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 level Easy
    Size 5 inches
    Lifespan Up to 5 years
    pH range 8.1-8.4
    Temperature 75-79°F
    Temperament/Behavior Peaceful
    Alternative names Lineatus Fairy Wrasse
    Lavender Fairy Wrasse


    • Family


    • 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 Mates Not Recommended
    Cardinal Fish Pygoplites
    Goby Fish Apolemichthys
    Royal Gramma Genicanthus

    2.     Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans)

    True reef safe fish

    Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans)
    Care level Easy
    Size 11 to 14 inches
    Lifespan 10 to 12 years
    pH range 8.0-8.4
    Temperature 74-80°F
    Temperament/Behavior Aggressive
    Alternative names Volitan Lionfish
    Butterfly Cod Fish


    • Family


    • 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.

    However, lionfish get along fine with any fish too large to be seen as prey. Tangs, larger Angelfish, Moray Eels, and Wrasse species are some of the best options.

    Ideal Tank Mates Not recommended
    Anglers Any smaller fish species.
    Harlequin Tusks  

    3.     Clownfish (Amphiprioninae)

    small reef safe fish

    Clownfish (Amphiprioninae)
    Care level Easy
    Size Up to 4 inches
    Lifespan 6 years
    pH range 7.8-8.4
    Temperature 74-79°F
    Temperament/Behavior Peaceful


    • Family


    • 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.

    Sea anemones are often recommended for tanks with clownfish. You get to observe their famous symbiotic relationship with one another.

    Only buy an anemone if you can provide excellent water quality, though. Sea anemones also need full spectrum lighting as they are photosynthetic organisms.

    Ideal Tank Mates Not recommended
    Dartfish Groupers
    Wrasses Eels
    Damselfish Triggerfish
    Goby Fish  

    4.     Naso Tang (Naso lituratus)

    Unique reef safe fish

    Naso Tang (Naso lituratus)
    Care level Medium
    Size Up to 17.7 inches
    Lifespan 8 years
    pH range 8.1-8.4
    Temperature 72-78°F
    Temperament/Behavior Peaceful
    Alternative names Pacific Orange-Spine Unicorn Fish
    Lipstick Tang


    • Family


    • 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 Mates Not recommended
    Large Wrasses Surgeonfish
    Clownfish Other Tangs
    Dwarf Angel Fish  
    Large Angel Fish  

    5.     Coral Beauty Angelfish (Centropyge bispinosa)

    List of peaceful reef safe fish
    Photo Credit: Francois Libert (Flickr)
    Coral Beauty Angelfish (Centropyge bispinosa)
    Care level Easy
    Size 4 inches
    Lifespan 10 years
    pH range 8.0-8.4
    Temperature 70-82°F
    Temperament/Behavior Semi-aggressive
    Alternative names Twospined Angelfish
    Dusky Angelfish


    • Family


    • 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.

    Dwarf angelfish often fight with each other as well. Which is a shame, given the beauty of these fish. But some aquarists manage to get away with keeping multiples so long as they are very different in color!

    • 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 fish Other Coral Beauty Angelfish
    Dartfish Males of their own kind
    Fairy wrasses (See my care guide on Red Head Solon Fairy Wrasses!) Seahorses
    Assessor Fish Pipefish
    Soapfish Mandarins

    6.     Harlequin Tuskfish (Choerodon fasciatus)

    Harlequin Tuskfish (Choerodon fasciatus)
    Care level Medium
    Size 8 to 12 inches
    Lifespan 10 years
    pH range 8.2-8.4
    Temperature 77-80°F
    Temperament/Behavior Semi-Aggressive


    • Family


    • 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 Mates Not recommended
    Eels Large Angelfish
    Pufferfish Large Tangs
    Trigger Fish  

    7.     Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)

    Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)
    Care level Hard
    Size 2.5 inches
    Lifespan Up to 5 years
    pH range 8.1-8.4
    Temperature 72-80°F
    Temperament/Behavior Peaceful
    Alternative names Mandarin Dragonet


    • Family


    • 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.

    Captive bred mandarinfish are also available in small numbers. These are raised on prepared foods. While these fish are more expensive, the convenience of easy feeding is more than worth the cost!

    • Tank mates

    Pair your mandarinfish with peaceful feeders to avoid conflicts.

    Ideal Tank Mates Not recommended
    Firefish Eels
    Clownfish Lobsters
    Watchman Goby Fish Large Crabs
    Coral Beauty Angelfish Other 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!


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