Well-known for their spiny dorsal fins, triggerfish are a unique and interesting species that can certainly look stunning in a saltwater tank.
However, their aggressive nature can make them challenging to house with other species of fish.
If you’re thinking about welcoming a triggerfish to your aquarium, then here’s everything you need to know about their care, including tank setup, diet, and suitable tankmates.
But first, what are triggerfish exactly?
Triggerfish earned their common name due to their spines on their back fins, which are used for self-defense and for anchoring themselves in hiding spots.
The first spine is big and can be locked into an upright position using a second, smaller spine known as “the trigger”.
Triggerfishes live in tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide, but they are most prominent in the Indo-Pacific.
They are typically found in moderately shallow, coastal environments, particularly coral reefs, but some species like the oceanic triggerfish are pelagic.
Pelagic fish reside in the pelagic zone of lake or ocean waters that are neither close to the shore or the bottom.
In contrast, demersal fish live on or close to the bottom, while reef species live in coral reefs.
The reef triggerfish is the state fish of Hawaii, but their common name is something entirely different there.
The Hawaiians call reef triggerfish “humuhumunukunukuapua’a”.
Every single vowel and consonant is pronounced in the Hawaiian language.
As a Delicacy
Although you might not think it, certain species of triggerfish are quite a popular fish to eat, at least in some countries.
Not all varieties are suitable, though, as they can be poisonous when eaten.
Some types of triggerfish like the titan triggerfish are ciguatoxic and are not fit for human consumption.
However, some species like the gray/grey triggerfish are edible.
They apparently have a strangely sweet flavor, not dissimilar to crab meat.
Although there are around 40 species of triggerfish, the majority of them inhabit similar habitats.
They are popularly found in shallow waters near to the coast, especially along coral reefs.
In areas where there are no coral reefs, triggerfishes can be seen in rocky outcrops and other shallow environments.
Certain species of triggerfish like the oceanic triggerfish are pelagic, which means they live in the open ocean instead of near to the shore.
Triggerfish are quite narrow and tall (known as “lateral compression”).
They have large fins on the top and base of their body.
Both the dorsal and anal fins are big and give the fish a lot of motion.
When they need to swim swiftly, the fish uses its tail.
How Do You Tell If Triggerfishes Are Male or Female?
Triggerfishes can be quite difficult to sex as there isn’t much difference between males and females.
Male triggerfish are usually larger than females, but unless you’re lucky enough to have both a female and male in your tank, this can be rather hard to identify.
Triggerfish come in many varieties and colors, with some being more vibrant and striking than others.
Some species like the Picasso triggerfish and reef triggerfish are very pretty, while others like the gray triggerfish and titan triggerfish are a bit duller in terms of appearance.
- Picasso Triggerfish
Picasso triggerfish have this bizarre but attractive painted look to them.
They sport a tan body with dark bands and yellow, blue, and black stripes.
- Reef Triggerfish
Reef triggerfish are another attractive species, with yellow and black markings, a blue top lip, and teeth set close together.
- Redtoothed Triggerfish
Redtoothed triggerfish (other common names include Blue Triggerfish and Niger Triggerfish) are a fascinating species as they look like they’re grinning!
They are typically dark purple with blue or green markings on their heads.
This species has tiny red sharp teeth that can be seen even when their mouth is closed.
Redtoothed triggers are considered one of the more peaceful species in the family.
- Gray Triggerfish
Gray triggerfish (known as pejepuerco blanco in Mexico) is a member of the Balistdae family.
There are only 7 species in the genus Balistes that are found in Mexican oceans, Atlantic ocean, and Pacific ocean.
As their name suggests, gray triggerfish are a steely gray in color.
Their dull gray coloring makes them possibly the least visually appealing type of triggerfish. However, gray triggerfish are popularly eaten in some areas.
- Crosshatch Triggerfish
My personal favorite is the crosshatch triggerfish, which has a crosshatch pattern on its body (hence the name!).
It has a yellow tinge to its body, green fins, and a vibrant pink tail. The crosshatch triggerfish is one of the few species of triggerfish that can change its gender, too.
- I also like the reef triggerfish due to their visually striking colors and markings.
- No matter which variety you go for, your aquarium will definitely look lively and vibrant!
Can A Triggerfish Bite?
Triggerfish can and will bite if they feel threatened or are defending their territory.
They have strong jaws with teeth designed to crush shells.
While a bite from a triggerfish can be painful and leave a mark due to their tough teeth, it won’t be life threatening.
What Causes Them To Bite?
When triggerfish are fearful or defensive, they raise their spiny dorsal fins like a trigger.
Most won’t attack humans unless they are guarding their nest or feel like they’re in danger.
However, some species like the titan triggerfish can be extremely aggressive.
How Big Do Triggerfish Grow?
The maximum size triggerfish can reach depends on the species, but the majority of them are considered small or medium-sized fish.
Larger varieties can grow up to 28 inches fork length (length from the snout to the center of the fork of the tail) and weigh up to 13 pounds.
Male triggerfish are normally larger in size than females.
Types of Triggerfish
Triggerfishes come in many varieties, which means you have quite a lot of options if you’re thinking of adding them to your saltwater tank.
Most family species are a small or medium size, but there are some types that can grow rather large in body and length.
There are many types of triggerfish available in the fishkeeping hobby, but here are some of the more popular varieties you’ll come across.
- Picasso Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus Aculeatus)
- Clown Triggerfish (Balistoides Conspicillum)
- Pinktail Triggerfish (Melichthys Vidua)
- Reef Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus Rectangulus)
- Crosshatch Triggerfish (Xanthichthys Mento)
- Hawaiian Black Triggerfish (Melichthys Niger)
- Gray Triggerfish (Sufflamen Bursa)
- Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides Viridescens)
- Redtoothed Triggerfish (Odonus Niger)
- Sargassum Triggerfish (Xanthichthys Ringens)
Does the Triggerfish Make a Good Pet?
Due to the aggressive tendencies of triggerfish, they’re typically not the best saltwater fish to keep in reef aquariums.
They normally require a triggerfish-only tank that does not contain another species.
There are sometimes exceptions to this rule and some aquarists have had success keeping them with larger fish species that can tolerate their “trigger” (i.e. spiny dorsal fins).
Can You Raise Triggerfish in Captivity?
Triggerfish are extremely difficult to breed in captivity, so the majority (if not all) of specimens you’ll find in pet stores will be wild-caught.
In fact, the first captive-bred triggerfish was the Queen triggerfish, which was accomplished in 2009 by Dr. Andrew Rhyne.
Are Triggerfish Poisonous?
While triggerfish can bite, they are not poisonous and do not carry any unusual marine pathogens.
However, triggerfishes have strong jaws with teeth adapted for crushing shells, so they can deliver quite a painful bite.
Are They Good for Beginners?
Considering how territorial triggerfish can be, I wouldn’t recommend them for beginners.
Only experienced fishkeepers should consider owning this fish as they can be difficult to feed and house with other fish.
However, their unusual appearance and unique personality certainly make them an enticing fish to own.
If you think you have the time, skill, and patience, then triggerfish are a species you shouldn’t overlook.
Are Triggerfish Easy to Keep?
Triggerfish are robust and hardy, so they’re not overly difficult to keep in terms of survivability. The challenge with these fish lies in their aggressive and destructive nature.
Most types are not suitable for reef tanks as they will wreak havoc on corals, invertebrates, and other fish.
They will often uproot plants and destroy your aquascaping in search of food.
How Long Do Triggerfishes Live For?
There’s quite a bit of conflicting information regarding triggerfish’ lifespan, though most aquarists agree that they can live for over 10 years in captivity.
Some sources even claim that the fish can live up to 20 years, which is an extremely long time!
As such, the triggerfish is quite high maintenance and definitely the sort of fish you should think carefully about owning.
Compared to other saltwater or reef fishes with short lifespans, triggerfish will be with you for a substantial period of time.
Make sure you have the time, patience, and money to own a trigger fish long-term.
Do Triggers Fish Die Easily?
Triggerfish are an incredibly hardy fish, so as long as you look after them properly, they shouldn’t die off.
They can withstand poor conditions and are fairly resilient to disease, making them one of the most robust saltwater species you can keep.
Triggerfish are carnivores and primarily feed on hard-bodied invertebrates in the wild.
Some of their favorite foods are crabs, sea urchins, shrimp, starfish, sea cucumbers, and sand dollars.
Some types eat algae, though the majority are carnivorous.
They often target slow-moving prey.
Triggerfish have powerful jaws and teeth specifically designed for chewing through exoskeletons and shells.
What Is the Best Food for Them?
Triggerfish mostly require a carnivorous diet, so you’ll need to make sure you feed them a variety of meaty foods.
Mysis shrimp, prawn, shell-on shrimp, clams, fish, high-protein fish pellets, and squid are particularly good options.
Hard-shelled foods are important for triggerfish as it helps wear down their continuously-growing teeth.
You can also offer them some algae-based frozen cubes or nori seaweed every now and again.
While triggerfish prefer live prey, refrain from doing so as it can make them more predatory.
This is especially true if you want to try and house them with other fish.
How Should I Feed Them?
Be careful when feeding triggerfish as they have very tough teeth that can deliver a painful bite. For this reason, I wouldn’t attempt to handfeed them.
Make sure you keep your hands far away when feeding them or use a turkey baster to avoid being bitten by their sharp teeth.
How Many Times a Day Should I Feed Them?
You should feed your triggerfish at least once a day, ideally two to three times a day. These fish are big eaters and prefer to be fed frequently.
If you want to try and house triggerfish with other fish, it’s vital you keep them well-fed.
While the type of substrate you use in your triggerfish aquarium is ultimately down to personal preference, sand is a particularly good choice.
Not only do triggerfish enjoy digging and sifting through sand, but it also looks much more natural than gravel.
Proper filtration is necessary in any reef or marine aquarium, but particularly in tanks that house triggerfish.
As they require a large fish tank, you’ll need to make sure you use a strong filter.
Canister filters are ideal for large fish tanks as they are typically more powerful than internal or hang-on-back filters.
However, it’s important you select a model that has the right water flow rate for the size of your tank.
You should aim to use a filter that can clean four times the size of your aquarium.
For example, if you have a reef fish tank that is 150 gallons in size, then you’ll require a filter with a water flow rate of at least 600 gallons per hour (GPH).
Like with any fish in a reef tank, triggerfish require heated water.
This means you’ll need to make sure you have a heater in your reef aquarium. While the specific temperature differs for each type of triggerfish, most prefer their water to be kept between 72 to 78° F.
In reef tanks, good lighting is crucial for growth of plants and corals, as well as ensuring a natural day and night cycle for your fish.
While mixing triggerfish and coral can be a bit problematic, you still need to make sure you have a decent light.
Most aquarists keep their aquarium lights on for 8 to 12 hours each day.
Plants and Decorations
Aquascaping can be a little tricky with triggerfish as they will often uproot plants, destroy corals, and generally be a little destructive.
You need to choose your decor wisely.
Live rock is usually left alone by triggerfish and has excellent biological filtration capabilities.
The type of plants you use in a triggerfish tank is down to personal preference, but I especially like Halimeda, Dragon’s Tongue Algae, Green Finger Algae, and Shaving Brush Plant.
Unfortunately, triggerfish aren’t considered reef safe, so it’s best to avoid corals as their strong jaws and sharp teeth make quick work of them.
As most triggerfish are carnivorous, they don’t tend to eat or nip at plants. Just bear in mind that they can uproot them, so you might need to do frequent replanting!
What Size Tank Do They Need?
Triggerfish are very active swimmers, so they need a fairly large aquarium to explore. For some of the smaller species, I wouldn’t go any lower than 75 gallons.
For larger species of triggerfish, at least a 150-gallon is necessary.
Triggerfish are slow growers, but you still need to make sure they have a large tank even as juveniles.
A bigger aquarium is always better with this fish to help decrease aggression.
If you’re planning on keeping multiple triggerfish, then you’ll need an even larger tank.
All fish need specific water parameters to ensure they stay happy and healthy, and the trigger is no different.
Here’s a brief rundown on housing recommendations for triggers…
As triggerfish are a saltwater fish, you need to make sure their tank has the right levels of salinity.
Salinity, in basic terms, is the concentration salt in your tank water.
Most varieties from the trigger family do best at salinity levels around 1.020 and 1.025.
When keeping aquarium fish, water changes are a crucial part of maintenance.
Ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate will quickly build up in your fish tank if you don’t perform water changes often enough.
Polluted water can cause an array of issues in your fish, including poor health and death.
That’s why it’s vital you commit to water changes on a regular basis. Most aquarists remove around 20% to 30% of water each week, though this largely depends on your tank’s size and the number of fish you own.
If your aquarium is small or overstocked, then you might need to perform larger and more frequent water changes.
Fish from the trigger family or any fish in a reef tank need their habitat heated as they originate from warm waters.
While the specific temperature varies slightly for each species of trigger, most types do best at around 72 to 78° F.
Water pH Level
Most species from the trigger family need a relatively high pH, so you need to make sure your water is suitable for them.
Although the exact pH is slightly different for each variety, most types do well at pH levels between 8.2 and 8.4.
Like with any pet, owning fish is a commitment and requires care and attention.
After you’ve set up a triggerfish tank, you’ll need to conduct regular maintenance to keep your tank clean and fish healthy.
You’ll need to make sure you feed your trigger a balanced and nutritious diet and frequently check for illnesses and diseases.
In addition to these tasks, you’ll need to clean your tank often, conduct water tests, and check your aquarium equipment to make sure it is working correctly.
If you’ve never owned fish before, it’s a good idea to learn a little more about their care and maintenance to make sure they’re the right pet for you.
This is especially true for saltwater tanks as they require a little more work than a freshwater or coldwater set up.
Are Triggerfish Aggressive?
Triggerfish are known for their aggressive nature, particularly towards other fish and during the breeding season.
While some species can be kept in community tanks, the majority require a species-only setup.
The titan triggerfish is one, if not the, most aggressive type of triggerfish you can encounter.
Are Triggerfish Intelligent?
Compared to other saltwater species and reef fish, the triggerfish family is an engaging and intelligent fish.
One of the most unique qualities of these fishes is their ability to learn from previous experiences.
This is clear when you see them observe and study their surroundings, ponder food sources or newly added items or inhabitants, while also remaining vigilant of potential threats.
Additionally, triggerfish have the capability of recognizing their owners and understand human behavior associated with tank maintenance and feeding.
Compatibility/Suitable Tank Mates
The trigger is notorious for its aggressive and destructive personality, which makes housing them with other fishes challenging.
However, that’s not to say that it can’t be done with careful planning.
What Fish Can Live with Triggerfish?
When selecting tankmates for a trigger, it’s best to avoid small fishes and invertebrates.
Large fish like tangs, moray eels, wrasse, and damselfish can be kept with triggerfish, but use caution.
It’s important to note that some species from the trigger family can be relentlessly aggressive, so they may never be able to live with other fish.
Triggers are usually much more docile when they are young, but grow to be very territorial as they grow older.
If you want to add a trigger to a community set up, make sure you add it last.
This will help prevent territorial issues but not completely erase them.
Can You Keep Triggerfish Together?
Keeping multiple triggers together largely depends on the type as some like the Queen Trigger and Titan Trigger are far too aggressive to be kept with other triggers (and usually other fish, too!).
Less aggressive types like the Niger Trigger and Black Durgen Trigger can be kept together, but you’ll need a fairly large tank to help prevent aggression.
Additionally, if you want to house more than one triggerfish together, then it’s a good idea to add them to your tank at the same time.
How Many Should You Keep Together?
The number of triggerfish you can keep together depends on the variety you want to own.
Some types are too aggressive to be housed with other triggerfish, while some varieties can be more tolerant of one another as long as they are kept in a large aquarium.
Can Triggerfish Live Alone?
Triggerfish can live alone…
In fact, some types do best when kept in a tank by themselves without other fishes due to their highly aggressive nature.
Signs of a Healthy Fish
Healthy triggers will be full of color, well-fed, and swim around actively.
If you notice your trigger is acting lethargic or appears listless, then there might be an issue.
When choosing a triggerfish at a pet store, first thing’s first, check the fish over for obvious signs of poor health.
What To Look Out For
Cuts, white specks on the body, cloudy eyes, rapid breathing, malnourishment, dull coloring, and lethargy are all signs that might indicate a problem.
Lastly, study the fish’s mobility and swimming behavior.
Make sure they are active and are not sitting at the bottom of the tank.
Knowing when your triggerfish is sick or when there’s a problem is critical for the right course of treatment.
General red flags of a sick triggerfish include:
- Poor appetite
- Loss of color
- Cloudy eyes
- Rapid breathing
- Erratic swimming patter
- Red gills
- Frayed fins
Why Are My Fishes Turning Black?
A common reason why fish change to black or develop black spots is due to stress.
Your fish could be stressed for various reasons, including an incompatible tankmate, poor health, or an improperly-sized aquarium.
Finding The Culprit
Identifying the cause behind your fish’s stress is crucial for rectifying the problem.
For example, if they are stressed because of a bullying or unsuitable tankmate, you will need to re-home the fish or move them into a different tank.
Why Are My Fishes Turning White?
Fish change to a white color normally when they are unwell, stressed, or close to death.
If your triggerfish has changed color, check your water parameters to ensure everything is in order.
High ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate levels can cause triggerfish to lose their color, so you should do a water change as soon as possible if this is the case.
Common Illnesses and Diseases
For the most part, triggerfish are incredibly hardy and resilient fish.
However, there are a couple of common illnesses/diseases they can get that you need to be aware of.
Fin rot is one of the most common diseases in aquarium fishes. It is caused by either fungi or bacteria, but most of the time it is due to bacteria.
Poor water quality or improper maintenance often leads to this disease.
As its name suggests, common symptoms of fin rot include fraying or reddening fins.
Extreme cases can even lead to complete destruction of the dorsal and anal fins, which may never grow back correctly.
If you don’t treat this disease, it can eventually spread to your trigger’s whole body and result in death.
The best way to treat fin rot is to act straight away before the fins are damaged beyond repair.
Bacterial cases need to be treated with an antibacterial medication, while fungal fin rot needs to be treated with antifungal medication.
As one of the most common causes of this disease is a dirty habitat, it’s vital you improve the quality of your water to help your fish recover and regrow their dorsal and anal fins.
Marine ich (another popular name is marine white spot disease) can be quite challenging to treat and cause a lot of headache.
Unfortunately, it’s quite common in saltwater and reef setups, especially when fish are already stressed or weakened.
Marine ich is caused by the parasite Crytopcaryon irritans and is fairly easy to identify as it causes small white specks on your fish’s body.
These small white spots often affect the body, anal, dorsal (back) fins, and gills of your fish.
Other symptoms of marine ich include flashing, rubbing against objects or decor, poor appetite, and sitting near the bottom of the tank.
Marine ich is incredibly contagious and is more prevalent (and deadly) in fishes that are already weakened or stressed.
Marine ich has quite a complex multi-step life cycle. The first stage is the feeding or trophont stage.
During this time, the parasites are swimming under your fish’s skin and gills, eating cells and fluids, and damaging their tissues.
You will usually notice symptoms like white spots on their body.
Treating the parasites in this first stage isn’t very effective as they’re protected under your fish’s skin.
The second stage is when the trophants have finished feeding and leave your fish’s body as a protomant. The parasites lose their ability to swim and will fall to the bottom of the tank. In around three hours, they become a tomont and develop into a hardened cyst that will soon hatch.
Inside the cyst are hundreds of new parasites called tomites.
After a few days (sometimes weeks), the cyst breaks open and releases free-swimming theronts that are in search of a host.
During this stage is when marine ich is most sensitive to medication.
The theronts have about 6 hours to find a body (host) to attach to.
Once they locate one, they will burrow into your fish’s skin and become a trophont and the whole cycle repeats itself.
As marine ich has such a complex life cycle, an outbreak in your fish tank can be challenging to treat.
In severe cases, the parasite can wipe out your entire tank.
Freshwater ich is usually treated (at least at first) by increasing the temperature of the water to speed up the parasite’s life cycle, but this might not be enough for marine ich.
One of the most effective ways to treat marine ich is to use a copper treatment.
Increasing the salinity of your water can also be helpful, as can freshwater dips and the transfer method.
Triggerfish spawning occurs during lunar cycles, tides, and time of changeover of tides.
During lunar cycles, the eggs are seen two to six days before the full moon and three to five days before a new moon.
During tides, spawning occurs one to five days before the spring tide.
Lastly, during the changeover of tides, eggs are seen on days when tides occur around sunset.
- Both male and female triggerfish engage in pre-spawning behavior: touching and blowing.
- The male and female blow water at the bottom and set up an area for their eggs.
- They will then touch their abdomens on the bottom as though they are spawning.
- When the time comes for actual spawning, the female lays her eggs on the sea bottom.
- The eggs are spread out and affixed to sand particles.
Triggerfish eggs are very small in size and are easily scattered by waves.
After spawning, male and female triggerfish help care for the fertilized eggs.
The female will stay close to the sea bottom near her eggs and guard her territory against predators.
During and after spawning, both male and female triggerfish are extremely aggressive and will defend their eggs from other fishes.
In addition to guarding her eggs, female triggerfish fan, roll and blow water on her eggs to ensure her young gets enough oxygen to induce hatching.
This behavior that females engage in is called “tending”.
Only females normally behave in this manner.
Male fish stay near the sea bottom but further back from the eggs.
He guards the female and the eggs in his territory from any intruders.
Can They Breed in Captivity?
Triggerfish are difficult to breed in captivity as their spawning ritual is hard to replicate in the home aquarium.
In addition to this, triggerfish are hard to sex as there isn’t much difference between genders.
Males are typically larger in size, body, and length than females, but this is difficult to identify unless you happen to have both a male and female in your fish tank.
How Do I Get Them to Breed?
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get these fishes to breed in a home reef aquarium as replicating their spawning triggers is challenging in a home aquarium.
Even if spawning does occur and your triggers’ eggs hatch, feeding the larvae and keeping them alive can prove challenging.
So, to sum everything up, triggerfish come in a huge range of varieties, all of which are an attractive and unique-looking fish for a saltwater fish tank.
They are available in many colors and patterns, such as gray, blue, and yellow. Gray triggers are even consumed in some parts of the world.
These fishes are small to medium-sized, though some types can grow quite large in body and length.
Their name is due to the spines they have on their dorsal fins that they use to anchor themselves in hiding places.
The first spine is large in size while the second spine is small and is known as “the trigger”.
They require a tank that’s big in size, even small varieties.
It’s best to keep them in a species-only tank or by themselves as they are territorial. Most varieties are carnivores, so feed them foods like shell-on shrimp, clams, mysis shrimp, squid, and prawn.
As this fish is notoriously aggressive with strong teeth, I don’t think they’re the best pick for beginners.
However, if you’re an experienced aquarist and want an intelligent fish and fancy a challenge, then I think owning a trigger is definitely an experience you don’t want to miss out on!