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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

French Angelfish Pomacanthus paru


Species ID: P.PPb

Description: A large, disc-shaped fish with a prominent spine on the gill cover and long, trailing streamers on the dorsal and anal fins. The body is dark grey to black with scales edged in bright yellow. Bright yellow markings also occur around the eyes and at the base of the pectoral fins. The sexes are similar in appearance. Juveniles are black with bright yellow vertical stripes

Maximum Size: 61 cm (24 in)

Longevity: Approximately 15 years

Status: Not currently on the IUCN endangered species list

French Angelfish & People: French angelfish are fished for local consumption. Juveniles are highly sought after for the aquarium trade


Geographical Range: Throughout the Eastern Caribbean; north along the coast of Florida, and south to Brazil. Not generally seen within the Gulf of Mexico

Coral Reef Zone: Found in back reef, fore reef and drop-off zones

Favourite Habitat: French angelfish prefer shallow reefs with rocky bottoms that offer plenty of shelter

Depth Range: 3–100 m (10–330 ft)

A Day in the Life:

Dawn: French angelfish emerge from nighttime shelters

Day: Adults defend territories and search for food, while juveniles act as cleaners

Dusk: Spawning occurs in deeper reef areas just after sunset

Night: French angelfish find shelter from nocturnal predators in reef crevices

Who Eats Who?

Adult French angelfish can grow to be relatively tough customers, and only the largest reef predators such as grouper and sharks are likely to prey on them. The French angelfish dines on sponges, and to a lesser extent, gorgonians and algae.

Scuba Diver & Snorkeler Best Practices

Prevent your garbage ending up in the sea. Stow your garbage—never throw it in the sea. Cigarette butts, plastic bags, bottles and other non-biodegradable garbage can remain in the environment for years, causing a threat to any forms of marine life. Turtles can mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish, swallow it, and then slowly starve to death as their system is unable to digest plastic. Fishing line can entangle marine life and wrap around corals, eventually weakening and breaking them. When onboard a dive boat, always ensure that you stow garbage in a closed bin or bag, where it cannot blow away in the wind. Remember the maxim: “Take only pictures and memories; leave only bubbles.”


These fish are easily approached, and are sometimes even curious of divers and snorkelers.Divers can sometimes observe spawning activities closely by resting on a sandy area and creeping slowly toward the spawning pair.

Feeding Behaviour

Adult French angelfish feed mainly on sponges, and occasionally gorgonians, tunicates, and algae. When feeding, they take deep, gouging bites from the sponge, leaving v-shaped scars. Juveniles are highly specialized as cleaner fish; the majority of their diet therefore consists of parasites picked from the bodies of their clients. Juveniles stake out a location on the reef that will serve as their cleaning station. They advertise their services by fluttering their bodies to attract clients. While cleaning, they keep their lower fins (the ventral fins) in constant contact with the client until they finish. Their services are so popular that clients often form queues and sometimes compete for priority.

Observe, record & share:

O P.PPb-101 – Feeding on sponges: Adults bite sponges and leave deep v-shaped scars

O P.PPb-102 – Juvenile advertising: Juveniles wiggle their body in a fluttering motion to attract clients to their cleaning station

O P.PPb-103 – Juvenile cleaning: Juveniles clean other coral reef organisms by feeding on their parasites

Attack & Defense Behaviour

French angelfish adults are typically large enough to be ignored by all but the largest reef predators, and their narrow disc shape allows them to turn on a dime, escape into narrow reef crevices for shelter, and makes them much too wide for the mouths of most predators. French angelfish are strongly territorial, and cooperate with their mate to jointly defend a large territory from other French angelfish. Couples are territorial in part to protect their food resources, but primarily to guard their mate against the attentions of wandering bachelors or bachelorettes which could break up the pair. When other angelfish intrude upon their territory, the occupants will drive them away by chasing or charging at them.

Observe, record & share:

O P.PPb-201 – Hiding: When threatened by a rival territory holder or predator, French angelfish often retreat to the shelter of a crevice or cave

O P.PPb-202 – Territorial conflict: Intruders in a French angelfish territory are promptly chased away, often by a territorial pair working together

O P.PPb-203 – Charge: When French angelfish charge an opponent, they roll onto their side

Reproductive Behaviour

French angelfish reproduce sexually by broadcast spawning. They do not change sex during their development and are thought to stay with their partner for life. French angelfish spend roughly half their time at their partner’s side, while the rest is spent foraging or resting alone. When meeting after periods of separation, couples circle each other in a behaviour known as carouseling. This behaviour is thought to re-enforce their pair bond. French angelfish mate only with their partner. Towards dusk, during the mating season, these pairs begin an unceremonious spawning rise. There are no bells or whistles in this spawning rise, as the pair’s strong bond is thought to make courtship unnecessary. The pair rises towards the surface in a shallow arc, pressing their bellies together, until they release eggs and sperm at the peak of this arc. Other angelfish that come too close to the spawning couple are vigorously chased away. The breeding season of French angelfish stretches from April to September, with peaks in midsummer around July.

Observe, record & share:

O P.PPb-301 – Pair: Mated pairs spend roughly half of their time together and jointly defend a territory

O P.PPb-302 – Carouseling: Mated pairs circle each other, head to tail, in a behaviour thought to re-enforce their pair bond after time apart

O P.PPb-303 – Spawning rise: Without prior warning, pairs begin to rise in a shallow arc high above the reef, where eggs and sperm are released

Highlight Behaviors

Juvenile cleaning stations: Juvenile French angelfish set up formal cleaning stations on the reef at prominent coral outcroppings, small patch reefs, or depressions in a rocky reef area, which are easy for clients to locate. When open for business, the juvenile angelfish wiggle their brightly coloured bodies like a fluttering flag to attract client fish, which approach and either hover above the reef or settle onto it and open their mouths and gills for a thorough cleaning. Juvenile angelfish inspect their clients for parasites, which they remove and eat, while keeping their ventral fins in contact with the client as a sign that they are still at work. These cleaning stations are so popular that clients often queue up to be cleaned. Fights sometimes break out over priority in the line – just like in human queues!

Did You Know?

• An adult pair of French angelfish can defend a territory of up to 5000 m² (53800 ft²) – that’s nearly the size of a football field!

• French angelfish females may release as many as 75,000 eggs in a single spawning event, a magnitude typical for broadcast spawning fishes.

• In the same way that herbivorous fishes reduce competition of algae with corals, spongivorous fishes (fishes that eat sponges) reduce competition of sponges with corals. As a result, sponge-feeding fishes, like the French angelfish, contribute to increased coral survival and biodiversity.

What to do ?

Share your observations today!: Discover your species of interest, observe its behaviour, and share your pictures and videos with friends and coral reef enthusiasts around the world! Upload media to the web, tagged with species common name (ex.: trumpetfish) and species ID code (ex.: A.AM) or species behaviour code (ex.: A.AM-101)

French Angelfishzoom image
  • Order Pomacanthidae
  • Length 61 cm (24 in)
  • Weight Not recorded
  • Depth 3–100 m (10–330 ft)
  • Habitat Found in back reef, fore reef and drop off zones
  • Distribution Throughout the Eastern Caribbean, north along the coast of Florida and south to Brazil
French Angelfish habitat mapzoom image