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Related Articles: The Marine Angelfish family, Pomacanthidae, Centropyges, A Fishwatcher's Guide to the Tropical West Atlantic

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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

A Tale of Two Similar Hardy Caribbean Angelfishes,

The French, Pomacanthus paru and Gray, P. arcuatus

Bob Fenner The players
Angelfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
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by Robert (Bob) Fenner

"Saviors are rarely recognized in their hometown"; a misquote in number, but true nonetheless. Such is the case with appreciation of the two tough, disc-shaped, black, gray and yellow angelfishes of the eastern Atlantic. By simple fate of being from the common Caribbean, these Pomacanthus are snubbed for more exotic choices in large marine angels.

Is this a matter of over-familiarity breeding a degree of contempt? Don't get me wrong; there are gorgeous Indo-Pacific, Red Sea, and eastern-Pacific species, among other locations, but what's wrong with the gray and French angels? Nothing. They're disease resistant, ready feeders on all foodstuffs, transport well... good looking, not overly expensive.

Here's my "plug" for considering these stalwarts, with notes on selection and care.


Due to their close taxonomic affinities, the French and gray are termed "sibling species"; telling them apart can indeed be trying (I had them mixed up in my slide files). Both are in the genus Pomacanthus in the saltwater angelfish family Pomacanthidae.

As young to sub-adults, the French can be discerned by its more rounded, golden emarginated tail fin. That of the gray is more truncate (squared off), and far less colorful; almost translucent. When adult the French retains yellow flecking behind its body scales, compared with the more somber dark overall color of the gray.

One other ready defining characteristic throughout age/size is that the gray bears bright yellow behind its pectoral fins (look closely); the French is blackish on the under side.

Pomacanthus arcuatus Gray 1831, the Gray Angelfish (1). A beauty as a juvenile (shown). Tropical west Atlantic, Bahamas to Brazil. To a foot and a half in length, friendly and long-lived in captivity. Juvenile and sub-adult, and adult in the wild.


Pomacanthus paru (Bloch 1787), the French Angelfish (1). Another standard in the aquarium trade. Beautiful and hardy, and large (to fifteen inches in length and a foot tall). Tropical west Atlantic from the Bahamas to Brazil. Pictured: a three inch juvenile in captivity, foot long adult in Belize, and sixteen inch individual off Boynton Beach, Florida.


The French and gray overlap over much of the same area; tropical western Atlantic, broadly from the Bahamas southward to Brazil. The French is also found in off West Africa.


These angels get big; a good foot and a half in the wild. Happily they can be slow growers in aquariums... take care to keep them fed, but not continuously over so.


Both species are hardy and long-lived; the French runs quite a bit more money, but this is just a reflection of market pressure; its beauty as an adult commands a higher price.

1) Size: Though some folks tout buying and raising large marine angels from tiny beginnings, and public and private ventures have moderate success in adapting larger individuals to huge (thousands of gallons) systems, juveniles of three to four inch total length are best for most aquarists. This is the size range of greatest ease in transport and behavioral adaptation.

2) Time At The Dealers: This can be a very important selection criterion. Many, if not most "problems" that are going to manifest themselves will do so within two weeks of arrival from capture and transport. Waiting out this fourteen days obviates problems of too-heavy parasite loads, collateral damage and stress from collecting, and the specter of possible anesthetic loss. The last is an issue as these fishes are still caught at times with drugs; with debated after-effects. At any length, allowing time to go by "hardens" the new individuals and sorts the strong from the doomed.

3) Breathing: How frequent, deep and labored does the fish's gill movements seem to be? Here's where close observation and the help of an experienced friend can really pay off. Too fast, slow, excessive or non-closing movements of the gill covers spell trouble. Possible physical, chemical trauma, internal damage, parasites... A healthy specimen will be "cruising" its habitat, even if it's only a small cubicle, checking it and you out; not breathing laboriously in a corner spaced out.

4) Feeding: These angels tend to get their mouths and opercular spines hung on nets, and otherwise thrashed in the processes of capture, transport and holding. For sure you want to check for tearing and lesions on the mouth and body; but the chief yes/no question is "is the fish eating?" If not, let it be.


These marine angels are quite tolerant as marine species go. In the ancient days of the saltwater hobby they were even used to institute nutrient cycling in place of the "standard" damsels.

They will do well under a broad range of physical and chemical conditions. Temperatures in the low to upper seventy degrees Fahrenheit are within their natural range. They have a wide span of tolerance in salinity; the lower range of specific gravities, 1.018-1.021 is suggested.


French angels are best kept one to a tank. If they are to be mixed with angels of other genera, it is best to introduce them to as large a system as possible (fifty gallons plus) at the same time. Often, a new slightly larger individual may be added in an established angel system. Moving some of the habitat around and feeding at the time, and keeping a sharp eye are recommended. Pay careful attention to mixed angels within this genus, as one will grow more quickly and eventually do harm to it's fellows in all but the largest of systems.


Large intelligent fish species as Pomacanthus should routinely quarantined, in addition to what has been done before your acquisition. By carefully observing the specimen over several days time you will have reduced the probability of introducing an infectious agent, stabilized the animal, and further conditioned it to aquarium conditions.

At the very least (out of absolute necessity of emergency, or in handling many transient specimens as in transshipment), these angels should be freshwater dipped with or without the added use of chemical adjuvants


Predator/Prey Relations:

These angels leave everything not edible alone, and are ignored by all but the biggest, most aggressive predators. On that note, though I've seen tiny (1-2") Pomacanthus in reef systems, I don't advocate them for anything other than "fish-only" set-ups. Large marine angels pick at everything in their reach; corals, anemones, shellfish, algae...

Territorial Compatibility:

As stated above, Pomacanthus angels are fine with most all other fishes... generally with the exception of other large marine angels. There are numerous exceptions to this "rule", however; if mixing Pomacanthids the smallest "angels" should be placed first, all ought to be at least an inch different in size, and they all must have adequate living and hiding space. Due to ultimate length and territoriality it is best to house just one French of gray per display system.

As always, there is no substitute for your close scrutiny. Some behavioral challenging is to be expected; tears and lacerations call for moving someone.


Pomacanthus are pair-spawning egg-scatterers in the wild, that have met with limited commercial breeding success in captivity. See Moe (1976) for a description of natural and captive spawning of Atlantic angels.


You've no doubt heard and read the horror stories of getting some of the sponge/tunicate/coral-eating, "finicky" feeding angelfishes to eat in captivity. Well P. arcuatus and P. paru don't belong to that club. both accept live, frozen and dry-prepared foods readily.

Adults may be kept in good stead by regular feedings of cut squid, crustaceans, molluscs and other nutritious prepared frozen foods. Additionally some substantial amounts of "green" materials should be offered daily. Caulerpa and Ulva algae and blanched table-salad matter are acceptable.


P. paru P. paru is typically disease-resistant and long-lived, providing you start with a clean specimen and keep it under proper conditions.

One oft-cited problem is a type of blindness seems to be a result of dietary deficiency. Using a substantial amount of plant material, frozen, fresh, flake with vitamin supplements precludes this problem.

grey angel with weird growth. Poor English, Lymphocystis   1/3/07 could <Could> you please help me identify and treat my grey angel, <.> I <I> got him from marine depot <Marine Depot> live and have had him in my fish only 75 for 2 months he had no signs of this growth when I got him. the growth seems to be on his fin and lip.   thanks <Looks like Lymphocystis to me... Read here: http://wetwebmedia.com/lymphfaqs.htm and the linked FAQs file in the series linked above. Bob Fenner>


Here we have two Caribbean angel well-suited as aquarium specimens. Other than being overlooked because of being "local", all a French or gray angel requires besides "stock" conditions is adequate space to grow and swim into.


Allen, Gerald R. 1979. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World Vol.2. Mergus Publ., West Germany

Campbell, Douglas 1981. Marines: their care & keeping. Pomacanthus. FAMA 9/81

McKenna, Scott 1990. Keeping the flamboyant French angel. TFH 1/90.

Miller, Gary 1985. Angelfish of the Caribbean. FAMA 8/85.

Moe, Martin A., Jr. 1976. Rearing Atlantic angelfish. Marine Aquarist 7:7, 1976

Stratton, Richard F. 1992 The gray angelfish, Pomacanthus arcuatus. TFH 3/92.

Tuskes, Paul M. 1980. Observations on tropical Atlantic angelfish on the Reef and in captivity. FAMA 5/80.


Angelfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care
New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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