Tang fish have long been a favorite choice for the reef aquarium. Their vibrant colors and energetic nature make them alluring, yet fishkeepers also need to know about some potential challenges in keeping tangs!
Their aggressive tendencies and susceptibility to disease make them a moderately difficult family of fish to keep in the home aquarium. Careful selection and thorough understanding are paramount if you’re having fun keeping these fashionable fish.
To start, we’ll answer 10 of your top burning questions about tangs and guide you through 10 gorgeous species for your reef tank.
If you’re looking for solutions to calm a raging tang, skip to the end of this article, where we’ll share three priceless tips on reducing aggression!
10 Commonly Asked Questions About Tang Fish
First, Why Are They Called ‘Tang’ Fish?
Tang fish is the common name given to fish belonging to the Acanthuridae family. Some species are also known as surgeonfish or doctorfish. These names reference the scalpel-like spine or ‘tangs’ on either side of their tail base.
The fish exposes their tangs when feeling threatened by predators or sparring with one another.
This spine or tang is extremely sharp and can be dangerous to other fish and your own hands if you ever try handling one of these fish!
Where Do Tang Fish Come From?
Tang fish hail from coral reefs worldwide, including the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans, and the Caribbean sea. The Acanthuridae is a diverse family with over 80 members!
How Big Do Tangs Get?
Most tangs kept in the aquarium will be between 8-10 inches long, with males slightly larger than females. Some species of Acanthuridae, however, grow to over 3 feet from nose to tail!
How Long Do Tangs Live?
Tang fish can be very long-lived! In the wild, they can live up to 30 years. In the home aquarium, 10 years is the maximum realistic life expectancy – and that’s for an experienced coral tank specialist!
These fish demand thorough care and close attention in order to live long and healthy lives.
Are Tangs Easy To Keep?
In the reef setup, tang fish are not as easy to keep as beginner species like clownfish, damselfish, gobies, or blennies.
Their aggressive tendencies mean they can threaten other fish, and their domineering character can cause them stress too!
Tangs are also susceptible to several marine diseases, including HLLE (Head and Lateral Line Erosion Disease), marine ich, and velvet infections.
While HLLE is usually caused by malnutrition and stress, ich and velvet are parasitic infections that can already be present in the fish before you buy them.
It’s sometimes advised to keep new tangs in quarantine to check their health thoroughly before introducing them to a new tank. In general, tangs need stable water parameters and a well-crafted feeding regime to survive and thrive.
What Do Tang Fish Eat?
Tangs are predominantly vegetarians but sometimes supplement their diet with plankton and small meat. Their tiny mouths possess a single row of teeth specially designed for grazing algae from coral reefs.
If your tank already grows a lot of algae, these fish will delight in helping to clean them off for you! This cleaning service can be very helpful in preventing your coral from becoming suffocated or clogged under thick blankets of algae.
Tangs are veracious eaters and prefer eating in quantity, several times a day, to stay happy.
Algae-based fish flakes and nori are the ideal foods to offer your tangs, but they may also benefit from the occasional helpings of krill and plankton.
Terrestrial plant foods like lettuce and peas are not recommended as they may lead to nutrient-deficiency symptoms such as HLLE, mentioned earlier.
Some aquarium owners have adapted the sump in their tanks to grow algae that can be fed to their tangs.
This clever innovation provides the fish with a constant supply of fresh greens while saving the aquarist from buying so much fish food!
Are Tang Fish Aggressive?
Tangs are renowned for being rather aggressive fish, especially to members of their own kind. While in the wild, they may swim around in large shoals for protection, they often don’t tolerate other tangs in the confines of an aquarium setting.
This depends a lot on the species, so please see below for a brief guide to different tang species and how to reduce their aggression.
What Are Good Tank Mates for Tang Fish?
As you’ll know by now, tangs don’t usually like the presence of one another! But clownfish, large angels, wrasse, cardinals, blennies, gobies, and lionfish can all make potential tankmates for tangs.
Remember that tangs are a large family, and each species has its own behavior and temperament.
While a Kole tang may get along perfectly well with your angelfish, a Clown tang is a much bigger, more boisterous fish and may pick fights with them. Do your homework and choose carefully!
If you’re new to marine setups, you can get inspired by this excellent guide to some of the best saltwater species.
How Much Does a Tang Fish Cost?
A tang’s price depends entirely on the species. While you may be able to pick up Royal Blue tangs and Clown tangs for around 60 dollars each, many species will cost you hundreds of dollars. The Gem tang, the most expensive tang in the world, can fetch upwards of 2000 dollars!
In recent years, aquaculture businesses have made big leaps in breeding some tang species in captivity.
Captive-bred reef fish are often more expensive than wild-caught, but these innovations are helping to reduce the exploitation of wild populations. As a bonus, captive-bred fish haven’t undergone stressful environmental changes.
What Can Eat a Tang Fish?
In their natural habitat, tangs prey on tuna, barracudas, jacks, large groupers, and snappers. In the aquarium, sadly, they’re more likely to be killed by one another!
A Brief Guide to 10 Types of Tang Fish
While no tang is the ideal beginner’s fish, some are easier to keep than others. To make choosing a tang easier, we’ll first run through the easier tangs to keep, followed by those needing a higher level of experience.
Moderately Easy Tangs To Keep in the Home Aquarium
The Yellow Tang – Zebrasoma flavescens
Yellow tangs are the most popular tang fish for a reef setup. While they used to be harvested in their thousands from reefs around Hawaii, the practice rightly became outlawed due to their dwindling stocks.
They are now being bred in captivity, making them hardier fish and a little more expensive than they used to be.
Yellow tangs are notoriously aggressive to their own species and toward other members of the Zebrasoma genus.
Surprisingly, however, they can sometimes be successfully kept together in a shoal so long as they’re all introduced to the tank at the same time together from an early age.
They tend to be more resistant to diseases than other tangs and make a dazzling addition to the reef tank.
The Kole Tang – Ctenochaetus strigosus
Kole tangs, also known as Bristletoothed tangs, are another species endemic to Hawaii.
Koles only grow to around 6 inches long, making them one of the smaller members of the family.
They are also relatively peaceful tangs towards other species, though they can still fight with one another.
As with Yellow tangs, when they’re introduced all at once, they may be able to form a peaceable shoal together in larger tanks.
Koles are exceptionally good algae eaters, feeding on many different algae and helping keep the tank clean. In the wild, they eagerly await the arrival of migrating sea turtles from whom they love to hoover algae off their shells!
Koles are very beautiful, with blue and purple spotted bodies, yet they will cost a fraction of the price that the spotted Gem tang would cost you!
They are also relatively easy to keep compared with some other tangs, though they could still be susceptible to bullying from larger tang species.
The Black Tang – Zebrasoma rostratum
The Black tang is an unusual family member, being rather less colorful than the more commonly kept species! Their jet-black, round bodies are very striking, and Black tangs fetch some of the highest prices of the entire family.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to source a Black tang for $600, but these fellows will often set you back at least $1000!
Despite their price, Black tangs are relatively easy to keep as a single specimen. They tend to fight with other tangs, so they’re best kept alongside other fish that don’t resemble them!
The Sailfin Tang – Zebrasoma veliferum
Sailfins are the largest member of the Zebrasoma genus. They’re spectacular-looking fish with vertical bars across the length of their body and sail-like fins that give them a beautifully round profile.
Sailfin tangs are superb algae-eaters and are reasonably easy to keep, although potential buyers should be warned that this fish gets very big! At 15 inches, they need a very large aquarium, and they’re also not very tolerant of other tangs.
The Lipstick Tang – Naso lituratus
Weighing in as the heavyweight champion among home-aquarium tangs, it’s the glamorous Lipstick tang!
These monsters can grow to a whopping 18 inches in length, meaning you’ll need at least 300 gallons of water to accommodate an adult one. They get their common name from their red lips and can change their body color according to their feelings.
Also known as the ‘Naso tang,’ this giant is actually one of the family’s more peaceful species of tang. They usually get along fine with other fish as well as members of their own species.
Lipstick tangs are also fairly hardy and tend to settle into a new tank without too much difficulty. Just be sure to feed them enough algae-based foods, as these giants have huge appetites!
The Mimic Tang – Acanthurus pyroferus
The Mimic tang goes by many other names, such as the ‘Mimic Lemon Peel tang,’ ‘Lemon tang,’ or ‘Chocolate tang.’ This is not surprising since they go through fascinating color changes as they grow older.
When they are juveniles, Mimic tangs can take on the coloration of local pygmy angelfish, such as the bright yellow Centropyge flavissimus, to camouflage and thus protect themselves among a larger shoal.
Growing up, they take on a more chocolate-brown color, hence their other common name.
At 10 inches, this species is a fairly large tang and loves swimming in open water – so requires a large, 150-gallon tank at least.
While they’ll certainly duel with members of their own species, some aquarists have reported that Mimic tangs get along relatively well with other tangs.
Scopas Tang – Zebrasoma scopas
Scopas tangs remain popular for reef aquariums regardless of their less flashy colors. One of the reasons for this is their hardy nature – they’re robust fish, less prone to HLLE disease than other tang members.
They are, however, quite large and aggressive towards their own kind, as well as any other Zebrasoma species, so it’s advisable to stay one individual well away from yellow tangs, purple tangs, etc.
Scopas tangs can come in various colors: gray, brown, yellow, and white. Some individuals may appear almost black, which makes them a much more affordable dark alternative to the true ‘black tang’ – Zebrasoma rostratum, mentioned earlier!
Moderately Difficult To Keep Tangs
The Royal Blue Tang – Paracanthurus hepatus
The Royal Blue tang or Hippo tang is most famous for its starring role in Finding Nemo as the character ‘Dory.’ The film definitely boosted their popularity, although they were a common choice among coral hobbyists long before the film appeared.
It’s certainly easy to understand why, as their ephemeral blue bodies immediately spark awe and wonder in those lucky enough to see a healthy individual.
The brilliance of their color does diminish rapidly, however, if the fish is undergoing stress or lacking adequate nutrition.
Blue tangs are no beginner’s fish and need super-stable water parameters to remain happy and healthy.
A coral tank must be given plenty of time to establish balanced water conditions before introducing this delicate species.
Keeping Blue tangs together so long as they’re all introduced simultaneously is possible. A shoal of Blue tangs is a formidable sight to behold, but at 12 inches each, you’ll need a big aquarium for that!
The Purple Tang – Zebrasoma xanthurum
Another very striking-looking tang – the Purple tang can actually also be quite blueish and always dons a brilliant lemon-yellow tail.
Purple tangs are understandably highly sought after and can fetch up to $500 at the aquarium store.
Their heavy pricetag gives you extra incentive to get your water parameters spot-on before introducing this fish! Purple tangs are very sensitive to water quality and can easily fall prey to parasites.
These algae-eaters are fairly aggressive toward other tangs, and we advise you not to keep more than one unless you have a very large tank (and a big budget!).
The Clown Tang – Acanthurus lineatus
Clown tangs are sometimes called ‘pajama tangs,’ an apt name for a fish with cute blue, black, and golden bars across its entire body.
While this tang may look sweet and cuddly, it’s actually one of the more aggressive tangs, and its large size can make it downright dangerous!
Clown tangs will certainly fight with other tangs, but they may also bully species not belonging to the tang clan.
On the plus side, Clown tangs are pretty hardy once established and can live to a ripe old age!
Two Tangs That Didn’t Make Our List – Powder Blue Tang and Achilles Tang
Most tangs are demanding to keep, and we wouldn’t want to encourage you to try the most difficult species. The most popular are the Powder Blue tang and the Achilles tang.
These species may be extremely beautiful, but are often purchased by aquarists without the expertise to accommodate such delicate fish.
Powder Blue and Achilles tangs are aggressive and can often arrive in poor condition since they don’t travel well. On top of this, they’re also prone to ich and velvet infections.
They must, therefore, always be quarantined before being introduced to a new tank and are best reserved for the advanced hobbyist or professional only.
3 Tips for Reducing Tang Aggression
After reading our species guide, you may feel overwhelmed by the number of feisty species out there! You’ll know by now that tangs like to fight among one another.
On the plus side, they’ll often leave other tank members in relative peace, so keeping just one tang is your first line of defense against possible aggression problems.
If you do choose to keep more than one tang, here are three valuable tips and tricks you can try to curb your tang’s aggression:
Use a Broadcast Feeding Regime
As we’ve said, tangs need lots of high-quality, algae-based food. If they don’t get it, they get grouchy. A hungry tang is much more likely to get territorial with any tankmates he feels might threaten his food supply.
If you feed your tangs a few big slices of nori, chances are that your most dominant fish will get all of it, and his more submissive tankmates will go hungry. They’ll have good reason to knock the big shot off the top!
This means you must feed your tangs at least three times daily by broadcast feeding.
Whether you’re feeding your tangs algae flakes or nori, make sure the food is broken up into lots of tiny pieces and spread over a large area. Watch carefully to ensure that all of your tangs get a decent feed.
Use a Mirror for Troublesome Individuals
If one of your tangs is playing the tank bully, try using a tank mirror to exert his aggressive energy.
Most fish will react to their mirror image like another fish. Therefore if your tang is seeking a dominant position in the tank and sees ‘another’ fish of his exact shape and size, that will become the number one target for his aggression.
The great thing about using a mirror is that it exhausts the fish’s fighting instinct without hurting anyone! Your tang will simply fling himself into his mirror image again and again until he’s convinced that the ‘other fish’ will never give up before he does.
After a few days, your tang will hopefully decide that he’s no longer the dominant fish in the tank and stop behaving like a bully. Keep the mirror in place for a month or so, even after things settle down, just to be on the safe side!
Separate Your Tangs – The Last Resort
If you’ve tried everything else and your tangs still won’t stop fighting, you may have to remove one of them temporarily. Keep the most troublesome individual in a quarantine tank for one or two weeks and let the power dynamic of the tank restructure itself.
When the troublemaker is reintroduced, some of your other tangs should have gained new levels of strength and confidence and may be able to compete with him better.
If a temporary separation doesn’t work, you’ll have no option but to return one of the tangs to the shop where you bought them. Tangs will fight to the death, so you’re much better off removing a healthy, living fish from your tank than a beaten-up dead one!
To end on a brighter note, tangs can be some of the most rewarding fish to keep in the reef tank! You can have heaps of fun with these incredibly striking, energetic fish with the right setup.