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Since this worksheet was written in 1999 Fish-Watch members have sent in photographs documenting extensions to previously known fish distributions. This additional information is indicated below by the red font.


Butterflyfishes are common and conspicuous reef fishes at depths of 1-250 m in all tropical and warm temperate seas.  Most species are associated with coral reefs, and coral polyps are  common in the diet of some butterflyfishes.   Other species feed on a variety of small benthic (bottom-living) invertebrates (worms, crustaceans, molluscs) and algae or zooplankton (small to microscopic pelagic animals that float or swim usually near the surface).  The Latin genus name “Chaetodon” (pronounced ‘key-tow-don’) means “bristle tooth” and refers to the slender teeth of butterflyfishes.  Most species are solitary or occur in pairs, but others form large aggregations. Their diurnal (active by day) habits and distinctive bright colours (featuring mainly yellow, white and black patterns) make them relatively easy for divers to identify.  At night, most butterflyfishes usually change colour and retreat into crevices or caves to sleep.

The butterflyfish family comprises at least 123 species; 24 species occur off southern Africa.  Twenty species are known from our east coast, and another four may be seen here.  Species are numbered as in the book Smiths’ Sea Fishes (edited by M.M. Smith and P.C. Heemstra), first edition published in 1986 by Macmillan South Africa [now published by Southern Books].


205.1 threadfin butterflyfish, Chaetodon auriga Forsskål, 1775.  Adults with front D rays elongated into a filament; usually a black spot in D at base of filament; dark eye band  wider below eye than above.  Feeds on coral, crustaceans, gastropods, worms and algae.  Does well in aquaria. Attains 20 cm.  Red Sea and Indo-Pacific to Mossel Bay Aliwal Shoal, juveniles to Stilbaai, Western Cape .


205.2 archer butterflyfish, Chaetodon bennetti Cuvier, 1831.  Body mostly yellow; with 2 blue lines, 1 above and 1 below P base; black blotch (adults) or white-ringed ocellus (in juveniles) below rear D spines; blue-edged dark bar through eye; C margin transparent.  Feeds exclusively on reef-forming coral polyps, difficult to keep in aquaria.  Attains 20 cm.  Indo-Pacific south to Maputo Northern KZN, rare at Sodwana Bay.


205.3 brownburnie, Chaetodon blackburnii Desjardins, 1836.  Body mostly dark brown with about 7 black (or bluish-grey) stripes; head and front of body yellow; curved black band from D origin through eye to underside of head; pelvic fins yellow; C hyaline white.  Attains 12 cm.  Indian Ocean from Kenya to Bashee River (Eastern Cape Province) and Mauritius, juveniles to Algoa Bay.


205.4 blackedged butterflyfish, Chaetodon dolosus Ahl, 1923.  C yellow, peduncle and rear part of D & A blackish, with white edge; dark eyebands joined at nape; juveniles pale olive green, with vertical rows of small brownish spots; black blotch on middle  D rays.  Attains 15 cm.  Common at Aliwal, juveniles to Algoa Bay; also known from  Mauritius and Mozambique south to Xora River.



205.5 saddled butterflyfish, Chaetodon falcula Bloch, 1793.  Body pale, with 2 triangular black blotches dorsally and several vertical black lines; black band around peduncle and from nape through eye to underside of head.  Juveniles do well in aquaria.  Attains 20 cm.  Indian Ocean to Maputo.



205.6 gorgeous gussy, Chaetodon guttatissimus Bennett, 1823.  Body pale, covered with small dark spots extending onto D & A; dark band around C peduncle; black bar at middle of C.  Feeds on worms, algae and corals; wild-caught adults are difficult to feed in aquaria. Attains 12 cm.  Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Aliwal Shoal, juveniles to Algoa bay.



205.7 whitespotted butterflyfish, Chaetodon kleinii Bloch, 1790.  Body yellowish, with  pale spot on each scale; black band from D origin through eye to chest; soft D & A yellow, with white edge and submarginal black line; rear margin of C transparent.  Feeds mainly on soft corals.  Attains 13 cm.  Red Sea and Indo-Pacific south  to Coffee Bay, juveniles to Stilbaai, Western Cape.



205.8 lined butterflyfish, Chaetodon lineolatus Quoy & Gaimard, 1831.  Body yellowish or white, with about 16 vertical black lines; D, C & A yellow; adults with black band along base of soft D to A base; black band enclosing  white triangle above eyes. Feeds on coral polyps and anemones.  The largest species of  butterflyfish, attaining 30 cm.  Red Sea and Indo-Pacific to Durban.


205.9 halfmoon butterflyfish, Chaetodon lunula (Lacepède, 1803).  Body yellow or dark brown dorsally, with oblique dark streaks; black mask over eyes, followed by white band on head and black crescent on body.  Juveniles with black spot on soft D and another on peduncle.  Feeds mainly at night on nudibranchs, tubeworm tentacles, coral polyps, benthic invertebrates and algae.  Does well in aquaria.  Attains 19 cm.  Indo-Pacific to East London to just north of Port Alfred, juveniles to Stilbaai, Western Cape.



205.10 pearly butterflyfish, Chaetodon madagaskariensis Ahl, 1923.  Body pearly white, or greyish with 5-7 ragged black chevrons; orange bar from soft D to rear end of A; black eye band not joined to that of opposite side; U-shaped black mark on nape.  Feeds on benthic invertebrates and algae.  Attains 13 cm. Indian Ocean, south to Algoa Bay.



205.11 doublesash butterflyfish, Chaetodon marleyi Regan, 1921.  Body pearly white, with two broad dark brown (or orange brown) bands as shown on figure; one or two black ocelli on middle of D; dark brown band from nape through eye to underside of head.  Feeds mainly on tubeworm tentacles.  Attains 20 cm and an age of 4 years.  Known only from Maputo to Western Cape Province.



205.12 blackback butterflyfish, Chaetodon melannotus Bloch & Schneider, 1801.  Body pearly white, with oblique black streaks running into black area along D base; fins and front of head yellow; black blotch on C peduncle and  (usually) another at base of A spines. Feeds mainly on soft coral polyps, but adapts well to aquarium.  Attains 15 cm.  Red Sea and Indo-Pacific south to Durban.



205.13 maypole butterflyfish, Chaetodon meyeri Bloch & Schneider, 1801.  Body white, pale bluish or yellow, with curving black lines; pelvic fins yellow; D & C yellow with black bands; A black with yellow lines.  Feeds only on coral polyps.  Attains 17 cm.  Indo-Pacific south to Durban.




205.14 right-angle butterflyfish, Chaetodon trifascialis Quoy & Gaimard, 1825.  D & A greenish yellow, with black-edged white margin. Night (stress) pattern with two pale oval blotches on body.  Feeds only on coral polyps.  Attains 17 cm.   Red Sea and Indo-Pacific, south to Aliwal Shoal.



205.15 melon butterflyfish, Chaetodon trifasciatus Mungo Park, 1797.  Head and front of body mostly yellow; curving dark blue stripes on body make the fish look bloated; A yellow-orange, with black and white  bands along the base.  Adults usually in pairs.  Feeds on coral polyps.  Attains 15 cm.  Indo-Pacific, south to Kosi Bay.



205.16 teardrop butterflyfish, Chaetodon interruptus Ahl, 1923 [formerly known as C. unimaculatus, which is confined to the Pacific Ocean and differs in colour].  Head, body and fins bright yellow; black band through eye; rear edges of D & A with black margin aligned with black band on C peduncle.  Usually seen in pairs; does well in aquaria.  Attains 18 cm.  Indonesia to Port Alfred.



205.17 vagabond butterflyfish, Chaetodon vagabundus Linnaeus, 1758.  Head and body pearly white, with opposing series of oblique dark lines; median fins yellow with black bands.  Feeds on anemones, coral polyps, worms  and algae, but will take other food in aquaria.  Attains 15 cm.  Red Sea and Indo-Pacific to Aliwal; juveniles to Algoa Bay.



205.18 yellowhead butterflyfish, Chaetodon xanthocephalus Bennett, 1832.  Colour pattern changes considerably with growth; juveniles have a black eyeband, black spot on C peduncle and black area covering most of soft D.  Occurs singly or in pairs; does well in aquaria.  Attains 20 cm.  Sri Lanka to Durban.



205.19 Zanzibar butterflyfish, Chaetodon zanzibarensis Playfair, 1867.  Head, body and fins bright yellow; black spot on each body scale forming dark horizontal stripes; large black spot on side; C margin transparent.  Feeds on corals; not recommended for the aquarium.  Attains 15 cm.  Western Indian Ocean south to Durban.



205.20 longnose butterflyfish, Forcipiger flavissimus Jordan & McGregor, 1896. Body bright yellow; upper part of head abruptly black, the lower part white; black spot covers last 4-5 A rays.  Feeds on tubeworm tentacles, polychaete worms and small crustaceans.  Attains 16 cm.  Red Sea and Indo-Pacific (to Mexico), south to Margate.



205.21 belted butterflyfish, Hemitaurichthys zoster (Bennett, 1831).  Dark brown with broad white area in middle of body; C mostly white; D spines over white area are yellow.  Seen singly or in pairs on coral reefs, also in large shoals feeding on zooplankton well above the bottom.  Attains 18 cm.  Western Indian Ocean to Aliwal Shoal.




205.22 coachman, Heniochus acuminatus (Linnaeus, 1758).  Horizontal line at tip of snout extends below eye; snout longer than eye diameter; black band between eyes not reaching nape.  Seen alone or in pairs near  bottom on coral reefs.  Often mistaken for Moorish idol (Zanclus canescens).  Attains 25 cm.  Indo-West Pacific to Aliwal Shoal.




205.23 schooling coachman, Heniochus diphreutes Jordan, 1903.  Horizontal line at tip of snout extends through  eye; snout less than eye diameter; black band between eyes reaches nape.  Usually in large schools feeding on zooplankton well above bottom.  Attains 16 cm.  Red Sea and Indo-West Pacific south to Aliwal Shoal; juveniles to Port Edward.




205.24 masked coachman, Heniochus monoceros Cuvier, 1831.  Adults with a hump and short spike on nape and short “horn” in front of each eye; D, A, & C yellow.  Adults seen in pairs or small groups.  Attains 23 cm.  Indo-West Pacific, south to Aliwal Shoal, juveniles at Port Edward.




Copyright © 1999 J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology,  Grahamstown, South Africa.  Sponsored by Sappi Ltd.


All text, images and photographs copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 & 2006
South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity or the respective photographer. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: November 7, 2006