Yellow Tang

Zebrasoma flavescens

Last updated: October 7, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit mexrix/Shutterstock.com

Yellow Tang Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Actinopterygii
Family
Acanthuridae
Genus
Zebrasoma
Scientific Name
Zebrasoma flavescens

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Yellow Tang Conservation Status

Yellow Tang Locations

Yellow Tang Locations

Yellow Tang Facts

Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Age Of Independence
At birth
Average Spawn Size
40,000 eggs
Habitat
Saltwater reefs
Predators
Sharks, octopus, crab
Diet
Herbivore
Lifestyle
  • Solitary
Favorite Food
Algae
Common Name
Yellow Tang
Special Features
Bright yellow body

Yellow Tang Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Yellow
Skin Type
Scales
Lifespan
Up to 30 years in the wild
Length
8 inches
Venomous
No
Aggression
Medium

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You may be familiar with the popular Blue Tang thanks to the beloved Dory character in Finding Nemo, but did you know that Dori has a yellow relative? The Yellow Tang, known by its scientific name Zebrasoma flavescens, is a bright yellow color with the signature shape of a tang. It lives in reefs and is prized by many for its bright coloring in popular aquariums.

Yellow Tang facts

  • Yellow Tang eat algae.
  • The majority of these fish live near Hawaii.
  • They can live up to 30 years in the wild.
  • They have a sharp spine near their tail for defense.
  • These fish often reproduce during the full moon.

Yellow Tang Classification and Scientific name

The Zebrasoma flavescens is the scientific name of the Yellow Tang. This is a specific species of reef-dwelling fish that is part of the Zebrasoma genus. There are seven other species within this genus of surgeonfishes, all with similarly shaped bodies and fins. They all vary in color from rich purple and yellow, the Zebrasoma xanthurum, to the spotted Zebrasoma gemmatum.

This fishh belongs to the Acanthuridae family. Other fish in this family are fellow surgeonfishes, unicorn fish, and tangs. Many of them live on reefs, like the Yellow Tang. They make great aquarium fish because they are brightly colored and have a distinctive body shape. They are in the Acanthuriformes order and Actinopterygii class. Fish in the class are ray-finned fish and account for almost all fish in existence. They are members of the Chordata phylum and Animalia kingdom.

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Yellow Tang Appearance

As its name suggests, the Yellow Tang is bright yellow. They are up to 8 inches long but less than 1 inch thick. They have a prominent fin on top and another on the bottom. Their snout is rounded and they have quite a few teeth. Adults have 18 upper teeth and 22 lower teeth. They develop these through their long lifetime but are born with some teeth as well. The males are typically larger than the females but neither are very big. They make great aquarium fish and can fit in at-home aquariums designed for saltwater fish.

Amazingly, their coloring changes at night. They develop a brown spot near the middle of their body. It has a white band across it. During the day, the brown and white patch disappears and their bright, highlighter-yellow color returns. They also have a white spine near their tail that can be used for defense. It is sharp and remains throughout their lifetime.  

yellow tang
In the night-time hours, the yellow tang develops a brown spot near the middle of its body as well as a white band. Both of these disappear during the day-time hours.

mexrix/Shutterstock.com

Yellow Tang Distribution, Population, and Habitat

Yellow Tang are reef fish. They live in and among reefs in saltwater, and they find their food in these locations as well as blend into the brightly colored environment. They tend to prefer shallow reefs, often staying around 100 feet deep. These fish like warmer waters and can often be found in tropical waters, such as Hawaii and Florida.

They are native to parts of the Pacific Ocean, although they have been found in the wild in the Atlantic as well. Around 70% of Yellow Tang live near the Hawaiian islands. They can also be found in the Ryukyu, Mariana, Marshall, Marcus, and Wake islands, as well as near Japan. Hawaii is still the most common place to see Yellow Tang, however, and the place where the majority of Yellow Tang are collected for use in aquariums.

They are not considered endangered and categorized as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN notes that the majority of this fish population is located around Hawaii and that their numbers are much lower elsewhere. They are some of the most popular aquarium fish, especially those from Hawaii.

Predators and Prey

In their natural habitat, Yellow Tang are vulnerable to predator fish that also live near the reef. These include sharks, crabs, and octopus. Larger carnivorous fish can also make a tasty meal out of a Yellow Tang. Their changing habitat can also cause problems, especially when they can’t find enough algae to eat or safe places to reproduce and live.

Many of the areas where Yellow Tang live are protected from fishing and catching but that doesn’t mean that their habitat isn’t threatened. Even snorkeling can result in damage to the reef where they live. That’s why it is so important to be mindful to leave the natural habitat undisturbed and safe. While illegal, coral harvesting does occur and has a profound negative impact on the reef and the Yellow Tang.

Yellow Tang are herbivores and only eat plants. They like algae that grows on the bottom of the ocean floor and the deepest parts of the reef. They also eat the algae off the shells of sea turtles as part of a symbiotic relationship. In captivity, they are usually fed a fish flake that includes meat or fish products. This can cause health issues so some people prefer to feed their Yellow Tang things like seaweed, nori, or algae that you grow and cultivate in the aquarium.

Reproduction and Lifespan

Yellow Tang reproduce externally. They lay their eggs by scattering them in the water. Once they are fertilized, the eggs grow and hatch into new Yellow Tang. They do not stay near their eggs or watch over their young. Juvenile Yellow Tang are left to fend for themselves in the wild. These fish often live individually but sometimes stay in small groups together.

One of the most interesting parts about the Yellow Tang’s reproduction is that they tend to spawn at the full moon. They can lay up to 40,000 eggs during one cycle. While not all of these will be fertilized or grow to maturity, there are still a large number of baby Yellow Tangs that are born each time.

Yellow Tang in Fishing and Cooking

The majority of Yellow Tang collection occurs to get fish for use in aquariums. They are not poisonous like some other tang fish but aren’t great to eat either. Instead, many people who fish for and catch Yellow Tang do so to keep them alive and healthy to go into aquariums.

The bigger question that plagues aquarium owners is how to get Yellow Tang to eat. In the wild, they feed on algae on the reef. It can be difficult to replicate these exact conditions but other plant-based diets are great for yellow tang. Seaweed is a popular food item that you can put into your aquarium.

Population

According to the IUCN, an estimated 1,621,053 Yellow Tang were collected over a span of five years. The majority of them live around the Hawaiian islands, which makes it one of the most popular places to collect them for aquariums. Fish Replenishment Areas were established to ensure that the population in the wild could keep up with demand without endangering the survival of the species. After this, the population of adult Yellow Tang actually increased. They remain categorized as Least Concern among species.

Around 350,000 of these fish are collected and used in aquariums each year, mostly from around the island of Hawaii. Most of these are juveniles. This allows the adult to remain in the wild and reproduce. Because they can live for a long time, up to 30 years in the wild, one adult will be able to reproduce and create many generations of new fish.

Similar Fish to Yellow Tang

Blue Tang: The popular character Dory is a Blue Tang, or Paracanthurus hepatus. Their coloring is different than the Yellow Tang but they share many similarities, including the fact that they are both members of the Acanthuridae family.

Scopas Tang: Also known as a Brown Tang, many aquarium enthusiasts recommend this fish as an alternative to the Yellow version that is a bit less expensive and easier to find. They have similar diet needs, habitats, and behaviors.

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About the Author

Katie is a freelance writer and teaching artist specializing in home, lifestyle, and family topics. Her work has appeared in At Ease Magazine, PEOPLE, and The Spruce, among others. When she is not writing, Katie is a Teaching Artist with The APEX Arts Magnet Program in Anne Arundel County, Maryland and was awarded an Author Fellowship to Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. She also enjoys spending time with her three kids and cat.

Yellow Tang FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where are Yellow Tang found?

Yellow Tang are the most common in the reefs around Hawaii. They also live near Japan and around other Pacific islands, including Ryukyu, Mariana, Marshall, Marcus, and Wake islands. They have also been seen off the coast of Florida, although they are not native that that area.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. IUCN, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/178015/1521949
  2. Rosamund Gifford Zoo, Available here: https://www.rosamondgiffordzoo.org/experience/animals/fish/yellow-tang/
  3. Animal-World.com, Available here: https://animal-world.com/encyclo/marine/tangs/yellow.php
  4. Live Aquaria, Available here: https://www.liveaquaria.com/product/381/?pcatid=381

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