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Surgeonfish (family Acanthuridae) : Charismatic Fishes in the Wild

For those who love the sea and snorkeling, this fish and its relatives are difficult to miss. Surgeonfishes of the family Acanthuridae are some of the most charismatic and easiest species to recognize in the wild.

Photo of Acanthurus japonicus in situ by Gregg Yan of the World Wildlife Fund.

There are currently around 80 species known under this family, all have distinct scalpel-like spines near their tails which are sharp enough to inflict injury (thus the name surgeonfish or scalpel tangs).

Their lengths range from 15 - 100 cm and in varying forms and colors. Many are brightly colored and are popular in the aquarium trade, some and often larger species are caught for their meat. These are popularly known locally as labahita.

Photo of the coast of Capones island of Zambales which has powdery light brown sand, crystal waters, and surrounded by fish-rich coral reefs.

Surgeonfishes are reef-associated, and their role as marine herbivores are important for regeneration of damaged coral reefs such as in Tubbataha Reef. Some species are known to feed mainly on algae which could usually overwhelm and choke reefs when left unchecked. This grazing behavior allows for coral larvae to resettle and grow on damaged reefs.

In the photo is Acanthurus japonicus caught by fisherman off Capones Island (photo by JC Meren)

The featured Powder-brown Surgeonfish (Acanthurus japonicus) has a relatively small range in the Indo-Pacific: from Sulawesi, the Philippines, to Ryukyu Islands. It can grow up to 21 cm long and has a brownish body with yellow hues extending towards the white tail. The base of black dorsal fin is also yellow with brilliant orange streak on rear edge. Unlike its similarly-colored cousins, it has a distinct white streak on face - from cheeks to mouth. This specimen was seen in Capones Island off Zambales Province.


Text and photos by Jasmin C. Meren / NMP Zoology Division

© National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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