News / Species Spotlight / Revisited: Hoplolatilus Tilefish (06/12/13)

Revisited: Hoplolatilus Tilefish

by Charles J. Hanley III

Scientific Name: Hoplolatilus starcki, H. luteus, H. cuniculus, H. chlupatyi, H. purpureus, H. marcosi, H. fourmanoiri

Common Name(s): Blue Head (Blue Jaw) tilefish, Chameleon Yellow tilefish, Dusky tilefish, Flashing tilefish, Purple tilefish, Skunk tilefish, Spotted tilefish


Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Order: Perciformes
Family: Malacanthidae
Genus: Hoplolatilus


Unfortunately, tilefish are not good at tile installation. They really wont come through for that next shower remodel. The good thing is that they are pretty and some do like to remodel their aquarium surroundings. Tilefish are brilliantly colored marine fish with an active disposition and the inclination to do housework. That is, they create inconspicuous burrows or mounds, to which they retreat when threatened. Most aquarium species are burrowers, which is to say that they dig out a hole under a rock and take up residence there. Some of the other species, like deeper water Red Sea varieties, create large mounds of rubble. Sometimes these mounds exceed 9 feet in diameter surrounding the mouth of the burrow and can be fairly elaborate.

Tilefish are often categorized as gobies, which is not surprising considering their diminutive size and elongate, cigar-shaped bodies. However, tilefish are not closely related to gobies, which are of the family Gobiidae. Rather, tilefish belong to the family Malacanthidae, which includes larger species of commercial interest, as well as smaller aquarium species. Aquarium species are long and narrow, with small mouths and deeply forked tails. Both dorsal and anal fin structures are similarly long and low-lying, and are particularly understated when compared to the fins of goby species. They are also much smaller than their commercial cousins, usually not exceeding about 8 inches in total length.

Hoplolatilus tilefish are the common aquarium species due to their smaller size, and often colorful markings. Interestingly, most tilefish actually exhibit muted colors of beige and yellow. Nonetheless, a small number possess truly amazing markings. A few are even capable of rapidly shifting their colors and markings, lending to idea that some flash. The flashing behavior is fantastically beautiful and leaves quite an impression on aquarists and non-aquarists alike. Granted, the flashing is not actually producing light, but the effect creates a brilliant shimmer and seems to occur in the blink of an eye. Colors exhibited by tilefish include hues of neon blue, green, yellow, purple, and pink.

Varities available for trade include the Blue Head (Blue Jaw) tilefish (H. starcki), Chameleon Yellow tilefish (H. luteus), Dusky tilefish (H. cuniculus), Flashing tilefish (H. chlupatyi), Purple tilefish (H. purpureus), Skunk tilefish (H. marcosi), and the Spotted tilefish (H. fourmanoiri). In the past, some specimens have been collected using poison or other detrimental collection processes, leading to high in-tank mortality levels. Be sure to obtain tilefish from a reputable supplier that insists upon ecologically safe collection practices. It also appears that juveniles adapt to aquarium life more easily than do adults.

Natural Habitat and Ecology:

Hoplolatilus tilefish are found throughout the indo-pacific basin, ranging from the Red Sea in the west all the way out the central pacific in the east. In fact, they are quite common and widespread throughout that region of the world. Most species of interest in the aquarium trade hail from southeast Asia and the Philippines. Red Sea varieties such as H. geo (a mound-building species) are not significant aquarium species.

Generally considered coral reef species, tilefish are most often found on sandy or silty substrates right at the base of the reef structure. This means that they are often found in deeper waters, down to 100 feet or more. They create burrows beneath rocks and coral rubble, which provide them protection from larger predators. Tilefish tend to hover one to several feet above their lair while they hunt for food. When they sense danger, or are otherwise disturbed, they quickly retreat to their burrows until the threat has passed. Tilefish are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. In the wild, they feed primarily on plankton. At night, they retreat to the protection of their burrows to rest.

Many tilefish are known to create stable, monogamous pair bonds for reproduction. The burrow houses both the male and the female member of the pair. Reproduction occurs via egg-laying.

Aquarium Care:

Often considered a difficult variety of fish to keep in captivity, tilefish need a higher degree of husbandry care than other, more common aquarium species. It is recommended that they be kept in at least a 50 gallon tank. As they are fairly active, they require a fair amount of space to move throughout. Though they are good community and reef-safe fish, some species like the Purple tilefish are territorial towards conspecifics (i.e. they do not like individuals of the same species). They should, however, do well in male/female pairs and are known to reproduce relatively easily while in captivity. For some reason, tilefish seem to be exceptionally compatible with certain types of anthias, especially as juveniles. In the wild, young blue head tilefish have been witnessed swimming with shoals of juvenile Purple Queen Anthias (Pseudanthias pascalus). Tilefish have been known to prey upon small crustaceans, so caution must be exercised when mixing these two types of animals. Of course, tilefish should not be kept with larger predatory fish, serpent stars, or other capable predators because their only real defense is to retreat into their burrows.

Tilefish do best with a sandy bottom of at least 3 inches. The increased substrate depth allows them to dig sufficient burrows, which will certainly ease the transition into the aquarium environment. Providing live rock or other solid structures on top of the sand is ideal, as it mimics the cover these fish would seek out in the wild. As with most other marine fish species, keeping them psychologically comfortable reduces the individuals stress level and enhances the chances of long-term survival in the aquarium.

For tilefish, one of the most mitigating factors for aquarium survival is the feeding regime. Due to their small size and relatively high activity level, they do best when fed small amounts multiple times daily. Their natural diet of plankton lends itself to the types of food commonly available to aquarists, such as mysid shrimp or other meaty morsels. Frozen foods will suffice, but live foods will always be superior alternatives whenever possible. I always soak my fish food in a nutrient additive high in OMEGA3 fatty acids, Vitamin C, and Vitamin B12, as well as fresh garlic oil. I recommend this process for tilefish as much as any other marine fish, mainly as a prophylactic measure. To avoid the difficulty of mixing this concoction daily, I like to keep a small bottle of pre-mixed food I make about once a week. I keep this bottle in the refrigerator and use it for about a week before discarding the unused portion and creating a new mixture.

Water quality conditions should be maintained within typical marine aquarium ranges. In fish only tanks, salinity should be kept at a lower level of 1.020 to 1.022 specific gravity (S.G.), while coral tanks with fish should be kept in the 1.023 to 1.025 S.G. range. Water temperature must match tropical conditions, ranging from 72 to 78 Fahrenheit degrees. Because of their deeper water origins, it is recommended to keep these fish under low to moderate lighting conditions. Providing the correct lighting will also reduce stress levels and help to maintain the fishs overall health. As with all marine fish tanks, UV sterilization and efficient filtration should be used to mitigate the effects of disease. Additionally, quarantine procedures should be observed when introducing any new fish, especially species like tilefish which will be all but impossible to catch once they have been put in the tank. Tilefish are also jumpers, so a hooded tank is a must.

Quick Notes:

  • Provide minimum tank size of 50 gallons, and make sure it is hooded
  • Maintain sand bed depth of at least 3 inches with ample surface structure
  • Feed small amounts twice daily for maximum health benefits
  • Keep under low to moderate lighting conditions
  • Some species like Blue Head tilefish get along well with anthias species
  • May predate upon small crustaceans

Works Cited:

Anonymous. Hoplolatilus. ITIS Report. 2010. URL:

Anonymous. Hoplolatilus cuniculus, Randall and Dooley, 1974, Dusky Tilefish. Fishbase Online Catalog of Fishes. 2009. URL:

Clark, Eugenie, John. F. Pohle, and Bob Halstead. Ecology and Behavior of Tilefishes, Hoplolatilus starcki, H. fronticinctus and Related Species (Malacanthidae): Non-mound and Mound Builders. Environmental Biology of Fishes. Springer Netherlands, Vol. 52; Numb. 4. 1998. Available at:

Jennings, Greg. The New Encyclopedia of the Saltwater Aquarium. Firefly Books: Buffalo. 2007.

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

Tilefish. Wikipedia entry. 2008. URL: