Naso lituratus (Lipstick Tang)
Just how many unicorn or
Naso tangs are there? Most everyone knows the
naso, or lipstick surgeon, Naso lituratus, but there
are at least sixteen other species. All these "naso" tangs
share the traits of being open, active swimmers, surgeonfish
"spines", and a propensity for getting BIG.
Unicornfishes are unlike other tang genera in their space
requirements, temperament and food needs. Here are my ideas
of what makes a good specimen, how to go about selecting
them, and notes on successful maintenance of Nasos in
of surgeon, doctorfishes or tangs, Acanthuridae ("Ah-kan-thur-id-ee")
is of immense use to the saltwater aquarium hobby. Of the
six genera and seventy two described species, some are
indeed "standards". How many can you name? The three species
of blue tangs, bristlemouths of the genus Ctenochaetus,
the pelagic Prionurus, the mundane yellow tang and
other Zebrasoma, the many Acanthurus (powder
brown & blue, Achilles, gold rim, orange-shoulder, sohal,
mimic, clown...). The acanthurids are an essential marine
The sub-family Nasinae, of
one genus (Naso) and about seventeen species are the
unicornfishes. They may be externally distinguished from all
other surgeonfishes by their possession of two anal spines (versus
three), and three soft pelvic rays (rather than five). Like
all surgeons, those of the genus Naso sport sharp
spiny processes (one or two) on their caudal peduncles; a
Naso ("Nay-zoh") for the most part is unknown to
hobbyists with the exception of N. lituratus. Though
this celebrated species is the acknowledged "pick of the
litter" in color and markings, there are some other
Unicornfishes come in slender, tubular shapes, as well as
more typical flattened "Acanthurus" form; with or
without "horns", all Naso species have similar care.
Here we'll expand only on the five that are principally
available in the hobby worldwide.
|Naso annulatus (Quoy & Gaimard
1825), the Whitemargin Unicornfish. Indo-Pacific; East
Africa to Hawai'i. To a meter in length. This eight inch
one off of Heron Island, Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
|Naso brachycentron (Valenciennes
1835), the Humpback Unicornfish. Indo-Pacific; eastern
Africa to the Marquesan and Society Islands. To thirty
six inches in length... yes a yard long. This one off of
Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia.
Naso brevirostris (Valenciennes
1835), sometimes called the Shortnose Unicorn Tang, is
mis-named both scientifically and colloquially; it has a
long nose as an adult. There are Naso species
with much shorter, even absent the "horn" on the head.
This grayish-green bodied fish is occasionally imported
from Hawaii and the Indo-Pacific. To two feet long.
Hawai'i and Fiji pix.
|Naso hexacanthus (Bleeker 1855),
Sleek Unicornfish. Indo-Pacific species... to about 30
inches in length. Not kept in home aquariums... as are
other too-large Naso species from these islands. Neither
males nor females develop a horn; but do have black
tongues! A flashing male in the Red Sea shown.
lituratus, the Naso Tang to most aquarists;
it is also known as the tricolor or lipstick tang. There
are some who claim that "blonde" and "streamer" versions
are different species; they're all Naso lituratus.
To eighteen inches in the wild. Below, a Naso in
an aquarium, he business end of a Naso in Hawai'i, and a
beautiful "streamer" (male) there getting cleaned by a
Naso unicornis (Forsskal 1775),
the Bluespine, Large or Bignose Unicornfish, is a deep-bodied
species that develops a prominent rostral horn starting
at about five inches length. The body is light olive to
gray with yellowish highlights on the abdomen; to more
than two feet. Adult and juvenile shown.
vlamingi (Valenciennes 1835), Vlaming's Unicornfish
has naught but a convex nose bump for a horn. Adult
males are especially beautiful with bright blue and
white highlights over a dark blue body. Juvenile in
Moorea, French Polynesia and Female in Pulau Redang,
hexacanthus, the blacktongue unicornfish. A slender coolish
green bodied fish with a bright navy blue tail. Neither
males nor females develop a horn; but do have black tongues!
from Hawaii to Indian Ocean, up into the Red Sea.
Unicornfishes associate with steep coral and rocky reefs;
several occasion into deep open water.
Naso species attain a foot and a half total length;
the largest ones approach three feet. Not small aquarium
Selection: General to Specific
Shape & Size: Have you ever seen full-size tangs, either
diving in their domain, at a public aquarium, or an
underwater photo? They're outright porky. The stomach areas
of healthy surgeons may be pinched in, but they should be
otherwise well-fleshed in appearance. Speaking from first
hand experience, I can tell you that these marines often go
unfed from collection to the wholesaler for days to weeks;
this is wrong, and is too often the cause of later mortality.
that these fishes bodies can look very different with growth;
becoming much more elongate and longer-of-horn.
Size Size at purchase I've lumped
here to illustrate the link between it and body conformation.
Smaller than 4" Naso tangs rarely live adapt to
living in captivity, unless they're un-starved
and placed in a setting with unlimited access to food. My
advice? Buy larger (four plus inch) unicornfishes. Can you
get one that's too big? Sure, depending on the spatial
assets of your set-up. I have seen more-than-a-foot naso (lituratus)
"streamers" (with long, trailing ends to the upper and lower
margins of their caudal fin), placed with success in
humungous systems. The same fish would die "mysteriously" of
"behavioral problems" put in a six foot system. at purchase
I've lumped here to illustrate the link between it and body
conformation. Smaller than 4" Naso tangs rarely live
adapt to living in captivity, unless they're
un-starved and placed in a setting with unlimited access to
food. My advice? Buy larger (four plus inch) unicornfishes.
Can you get one that's too big? Sure, depending on the
spatial assets of your set-up. I have seen more-than-a-foot
naso (lituratus) "streamers" (with long, trailing ends to
the upper and lower margins of their caudal fin), placed
with success in humungous systems. The same fish would die "mysteriously"
of "behavioral problems" put in a six foot system.
2) Swimming Behavior: Healthy,
happy Unicornfishes are out and about during daylight,
briskly moving horizontally along the length of their system.
Sulking, hiding specimens should be refused. It may be that
they've just been/are being cramped space-wise, but these
fishes can be pushed over the edge psychologically to where
they don't recover.
3) Feeding: is a prime concern
with Naso species; they must be eating to qualify for
purchase. Please refer back to the above criteria regarding.
4) Source Location: The best
Naso lituratus, bar none, come out of the Red Sea; the
second, the Hawaiian Islands. Talk to your supplier
regarding the relative merits of added cost versus the
likelihood of success of where they can get you surgeons.
5) Color: I want to mention as
not being very important. The patterns and hues of
unicornfishes quickly change with for reasons apparent and
not. They have fright, sleeping (on the bottom), feeding,
fighting and more mood shifts. Should one be off-color at
the moment, don't automatically count it out.
A note regarding moving members of the
genus Naso: A note regarding moving members of
the genus Naso: Be careful; if not for the fish, for
yourself. These are powerful fishes that all too often
launch themselves missile style when cornered or netted.
They're skin is thick and tough, and those scalpel-like
processes really sharp. Better to net guide
would-be-caught fish into large double-bags underwater. Be
careful; if not for the fish, for yourself. These are
powerful fishes that all too often launch themselves missile
style when cornered or netted. They're skin is thick and
tough, and those scalpel-like processes really sharp.
Better to net guide would-be-caught fish into large double-bags
These tangs require large amounts of tank
space for swimming exercise and expression. Four feet is a
minimum length system for a small specimen; to house one for
long, six feet would be better, much larger best. These
animals range over large areas on steep reefs, picking at
attached algae; as adults zooplankton becomes much of their
food. At night they assume cryptic coloration and settle
into the reef at rest. Can you replicate something of this
Naso tangs are celebrated as being
tolerant of a wide range of water conditions; standard "fish
tank" only parameters are fine. I find it a good idea to
encourage surgeon placement last in an established system to
1) ensure stability, 2) allow for some algal growth and
detritus accumulation for food, and 3) reduce the likelihood
of inter-specific aggression.
Whatever form is used, it should be
accompanied by brisk circulation. Unicornfishes are big,
fast-moving fishes that require high oxygen concentrations;
their water cannot be moved about too vigorously.
Given an adequately large system, Naso
species are generally the mellowest of surgeonfishes.
Perhaps it's the confidence of their speed or sharp lateral
keels, but they get along with most everyone. Agonistic
behavior on other tankmates behalf cannot be totally
discounted however; I have seen triggers and large angels
that would torment a unicornfish to it's loss.
Take care to consider relative sizes,
size of the system, and the order of introduction of
livestock to the system, when thinking about your fish's
For practical purposes, unless you have a
huge (hundreds of gallons) system, it is best to house just
one Naso tang to a tank. Also, due to their liking
for environmental and chemical stability, optimally place
the unicornfish as your last fish.
A Naso in a reef tank? Not likely.
They're too big and rambunctious, and much too likely to
chomp on prized invertebrate and algal livestock.
Frequency, Amount, Wastes
Once trained on aquarium foods, Unicornfishes become "eating
machines"; getting them up to through that initial period is
the real challenge. Live adult brine shrimp is a great
initiator for small tangs. For greens, live marine algae,
attached or free-floating are ideal; dried algae, flakes,
and terrestrial greens are all secondary to these. On the
issue of lettuce etc... I would encourage you to abandon
this non-nutritive placebo for cruciferous vegetables (broccoli,
brussel sprouts), even cabbage, carrots or chopped spinach
would be better. Rinse, blanch in boiling water to make it
easier to ingest.
In the wild Naso spp. are
herbivorous as young; accepting more zooplankton with age.
As captive unicornfishes become acclimated they greedily
take all foods. Meaty types like larger shrimp and
euphausiids, worms of all sorts should be supplemented with
Infectious disease of unicornfishes is
easily warded off through freshwater dips and quarantine
procedures. Transient copper treatments will cure them of
Nutritional disorders should be mentioned.
Much work has shown that vitamin C (and others) deficiency
is a "cause" or co-cause in color loss and
lateral-line-erosion. This pitting may be sent into
remission with the feeding or addition of this transient
vitamin. These avitaminoses are best prevented rather than "cured"
by varying nutritious foods and possibly supplementing diets.
Social "disease"; apparent "sulking"
should not be ignored. Find and cure the cause(s) ASAP;
generally too small a tank, bullying by a tankmate, change
in decor (move it back)...
Now you know there is more than one
Naso; and they all take a BIG tank. If you've got the
space, you're now equipped mentally to pick out a viable
specimen and house it reasonably. Get yours to feed, but not
too much; otherwise you'll have to seal in the front door
and fill the house with seawater to accomodate the
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Marine Aquarist 4(4):73
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