Chaetodon melannotus

Family : Chaetodontidae

Text © Giuseppe Mazza


English translation by Mario Beltramini


Chaetodon melannotus, Blackback butterfly-fish, Chaetodontidae

Chaetodon melannotus has a very vast diffusion in tropical Indo-Pacific © Giuseppe Mazza

The very attractive Blackback butterfly-fish (Chaetodon melannotus Bloch & Schneider, 1801), belongs to the class of the Actinopterygii, the ray-finned fishes, to the order of Perciformes and to the family of the Chaetodontidae.

The name of the genus Chaetodon comes from the Greek “χαίτη” (khaite) = hair and “ὀδούς” (odous) = tooth, due to the “bristle-shaped teeth”.

The name of the species “melannotus” comes from the Greek “μέλας” (melas) = black and “νότον” (noton) = back, in other words, it is a fish with black back.


With a definitely vast distribution, the blackback butterflyfish is present in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, from South Africa and Madagascar up to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, India with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Indonesia and Australia, and then in the Pacific, northwards up to Japan and eastwards up to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago.


It swims amongst the octocorals and the scleractinians of which it nourishes, starting from the 4 m of depth, without exceeding the 20 m.


The body is flat, more or less roundish, with elongated snout. It can reach the 18 cm, but, usually, measures 15 cm. The dorsal fin counts 12-13 spiny rays and 18-21 soft; the anal has 3 spiny rays and 16-18 soft; the ventral ones 1 spiny ray and 5 soft; the pectoral fins 13-16 unarmed rays and the caudal is more or less blunt. The livery is basically white, with dark diagonal bands gradually tapering while approaching the head until they become dots lined up in the upper and inferior parts of the body. The whole is surrounded by the yellow of the head and of the fins.

Chaetodon melannotus, Blackback butterfly-fish, Chaetodontidae

With the death of corals, the global warming is a risk factor for the species © Giuseppe Mazza

A black band crosses, as often is the case, vertically the eye and a black spot is evident on the caudal peduncle. But, above all, the second half of the back is black, as states the Latin name of the species.

When it is scared, or during the night, also the clear dorsal part gets black with two white spots, probably for disorienting the predators or for getting recognized by the conspecifics in the darkness.

Ethology-Reproductive Biology

The blackback butterflyfish usually lives solitary or paired, hidden among the madreporic ramifications of the genus Montipora, nourishing exclusively of polyps of hard or soft corals, but they have observed also some groupings which lead to think about some mass depositions. The eggs are pelagic.

Even if it is not fished for alimentary purposes, it is an endangered species.

The global warming, by destroying the reef, has, for instance, reduced of the 90% the Chaetodon melannotus present in the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Elsewhere, the populations are still relatively rich, but nobody has ever evaluated the real impact of the aquaria trade.

Although the blackback butterflyfish may live 20 years, it is in fact a species which needs, all going well, 4,5-14 years for doubling its members. No wonder then if the vulnerability index is of 47 per 100.


Chaetodon abhortani Cuvier, 1831; Chaetodon dorsalis Rüppell, 1829; Chaetodon melanotus Bloch & Schneider, 1801; Chaetodon melanotus Cuvier, 1831; Chaetodon reinwardti Günther, 1860; Tetragonoptrus dorsalis Rüppell, 1829; Tetragonoptrus melanotus Bloch & Schneider, 1801.


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