Yellow tang

Yum, algae!

Yellow tangs (Zebrasoma flavescens) are always hungry—they cruise around nonstop, looking for green algae and other plants that grow on coral and undersea rocks. They have an important role keeping their environments from becoming overgrown. And because pecking at the reef could damage softer skin, they developed tough snouts, specialized for grazing.

yellow tang
Hands off!
Responsible snorkelers and divers never touch fish or corals—it's not good for them. And grabbing yellow tangs isn't healthy for humans, either. Each fish has scalpel-like spines at the base of its tail, which it uses for defense—that's why they're also called "surgeonfish." A poke from those spines can be painful!
Sure, they call me a surgeon, but I still need help staying healthy
Yellow tangs don't produce as much skin mucus as some other fish, which means they are more susceptible to infections and parasites. But in the wild they get help from neighbors like cleaner wrasses that munch on parasites they find on the tang's body.
Dressing for dates (and for the evening)
Yellow tang males change colors when they are looking for a mate, and they make a special "shimmering" movement too. And like many reef creatures, they change appearance and behavior at night. Bright yellow by day, when the sun goes down they change to a darker, greyish-yellow and find individual nooks and crannies to pass the night.
Think I'm too flashy?
Looking at the yellow tangs in our exhibits, you might think they're too colorful for their own good—can't predator fish spot them from far away? But colors change as light gets filtered in deeper water. Down there, the bright yellow we see doesn't look much different from the background color of the reef.
Can you be too popular?
Because of their attractive appearance and near-constant motion, yellow tangs are one of the most sought-after fish for home aquariums. They are so popular that Hawaii, where most of them are captured for sale in the U.S., passed laws limiting overfishing in certain areas. Before the law was passed in 1999, in some of those places yellow tang numbers had declined by up to 97 percent! But after protection the numbers bounced back up. It wasn’t possible until a few years ago to breed yellow tangs in captivity. Such tangs are just beginning to become available for purchase by home aquarists—which should, it’s hoped, reduce pressure on wild populations.


Yellow tang range

Quick Facts

Diet: Herbivore
Size: Up to 8"