factors influencing breeding frequency are not known. Reproduction is external, meaning the male’s sperm fertilizes the female’s egg outside her body. They are oviparous (young are hatched from eggs) and iteroparous (offspring are produced in groups). The average time to hatching is 30 days. Pre-fertilization provisioning and protecting is done by females. There is no parental involvement in parenting. Females release hundreds of thousands of eggs at a time eggs into the water column, which are externally fertilized by the males. After hatching larvae then spend about 40 days floating in the water column as plankton before they metamorphose into juveniles.

Long-fin Bannerfish

Bannerfish are in the the butterflyfish family of fish.Long-fin bannerfish (Scientific name: Heniochus acuminatus) are also known as wimple fish They are found in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, from East Africa and the Persian Gulf in the west, to the Society Islands in the east, to southern Japan in he north and Lord Howe Island, New South Wales, Western Australia, and New Guinea in the south. They reside in coral reefs, sheltered coastal bays, deep protected lagoons and channels, and deeper parts of reef slopes. [Source: Katrina Rumbold, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Long-fin bannerfish 15 to 20 centimeters (6 to 8 inches) in length. They are laterally flattened and oval in shape and have an elongated dorsal spine and the bony protuberance on their forehead, distinguishing them from other butterflyfish. Most juvenile coloration and characteristics are retained into adulthood, but the dorsal spine increases in length as the fish ages. The fish has a white body with two broad black bands running vertically behind the eye. Soft yellow dorsal and caudal fins are also characteristic features. They have a long snout and jaws, and bristlelike teeth allowing them to reach food supplies in crevices and holes in coral reefs.

Little is known about their reproduction. However, they do produce small buoyant eggs that float to the surface after they are released. Hatching time ranges from 18-30 hours at about 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees F). The larvae then remains planktonic, with expanded bony plates for an amount of time ranging from few weeks to few months,

Long-fin bannerfish sense using touch and chemicals usually detected with smell. They are coral reef feeders, consuming both coral and small invertebrates that live in reefs, In aquariums they eat a variety of foods including flakes, and pellets. Juvenile and adult have different behaviors. Juveniles are often solitary and sometimes eat parasites off of other fish while adults tend to occur in pairs. Large and small groups of these fish have been recorded. They are beautiful and popular aquarium fish that are fairly easy to take care of. They are not endangered (International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List: Least Concern; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES): No special status).

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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