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Related FAQs: Red Sea Angelfishes, Pomacanthus (Arusetta) Asfur & Maculosus, Marine Angelfishes In General, Selection, Behavior, Compatibility, Health, Feeding, Disease,   

Other Regional Accounts of Marine Angels: Baja, Caribbean, Maldives

Related Articles: Pomacanthus (Arusetta) Asfur & Maculosus, The Marine Angelfish family, Pomacanthidae, Best Marine Angels, A Fishwatcher's Guide to the Red Sea, Red Sea Aquarium Biotopes: Reef Flats, Reef Slope, Sandy Slope,

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Marine Angelfishes of the Red Sea

Bob Fenner

A beautiful Red Sea Emperor

Angelfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

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by Robert (Bob) Fenner

As a writer in the sport diving and aquaristic hobbies I often hear, "Where's your favorite dive spot?", and "Where do the best fishes come from?". For marines my answer is immediate and confident, "the Red Sea". On a world-size map the area doesn't look big or important, but it is indeed; especially when you consider that it's coral reefs are continuous and intact.

So why haven't you heard much about this mythical area, or seen it's incredibly beautiful and tough livestock at your dealers? Mainly geography and cost. The countries that border the area are really only now beginning to develop their parts of the sea of "reeds" for tourism and ornamentals collection. That the sites are "out of the loop" of airline freight and most amenities results in the present high prices. But this is changing; the environment, living and not is being cherished and exploited as it should be; carefully, with an eye on sustainability. The result? More and lower cost for the source of hardy, tropical marines.

Eight of the nine species of angels coming out of the Red Sea have ranges extending outside the area, but from here they are more gorgeously colorful and suitable for captive oceans than anywhere else. Here are the marine angels of the Red Sea.


The family Pomacanthidae consists of nine genera and seventy five (and growing) species. Angelfishes bear a stout spine on their gill cover able to get tangled in nets, puncture livestock and unwitting aquarists hands. This acanthus (= spine) on the operculum (= "pom") is an easy distinguishing mark between angels and the closely related Butterflyfishes.

Species of Marine Angels Hailing From the Red Sea:

Apolemichthys xanthotis, the Red Sea Angelfish; an endemic. It is very similar to Apolemichthys xanthurus from the Indian Ocean, but has more extensive black head coloring. Both species do well in captivity, but the Red Sea angel really thrives.

Apolemichthys xanthotis (Fraser-Brunner 1951), the Red Sea Angelfish (1). Small enough at six inches for home aquarium use. Restricted in range to the Red Sea around to the south, Oman's coast into the Persian Gulf.

Apolemichthys xanthurus (Bennett 1832), the Indian Yellow-Tail Angelfish (1). A darker version of A. xanthotis. Found around India's southern point and the Maldives. Also to about six inches in length.

Centropyge multispinus, the dusky cherub angel, is one of the hardiest of this "dwarf angel" genus. It is a knock-down look-alike for the midnight angel (Centropyge nox) of the Indo-Pacific, but much more outgoing.

Centropyge multispinis (Playfair & Gunther 1867) , the Multi-Spined Dwarf Angel (2), reminds me of a yellowish bodied coral beauty. Coastal Indian Ocean into the Red Sea, where this one was photographed.

Genicanthus caudovittatus, the Zebra Lyretail Angel. Genicanthus pomacanthids are also often labeled as "dwarfs", all about 4-6 inches long. They are noted for their contrasting color and body shapes of males and females. These fishes are sex-reversers, being females that turn into males. Most often they are offered only as males and live well kept singly.

Of the nine species of Genicanthus the Zebra Lyretail is the only one found in the Red Sea; it is a great aquarium species.

Genicanthus caudovittatus (Gunther 1860), the Zebra Angelfish (2). Red Sea along the east African coast, Mauritius and the Maldives. To six inches overall length. Male and female shown.

Pomacanthus: The largest, showiest angels are of the Red Sea are in this genus. Pomacanthus Red Sea species have little else going against their members other than attaining 12-20 inches in length. The species in this genus are notable for forming long-term pair bonds and having striking color transformations from juvenile to sub-adult to adult size.

For most beautiful and expensive angelfish, two exemplary Red Sea candidates are the Yellow-Band, Pomacanthus maculosus and Asfur Pomacanthus (Arusetta) asfur, aka the Arabian Angelfish; are easily confused with each other. Both are overall dark bluish purple in color with a bright golden yellow body band. You can tell them apart most easily by tail color; the Asfur's is deep yellow compared with the whitish caudal of the Maculosus. Both species are gorgeous, intelligent and fantastic for large aquariums.

Pomacanthus (Arusetta) asfur (Forsskal 1775), the Arabian or Crescent Angel (1). A fabulous beauty and centerpiece for very large systems. To sixteen inches in the wild. Red Sea on down to Arabian Sea and around Horn of Africa to Zanzibar. Juvenile and adult in captivity.

Pomacanthus (Arusetta) maculosus (Forsskal 1775), the Yellow-Band Angelfish. Very similar as adults and juveniles to Pomacanthus asfur, with told apart from their clear tails and smaller yellow body patch. To eighteen inches long. Red Sea, Persian Gulf to east African coast. Adults in captivity and the wild pictured.

Pomacanthus imperator, the Emperor Angel, is truly well-named; granted you receive a healthy specimen (especially from the Red Sea), of "correct" size (3 1/2 to 5 inches or so) to start with, you may keep this fish for longer than the family dog.

Pomacanthus imperator (Bloch 1787), the Emperor Angel (1). Widespread in the central and western Pacific into the Indian Oceans coasts and Red Sea. To fifteen inches total length. Shown are a juvenile of about four inches in captivity and an adult in the Red Sea.

The one "questionable" Red Sea angel is the dowager, or old woman, Pomacanthus rhomboides. Though some folks report success with the more attractive juveniles (about four inches) most die "mysteriously" even coming from our favorite locality.

Pomacanthus rhomboides (Ruppell 1835), the Old Woman Angelfish (?). Rarely seen in the trade... not attractive as adults. From the lower third of the Red Sea down the east African coast to South Africa, around Madagascar. To eighteen inches long.

Where's Mombasa? Zanzibar, JLB Smith?

Pomacanthus semicirculatus, the Koran or Semicircle Angelfish, is amongst the hardiest of marine fishes, definitely in the top contention for toughest angel. It is great from the Red Sea.

Pomacanthus semicirculatus (Cuvier 1831), the Koran or Semicircle Angelfish (1). A beauty from throughout its wide range, Indo-west Pacific eastward to Africa, but not the Red Sea. To about thirteen inches in length. Shown below: two, five and twelve inch individuals, the first two in captivity, the adult in Fiji.

Pygoplites. The Regal Angel, Pygoplites diacanthus, rarely lives in captivity for very long; except for specimens from the Red Sea. No, I haven't slipped my nut; other friends and associates in the trade agree; Regals from elsewhere don't make it in captivity, but those hailing from the Red Sea are exceedingly tough. Pablo and Ian Tepoot of the Cichlid Pictorial Guides fame, intend to publish two sets of images and information for the species, describing the Indo-Pacific "variety" as "difficult" and the Red Sea's as "easy or medium".

Irrespective of any "hand-caught" claims Philippine Regals are 99.999% doomed. They're all dead within a few weeks. Likewise avoid Regals hailing from Indonesia; cyanide and other poor practices are working their way into the industry there as well. Less than one percent of Philippine and Indo Regals eat much of anything. For comparison's sake, a Red Sea and Pacific Regal. Note the latter's gray-colored chest area.

All nine species of Red Sea angelfishes are imported into the trade, but only a few (Pomacanthus asfur, Pomacanthus maculosus) are regularly brought into the west. The others are better or only available from the region, but of considerably more expense due to related higher costs of collection, holding and transportation. But don't let me leave you with a false impression, the same species and the endemic (only found there) are BEST from the Red Sea; hardier and more beautiful than from anywhere else; well worth the extra charge.

Selection: General to Specific


Very generally; for small species get one that is 2-3 inches in length, the genera of larger angels, about 3-5 inches. Smaller individuals tend to be too beaten up in the processes of collection and transport and too-big one's adapt poorly, refusing food and displaying undesirable behaviors like bullying. Very generally; for small species get one that is 2-3 inches in length, the genera of larger angels, about 3-5 inches. Smaller individuals tend to be too beaten up in the processes of collection and transport and too-big one's adapt poorly, refusing food and displaying undesirable behaviors like bullying.


Bloody color around the mouth, fins or body flanks is definitely a bad sign. I would not consider such a specimen for purchase. The scales should be flat, smooth and clean on the body.


Ask to see if the specimen is taking the kinds of foods you will be offering it. Ask to see if the specimen is taking the kinds of foods you will be offering it.

Location of Capture: 

Huh? "I thought we were talking about the Red Sea here?". We are; but how can you tell the animal you're looking at comes from there? Trust an invoice? The price? No; instead you should study up. You will be able to discern from appearances the differences yourself. These fishes are that much better looking. Look through reference works and/or take this magazine with you.


A few remarks here concerning pricing and sources of Red Sea livestock. For the lowest landed cost, you may well be tempted to "mail-order" these fishes (They ARE still expensive). Be prepared to pay for related costs, have your system ready and means of meeting the transport.

Alternatively, you may be able to coax a more local dealer into ordering and possibly tanking them for you, for a while. It may be necessary to front a sizeable, non-refundable deposit for this service, but well worth the cost of having them as your go-between.

The last scenario may exist for some lucky types who are near stores with standing inventories; these animals will most likely of the highest cost... however you will A) be better assured of their origins, B) have a leg to stand on in first person, for warrantee, and C) will be getting the most-aquarium acclimated specimens.

Environmental: Conditions


The first and most important requirement for keeping these socially aggressive species is space; they must have as large a system as possible with as much cover/decor as practical. A good rule of thumb is a good ten gallons per inch of angel at presumed adult size. For the larger species we are obviously talking a very big tank. Cramping them without cover will only provoke fighting, hiding, and shortened lifespans.


Seasoned (previously stocked system) water is best with angels. For Red Sea systems overall, a constant temperature in the mid seventies to low eighties, high specific gravity (1.025) and pH of 8.0-8.4 is ideal.


Should be vigorous and heavy on aeration. Marine angelfishes are extra active, and need saturated oxygen levels.



Most species of marine angels are best kept one to a system (unless bought or collected as a pair, or harem). Further, similar appearing (color pattern and body shape) species rarely get along. Fighting is greatly reduced by undercrowding, and housing dissimilar species of decidedly different size. If you must have more than one angel species in a tank, do take care to introduce the smaller one(s) first, and keep your eyes on them.

Species other than angels generally leave angels well enough alone. Should your pomacanthid overly bully a tankmate, it is time to move that organism before it's too late.


It is not unusual for a newly introduced specimen to immediately take cover and stay there for a few days! Neither is it uncommon for the newcomer to join right in with its tankmates. Don't let either end of this spectrum surprise or worry you. These fishes are individualistic, but almost all adjust after a short while.

Feeding/Foods/Nutrition: Types, Frequency, Amount, Wastes

This aspect of marine angel care vies with space in importance. In the wild many of these angels are coral, sponge and algal grazers; happily Red Sea angels have proven to adapt readily to substitute foodstuffs. Fresh or live clam, mussel, squid or shrimp, vegetable material and prepared angel foods (containing sponge material) are accepted by most with gusto. Some greenery, possibly with vitamin supplement should be offered daily.

Ideally some "live rock" would be cultured with these fishes, affording them the opportunity to feed on a mix of non-vertebrates and algae at their leisure. Marine angels should be fed a minimum of twice daily, preferably more often. I prefer to offer the meaty foods (chopped shrimp, crab, clam...) in the AM so I can remove it before retiring later; and a vegetable-based prepared mix in the later afternoon.


Red Sea angelfishes are about as "specific pathogen free" as I've ever encountered from anywhere. Protozoans and flukes are rarely found on newly imported specimens, and they tend to stay clean. I encourage you to stick with standard prophylaxis (quarantine, dipping) to prevent introduction of infection.

Marine angels in general are easily susceptible to copper poisoning. If possible (it is), you should avoid treating them with copper compounds, instead relying on quarantine, dip and biological control methods to prevent disease.


Whichever angelfishes from the Red Sea you choose to invest in, it is money well spent. You are virtually assured of getting the hardiest of specimens, a long-term centerpiece, and something more; the knowledge that the individual has been collected with conscientious habitat and species-sustaining methods.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Angels in General

Allen, Gerald R. 1979. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World, vol.2. Mergus Publishers, W. Germany.

Burgess, Warren E., Herbert R. Axelrod & Raymond E. Hunziker. 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes Reference Book, v.1 Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, NJ.

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

Debelius, Helmut. 1981. Latest discoveries about the angelfish G. caudovittatus. FAMA 4/81.

Dor, Menahem. 1986. Checklist of the Fishes of the Red Sea. Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem.

Emmens, C.W. 1983. Large Pacific angelfishes. TFH 3/83.

Fenner, Robert. 1995. The regal angelfish, Pygoplites diacanthus. TFH 2/95.

Fenner, Bob. 1995. An emperor among angelfishes, Pomacanthus imperator (Bloch, 1787). FAMA 3/95.

Fenner, Bob. 1995. Expensive, gorgeous and hardy, the yellow-band angel, Pomacanthus maculosus. FAMA 4/95.

Giovanetti, Thomas A. 1989. Getting acquainted with Red Sea fishes. TFH 9/89.

Moenich, David R. 1987. Angel Food; the most important single factor in keeping marine angels is a varied diet. TFH 6/87.

Moenich, David R. 1988. Breaking the rules (marine angel compatibility). TFH 3/88.

Ranta, Jeffrey A. 1995. The emperor of the aquarium. TFH 12/95.

Spies, Gunter. 1988. The emperor of the reef: Pomacanthus imperator. TFH 11/88.

Steene, Roger C. 1977. Butterfly and Angelfishes of the World, vol.1. Australia. Mergus Publishers. W. Germany.

Thresher, R.E. 1984. Reproduction in reef fishes, part 3; Angelfishes (Pomacanthidae). TFH 12/84.


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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