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Triggers belong to the order Tetradontiformes “four-tooth bearing”, and the family Balistidae, and are closely related to 9 other families, including among others, cowfishes, filefishes, puffers and leatherjackets. Most species in the order, and certainly all the members of the family balistidae practice balistiform locomotion (using the dorsal and anal fin rather than the caudal fin) almost exclusively, although the caudal fin is sometimes used for short bursts of speed. In simple terms, these fish do not normally use their tail for swimming, but instead undulate their dorsal and anal fins, keeping the body rigid. This gives the effect of a small hovercraft moving about, and is part of what endears the fish to so many hobbyists.
Triggerfish are very hardy specimens that adapt well to aquarium life if provided with a large tank and ample hiding places. Triggerfish reach an average size of six to ten inches in the home aquarium and often become very aggressive toward the same species and other tank mates. Smaller Triggers grow quickly, and are usually more docile in adulthood than if matured in the wild.
The Balistoids are laterally compressed, generally rhomboid shaped fishes, although a few species are slightly elongated. They have a non-protrusible upper jaw, with hard, specialized teeth that in most species are designed for cracking the shells of various hard-shelled invertebrates. They have independently rotating eyes, and their pelvic fins are fused into a single spine. They have two dorsal fins, the first of which is comprised of three spines, and this is where the Triggerfish derives its name. They can use this spine, along with the ventral spine to lock themselves into coral heads or rock crevices when threatened, and once they do, they are immovable!
Most Triggerfishes are brightly colored and marked with patterns of lines and spots. They are easily recognized by their deep flat bodies, small pectoral fins, small eyes placed high upon the head, and rough rhomboid-shaped scales that form a tough covering on their body. Near the area in front of the tail they have some prickly, spike-like rows of spines. Even though quite small, these tail spines can scratch and cause injury to a person or other fishes. Also because of the rough, spike-like texture of these fish's bodies, they can easily get caught in an aquarium net, and once snagged it can be difficult to remove them from the material without some scale damage occurring.
Triggerfishes are easily recognized and named for, you got it, their flexible trigger spines. As you can see in the photo, this fish has a top dorsal spike that can be put into an up or down position at will. At the bottom of the body there is another smaller, permanently extended type trigger that can be flexed as well. When these fish feels threatened, is ready for sleep at night, or wants to secure itself against strong surge-zone wave action, it will go into a hole and stick up its top trigger, flex the bottom one, and then lock them both into place. The force of the two triggers used in conjunction with one other firmly wedges the fish into place. Once a Triggerfish has "trigged in", it is next to impossible to remove it from its hiding place. If at some point you see a Triggerfish laying on the bottom of the tank or propped up against a tank wall, don't worry, it is how these fish sleep when there is no shelter available to take cover in. Triggerfishes are capable of making a noise much like that of a pig grunting when disturbed or agitated.
Triggers are extremely territorial and seem to be on the move most of the time. In general they do get along with most other fish. They need plenty of room to move around, as well as establish a territory of their own with as little infringement from other tank mates as possible. With a tendency to be aggressive towards other Triggerfishes, especially those of the same species and sex, usually putting them together is not a good idea. Their nature can be unpredictable. Sometimes they can harass and pick on other fishes, and other times they may get long just fine. When keeping other fish with a Trigger, the closer the other fishes are to the same size as the Trigger, the less chance harassment will occur. It is best to place Triggers in an aggressive fish-only tank community along with other larger non-related species such as Groupers, Lionfishes, Snappers, Eels, Hawkfishes, Tangs and Surgeonfishes.
From an evolutionary standpoint, triggerfish are some of the most advanced fish in the sea. They are heavily armored, intelligent hunter-killers of the reef, and have a set of jaws that can annihilate any hard-shelled invertebrate you care to name.
The tank you will need to house your Triggerfish depends on the species you plan to keep, and what you plan on keeping it with. Some Triggers always end up alone, or traded back to the fish store, regardless of the extent to which they tolerate tank mates when young, so the aspiring trigger keeper needs to keep this in mind when selecting the species to be kept. Others will live out their lives in a community setting with few problems provided enough space is provided, some stocking order rules are honored, and tank mates are chosen with some care. A few will even live in a reef setting. In any case, tall narrow tanks should be avoided, as these are very active animals, and need as much swimming space as can be provided. A hexagonal tank is a very poor choice for a trigger unless it happens to be a very large one.
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