Flame hawkfish

Flame Hawkfish Care: Neocirrhitus armatus

The flame hawkfish (Neocirrhitus armatus) stands out in even the best reef crowds. They’re genuine charmers for aquarists looking for the perfect touch of RED to add to their tanks. But they’ll also make ideal choices for anyone who appreciates a bit of excitement. Because as members of the hawkfish group? They have delightful hunting habits you’ll need to see to believe.

Table of Contents: Flame Hawkfish Care

Nothing beats finding a dynamic saltwater fish with exciting behaviors. And if you’re eager to figure out what makes the flame hawkfish tick, you have the links below to choose from. But to savor all of the details of these quirky fish? You’ll want to read through the entire article (trust me – you won’t want to miss out on a critical component!).

Quick Facts

  • Common Names: Flame hawkfish, Red hawkfish, Brilliant hawkfish, Flame hawk
  • Scientific Names: Neocirrhitus armatus
  • Size:5 inches (8.9cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 Gallons (151L)
  • Reef Safe? With Caution
  • Care or Experience Level: Moderate
  • Preferred Diet: Carnivore
  • Original Part of the World: Pacific

Flame hawkfish among coral

Description of the Flame Hawkfish

When it comes to fire, flame hawkfish bring the concept to the ocean. Those bright red-orange scales flicker against coral like underwater bonfires. They also sport a sleek black stripe down their backs – the perfect trim to the fiery brilliance. And so there’s no question to the “hawk” in their names, you get a black ring around the eyes, exactly as you find in many birds of prey.

Of course, the outward appearance of this hawkfish doesn’t quite make up for their internal anatomy. As you find in any of the Cirrhitidae family, flame hawkfish lack a swim bladder. And even though they have hefty pectoral fins, the lack of buoyancy makes them poor swimmers. Instead, they use those fins to “walk” from rock to rock. If you DO catch them in open water, they look clumsy and awkward. (For fish, swimming makes them look “out of their element”)

They prefer to stick close to the bottom, perching on coral heads. And if the branches are red? All the better. Then they have a handy camouflage background as they survey their prey items. And with a “swoop,” they dive onto the crustacean. Then it’s an awkward swim back up to their perch to repeat the process over again.

Flame Hawkfish Lifespan

Flame hawkfish cover a significant portion of the western and central regions of the Pacific. Their range extends from the Samoan Islands down to the Great Barrier Reef. And while they like to match their vibrant color to their coral perches, divers often spot them walking along rocks at the bottom, scouting for their next meal.

The hardy predators don’t seem to notice that lack of swim bladder. And they have a healthy lifespan of ten years. Unfortunately, without a proper diet and management, some aquarists get those years WITHOUT the popular brilliant red color.

Creating the Ideal Flame World

Snorkelers and divers record sightings of flame hawkfish around Fiji, the Cook Islands, and throughout Micronesia. You might even catch a glimpse of these swooping fish as far north as the Ryukyu Islands. And, of course, they’re common throughout the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. Lagoons and rocky drop-offs make the perfect environments for these ambush predators. Primarily as they can’t rely on their swimming skills to chase down a meal (or get themselves out of potential trouble).

And checking off those two significant needs? That’s where you come in. Flames use corals and rocks to search for snacks and retreat into hiding. As such, you want to make sure you set up perches and caves throughout the bottom of your reef tank. When first introduced into a new aquarium, your flame hawkfish will look for those two components. And while they may wander around the tank once they settle in, you’ll probably see them return to the same spots over and over. They’re territorial species, and it’s not uncommon to see a flame dive down on another fish and chase it away from a preferred rock.

While it’s admittedly amusing to watch flame hawkfish struggle from one spot to another on those fins, you want to cut them SOME slack. They’re not designed for swimming. And while they are bottom-dwellers, they don’t want to skulk around on the sand. Hawkfish, in general, perch. They want to look down on their prey. So try to incorporate as much live rock and mature coral as you can. Ledges AND caves will give you a better chance of catching your flame in the act of swooping down on a bit of food.

Flame hawkfish don't swim very often

Flame Hawkfish Tank Size

While flame hawkfish may not seem impressive when it comes to size, you still want to take care of settling on tank size. True, they won’t use much swimming room, but they jump and “walk” from rock to rock. And the more territory you can provide for them? The happier they’ll be. As such, you shouldn’t go smaller than 40 gallons (151L). But make sure you go HORIZONTAL with your space – not vertical.

Remember, flames don’t have a swim bladder. So they can’t get much height when they DO decide to wiggle those pectoral fins around. They get better propulsion forward. You’ll have a happier fish if you space things out in the horizontal direction rather than expecting them to use energy climbing.

And it’s in YOUR best interest to do so. Flame hawkfish jump – in the physical sense and the sense that they spook easily. They may fall into the class of carnivorous predators, but they’re also on the menu for plenty of bigger fish on the reef. When they get startled, they engage in the flight half of the fight-or-flight response. And if they don’t have a cave handy to duck into, they’ll bolt UP.

For this reason, you want to have a sturdy lid on your tank. (Yes, even if you ignore the horizontal recommendation) Flames have bulging eyes that manage to find the tiniest holes in a cover to wiggle through. Next thing you know, you have a carpet-surfing hawkfish. (They’re not great at it, in case you wondered)

You’ll also want to strongly consider adding a sump tank to your marine tank. With that panic reflex? Cleaning can lead to a flame hawkfish jumping out of the aquarium. Sump tanks allow for cleaning and water changes that don’t startle your fish. Without that assistance, you add an element of danger to your routine maintenance. (One of the risks of bringing flames into your life) If you opt to skip a sump, make sure you move as slowly as possible any time you need to work in your tank.

Are Flame Hawkfish Reef-Safe?

Any time you consider a hawkfish, you need to look at the reef-safe question with care. Flame hawkfish are carnivores, but they don’t eat coral polyps. They prefer strong lighting, making them ideal for aquarists that keep small polyp stony (SPS) corals. And, in the wild, coral branches from large polyp stony (LPS) corals are some of their favorite perching spots. So it seems like there shouldn’t be a problem with adding flame hawkfish to your reef tank.

But that very perching behavior can cause problems. As those pectoral fins rest on the coral polyps, they retreat. More delicate growth can end up damaged. Meanwhile, your flame sits up on a coral playing King of Pride Rock. If any small members of your cleanup crew attempt to get close (and, you know, perform their job), they end up on the menu. Then your corals succumb to parasites and other irritants. You’ll need to keep these behaviors in the back of your mind before you decide the flame hawkfish is the species for you.

Flame hawkfish perched on rock

Flame Hawkfish Diet

Predator, carnivore – that seems simple enough. And when you’re contemplating feeding a flame hawkfish, you’d think you’d be in the clear, right? Unhappily, once these stalkers get into captivity, they can turn picky. And while they happily chow down on smaller members of the crustacean and feather duster family in the wild, now they don’t want to eat AT ALL. And without the proper balance of nutrients and vitamins, a flame’s colors will turn dull.

You want to keep your flame hawkfish’s diet as varied as possible. That will ensure they don’t grow bored, and it’ll keep them active and engaged. This means offering top proteins each day:

Include vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, too. That’s where the building blocks for that orange-red color reside. If you skimp on the daily nutrient balance – even if you get your flame to eat commercial foods – you’ll also see the scales start to fade.

And if you decide your flame hawkfish only needs a meal every other day? You can end up with a malnourished fish that moves erratically around the tank. That may sound amusing, but it’s a stress signal. Stick to daily offerings.

Flame Hawkfish Behavior and Tank Mates

Flame hawkfish pick out a coral head near the bottom and defend that territory. It’s where they survey for food, but it’s also the refuge they use when they’re feeling threatened. If the tentacles prove large enough, they’ll hide there. Otherwise, they head for the base. They like Ritteri sea anemones, as well.

Because they prefer the bottom of the tank, you need to skip other bottom-dwellers (such as gobies and blennies) when you set up your aquarium. If you don’t, your flame can decide those species are invaders into their territory. And they have a mean streak that drives them to swoop onto smaller AND larger fish if they feel someone’s infringing. As they regularly dine on snails, shrimp, and crabs, they have the teeth to inflict significant damage, too.

On the other hand, when flames spot fighting among other fish, they’ve been known to swoop in and referee things. So there’s a peaceful streak hiding in there, too. And as long as you choose fish that stay away from their territory, they won’t mind sharing an aquarium. They’re relatively peaceful “downstairs” neighbors. As such, you’ll find they’ll do well with:

  • Angelfish
  • Anthias
  • Basslets
  • Boxfish
  • Clownfish
  • Dartfish
  • Dragonets
  • Rabbitfish
  • Tangs

Close-up of flame hawkfish face

Breeding the Flame Hawkfish

As with all members of the Cirrhitidae family, flame hawkfish are protogynous sequential hermaphrodites. What does that mean? All fish are born female. If a group lacks a male, the most dominant changes sex to become male. And within that harem, the male retains control and spawns with all of the females.

Telling the difference between the two sexes comes down to size: males are larger (which is why it’s the most dominant that gets to change sex).

In the wild, flame hawkfish spawn in the evening. The fertilized eggs get released close to the surface following a courtship dance between the parents. The eggs then develop for around three weeks as they float on the current. And if you’re interested in breeding your flames, you can – with some work.

First, you’ll need to ensure you have a tank large enough to house more than one hawkfish. They’re NOT the most tolerant of one another. That means bumping up your aquarium to AT LEAST 80 gallons (303L). And if you want your flames to stay healthy enough to reproduce? You need to ensure consistent water quality and food. The more high-quality protein options you provide, the better. (Hint: if you do not see a brilliant red sheen to those scales, you have room for improvement)

You’ll also need a separate tank to “incubate” the eggs and allow the fry to develop. If you leave the eggs in your display tank, they’ll turn into caviar for the rest of your fish. You want the same conditions as you use in your display tank. And that includes a tight-fitting lid (it’ll come in handy once the baby flames start growing).

Once you spot a courtship ritual where your flame hawkfish loop from the bottom, watch for the eggs to float to the surface. Gently collect them and transfer them to your incubation tank. Flames can lay thousands of eggs, so ensure you’ve collected all of them. Keep the water clean, and mark your calendar for that three-week point.

Flame hawkfish fry do well on enriched brine shrimp and copepods. As they grow, you’ll need to step up your water changes. These tiny hawkfish are MUCH more sensitive to water quality than the adults, and it won’t take much for one to die. If you see a dead fish, remove it immediately. And monitor your water parameters weekly.

You CAN’T move young flame hawkfish into your display tank unless the previous flames have passed away. As soon as a younger, smaller fish comes into the picture, the “old salts” will attack. So don’t plan to breed this species unless you have people willing to take the juveniles off your hands.

Pros and Cons

Nothing beats watching a flame hawkfish stoop onto a bit of shrimp. Even seeing one wobble through the water brings amusement. But they’re not simple fish to keep, so you want to weigh everything before deciding they’re the new fish you want to add to your display tank.

Pros

  • Flame hawkfish are hardy saltwater species that rarely develop illness – provided you keep up with your water quality.
  • Flames get along well with most other fish species that stay in an aquarium’s middle and upper reaches.
  • With some work and preparation, you can breed flame hawkfish in captivity.

Cons

  • While officially reef-safe, flame hawkfish perch on corals which can stress polyps.
  • In captivity, flames can turn into picky eaters, sometimes even refusing to eat at all.
  • Flame hawkfish are territorial, and they’ll chase or attack any fish that comes into their space at the bottom of the tank.

For More Information

It isn’t every day that you find fish that lack swim bladders. Especially when you combine that anatomy with a predator’s fierce hunting technique. So why not stick around and learn a little more about the flame hawkfish?

This YouTube video runs down everything you want to know about the flame hawkfish:

 

Want to know about some of the best flame hawkfish tank mates?

What other fish lack a swim bladder? Let’s find out:

Conclusions

Flame hawkfish look stunning against any backdrop. And when you get to see one hunting in action, you’ll find yourself hooked. They’re an intriguing species. You just need to take some special care to curb that spook reflex and keep them safe. But if you’re willing to add the effort? You couldn’t ask for a better perching fish!

References

  • Fenner, B. “Hawkfishes, Family Cirrhitidae Part I, Part II, Part III.” WetWebMedia.
  • Fatherree, J.W. “The Hawkfishes.” Reefs.
  • Michael, S.W. 2001. Basslets, Dottybacks & Hawkfishes: Volume 2.
  • Neocirrhitus armatus.” Tropical Fish Magazine.

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