The Horned Bannerfish: Little Color but Lots of Character

Horned bannerfish (Heniochus varius)

Horned bannerfish (Heniochus varius)

When choosing fish species for our marine aquariums, bright coloration is often a highly sought-after characteristic. But there’s also something to be said for species with more subdued coloration that just happen to have really interesting morphology. One such species that comes to mind is Heniochus varius, the horned bannerfish, aka the humphead or brown bannerfish.

Physical traits

Actually, “bannerfish” doesn’t provide a very apt description of H. varius, since adults of the species lack the elongated dorsal filament, or banner, exhibited by many other Heniochus species. Juveniles do have the filament, but it more or less extends straight up, instead of trailing behind the fish, and is lost as the fish matures.

Note the hump and horns

Note the hump and horns

H. varius is highly laterally compressed (flattened from side to side) and adults develop a hump high on the head along with a horn-like protrusion above each eye. The dorsal fin is high-set, giving the fish a very triangular look when viewed in profile. Maximum length is about 7 inches.

As alluded above, the horned bannerfish’s color is somewhat drab—a dark brown to black ventral half giving way to a honey-brown (for some reason, I’m craving a beer right now) dorsal half. Accentuating the triangular shape of the body are two white bands, one extending from the chest up through the first dorsal spine, the second beginning at the caudal peduncle and extending up along the trailing edge of the dorsal fin.


In nature, H. varius feeds on corals and other benthic invertebrates. Captive specimens can be offered various small meaty foods, such as mysids; chopped clams, shrimp, and other seafood items; as well as quality frozen formulations for carnivores and herbivores (e.g., Reef Frenzy, our favorite here at Saltwater Smarts). Patient coaxing may be required to initiate feeding, and multiple small daily meals are recommended.


H. varius needs a decent combination of open swimming space and rockwork to hide in, so a fairly good-sized tank is in order for this species. The bare minimum is about 75 gallons for a single specimen, but I would encourage upsizing to at least 100 gallons for a greater margin of error.


The horned bannerfish is a peaceful species that won’t do well in a rough-and-tumble community. Think small, peaceful tankmates. Conspecific pairs can also be kept together provided they’re introduced simultaneously to a sufficiently large tank.

Because this species is known to nip at various sessile invertebrates, keeping it in a reef system is a gamble I would advise against.

Photo credit: Paul Asman, Bernard Dupont


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Why is there no mention of the fish’s character, as the title suggests there will be?

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Hi Frosty! By “character,” I was referring to the species’ morphological qualities that make it interesting or unusual (e.g., the horns and hump on the head)–in the same sense that a building with interesting architecture could be said to have character. My apologies if that didn’t come across.

      • Hi Jeff – I understand now. I agree about the appearance – I’ve always found these Heniochus most exotic. H. acuminatus will always be a favourite but I think these are the most attractive and compelling specie.

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