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.

Three corallivorous butterflyfishes, all eating in captivity, effectively shattering the notion of what is "impossible". Screencapture from Peter Leung.

Three corallivorous butterflyfishes, all eating in captivity, effectively shattering the notion of what is “impossible”. Screen capture from Peter Leung.

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

Ultra Unit:

  • 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 meyeriC. 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.

Korokkeism:

CentropygeMarsha:

Freshfiletofish:

Gary Lue Ka Wai

SPSCrownFish:

Henry’s Reefgourmet:

ancielartz:

祝子孝 (Zhu Zixiao per Google Translate):

yasunobu:

nabeka3333:

The corallivorous Hooded Buttereflyfish (Chaetodon larvatus) is joined by a Regal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus), eagerly devouring a live clam placed in the reef aquarium of Dutch author Tanne Hoff.

The corallivorous Hooded Buttereflyfish (Chaetodon larvatus) is joined by a Regal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus), eagerly devouring a live clam placed in the reef aquarium of Dutch author Tanne Hoff.

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:

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

Matt Pedersen
Matt Pedersen

Matt Pedersen is a Sr. Editor and Associate Publisher with Reef To Rainforest Media, LLC, including AMAZONAS & CORAL Magazines. Matt has kept aquariums for 36 years, has worked in most facets of the aquarium trade, is an active aquarist and fish breeder (both marine and freshwater), and was recognized with the 2009 MASNA Award as the MASNA Aquarist of the Year.

1 Comment

  1. 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.

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