Most sources agree on the existence of 72 species within the Acanthuridae family but the number of genera ranges from 6 to 9, depending on the source. Acanthurids, commonly known as surgeonfishes, are characterized by the existence of the “ scalpel ,” a distinctive spine or group of spines on either side of the tail base, hence the common name surgeonfish. Color marks often emphasize the scalpels and they are important for interspecies communication, as discussed in Communication below.
- Thresher, R. 1984. Reproduction in Reef Fishes. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications.
- Nelson, J. 1994. Fishes of the World – third edition. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.
- Helfman, G., B. Collete, D. Facey. 1997. The Diversity of Fishes. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Allen, G., D. Robertson. 1994. Fishes of the Tropical Eastern Pacific. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.
- Wheeler, A. 1975. Fishes of the World, an Illustrated Dictionary. London: Ferndale Editions.
Acanthurids are exclusively marine-dwelling and can be found in all tropical and subtropical seas but are absent from the Mediterranean.
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native ); neotropical (Native ); australian (Native ); indian ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
- Johnson, G., A. Gill. 1998. Perches and Their Allies. Pp. 192 in W Eschmeyer, J Paxton, eds. Encyclopedia of fishes – second edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Acanthurids range in size from 20 to 200 cm and have deep, compressed bodies with small mouths adapted for nibbling and scraping small organisms from the rocks and coral. They are distinguished by a modified scale on the caudal peduncle, which forms a knife blade that is often covered with a toxic slime. In some genera, this blade exists as fixed, laterally projecting plates (Prionurus and Naso) or spines that project forward as the fish flexes its body. The pelvic fin has one spine and three (Naso and Paracanthus) or five soft rays. The dorsal fin usually has four to nine spines and the anal fin commonly has 19 to 36 soft rays and two or three spines.
There is variation in the degree and type of sexual dimorphism exhibited by acanthurids, although permanent dimorphism is relatively uncommon. There are either size (male or female may be larger depending on the species) or morphological differences between the sexes. Only members of the genus Naso exhibit morphological differences while size difference has been reported for various species. Additionally, males tend to darken during the spawning period (see Reproduction and Communication below). (Click here to see a fish diagram).
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger; male larger
- MASDEA (1997).
Acanthurids inhabit offshore coral reefs as adults but larvae are carried by the currents inshore where they quickly sink to the bottom and begin transformation to the juvenile form. Bottom-dwelling species are often found along shallow rocky shores, or exposed coral reefs in surge areas while plankton feeders are generally found well above the bottom over sandy areas.
Habitat Regions: saltwater or marine
Aquatic Biomes: pelagic ; reef
Other Habitat Features: intertidal or littoral
Acanthurids have small mouths and incisor-like, lobate teeth used to probe the reef for small animals (zooplankton) and plants. Acanthurids are diurnal fishes, seeking cover at night, and most are herbivorous except one genus, Naso (unicornfish), which is planktivorous. Some herbivorous species may have heavy-walled gizzard-like stomachs as they pick up large quantities of coral and sand when feeding on short algal growths on the sea bottom. Others have thin-walled stomachs and graze mainly on algae, fronds, or filaments connected to rocky substrates and pick up very little calcareous material while feeding.
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats non-insect arthropods); herbivore ; omnivore ; planktivore
- Böhlke, J., C. Chaplin. 1994. Fishes of the Bahamas and Adjacent Tropical Waters. Wynnewood, PA: Published for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia by Livingston.
Members of the Acanthuridae family fill the roles of grazer and planktivore. Herbivores are quite important for the reef as they keep thick mats of filamentous and leafy algae from smothering the corals. They keep the mat only 1 to 2 mm thick and can strip vegetation from a 10 m wide ring around the reef (Hixon 1991; Lewis 1986 from Moyle and Cech 2000). One genus within the Acanthuridae, Naso (unicornfish), is classified as diurnal planktivores (feeding twice during the day on organisms floating in the water column). Unicornfishes mainly use the reef for shelter but “hover above it in brilliant, shifting shoals, while feeding on plankton.” These fish deposit feces in the small crevices where they hide, which is important in promoting the growth and diversity of corals.
A scalpel-like spine on each side of the caudal peduncle (just in front of the tail) serves as the main defense mechanism of acanthurids. The spines make a slashing motion by powerful bursts of the tail and can inflict serious wounds on the victim. Acanthurids feed only during daylight hours and seek out reef crevices for protection at night. For most reef fishes predation pressures are highest during the planktonic life stages (Hixon 1991 from Moyle and Cech 2000).
- humans (Homo sapiens)
- Moyle, P., J. Cech. 2000. Fishes: An introduction to ichthyology – fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Communication and Perception
One important form of communication in acanthurids is color changes that occur when males are aroused through intraspecific competition or spawning. The scalpel is also emphasized with bright colors and is angled at the opposing male during combat. This emphasis of the scalpel facilitates its role during competition. Additionally, individuals change colors as they become aroused, whether in combat or spawning.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile
Perception Channels: visual
The larval stage of acanthurids, termed the acronurus, differs considerably from both adult and juvenile stages. The acronurus is transparent and the scales along the ridges of the body are absent. The acronurus is planktonic and remains pelagic (in deep water) for an extended period before settling to the bottom near shore where it rapidly develops into the juvenile form. Depending on the species sexual maturity is reached after one to two years and length at maturity ranges from 10 cm, Acanthurus triostegus, to 15-19.5 cm (depending on sex and species) for some western Atlantic species, such as Acanthurus coeruleus and Acanthurus bahianus.
Development - Life Cycle: metamorphosis
The majority of acanthurids are long-lived with many species exceeding 30 years. Acanthurids from the tropical Atlantic, especially from the Carribbean, are short-lived while those living in the West Pacific reach greater maximum ages. There is no relationship between age and size in species of acanthurids.
Acanthurids spawn by forming individual pairs or groups of pairs, but in some species, both paired and group spawning have been observed. Paired spawning can occur in three different situations: between members of a stable pair or harem defining a common territory, between individual males with temporary spawning areas at the reef edge and passing females, and between members of a foraging group, also at the reef edge. However, group spawning is most common in acanthurids. Acanthurids exhibit color changes during spawning, but also through other forms of arousal, such as intraspecific competition (see Communication below).
Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)
Acanthurids aggregate in huge numbers prior to spawning. Spawning can occur throughout the year in some species but peaks in late winter and early spring. The existence of harem-based social systems and consistent size differences between the sexes suggests that sequential hermaphrodism is exhibited by some acanthurids.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sequential hermaphrodite; sexual ; fertilization (External ); oviparous
There is no evidence of parental care in the Acanthuridae family.
Parental Investment: no parental involvement
- Thresher, R. 1984. Reproduction in Reef Fishes. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage
|Specimen Records:||1,588||Public Records:||611|
|Specimens with Sequences:||1,400||Public Species:||53|
|Specimens with Barcodes:||1,398||Public BINs:||53|
|Species With Barcodes:||68|
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
No specific information was found concerning any negative impacts to humans.
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Many species within this family are small and exhibit elaborate coloration. Consequently, they are popular aquarium fish. Some acanthurids are important food fish as well, but there have some reported cases of ciguatera, or fish poisoning.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; food
- Froese, R., D. Pauly, D. Woodland. 2003. "Fish Base" (On-line). FishBase World Wide Web electronic publication. Accessed May 05, 2003 at http://www.fishbase.org/.
The Acanthuridae are the family of surgeonfishes, tangs, and unicornfishes. The family is composed of marine fish living in tropical seas, usually around coral reefs. Many of the species are brightly colored and popular for aquaria.
The distinctive characteristic of the family is the scalpel-like spines, one or more on either side of the tail ("thorn tails"), which are dangerously sharp. The dorsal, anal, and caudal fins are large, extending for most of the length of the body. The small mouths have a single row of teeth used for grazing on algae.
Surgeonfishes sometimes feed as solitary individuals, but they also often travel and feed in schools. Feeding in schools may be a mechanism for overwhelming the highly aggressive defense responses of small territorial damselfishes that vigorously guard small patches of algae on coral reefs.
Most species are relatively small and have a maximum length of 15–40 cm (6–16 in), but some members of the genus Acanthurus, some members of the genus Prionurus, and most members of the genus Naso can grow larger, with the whitemargin unicornfish (N. annulatus), the largest species in the family, reaching a length of up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in). These fishes can grow quickly in aquaria, so average growth size and suitability should be checked before adding them to a marine aquarium.
Timeline of genera
Etymology and taxonomic history
The name of the family is derived from the Greek words akantha and oura, which loosely translate to "thorn" and "tail", respectively. This refers to the distinguishing characteristic of the family, the "scalpel" found on each member's caudal peduncle. In the early 1900s, the family was called Hepatidae.
In the aquarium
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (June 2009)|
Tangs are very sensitive to disease in the home aquarium. However if the tang is fed enough algae and the aquarium is properly maintained disease should not be a problem. It is usually necessary to quarantine the animals for a period before introducing them to the aquarium.
Adults range from 15 to 40 centimetres (5.9 to 15.7 in) in length and most grow quickly even in aquaria. When considering a tang for an aquarium it is important to consider the size to which these fish can grow. Larger species such as the popular Pacific blue tang surgeonfish (of Finding Nemo fame), Naso or lipstick tang, lined surgeonfish, Sohal surgeonfish and Atlantic blue tang surgeonfish can grow to 40 cm (16 in) and require swimming room and hiding places.
Many also suggest adding aggressive tangs to the aquarium last as they are territorial and may fight and possibly kill other fish.
Tangs primarily graze on macroalgae, such as caulerpa and gracilias, although they have been observed in an aquarium setting to eat meat-based fish foods. A popular technique for aquarists, is to grow macroalgae in a sump or refugium. This technique not only is economically beneficial, but serves to promote enhanced water quality through nitrate absorption. The growth of the algae can then be controlled by feeding it to the tang.
- Froese, Rainer, and Daniel Pauly, eds. (2007). "Acanthuridae" in FishBase. February 2007 version.
- W. S. Alevizon (1976). "Mixed schooling and its possible significance in a tropical western Atlantic parrotfish and surgeonfish". Copeia 1976 (4): 797–798. JSTOR 1443464.
- Seale, Alvin (1909). "New Species of Philippine Fishes". Philippine Journal of Science (Bureau of Science in Manila) 4 (6).
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