Fish Tales by Henry C. Schultz III

It’s Your Aquarium: Don’t Make That Snap Decision; Be Fussy About Its Inhabitants: The Family Caesionidae

Gobies, wrasses, and angels will undoubtedly have their time in my column, but every now and then it’s nice to mix things up and toss in an unusual fish. For American hobbyists, I think we are doing just that this month. It is not often that any members of the Caesionidae family make it into the American market. Naturally, when they do show up at the fish store in your neighborhood, not much is known about their natural history and captive care. To the credit of the fish, they are naturally hardy aquarium inhabitants. To the dismay of some hobbyists, they don’t always make the best friends of other inhabitants in the confined quarters of our aquariums. Hopefully, your New Year’s resolution was always to research your aquarium purchases before they’ve been released into your care. As a result, you might avoid adding a snapper commonly referred to as a fusilier.

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Also known as the Scissortail Fusilier, Caesio caerulaurea makes an attractive aquarium fish with its bluish-silver scales and a vibrant yellow streak running the length of the lateral line. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

Meet the Family

The Family Caesionidae was erected by Johnson (1980), but only after extensive osteological research. Because of his efforts, we believe that the family has two sub-families, four genera, six subgenera, and 21 species. It should be noted that Johnson labeled only 15 species; the additional six species came with Carpenter’s (1987) revision of the family. As astute readers of my column should expect, however, the classification of this family was not always so cut and dried.

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The two yellow stripes running the length of Pterocaesio digramma make for an easy ID. Many references in the literature concerning this fish incorrectly refer to the species name as P. diagramma. It is known to reach up to eight inches. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

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Pterocaesio marri is very similar looking to P. digramma, but the yellow stripes are less pronounced, and it obtains a substantially larger size – nearly 14 inches. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

Lacepede (1801) laid the tracks when he described Caesio caerulaureus (later corrected to C. caerulaurea - more on this below) as a new genus and species. The most notable feature of C. caerulaurea was a protrusible jaw. This jaw structure has proven effective for capturing plankton. Given its similar bodily shape, Lacepede aligned Caesio close to the planktivorous tunas.

The characteristics that later defined both species and the family itself were unclear when much of the early work on the group was done. As an example of this confusion, Cuvier and Valenciennes, in 1830, originally had described nine species, however, only five were later recognized as valid species, including three which were newly described in the paper. A similar situation occurred when Bleeker (1853a, 1853b, 1856, 1865) introduced four new species into the genus Caesio. Only one of the four species remains in Caesio today. Furthermore, he errantly named one genus, Paracaesio, which is now a valid genus in the family Lutjanidae. In Bleeker’s defense, he is credited with establishing the remaining three genera of the family. He did, however, place his five genera of caesionids within the family Maenoides (1873).

Klunzinger (1870) was the very first author to separate Caesio into a separate family when he erected the Caesionidae . The majority of authors thereafter nevertheless did not agree with this assessment and did not recognize the Caesionidae. Some authors (Snyder, 1912 and Fowler, 1928) aligned the species with Haemulidae, and yet others (Schultz, 1953 and Norman, 1966) placed them within the family Lutjanidae. I can honestly list references for over a dozen peer reviewed papers which contain differences of taxonomical opinion, but I think that would be going over the top and you probably get my point already. As I mentioned at the head of this section, the revisions by Johnson (1980), and subsequently by Carpenter (1987), have been instrumental in clarifying the state of the family as we now understand it.

Let’s get back to Caesio caerulaureus being renamed C. caerulaurea. Lacepede originally named the genus Caesio for what he believed was the masculine Latin word for blue-grey, the life-color of the fish species he was describing. Ironically enough, however, he doomed the genus to confusion from the start - he meant to use the Latin adjective for blue-grey, which is caesius. “Furthermore there is a feminine Latin noun caesio which means … a wounding, or killing (Carpenter, 1987).” But wait; there’s more! “The genitive case of Caesio is Caesionis; therefore the correct basonym for higher ranks is Caesion and hence the family name is Caesionidae (Carpenter, 1987).”

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Locals of the Caroline Islands called this fish the Tile fish and when researchers needed a name for their new species description they chose Pterocaesio tile in honor of the locals. The blue stripe, which runs from gill plate to the caudal fin, has iridescent hues and looks spectacular underneath actinic lighting. Adults will be less than 10 inches in length. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

Articles 30 and 32 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature specify that the original spelling will be retained but all species names will be changed to reflect the feminine status. In other words, it is the noun gender agreement code for marine ichthyologists. OK, so what does this mean? In short, all species names ending in “reus,” as in C. caerulaureus, will be changed to “rea,” or C. caerulaurea. One last note on this topic: because the effect goes all the way up to the family name, all the generic names of the family are affected accordingly.

Without further ado, the complete classification of the family as opined by Carpenter (1987) is presented below.


·        Caesioninae

o       Caesio

§         Odontonectes

·        cuning

·        lunaris

§         Flavicaesio

·        suevica

·        xanthonota

·        teres

§         Caesio

·        caerulaurea

·        varilineata

·        striata

o       Pterocaesio

§         Pterocaesio

·        tile

§         Pisinnicaesio

·        digramma

·        chrysozona

·        pisang

§         Squamosicaesio

·        randalli

·        marri

·        lativittata

·        capricornis

·        trilineata

·        tessellata

·        Gymnocaesioninae

o       Gymnocaesio

§         Gymnoptera

o       Dipterygonotus

§         Balteatus

Caesionidae’s defining characteristics are listed as “ascending premaxillary process a separate ossification. Etho-maxillary ligament absent.” In addition, they are described as having a highly protrusible mouth and a deeply forked caudal fin, small ctenoid scales, and small conical teeth. Many additional, greatly generalized descriptions of the family’s features are present, but perhaps more important are the differences that create the two subfamilies, genera, and subgenera. Given the number of subfamilies, subgenera, et cetera, and the close resemblance of all members to one another, I think a chart of the osteological features that separate one from the other will likely assist the reader in gaining a better grasp of the family. Of concern below are a number of areas probably unfamiliar to the majority of hobbyists. Hopefully, a few short sentences describing the scientific terms in an easier to understand language will also assist in this regard. Please note that both the above classification and the differences noted below are taken from Carpenter (1987).

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Carpenter (1987) named Randall’s Fusilier after Dr. John Randall. The adults of Pterocaesio randalli will grow to just shy of ten inches. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

The median fins are those fins attached along the centerline of the fish, namely the caudal, anal and dorsal fins. When present, the conical, or cone-shaped teeth are located on the premaxilla, the bone which forms the front portion of the upper jaw of the fish. In regards to Caesionidae, this can be in either one or two distinct pieces.

Keys to the Characteristics of the Subfamilies of Caesionidae:


Scales/ Fins


Caudal Rays

Ascending premaxillary process


Scales on median fins

Small conical teeth on the premaxilla

9 – 10

Two distinct pieces


Median fins without scales

Premaxilla without teeth

7 – 8

Fused into one piece

Naturally, the postmaxillary bone(s) comprise the rear portion of the jaw. Again, in species placed in the Caesionidae there may be either one or two distinct bones. Additionally, the bone which forms the roof of the mouth is called the vomer. The bones which surround the palate of the fish are referred to as the palatines. All of these bones may carry teeth.

Keys to the Characteristics of the Genera of Caesioninae:


Postmaxillary process

Conical teeth

Dorsal; Anal; Caudal Rays




In jaws, vomer, and platines

13 - 16; 10 – 13; 9 - 10




In jaws

14 – 16; 11 – 13; 9 - 10


The internal bone (or sometimes cartilage) which supports a median fin ray or spine is called a pterygiophore. This particular bone for Caesionidae species is divided into three sections. The exact number of these bones can vary within the genus Caesio. Epipleural ribs refers to ribs which start at the pleurapophysis, or the lumbar vertebrae. Finally, the number of openings along the throat region is described as pars jugularis.

Keys to the Characteristics of the Subgenera of Caesio:


Opening in external wall of pars jugularis

Caudal fin

Epipleural ribs

Trisegmental pterygiophores


2 – 3

Typically yellow or black blotches

10 – 13

3 - 4


3 – 4


13 – 14

3 – 4



Black streaks or black blotch on tip


Typically 2

Keys to the Characteristics of the Subgenera of Pterocaesio:


Dorsal; Anal rays





19 – 22; 13

On vomer, jaw, and palatines




14 – 16; 12

On vomer, jaw, and palatines




14 – 16; 11 - 13

Palatines without teeth; vomer with or without teeth



The bony flap which covers the gills is called the opercle or operculum. Certain Caesionidae have a flap at the rear quarters of the opercle.

Keys to the Characteristics of the Genera of Gymnocaesioninae:


Dorsal ray

Dorsoposterior flap on opercles




14 – 16; 11 – 13; 20 – 22; 7 – 8

Not present

Thin stripe covering all or most of lateral line



8 – 11 and deeply notched; 9 – 11; 16 – 19; 7 - 8


Three stripes above lateral line


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The three alternating stripes alongside the flanks of Pterocaesio trilineata played a pivotal point in determining its name. Adults may reach up to eight inches in the wild; most will remain less in aquariums. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

In the Wild

Fusiliers prefer only the warm waters of the tropical Indo-Pacific region. No members of the family have been noted to extend into subtropical waters, nor are species present in the Atlantic or Caribbean. Two species, Caesio suevica and C. striata, are endemic to the Red Sea, while localized distribution in the Indian Ocean is also displayed by C. xanthonota, C. varilineata, and Pterocaesio capricornis (east coast of Africa). Caesio teres could be considered to have the largest geographical distribution, as this species has been recorded from the eastern shores of Africa to the Palmyra group of islands. Not to be outdone, however, members of Caesio caerulaurea have been collected from Samoa to the Red Sea. Species from Indonesia and the Philippines represent an important element of the commercial fishery.

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In addition to the black spots at the tips of the caudal fin, which is present on all Red Seas species, Caesio suevica sports a white margin around the inside of the spots. All other species with the black spots on the caudal fin lack these white stripes. Adults will almost reach nine inches in length. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

Whenever they are found, the sheer numbers of fusiliers present can be staggering. They prefer to stay in tight schools, usually residing close to a nearby reef face or underneath an overhang when danger is present. Most of the family members have been noted to adjust their coloration to shades of red or brown to closely resemble the rock behind them - an act of camouflage. When undisturbed, at night the fusiliers will relate to the reef and disappear for the evening because they are diurnal. Otherwise, a tight school will move over the reef wall or adjacent to the reef in open water and continually feed throughout the daylight hours. Schools frequently consist of at least two different species. Only a single species, Dipterygonotus balteatus, is known to be pelagic, while all of the remaining family members relate closely to coral reefs, most often on steep reef slopes from 40 to 200 feet deep.

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More commonly found sold alongside freshly caught sardines than in aquarium stores, Dipterygonotus balteatus, the Mottled Fusilier, is also the lone species of Caesionidae which does not relate to coral reefs, instead opting for a near-shore pelagic lifestyle. It is also one of the smallest Caesionids reaching a length of only four inches. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

Unlike the vast majority of snappers, fusiliers are planktonic feeders. Although the sound of their common name might suggest otherwise, they are not fussy feeders. If an item drifts past their vicinity, and it fits into their mouth, they likely will eat it. This includes items ranging in size from as small as larval fish or shrimp, to basically any non-venomous vertebrate or invertebrate that is small enough to fit into their mouth and which has the misfortune of swimming or drifting past the fusilier.

The individuals of most species generally remain under 10 inches in length, although in some species such as Caesio cuning and C. teres individuals may reach up to 16 - 20 inches. Males are externally indistinguishable from females. Very little is known about the family’s spawning and mating rituals. Bell and Colin (1985) reported a mass spawning of Caesio teres occurring around sunset, and to this day it remains the lone occasion this family’s spawning has been recorded.

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The vast geographical distribution of Caesio teres is largely responsible for the frequency that it makes it into the aquarium trade in relation to its other family members. The top photo is a C. teres taking on the reddish-brown coloration common amongst Caesionids during periods of stress or rest. The bottom photo shows its normal coloration. Photos courtesy of John Randall.
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In the Home Aquarium

Although it isn’t all that often that any of the fusiliers show up in aquarium stores in the United States, they are fairly common overseas. Many species are attractive, but their size and diet doesn’t make them the best of reef aquarium inhabitants. Feeding them isn’t the issue at hand; as planktivores they are very easy to feed once established in the home aquarium. Almost anything floating in the water column will get taste-tested, making the home aquarist’s job that much easier. Even so, a proper diet must be achieved. A diet rich in mysid species shrimp will go a long way toward accomplishing this. Other foods which will serve fusiliers well include: enriched brine shrimp, frozen/thawed mosquito larvae, chopped clams and squid meat, and any of the commercially available flake or pellet foods designed with the carnivore in mind.

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Caesio cuning is a large Caesionidae, making it largely inappropriate for all but the largest of home aquariums. It is commonly called the Yellowtail Fusilier for reasons that should be obvious. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

The issue which gives greatest concern to aquarists intending to keep fusiliers in the home aquarium is their potential tank mates. Small gobies, blennies, and pretty much anything that fits into their mouth, will need to be avoided. They will become a meal immediately upon entering the aquarium. Conversely, fusiliers could almost be considered a wimp in the aquarium itself as larger, more active fish will cause the fusiliers to remain uncomfortable and prevent them from settling in to the aquarium. A happy medium must be realized. Achieving this is considerably easier if you are capable of acquiring juvenile fusiliers to begin with. The size of the adult, and consequently the size of the food items it is capable of swallowing, can present stocking problems. Good options for tank mates would include most wrasses, dwarf angels, small groupers, and basses, to name a few. Fusiliers generally do not bother fishes they cannot swallow. In most situations fusiliers will remain nearly oblivious to their tankmates if they are themselves left alone. Mixing fusiliers with other snappers, however, is not a good idea. To maximize the odds of a good mix, consider obtaining species known to have overlapping geographical distribution with the fusiliers and which are also known to interact in the same schools.

The Goldband Fusilier, with the yellow stripe common to many Pterocaesio, makes an attractive aquarium inhabitant. As one of the smaller fusiliers, Pterocaesio chrysozoma will also adapt well to an aquarium. Adults reach eight inches in length. Photo courtesy of John Randall.
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Compatibility chart for the family Caesionidae:
Will Co-Exist
May Co-Exist
Will Not Co-Exist
Angels, Dwarf
A good option.
Angels, Large
A good option. Add fusilier first.
Both are planktivores. This can be a bad mix in a small aquarium.
Assessors are at risk of being consumed.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.
A good option.
Small blennies should be avoided.
A good option.
A good option. Add fusilier first.
Small cardinalfishes should be avoided in the presence of larger fusiliers. Add cardinals first.
A good option. Add fusilier first.
A good option. Add comet first.
A good option.
Certain damsels may harass fusiliers too much. Add fusiliers first, if you wish to try.
Certain dottybacks need to be avoided. Commonly available, captive-bred dottybacks are a good option.
A good option.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.
A good option if the larger, more aggressive eels are avoided.
A good option. Add fusilier first.
Frogfish will try to consume fusiliers.
A good option.
It may be best to avoid gobies as the small ones can become food for the fusilier.
Small grammas in first, otherwise obtain individuals of similar size.
Avoid large groupers or groupers that can become large, and add fusilier before small grouper.
A good option. Add fusilier first.
A good option. Add fusilier first.
A good option. Add jawfish first.
Fusilier in first; obtain juvenile lionfish.
Fusilier in first; obtain juvenile parrotfish.
Pineapple Fish
A good option. Obtain pineapple fish first.
Pipefish are best left to their own aquarium.
A good option. Add fusilier first.
A good option. Add fusilier first.
Sand Perches
Obtain individuals of like size. Some sand perches can become aggressive over time.
Fusilier in first; obtain juvenile scorpionfish.
Seahorses are best left to their own aquarium.
Use caution when mixing members of the same family.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.
Spinecheeks in first. Avoid adding large adult fusiliers.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.
Add fusilier first. The size and hyper-activity of the Surgeonfish may overwhelm the fusilier.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.
Toadfish may consume fusiliers.
Add fusilier first. Avoid the more notoriously aggressive triggerfish species.
Assuming the fusilier doesn’t fit into the waspfish’s mouth, they are a good mix.
A good option, assuming individuals of like size are obtained.

Note: While many of the fish listed are good tank mates for members of the family Caesionidae, you should research each fish individually before adding it to your aquarium. Some of the mentioned fish are better left in the ocean or for advanced aquarists.

Juveniles of Caesio lunaris, will exhibit a yellow tail (top photo). Once they age into adulthood, however, all distinguishing colors fade into what becomes a plain silver-blue fish accented with black tips on the caudal fin (bottom photo). Adults reach 10 inches in length. Photos courtesy of John Randall.
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Sessile invertebrates are at no risk from fusiliers, and generally speaking, motile invertebrates are also safe. Snails, hermit crabs, cucumbers and starfish have little to fear, but common sense throws up a red flag when considering delicate ornamental shrimp. Even though fusiliers are planktivores, ornamental shrimp may be too tempting to resist.  Cleaner shrimp will be safe in most instances, if they are present before the addition of the fusiliers. If not, then it would be wise to add the shrimp in the middle of the evening when lights are out and fish are tucked into the rockwork.

The aquarium’s aquascaping needs to be arranged in such a manner that it provides both plenty of overhangs and hiding places with little to no light, as well as providing plenty of open swimming space. Newly added fusiliers will head immediately for rockwork and hide until they become adjusted. They will also retreat into the rockwork during the evening hours. Once adjusted to the aquarium, however, the fusiliers will utilize all the open swimming areas of the aquarium, especially if a more dominant open water swimmer is not already present.

The slender body form of Caesio striata, the thinnest of Caesio, appears more similar to that of Pterocaesio than Caesio. Under close inspection, however, one will note the maxilla and premaxilla retain the shape of the other Caesio members. Photo courtesy of John Randall.
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Perhaps the biggest concern when thinking about adding a fusilier to your reef aquarium is their overall adult size in conjunction with the amount of food they consume, and hence the amount of waste and bio-load it will add to the aquarium. A large aquarium will undoubtedly facilitate success, especially if attempting to keep multiple individuals. However, viewing a small harem of fusiliers that are tightly schooling from one side to the other of a large aquarium may be worth the risks and costs involved for some hobbyists. A single individual, the best option for most hobbyists, kept with small and peaceful tankmates will do well in a 4’ or longer aquarium. Small schools will undoubtedly require a tank at least 8’ long and in excess of several hundred gallons, once they reach adult size.

Overall, fusiliers, and notably snappers as a whole, are rather hardy aquarium inhabitants. They remain disease-resistant and often remain healthy even when most of the other fish in the same aquarium are ill. Nonetheless, proper water quality should be of the utmost concern. Water quality that is stable enough to maintain stony corals will undoubtedly be satisfactory for fusiliers. As with all marine fish, purchase them only after a close inspection of the fins, mouth, and tail. Ensure that no fins are torn or frayed, and that no red spots or open sores are present. Make sure the colors on the fish are bright. Also, make sure the fish is alert and active. Finally, ask to see the fish eat.

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The non-uniform blue and yellow lines earned this species the name Caesio varilineata, in reference to the highly variable striping. They are a small Caesio species, not even reaching a length of seven inches. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

Meet the Species

Caesio teres, also called the Yellow and Blue Fusilier, is perhaps the most common of those Caesionidae members that are imported into the United States. Unfortunately, it is a large fusilier, reaching up to 16" in total length. It typically forms large schools on steep reef slopes up to 100 feet deep. They will often school with C. xanthonota.

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Caesio xanthonota is commonly mistaken as C. teres because of the very similar markings the two fish share. Adults can be lager than nine inches in length. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

The Yellowtail Fusilier is even less suitable to the home aquarium. Adults can reach up to 20” but captive Caesio cuning will rarely reach those proportions. Adults prefer heavily silted areas with less than optimum visibility. They are commonly, yet erroneously, referred to as C. erythrogaster, a name given to them with the 1830 description by Cuvier and Valenciennes. The original 1971 description and name shall prevail, however.

Sporting a common name that would make Notre Dame alumni and fans proud is the Blue and Gold Fusilier. Obtaining lengths of 12” means Caesio caerulaurea are better options in an aquarium than the two species detailed above. They happen to be nearly identical in every meristic character to C. varilineata. However, the Variable-lined Fusilier looks nothing like Caesio caerulaurea to hobbyists.

Pterocaesio pisang is seen here in both its normal coloration (right) and that of its frightened state (left). The word pisang roughly translates from its Indonesian roots to English as banana, hence this fish is commonly referred to as the Banana Fusilier. Adults will not reach eight inches in captivity. Photo courtesy of John Randall.

The Goldband Fusilier, Pterocaesio chrysozona, is an attractive option for aquariums. Staying smaller than 8” in the wild and less than that in captivity means they are an ideal size for reef aquariums. These are shallow water fusiliers, often found as shallow as a couple of feet. Like the above pair, Pterocaesio chrysozona is similar to P. pisang in nearly every characteristic except appearance.

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Barely reaching five inches in length is Gymnocaesio gymnoptera, also known as the Slender Fusilier. It is the only species of Caesionidae which lacks a distinctly pointed posterior margin of the operculum. Photo courtesy of John Randall.


I like using my column to discuss not only the popular aquarium fish of the hobby, but also those that remain obscure for whatever reason. By all accounts the family Caesionidae remains obscure to American hobbyists. That is unfortunate, however, as some of the smaller members of the family can make excellent additions to aquariums. A general hardiness combined with a healthy appetite equate to an easy to care for fish. Toss in their attractive looks, a great personality similar to other snappers, and a laid-back demeanor with fellow tankmates, and Caesionidae quickly becomes an ideal aquarium fish.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.


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Bleeker, P., 1856. Zevende bijdrage tot de kennis der ichthyologische fauna van Ternate. Natuurkd. Tijdschr. Neder-Indië 10:357-386.

Bleeker, P. 1865. Description de quelques espèces inédites de poissons de l'archipel des Moluques. Neder. Tijdschr. Dierk. 2:177-181.

Bleeker, P. 1876. Notice sur les genres Gymnocaesio, Pterocaesio, Paracaesio et Liocaesio. Versl. Meded. Akad. Amsterdam, ser. 2, 9:149-154.

Carpenter, K. E. 1987. Revision of the Indo-Pacific fish family Caesionidae (Lutjanoidea), with descriptions of five new species. Indo-Pac. Fishes 1-56.

Johnson, G. D. 1980. The limits and relationshipsof the Lutjanidae and associated families. Bull. Scripps Inst. Oceanogr. 24: 1-114.

Lieske, E. and R. Myers, 1994 Collins Pocket Guide. Coral reef fishes. Indo-Pacific & Caribbean including the Red Sea. Haper Collins Publishers, 400 p.

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The Family Caesionidae by Henry C. Schultz III -