The ecology and social systems of Red Sea butterflyfish were studied along the Sinai coast. Distribution, population density and sociography indicate a preponderance of monogamy in all species, independent of reef zonation and seasonal or long-term changes of the reef environment. The social and mating systems are mutual monogamy; partners remain together for up to 6 years. Links between the monogamy and benthic habits of these fish are indicated by their feeding ecology and by a comparison with Indopacific plankton-feeding species, which usually occur in groups. Territories are defended pairwise. Pair partners nearly always remain within visual contact, but a species-typical distance apart. Pair swimming is independent of season or time of day. Experimental partner removals led to speedy replacement of mates. Possible causes of high partner permanency with little partner fidelity are discussed. In good habitats, single territorial adults do not occur. They would be unable to defend and maintain a territory over long periods. While cooperating in defence and maintenance of a territory, each individual can exploit the resources of the territory including availability of a mate. Pair swimming with mutual partner guarding is considered a joint territorial advertisement similar to duetting in birds; it minimizes agonistic interactions between territory holders. As butterflyfish have planktonic larvae without any broodcare, monogamy could not have evolved in response to broodcare activities as in many other vertebrate groups.