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Tangs / surgeons – The reef aquariums algae eaters

Quick Facts

Scientific name: 3 groups – Zebrasoma, Acanthurus, Ctenochaetus
Size: 25cm in adult size
Life Span: 10+ years
Reef Compatible: Yes
Aquarium Size: 250L +
Temperament: Moderate, Need to add all tangs at once to prevent fighting

Commonly Kept Species

  • Acanthurus sohal Sohal Tang – Acanthurus sohal
  • Zebrasoma flavescensYellow Tang – Zebrasoma flavescens
  • Zebrasoma xanthurum Purple Tang- Zebrasoma xanthurum
  • Zebrasoma scopas Scopas Tang – Zebrasoma scopas
  • Paracanthurus hepatus Hippo Tang – Paracanthurus hepatus

Talk to any reef aquarium keeper and you will hear that one of the biggest problems that we as reef keepers have is ALGAE!

With the bright lighting for the corals and the natural excretions of our fish there are plenty of food and opportunity for algae to grow. If you think of it in this context, it is no wonder that we have this problem.

There is more than one way to combat this, from chemical and biological way, right thru to mechanical. But that is for future articles. This article is specifically about tangs & surgeons as algae eaters.

In the reef aquarium there are a few different fish that would help the hobbyists to keep algae under control but Tang & Surgeons are by far the best known fish in the hobby to control algae, they are also beautiful, do not hide excessively, always busy and there are on for all tastes.

Tangs are also called surgeons due to scalpel like blades at the base of the tale on both sides. (see photo) These blades are used as means of attack as well as a way to defend themselves and are very sharp and longer than you think. So do take care when you handle them, they will use these blades against you and it will burn, but is not poisonous.

You can keep a variety of them in your reef aquarium but you need to keep some points in mind when you do add them to “your pride and joy” reef aquarium. Points to keep in mind when you intend to keep Tangs & Surgeons are:

Always add them together as far as possible, You could add them at different stages but then you have to keep to some basic rules that we @ Pet Stop and must of the reef gurus have found to work. These basics are that you need to add tangs & surgeons of the same species and most of the time genus at the same time, if you add other specimens of the same species or genus later their chances of survival al severely limited. When you add them together, do try to add them all at the same size.
Ensure there are sufficient spaces available for each Tang & Surgeon. These fish feed predominantly on algae and algae are not as abundant in the ocean as it is in our reef aquariums, so they protect a big space in nature. In the reef aquarium they keep this instinct and will constantly fight to defend their territory, even if you give them sufficient food constantly. This aggressive behavior would escalate as they grow bigger, so keeping to the suggested water volume available, would limit this aggression to a great extend.
They are constant grazers, you would need to eat a lot as well if you eat only grass. So do cater for them in your feeding schedule by ensuring there is constantly some sea weed available in the aquarium (see feeding tips below). Keeping a tang & Surgeon healthy and vibrant is not to difficult if they have some algae to eat.
Keep a constant eye on the health of your Tangs & Surgeons, especially new arrivals. Tangs & Surgeons tend to be more susceptible to white spot than most other reef aquarium fish. Blue coloured Tangs & Surgeons tend to get white spot even more easily than other Tangs & Surgeons. It is always a good idée to add your Tangs & Surgeons after your reef aquarium have cycled completely and the blue tangs and powder blue tangs even later.
If you are not able to follow these suggestions we have given you, or you have already have some tangs & Surgeons in your aquarium and need to add more, we have the following tips that you might be able to use separately or together in your reef aquarium.

Buy bigger tangs & Surgeons than you have in your aquarium
Acclimatize the new fish in the filter or separately from the display aquarium for a week or two, this will ensure that the new Tang & Surgeon are already adjusted to your water quality and only need to adjust to the décor in your reef aquarium.
Try not to buy species of the same genus than those Tangs & Surgeons you already have in your reef aquarium, as the Tangs & Surgeons in your reef aquarium will see the new fish as an intruder.
Try and ensure that the new Tangs & Surgeons are not the same colour than the Tangs & Surgeons already in your reef Aquarium. Same colours will only heighten the aggression in your existing Tangs & Surgeons.
Then you can also add the new specimens after lights out. This sometimes helps to lower the aggression in your existing Tangs & Surgeons towards the new arrivals.
A tip that do work, but will involve some work and will not work in well established aquariums are, RE-DECORATE your reef aquarium and introduce the new Tangs & Surgeons at the same time. The reasoning behind this is that even the old stock, think that they are in a new reef aquarium.
If you have made a mistake regarding total space needed remove some of the Tangs & Surgeons while they are still young, a well acclimatized Tang &Surgeon are more sought after than new arrivals at your local Pet Shop. So talk to you local Pet Shop owner he will most properly love to take your Tang & Surgeon in exchange for something else.
If your existing Tangs & Surgeons attack the new arrivals to the extent that you do not see it for 2 days or longer, REMOVE one of the Tangs & Surgeons. If you do not remove one of them, the newly introduced specimen will die!
Health problems in Reef aquarium fish are mostly limited to white spot and feeding. White spot in marine water are much more aggressive than white spot in freshwater fish and more difficult to treat as well. So attention needs to be given to limit white spot in your reef aquarium. Some guidelines to follow are:

Do not buy a tang & surgeon that have any white spots on them, at all!
Pre-quarantine the Tang & Surgeon in your water, before you add them into your reef aquarium. You should quarantine all fish before you add them to your reef aquarium.
Lots of cured live rock in a well cycled reef aquarium tends to limit the tang & surgeons susceptibility to white spot.
If all this failed and your Tang & Surgeon still get white spot, what is the best procedure?

Remove the Tang & Surgeon from your display unit and treat in quarantine. Always try and treat your Tang & Surgeon separately from your display aquarium, this is the 1st prize!
In quarantine copper tend to be the most effective. NOTES ON COPPER – do not use the medication on its own, use a test kit to monitor it!
Other methods are higher temperatures, as this increase the cycle of the white spot and make treatment faster & more effective.
Lower salinity, white spot battle to survive under low salinity conditions and even die if salinity is very low, but your fish suffer a bit as well.
If you cannot separate the fish from the reef aquarium, ensure that you use a relay good product that are guaranteed reef safe! Copper is one of the best products to use against white spot, but copper is VERY toxic for corals, inverts and anemones!
Now you have your prized Tang & Surgeon in your reef aquarium and he is swimming around happily, but what to feed him? This is the most important factor to give attention to!

As with all living organisms a variety is very important, but with Tangs & Surgeons algae are even more important than other foods.

The digestive system of Tangs & Surgeons is geared to digest algae, so give them more algae more often than other meaty foods. If you do not give them a lot of algae in their diet they would develop health problems in the long run.

One way to ensure lots of algae are always available is to neglect maintenance – I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS! Rather put some SEA WEED on a clip or rock in the reef aquarium so that they could come and eat as they want.

Other food that Tangs & Surgeons would also relish are: Brine shrimp, Cyclops, Mysis shrimps, Krill, pieces of smelt, mussel pieces, lobster eggs, rotifers and other reef fish food. We found that Tangs & Surgeons love to eat Coral Frenzy, even if the particle size is small. But we always ensure that they have algae available to nibble on the WHOLE DAY!

So go out and get yourself a Tang & Surgeon – AFTER You researched the special needs of that species.

Next time we discuss the Rabbits, another algae eater that are totally underrated!!!!