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Purple tangs grow to a maximum length of near 25 cm (9.8 in). Their bodies are purple in color with a yellow tail. The heads of purple tangs are covered with black spots, and black horizontal lines run down the sides of the bodies of some specimens. The center of their bodies are sometimes a darker color of purple relative to the rest of their bodies. On most specimens, the tips of their pectoral fins are yellow.
Like all members of the genus Zebrasoma, purple tangs have large dorsal and anal fins and an extended snout that is used to forage for algae within rocks. When the dorsal and anal fins are fully extended, the fish looks like a disk.
As typical of all surgeonfish, purple tangs have a sharp spines on each side of their caudal peduncle, which are used for defense.
It has been historically noted that Purple tangs are only found in the Red Sea, but it has now been understood that this is not completely true. Purple tangs have now been found in the Gulf of Aden, Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea.
Purple tangs typically inhabit coral reef ecosystems, where they are found eating filamentous algae in the reef. They have been found at depths ranging from 2 to 20 m (7 to 65 ft). Adults are typically found swimming in shoals, while juveniles remain solitary.
Purple tangs are frequently maintained in home and public aquaria. Specimens kepts in home aquaria are always wild caught (typically from the Red Sea), as they have never spawned in captivity. In the wild, they primarily eat algae, but they adopt a meaty diet in aquaria, eating mysis shrimp or brine shrimp. Like all surgeonfish, they are particularly vulnerable to marine ich (Cryptocaryons irritans).