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What is a Yellow Tang?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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The yellow tang is a brightly colored, golden yellow saltwater fish that can be purchased for home aquariums. Native to the South Pacific Ocean, particularly areas near Hawaii, Marshall, and Wake Islands, these fish do best in a warm water tank with a tropical, marine reef setup. They are extremely territorial, and while they can be put in a tank with other fish, they do not do well with other tangs. Yellow tangs belong to the family Acanthuridae and the genus Zebrasoma.

Also known as the yellow surgeonfish, yellow sailfin tang, and lemon surgeonfish, they earn the name of surgeonfish from the sharp spines at the base of their tails. They use these spines to fight and defend their territory when necessary. Typically reaching a mature size of between 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm), the yellow tang has a flat, vertical shape and a mouth elongated from its round form. Both adults and juveniles have the same bright coloring and form, and males and females are roughly the same size.

Many yellow tangs are caught in the Pacific Ocean, yet because of their popularity in home aquariums there have been efforts made to begin commercial breeding. Yellow tangs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, in part because of their territorial nature. As only one is recommended for any home tank, they are not a good option for those interested in breeding their own saltwater fish.

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Yellow tangs are herbivores, and will graze on plants and on algae on rocks in their tanks or in their native ocean habitats. Those in captivity need some sort of fresh vegetable matter to graze on, which can include lettuce, spinach, or even zucchini. In the ocean, they will eat almost anything they have access to, while captive yellow tangs can also be fed prepared diets for herbivores.

With a properly populated tank and the correct diet, yellow tangs are fairly easy to keep, good for beginners, and have a lifespan of between five and seven years. Yellow tangs do best with water temperatures of between 75 and 80°F (24 and 27°C), and a pH of between 8 and 8.4. A large tank is needed if yellow tang are to be included with other fish, as they will establish their own territory. Adding some fish to a tank with an older, well-established yellow tang can be difficult, as it will display aggressive and territorial behavior toward fish with a similar shape and color to the yellow tang.

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