While the most attractive fish tend to come with attitude issues, Chris Sergeant makes the case for the charming but feisty dwarf angelfish as the focal point for your tank.
There are a multitude of reasons for setting up a reef tank, but one is definitely for the aesthetics. That’s no sleight on freshwater aquaria — there are countless, amazing set-ups out there — but when it comes to the complete package, it’s hard to look past a blossoming reef tank in full colour.
Amongst the colourful but sessile coral backdrop, the mobile inhabitants of a reef can really help draw in the eye. When it comes to the palette, there is one group of marine fish that are clear of the rest — angelfish. From the family Pomacanthidae, marine angelfish encompass every colour in the book, sporting outfits for every occasion. From the dazzling, gold-flecked flanks of the French angelfish, Pomacanthus paru, the neon blue stripes of the Blue-ring angelfish, Pomacanthus annularis, through to the vibrant red and white bars of the Peppermint angelfish, Paracentropyge boylei, angelfish simply don’t do dull.
Unfortunately, for the average aquarist many of these fish are not suitable for a standard community set-up, and having had the opportunity to watch angels in the wild, it’s clear to see why. In the Red Sea, large Emperor angels, Pomacanthus imperator, and Regal angels, Pygoplites diacanthus, are common on inshore reefs, grazing over corals and micro-invertebrates and chasing away any similar-sized competitors that stray across any boundaries.
In the Caribbean, it’s the same with French angels, Pomacanthus paru, and Queen angels, Holacanthus ciliaris. These large and often territorial fish patrol areas of reef tens of metres wide, needing ample space to roam and rockwork to feed from or shelter within. These space concerns make them unsuitable for all but the largest of home aquaria.Sold young
It’s not uncommon to see larger angelfish species offered as juveniles. Adult P. imperator might be striking fish in their own right, but there is no denying that the juvenile phase with the dazzling white and blue concentric circles and spots is breathtaking.
This marked difference between adult and young plays a key part in their role on the reef. With the adult fish being intolerant of conspecifics venturing into their patch, and given the size of their territories, finding a home on a packed reef can be tough for a young angelfish. By sporting wildly different markings, the adults give the young a free pass to go as they please.
In P. paru, there are age-related differences with dietary preferences too; juveniles often act as cleaner species to numerous other reef fishes, affording them further protection from bullying or predation.
But while the likes of P. imperator and P. paru remain off the average aquarist’s shopping list, there is a happy compromise in the genus Centropyge. These dwarf angelfish have managed to condense down all the colour and character into less than 15cm of fish.
Centropyge species still sport the same laterally compressed bodies of their larger cousins, facilitating lightning quick movements and an ability to squeeze into the deeper, narrower recesses of the reef.
With ‘Poma’ meaning cheek and ‘acanthus’ referring to spine, like other Pomacanthidae family members, the Centropyge fish also possess a rear-facing opercular spine, which they can use for protection.
They also have the same unique jaw structure. By projecting out their upper and lower jaws simultaneously, they can extend their mouths into cracks in the rockwork and scrape away at otherwise untapped food sources.
It’s not their ability to throw their jaws forwards that is the unique factor here; it’s the fact that they can snap their jaws shut while they are still extended. Angelfish possess an extra joint that enables them to close their jaws before they retract them. In conjunction with their bristle-like teeth, they can grab hold of sessile prey, like tunicates or sponges, rip them out of a crevice and drag them back into the mouth.
Where to start
From the diminutive pygmy angelfish, C. acanthops, to the pearlscale angel, C. vroliki, there are angels to fit any tank colour scheme, with available tank space, aggressive tendencies and food supplies as the limiting factors.
The smallest species, C. acanthops, along with the Cherub angelfish, C. argi, and the Flameback angelfish, C. aurantonotus, come in at around the 8cm mark. All are fairly similar in colouration — predominantly blue bodies and yellow-orange heads — but C. acanthops sports a yellow tail in contrast to the blue of C. aurantonotus, while C. argi lacks the yellow-orange band that extends over the dorsal area. Slightly larger is the Multicolour angelfish, C. multicolor, characterised by pastel colour arrangements.
In the 10cm category, the Flame angel, C. loricula, is the most instantly recognisable thanks to its fiery-orange body with vertical black stripes and electric blue tints to its dorsal and ventral fins, while equally as diminutive are C. vroliki, the Midnight angelfish, C. nox, the elusive Golden angelfish, C. aurantia, and Rusty angelfish, C. ferrugata, the last two of these adorned in a striking ferrous orange garb.
Sitting within this size range are two of the more familiar species of dwarf angelfish – the Coral beauty, C. bispinosa, and the Potter’s angelfish, C. potteri.
The Coral beauty — a retailer’s favourite — is an eclectic mix of oranges, reds, yellows and purples, with electric-blue fin tips, and its hardy reputation makes it a standout in an already aesthetically pleasing line-up. The Potter’s angelfish, named after Frederick Potter, the first director of the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu, Hawaii, is arguably just as attractive, with its vivid rusty-orange body blurred with dark blue stripes to form a striking marbled pattern.
At the upper end of the size range sit the Lemonpeel angelfish, C. flavissima, which is easily distinguished from the yellow angelfish, C. heraldi, thanks to its vivid blue ring around the eye and fin tips. Relative goliaths of the genera —the Bicolour angelfish, C. bicolor, and the Japanese angelfish, C. interruptus — reach up to 15cm. For those with the disposable income, the Yellowhead angelfish, C. joculator (around £900 to £1000), fills the expensive showpiece role, closely resembling C. bicolor minus the vertical blue bar above the eye.
The Flame angel is expensive but gorgeous.
●Scientific name: Centropyge loricula
● Pronunciation: Cane-tro-pie-gie loh-rree-koo-lah
● Size: To around 10cm
● Origin: Widespread across the tropical Pacific Ocean
●Tank size: 120x45x30cm
● Availability and cost: Stocked readily in marine stores, prices usually starting from over £100
Flame angels are kept isolated at a wholesale facility
Scape for success
Once you have established the species you want to keep, it’s important to ensure that your aquascaping is up to angelfish standards. Regardless of the individual, all angelfish require a large quantity of live rock arranged in such a way as to create a variety of caves, overhangs and sheltered areas within which they can dart into if startled. Given their tendencies to hide, the more cover provided, the more secure the fish will feel, which makes them far likelier to spend more time browsing out in the open.
Algae growth over the rocks should be encouraged to supplement their food intake, while a bed of coral rubble and live sand will help promote micro-invertebrate life, another key component to many a Centropyge diet.
In the wild, dwarf angelfish diets can be wide-ranging, so variety is key. Flake and small pellets are often accepted, in conjunction with finely chopped meaty foods such as Artemia and Mysis.
The fish’s algal needs can be supplemented by offering spirulina sheets attached to a clip, while gel-based diets can be smeared across the rocks to further encourage foraging behaviour. Certain brands, like Ocean Nutrition, cater for their spongivorous needs by blending aquacultured marine sponges together with chopped seafood, fish roe and seaweed to create a dedicated, frozen angelfish fare.
Individual Centropyge will sport different tendencies, so when it comes to keeping them with corals, there are no guarantees that these angelfish won’t nibble the occasional polyp. The same goes for tridacnid clams, tube worms, feather dusters and sponges, all of which feature on their menu in the wild.
Regular small feeds might minimise the threat to a prize coral colony or clam, but to cut out the risk of that happening altogether, a mature Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) set-up is safest.
When it comes to tankmates, given the largest attainable size for a dwarf angelfish is around the 15cm mark, the usual advice regarding avoiding larger, predatory fish applies. Equally, smaller, nervous fish should be avoided — not through the threat of predation, but dwarf angelfish are not afraid to stamp their authority at all times, and so aren’t averse to bullying any submissive individuals. Tangs, wrasse, hawkfish, blennies, butterflyfish and jawfish make suitable tankmates, but always add the angel after any smaller, less aggressive fish, just to be on the safe side. Adding multiple Centropyge to a tank — even across species — is also asking for trouble.
That isn’t to say that you cannot mix individuals if the goal is to create breeding pairs or groups. Wild dwarf angelfish will either group together in a harem, with the lone male’s territory encompassing that of multiple females, or form male and female pairs, pending species.
● Scientific name: Centropyge bispinosa
● Pronunciation: Cane-tro-pie-gie bee-spih-no-sah
● Size: To around 10cm
● Origin: Indo-Pacific from Eastern Africa, across to Japan, and down to Australia
● Tank size: 120x45x30cm
● Availability and cost: One of the more readily available dwarf angels, prices from £50
● Scientific name: Centropyge potteri
● Pronunciation: Cane-tro-pie-gie potter-eye
● Size: To around 11.5cm
● Origin: Central Pacific, mainly around Johnston Atoll and the Hawaiian Islands
● Tank size: 120x45x45cm
● Availability and cost: Not as common as the Coral beauty or Flame angel, but usually available to order. Prices from £100
Pairing and spawning
Dwarf angelfish are protogynous hermaphrodites, starting life as a female, before larger and more dominant individuals transition into breeding males. A few species have also been shown to have the capacity to exhibit bi-directional sex change in line with their social status, notably C. acanthops, C. ferrugatus, C. fisheri and C. flavissima.
When it comes to pairing up individuals, the best tactic is to purchase small juveniles and allow them to form a couple naturally. Spawning records are common between bonded pairs, and are linked to increases in water temperature and photoperiod. Dwarf angelfish are midwater spawners, rising up the water column before releasing their gametes, with the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii reporting that tank size has significant effects on the reproductive performance of C. loricula, with the total egg output rising with increasing tank size leading. Egg quality is also influenced by water quality and diet, with higher dietary highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) levels improving fecundity.
The main issue with breeding dwarf angels, as with many marine fish, is not the physical act of getting the fish to breed, but feeding the resultant larvae. Even newly hatched Artemia are too large for the young to take, so vast quantities of copepods, like Parvocalanus crassirostris, along with live algae cultures on which to feed the nauplii are required. This is likely to push the capabilities of even the most capable and experienced aquarist to the extreme, requiring a dedicated food culture program.
Centropyge breeding successes have largely been limited to aquaculture specialists, and there have been a few. Along with flame angels, Avier J. Montalvo at Rising Tide has cultured C. potteri, Bali Aquarich has reared C. eibli, C. flavissima and P. multifasciata. Biota Marine have been commercially producing C. bispinosa for the aquarium trade since 2016, and Frank Baensch holds the first recorded success with a number of dwarf angelfish species, including C. debelius, C. joculator, C. multicolor and C. resplendens.
While the time, effort and financial outlay are likely to restrict such raising successes to the industry experts for the time being, aquaculture techniques and technologies are developing and improving all the while, so the hope is that such accomplishments will start to filter down into the realms of the home hobbyist.
But until then, the vibrant colouration and diminutive stature alone of these Centropyge species more than warrants them a place at the heart of the home reef, and rarely has the term centrepiece felt more appropriate for a fish.