Reef Safe Aquarium Fishes Explained

Reef Safe Aquarium Fishes Explained

Fish For The Reef Aquarium

Reef Safe Fish are species of saltwater fish that will not harm most corals or invertebrates within an aquarium. The most popular reef safe fish are listed below.  Just click on the pictures for a more in depth description of each type of reef safe fish.

Damsels, Tangs, Angelfish, Clownfish and Other Reef Safe Fish Explained

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Angelfish


Angelfish in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Angelfish are brightly colored and often considered the most beautiful of all reef creatures. There are numerous species of angelfish, and dependant on the species, you may need to do some investigation prior to placing one in your reef tank (some angelfish feed upon delicate invertebrates).

Living conditions: Angelfish are naturally found in reefs and rocky areas. Though angels are territorial, they are among the most popular reef aquarium fish (probably because of their aesthetic appeal). Do not be fooled by the delicate appearance of the angelfish; once acclimated to a reef aquarium, the angelfish will probably be a long-time resident. It is recommended that angelfish are placed in a reef tank no smaller than 30 gallons and that they are provided plenty of live rock for hiding and grazing.

Feeding: Angelfish mostly feed on the abundant coral found in their natural habitats. Angels may nip at corals, clams, invertebrates, etc., but most species will stick to a herbivorous diet and graze upon algae and spongiform products. Note: You may need to entice the fish to eat when it is first introduced to your tank. Important: Do your research. It is not recommended that some species of angelfish (i.e. Chrysurus Angelfish, Majestic Angel, Imperator Angelfish, Queen Angelfish, and Blue Angelfish) be placed in reef tanks as they will more than likely feed upon a variety of invertebrates in the tank.

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Blennies


Blennies in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Blennies are a diverse group of fish, but they are closely related to the goby species. Blennies are often easily identified by their blunt heads, long bodies, relatively large eyes and mouths, and the lashes (cirri) that overhang their eyes and nostrils. Though some blennies may grow up to seven inches in their natural habitats, most aquarium blennies average around three inches in length.

Living conditions: Blennies are naturally found around reefs. They are enduring fish and will adjust well to any aquarium appropriately supplied with hiding places and microalgae. Like gobies, blennies tend to stay toward the lower portion of aquariums and require plenty of hiding spots within rockwork and coral displays. Most species are diggers and need to be provided at least two inches of substrate to burrow in. They can often be found burrowed in the sandy substrate, hidden within reef crevices, or tucked away in empty mollusk shells.

Feeding: In the wild, blennies graze upon microalgae and small crustaceans found in and around their neighborhood reef, so be sure that your tank hosts extensive rockwork and algae for them to prosper. To maintain a sufficient supply of algae, it is recommended that blennies be placed in a tank that has a sump or refugium.

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Butterflyfish


Butterflyfish in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Butterflyfish compete with the angelfish in being considered the most beautiful of all saltwater fish. Butterflies have protruding mouths and oval shaped bodies that are extremely thin when viewed laterally. This body design allows butterflies to move sleekly through the water among rocks and corals and to collect food from small nooks and crannies.

Living conditions: Butterflyfish are often presented as difficult to maintain, but some species do fare extremely well in aquariums when they are provided perfect or near perfect conditions. Butterflyfish need space to swim freely, so tanks of at least 55 gallons are essential; note that some species require tanks of at least 125 gallons. Most species of butterflies are peaceful and need to be grouped with other peaceful fish species (if any at all). If a butterflyfish is threatened by its tank mates or overall environment, it will most likely not feed. Tank water must be pristinely maintained; inferior tank water could be interpreted as a threat.

Feeding: Some butterflies are omnivorous and eat small animals; however, most feed on algae, sponges and coral. This being the case, most species of butterfly fish are not recommended for a reef aquarium unless the hobbyist is willing to provide live corals as food. The Heniochus Black & White Butterflyfish does not primarily feed on live coral, so it would be appropriate for a reef tank. Generally, butterflies should be offered an array of food including flakes, live brine, and frozen foods. The carnivorous species should be fed marine fish, crustacean flesh, mysis shrimp and frozen preparations. Some species need to be fed several times a day, so, again, be sure to do your research.

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Cardinal Fish

Cardinal Fish in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Cardinal fishes are a family of ray-finned fishes. There is a handful of species that are popular in reef aquariums because they are small, peaceful, and colorful. Cardinals are often identified by their little bodies and big eyes. Their disproportionate eyes are used to locate small crustaceans and fish to feed upon. Cardinals are school fish and it is suggested that they be kept in groups of three or larger. It’s difficult to identify male from female cardinals, so spawning will probably occur within the aquarium. Some species are mouth brooders (the eggs will be kept inside the mouth of the males).

Living conditions: Cardinals are naturally found living in schools among reefs. They are nocturnal fish, so they should be provided with plenty of dark hiding spots when placed in an aquarium. Cardinals are peaceful fish and fare well in community reef tanks; however, because they are so peaceful, it is not recommended that they be kept with aggressive tank mates.

Feeding: Cardinals are not picky eaters and should be offered a varied carnivorous diet (brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, bloodworms, etc.).

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Damsel Fish

Damsel Fish in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Damsel fish (of the genus Chromis) are extremely popular with saltwater aquarium hobbyists as they are easy to care for and make excellent reef inhabitants. They are very small (usually less than an inch in length), come in a variety of colors, and display a high degree of energy, constantly swimming in the water column.

Living conditions: As their name suggests, damsels are generally serene, but they may become aggressive among themselves or tank mates over time. Their serenity lies in their ability to adapt to adverse conditions within aquariums; they are great for breaking in a new aquarium or cycling into an already-established aquarium.

Feeding: Damsels are excellent reef inhabitants as they will not feed upon invertebrates or other tank inhabitants. They generally feed upon zooplankton, and algae, and are provided fish food that is small in size, but a varied diet of meaty items, herbivore flakes, and frozen preparations should be offered.

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Dottybacks

Dottybacks in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Dottybacks are brightly colored and rather shy. There are approximately 100 different species of dottybacks, but most are quite rare and rather expensive if found in a commercial setting.

Living conditions: Dependant upon the particular specie, dottybacks tend to live as solitary individuals or in small colonies. They live in and around coral heads and rock rubble and need to be provided plenty of hiding places. Dottybacks are generally peaceful, so they live well in a community setting alongside other reef tank fish.

Feeding: Dependant upon the particular specie, dottybacks will eat fresh and frozen plankton, common pellets and flakes, and most fresh or frozen meaty items (brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, bloodworms, etc.). It is important to offer these fish a varied diet of high quality food to postpone the dulling of their brightly colored scales.


Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Gobies


Gobies in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Gobies are one of the largest families of fish and, depending on the species, may grow to be under 1cm or over 1ft in length. They tend to have very long, brightly colored bodies, making them an attractive addition to any aquarium.

Living conditions: Gobies tend to stay toward the lower portion of aquariums and require plenty of hiding spots within rockwork and coral displays. Some species are diggers and need to be provided at least two inches of substrate to burrow in. Some species will form symbiotic relationships with burrowing shrimps. The shrimp will maintain the burrow where both the shrimp and goby will live. In turn, the goby will alarm the shrimp if danger is near (these gobies are often referred to as watchmen). Gobies live peacefully in community tanks; just make sure the tank has a cover or canopy because some gobies like to jump. Tank size requirements depend on the type of goby – some require at least 10 gallons while others require at least 55 gallons, so be sure to do your research.

Feeding: Most gobies will diet on a variety of fresh or frozen shrimp, prepared food for carnivores, prepared food for herbivores, and algae naturally growing in the aquarium. Gobies tend to have very small mouths, so be sure that offered food is chopped or shaved into consumable sizes.

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Lion Fish

Lion Fish

Lion Fish in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Lion fish are extremely hardy and will adapt well to almost any aquarium where their provisions are met. Lions will probably be shy when initially introduced to a tank, but they will come out of hiding as they acclimate to their new environment.

Living conditions: Lions need ample hiding places, so be sure to provide live rock or other stationary items for them to hide behind. Lions may be more apt to swim in the open more regularly if open areas are dimly lit.

Feeding: Lionfish often prefer live foods, so beware that may eat smaller tank inhabitants (fish, shrimp, crustaceans, etc.) if sufficient food is not provided or, frankly, if they just feel like eating. Because lions are often withdrawn when first introduced to a tank, you may have to entice them to eat with feeder shrimp.

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Tangs


Tangs in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Tangs are in the family of Acanthuridae which includes approximately 80 species. Literally, Acanthuridae means thorn tail, and these fish can be easily identified by the sharp spines found on both sides of their tails. Their fins are lengthy, extending along the majority of their bodies. These fish are brightly colored and are very popular in reef aquariums as their natural lifestyle involves them living among coral reefs.

Living conditions: Tangs are very susceptible to disease when in an aquarium, so it is important to maintain clean living conditions and provide enough algae for the fish to feed upon. Be attentive with the specie of tang you select for your aquarium as some tangs can grow up to two feet in length; they’ll require enough space to both swim and hide. Shelter can be provided in the form of numerous corals or lofty ledges. Warning: Tangs are generally aggressive. Depending upon the species, they may be aggressive to newly introduced fishes, members of their own kind, or all other tank inhabitants. It is recommended that tangs be introduced to a tank after all other inhabitants have been introduced as the other inhabitants may have already established dominance.

Feeding: They have small mouths that house a single row of teeth that are used for grazing on algae. To maintain a sufficient supply of algae, it is recommended that tangs be placed in a tank that has a sump or refugium.

Reef Safe Aquarium Fish – Wrasses


Wrasses in the Reef Aquarium

General description: Wrasses are one of the most colorful saltwater fish available for reef aquariums. Though males and females are generally the same in appearance, males tend to be a bit brighter or a little shinier.

Notice: there are reef safe wrasses and non-reef safe wrasses. The reef safe wrasses will neither pick at nor consume corals or invertebrates within your tank. Be sure to do your research so you don’t subject your coral and invertebrates to a non-reef safe wrasse.

Living conditions: Wrasses are small in size, but they need plenty of open space to swim about. They also need a peaceful environment that provides spots where they can hide and forage for food. A sand bed and live rock should be provided for any specie of wrasse. At minimum, a 20 gallon tank is suggested to house wrasses, but if more than one wrasse is going to be kept in the same tank, it is suggested that the individuals are introduced simultaneously to a tank of 30 gallons or more.

Feeding: Wrasses should be fed a varied diet of flake food and fresh or frozen meaty foods twice daily. The tank’s live rock will not only provide hiding places for the wrasses, but it will also provide numerous small life forms for them to forage upon.

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