Marine Angelfish – the Holacanthus Genera
by Bob Goemans
The angelfish family contains some of the most graceful and colorful fish in the wild, and besides simply being ‘beautiful,’ they are smart and also quite hardy. These laterally compressed disc-shaped marine fish belong in the Order Perciformes and Suborder Percoidei, and are members of the Family Pomacanthidae (Angelfish). Depending upon whom you speak with, it contains about 80 species in 9 genera. Some can get quite large, e.g., about 18 inches (45 cm) in body length.
All angelfish are thought to be protogynous hermaphrodites, that is to say, where females can change into males if need be. They are mostly solitary swimmers and prefer shallower waters in the range of 6 – 50 feet (2 – 15 m), however, a few species occur in deep water, - about 150 feet (50 m) or deeper. Some live in harem social groups with the male controlling overlapping territories containing one to four females, and many experience dramatic color and pattern changes from the juvenile to adult stage. Most are said to be found in the Indo-Pacific, (Australia – 23 species; Indonesia – 21 species; New Guinea – 22 species; Philippines – 19 species; and, Taiwan – 20 species), yet about a dozen are found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Most are territorial and spend much of their time in search of food, and feed upon algae, sponges, tunicates, and various other benthic tasty items. Even though they graze on a wide variety of foodstuffs, learning just what food preference certain species have goes a long way in their closed system (AKA aquariums) maintenance. Nevertheless, they can generally be broken down into three different feeding groups, i.e., zooplankton feeders, sessile invertebrate feeders, and algae and detritus feeders. For example, the genera Apolemichthys, Chaetodontoplus, Holacanthus, Pomacanthus, and Pygoplites are sessile invertebrate feeders. Those in the Centropyge genus are mostly algae, zooplankton, and detritus feeders. The solely zooplankton feeders are mostly in the Genicanthus genus. Yet, there are exceptions in each genus, and in my opinion, it is a must that you spend some time researching the specific needs of what may become an inhabitant in your aquarium ‘before’ it is purchased.
Over the past forty years I have come to maintain many in the Holacanthus genus. In fact, there’s only a few in this genus containing 7 species that I did not have the pleasure of keeping, and I’ll note those below. Like most angelfish, those in this genus feed throughout the day, and do far better if fed small amounts at numerous times of the day. And because of their adult size, about 8 inches (20 cm) to 17 inches (42.5 cm), they are best kept in large aquaria, with a 100 gallon size tank being considered the smallest enclosure for those about 8 – 10 inches (20 – 25 cm). Even though this may seem somewhat too large for this size fish, those in this genus have a tendency to become bullies, especially in small aquaria and/or those somewhat crowded. And tankmates are also a subject that should be explored, as those in this genus will nip slow moving and docile tankmates. So caution is advised when there’s interest in a Holacanthus specimen.
If aquarium size and tankmates are within reason, you’ll find feeding your specimen quite easy, as they will take most of the already prepared foods on the market, as frozen meaty foods, along with some greens, especially Spirulina is readily accepted. And when possible, some additions of macroalgae, such as fresh Caulerpa mexicana and Caulerpa prolifera should be considered, as these algae can help prevent Head and Lateral Line Erosion (HLLE).
One of the first Holacanthus species maintained was Holacanthus ciliaris, the Queen Angelfish (about 12 inches (30 cm). They hail from the Tropical Western Atlantic where it’s found to depths of about 200 feet (60 meters) and primarily feeds upon sponges. Nevertheless, juveniles tend to feed on filamentous algae, and also clean other fish of parasites. Its temperature range is 72 – 81°F (22 - 27°C). Because of its beauty, the adult specimen I had commanded a lot of attention. And because of that, this show specimen was kept in a 125-gallon fish-only system in my home office. The system also contained some blue damsels, who were there simply for some additional color and movement. They made good tankmates because they were fast moving and not intimidated by the Queen, who basically left them alone. Besides some live rock, some mushroom corals were the only invertebrates in the aquarium, but the Queen had a habit of rearranging them. It received live or frozen fortified brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, foods containing sponge, flake foods containing Spirulina, and even pieces of fresh broccoli and/or fresh Caulerpa.
Another Tropical Western Atlantic species I enjoyed keeping was Holacanthus tricolor, the Rock Beauty (about 8 inches (20 cm). Its another forger of sponges, and is often found among deep reefs and drop-off areas where there are dense growths of sponges, often hiding and feeding among these growths for most of the day. Its temperature range is 72 – 81°F (22 - 27°C). As for adults in this species, they are not sort after by responsible collectors for the trade because they are not generally sustainable in captivity. That’s because they are already use to the foodstuffs in their natural surroundings, which cannot be supplied by the average aquarist. Because of that, I kept a juvenile, which is easier to feed and maintain. Its diet consisted of meaty foods, including brine/mysis shrimp, foods containing sponge, and flake foods containing Spirulina. My specimen was maintained in a 100 gallon fish-only system, was added as the last fish in that system, and actually got along with its tankmates consisting of various damselfish, gobies, goatfish, wrasses, and one dottyback.
There was one more Tropical Western Atlantic species I enjoyed keeping and that was Holacanthus bermudensis, the Blue Angelfish (about 15 inches (37.5 cm). To be quite honest, it was purchased ‘many’ years ago and at that point in time thought it to be a Queen Angelfish, as it does look quite similar and actually interbreeds in the wild with the Queen. This at one time led to a mistakenly classified separate species as H. townsendi, however, when that mistake was discovered it lost its species title. As interbreeding still continues, telling the species apart becomes quite difficult, but from what I can see, the difference when in the juvenile stage, the Queens first three vertical bars are somewhat curved, with the forth/last bar being straight. The Blue’s first three bars are curved, and the forth and fifth are straight. When it comes to the adult, the Blue has light blue pectoral fins with a yellow margin, the tail has a yellow margin and there’s no crown on the nape of the neck. The Queen’s pectoral fins are all yellow and have a dark spot at its base; the tail is all yellow and has a black crown with a blue margin and blue specks on the nape of the neck. Again, interbreeding continues, and some guesswork continues to be associated with telling these two apart, especially during the early stages.
The Blue also has the same traits as the Queen, and needs the same level of care. My specimen was maintained in a 240 gallon fish-only with some other large tankmates, e.g., Gomphosus varius (Male Bird Wrasse); Choerodon fasciatus (Harlequin Tuskfish); Balistoides conspicillum (Clown Triggerfish); Pomacanthus imperator (Emperator Angelfish), and some assorted damselfish. Except for the Harlequin Tuskfish, everyone got along fairly well. Nevertheless, the Tuskfish had to be removed and sent back to the local shop, as it would occasionally dart at its tankmates as if saying don’t come near me.
The other Holoacanthus species I had was Holacanthus passer, the Passer/King Angelfish. And this was not of my choice, as a local friend was moving out of town and did not want to take it with him, nor did any local shop want it because of its large size. This species hails from the Eastern Pacific Ocean: West Coast of Tropical America as far north as the Gulf of California/Sea of Cortez and can attain a length of about 14 inches, (35 cm). In fact, I’ve often seen the colorful juveniles in the rocky tide pools along the coasts of the Sea of Cortez. The adults, however, are not overly colorful. In these areas, they seemed to be more available in where coastal hotel sewage inters the waters and much algae exists because of it. In fact, both adults and juveniles feed heavily on algae. This species was added to an existing 180 gallon fish-only containing several large surgeonfish and damselfish. It was fed the same foods as mentioned above, and even though it was the last fish in the tank, did not coexist too well with the tangs. It was finally removed and given to a local shop only after twisting their arm somewhat, so to speak.
As for the three remaining species, Holacanthus limbaughi (Clipperton Angelfish); Holacanthus clarionensis (Clarion Angelfish) and, Holacanthus africanus (West African Angelfish), there is only one that I would still like to have and that is the Clipperton Angelfish, a rare and quite expensive species. It hails mainly from Clipperton Island, a French possession located in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (1630 miles south-southeast of San Diego, California) and is named for “John Clipperton” an English buccaneer who led a mutiny against its founder William Dampier in 1708. Its natural diet consists mainly of crustaceans, sponges, tunicates and some algae, and has a temperature range of 70 – 77°F (21 - 25°C).
In fact, his ancestor, also named John Clipperton, contacted me a while back and noted that he may be headed to the Island to do some exploring/diving and film the adventure and would keep me in mind should any specimens be brought back. Unfortunately, that adventure never did occur, so I guess I’ll miss out on keeping one of these more rare Holacanthus specimens, as the rarely available specimens are now in the thousands of US dollars range. And that would only be the beginning of my expenses, as a divorce would probably be my next big expense!
If there one thing I’ve learned about keeping members of the Holacanthus genus, its not to keep more than one specimen per aquarium. Also, because of their belligerent nature, it’s often better to make them the last fish placed in the aquarium. I would also recommend feeding the existing fish well prior to adding a new specimen or at a minimum adding the newcomer just before the lights go out. Keep in mind they are quite inquisitive creatures, so provide adequate shelter, e.g., boulders and cave-like structures for them to investigate.