News / Species Spotlight / Revisited: Flame Hawkfish (10/15/13)

Revisited: Flame Hawkfish

by Charles J. Hanley III

Scientific Name: Neocirrhites armatus
Common Name: Flame Hawkfish, Flame Hawk, Red Hawkfish


Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Family: Cirrhitidae
Genus: Neocirrhites
Species: Neocirrhites armatus


It is time for Species Spotlight to turn its focus to one of the most beloved aquarium fish, the Flame Hawkfish (Neocirrhites armatus). Great for small aquariums, these little guys lord over their surroundings. Flame hawkfish have colorful little personalities to go along with a colorful body. Usually out all day, they perch atop a ridge of rock or among the branches of a living coral. When another fish encroaches upon their territory, they rush out to chase off the offender. Then they return to their perch, standing at attention until someone else swims too close. Aquarists tend to become quite attached to their flame hawks, as they seem to watch what is happening on the outside of the glass.

Like some kind of soldier in a dress uniform, the flame hawkfish looks tough and dashing at the same time. Garbed in bright red or red-orange scales and fins, they also sport a head-to-tail black stripe down the back that looks like a mohawk. Black also surrounds the eyes in a ring of moderate thickness, giving the impression of a hawk with black-rimmed eyes. These black rings are actually the source of the fishes common name (though the mohawk could have done the same thing). Viewed from the front, they are fairly narrow fish, though from the side they appear to be torpedo-shaped. This body form is often described as grouper-like. Enhanced by its flamboyant looks, the flame hawkfish portrays an overall impression of regal ease, knowing that it is the king of its surroundings.

Though they are small fish, growing to a maximum of about 3.5 to 4 inches, they carry on as if they were much larger. They quickly come to control the substrate around their territory, and keep other fish at bay. They can also act as referees by rushing in and breaking up fights between other fish. Unfortunately, they have a murderous penchant when it comes to small bottom dwelling fish. Like real hawks, they prefer to perch high and swoop down on victims that are below them. In spite of this problematic trait, they actually are not that bad with many other community fish. They are usually quite tolerant of fish that swim higher in the water column, and those that avoid their territory. They may eat smaller fish but being very small themselves, the selection of fish on their menu is usually quite limited.

Flame hawkfish usually have a lair near their daytime perch. In the wild, this lair may simply be a spot deep within the branches of a large coral head, especially Stylophora and Pocillopora species. In captivity, the hiding place is more likely to be a hole or crevice in the rock work. Typically, this lair will be very close to the perch, allowing the fish to move quickly between the two. Whenever disturbed, the fish will dart back to its lair and peer out to watch events unfold. Oddly enough, while peering from its hideout, the flame hawkfish looks like its wearing eyeglasses; it gives the impression that the fish is studying you. And, as if to confirm that it knows what is happening, the flame hawkfish will quickly determine that it is safe and return to its perch. At night, they will retreat into their lairs and rest until the lights come on again.


Flame hawkfish are endemic to a triangular region of the western/central area of the Pacific Ocean, the points being the Ryukyu Islands in the northwest, the Great Barrier Reef in the southwest, and the Samoan Islands in the east. The range includes both the Philippine Sea, the Coral Sea, and Micronesia. Flame Hawkfish are a true Pacific species, in that they are not native to the Indian basin.

Most often, flame hawkfish are associated with Stylophora and Pocillopora species corals. They take up residence in the branches of large heads, and defend their territories aggressively. N. cirrihites is generally restricted to very shallow waters, ranging from one to ten meters deep. They often inhabit the fore-reef surge zone and submerged terraces.

Hawkfish exhibit a trait known as protogynous, or sequential, hermaphroditism, meaning all individuals are born female. Basically, when a group of females exists in the absence of a male, the most dominant changes sex and becomes the male. Typically, the male then exerts control over the group and mates with all of the females. By and large, hawkfish are haremic reproducers in this way. Interestingly, I have found conflicting reports about this haremic behavior in N. armatus. Some sources reported that flame hawkfish are not haremic, including Fishbase Online. They report that these fish form mating pairs. However, other sources stated that just the opposite was true, and that they did indeed create harems. As it turns out, both behaviors are seen. It seems to be a function of the number of individuals in an area. In either case, they perform their courtship and spawning rituals at or right after dusk. Flame hawkfish are oviparous, and the fertilized eggs are released to float away on the water currents. The confusion about the mating behavior of these fish probably arises from the fact that mated pairs are more likely to succeed in aquaria. Hawkfish are not particularly tolerant of conspecifics, and success is unlikely when keeping groups, unless they are placed in a huge aquarium (200 gallons or more).

Aquarium Care:

There is nothing spectacularly challenging about caring for flame hawkfish. They are hale and hearty, and adapt well to aquarium conditions. They tend to quickly establish a territory, and take up residence there immediately. From there, they will readily accept many kinds of common aquarium foods, though there may be an initial adjustment period when food is refused. They are also relatively resistant to disease and parasites, and can live for 10 years or longer.

If considering the purchase of a flame hawkfish, it is very important to make the decision thoughtfully. Because of their small size and tendency to hide when disturbed, it is very difficult to catch individuals of this species. Like damselfish, hawkfish are an instantly permanent addition to the system. And like damselfish, hawkfish can be bullies. Small bottom dwellers make poor tankmates, and hawkfish are also unafraid to pick on fish that are bigger than themselves. Equally of note is the likelihood that flame hawkfish will eat snails, shrimps, and crabs. In short, members of the cleaner crew are on the menu of this fish. In some cases, however, they have been known to live peacefully with cleaner shrimp and other potential victims. In short, you never know what you are going to get with a hawkfish until you get it home. It will obviously help to keep the fish well-fed, but that is no guarantee.

Most hawkfish will readily adapt to aquarium foods, but they need to be fed a mixture of carnivorous diets. If the fish refuses food upon introduction to the home aquarium, try fresh offerings of raw shrimp, squid, or crab. Live brine shrimp are another good transition food. The fish should quickly learn to accept food from you, at which point it will be easy to convert it to flake food, frozen carnivore cubes, and freeze-dried krill. Providing a good mixture of carnivorous food is key to keeping hawkfish healthy and content. Over time, the brilliant reds of this fish may fade to an orangey color, but occasional supplementation of vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids, along with feedings of fresh shrimp, will help keep the colors bright. As previously mentioned, flame hawkfish may also decide to feed on other member of its community, but they generally do not nip at corals. In fact, branching hard corals provide ideal habitat for these little fish. Many aquarists advise caution when placing flame hawkfish into reef tanks, but there is a good chance that a given individual will co-exist peacefully with its Cnidarian neighbors.

Speaking of neighbors, the neighborhood itself deserves consideration. Flame hawkfish need a tank with a minimum volume of 40 gallons. In spite of their small size, the surrounding must be spacious enough to provide sufficient territory. When other fish are a part of the community, the tank will need to be even bigger. Again, each individual is different, so it is hard to give blanket recommendations. For example, I have read anecdotes about flame hawkfish being introduced into 150 gallon tanks and killing four or five fish in the first day. On the other hand, I have personally known flame hawkfish that co-existed peacefully with mandarin fish, wrasses, skunk cleaner shrimp. The truth is, you just cannot know what you have got until you see it interact in your tank. Nonetheless, it is safest to assume that it will need at least 40 gallons of its own territory.

Another reason to keep flame hawkfish in a larger tank is that they need clean, well-oxygenated water, which is easier to achieve in larger systems. Aside from the cleanliness, however, the water quality needs are fairly basic. Standard marine conditions are perfectly suitable. Additionally, hawkfish are tolerant of strong lighting, owing to their preference for extremely shallow waters.

Works Cited:

Broy, S.J. Tips on Flame Hawkfish Care. Ezine Articles Online. 2009. URL: < >

Capuli, E.E. Neocirrhites armatus; Castelnau, 1873; Flame Hawkfish. Fishbase Online. 2010. URL: < >

Edwards, D.W. Neocirrhites armatus. FishProfiles Online. 2009. URL: < >

ITIS. Neocirrhites armatus; Castelnau, 1873. ITIS Report Online. 2010. URL: < >
Jennings, G. The New Encyclopedia of the Saltwater Aquarium. Buffalo: Firefly books Ltd., 2007.

Lieske, E. and R. Meyers. Coral Reef Fishes, Revised Edition. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2001.

Randall, J.E., G.R. Allen and R.C. Steene. Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu. 1990.

Staff. Fish of the Month September 2010: Neocirrhites armatus. Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine Online. 2010. URL: < >

Photo Credits:

Williams, J.T. Moorea Biocode: Neocirrhites armatus-Flame Hawkfish.