Meet the Surgeonfish

These little fish are unsung heroes in sustaining our coral reefs

Our ocean’s beloved coral reefs are home to many vibrant, unique and important marine animals. One of these creatures is none other than the surgeonfish, a fish that plays an important role in promoting healthy coral reefs. 

When talking about these iconic fish, it’s only natural to begin with a reference to one of the most famous surgeonfish out there, Dory, the curious but forgetful blue tang from Disney’s Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. While we love this unmistakable blue fish, there are many more species of surgeonfish to admire and adore—not only for their wild characteristics and unusual anatomy but for their integral contributions to our marine ecosystems.

Read on as we explore the colorful world of surgeonfish.

Surgeonfish swim in the ocean by corals

Surgeonfish are fish in the family Acanthuridae and go by a couple of common names including doctor fish and tangs. They are typically found in tropical and subtropical ocean habitats throughout the world and, more specifically, around shallow coral reefs. There are about 75 surgeonfish species, which range widely in colors and patterns. This variety makes for amazing displays of colorful fish along coral reefs that are sure to wow any lucky snorkeler.

At this point I’m sure you’ve wondered where these fish got their unique name. Sadly, they aren’t licensed to perform fish surgeries as their name would suggest. Instead, surgeonfish get their name from a sharp spine on the base of their tails, or caudal fins, that are sharp like a surgeon’s scalpel. In some species, these sharp spines are venomous and are commonly used as secret weapons against their predators. When threatened, surgeonfish will extend their spines like a handy sword ready for battle. Although these beautiful fish may look cute, these sharp spines are reason enough to keep a safe distance.

Surgeonfish swim in the ocean

Like so many amazing creatures of our ocean, surgeonfish play a vital role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem in their marine environments. Surgeonfish are primarily herbivores and act as a cleanup crew for their coral reef homes. These fish feed on the green and brown algae that grows along the reefs. This diet helps maintain the health of this environment. Algae also grow much faster than corals, so without the work of the surgeonfish and other herbivores, algae could become overgrown and negatively impact corals and other marine organisms. Undoubtedly, surgeonfish are vital inhabitants of our beloved coral reefs.

Surgeonfish are agile swimmers, using their slim shapes to weave around their rocky environments. This quality also comes in handy when competing during mating season. To spawn, some surgeonfish species mate in large groups while others form pairs. Some male surgeonfish display their colors and swim in patterns to garner the attention of a mate. Once the eggs are hatched, some males will guard these eggs till they hatch while other species end their role as parents after the eggs are hatched.

This colorful and impactful fish is clearly a staple in many coral reef ecosystems. Surgeonfish depend on their coral reef habitats for food just as the coral reefs depend on surgeonfish. Today, one of the biggest threats facing coral reefs are warming waters caused by our changing climate. Other stressors like pollution also trigger coral bleaching and cause further deterioration of these rainforests of the sea. By protecting these valuable ecosystems, we can protect animals like the amazing surgeonfish, keeping our ocean vibrant and full of life.

Ready to act for surgeonfish and all species that dwell in coral reefs? Take action and help Ocean Conservancy urge our leaders to act on climate change before it’s too late. 

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