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What is a Surgeonfish?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

A surgeonfish is a type of fish of which there are more than 70 different specific species that typically belong to the family of Acanthuridae. They are usually tropical fish, and different species can be found all over the world, often inhabiting reefs and other similar areas. Strongly territorial and defensive, they are not often part of a large private aquarium but can be kept with a bit of extra effort by an owner. A surgeonfish gets its popular name due to two small blades located near the rear fin of the fish, one on each side, used for defense against potential predators.

Sometimes also called unicornfish or tangs, surgeonfish can vary widely in appearance and are often brightly colored. They often have fairly flat bodies that are typically oval in shape and vertical in orientation. Surgeonfish are herbivorous and usually feed on microscopic algae. They tend to only have small mouths with some teeth for eating but not for use in defense or attack. The two blades from which they get their popular name are usually only used for defense, and typically are somewhat retracted within a pair of slots on the body of the fish.

The blade at the tail of a surgeonfish has been compared to a medical scalpel that is used during surgery.
The blade at the tail of a surgeonfish has been compared to a medical scalpel that is used during surgery.

When agitated, a surgeonfish will begin to thrash about with its tail, at which point the two blades or spines will come out from the slot where they are located and can damage a predator or attacker. This makes handling a surgeonfish after catching it fairly hazardous, and some species may even have venom that can cause serious infection and illness when introduced after puncturing the skin with a blade or spine. These spines are located toward the rear of the fish, in a region called the caudal peduncle, which is found just before the caudal fin at the posterior end of the fish.

The family of fish to which they belong, Acanthuridae, comes from two Greek words meaning “thorn tail.” This spine or blade at the tail of a surgeonfish can often appear fairly similar to a scalpel used during medical procedures such as surgery, providing the modern popular name for the fish. Surgeonfish do not generally taste good and so are not often caught for food and are fairly prone to infection in a fish tank so they do not always make great additions to such a tank. They can also be quite territorial and somewhat aggressive, so if they are being added to a tank with other fish, they should be added last to try to avoid issues with these tendencies.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a surgeonfish and where can it be found?

Surgeonfish, belonging to the family Acanthuridae, are a group of marine fish known for their vibrant colors and distinctive scalpel-like spines on their tails. They inhabit tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide, with a high diversity in the Indo-Pacific region. Surgeonfish are commonly found in coral reefs, where they graze on algae.

Why is it called a surgeonfish?

The name "surgeonfish" is derived from the sharp, knife-like spines or "scalpels" located on either side of the caudal peduncle (the narrow area near the tail). These spines can be as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel, hence the name, and are used for defense against predators or for dominance displays within their species.

What do surgeonfish eat?

Surgeonfish are primarily herbivores, feeding on a variety of algae found in their coral reef habitats. Their diet helps control the growth of algae on reefs, which is crucial for the health of the coral. Some species may also consume plankton or small invertebrates, but algae remain their primary food source.

How do surgeonfish contribute to the coral reef ecosystem?

Surgeonfish play a vital role in maintaining the balance of coral reef ecosystems. By grazing on algae, they prevent these plants from overgrowing and smothering corals, which could lead to reef degradation. Their feeding activity also helps to create space for new coral growth, promoting biodiversity and reef resilience.

Are surgeonfish social or solitary creatures?

Surgeonfish exhibit varying social behaviors depending on the species. Some are solitary, while others form schools. Schooling can provide safety in numbers from predators. Social structures within schools can be complex, with hierarchies often established and maintained through displays involving their caudal spines.

Is the surgeonfish popular in the aquarium trade, and what are the considerations for keeping one?

Surgeonfish are indeed popular in the aquarium trade due to their striking appearance. However, they require large tanks with ample swimming space and a diet rich in marine algae. Potential owners should be aware of their specific care needs, including water quality and compatibility with other fish, to ensure a healthy environment for these active swimmers.

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    • The blade at the tail of a surgeonfish has been compared to a medical scalpel that is used during surgery.
      By: tinx
      The blade at the tail of a surgeonfish has been compared to a medical scalpel that is used during surgery.