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Butterfly Fish Care Guide: Appearance, Tank Conditions, and More

Butterfly fish are gorgeous tropical fish that are well-known for their round bodies and striped patterns. They have a lot of variety to them, and they are fascinating fish for experienced keepers to care for.

Copperband butterflyfish

So, are you ready to buy a butterfly fish? Are they the same as an African butterfly fish or a butterfly koi fish? Let’s find out!

Butterfly Fish Overview

Before we go in-depth about this breed’s appearance, behavior, and care, here are the general traits of these fish.

FamilyChaetodontidae
OriginPacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and Indian Ocean
Lifespan5 to 10 years
TemperamentCalm, but varies based on species
Size4.7 to 8.7 inches
Minimum Tank Size75 gallons
DietOmnivore
BreedingEgg-laying
pH8.1 to 8.4
Hardness8 to 12 dKH
Temperature72 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit
Beginner-Friendly?No

Butterfly Fish History

“Butterfly fish” is a term used to describe a group of 120 saltwater fish. Their appearance is somewhat similar to angelfish. They’re found in coral reefs across the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. 

With many coral reefs destroyed, this breed’s population has decreased significantly in recent years. So, many keepers have chosen to raise them in captivity, but unfortunately, they’re tricky to breed and a bit difficult to care for.

African Butterfly Fish vs. Butterfly Fish

The African butterfly fish is also known as the freshwater butterfly fish, so it’s a different species than the saltwater butterfly fish. These fish are part of the Pantodontidae family rather than the Chaetodontidae family.

Instead of having a flat, round body, this butterfly fish freshwater species has the long body of a stereotypical fish, but with large fins that resemble butterfly wings. So, you can suspect how it got its name. It’s possible to keep these fish in captivity, but it can be tricky. The minimum African butterfly fish tank size is 40 gallons, which is much smaller than the breed’s saltwater counterparts. 

What is a Butterfly Koi Fish?

Butterfly Koi Fish

A koi butterfly fish is a type of carp, so it’s not in the Chaetodontidae family either. It looks like a regular koi fish with long, flowing fins. It’s rare to find a butterfly koi fish for sale.

Butterfly Fish Features

This is a brightly colored fish species with a wide variety of patterns. Their bodies are flat and shaped like a round, upright disk. Their most distinct fins are toward their backs, close to their small, round tails. Adults often have long mouth/nose parts to allow them to find food in small crevices.

Baby butterfly fish aren’t quite as distinguished as the adults. They have thick plates covering their bodies that serve as protection from predators. Once they become adults, they lose those armor-like plates and develop gorgeous adult scales.

Types of Butterfly Fish

“Butterfly fish” refers to many species with a similar appearance. These fish can have lots of colors and patterns, which often include yellow, white, black, blue, orange, and red.

Some popular species include the copperband butterfly fish, pearl scale butterfly fish, and the yellow longnose butterfly fish. 

Average Size

Most of these fish are small, ranging between 4.7 to 8.7 inches long. They typically weigh between 0.04 and 0.1 pounds. Some species can grow up to 12 inches, but it’s not common.

Butterfly Fish Temperament

Each type of butterfly fish has different behaviors and personality traits. Yet, most of them are calm and peaceful. Most of these fish like to live with other fish of their kind, but certain types are more territorial than others.

While most fish spend very little time with the partner they mate with, these fish usually mate for life. After mating with another fish, those two swim, hunt, and travel with each other. 

Most of these fish will get bored if kept alone, so it’s good to have multiple of the same species. However, if they’re a coral feeder fish, they may be more territorial over certain areas of the tank. Aggressive butterfly fish can still live with others of their kind, but they do best in pairs or small groups.

What Fish Can Butterfly Fish Live with?

If you have a peaceful butterfly fish, they don’t have to live with other fish in the same family. As long as they have a similar temperament, you can mix two similar species in the same tank. All the fish in the aquarium should share similar tank requirements too.

Some examples of good tank mates for butterfly fish include clownfish, gobies, damsels, and tangs. However, many keepers choose to only keep butterfly fish in their aquarium, which is fine too! There’s such a wide variety of this species that the tank will be beautiful and fascinating without needing other species.

Butterfly Fish Care

You might be attracted to the colorful appearance of this breed, but choosing a pet is about much more than looks. You also need to ensure that you are capable of giving them proper care.

Red sea Raccoon butterfly fish

Butterfly Fish Diet

In the wild, this breed eats just about anything they can find on corals, which includes tiny crustaceans, algae, and sponges. They spend about half the day searching for food, so they need a wide variety of food sources to keep them healthy.

Thus, in captivity, you must provide them with a variety of food sources too. Flakes and frozen food are the most common, but you can also choose live brine, spirulina, and other formulas. 

The more variety you can give them, the better off they’ll be. These fish need to eat several times each day, so they’re not a low-maintenance species.

Aquarium Setup

Despite their small size, these fish need a tank that’s 75 to 150 gallons. You will likely have several fish in one tank, so it’s important that they have significantly more room to swim than necessary. These fish love to move around and will easily get bored or sick in a small space.

Like many small fish, this species likes having places to hide. If possible, include hiding spaces that are made of rocks and corals to closely reflect their natural habitats. Before putting hiding spaces in their tank, check to make sure they don’t have any sharp edges.

If you’re intimidated by the massive size of their aquarium, then these probably aren’t the fish for you. They’re recommended for experienced fish keepers only.

Water Conditions

Butterfly fish are a tropical species, so they need warm water that’s between 75 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. However, anything between 72 and 80 degrees is safe for them. 

Keeping a thermometer in the tank is a good way to keep track of the temperature. If you live somewhere that gets very cold in the winter, you may need to invest in a tank heater.

The water’s hardness should be between 8 and 12 dKH, and the water pH should be 8.1 to 8.4. You can use water test strips to check the water’s conditions on a regular basis.

Health Concerns

This species lives an average of seven years, depending on the type of fish. However, certain diseases can significantly affect their lifespans. 

The most common health concern is dropsy, which is swelling near the fish’s belly caused by a bacterial infection. Injuries, an improper diet, or bad water conditions could lead to this disease. If you can’t fix it by improving your tank’s conditions, medications may be available.

Nitrite or nitrate poisoning is another concern. If the levels in your aquarium aren’t right, your fish could suffer from lethargy. Cleaning the tank and performing small water changes should help you avoid this issue. 

Tanks with improper water conditions could also cause fish to suffer from the black ich. It will cause fish to have an abnormal black spot on their bodies. Checking the water conditions and cleaning the tank on a regular schedule are ways to avoid this.

Butterfly Fish Breeding
Flickr

Butterfly Fish Breeding

When butterfly fish mate, they stay with their partners until one of them passes away. It might sound romantic, but these fish aren’t good parents. Once the male fertilizes the female’s laid eggs, the two fish don’t tend to the eggs or young at all.

In captivity, these fish are tricky to breed. They need very specific tank requirements to breed properly, and sometimes they don’t get that in their aquarium environment. Even if your aquarium meets all their water conditions, your fish still might not breed. So, if you’re new to fish breeding, this isn’t the best species to start with.

If you manage to get fertilized eggs in your tank, you might not notice when the fry hatch. Butterfly fish fry are so tiny that they’re sometimes not noticeable to the naked eye at first. Crushed-up algae wafers for baby fish are the best food to start them off with. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Now that you know about the basic care for this breed, it’s time to answer your lingering questions. Here are some things that new fish keepers commonly wonder.

Are Butterfly Fish Poisonous?

No, butterfly fish are not poisonous. They’re not toxic, but they’re still not ideal for human consumption. African butterfly fish are also not toxic but not regularly eaten.

Where Can I Find a Butterfly Fish for Sale?

Some pet stores and breeders sell butterfly fish, but do your research before purchasing them. Make sure you’re buying your fish from a responsible breeder that cares about the animals’ health. Butterfly fish are often between $20 and $60, but rare types can be much more expensive.

Is a Butterfly Fish Right for You?

Many people are attracted to the gorgeous appearance of the butterfly fish, but these aquatic creatures aren’t for everyone. If you’re new to the fish keeping world, then this species probably isn’t right for you. They require a large tank and more attention than the average fish.

However, if you’re an experienced keeper looking for a challenge, you might want to consider raising some of this species. Make sure you consider all the care aspects and costs before jumping into it.

Jason Roberts
About Jason Roberts
Jason is an aquarium fanatic that has been a fish hobbyist for almost three decades.