Natural History

Hey Angelface!

The large, colorful, sociable Angelfish is on the “A” list in fish popularity.
Story By Suzanne Gerber ~ Photos & Captions By Barbara Shiveley

The large, colorful, sociable Angelfish is on the “A” list in fish popularity.

Story By Suzanne Gerber ~ Photos & Captions By Barbara Shiveley

When your dive or snorkeling buddy draws an imaginary ring over his head, he’s not telling you that he’s lost — or gone cuckoo. He’s signaling one of the most popular reef fish in the ocean, the flamboyant angelfish. Some fish master the art of camouflage for protection; if angelfish had to rely on that trick to survive, they’d be dead fast. With their bright, vibrant color patterns and big, round, skinny bodies, they’re among the most delightfully conspicuous residents of the coral reef. Found throughout the Caribbean, Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, they are also one of the most popular among underwater visitors of every nationality. And because they’re approachable, photogenic, and often curious about us, Barbara and I often find ourselves hot on their trail.

A Queen Angelfish peeks out from behind a coral head.

A Queen Angelfish peeks out from behind a coral head.

Here in the Caribbean we are most familiar with six varieties — the Queen, Blue, Gray, Pygmy and French Angelfish, as well as the dramatic black-and-yellow Rock Beauty — yet there are 75 to 85 different species in the rest of the world. When I first started diving the western Pacific and Indian oceans and compiled a “fish wish list,” at least five of my most-sought-after critters were exotic and stunning angels, like the Emperor.

It’s easy to spot most varieties of Angelfish: they’re basically round in appearance (sometimes playfully described as pancake-like), with eyes that seem to see, register and follow us. And most have small but full, almost puckered lips, often painted a prominent gray or white.

Why are they called Angels? I’ve heard a few explanations: The ring on some species’ heads resembles a halo; their fins spread in all directions, like an angel’s wings; and they drift through the water in an almost heavenly way. The Queen derives her royal appellation from the blue-ringed black spot on her head that resembles a crown. They are closely related to Butterflyfish, another “flashy” reef fish with scores of varieties. But scientists distinguish Angelfish from Butterflyfish by their rough spines, which cover their gill and help explain their Greek name, Pomacanthidae (poma meaning “cover,” and akantha for “thorn”).

French Angelfish

French Angelfish

The three Caribbean species have some similarities, as well as distinct differences. Pygmy Angels, as you’d likely guess, are the smallest, averaging just three inches, and the largest specimens, the French and Gray, can be up to 24 inches. The Pygmy, also called the Cherubfish, is deep blue in color with pale yellow fins and is the rarest in these waters because they live in considerably deeper quarters than their larger cousins. The regal Queen, who can grow up to 18 inches, is usually an intense blue with yellow markings on her fins and that black and blue spot on the top of her head. She is always just begging for a photo op. Blue Angelfish looks a lot like Queens but are a lighter shade of blue and yellow and don’t have the “crown.” (But they are uppity, frequently mating with Queens.) The Gray Angelfish is indeed gray, with yellow fins. People sometimes confused Grays with French Angelfish, who looks like someone hit the color-enhancer button and painted the drab Gray a much deeper shade of black and added more hue to his yellow scale tips and the yellow around its eye. And then, in the “which of these things is not like the other” category, there’s the sweet Rock Beauty: black with a yellow head, chest and underbelly. Not only does she look markedly different, but her behavior stands out in contrast: where the French, Gray, Blue and Queen have been called everything from friendly and fearless to pests and hams, the Rock Beauty is adorably shy (though when they curl their bodies around a crack in the reef and face you, they make fantastic photos!).

Angelfish normally form pairs or small groups. Some mate for life; others form “harems,” with one male presiding over several females. And as with many fish species, Angelfish are hermaphrodites, and if the dominant male of a harem is removed, one of the “wives” will morph into a functional male to take his place.

Terrific munchers — you can actually hear them chomping in the water — Angels enjoy a diverse diet, at least by fish standards. They dine on sponges, algae, small crustaceans, sea fans, soft corals, and even the occasional unlucky jellyfish. Mostly, though, they prefer sponges, a menu selection that is fairly uncommon for fish (as opposed to turtles), owing to sponges’ indigestible innards and nasty-tasting outside layer. Perhaps as an adaptive measure, Angelfish have evolved a protracted jaw with specialized teeth as well as the talent to secrete a thick mucus coating around bits of sponge. This ability gives them an edge in the highly competitive eco-system.

Gray Angelfish

Gray Angelfish

In the Caribbean, French Angelfish (Pomacanthus paru) are favorites among snorkelers and divers, both for their good looks and great personality. They, too, feed mainly on sponges, as well as the occasional gorgonian, tunicate and algae. Divers get a kick out of watching them as they take deep gouges out of sponges, leaving V-shaped scars with their rabbit-like teeth. On the flip side of the food chain, their large size, as well as their ability to dart defensively into narrow crevices, prevents all but the largest reef predators, like big grouper and sharks, from attacking.

Frenchies mate for life, and together the fiercely territorial pair will patrol their turf, which can be an area as big as a football field. Potential space invaders are chased off by an enraged Frenchie. It’s a sight to behold, as the fish leans to one side and charges like a tipsy bull. The couple spends half their time foraging for food and the other half “carouseling” — circling each other head to tail, an act that both resolidifies their bond after time apart and wards off couple-busting rogue bachelors. Though they are admirably monogamous, Frenchies aren’t overly romantic. Their mating ritual is anything but flirtatious: toward dusk during mating season (April to September, usually peaking in July), they form an arc and rise up in the water column, pressing their bellies together until they reach an angelic climax, at which time sperm and between 25,000 and 75,000 eggs are released. Many won’t make it, however, because of many plankton-munching predators.

Juveniles who do survive are put to work early, working in cleaning stations. Young’uns attract clients by setting up shop at prominent outcroppings, small patch reefs, or depressions in a rocky area. They let other fish know they’re open for business by wriggling their brightly colored bodies like a flag and either hovering just above the reef or settling onto it. The juvies’ job is to inspect their clients for parasites and then remove them by eating them. It makes for compelling video to capture fish waiting in turn for their cleaning, like the line at the carwash on the first warm spring day. Occasionally fish-fights break out over who’s where in the queue, so keep your camera at the ready.

While it is a universal underwater hand sign to indicate Angelfish with the “halo” signal mentioned earlier, I came up with my own sign for Frenchies a number of years ago. A beautiful pair was carouseling just outside my buddy’s periphery, and my halo signal wasn’t doing the trick, probably because he was looking for the blue and yellow glow of a Queen. Thinking fast, I pressed my index and middle fingers to my lips, waved them away, blew out through my regulator, then returned my fingers to my mouth and flicked them again. Back on the boat, I asked him if he saw those two big Frenchies. “I did,” he said, “but what in the world was that hand signal?” “Well,” I responded, “there’s no sign for French Angelfish, so I invented one: I was smoking.” He thought I was nuts, but to this day, we use that same sign when we as a couple bump into a couple of them.

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