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Scott Michael


March 4th on #reefs

Scott W. Michael is an underwater photographer widely regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on the behavior and husbandry of reef fishes in aquarium systems. He is a regular contributor to Aquarium Fish Magazine and has served as a scientific consultant to National Geographic Explorer and the Discovery Channel. He is the author of Reef Sharks and Rays of the World (Sea Challengers), and PocketExpert Guide: Marine Fishes (Microcosm)

You can also learn more about Anthias online. Scott Michael is one of the founders of an online resource for in-depth information about reef fish and invertebrates. To learn more about and how it can benefit you as a hobbyiest, visit

It's great to able to able to join you this cold Nebraska evening and talk about fishes from tropical seas. Oh, how I long to join them in the tepid waters of the Indo-Pacific! Before I start I have a few things I need to share with you all. I'm not a fast typist. I'm a bad speller. And I am not an expert on aquarium gadgetry. I'm a fish geek plain and simple. I am also new to all this forum stuff, so please bear with me. Now that I've got that off my chest, let's talk about anthias.

If you are a scuba diver, and if you've spent anytime diving in the Indo-Pacific, I am sure that you would agree with me that there is nothing like seeing a beautiful cloud of anthias hanging over the coral-rich reef. The first time I ever observed this site on a reef pinnacle off Beqa Island, Fiji, I was convinced I needed to go home and reproduce what I had seen in my own 55 gallon tank. The anthias are in the family Serenade, with the rest of the groupers. I had kept many groupers and knew how well they adapted to aquarium life. Surely the anthias would be equally as hardy and as easy to keep as their errand cousins?

Hmmmmmm. Well, maybe not. Since this obsession with anthias was originally catalyzed I have learned a lot about these fishes. Tonight I want to share some of my observations with you.

One word before I start. I know as soon as I present my anthias observations someone out there in cyberland is going to say, "Hey, I know a guy whose cousin had one of those fish and it was really hardy. I mean it lived for six months and ate flake food!" First of all, our definitions of success may not be the same. When I think of success I think of long term. When I speak of long term, I think of years not months. Also you need to know that there are always exceptions to the rule. This applies to individual fish, as well as aquarists. For example, I have heard of people keeping the longnosed filefish for long periods of time. But how many individuals died before they were able to find one that would eat and survive on normal aquarium fare? Most longnosed filefish that come into the trade will perish prematurely. When I make generalization about a species, I am talking about the norm for that species - not the exception. Be aware, that I am always interested in hearing about the exceptions because they may lead us to the keys in successfully keeping a certain species. Then there are the "exceptional" aquarists. These are the aquarists that will go to any length to make sure that one of these more demanding fish will live. Many of you folks probably fall into this category!! In the case of the longnosed filefish, they may even add its natural fare, Acropora corals, to the tank for its to feed on.

When making generalizations, I am talking about how a particular species will do with the "average hobbyist". Not someone that is able to dedicate lots of time, money and effort to make sure that all its specific needs are met. I wish we could all be exceptional aquarists, but with most of us resources limit how much we can do. So let's talk about the anthias.

A quick taxonomic refresher:

The anthias are members of the family Serranidae and the subfamily Anthiinae. They occur in all the tropical oceans of the world. The first species recognized in this group was described from the Mediterranean and northeast Atlantic in 1758 and, appropriately enough, is known to scientific types as Anthias anthias.

In the past, many species from around the world were assigned to this genus. But after further study it was concluded that the Anthias spp. are restricted to the Atlantic and Mediterranean and all the other forms that were included in this group belong to different genera.

Seven of these anthias genera are known to occur in the coral reef biomes. These are: Holanthias, Luzonichthys, Nemanthias, Plectranthias, Pseudanthias, Rabaulichthys and Serranocirrhitus. Members of all these genera make it into the aquarium trade, although members of the genus Pseudanthias is more often encountered than the members of any other genera. A quick note - the Plectranthias spp. are awesome. They are more like a hawkfish in behavior than an anthias!

In order to better understand the behavior and care of these fish, it will help to conduct a quick taxonomic dissection of the genus Pseudanthias. (These fish being the members of the genus Pseudanthias) This group can be broken down into three subgenera: Franzia, Pseudanthias and Mirolabrichthys. Of course these groups vary morphologically, but more importantly to the aquarist, they differ in their behavior and hardiness in captivity. For example, the members of the subgenus Franzia are more aggressive, toward members of their own and, sometimes to other fish species. They are also the easiest anthias to keep. The members of the subgenus Mirolabrichthys are usually not aggressive (males of the same species may fight is close confines) and most are more difficult to maintain.

The species within the subgenus Pseudanthias fall all along the entire behavioral and husbandry continuum - some are belligerent while others are passive, some are hardy, while some are so sensitive that if you look at them wrong they suddenly sink, moribund, to the bottom of the tank.

O.K. - I might be exaggerating slightly!

There are some exceptions to the rule in each of these subgenera, but these are the general trends. For you that are more taxonomically challenged. That wasn't too bad was it! Let's move on to general anthias husbandry.

Social Organization

Probably on of the most common misconceptions about maintaining anthias is that they need to be kept in groups to ensure their survival. Not only is this not a necessity it can hinder your success in keeping some species. The notion that they are best kept in groups comes from the fact that most anthias species shoal in their natural habitat. However, unlike a school of neon tetras, where every individual is equal in social status (an egalitarian school), members of an anthias shoal are competing for a position in the groups' pecking order. Take for example a typical Lyretail Anthias (P. squamipinnis) assemblage. These groups, which can consist of a thousand or more individuals, are comprised mainly of females and non-territorial males (these males hang toward the bottom of the group). Within the swarm of females, territorial males perform acrobatic U-swim displays and vigorously defend an area of the reef and an associated harem of females. The size of the male's territory is a function of the female density and can range from about 5 to 32 ft (0.5 to 3 m) in area. Within the group of females, a dominance hierarchy exists with larger fish dominating smaller conspecifics.

If the territorial male should die, the dominant female in the harem changes sex and becomes the new territory holder. Gender transformation can occur in as little as two weeks. To maintain dominance, males and larger females display at, charge, chase and sometimes nip at their neighbors. The problem with maintaining a group of anthias in the confines of a home aquarium is related to the aforementioned aggressive/dominance relationships. A male attempts to constrain female sex change by asserting his dominance, while females too are maintaining a pecking order among themselves. The subordinate females are being harassed by both male and female tankmates, have little room to avoid these attacks, and consequently end up hiding, not feeding, and subsequently dying. In several captive anthias colonies (each consisting of one of the following species: P. squamipinnis, P. huchti, and P. pluerotaenia) I have observed that females die, or get sick, in order of their rank within the dominance hierarchy; the lowest on the ladder......

Another deleterious phenomenon that often occurs in the captive anthias colony is that the male will start losing weight because of the large number of calories expended chasing conspecifics! The aquarist may get lucky and reach an equilibrium point, where the density of individuals is low enough and aggression becomes uncommon enough that the remaining fish live in relative peace. (The operative term here is relative!) I do not know of a magic compatibility formula, but If you are determined to keep more than one anthias. I would suggest you purchase something on the order of one anthias per 3800 cm (600 in.) of tank surface area, with only one male per aquarium. (You can keep more than one male if you are housing some of the less aggressive anthias in a larger tank.)

Remember, with the more aggressive anthias you will consistently have the best success keeping only one specimen per tank. One of the only drawbacks in keeping some male anthias, like P. squamipinnis, in an aquarium without conspecifics is that their coloration may change and become more like that of the female. (We'll talk a little more about this later.)

The other possibility, if you want a group of anthias, is to crowd a smaller tank (at least a 75 gallon tank) with female specimens (at least 10 individuals in the shoal). You often see this in some of the European tanks. Big beautiful tanks FULL of anthias! In this way a dominance hierarchy will be more difficult for them to maintain and rather than one or two subordinate fish being the recipients of all the abuse, aggression is spread around the captive population. Analogous I guess to what a lot of fw aquarists do with African cichlids. If you decide to try this procedure it is important to introduce all the shoal members at once. The problem with loading your tank with anthias is that you will limit the number of other fish species you can have, possibly put an excessive biological load on your filter system and increase the chances of a disease epidemic.

Occasionally, if there is a great difference in the sex ratio a dominant female may change sex. It should be pointed out that when it comes to keeping anthias in groups it is particularly problematic when dealing with species from the subgenera Franzia and Pseudanthias.

Members of the subgenus Mirolabrichthys are usually less aggressive and can be kept in groups with greater success; however, only keep one male per tank. Something to consider before mixing anthias species is that an aggressive individual may not restrict its attacks to members of its own species. Therefore, keeping a "mixed" school of anthias can result in disaster for subordinate members no matter what species they happen to be.

Let's talk about one of the most important components of anthias husbandry - feeding. Anthias are zooplankton feeders. They feed heavily on copepods, crustacean larvae, and fish eggs. They are very active fish that forage all through the day. Since large populations of anthias fodder do not usually occur "naturally" in the reef aquaria, it is important to feed them more frequently than many reef aquarists feed their fish. I would recommend feeding them at least twice, and preferably more frequently, throughout the day. The healthiest anthias I have ever seen have been in tanks that were fed three to five times a day!

Feeding this frequently is considered "taboo" by many reef keepers because it can lead to an increase in the level of dissolved organic compounds and general decrease in water quality parameters. This, of course, could be deleterious to sensitive invertebrates and encourage microalgae growth. However, live sand and a protein skimmer can be employed to help maintain good water quality. Another problem you may have if you house anthias in your reef tank, is that herbivores employed to curb algae problems may spend less time picking at algae if they are getting their fill when the anthias are being fed.

A good friend of mine, professional aquarist Mitch Carl, was lamenting this fact to me the other day. He maintains a beautiful tank at the Henry Doorly Zoo with a group of Bartlett's anthias. The anthias are fed mysid shrimp, at least once a day. Not only are the anthias fed, so are the tangs that are important for helping control pestilent algae species. It turns out, the tangs have been feeding less on algae and more on the easier to eat introduced fare! I have had this same thing happen in my own aquariums as well.

With the recent inclusion of refugia and the culturing of zooplankton in these isolated chambers the keeping of anthias has become much easier. Some of the species considered very difficult to keep have been successfully kept in a tank with a productive refugium. Most of you are probably familiar with refugia so I will not go into a detailed discussion about them.

How about anthias predators in a reef tank?

Although anthias will not harm invertebrates, these fish may fall prey to the Elephant Ear Anemone (Amplexidiscus fenestrafer), carpet anemones (Stichodactyla spp.), Corkscrew-Tentacled anemone (Macrodactyla doreensis), large Elegance Coral, large crabs and piscivorous mantis shrimp.

Of course, predatory fishes, like scorpionfishes, frogfishes, morays, etc. will also eat anthias. Another big anthias problem is color loss. It is important to feed your anthias (and all of your other marine fish) a varied diet, some of the frozen or flake foods with added vitamins, pigments and amino acids will help maintain good condition and color. Salmon flesh is fed in some public aquaria to maintain the bright colors of captive anthias. Frozen mysid shrimp are also voraciously accepted by many anthias species, and one of the most complete food sources the aquarist can provide. In fact, if you have access to good frozen mysid shrimp, you are sitting pretty when it comes to feeding many species of marine fishes.

Live food (e.g., brine shrimp, baby live bearers) can be used to elicit feeding in those specimens that refuse to eat. Remember that anthias feed on organisms floating in the water column and rarely take food off the substrate. But, even if you provide your anthias a varied, highly nutritious diet, many will still undergo considerable color loss with time. This is a real BUMMER! When a magnificent fish turns from beautiful to blasé. It is very sad to say the least.

Another cause of color loss in some benthic and/or deepwater fishes may be light colored substrate or bright lights. Many fish change their coloration in response to their natural surroundings.

For example, shrimp gobies observed on black sand bottoms are more colorful than conspecifics living on lighter substrate. Likewise gobies taken from turbid mangrove areas are usually more brightly attired than members of their own species taken from clear reef habitats.

It may be that the color of some deepwater anthias become lighter when placed in a tank where the light levels are higher than those found in their natural habitat. Individuals collected under relatively low-light conditions may fade when moved to a brightly illuminated reef tank. Although this theory may explain why the color of certain deep water species, it would not hold true for those shallow water forms that are also known to lose their color. Another reason for color loss results from a change in social context.

For example, male fairy wrasses (Cirrhilabrus spp.) will often loss some of the chromatic characteristics, which are gender related, if conspecifics are not present. Color change that is associated with social conditions also occurs in captive anthias. Males may revert back to the female color form if they are kept on their own.

Anthias appreciate strong current and clean, well-oxygenated water. There are obviously many different ways to produce adequate circulation in an anthias tank. Water movement may also help discourage aggression in these fish. For example, it has been demonstrated in the Lyretail Anthias inter-individual distances decrease when currents are strong and increase when they're slack. These fish are often quite nervous when initially introduced to the aquarium; a sudden change in light levels or an aquarist's hand moving through the tank can lead to some spectacular anthias aerial displays!

Large Squarespot Anthias are particularly prone to this potentially suicidal behavior. Aggressive tankmates can also be a curse to newly acquired anthiins. I have seen dottybacks, angelfishes, hawkfishes and larger damsels pester these fish to the point of death.

Anthias make great "dither" fish, especially those species that spend lots of time swimming together in the water column. This activity will help incite more nervous fish tankmates to spend time in the open. When selecting an individual for your tank, choose fish that are swimming about and avoid specimens that are hiding among the coral (this is an atypical behavior unless the fish is threatened by a predator or rival). Also avoid anthias in which the posterior part of the skull is clearly demarcated from the rest of the body (i.e., the head appears to be enlarged) and the back looks sunken in. This condition indicates the fish has lost weight (including dorsal musculature) and it will be more difficult to maintain. Ask the retailer to feed the fish before you buy it and avoid specimens that do not eat with gusto.

Some of the deepwater anthias are prone to decompression problems. When they are collected and brought to the surface they are often needled. They take a hypodermic needle and insert it into the swim bladder to bleed of gas. You see, and any of you divers are familiar with this, as pressure decreases, volume increases. That means, if you don't remove the gas as it expands with a needle, or bring the fish up very slowly so that the gases can be expelled naturally, the swim bladder will end-up damaged.

It may even damage surrounding organs. If you see an anthias that is having a hard time maintaining a horizontal posture in the water column, its tail is always floating up above the level of its head or it has to wedge itself among the aquascaping, it probably is suffering from irreparable swim bladder damage. The fish will surely die prematurely.

Before we move on to the different species, here are Scott's top ten ways to increase your chances of successfully keeping a community of fishes: (Of course, these all apply to anthias as well as any other fish!)

  1. 1. Always quarantine your fish for at least two weeks (preferably three) before adding them to your display aquarium.
  2. 2. Always have a hospital tank and needed supplies at the ready in case a fish become ill.
  3. 3. Treat disease or parasites promptly - especially potentially lethal parasites like marine velvet (Amyloodinium) or Uronema. Time is of the essence. If you hesitate too long, you are more likely to loss the sick fish and put your entire fish collection in jeopardy.
  4. 4. Obviously, you need to have some knowledge about the most common marine fish parasites and how to treat them. You also must be able to recognize signs of aberrant behavior (e.g., disease symptoms) in your fish.
  5. 5. If a fish gets sick in your display tank, remove it immediately. Sometime, taking out an infected specimen will stop the whole fish population from contracting the same disease or parasite.
  6. 6. If all your fish are sick, treat the whole tank (unless of course it is a reef aquarium).
  7. 7. If you have a reef aquarium, always have an effective fish trap ready in case you need to rapidly remove a sick fish. Or, be ready to tear the tank apart if intervention is necessary.
  8. 8. Also, carefully check out the environmental parameters if a fish shows signs of illness and take appropriate action (e.g., water change, remove an aggressive tankmate).
  9. 9. Always have some seawater water mixed and ready to go. I use a clean 30 gallon trashcan.
  10. 10. Do not order or purchase too many fish at once. Take it slow. You will be better able to monitor and treat a couple of fish at a time in your quarantine tank. (This a special situation exists if you're going to try to add a group of anthias to your tank all at once.)

Ok, since time is limited here, I will give you a list of some of my favorite anthias with a few comments on each. Then we will look at the species that are best avoided. Oh, when I say favorite, I mean HARDIEST!

Before we begin discussing the good and bad anthias for the aquarium, I need to encourage those that are interested in learning more about these fishes and in seeing some amazing photos of the anthias species to become a member of A website that my wife Janine, two friends, Terry Majewski and Terri Parsons (both are serious divers and world travelers) and I built and maintain. We have lots of anthias stuff on the site now, and continue to add more about these fishes and other reef species Note, the info you will find on CoralRealm deals with the food habits, habitat preferences, distribution, behavior, and identification of reef fishes. It is not a site that deals directly with aquarium husbandry.

Here we go..

Let's take a look at the anthias that I have found to be the most hardy. Unfortunately, not all of the easiest anthias to keep are not the most beautiful members of the subfamily. Oh well, you can't have it all!

Roughtongue Bass (Holanthias martinicensis) - Very deepwater. Very expensive. VERY HARDY! The Roughtongue Bass is a very durable fish that does best if kept in a dimly-lit tank at cooler water temperatures (55 to 74 F).

Bartlett's Anthias (Pseudanthias bartlettorum) - Beautiful and hardy anthias! This is one of the easiest anthias to keep in an aquarium. Although it is not a large species, it needs swimming room in the upper part of the aquarium. It will quickly acclimate to captivity as long as there are plenty of hiding places available and the aquarium dose not already contain aggressive fish species. This species is great for shallow and deep-water reef aquaria, but like all anthias it is important to feed it at least once a day. Unfortunately, like many of these fishes, it may lose its color...

Redcheek or Green Anthias (Pseudanthias huchti) - This is a hardy, aggressive anthias species. It is best to keep solitary individuals, unless you have a large aquarium.

Olive Anthias (Pseudanthias olivaceus) - This species is found in southeast Oceania (including Cook Islands, Austral Islands, Line Islands, Society Islands and Tuamotus). Although the Olive Anthias is not as highly sought after because it is somewhat chromatically challenged, this species is durable aquarium species that is occasionally collected in the Cook and Christmas Islands.

Red-Belted, Red-Girdled or Tricolor Anthias (Pseudanthias rubrizonatus) - This is a hardy and aggressive anthias species. It is best to keep solitary individuals, unless you have an X-large aquarium (e.g., 180 gallons or larger).

Lyretail Anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) - This is a wide-ranging species that is common in the aquarium trade. It is highly variable in color - female are orange, males are usually purple. The Lyretail Anthias is a hardy and aggressive anthias species. It is best to keep solitary individuals, unless you have a large aquarium. If you want to keep a group, it should consist of one male and 8 or more females and should be housed in an X-large tank (e.g., 180 gallon tank or larger). Make sure the females you introduce are not undergoing sex change if they are to be housed with a male. During aggressive encounters, individuals will chase and nip at each other, or may even lock jaws.

Here are the anthias that I feel are the most difficult to keep, long term.

  1. Evan's Anthias (Pseudanthias evansi)
  2. Hawaiian Longfin Anthias (Pseudanthias hawaiiensis)
  3. Purple Queen Anthias (Pseudanthias pascalus)
  4. Yellowstripe Anthias (Pseudanthias tuka)
  5. Longfin Anthias (Pseudanthias ventralis)

Any species I did not mention feel somewhere between hardy and difficult.. Your best bet to successfully keep these fishes is to add them to a tank that is connected to very productive refugium. Live or frozen mysid shrimp will also increase your chances of success with these fishes.

Well, we could talk for hours about these wonderful fishes, but I think I better call it quits for now so we can engage in a little Q and A. If you have a specific questions about particular anthias species, I would be happy to try and answer them.

What anthias is best suited to captivity?

I would say the lyretail or redbelted. They both settle in well and eat most aquarium foods with gusto.

How big a tank should the anthias be in? like the lyretail for example.. and are any species relatively easy to breed?

I think that C-Quest has had some luck with the lyretail, in the way of breeding but they need plenty of room to engage in courtship and spawning. I would say that you could keep one anthias in a tank as small as 30 gallons.

Do you have any "Tricks" for getting difficult anthias to begin feeding?

Live food Putting difficult to feed species with species that are easy to feed. They sometime learn to feed - social facilitation. Mysid shrimp, even frozen, seems to be eaten with gusto by many species and, as I mentioned, a refugium is a great way to consistently provide them with palatable, nutritious fare.

What is the population state of these animals in the wild are they threatened in any way and what(if you happen to know)collection methods are being used?

Hmmmm good question. I am unaware of any species that are in endangered as a result of collecting for the aquarium trade. The Banggai cardinalfish was a fish that I was originally worried about due its limited distribution but we have since found in northern Sulawesi. It was accidentally introduced there by a fish collector and the population is really taking off!

What size q tank is recommended? Reason I ask is due to fish size and room - does it matter and what do you put in the qtank for the animal?

You need a hiding place. I use pvc pipe. Size - for anthias about 20 gallons is fine. Could even go smaller if you have a single fish at a time. You need adequate biological filtration and a heater of course.

Are cuttlefish predators of Anthias?

YIP! So are longnosed hawkfish! I have seen several cases where these hawkfishes eat juvenile anthias in the wild! Hard to believe but true. I LOVE CUTTLEFISH!

Scott, any hints on keeping the purple queen anthias? I love the color but worry about getting them to eat.

I would avoid it. If you are intent on keeping it, you will need a very productive refugium. Or, if you can feed it live mysid shrimp several times a day you may have some success. They are very prone to color loss as well.

What about fat head anthias (Serranocirrhitus latus)?

GREAT FISH! Needs good hiding places. Placid tankmates. A place with light foot traffic, at least until it fully acclimates and a nutritious diet! They are wonderful fish that usually occur in pairs or trios in caves and under ledges. Occasionally, in certain areas, you will find small groups.

What is the range of Anthias in the wild? do they stay in one area, or roam over (say) 100s of meters daily?

They usually stay in a relatively small area. The size of the male's territory is a function of the female density and can range from about 5 to 32 ft (0.5 to 3 m) in area. This is for the lyretail anthias. Some move over larger areas, like the squareblock, but still not as large an area as a emperor angelfish, etc.

Please define a professional aquarist?

Anyone that actually gets paid to clean algae off of glass

Well that is it for the questions and the formal part of the meeting. Thank you very much Scott for taking the time out to talk to us tonight. Great talk!!!

(c) 2000

Created by liquid
Last modified 2005-02-07 05:57