VIDEOS – Corallivorous Butterflyfishes Eating Everything Except Coral
11 Jan, 2019
Above: Video by Tanne Hoff documenting the successful husbandry of the Red Sea’s Hooded Butterflyfish, Chaetodon larvatus, regarded as a staunch corallivore in the wild.
When we believe for decades that something is impossible, we tend to get stuck in our ways. The first time the impossible happens, especially if it goes against years of prior experience, it’s easy to dismiss it as a one-off, an outlier, the “exception to the rule.”
If it happens a few more times…well, someone just got lucky.
But at some point, the evidence becomes difficult to ignore, and it’s time to rethink our long-held beliefs.
When it comes to the notion that corallivorous butterflyfishes will fail to eat in captivity, that they will only consume living coral tissue (and thus ultimately suffer a horrible death by starvation), there is a tremendous burden of proof to overturn that conventional wisdom. No doubt, countless individual fish representing this handful of extremely challenging species have failed to live long lives in the aquarium hobby throughout the 20th century, and that dismal track record earned them rightful inclusion on expert-only, “better left in the ocean” species lists.
While I largely continue to believe that most aquarists should not try to keep these fish, my mind was changed long before I ever got my first pair of corallivorous butterflyfishes. How?
Over the years I’ve amassed a pretty large bookmark collection of online videos demonstrating the ability of corallivorous butterflyfishes to eat foods in captivity. This is largely (if not nearly exclusively) at the hands of aquarists in Asia, now going back a decade, and represents what I consider to be an overwhelming number of irrefutable examples that overturn our prior dogma. There are now dozens of videos showing these challenging species readily consuming all manner of aquarium food—in fact, everything except living coral—in home aquariums. These aren’t my one-off experiences; this is the collective experience of a handful of aquarists who ignored the cautionary tales and set out to change the narrative (or maybe just couldn’t resist the urge to try these “off-limits” fishes).
Now, when presenting on the topic of keeping corallivores (e.g., at MACNA 2018 in Las Vegas, NV), I can’t just put a bunch of web links in a PowerPoint presentation or sit and play back hours of third-party footage when giving a talk, so I usually just show a quick slide saying, “Hey, the evidence is out there.”
But I can present the evidence much more successfully here online. I’ve finally put my corallivorous butterflyfish video collection into a convenient form that you can browse at your leisure. I know this isn’t every last video out there; I certainly have made only selections from some of the more prolific aquarists. If you happen to stumble across an aquarist or video that I don’t have here, please post it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!
To me, this is overwhelming evidence that the notion that these fishes will only eat live SPS coral is flat-out wrong.
This ends the debate over whether corallivorous butterflies can and will eat in captivity, and is ample cause to start a new discussion, asking how we can best get them to eat, and what is the best long-term diet for their successful captive care? Changing the cumulative track record of these species isn’t going to happen overnight, but I believe their aquarium futures can be rewritten.
Corallivores are still sensitive and challenging aquarium residents, incredibly prone to transit issues and starvation in the chain of custody, but I’m constantly reminded that keeping living SPS corals was once viewed as a similarly impossible challenge.
The Videos: Corallivorous Butterflyfishes Eating Everything Except Coral
- Chaetodon larvatus – this video documents a Hooded Butterflyfish eating frozen adult brine shrimp from the water column.
- C. lunulatus – this video demonstrates the active feeding of what appears to be Tetra Bits mashed into a paste and applied to a clam shell.
- C. ornatissimus #1 – this video shows the Ornate Butterflyfish eating some sort of food out of a clam shell.
- C. ornatissimus #2 – effectively the same as #1.
Peter Leung used to maintain two YouTube Channels, but one appears to be closed. He has documented the feeding of Chaetodon meyeri, C. baronessa, C. lunulatus, C. ornatissimus, and C. reticulatus. While this is not an exhaustive listing, it highlights many examples of his success training this difficult species to eat over a fairly wide span of time.
- Watch C. ornatissimus and C. baronessa feed on what appears to be clam or squid, while an interested C. lunulatus is effectively kept away from the food supply. This is a great example of why I now recommend isolated quarantine only when attempting to train a newly received corallivore.
- Watch the same three fish; this time the C. lunulatus feeds a little too.
- The same three corallivorous butterflyfishes a bit earlier, eating clams on the half shell. Watch the aggression that occurs between the butterflies; I’ve found this to be problematic when establishing fresh fish.
- Watch an amazing assemblage of corallivores feeding: two C. lunulatus, one C. meyeri, two C. reticulatus, one C. baronessa, and one C. ornatissimus, virtually all feeding (or trying to feed) on what appears to be a piece of clam.
- A small C. ornatissimus tries clam.
- C. meyeri eats what appears to be the “Hamburger Mix” of table shrimp and Tetra Colorbits. C. baronessa gets a nibble in, while a C. trifascialis looks on, curious, but not able to get in for a taste.
- More of the same, with C. meyeri dominating the feeding station with likely Tetra Colorbits, C. baronessa and C. lunulatus getting in nibbles, while C. trifascialis looks on, chasing other fish away, but not getting to eat, all while a C. ornatissimus wrangles a clam in the background.
- C. meyeri feeding in relative isolation.
- C. baronessa eating clam on the half-shell in isolation.
- Multiple C. meyeri eating clams that have been split open.
- Chaetodon meyeri eating some sort of pellets that have been mashed into a clam shell.
- Very small juvenile C. meyeri eating clams that have been split open.
- C. ornatissimus and C. baronessa eating clams.
- The same two corallivorous butterflies, transitioned onto “dried food” that has been “kneaded” and mashed into empty clam shells; this is a great example of weaning fish by using a familiar feeding presentation.
- Chaetodon melapterus, in quarantine, eating what appears to be a green paste food pressed into a small clamshell.
- A pair of C. ornatissimus eagerly attacks prepared food that has been placed into a clamshell.
- Two young C. lunulatus devour pellet foods.
- A young C. ornatissimus eagerly feeds in an isolation tank.
- Chaetodon larvatus and C. austriacus eating prepared food out of an empty mussel shell.
- A duo of C. larvatus grazing from a half shell.
- C. larvatus, testing out flake food!
- C. austriacus eating prepared food mashed into an empty shell.
- What might be one of the first-feedings of a young C. austriacus receiving Gary’s “Secret Butterflyfish Food” stuck into a clam shell; this initial hesitance is very normal for fish that are seeing unfamiliar foods for the first time.
- An amazing video showing several Chaetodon melapterus consuming some sort of likely frozen fish food directly from the water column. Judging by other videos in this channel, I suspect that SPSCrownFish is a wholesaler or retailer of marine fish.
- A young Chaetodon reticulatus feeding on what appears to be a frozen mixed diet.
- A larger C. ornatissimus eats a mixed preparation pressed into a piece of rock.
- Another C. ornatissimus which appears to be feeding on a chunk of frozen brine shrimp.
- Another documented case of successful captive feeding in Chaetodon ornatissimus.
祝子孝 (Zhu Zixiao per Google Translate):
- An Arabian Butterflyfish, Chaetodon melapterus, eating “Hikari S mixed with shrimp meat” (similar to the “hamburger mix”) which has been pressed into a coral skeleton.
- A corallivore overload in a LPS reef: the video starts out showing two Ornate Butterflyfish, Chaetodon ornatissimus, feeding in isolation chambers, but then pans out to reveal three more living in the reef tank, feeding, flanked by a Regal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus) and an incredibly fat pair of obviously healthy corallivorous Harlequin Filefish, Oxymonacanthus longirostris.
- A small Meyer’s Butterflyfish, Chaetodon meyeri, picking at clams on the half shell in another aquarium.
- Two more C. ornatissimus picking at live clams on the half shell alongside some soft coral.
- A Harlequin Filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris) joins fellow corallivore Chaetodon triangulum eagerly feeding in a quarantine-style setup.
- What appears to be a very small C. trifasciatus is joined by a larger C. meyeri gobbling up pellet foods.
- C. ornatissimus, eagerly feeding in isolation.
- Young butterflies are often more adaptable to captivity. Here is pair of what are either C. trifasciatus or C. lunulatus flanked by several other juvenile butterflyfishes representing some other challenging species, all eagerly consuming pellet food.
Tanne Hoff – last but not least, Dutch aquarist and reef aquarium book author Tanne Hoff has caught the attention of butterflyfish addicts with his long-term captive success housing a Hooded Butterflyfish, Chaetodon larvatus, in his beautiful reef aquarium. Here are a couple highlights:
- In December 2016, Hoff shared a video update noting that the Larvatus, some four weeks in his care, was only eating live SPS corals in the tank. “A calculated risk,” as he puts it.
- In early 2017, some five weeks in his care, Hoff documents C. larvatus feeding on an oyster on the half shell.
- C. larvatus feeding on vongole in 2017. (Vongole is a type of small, edible clam; Hoff suggests it might be Venerupis philippinarum)
- Not a feeding video, just the most recent upload in December 2018, showing Hoff’s C. larvatus still alive and well in a mature reef aquarium filed with healthy Acropora and other SPS corals on the natural diet of this challenging species. This represents a verifiable two-year success to date with C. larvatus in Hoff’s reef, in a scenario where it can readily graze on its natural diet of SPS corals if it so chooses. Hoff’s fish will be of particular interest to watch in the years to come, particularly to contrast against other long-term corallivore successes where SPS corals are not available for grazing.
Have a video to add? Post it in the comments!
See more coverage on the evolving husbandry of Corallivorous Butterflyfishes at our Corallivore Challenge Homepage.
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About the author
January 11, 2019
Tanne now has acquired a Baby Chaetodon Semilarvatus. Also to mention that the Chaetodon larvatus now greedily devours masstick and catches Mysis shrimp that he snatches from the water column just like all the other fish in this reef tank. there is no visible damage to corals in this reef from the corallivore butterflyfish inhabiting this reef. interesting to note the same seems to be the case on natural coral reefs with huge butterflyfish populations. I believe this whole thing has been overblown by aquarist living in the United States where reef tanks are over populated by surgeonfish and there are no pomacanthids or chaetodontids to be seen except on an actual coral reef in the wild. everyone took this word that these butterflyfish were impossible to keep. nobody in America experimented or tried but in Asia they did and succeeded.upon seeing these fish eat a captive diet American aquarist almost seem offended to see their conventional wisdom challenged and proven wrong. They have difficulty accepting that decades of conventional wisdom was factually incorrect. Sustainable aquatics also wrote a piece on so called obligate corallivore butterflyfish that they did not consider these fish to be obligate corallivore at all based on their experience. Fish like C. larvatus have migrated from the Red Sea through the Suez canal to the Mediterranean were there are no Stoney corals growing and are thriving there, which means they’ve found an alternative food source there. This is evidence of their adaptability. I hope to see the day when these special group of Butterflyfish are captively bred as this door has been opened up with successful captive reproduction of the likes of the millet seed butterfly and the Caribbean reef butterflyfish. Broodstocks can be set up and the work begun.