yellow tangs are reef safe

Yellow Tang: Caring for this saltwater fish in a reef tank

The Yellow Tang is one of the most common saltwater fish because of its striking color, fantastic shape, bold personality, and relative ease of care. They will add a pop of color and the frenzied reef fish motion we all love to even the brightest reef tank.

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They are (not surprisingly) yellow in color (shocking…I know), ranging from a pastel-y buttery color to an almost neon color that changes based on age, season, and time of day.  Don’t be alarmed if the fish looks dull at night because these fish become a dull, almost grey-ish color at night to aid camouflage when they bed down.

I know I was freaked out the first few times I saw that.

They are disc-shaped with almost equal height and length when all seven of their fins are fully extended. They have sharp white spines on their tales for self-defense which is the only part of them that is not yellow.

Known for being outgoing, generally friendly fish, yellow tangs need lots of room to swim and a space ready for them to grow into. They are reef-compatible herbivores with a seemingly natural curiosity.

Yellow tang fish on black background

Yellow tang fish care facts

  • Common names: Yellow tang fish, Lemon surgeonfish, Hawaiian tang
  • Scientific name: Zebrasoma flavescens
  • Genus: There are 7 other well-known members of this genus
  • Size: ~8 inches (20-21 cm), disc-shaped
  • Minimum tank size: 90 gallons +
  • Reef safe: yes
  • Care or experience level: easy, appropriate for all levels of experience
  • Preferred diet: Algae eater will eat meaty foods if offered
  • Captive-bred available: Technically, yes, but not the most commonly available
  • The original part of the world: Hawaiian reefs and the Pacific Ocean reefs

Yellow tang fish scientific name and common names

The scientific name of the yellow tang is Zebrasoma flavescens

Yellow tang care

The natural habitat of the Yellow tang fish

Yellow tangs live in subtropical waters from the Western Coast of Hawaii to the Eastern Coast of Japan. Their main population is found in Hawaii, and the majority of all yellow tangs caught come from the Kona Region (The West Coast of the Big Island). They inhabit coral reefs and shallow waters near the continental shelf.

They tend to live lower in the water column, where the water is calmer. Juvenile yellow tangs tend to live in deeper waters farther from the reefs, with their move into the shallower coral reefs corresponding with them reaching sexual maturity.

yellow tang shoal off the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii

Seeing this shoal in real life took my breath away. Okay, I was underwater, so I was breathing through a snorkel, but you get the point.

I was fortunate to get to see shoals of them off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, as shown in the image above.

Yellow tangs have historically been Hawaii’s largest fish export making up 80% of all fish caught for the aquarium trade-off its coasts. In 1990, Fish Replenishment Areas were set up off the Kona Coast, which prevents the collection of fish for aquarium sales in 30% of the area.

Hawaii coastline

At this time, the Tang’s population is listed as stable, and there is no shortage of specimens in the areas where the collection is allowed. The yellow tang will likely remain one of the most popular saltwater fish, as long as the legislation allows.

The yellow tang does not have any specific water quality needs. As long as you can maintain stable levels of the key water parameters and use a high-quality salt, you should be covered.

Learn about the best reef salt mix here.

yellow tangs are reef safe

Yellow tang tank size

Yellow tangs are constant swimmers that graze on the surfaces in your tank constantly. It is recommended to keep them in a tank with at least 90 gallons (340 liters) in size to allow them sufficient room to swim about and graze.

Yellow tangs often arrive at pet stores small (sometimes 2 inches or smaller), but it is important to keep in mind that these tiny little rays of sunshine can grow to be 8-inch fish who are quick swimmers requiring lots of room to move around.

saltwater aquarium

Tangs are bold and active fish that will be very visible in your tank during the day and sleep at night. They need space to swim freely in the upper portion of the tank during their active periods but need rocks and coral at the bottom of the tank to hide in at night.

Because of their need for room to swim, since they are in constant motion, the best yellow tang tank size is at least 90 gallons in volume or larger. Determining the minimum appropriate tank size for tangs is one of the larger controversies/debates in the hobby.

Some sources recommend that fully-grown tangs need at least 6 feet of linear open space to swim in. Chat forums for hobbyists seem to have groups of yellow tang vigilantes who have made it their mission to protect tangs from tanks that are too small. To be safe on the forums and avoid getting shamed, don’t keep tangs in tanks under 90 gallons, and make sure they have lots of free space to swim in the open!

Get started with your own tank by learning how to set up a saltwater aquarium.



Yellow tangs are extremely popular community fishes, considered to have a “semi-aggressive” temperament. That means, generally speaking, that they can and will get along with most other community saltwater aquarium fish, although you should expect some squabbling over territories and food.

Yellow tang in a reef tank

It also means that any fish added after the yellow tang may be more likely to receive the brunt of their semi-aggression.

Tangs display aggression by flaring their fins and swimming sideways or backward towards the target fish, showing off their size and the sharp white scalpel near their tail. Sometimes the display is a non-violent threat. Other times they give the rival a whack with their scalpel.

aggressive display yellow tang

Fins fully extended and twitching motion, flashing or backing into other fish with the scalpel is a threat display.


In my experience with this fish (I’ve had a few over the years), that means that they will get along almost all of the time, with almost all of the other fish. But there will occasionally be fish that they just can’t stand, for some reason and they may chase, harass, bully and even slash (that’s right, slash!) those other fish.

this is what happens when you put 2 tangs together

It is generally not recommended to have more than one surgeonfish in a typical aquarium, although there are many reports about people successfully keeping 3 or more. If you plan to introduce more than one Surgeonfish (of any variety) into your tank, it is generally thought to be best to add them all at the same time.

In that way, no one fish has a chance to establish the tank as ‘their territory’ before the others. They can then establish their own pecking order naturally and sometimes can peacefully coexist.

Other times, it ends badly, as I’ve written about in a previous post. Take a look at that image above. Sad.

They are reef compatible and will generally not nip at the fleshy polyps of corals. Still, some of the more bold individuals can sometimes harm corals by disturbing them so often with their aggressive feeding. The tangs are eating algae, not corals, but they can sometimes upset the apple cart in their zest for the ultimate vegan meal.

Yellow tang in a community tank



Defining characteristics

Yellow tangs in the wild are schooling fish, living solo when young, and moving into large loose shoals as they reach maturity. In a large enough tank, 3 or more yellow tangs will form schools playing follow the leader up and down the length of the tank. During their active hours, wild yellow tangs are constantly moving, picking bits of algae off the rocks and aquarium glass.

Their bold temperament and active lifestyle make them a good addition to a tank for their entertainment value alone.

Tangs do have a large white spine near their tails, on the part of the body called the caudal peduncle (in case that ever comes up at Trivia night). Tangs and surgeonfish display this thorny spine when threatened, to protect themselves or proactively when being aggressive. Male fish, in particular, will fan out all their fins to achieve their maximum size before displaying their scalpel-like scales in displays of aggression.

Yellow tang aggressive

When they want to be semi-aggressive, they will put that scalpel to no good use, swatting it at a rival fish with intent to maim. Over the years, I’ve had a few fish end up with a cut due to a tangle with them.


One of the greatest breakthroughs in aquarium husbandry over the past decade was when the Oceanic Institute announced they had successfully cultured yellow tangs, shattering the previously impossible task of rearing the major broadcast spawners in an aquarium setting.

This was a monumental task because the larvae are so small when the eggs hatch and require such delicate care and feeding. Their facility was producing tens of thousands of eggs daily (Callan 2016).  

As a result, a limited number of aquacultured yellow tangs are available in the market–and I expect the availability to grow over time.


With their beak-like snouts and narrow faces, yellow tangs were built for eating algae out of crevices in coral and between rocks. Their daily routine is pretty much built around grazing and eating all day long. They need to have access to lots of algae.

yellow tangs eat macroalgae including halimeda

Yellow tang diet

On the reef, the Yellow tang diet consists primarily of both microalgae and macroalgae, depending on what’s available to eat. However, it is thought that the yellow tang diet does naturally skew more heavily towards the microalgae (Michael 2015). However, like you or I, a Yellow tang diet is heavily dependent on what there is around to eat. Yellow tangs are known to eat brown, red, green, and even blue-green algae (Michael 2015). 

Here is another interesting dietary fact and trivia word. In addition to being mostly herbivorous, the yellow tang diet also contains coprophagous um…substances…which (giggle) means fish poop is also officially in their diet (Michael 2015). 

What do yellow tangs eat? 

Yellow tangs eat microalgae (algal films), as well as macroalgae and fish poop. The digestion of these tough, cell-wall-rich foods is assisted by symbiotic protozoans that live in their digestive tracts (Michael 2015).

Remember that the next time you’re tempted to dose an antibiotic in your tank. 

In terms of macroalgae, yellow tangs eat Filamentous algae, blue-green algae, brown algae, green algae, and red algae.

yellow tang diet consists of filamentous algae

They are herbivores by nature and will gladly snack on nori and other seaweed-based food options. To give them the most natural access to this food source, it is good to distribute it around the tank tucking it under rocks and creating opportunities for them to find it.

The tangs in my tank also tended to eat spirulina flakes aggressively too.

Even though their preferred/natural food is plant-based, that won’t stop them from eating meat-based foods. My tangs greedily ate mysid shrimp, blackworms, and brine shrimp, as well. To keep them happy and healthy, they should be fed at least 3 times a week, although most people will try to feed them daily.


These fish are susceptible to ich and many other parasites. A quick scan of some hobby forums will turn up many examples of parasites in yellow tangs. In fact, it is startling how many of the example pictures of diseased fish are yellow tang.

Yellow tang ich

See the white spots on this yellow tang? That is ich, a common saltwater aquarium parasite. This image is Wikimedia creative commons.

A quarantine tank is necessary for any hobbyist, but it seems more important if you are getting yellow tangs. It is important to quarantine them before introducing them to your display tank.

sick yellow tang fish

All yellow tangs are wild-caught and can come diseased from the ocean. They seem to be parasite magnets, picking up critters somewhere along their journey.

Yellow tang ich

If you have a reef tank that has both fish and invertebrates (corals, clams, shrimps, crabs, etc.) and you notice the characteristic white spots of a marine ich infection, you have your work cut out for you, unfortunately.

It is complicated to rid a reef tank of ich once it shows up–mainly because the things you would use to kill ich will kill the inverts in your tank. I recommend you skip the ‘reef-safe remedies’ entirely.

Instead, you need a two-pronged approach:

  1. Remove the yellow tang with ich and every other fish to a separate hospital tank that has no invertebrates in it – treat those fish with hyposalinity
  2. Allow your reef tank to go ‘fallow’–which means running but no fish for a long while to allow the ich to die-out

You can learn more about dealing with marine ich here.

How to catch a yellow tang

If you ever have to catch and remove or transport your yellow tang, don’t catch them directly in your aquarium net. Instead, use the net to corral them into a hard plastic specimen container to avoid snagging their spine (Michael 2015).

Yellow tang for sale

If you are interested in adding one of these vibrant fish to your tank, online stores that will ship them, via overnight delivery, right to your door. The other way, of course, is to head to your local fish store. Be sure to follow proper acclimation and quarantine procedures to give your new purchase the best chance and ensure you have access to any live arrival guarantees.


If you haven’t already considered adding a yellow tang to your reef aquarium, you should. They’ve been an enjoyable and vibrant part of my tank for most of the years I’ve had it.

yellow tangs are a great saltwater aquarium fish

Why do I love them so much?

  • They are gorgeous
  • Lively, active, and hardy
  • Get along well with most tankmates
  • Grow reasonably fast
  • Easy to care for
  • Only slow down at night

There is no shortage of reasons why the yellow tang is one of the most common fish in hobby aquariums. But keep in mind, while they are easy to care for, they do have some special considerations. They are susceptible to disease, prone to aggression in some cases, and can sometimes cause problems for some types of coral because of their feeding habits. 

If treated properly, the yellow tang fish will add color and character to your display tank for many years to come because they can live as long as 10 years!

Have any questions about caring for the yellow tang? If so, please ask it in the comments below.


Learn about other great tankmates for the yellow tang

Looking for a few great options to keep with a yellow tang? Read more:

The yellow tang is also reef safe and can be kept with LPS, SPS, Soft corals, mushrooms, and zoanthids.


Looking for an alternative to the yellow tang?

Check out a few of these other tang species:

Or these yellow fish:


Callan, Chatham K. “Striking Gold: The Dream of Breeding Zebrasoma flavesens Comes True in a Hawaii Marine Lab.” Coral: The Reef & Marine Magazine: Volum 13: Issue 1 Jan/Feb 2016.

Michael, Scott W. ” Fishy Grazers on the Reef and in the Aquarium.” Coral: The Reef & Marine Magazine: Volume 12: Issue 4 Jul/Aug 2015.


  1. Hi, o0k first of all, I love your straightforward honest blog, you pepper it’s perfect balance with humor that is so easy to relate to. I enjoy it and have commented before. Anyways, let me get to the point here. I have a yellow tang that is losing it’s yellow color and I don’t know why. The fish is around 4 or 5 years old, super shy stays mostly hidden inside of reef and rock. His tank mates are a tiny clown fish, a kinda large squirrle fish and a couple of damsels. I feed them once a day New Life Spectrum TherA+A Enhanced and the every other day brine shrimp along with their pellets. He seems healthy but he has lost around 30% of his color. Any ideas? I’m not finding anything on line that addresses this. Thank you in advance for any info you may have.

    1. Author

      Hi Roben, thanks for the nice comment, compliment, and a great/tough question. Sorry, by the way, that your tang is losing its color. A couple of thoughts here to help jump-start the troubleshooting. First thought/reaction is that the fish being super shy after 4-5 years may be part of the problem. Is it being picked on or bullied? Is there something about tank setup or aquascape perhaps leading to it feeling unsafe (like too much open space?)

      One random thing to check, out of personal experience, is to look for stray electrical current in the water. That was one thing I had problems with that caused my fish to ‘always be stressed’. That’s a super-specific thing that may not be your issue, but it may be ‘something like that’ stressing it out.

      Stressed tangs could very likely be showing a ‘stressed out color’ as part of it. The stress could also be leading to under-eating, which could be leading to lower nutrition (algae for a tang), which could be part of the problem.

      If the color lost is predominantly around the head and lateral line, it could be HLLE disease, which is also often nutrition and environment (water quality), and made worse if you have activated carbon in your filter.

      Long story short, would definitely try to boost more algae in diet–algae sheets, maybe some frozen veggie blend foods (instead of the brine shrimp), veggie flakes, etc, and try to see if you can make the environment a little safer/happier for the fish. Good luck and keep us posted.

  2. Thank you so much for your swift answers and you gave me a few take aways I am very appreciative. I’ve spent this week keeping a closer eye on the tang (who I call Mr.T) I was able to rule out HLLE after looking more closely however water parameters are still on my radar. I will keep you posted. Thanks again!

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