Zanclus cornutus – Moorish Idol

Zanclus cornutus or Moorish Idol is a beautiful but difficult species to keep in the aquarium. They can grow up to 22 cm in length.

Zanclus cornutus – Moorish Idol

The Moorish idol or Zanclus cornutus is a member of the family Zanclidae. They are one of approximately 120 species in 10 genera that are collectively referred to as butterflyfish. This species’ habitat is extensive. It extends southward from Japan throughout all of Micronesia and the Indian Ocean and then down to the southern tip of East Africa. Populations also exit from Japan to the Hawaiian Islands east to the Gulf of California and south to Peru. This species can be found swimming anywhere from the surface to as deep as 180 meters.


The Moorish idol is one of the most strikingly beautiful examples of marine life. It has a compressed disk-shaped body with a widely dispersed vertical striping pattern. Their bodies are bright white. There is an orange triangular-shaped marking rimmed in black on their tubular snouts. They have a thick black stripe just behind their head, a second mid-body, and a third on their white-tipped caudal fin. A liberal amount of yellow pigmentation between these vertical bars compliments the white backdrop. Their long flowing sickle-shaped crest, called the philomantis extension, extends far beyond their tail fin. Legend has it that the Moorish idol received its name because the Moors of Africa believed the fish to be a bringer of good luck. In Hawaii, this fish is known as Kihikihi. The English translation is curves, corners, or zigzags. This name refers to their body shape and color pattern.

Character and Aquarium

This is not a timid species. It falls more into the moderately-peaceful category. In a community setting it should be housed with non-aggressive species. Adults do not generally tolerate other members of their species in the confines of an aquarium. Although a male-female couple can be kept together without incident. They are ill-suited for marine reef aquariums. In nature, its diet consists of reef invertebrates, coralline algae, and sponges. This species is infamous for being generally destructive to the substrate and anchored aquarium species. A minimum of a 1000-liter tank is recommended for this species. They will require plenty of wide open space to swim in. Idols will grow to approximately 22 centimeters in length.

Purchase and Acclimatisation

Just looking at one of these exotic beauties would tempt an uninformed aquarist to purchase one. If you have considered owning one, you should be aware that this species has one of the highest fatality rates in the commercial aquarium trade. They are notorious for their inability to acclimate to life in captivity. The fish typically ignores food offerings or simply does not recognize them as a source of nutrition. Their refusal to eat often leads to malnutrition and eventual death. Most idols die within the first year. Even expert aquarists have problems keeping this fish alive and healthy. It is highly recommended that you observe this fish-eating before succumbing to the temptation to buy one. Juveniles have a higher probability rate of making the transition to life in an aquarium than adults.


Moors are omnivores that are very accustomed to eating the foods they would pick in nature. Coralline algae or sponges may stimulate this fish’s desire to eat. Live mysid and brine shrimp may break the hunger strike. Once they start feeding they can be fed vitamin-enriched marine foods that contain algae and Spirulina. Their diet can be supplemented with chopped fresh or frozen shrimp, clams, and squid. An abundance of live rock and living sand as a substrate will also prove beneficial. Idols should be fed 2 to 3 times a day.

More suitable alternative

If the elegant grace of this animal is a temptation you can not surpass, you may wish to check into a suitable alternative. The Longfin Bannerfish (Heniochus acuminatus) looks amazingly similar to a Moorish idol. They have an easy care rating and will likely survive even in the hands of an inexperienced aquarist. They are also considerably less expensive. They are in fact known in the aquarium industry as “The poor man’s Moorish Idol.” This particular species is also marketed under the names Black and White Heniochus, Black and White Butterflyfish, and Longfinned Bannerfish.



Exotic-Aquariums (original website no longer online)

Copyright images

© Tomo.Yun

Bijgewerkt op 29 April 2023 door John

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