Reef Triggerfish – 8 Best For Aquariums (And 2 to Avoid!)

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Looking for a Triggerfish for your saltwater aquarium? Reef Triggerfish are some of the most entertaining and rewarding fish to own. I’ve personally had a great experience with a blue throat triggerfish in a mixed reef tank. Next to a scribbled rabbitfish that I had, it was my favorite fish I’ve ever owned.

I want to share this experience with you as I feel these are special fish, when you can house them in the right environment. I’ll walk you through the 8 best reef triggerfish for aquariums, most that will work in reef tanks and 2 to avoid. So let’s get started!

Introduction To Triggerfish

Triggerfish are some of the most interesting fish in the marine aquarium hobby due to their decorated appearances and incredibly bold personalities. Though these fish are full of character and can have beautiful colors, many triggerfish are not reef-safe, which prevents a lot of aquarists from attempting to keep them.

What Is A Triggerfish?

What Is A Triggerfish

Triggerfish belong to the Balistidae family which only contains about 40 different species of triggerfish, already limiting the short supply of these fish that are available in the aquarium hobby.

Like many other marine fishes, most reef triggerfish originate from the lush coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific. Unlike other species, most triggerfish do not cohabitate with other reef-inhabitants and usually depend on invertebrates and corals for food rather than shelter.

These reef triggerfish are mean, hungry, fast, and strong. Hobbyists typically only keep them in predatory setups or species-only displays where there is no risk to other fish or reef invertebrates. Over the years, though, aquarists have experimented with keeping triggerfish in the reef setting to some surprising success.

Before we get into the best reef safe triggerfish for the aquarium, we need to first understand what makes the better majority of these fish not safe for the reef.

Triggerfish Behavior

Most species of reef triggerfish grow to a large size. This, in addition to their muscular beaked mouths and strong bodies, makes them a formidable predator for their natural prey of various invertebrates.

Interestingly, these fish are named after one of the behaviors. Though a predator, triggerfish can easily scare. When this happens, they take refuge in the rocks and use their first and second dorsal spines as a way to secure themselves. At this point, they can only be removed if that large dorsal spine is forcibly relaxed or the threat diminishes. This action resembles the pulling of a gun trigger, giving them their name.

This behavior is also observed while the fish is resting. Attempting to remove the triggerfish from its position during this time can cause injury to the fish. Because of this, transferring a triggerfish from one tank to another can take a lot of time and patience. Hobbyists usually end up having to transfer some rock along with the fish as well.

Do Triggerfish Bite?

Triggerfish Teeth

With such an intimidating mouth full of teeth, how much damage can a triggerfish’s teeth actually do?

Yes, triggerfish can and will bite, even when unprovoked. Many scuba divers have the stories and scars of being chased and bitten by triggerfish on the reef, sometimes resulting in serious injury.

In the reef aquarium, the chances of being attacked are certainly less but never completely gone. Triggerfish will greedily splash, spit, and chomp at the surface of the water during feeding times, making the difference between a finger and the food almost indistinguishable; this behavior is known as hydraulic jetting and is usually used for uncovering and overturning prey. For these reasons, it is recommended to keep all hands out of the tank and to use tongs when feeding.

More importantly, hobbyists need to be aware of triggerfish biting at aquarium heaters and other equipment in the tank, including electrical cords. If these fish can bite through fingers, they can certainly bite through plastic!

To prevent this, it’s strongly recommended to keep as much equipment as possible in a sump or other external filtration. If this is not possible, equipment will need to be safeguarded with egg crate or other hard plastic. A titanium heater will also be able to withstand the powerful jaws of your fish!

Acrylic vs Glass Reef Aquariums and Triggerfish

Something you need to think about before you even consider getting a reef triggerfish is the material that your aquarium is made from.

Many larger aquariums are made from acrylic because it tends to be a stronger material than glass. Acrylic also gives a noticeably sharper and clearer look into the tank, allowing you to fully appreciate the colors of your fish and corals.

However, acrylic scratches very easily. If you happen to get a triggerfish that likes biting the glass or begging for food at the surface, there is a small chance that it could end up scratching the acrylic. This isn’t a huge concern for most hobbyists, but the possibility is there and should be considered.

Triggerfish Diet

Apart from their aggression, triggerfish are extremely hardy and can adapt to most aquarium conditions. They will need to be fed a varied diet of hard, often live, foods that help keep their beaks trimmed.

Triggerfish need to be fed often. They are highly active and need to restore those nutrients through small feedings throughout the day; most hobbyists aim for at least 5 small portions every day.

Because of this, many triggerfish keepers set up a snail culture. This allows them to have a near-constant supply of food that also helps keep beaks trimmed. This is even better than buying from the store in terms of expense and having control over the health of the snail population. Other hard-shelled invertebrates, like clams and shrimp, may also be supplemented.

In addition to these hard foods, triggerfish will accept most frozen foods. As omnivores, they will also accept marine algae snacks.

Reef-Safe vs Not Reef-Safe Triggerfish

There are some differences between reef-safe and not reef-safe triggerfish. Remember, there is always the possibility that a triggerfish that is labeled as reef-safe may not prove to be so in your own aquarium.

When talking about reef-safe and not reef-safe triggerfish, there are a few levels of compatibility. In general, most triggerfish will leave corals alone; if you find that a triggerfish has taken a bite of coral, it is more likely that there was an invertebrate on the coral than it is for the fish to intentionally go after the coral for food. However, there are some species that are more likely to intentionally or mistakingly eat corals than others.

Then, there are reef triggerfish that don’t eat corals or invertebrates. In the wild, these fish often rely on various types of zooplankton, like copepods, as their main source of nutrition. Not only is there a difference between food preferences with reef-safe versus not reef-safe triggers, but there are also behavioral differences.

Reef-safe species are anatomically different. They have smaller mouths that are higher up on the head to help them capture food in the water column. Because they depend on the water column for food, they are more likely to be in the open ocean than among the rocks.

Reef-safe species are also less likely to destroy your rockwork. Reef Triggers that rely on invertebrates and corals for food can be very determined. They will be spitting sand and will even pick up and move rocks in order to reach their food. In return, this can injure corals and make a mess in the aquarium.

In general, reef-safe species are also much less aggressive, though this varies from fish to fish. As always, not every reef-safe triggerfish will be completely safe for a reef aquarium, but there are certainly some species that do better than others.

Types of Triggerfish

Though there are not many species of reef triggerfish, there are actually quite a few different genera:

  • Melichthys
  • Odonus
  • Xanthichthys
  • Rhinecanthus
  • Bailstes
  • Balistoides
  • Pseudobalistes
  • Sufflamen

From this list, Melichthys, Odonus, and Xanthichthys tend to be considered the most reef-safe, with Xanthichthys being the most confirmed success.

Each species from these genera will vary in needs, so it is always important to do plenty of research before you go out and buy a triggerfish! Especially since some of these species can be very, very expensive and grow to impressive sizes.

8 Best Reef Triggerfish For Aquariums

Here are the top types of triggerfish that are likely to be reef-safe. Remember, this means that they are the species most likely to leave both corals and invertebrates alone. This can always change from fish to fish so don’t take the chance if you’re not willing to lose anything in your tank!

Due to spawning behavior in the wild, not many of these have been successfully bred in captivity. This can cause some prices to be higher and limit the availability of certain species.

1. Sargassum Triggerfish (Xanthichthys ringens)

Sargassum Triggerfish
  • Species Type: Xanthichthys
  • Scientific Name: Xanthichthys ringens
  • Size: 10 inches
  • Origin: Caribbean Ocean
  • Tank Size: 125 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Not Available

The Sargassum triggerfish is also commonly known as the red tail triggerfish. These fish are named after the point in their juvenile stage where they hide among floating vessels of Sargassum algae until they are ready to survive open waters. Their second common name comes from their identifiable orangey-red tail at the end of their speckled bluish-grey body.

Sargassum triggerfish are very common to spot in groups among relatively shallow reef ecosystems throughout the Caribbean. There, they feed on crabs and sea urchins. In the reef, they won’t typically touch corals but might take a bite at any present invertebrates.

2. Bluethroat Triggerfish (Xanthichthys auromarginatus)

Blue Throat Triggerfish in Fish Tank
  • Species Type: Xanthichthys
  • Scientific Name: Xanthichthys auromarginatus
  • Size: 9 inches
  • Origin: Indo-Pacific Ocean
  • Tank Size: 125 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Not Available

The bluethroat triggerfish, also known as the gilded triggerfish and bluechin triggerfish, is an expensive yet eye-catching aquarium fish. These reef triggerfish have a very obvious blue patch around their throat with a lighter dappled grey body and yellow margins on their fins.

The bluethroat triggerfish tends to be found on the perimeter of the reef in loose groups. They heavily rely on copepods as a source of food, which will translate into their aquarium diet.

3. Niger Triggerfish (Odonus niger)

Niger Triggerfish in Reef Tank
  • Species Type: Odonus
  • Scientific Name: Odonus niger
  • Size: 12 inches
  • Origin: Indo-Pacific Ocean
  • Tank Size: 180 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Not Available

The Niger triggerfish, also known as the red-toothed triggerfish, is probably the most commonly available type of reef triggerfish in the aquarium hobby. They have a silky blue body with hints of yellow on their throat; as their second name suggests, they may have maroon-colored teeth.

Though named after an African country, these fish have a large range throughout the warm waters of the Indo Pacific region. They live in very strong currents where they group together and feed on copepods and sea sponges.

Hobbyists have had some success keeping this aquarium fish in a reef tank. They tend to be safer to keep when small but can become quite aggressive to invertebrates and other fish as they age.

4. Crosshatch Triggerfish (Xanthichthys mento)

Crosshatch Triggerfish in Aquarium
  • Species Type: Xanthichthys
  • Scientific Name: Xanthichthys mento
  • Size: 11 inches
  • Origin: Pacific Ocean
  • Tank Size: 180 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Available

The crosshatch triggerfish shares the same secondary common name, red tail trigger, with the Sargassum triggerfish. In comparison, the crosshatch triggerfish is much more expensive and desirable due to its distinctive color pattern of black and yellow; the males have a red tail fin while the females have a yellow one.

These beautiful reef triggerfish can be found off the coasts of oceanic islands, including Japan, the Hawaiian islands, and Easter Island. There, they hunt copepods in schools.

This aquarium fish is one of the friendliest species of triggers and will leave most corals and invertebrates alone.

5. Pinktail Triggerfish (Melichthys vidua)

Pinktail Triggerfish Swimming in Reef
  • Species Type: Melichthys
  • Scientific Name: Melichthys vidua
  • Size: 14 inches
  • Origin: Indo-Pacific Ocean
  • Tank Size: 180 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Not Available

The pinktail triggerfish has a very obvious broom like tail that is pastel pink, though the rest of their greenish-yellow body make them less desirable but more affordable. Unlike the other reef triggerfish on this list, these fish actually prefer marine algae and various detritus as their main diet. However, they will also eat smaller fish and invertebrates if given the opportunity.

That being said, many hobbyists have kept these fish in a full reef aquarium without too many problems. Of course, there is a chance that they will eat any present invertebrates but chances can be improved with more regular feedings.

6. Indian Triggerfish (Melichthys niger)

Indian Triggerfish in Ocean
  • Species Type: Melichthys
  • Scientific Name: Melichthys niger
  • Size: 14 inches
  • Origin: Widespread
  • Tank Size: 125 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Not Available

The Indian triggerfish, also known as the black triggerfish, is another common type of trigger. These fish have a near black body and matching fins, though the bases of the fins are outlined in light blue; in good lighting, these reef triggerfish have dark blue patterning all along their body, but this is difficult to see.

The exact native range of the Indian triggerfish is unknown. They are believed to be widespread, with increased concentrations around oceanic islands, like Hawaii. These fish mainly feed on various algae and zooplankton. They have an interesting relationship with spinner dolphins where they both congregate together while the fish feed on the dolphin’s feces and vomit.

These fish aren’t usually kept in reef tank setups, though they seem to be very similar to pinktail triggers in behavior and demeanor.

7. Picasso Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus)

Picasso Triggerfish in Reef Tank
  • Species Type: Rhinecanthus
  • Scientific Name: Rhinecanthus aculeatus
  • Size: 10 inches
  • Origin: Indo-Pacific Ocean
  • Tank Size: 180 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Not Available

Picasso triggerfish, also known as Humuhumu triggerfish (the official state fish of Hawaii), are very popular and often become the star of the tank. These fish are light tans and whites with paint splashes of yellow, blue, black, and brown.

Unfortunately, Picasso triggerfish can be very aggressive towards fish and invertebrates. Though they likely won’t touch any corals in the tank, they will gladly eat larger crabs, sea urchins, and shrimp. Some hobbyists have had luck with keeping them in full reef setups as juveniles, but their aggression often grows with them.

In their natural shallow reef ecosystems, Picasso triggers are territorial and enjoy the open water.

8. Clown Triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum)

Clown Triggerfish in Reef
  • Species Type: Balistoides
  • Scientific Name: Balistoides conspicillum
  • Size: 20 inches
  • Origin: Indo-Pacific Ocean
  • Tank Size: 300 gallons
  • Available As Tank Bred: Available

The clown triggerfish is the fish that everybody wants. This is one of the most colorful and interesting fish to look at in the aquarium hobby, period.

Many beginner hobbyists would love to get their hands on one of these black and white polka-dotted fish. However, they can grow to extreme sizes and need extreme setups. For most, it’s simply unrealistic to keep a clown triggerfish in the typical saltwater reef tank. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop many from trying to do so.

In the wild, clown triggerfish live on their own and are very rare to come across. They feed on a variety of different benthic invertebrates, making them safe for corals but a predator for crabs, shrimp, and other cleanup crew members. This is one of the few triggerfish species that are available as tank bred.

Triggerfish Species To Avoid

While reef triggerfish are beautiful, there are a few species that common hobbyists want to avoid. This includes:

Undulate Triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus).

Also known as the orangelined triggerfish, this fish is super aggressive. They will definitely eat invertebrates and likely go after other fish in the aquarium as well. Because of this, they should only be kept with bigger reef fishes or ones that are able to defend themselves through poison, venom, or other body armor. They have tough teeth and can damage rocks, acrylic, and fingers. Buyer beware.

Queen Triggerfish (Balistes vetula).

These triggerfish need to be treated like nothing less than royalty. Queen triggerfish can grow to an impressive two feet and can become incredibly aggressive to fish and reef invertebrates alike. This makes them almost impossible to keep in the home aquarium, but something to admire on public display or appreciated from diver videos (like the one above by Rumble Viral).

Where To Buy Triggerfish

Triggerfish are typically available at local fish stores and several online fish stores. However, you will usually find large or common reef triggerfish when looking to purchase locally. If you are looking for smaller, tank raised, or even the more exotic types like crosshatches, consider purchasing from an online fish store.

These fish tend to do well when shipped and imported, however, do not purchase from an online retailer unless there is a guarantee on the fish or the fish is a what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) fish.

For retailers, I would consider salwaterfish for budgets, liveaquaria’s driver’s den for middle price, and TSM corals for the most exotic varieties. Triggers can be expensive. If you are going to spend, make sure your retail backs their fish with guarantees or a quarantine process.

Final Thoughts

Triggerfish catch the attention of many hobbyists due to their impressive sizes, bright colors, and fearsome sharp teeth. Though most reef triggerfish species are incredibly hardy, not many hobbyists can actually keep them in their home aquariums due to their potential size and behavior.

Triggerfish are predatory fish. While there are some species that are considered reef-safe, there is always the chance that they take a liking to your reef invertebrates or corals.

Got any experience in keeping triggers? Leave a comment below.

by Mark

Mark is the founder of Aquarium Store Depot. He started in the aquarium hobby at the age of 11 and along the way worked at local fish stores. He has kept freshwater tanks, ponds, and reef tanks for over 25 years. His site was created to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale. He has worked on making aquarium and pond keeping approachable. Mark has been featured in two books about aquarium keeping - both best sellers on Amazon. Each year, he continues to help his readers and clients with knowledge, professional builds, and troubleshooting.

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