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7 Most Beautiful Reef Safe Fish You Must Have For Your Aquarium

7 Most Beautiful Reef Safe Fish You Must Have For Your Aquarium

Planning on setting up a coral reef tank? Use this list as a guide to some of the most beautiful reef safe fish you can bring into your aquarium.

You’ll find some of the rarest saltwater fish that few fishkeeping aficionados include in their tanks. But, curiously enough, you’ll also find some easy-to-care-for colorful saltwater fish that even novices can tackle. 

You will also learn more about each of these unique reef safe fish species and get a better understanding of how you’ll need to accommodate your saltwater tank to welcome any of these beauties.

1.     Purplelined Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus lineatus)

Unique reef safe fish
Source: H. Tanaka / Fishbase. License: CC by Attribution-Noncommercial
Purplelined Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus lineatus)
Care levelEasy
Size5 inches
LifespanUp to 5 years
pH range8.1-8.4
Temperature75-79°F
Temperament/BehaviorPeaceful
Alternative namesLineatus Fairy Wrasse
Lavender Fairy Wrasse

 

  • Family

Labridae

  • Appearance

The purplelined fairy wrasse puts on a show in any reef tank with some of the most distinguishing colors and patterns among all the other fairy wrasses. Their characteristic color variations are the very reason why they’re sometimes hard to identify.

Males have a mostly blue body with lines running along the head and lots of small dots coloring their sides. Females are often completely pink, with the same lined and dotted pattern.

  • Habitat

Native to the Southwestern Pacific, their natural habitat extends from New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, to the Great Barrier Reef. It thrives on outer reef slopes, within depths of 20 to 55 meters.

The purplelined wrasse is typically sensitive during transfers and can be a bit finicky about adapting to a new tank.

  • Behavior

The lavender fairy wrasse does best when introduced as a juvenile in a saltwater tank. Once familiarized with its new home, it needs live rocks and plants to use as hiding spots.

These saltwater fish are a docile bunch but will sometimes become aggressive when sharing an aquarium with other purplelined wrasses of the gender.

  • Diet

Being a carnivore, the purplelined wrasse will gladly feed on zooplankton, small crustaceans, dried shrimps, and other meaty treats.

You’ll need to feed your lavender fairy wrasses several times per day, more often when first acclimatizing them to a new reef tank.

  • Tank mates

Because the purplelined wrasses are shy and peaceful fish, you should avoid housing them with aggressive fish.

The only “definite no” for this pretty saltwater fish in terms of tank compatibility is another wrasse of the same genus and sex.

Ideal Tank MatesNot Recommended
Cardinal FishPygoplites
Goby FishApolemichthys
Royal GrammaGenicanthus
Butterflyfish
Tilefishes

2.     Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans)

True reef safe fish

Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans)
Care levelEasy
Size11 to 14 inches
Lifespan10 to 12 years
pH range8.0-8.4
Temperature74-80°F
Temperament/BehaviorAggressive
Alternative namesVolitan Lionfish
Butterfly Cod Fish

 

  • Family

Scorpaenidae

  • Appearance

The red lionfish will create a mesmerizing view in any reef tank, with the mix of burgundy-red, white and black vertical stripes running along the length of its body.

The intensity of its colors can start to change when approaching maturity and will definitely fluctuate as the red lionfish ages.

Its distinct long dorsal fin has venomous spines, so be cautious when tending to this colorful saltwater fish tank.

  • Habitat

In the wild, you’ll typically find the red lionfish in the tropical waters of the South Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, with large populations present in the Red Sea.

Without natural predators in their native habitat, they are sometimes listed as an invasive species.

  • Behavior

Predatory by nature, you’ll need to take an extra-precautionary approach towards finding the right tank mates for the red lionfish.

Surprisingly, this beautiful saltwater fish can be a peaceful companion in a community tank when sharing the aquarium with similarly sized fish. 

You’ll usually find the red lionfish roaming through the middle and bottom part of your reef tank.

  • Diet

The red lionfish is a carnivore. It is one of the few reef safe fish that are difficult to feed. And that is because its natural predator instincts drive it to crave live prey.

Once switched to a varied diet in captivity, the red lionfish should have plenty of meaty treats in its diet: prawns, Mysis shrimp, meaty frozen food, and pellets for saltwater carnivores.

  • Tank mates

Red lionfish ideal tank mates should have the same semi-aggressive temperament and be of a similar size.

Smaller fish are a “hard no” because they will be treated as snacks when sharing a reef tank with a red lionfish.

Ideal Tank MatesNot recommended
AnglersAny smaller fish species.
Clownfish
Harlequin Tusks
Frogfish
Angelfish

3.     Clownfish (Amphiprioninae)

small reef safe fish

Clownfish (Amphiprioninae)
Care levelEasy
SizeUp to 4 inches
Lifespan6 years
pH range7.8-8.4
Temperature74-79°F
Temperament/BehaviorPeaceful

 

  • Family

Pomacentridae

  • Appearance

Clownfish are famous for their “waddle” swimming style, which puts their distinctive gorgeous color patterns on full-display with each movement.

They have long bodies with three white stripes outlined by black contours.

One physical trait that disadvantages the clownfish is its round caudal fin, which makes them one of the slowest swimmers among reef safe fish.

  • Habitat

Native to the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, it also inhabits the shallow lagoons of Australia and Southeast Asia.

Known for their symbiotic relationship with Anemones, clownfish will not swim to depths lower than 40 feet.

  • Behavior

The clownfish is a peaceful saltwater aquarium fish that will only become aggressive when sharing a tank with other clownfish species.

It roams the middle to top areas of the tank and will search for a spot where the water movement is at its slowest.

  • Diet

Clownfish have one of the easiest diets to manage among all reef safe fish. They are omnivores, feeding on algae, fish eggs, larvae, and anemone tentacles when in their natural habitat.

Along with standard saltwater fish food, you can feed clownfish meaty food (chopped table shrimp), frozen fish, Mysis shrimp, and brine shrimp.

  • Tank mates

Small fish and bottom dwellers make ideal tank mates for the clownfish.
You should avoid aggressive fish and other species of clownfish.

Ideal Tank MatesNot recommended
DartfishGroupers
WrassesEels
DamselfishTriggerfish
Butterflyfish
Goby Fish

4.     Naso Tang (Naso lituratus)

Unique reef safe fish

Naso Tang (Naso lituratus)
Care levelMedium
SizeUp to 17.7 inches
Lifespan8 years
pH range8.1-8.4
Temperature72-78°F
Temperament/BehaviorPeaceful
Alternative namesPacific Orange-Spine Unicorn Fish
Lipstick Tang

 

  • Family

Acanthuridae

  • Appearance

The Naso Tang is also known as the Lipstick Tang, thanks to its distinct orangish lips. One of its most easy to recognize physical traits is its bright orange caudal peduncle.

This reef safe fish has the unique ability to drastically change its appearance and coloration, depending on the Naso Tang’s surroundings and mood.

If your Naso Tang becomes black with gray patches, it is most likely hiding or excited.

  • Habitat

The Naso Tang is an active swimmer, needing lots of open areas and a highly oxygenated saltwater tank.

It is native to the Western and Central Pacific Ocean and also found near Clipperton Island in the Eastern Pacific.

Naso Tangs inhabit reef areas at depths ranging from 1 to 270 feet in the wild.

  • Behavior

After getting accustomed to a new reef tank, the Naso Tang is a hardy fish that’s mostly peaceful.
They have been known to not get along with surgeonfish and other tangs.

You’ll find them exploring the entire tank, putting on a great show with their constant swimming.

  • Diet

The Naso Tang’s diet in the wild revolves around brown macroalgae, so having algae on hand when first introducing them to your reef tank is a good idea.

You can then start introducing veggie clips and seaweed pieces for grazing. Because they are so active, Naso Tangs need multiple small feedings per day.

Use rocks to hide dried seaweed and dried algae for this pretty saltwater fish, and you’ll have this picky herbivore eating well in no time.

  • Tank mates

Avoid putting the Naso Tang in an aquarium with other tangs or surgeonfish.
Otherwise, they will make peaceful co-inhabitants with plenty of other saltwater fish species.

Ideal Tank MatesNot recommended
Large WrassesSurgeonfish
ClownfishOther Tangs
Dwarf Angel Fish
Large Angel Fish
Anthias

5.     Coral Beauty Angelfish (Centropyge bispinosa)

List of peaceful reef safe fish
Photo Credit: Francois Libert (Flickr)
Coral Beauty Angelfish (Centropyge bispinosa)
Care levelEasy
Size4 inches
Lifespan10 years
pH range8.0-8.4
Temperature70-82°F
Temperament/BehaviorSemi-aggressive
Alternative namesTwospined Angelfish
Dusky Angelfish

 

  • Family

Pomacanthidae

  • Appearance

The coral beauty angelfish is a pop of (miniature) color among larger angelfish species, coming in at a dwarf size of only 4 inches when fully matured.

This colorful saltwater fish has alternating red/orange and blue stripes across its body and a purple head, with similarly colored fins.

One distinct perk of these dwarf beauties is that the intensity of their colors will not fade as they age.

  • Habitat

The natural habitat of the coral beauty angelfish extends from East Africa to the Tuamoto Islands, to the Izu Islands, all the way to the Lord Howe Island, close to Australia.

When setting-up your reef tank, add plenty of rock and décor with crevices, as this angelfish tends to hide often. Knowing they have plenty of refuge areas will give your coral beauty angelfish the confidence to swim in the open areas of the tank and show you their extravagant colors.

  • Behavior

This is a quite feisty reef safe fish, and that’s because it does not do well with sharing food (especially algae). Make sure you have an aquarium of at least 100 gallons if you plan on housing the coral beauty angelfish with other algae-eating fish.

They are mostly peaceful, except when two male coral beauty angelfish collide. Two males are capable of fighting to the death.

  • Diet

As an omnivore, the coral beauty angelfish will munch mostly on algae in their natural habitat. They get their proteins from the tiny critters that live on algae.

You can feed them a rather diverse diet: fresh or dried saltwater algae (of course!), Mysis shrimp, specialty flakes and pellets, and spirulina enriched food.

  • Tank mates

Given a sufficiently sized reef tank, your coral beauty angelfish will do well with most peaceful fish.

Ideal Tank Mates Not recommended
Goby fishOther Coral Beauty Angelfish
DartfishMales of their own kind
Fairy wrasses (See my care guide on Red Head Solon Fairy Wrasses!)Seahorses
Assessor FishPipefish
SoapfishMandarins

6.     Harlequin Tuskfish (Choerodon fasciatus)

Harlequin Tuskfish (Choerodon fasciatus)
Care levelMedium
Size8 to 12 inches
Lifespan10 years
pH range8.2-8.4
Temperature77-80°F
Temperament/BehaviorSemi-Aggressive

 

  • Family

Labridae

  • Appearance

The harlequin tuskfish is a sight to behold in any reef tank! Their blue tusks, splendid coloration, and distinct appearance give it its reputation as one of the coolest saltwater fish.

The tuskfish has 4 protruding teeth with which it grabs and tears into its prey.

Its red striped blue body has a unique physical trait: the “fake eyes” ocelli spots on the dorsal and anal fins, which juvenile harlequin tuskfish use as protection from predators. 

  • Habitat

The harlequin tuskfish is commonly found in the Western Pacific Ocean, with sightings from Southwestern Japan to Australia.

Mature tusks will typically roam solo along shallow coastal reefs, preferring sand and coral rubble. The only spot where tuskfish will hang out in small groups in the wild is near caves and reef slopes.

  • Behavior

Those scary tusks this reef safe fish has on display at all times don’t exactly make it look like the peaceful type. But as a matter of fact, harlequin tusks are among some of the most docile saltwater carnivores.

They tend to ignore most of their tank mates, but can view new (especially smaller) inhabitants as food.

You can go substrate-free with a reef tank for the harlequin tuskfish, as it doesn’t retreat to the sand when resting at night. Live rock and refuge spots are important for keeping your tuskfish confident.

  • Diet

Carnivores by nature, harlequin tuskfish will eat a varied diet without much fuss.
You can feed them: meaty seafood, fresh fish, shrimp, clams, nori, flake, or pellet food.

Their sharp teeth will do most of the work during feedings, but be sure to cut up the fresh food into decent-sized chunks.

  • Tank mates

The harlequin tuskfish is prone to be bullied by larger species, especially angelfish and tangs.

They should do well with other similarly sized territorial fish.

Ideal Tank MatesNot recommended
EelsLarge Angelfish
PufferfishLarge Tangs
Grunts
Trigger Fish
Wrasses

7.     Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)

Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)
Care levelHard
Size2.5 inches
LifespanUp to 5 years
pH range8.1-8.4
Temperature72-80°F
Temperament/BehaviorPeaceful
Alternative namesMandarin Dragonet

 

  • Family

Callionymidae

  • Appearance

The mandarinfish is a colorful saltwater fish that’s sometimes referred to as the “psychedelic mandarin” among reef tank fans. The vibrant colors and canvas-like patterns of this unique reef safe fish will definitely catch anyone’s eye.

There is a puzzle-like combination of blues, reds, and oranges across the mandarinfish’s body.

Mandarinfish have large pelvic fins that they use to push themselves against a tank’s bottom, making them look like they can walk.

  • Habitat

Roaming sheltered lagoons and inshore reefs, the mandarinfish can be found as deep as 60 feet, in the Western Pacific Ocean, from the Ryuku Islands to Australia.

They are bottom feeders, making them a rare sight when in their natural habitat.

  • Behavior

The other conflict triggering tank mate a madarinfish can have is another male mandarinfish. They will ignore other fish and will be avoided by other tank mates thanks to its poisonous slime-like coating.

This bottom-dweller is a happy camper, especially when well fed.

  • Diet

In their natural habitat, mandarinfish typically eat small animals that share their bottom-dweller status. Copepods, fish eggs, small snails, and worms are always on the menu.

You can feed them Mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, copepod cultures, and high-quality standard marine aquarium food.

  • Tank mates

Pair your mandarinfish with peaceful feeders to avoid conflicts.

Ideal Tank MatesNot recommended
FirefishEels
ClownfishLobsters
Watchman Goby FishLarge Crabs
Coral Beauty AngelfishOther male mandarins
Pajama Cardinals

What Makes A Fish Species Reef Safe?

Reef safe fish are some of the most sought-after saltwater fish among aquarists!

Building a reef tank and displaying a splendid centerpiece like a live coral are both time and resource consuming. That’s why finding reef safe fish is a top priority.

How do you know if a fish species is reef safe or not?

“Reef safe” is the distinction that saltwater aquarium terminology uses to describe whether a fish can be safely added to a reef tank. Reef safe fish will not eat corals and will stay away from invertebrates.

If you’ve done any research on unique reef safe fish recently, you’ve definitely noticed the concept of “reef safe with caution” thrown into the description of some saltwater fish.

This is just a warning coming from fellow fishkeepers, letting you know that they’ve encountered individuals within a reef safe fish species that are rule-breakers.

Saltwater fish listed as “reef safe with caution” will have some rogue individuals nibbling on your corals or going after small fish or inverts.

Some are just opportunistic feeders, and some will act as not reef safe fish when they’re paired with the wrong tank mates in a smaller than necessary aquarium.

Nonetheless, some reef safe fish will turn out to be a captivating addition to your saltwater tank. A beautiful saltwater fish can complement (and sometimes outshine!) even the most intricate coral reefs.

Conclusion – 7 Most Beautiful Reef Safe Fish

The most beautiful reef safe fish is a quite subjective matter, but we’re sure some of the pretty saltwater fish that made this list will also make your personal top favorite reef safe fish!