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- Jun 14, 2016
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Once again, memory challenged Dory will be swimming across theater screens nationwide. For aquarists, Dory represents a species close to our heart. In many ways, surgeonfish are the poster-child marine aquarium fish. They are colorful, robust and have unique personalities. Also, surgeonfish are great conversation starters and a wonderful way to draw visitors into the beauty of a marine aquarium. Hippo tangs have been popular for years, due to their bright coloration and calm disposition (when compared to other surgeonfish).
Though, as a species, surgeonfish aren’t the perfect pet, even for novice aquarists. Most are highly susceptible to external parasites and all have specialized feeding requirements, along with a demand for lots of tank space. Often they are unaccepting of other surgeonfish, and some species will fight to the death, if kept together in an aquarium. A demand for high quality water, and specific habitat has placed many surgeonfish in aquariums unsuited to their survival. To make matters worse, surgeonfish are often sold as small silver dollar sized juveniles, encouraging aquarists with small tanks to purchase them, believing that the fish will either remain small, or can be traded once it grows too large for the tank. Often in these scenarios, the fish doesn’t survive its first year in captivity.
To property and successfully keep any surgeonfish, is sort of a graduation into a higher degree of marine aquaria. It’s here that aquarists learn the dramatic importance of quarantine, nutrition, stocking and pre-planning. The idea of rushing to the local fish store, looking for something shiny and taking it home, won’t be rewarded with success in the realm of keeping surgeonfish. Once an aquarist makes the investment in knowledge, equipment, methodology and procedure, they can enjoy one of the hobbies most rewarding species for years to come. Here, I will outline several requirements for keeping surgeonfish in marine aquariums, and elaborate on each one. Anyone who has attempted (and failed) to keep this species, or has plans of doing so in the future, can use this as a checklist and work through each requirement, before making a purchase.
1. A large tank, often in excess of 100 gallons is needed, employing powerful filtration.
2. A reliable, always running quarantine system is required.
3. A reliable, always running hospital system is required.
4. Research the species available, and decide on ONE specific species. Invest your resources into caring for one individual of that species.
5. Look at the current residents of your tank, and use this information when deciding on a species. Some surgeonfish come from surge zones, where turbulent water action makes it impossible for various corals to survive. If your tank is full of lagoon zone corals (LPS corals, many soft corals) then look for a surgeon species that thrives in these waters.
6. Make sure you incorporate your long term aquarium goals into the decision to get a surgeonfish, as it will surely impact the evolution of your system.
7. Understand the vital role that nutrition plays in the health of marine fish.
8. Understand the changes that many species incur as they shift from juvenile, to adult.
A large tank:
Surgeonfish grow large. While some species max out at around 6-8” many can grow in excess of 10” within the aquarium, while others grow to over a foot in length. They are robust, large bodied fish, both strong and agile. In the wild, surgeonfish school from reef to reef in a colorful blaze, often grazing algae off rocks and corals, leaving a clean and healthy reef surface behind. While in the wild, it’s uncommon to see a surgeonfish alone, in the aquarium their attitude towards companions change, thus exemplifying the need for a large aquarium. As an open swimming species, surgeonfish need ample room to move, but they also like places to hide and dart for cover. Since they are fast and powerful swimmers, it’s vital they are not kept in an environment where if startled, they are likely to strike the aquarium glass with force. Any surgeonfish really belongs in a tank over 100 gallons, and some larger species can require 200 gallons or more, just to be comfortable.
While size and strength alone make a large aquarium appropriate for all surgeonfish species, waste becomes a major factor when keeping one. Surgeonfish are herbivores, that graze constantly throughout the day, and release a lot of waste. This waste can increase the water’s nutrient load and if left unchecked, can accumulate in the form of phosphates and nitrates. Any aquarium designed to keep a surgeonfish, needs to be outfitted with a powerful protein skimmer, mechanical filtration, chemical filtration and denitrification. Sadly, there is no cheap way to accomplish this and because surgeonfish require high quality marine water, equipment such as protein skimmers must be sized up.
Mechanical filtration aids water quality by removing waste in its solid state, aiding the tank’s bio-filter to break it down. Protein skimmers also remove solid organic waste, before bacteria begins to assimilate it. Chemical filtration can reduce nutrient load in the water as well, while a de-nitration filter is home to anaerobic bacteria that turns nitrate (the end result of the ammonia cycle) into harmless nitrogen gas. Because of surgeonfish’s high water quality demands, they are totally inappropriate for “all-in-one” aquariums, and really require a tank outfitted with a sump, to house a bevy of filtration equipment. Algae scrubbers are also useful for surgeonfish keepers, as some macro-algae species not only provide de-nitrification, but a food source for the fish as well.
A reliable, always running QT system:
Among advanced aquarists, it’s common to find QT systems being used. Most advanced aquarists have experienced a parasitic outbreak at one point or another. It’s a hard, expensive lesson and one most of us don’t want to repeat. Surgeonfish are highly susceptible to external parasites, diseases like the infamous marine ich. Some biologists feel a thin slime coat may be responsible for this susceptibility, while others believe the culprit is surgeon’s small scales. Whatever the cause, it’s obvious to aquarists that surgeonfish are parasite magnets. The stress of being captured off a wild reef (as all surgeonfish are collected from the wild), shipment, sale and acclimation into a new aquarium, often leads newly acquired surgeonfish to break out in any of a slew of external parasites.
Given surgeonfish’s unique swimming and water quality demands, a QT tank of at least 30 gallons often works best, if plenty of hiding places are available.
QT is the best medicine, as it not only treats the new fish for any potential diseases, but it also gives it time to adjust to captive life, without being pestered by fish already established in the tank. It doesn’t matter what species exist in the tank already, they will almost always prod a new arrival to some degree. If the new fish is still adjusting to a whirlwind of stressful conditions, this constant in-tank prodding can be enough to lead to disease, and death.
QT tanks are notoriously simple, often powered by hang-on-back filtration, or even air pump driven sponge filters. Carbon, or other chemical media is absent, as it removes needed disease treatment. A heater, circulation pump and some sort of décor for hiding rounds out the average QT system. When quarantining surgeonfish, I’ve found the method of hypo salinity works best. This lowers the specific gravity of the water enough that simple organisms such as parasites cannot survive (although marine velvet can survive hypo) but the fish can. This eases stress of the fish, by dampening the physical impact of osmoregulation (a process of balancing internal salt-content with environmental salt content). A QT tank can have dim lighting, and should provide the same day/night cycle as the display. During QT it’s best to feed your new surgeonfish a variety of foods (mysis shrimp, squid, fin-fish, etc) along with keeping a supply of freeze dried seaweed available 24/7. Within time, you will be able to determine which foods your species is fond of.
Since surgeons are grazers, having algae available at all times (via an algae clip) is paramount. If during hypo-quarantine you find the fish is breaking out in external cysts (as small as a grain of sugar, or appearing like white fuzz) you can easily (and safely) pair hypo salinity with a treatment of formalin. Formalin will kill any parasites that survive hypo-saline conditions. Quarantine should continue for at least 14 days, with 30-45 days often working best for all surgeonfish species.
The reason I suggest an always running QT tank, is that it’s very difficult to only pop-up a QT tank when needed. A biologically balanced QT is an asset, and works best as a constant part of your overall aquarium system.
A reliable, always running hospital tank:
Even after a thorough QT, surgeonfish have a habit of becoming ill. Sometimes it’s the result of an internal parasite, and sometimes an external parasite exists in the main aquarium and your current fish have become immune to it. Either way, having an always running, biologically balanced hospital tank is a major asset. Again, this can be a tank of around 30 gallons, outfitted much the same as your QT tank.
You could be treating any number of conditions in the hospital tank, and it may require a range of water changes, medications and removal for freshwater dips. It’s wise to be prepared for any and all. There are several medications I recommend having on hand, at all times.
One, is copper and I recommend Cupramine from Seachem. It’s best to use copper as a last resort to combat stubborn external parasite infections. A reliable copper test kit, such as Sailfert’s will also be needed. Formalin is another medication to have on hand at all times, and I recommend researching its use in marine aquariums. Prazi-Pro treats diseases such as gill flukes, tape worms and internal parasitic infections. These can be characterized by a fish that is eating well, but remains emaciated. Maracyn 2 is a wide spectrum antibiotic used to treat fungal infections, and it’s worth having some on hand. These three medications form the core trinity of your fish disease defense arsenal, and can be added to at any time.
Several good supplementary treatments are Stress Guard and Para Guard from Seachem. Both are similar, and work well in aiding fish to heal after a battle with external parasites. Since you may be using antibiotic in the hospital tank, it’s quite possible you will kill off the tank’s bio-filter. It’s vital to have an ammonia absorber such as Prime by Seachem on-hand, while also having an ammonia test-kit handy. I also keep Brightwell Aquatics phosphate absorption liquid on hand as well, in the event of severe phosphate spikes.
Hospital treatment is on an as needed basis. It’s best to confer with advanced aquarists when making a diagnosis, and pictures and video make getting an accurate one much easier.
Research available species, and decide on ONE:
There are a host of exciting tangs (surgeonfish) available, and they all have their own traits and demands. Mixing tangs is tough, even for advanced aquarists and it often doesn’t end well. When starting out with a surgeonfish, or adding one to an established reef, it’s best to select a species and pool resources into successfully keeping it. Zebrasoma surgeons (such as the purple or yellow tang) often fair well for beginners, unfamiliar with surgeonfish keeping. Their long nose and bright colors make for a unique display.
Acanthurus tangs offer a wider range of options, but are often aggressive and sensitive. Some species, such as the Achilles tang are very difficult to keep, and recommended for only the most dedicated and advanced aquarists. The hippo tang (or regal blue tang) which represents Dory in the upcoming film, is a difficult to keep species, that is very prone to external parasitic infections. It’s certainly not recommended for a first-time foray into surgeonfish keeping.
Remember that also, surgeonfish are often sold as small (2-4”) juveniles, but with the right diet, they grow quickly. Many attain an addition 6-8 inches of size, from the time of purchase. Yellow tangs are the most forgiving in this area, and while they do grow large, they aren’t nearly as bulky and robust as other species. Whichever species of surgeonfish you decide upon, be sure to understand its LIFE LONG care requirements, as trading this fish off for another, or giving it to a fellow hobbyist, is unlikely to pan out as planned.
If you’re a newcomer to keeping surgeonfish, I recommend actually recommend avoiding hippo tangs altogether. There are concerns from those familiar with the fishery that provides them, and they are a difficult to care for pet. There are a host of other exciting tangs, that make far better reef and FOWLR tenants when compared to hippo tangs.
Look at the current residents of your tank:
Some surgeonfish, such as the Sohal tang, will eventually attack any other fish, regardless of species or size. For that reason, it’s best to avoid that species. Other tangs will accept fish from other families, but rarely accept other tangs. Sometimes marine angelfish (large and dwarf) are singled out by surgeonfish, as they both compete for the same food resources (seaweed). Whatever the case, it’s best to know what is compatible with your current fish load. Most wrasses, blennies, gobies and clownfish; do just fine with nearly all tang species. Even large predatory species such as grouper and triggerfish are compatible with certain tangs.
Tangs are pretty reasonable about not nipping at corals, but each surgeonfish has unique environmental requirements. For example, Achilles tangs come from reef surge zones, where water breaks over rock and creates powerful currents. Absence of this in captivity can lead to stress, and eventually death. Other tangs migrate from surge zones, into the reef lagoon and are comfortable with a variety of environmental conditions. You’ll need to understand what environment the corals you have can tolerate, and find a species of surgeonfish that can thrive in that environment. In this regard, yellow tangs often make a good choice for new surgeon keepers, as they tolerate a wide range of reef conditions. Sail-fin tangs also tolerate a host of reef environments.
You don’t want to end up sacrificing the environmental needs of one reef animal, to cater to the environmental needs of another. This never works, and one animal ends up getting the short end of the stick, which usually results in serious problems. For example, you don’t want to place a surge zone tang (such as an Achilles) in a tank with soft lagoon corals (like mushroom or leather corals). To attempt to provide the Achilles what it needs, you increase the flow rate in your tank, only to find your soft corals wither away. Keeping surgeonfish is a compromise, as their needs must be met in order to be successful.
Incorporate your long-term aquarium goals into the decision to buy a surgeonfish:
There is no short term reef aquarium goal. Even fast growing corals take time to attain measurable growth, and fish and change color and personality with age. There are so many exciting marine species, it’s impossible for one aquarist to ever keep them all. Without a doubt, during a fish-keeping career, an aquarist will desire a host of different species. The decision to add a surgeonfish to the aquarium can influence (and limit) the decisions made down the road. As I’ve pointed out, surgeonfish are often intolerant of other surgeonfish.
Often, the decision to get a surgeonfish is sort of like a loan. You’re getting a very unique fish species now, but will likely have to pay that back later, as the fish grows and adds waste to the tank. Surgeon’s such as Sohal tangs eventually become intolerant of nearly all other fish and if the aquarist hopes to maintain them, then they become the aquarium’s primary piscine resident. Species such as the powder blue tang, are so prone to external parasites, that even adding quarantined fish to the tank is a bit of a gamble, as it risks the health of the established tang. Many (if not most) established surgeonfish become belligerent to some extent, and are known to harass other species from time to time.
If you decide to get a surgeonfish, it’s valuable to understand that it is the primary fish in your tank. Further aquarium care, feeding and future livestock additions, will largely revolve around your tank’s tang.
Understand the role of nutrition in the marine aquarium:
Nutrition is such a vast topic, that it really belongs in a separate post of its own. Where surgeonfish are concerned, nutrition is important because it’s the first step to long term health. In addition to external parasites, some surgeon species are prone to head and lateral line erosion (HLLE). Debate exists among professional and private aquarists as to the cause, and everything from over-stimulation of the lateral line to activated carbon use has been proposed. I’ve long believed that nutrition is likely a factor in the occurrence of HLLE. One reason I feel there is a connection, often when fish affected with the disease are fed Selcon (an amino acid supplement) enhanced food, the lateral line erosion stops and existing pits are able to heal (though severe scars do remain).
Many foods incorporate Selcon and other amino-acids into their mix. Herbivore blends appeal directly to surgeonfish, as they provide a mix of nutritious fin-fish, squid and shrimp, along with much needed marine algae and seaweed. Another popular trend in foods today, is the use of probiotics. These are beneficial bacteria, which naturally colonize the gut. They aid in breaking down and digesting a host of different foods, and are thought to aid in the proper absorption of nutrients. Fish that have been collected from the wild and brought into captivity are likely to have undergone a lot of stress, which could cause an imbalance in gut flora. Feeding probiotic enhanced food can rebalance gut flora levels, and aid fish to recover from the stress of international handling and shipping. Aquaculture based lab results are promising, and professional aquarists around the country have praised the effect of feeding probiotic enhanced foods.
Understand the changes in behavior that will occur, as the fish ages:
While surgeonfish often don’t have the dramatic physical changes that occur in species such as marine angels, for many species behavioral changes occur. A prime example again, is the Sohal tang. Often as a 3-4 inch juvenile, a Sohal tang is a model reef resident, which doesn’t bother other fish species. As the fish grows, and becomes dominant within the tank, it stakes out the entire tank as its territory. Any fish, tang or otherwise that exists in the tank is immediately attacked. Tang attacks aren’t something to take lightly, as they aren’t simple squabbling among tank-mates. Tang’s scalpel sharp (hence the name surgeonfish) tale can lacerate flesh, and cause severe damage. Tissue damage opens a pathway to bacterial infection, which leads to all sorts of serious problems. When adding a tang to the aquarium, it’s vitally important to understand all the aspects of their behavior, even the not-so-savory ones.
It’s possible that Finding Dory will re-invigorate both aquarists and movie-goers interest in keeping hippo tangs. Hippo tangs have always been a popular marine species, largely because they are more docile than other surgeonfish, yet still uniquely beautiful. It’s important to understand that a surgeonfish is very unlike a clownfish, wrasse, goby or really any other marine fish. They are a dominating fish, both in their care requirements and often in their personality.