Copperband Butterfly Fish Feeding Demystified

by Justin Hester

The line between keeping a Copperband Butterfly fish and having them die on you is finally moving in a more sustainable direction thanks to some creative hobbyists.  The ReefNation team has come up with a few tricks and a regimen that we use,  resulting in a 2-0 record of surviving Copperbands. We are excited to share a few tricks we have been experimenting with in hopes of ultimately having fish survive past a few weeks in the hobby.

Copperband Butterfly fish (CBB) are often sold as the miracle cure for Aiptasia, which I still have yet to see honestly. More often, we add them to our tanks, watch them eat all the fan worms and amphipods they can find, and then slowly whither and die.  These delicate fish can also succumb to Ich and digestive infections which their travel-weakened immune systems can’t overcome. Even if you are lucky enough to get a healthy one, getting these fish to eat anything more than just pods and tube worms has always been a challenge, or so we thought…

Copperband Butterflyfish Biology

The Copperband Butterflyfish (Chelmon rostratus)  is native to reefs in the Pacific and Indian oceans.  It is easily identified by its long mouth and distinctive gold bars with a black eye on the top rear of its body.  In the wild, these fish are “pickers”  which makes sense when you see their long mouths.  Just looking at them, you would think the mainstay of their diet would be little things they can pick out of rocks, but recently we were surprised to notice another form of feeding.

Copperband Butterfly Feeding

A few weeks ago my dad traveled back to the midwest from the east coast and brought along a cooler full of littleneck clams and scallops.  On the night we cooked them up, there were a few that had cracks in their shells.   In our house, the natural thing to do with these is to feed them to our wrasses, so I tossed a few of them into the tank to watch the feeding frenzy.  Naturally, the wrasses and cleaner shrimp started picking through the crack in the shell right away, but the surprise was that our  Copperband Butterfly was actually chasing them all away as it began to devour the clam.  For the next half hour, the CBB proceeded to eat two of these clams that we tossed in the tank, building a fat little belly, something I’ve never seen on a CBB before.

Training Your Copperband To Eat Foods

Over the next few weeks, we continued feeding clams to our CBB, watching it both eat the clams and then continue to explore the empty shells of  yester-meals. That is when it struck me that maybe these empty shells could be used for some training!  First I took two of the clam shells and fastened them together with a rubber band. Then through the hole in the clamshell I tried sticking a variety of foods inside, hoping that the CBB’s curiosity would help expand its range of foods.

First up, mysis shrimp cube- what fish can resist that!  So I tossed the clamshell into the water, watched it sink and then waited.  A few seconds went by and then sure enough, here comes the CBB!  For 10 minutes it sucked out mysis from the clamshell only to spit them out a second later, bummer.  Sometimes if it looks like a clam, its not really a clam I guess, but at least it didn’t stop the curious picking of this guy.

Next up, I popped a scallop inside the clam shells and tossed it into the tank, thinking that switching from a freshwater shrimp to something very similar to a clam might work.  BOOM, the CBB wasted no time picking at the scallop even before it had a chance to thaw out!  After a minute or so, the scallop popped out of the shell and then got picked on by everyone else in the tank, which was really fun to watch.

After a few weeks of scallops in the clam shell, we have our little CBB trained to eat them by just tossing them into the tank.  No clam shell needed!

CBB Feeding, An Ongoing Experiment

Fast forward to this past week and we have now had our CBB for about 6 months. Its totally getting fat and has recently shown signs that it is growing larger.  We have been feeding it scallops to supplement its normal foraging for pods in the live rock.  Also, once in a while we give it an occasional treat of a fan worm rock from the sump.  If I have some time over the holidays, my next goal is to go back and try the mysis in the clam shell again and possibly a few more meaty fish treats.  I have to say what we learned here really is starting to sink in and should be a model for how we approach feeding finicky eaters.  Think outside the box a little and do some research into what fish eat in the wild before you purchase them.  Make a plan as to how and what you are going to try and feed them and make sure you can offer it to them right as you acclimate them in your quarantine tank.

More to come on this topic so please check back.

Have you ever gotten a fish to eat something unusual?  Had any luck keeping some finicky fish with some clever tricks?  We would love to hear from you.






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