Friday, 30 January 2009 10:21 Top 10 Fish For Your Reef Tank
Written by Keith MacNeil

This is the time of year, the beginning of a new year, where there always seems to be “Top 10” lists put out for everything.  Top 10 songs from the past year, Top 10 grossing movies, etc…The lists go on and on, so why not a Top 10 fish for a reef tank?  Now these are going to be my personal favorites so I am sure there are some that you will agree and some that you will disagree on, but that is all part of these lists.  For some I listed an individual fish, while others I listed a family of fish.  But I did try to pick my personal favorite from that family just to try to narrow my list down some.  So without further ado, let’s dive into my Top 10 fish for a reef aquarium:

10: Tangs  

A Sailfin Tang.  Photo by K. MacNeil

There are a number of different tangs available for a reef tank with all different colors of the rainbow.  You have Yellow tangs, Blue (Hippo, Regal) tangs, Sailfin Tangs, Powder Blue or Brown Tangs, etc… The list goes on and on.  My personal favorite is actually one that isn’t overly colorful compared to the others, the Sailfin tangs.  They have a darker body color, deep brown to almost black in color with yellow/gold colored stripes.  When they “stretch out” their fins, you can see where the name Sailfin comes from.  They almost double in size just from their fins fanning out.

Tangs will require larger tanks (most require tanks 100+ gallons in size, make sure you check on recommended tank size before purchasing one) due to their swimming habits and they require lots of greens in their diets.  They can also be fairly territorial and aggressive towards each other particularly ones with similar body shape so be very careful if you are trying to have more than one in a tank.      

9:  Triggerfish

Blue Throat (Jaw) Trigger (Male) - Xanthichthys auromarginatus

This is a very tough family to have in a reef aquarium.  There are very few that are actually suitable for a reef tank, but the ones that are “reef safe” are stunning.  Probably the three most popular ones are the Niger trigger (Odonus niger), the Crosshatch Trigger (Xanthichthys mento) and the Bluechin Trigger (X. auromarginatus).  The Crosshatch and Bluechin triggers both fetch a higher price tag, so they are not as commonly seen in reef tanks but the Niger Trigger can be found for a much more reasonable price.  These guys, like the tangs, require a larger tank of at least 75 gallons and while considered reef safe if you have some prized shrimp in your tank they may be one to keep off your list as the shrimp may eventually become a meal for them.

8:  Butterflyfish

Pyramid Butterflyfish.  Photo by K. MacNeil

There are very few Butterflyfish that are considered reef safe, and some are even obligate corallivores (all they eat are corals).   Of these few reef safe ones, even fewer are considered hardy or easy to care for.  In my experience there is one that is both hardy and reef safe, the Pyramid Butterflyfish (Hemitaurichthys polylepis).  With a stunning white and yellow body (the white makes a “pyramid shape” hence the common name) with a darker face they make a great addition to a large reef tank.  They can even be kept in a group generally without any issues, but will also be fine singly.  Unlike many other butterflyfish the Pyramid Butterflyfish generally will eat just about anything you feed to them (flake, frozen, etc…) and will not go after your corals or crustaceans.

7:  Assessors

Yellow Assessor Basslet - Assessor flavissimus

This is a species that is many times overlooked for a reef aquarium probably due to the fact that not many stores actually carry them.  I am not sure if this is due to lack of demand, lack of collection or simply the high price tag.  There are two color varieties most commonly available, the Yellow Assessor (Assessor flavissimus) and the Blue Assessor (A. macneilli, which I like to joke was named after me?).  They can be kept singly or in groups and don’t require a large tank like the first three fish we talked about.  For a single fish a tank of around 20 gallons is fine, for a group of 4 or more usually a tank of 90-100 gallons plus is recommended.

6:  Cardinalfish   

Banggai Cardinal.  Photo by K. MacNeil

Probably the best known of this family are the Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), but there are many other species that shouldn’t be overlooked such as the Pajama Cardinal (Sphaeramia nematoptera), Threadfin (Apogon leptacanthus) or Orangestriped Cardinalfish (A. cyanosoma).  In my experience with this fish, most are best kept either singly or in a known pair.  While in the wild you may see them in huge groups, put them into an aquarium and eventually you will end up with just one or two.  The dominant pair eventually seems to kill off all the others.  I have personally experienced this with the Banggai and Orangestriped cardinals, but have also heard this from many other hobbyists.  The Threadfin Cardinals seem to be the best suited for trying to keep a larger group, but even they will fight somewhat with each other.

I would also like to note here that the Banggai Cardinalfish are getting close to being wiped out in the wild from over collection.  While C.I.T.E.S has tried to put restrictions on their collection, they are still being over collected.  This fish has been successfully bred in captivity by both aquaculture facilities as well as your average home aquarist.  So if these guys are on your list of “must have” fish, please consider paying a little extra money for a captive bred fish.

5:  Anthias/ Flasher Wrasses

 Lyretail Anthias.  Photo by K. MacNeil

Carpenters Wrasse - Paracheilinus carpenteri 

I may be stretching it a little by putting these guys in the same group, but with being some what self limited to only 10 groups and I wanted both of these guys included I figured I would cheat a little and group the anthias with the flasher wrasses.

With their almost “dayglow” color’s of pink, orange, yellow and red Anthias and Flasher Wrasses have become more and more popular for peoples reef aquariums.  They are a very active fish and most of the species we find available to us will do well in groups of 4 or more (one male to 3 or more females).  The hardiness of the different species varies quite a bit from almost impossible to keep to fairly easy to keep.  My personal favorite Anthias is the Lyretail Anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) due to their hardiness, color and availability.  

I would like to note that with both the Anthias and especially with the Flasher Wrasses you should try to take precautions to prevent the fish from jumping out of the tank.  Most reef tanks are open topped and unfortunately these guys for some reason like to jump out of our tanks.  It is never a nice thing to find your $50+ fish dried up on the floor in the morning.

4:  Gobies/Blennies/Gramma

Yasha Hase Shrimp Goby - Stonogobiops yash

Bicolor Blenny - Ecsenius bicolor

Royal Gramma - Gramma loreto

Here is another category where I cheated a little by grouping them together?.  These are probably the most widely available type of fish you will find for a reef tank.  Within the goby family you will find many different types from Clown gobies to shrimp gobies to cleaner gobies to firefish to sand sifting gobies the list goes on and on.  The most popular of the Blennies tends to be the lawnmower blenny, Midas blenny and Bicolor blenny and the Royal Gramma and Blackcap Basslet for the Gramma family.  Most of the fish that fall under the goby/blenny/Gramma category tend to stay on the smaller side (from less than an inch to around 4-5” max), are fairly hardy, are colorful (yellows, blues, oranges, reds, purples, etc…) and can be kept in a wide variety of tank sizes.  Probably in a majority of reef tanks out there you will find one or more of these types of fish in there, and understandable so.  Also with the growing popularity of Nano Aquariums, these small fish are a great addition to these tanks.

3:  Dottybacks

Tank raised Orchid Dottyback.  Photo by K. MacNeil

The top three for me could be easily exchanged depending on how I feel that particular day.  The Dottybacks easily could be one, two or three on my list of fish.  I am putting them at three simply due to the fact that there aren’t as many species available as my top 2 fish.

The Dottyback species is a very unique fish in the way the swim through the tank, almost in a slithering, snaky way.  They will swim throughout the rock work of the tank, but mostly around their favorite cave.  They are extremely hardy, especially the tank raised species (please look for tank raised species before buying wild caught one), and will eat almost everything offered to them.  Some species (the Neon Dottyback, Pseudochromis aldabraensis) are even good at feeding on smaller bristleworms if you don’t want them in your tank.  Of the species available, my personal favorite is the Orchid Dottyback (P. fridmani).  They are a bright to deep purple in color with a black line extending from their mouth through their eye.  They are also one of the more docile of the Dottybacks and can be kept with more peaceful fish.  

2:  Dwarf Angel

African Flameback Angel.  Photo by K. MacNeil

Now this was a tough fish to put at number two, but every reef tank I have owned I have always had a dwarf angel in it.  The reason it was hard is not all dwarf angels are considered reef safe (do your research before you purchase) and even the same fish aren’t always reef safe.  I personally have kept Flame Angels, Pygmy (Cherub) Angels and African Flameback angels in my reef aquariums with little to no issues at all.  The Pygmy and Flameback angels IME never touched any corals and have been model citizens in my tanks.  The Flame angels I had (I kept a pair in a 135 gallon tank) were safe with all my corals with the exception of red open brain corals (Trachyphyllia species) and elegance corals.  They didn’t touch any of my green open brain corals, only the red ones.

Dwarf angels do like to nip at things while looking for food and I have experienced mine occasionally nipping at corals (more so the Flames than the Pygmy and Flameback) but this shouldn’t always be taken as they are harming the coral.

1: Clownfish

(pictured are a pair of ORA tank bred black and white Ocellaris clowns.  Photo by K. MacNeil)

Despite what I like to call the “Nemo Effect”, I still find clownfish to be one of the best species of fish to put into a reef tank.  Yes you will still get that non-hobbyist saying “Hey look, there’s Nemo…where’s Dori?” (i.e. the Nemo Effect) but that is just part of what we have to deal with when we keep a reef tank.  After all we get lots of silly question about our tanks and corals like “are they plants?” or “are they alive?” etc...

There are many different species of clownfish available and most are now tank bred.  In general they are hardy, have very outgoing demeanor, are colorful and will even bred in our tanks (though to successfully raise the fry they eggs will need to be moved to a properly set up grow-out tank).  My personal favorites (currently, this tends to change) are the black Ocellaris clowns, but I also love the pink skunk clowns and they generally won’t get called “Nemo” when your friends come over.

There are two misconceptions about clownfish that I would like to mention as well.  The first is that they need an anemone to live.  This is not true at all and they will live long, happy lives without an anemone.  Sometimes they will find something different to host in (I have seen them host in xenia, LPS corals like frogspawn and torch coral, brain corals and I even had a maroon clown host in a derasa clam) but many times they are perfectly happy just finding a little niche in the tank to claim as their own.  

The second misconception is that tank raised clownfish won’t host in anemones.  Again this is false as they will still host in anemones if a suitable one is provided for them.  I have kept many tank raised clownfish in tanks with anemones and there was never an issue with them.  So if you want to have the clownfish/anemone relationship in  your tank, don’t think you have to buy wild caught clownfish.

So there you have my top 10 fish for a reef tank of 2008.  I hope you have enjoyed the information I provided and hopefully we at least agree on a few, or maybe I have helped you find a new fish to mix into your reef tank.  Please feel free to leave a comment on your top fish (or ones I may have missed) as I would love to see what fish others also enjoy keeping.  Thanks for reading and I wish you and your aquariums a happy 2009.

Keith MacNeil is a staff writer for Marine Depot, an online aquarium supplies store for your tropical fish, freshwater or saltwater aquarium. He writes articles, the e-mail newsletter, catalog blurbs, and contributes to the forum. You can find him at The Reef Tank where his username is argi.
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