Aquarium Fish: Large Angels in the Home Aquarium, Part II

by | Apr 15, 2008 | 0 comments

Welcome back! Last issue we began discussing the larger marine angelfish and the requirements to keep them successfully in the home aquarium. We talked about space requirements; as well as how to make sure that the variables are on your side when you go to select a specimen at your local store

This time, we’ll talk about how to properly introduce your newly acquired angelfish into his new home, how to properly feed it, and some information on a few of the more commonly seen species in the hobby.


What about filtration?

Marine angels need perfect water conditions for the most part. While a few species are a bit more forgiving in this regard, and one or two are arguably “bullet proof” (I’ll deal with these species later), most of them will not suffer neglect or laziness on the part of the keeper with the same aplomb as your average damselfish. Tank size goes a long way toward mitigating water quality fluctuations since the greater volume means that dissolved metabolites are more diluted and have less of an effect on the organisms within the tank…. in theory. This of course only holds true if the aquarist avoids stocking the tank in such a way that the “large” volume of water is negated by too many fish, or fish that are too large – something that is easily done with marine fish, and all too common. It’s very easy to bring home a fish from your local store that will overwhelm a 1000-gallon tank as easily as a 100-gallon tank. A 150-gallon tank that provides a nice piece of real-estate for an
Orchid Dottyback gets very small, very fast when an 11″ annularis angel is placed inside of it! Such a scenario is far too common however. Go as large as you have the space and funds for, and pick your angelfish accordingly!

Further, effective filtration is a must! Angels are very sensitive to poor water quality. The best way to provide appropriate water conditions is a combination of live rock, protein skimming, and water changes. A large refugium with a healthy growth of macro-algaes certainly helps as well. Angels are grazers, and consume a large volume of food on a daily basis. A 10″ angel consumes a respectable amount of food, and projects a corresponding amount of waste matter into the tank. Maintenance regimes will vary considerably depending on all factors, including the size of the tank, the number and types of other fish present, how much live rock or other filtration is present in the system, feeding regime, etc. A 300-gallon reef housing a 6″ Regal Angelfish along with 20 or so other small fish will be a very low maintenance proposition indeed. On the other hand, that same size tank with a 10″ imperator angelfish, along with a few other larger marine fish species and a smaller amount of
live rock might require a 20% water change weekly in order to maintain proper water conditions.

As far as decor goes, this is slightly dependent on the age of your angel, and to some extent species. You’ll find that you will see youngsters or initially shy species such as P. navarchus out in the open more often if they know that they have a plethora of hiding spaces close by. This need for numerous caves and overhangs lessens just a bit in some species as the fish matures, but never disappears, and is essential while the angel is growing and becoming accustomed to his new environment. A lack of hiding places will cause the animal stress, something we want to avoid at all costs.


I’m ready to bring him home already! What else?

Not so fast! We’ll discuss stocking order in a minute, but first I have to mention the all-important factor when introducing a new fish, especially an angelfish – quarantine. This word seems to be the bane of many inexperienced (or unwise) marine aquarist’s existence. It seems that the minor amount of effort and expense, relatively speaking, is just too much for them to be bothered with. That is, until they suffer the consequences of skipping this step – then suddenly the trouble and expense of a quarantine tank seem miniscule in comparison to dealing with a pathogen that has invaded their display system and starts wiping out fish! It never ceases to amaze me how many fish keepers are ignorant of just how important proper quarantine procedure is to the longer-term success of any closed system. The bottom line is this, if you can’t afford to set up a small quarantine tank, then you cannot afford to keep a marine fish display tank – it’s really that simple. A
similar statement can be made if pure laziness, or simply space is the limiting factor. Over the years I’ve typed more words admonishing lazy or nonexistent quarantine procedures while responding to “help, my fish has ich!” threads on online forums than all the words in both parts of this article combined several times over! Even the most inadequate effort into the basics of marine fish husbandry will yield information on the importance of quarantine, thus anyone not doing so is either ignoring such wisdom, or had not bothered to investigate at all how to keep these animals alive. Neither scenario puts this author in the most compassionate of moods! If you neglect to quarantine your fish, you will have problems sooner or later – this is never truer than where relatively delicate species are concerned.

Terry Bartelme has written an excellent article on proper quarantine procedure, and the reasons for it, which can be found here. I’ll leave you to it, and simply add that quarantine is absolutely necessary not only to ensure that your new acquisition does not succumb to disease, but also to ensure that you do not introduce disease organisms into your display tank.


When do I add my angelfish to the display tank?

This gets tricky folks, and it depends on many factors. I would submit that if the well being of our angel is the primary concern, then most species should be the first fish added to the display tank – with the possible exception of a few dither fish such as Chromis virids. Not only will the presence of these dither fish make the angel more at ease, and speed up acclimation to the display tank, but it’s an absolute must that the tank be well established and healthy before any species of angel is introduced. The pugnacious nature of some species toward newly introduced fish however, (and sometimes just any other tank mate in general) as well as other mitigating circumstances dictates that adding the angel to your display first is not always the best course of action. A few species are even hardy enough to allow their introduction whenever convenient. At the very least then, young individuals or more delicate species of any age should be added first when possible, or at
the very least before any other fish that will compete with it for food or hide spots. P. navarchus and P. diacanthus are best added first, and the same goes for P. imperator,. P. asfur and P. annularis. There are also species, which should almost always be added last due to their more pugnacious nature. Chief among these are H. passer, and H. ciliaris – as well as P. paru. Please note that just because an angel is potentially aggressive, does not mean that newly imported specimens are not somewhat fragile, even if behavior is assertive and the fish looks like he has things handled. Often all seems well until a disease outbreak. Take steps such as rearranging the rockwork to break up existing territories, and do not introduce an angel into a tank containing a well-established and aggressive species such as triggerfish or a Dragon Wrasse. There is not always a perfect solution to problems presented with stocking order, and more often than not a compromise has to be made. For instance, I would normally suggest that due to its fragile, temperamental and extremely shy nature, a young Majestic Angel always be added to the display first, or after a few dither fish. Although this means he may cause problems with further additions to the tank later on, we can take steps to mitigate this, (rearranging the rockwork to break up existing territories for instance) and it’s more than worth it to get him established, eating well and healthy.

A big reason for the caution I’m advocating here is something that many aquarists do not realize about these fish, and that is that the moderately hardy to delicate species go through a prolonged period of acclimation – longer than casual observation will make manifest. The most important thing to keep in mind here is that their immune response often does not function at full tilt until months after they are seemingly established in a display tank. There is no hard answer to how long this period is, as it varies greatly from individual to individual and the circumstances involved. What this means is that you may have quarantined your angelfish properly, and he may be swimming around in your display and all may look fine and dandy for weeks. Quite often the reality is that the fish is still in a state of low-level stress, has not fully acclimated to the surroundings, and is moderately susceptible to disease still. At this stage, there are many things that can send the fish into a tailspin. Among these stressors are inadequate shelters, low quality of food or inadequate feedings, temperature or pH fluctuations, nitrogen spikes, and the one we are concerned with here, harassment by a tank mate.

Harassment can be as subtle as twitching or arching the body and tail on the part of the aggressor, or as blatant as out and out chasing. The simple matter of the resident fishes having claimed the best shelters is enough to cause your new angel a modicum of stress, even if no other aggressive interactions are apparent. In any case, this spells bad news for any new addition to a display tank, and doubly so for a juvenile angelfish not yet fully acclimated to it’s new home – even a species that will later likely become aggressive itself such as those species noted above. Again, we want to do everything possible to allow the angel to establish itself – competition during feeding is eliminated for a time, and stress will be drastically reduced during this critical period. While juvenile specimens in the 2 to 4 inch range are always best since they acclimate more readily than smaller or larger specimens, it’s especially important to heed this with aggressive species such as H.
. Purchase one that is too much larger than this, and you’ll cause the same problems with later additions to your tank as we sought to avoid with the angelfish!


What do they eat?

Providing proper nutrition is arguably THE most important factor in maintaining the prolonged health of your angelfish, and one of the greater challenges. In the wild, the diet of marine angelfish varies from species to species. The diet of one species may be very eclectic, as is the case with P. semicurculatus and P. navarchus, to decidedly specialized, as is the case with P. diacanthus or H. tricolor. Often, difficulties with feeding is the downfall that plagues the aquarist who has otherwise managed to procure and acclimate a healthy, vibrant angelfish specimen, only to watch it succumb to illness brought on by malnutrition. A consistently widely varied diet is the key here, along with vitamin supplements, which can be applied directly to the food, usually by soaking the food items in the vitamins before feeding.

Angels are consummate grazers in the wild, and some of them, most notably those of the genus Holocanthus, are obligate spongivores – that is they feed almost exclusively on sponges in their natural habitat. Even most species that are not sponge specialists nevertheless ingest a fair amount of sponge matter, such as P.paru and P.imperator. This can pose a huge problem for the would-be angel keeper since sponges are not normally found at the local grocery store. Furthermore, even a species with more eclectic feeding habits such as P.navarchus can be difficult to get acclimatized to captive fare at times, necessitating a sort of shotgun approach until something is accepted. Once that happens, more foods will be accepted over time.

Fortunately, there are some very high quality angel preparations on the market these days that contain many of the vital dietary components of our Pomacanthid friends, including sponge matter and algae. Aside from sponge matter, which we normally can only feed in small amounts due to practical considerations, macroalgae is also of primary importance. As with sponge matter, the high quality frozen preparations mentioned here provide some of this, but it can also be purchased in dried form from certain stores, as well as grown in a refugium by the aquarist. Other food items that can and should be offered in rotation are high quality flakes such as OSI and Formula 1 and 2 (both flake and frozen versions) frozen preparations such as Prime Reef, VHP, Angel Formula, Pygmy Formula etc, along with mysis shrimp, plankton, silversides, krill and brine shrimp. Anything available at your local fish market should also be fed, such as crab, squid, scallops, octopus, halibut, oysters, clams, shrimp,etc.


What if he won’t eat?

Assuming we’re not talking about a chronically problematic species in this regard, an angel refusing to eat is a common stress reaction, but fortunately a problem that is in many cases only fleeting. For starters, it’s always best to ask to see the fish eat in the store before you bring it home. Of course the fish may greedily gobble down brine shrimp in the store, then refuse food again for a time once you have him in his quarantine tank – but at least you know that the problem will right itself in a matter of days. Other times their refusal of food in the store is not necessarily an indication that you should steer clear of the fish, especially with very shy species. At the end of the day this is a judgment call, and the keeper should be aware that some fish that don’t eat initially will NEVER eat, or else don’t eat enough. This is most often true with very tiny specimens, adult specimens, or certain problematic species such as H.tricolor or P.diacanthus – two species that frankly should be avoided by most hobbyists anyway.

Getting a newly acquired Pomacanthid to eat that is stubbornly refusing everything offered is truly an exercise in patience and resolve. After all, the clock is ticking! As the interval of time that the fish refuses food increases, so does the danger of malnutrition and further depredation of the immune response. Perseverance and diligence is the key here – this is one of those times when the lazy aquarist is in danger of experiencing a very unpleasant loss, both financially and otherwise.

Simply put, you must offer a large variety of foods, multiple times a day, with perhaps multiple methods of presentation. While brine shrimp are far from a nutritionally suitable staple, they are often useful in jump-starting the feeding response in these fish. All of the foods mentioned above should be offered at this time, and macro-algae should always be available, and can be submersed and secured with a clip. Nori is a good option here. Once feeding commences on a given food item, you’re in business! Well, at the very least you’re on the way! Other foods should be offered at the same time in rotation along with whatever the accepted food is -often brine shrimp. Slowly but inevitably the list of accepted foods will grow, and you now have the ability to ensure the nutritional health of your angelfish. That wasn’t so hard, was it?


Are they reef compatible?

Ahh, the eternal question! For the most part, the safe answer is “no” with regard to most species. As with most things in life however, nothing is all the time. Certain species are sometimes workable with most or some sessile invertebrates, at least for a time if not permanently. The key is acquiring the fish while young so that you can condition it to captive food offerings, and hopefully mitigate its natural grazing habits. The shortage of aquarists who’ve kept angels of various species in reefs for a period of 5 or 10 years is notable however, so regardless of what you do, you’ll be firmly ensconced in the experimental crowd. Indeed, many of the opinions out there with regard to keeping large angels in reefs are the result of a lack of empirical data on the subject.

Even among those few species that are sometimes an option, there are individuals among them who will prove me wrong! Again, nothing is all the time, and behavior is highly variable within the group -keep that in mind as you read the rest of this section. You may attempt a species that some aquarists have had good luck with, only to find that it attacks every invertebrate in your tank! Also, some species of inverts are almost always picked on to some extent by even “reef safe” angels, including some soft corals, (especially open brain types and zooathids) some large polyped stoney corals, and tridacnid clam mantles. By far the safest type of reef to attempt an angel in is an SPS (small polyped stony coral) reef. These corals are not generally on the menu for Pomacanthids, although anything is fair game for an exploratory nip now and then. This brings me to my next point, which is that the aquarist must discern between a random exploratory nip, (which is very common, and normally harmless to most inverts), and more determined efforts to make coral or clam a meal. Most recently I myself had an Emperor Angel in an SPS dominated reef that also housed 3 tridacnid clams. The imperator would give the mantel on one tridacnid clam or another a good tag every few days. This wasn’t enough to damage the clams or keep them closed as is often the case with angels that have decided the clam would make a proper meal. This fish did however decimate my zooanthid population, but left all other invertebrates in the tank alone. This fish did fine for over a year until the tank had to be taken down due to a move.

If in fact your angel behaves like a model citizen in your reef, this does not mean that someday , for no apparent reason, he won’t decide to make a meal of one of your favorite invertebrates.

Species that can be attempted in the reef in probable order of safety include, but may not be limited to P. diacanthus P. imperator, P. navarchus, P. maculosus and P. annularis. Also, P. asfur can usually be maintained with SPS corals (Michael 1999), and angels of the genus Chaetodontoplus can also be attempted, again with the caveat that some LPS and soft corals will be in danger (Schiemer, 2003). Indeed, more often than not you’ll be faced sooner or later with making the decision of whether you’d rather sacrifice certain corals, or your angelfish. Depending on the sessile invertebrates present, you’ll almost certainly lose a few to your angel. Zooanthids and open brain corals seem to be among the most inviting to these fish. The good news is that small-polyped stony corals (SPS corals) are almost always ignored by the above-mentioned species.

The various species of the genus Holocanthus must absolutely be avoided – this is not the genus to attempt if you’re bitten buy a bug to try something different! While I have not included angels of the genus Genicanthus in this article, they are most appropriate for larger reefs.


What can I keep with my angel?

This question is dependent on a lot of factors, including tank size and the species of angel. In general, aspiring to keep an “angel tank” is a bad idea -keeping more than one individual, regardless of species, is usually a recipe for disaster. Pomacanthids are initially delicate, yet growing into territorial, often quite pugnacious fish with capacious space demands. The average aquarist is well advised to keep one per tank. Remember the immense size of their territory in the wild! This author has kept 5 species together at once in a 200 gallon, but these were mostly juveniles, and the setup was not permanent. Certain species can sometimes be paired, but this is not an avenue for the average aquarist to pursue. However (nothing is all the time remember!) in a very large tank, say 250 gallons plus, 3 or so species can coexist if introduced properly as juveniles, if they are if disparate size and color, and allowed to grow up together. Even with 250-gallons, a larger tank will likely be necessary at some point. If attempting to mix angels, certain species should nevertheless be avoided at all cost due to their aggressive nature; among these are H. ciliaris, H. passer, P. paru.

As far as other species are concerned, there are hundreds to choose from. Overly bellicose species such as Clown Triggers should be avoided, and while growing up they should be the dominant fish in the tank. Remember that while angels can be aggressive, they can also succumb to stress rather quickly if they themselves are the targets of bullying.


Which species do I get?

Good question! There are a lot of variables to consider, including just about everything mentioned above, both in this article and Part 1. How large is your tank? Will you be in a position to upgrade in a few years? Are you looking to keep your angel in a reef? How experienced are you? Do you go on long vacations and leave your tank in less than experienced hands? These are things you want to consider before choosing a species, as not all of them will be appropriate for your circumstance, indeed none of them may be. So be honest with yourself before bringing one of these beauties home.


Pomacanthus imperator

Large, garish and, intelligent the Emperor Angel fish reaches 15″ plus in the wild. They begin life garbed in juvenile colors that are nothing short of stunning. A dark blue background, with white circles and crescents (see photo in part I of this article) it’s always been a heartbreak to me that they change at all. While their brilliant yellow, blue and black adult coloration is the height of brilliance, almost too extraordinary to be real – the juvenile stage is by far the height of beauty as far as this aquarist is concerned.

If net caught and treated well during it’s trip to your local store, and then quarantined and acclimated properly, they are fairly hardy fish in captivity. Specimens from the Indian Ocean, Red Sea or Australia are the most suitable due to cyanide use in other regions discussed in part I. If kept properly, growth in this species can be quite rapid, (although any individual attaining a size close to that of the maximum adult size in the wild is rare) and a full color change can be witnessed within 3 years. If kept in quarters that are too small, and/or the diet is less than adequate, the color change can be incomplete, or else rather dull and disappointing.

One of the more eclectic eaters in the wild, P. imperator will accept, and should be fed a wide variety of foods, including spirulina algae, high quality angel formulations containing sponge matter, pygmy angel formulations (good for all large angels) as well as any seafood at the local grocer.

Plan ahead when adding to a reef tank, as it will eat some soft corals, and some individuals will pick at clam mantles. Adding this fish to a reef when it’s between 2 and 3 inches, and feeding it well will help mitigate potential problems in this area. The species will usually leave SPS corals alone. Needs at least a 250 gallon tank for long-term well being.


Pomacanthus navarchus

Often called the Majestic Angel, this species is truly deserving of the name. Its delicate, jaw-dropping beauty often leads to an impulse purchase by uninformed keepers. Not one of the more appropriate species for captivity, this is one of the most delicate Pomacanthids, and should only be attempted by veteran aquarists who have experience keeping other angel species. They are extraordinarily shy when first introduced, which exacerbates a prolonged period of acclimation. Feeding during this period is often problematic despite the fact that their diet in the wild is diverse.


Pomacanthus navarchus

To aid their acclimatization to captivity, they should always be the first fish added to the tank (aside from a few dither fish mentioned in part 1). Not for the lazy keeper, or one who considers quarantine tanks a non-essential item! All warnings applying quarantine, acclimation and introduction in the previous installment of this article should be heeded in full with this species. Rarely growing larger than 8″ in captivity, they can be kept in slightly smaller quarters as long tankmates are chosen wisely.Once acclimated, and if kept in a spacious tank of at least 180 gallons, this fish can be long-lived in captivity.


Pomacanthus maculosus

The Map Angel – now here is a species that is most appropriate for captivity, with a few caveats thrown in for good measure of course. Availability of this species is spotty at best, but captive juveniles can be found online from time to time. These fish are very hardy, (I would rank only H. passer and H.clarionensis slightly higher here) but they still need a modicum of care and patience to adapt in good time to their new home. Quarantine procedures should of course be observed as always, and a varied diet should be offered which includes sponge matter.


Pomacanthus maculosus

With a maximum size of 11 inches, this fish needs at least a 200-gallon tank to thrive and live a proper lifespan in captivity. Of course, larger is always better!


Pomacanthus paru

The French Angelfish is big, boisterous, very hardy, and one of the fastest, if not THE fastest growing angelfish in captivity. Growing from a small, fluttering, black and yellow juvenile to an active, somewhat more subdued adult. Feeding heavily on sponges in the wild, they adapt readily to a wide variety of captive fare – variety being the operative word as ever. Make sure to offer sponge matter in their diet, and as ever frequent feedings of a variety of quality foods is key. The tiny quarter sized individuals that are sometimes available do poorly, as do larger wild-caught individuals. Specimens in the 2″ to 4″ range are usually hardy, and accept a wide range of foods. This species is suitable only for very large tanks in the 250-gallon plus range, and is one of the rare species that should be added last to a tank.


Pomacanthus paru


Holacanthus passer

Of the angelfish species that are commonly available to the hobbyist, the Passer or King Angelfish is without doubt the hardiest angel one can keep in an aquarium. It’s close sibling, H. clarionensis, the Clarion Angel may be it’s equal in this regard, but they are not available to aquarists on this side of the ocean for less than the equivalent of a steep mortgage payment! How hardy is the Passer Angelfish? Well they are one of the few species that this author can call hardy without adding the “for an angelfish” qualifier in front of it. Once acclimated, which doesn’t take long, you’d almost have to hang it on a clothesline to kill it! They are not particularly fast growers, and can be kept in a 135 gallon tank for some time before larger quarters are needed – at least 250 gallons given their large sizes and VERY aggressive nature. Indeed, as with the Queen Angel, keeping other fish with H. passer is often a problem, and unlike some angels, it should be the last fish added to any tank.


Holacanthus passer, juvenile.

The hardiness of this species should not be taken as license to forgo great care while acclimating it to captivity. Juveniles of at least 2″ are the best prospect, but be warned that full transition to adult coloration can take upwards of 3 years or longer.


Holocanthus ciliaris

The ever-popular Queen Angel. While my own observations indicate that they are not quite as bulletproof as the passer or clarion angels of the same genus, other authors rank them right up there. At the very least, the Queen is not far off the mark as long as care is taken with the initial purchase and care once it arrives home. Individuals smaller than 2″, and larger than 5 or 6″ should be avoided (good advise for the family as a whole) since feeding and acclimation become serious issues outside of this size range. This is a large species, and every bit as aggressive as the passer angel, something not to be taken lightly with a fish that reaches 18″ in length!

Adults feed primarily on sponges, but if acquired when young, they can be acclimated to accept the offerings discussed above. With any species, variety and quality of food offerings is key, and this is never truer than with this species. Laziness on the part of the keeper that manifests in feeding a single, convenient food item will result in declining health and eventual disease and death for this and most species.


Pygoplites diacanthus. Photo by Michael G. Moye.


Pygoplites diacanthus

The Regal Angelfish, and deserving of this name it is! Unfortunately it’s also one of the most problematic species with regard to acclimation, disease resistance and feeding. With a highly specialized diet of tunicates and sponges, duplicating this exclusive diet is impossible, and acclimating this fish to other fare is often impossible. Only for the experienced angel keeper, this species for the most part should be left in the ocean. On the upside, it’s smaller size means that it can live long term in smaller quarters than most of it’s other Pomacanthid congeners, however I wouldn’t be quite as liberal in this area as some authors. Given the clear and obvious need to mitigate stress with this species even more than usual, 135 gallons is probably a reasonable minimum tank size for long term keeping of this species, again refer to part one for my reasoning in this regard. A good article on this species written by the late Gregory Schimer can be found at This should cover all you need to know regarding this species. (I would respectfully recommend a slightly larger tank than is stated in his article for reasons spelled out in Part I)


Holacanthus tricolor

The Rock Beauty is the only member of the genus Holocanthus that is almost always an exceedingly poor candidate for captive life. Another sponge eater, they usually do not adapt to captive offerings, nor to the confines of the aquarium. Another fish that is frankly best left in the ocean. While on rare occasions an individual will do well for a time, this author has never seen one over a year old in captivity.


The genus Chaetodontoplus

Not generally as well known or popular amongst hobbyists, this genus holds a few gems that do well in captivity, and some will possibly even do well in SPS dominated reef tanks, (with no first hand experience keeping this genus in a reef, I’ll leave the reader to experiment). Smaller in size than representatives from either the genus Pomacanthus or Holacanthus, they can make due with smaller quarters, in the 75 gallon range, with the exception of the Scribbled Angel (Chaetodontoplus duboulayi) which reaches almost 10″ (8″ realistically in captivity) and thus requires a tank at least in the 125 gallon range.

So there you have it! Arguably the most beautiful and elegant fish on the reef, the unparalleled interest that the Pomacanthids enjoy amongst marine hobbyists certainly reflects the validity of such a proclamation. There is nothing more spectacular than a healthy angel swimming the length of a large home aquarium. However, the wide range of size, behavior, hardiness and feeding habits, along with the attention and care required to keep them healthy in captivity dictates that their purchase not be taken lightly or made in haste. A conscientious approach to husbandry, and sense of responsibility to the animals in your charge are key ingredients with these fish, as well as all marine fish species.

With a little thought, a little planning and a desire to provide the animals in your care with research, there is no reason why you can’t keep one of these beauties healthy for 15+ years in your living room!


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