Yellow Tang: Fish Species Profile

A Favorite Fish in Saltwater Aquariums

Yellow tang tropical fish with coral backdrop
Rich Lewis/Moment/Getty Images

The yellow tang is one of the most popular fish in a saltwater aquarium. They're also easy to find, and relatively inexpensive. Their bright yellow color is very attractive, and many beginning aquarium hobbyists enjoy watching them graze on algae in large saltwater tanks. It's important to be aware, however, that yellow tang can be aggressive, are prone to the fish disease called "ich," and may damage coral in your reef tank.

Breed Overview

Common Names: Yellow surgeonfish, yellow Hawaiian tang

Scientific Name: Zebrasoma flavescens 

Adult Size: Up to 8 inches

Life Expectancy: 30 years in the wild, 10 in captivity


Family Acanthuridae
Origin Central and South Pacific
Minimum Tank Size 55 gallons
Diet Dried and frozen herbivore food
Breeding Group spawner
Care Easy to moderate
pH 8.1 to 8.4
Temperature 72 to 82 F

Origin and Distribution

Even though the yellow tang is considered endemic to Hawaiian waters, its distribution extends from the Hawaiian area, including Johnston Island, westward through the northern Marshall Islands to Wake, Marcus, Guam, and other Marianas Islands.

The habitat of this fish is from inside the reef out to depths of 100 feet or more. The larger specimens seem to stay in the shallow waters near the reef, while the juveniles usually prefer the deeper waters where finger corals are present.

A vast majority of the yellow tang collected for aquarium use are harvested from the Kona (west) Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii. The easterly currents that flow up the west side of the Big Island from the nutrient-rich depths of the Pacific Ocean provide the perfect environment for breeding and growing this pelagic fish.

During its earlier years, this fish prefers the company of other yellow tang and has a tendency to follow other yellow tang and can actually be herded like sheep under the right conditions. They prefer to reside in Staghorn Coral fields at depths above 50 feet where they can find easy cover from predators and plenty of easy access to green algae which is their preferred food.

Colors and Markings

Yellow tang start life as clear larvae before developing their distinctive narrow, oval-shaped, bright yellow body. They have long snouts and seven fins including their spiny dorsal and anal fins. They also have a sharp white spine on both sides of their tails which they can use to fight or defend themselves.

Surprisingly, yellow tang actually change color over the course of the day. During the daylight hours, yellow tang are bright yellow all over except along their spines. At night, their color changes to a dark, grayish-yellow with a white lateral stripe (sometimes called a "nocturnal stripe"). 

The yellow tang is covered in mucus, which it secretes from its skin. The mucus forms a protective layer that keeps away parasites and bacteria. The mucus also makes the yellow tang's body less resistant to the water, so it can swim faster.


In general, this fish does get along well with other fishes in an aquarium, but it can be aggressive towards other yellow tang and surgeonfish if they are not introduced into the aquarium at the same time. If your tank size will allow you to include several of these fish, you will be entertained by their lazy "follow the leader" patterns in and through live rock arrangements.

Yellow tang can be included in a marine reef tank setup, but do keep a close eye on them. While they do graze on algae (which can help keep the coral clean), they may also damage some species of coral. Aggressive behavior can also be an issue.

Yellow Tang Habitat and Care

Yellow tang need plenty of space (tanks should be over 50 gallons) and to explore every part of the tank. It is a hardy, strong fish and is fairly easy to care for. However, it is a fish that is prone to contracting saltwater ich diseases (whitespot and blackspot forms ) and possibly HLLE (head and lateral line erosion). The ich factor makes it a less than ideal choice for a beginner just starting or cycling a tank because stress is greatly related to these diseases. Use caution when handling this fish, as the white razor spur near the tail area is very sharp and can cause cuts or injury.

Yellow Tang Diet

This fish is an herbivore, grazing on algae and other plant life. It is best kept in an aquarium that has good algae growth, where in turn they earn their keep by helping to keep the algae growth cropped. It will feed on nori (dried or roasted seaweed), other green vegetable matter and vitamin-enriched flakes, but may nibble at dried shrimp and other meaty fares as well. Use a lettuce clip or place the nori under a rock or piece of coral. This mimics its natural feeding habits. In the wild, its lifestyle is one of constant cruising and grazing.

If you want to be sure the yellow tang maintains its beautiful color, avoid feeding it meat. You can, however, feed it vegetables such as zucchini, broccoli, and lettuce.

Sexual Differences

Male and female yellow tang look very similar (though the female is often larger than the male). When mating, however, males change color and have a "shimmering" behavior which makes them identifiable.

Breeding of the Yellow Tang

In the wild, yellow tang travel alone or in loose schools, and spawn around the time of the full moon. Yellow tang are group spawners, but it is extremely difficult to breed these fish in captivity. Only since 2015 have researchers managed to keep a group of juvenile yellow tang alive past the larval stage. This achievement has significant potential for increasing the availability of pet yellow tang. 

More Pet Fish Breeds and Further Research

If you're interested in the yellow tang, you might also want to learn more about tang and surgeonfish. All can be added to a saltwater reef aquarium and each has its own special beauty.

Otherwise, check out all of our other pet fish breed profiles.