Dec 21, 2011

Guy Harvey On— The Queen Angelfish

by Guy Harvey

Every time I go for a dive in the Cayman Islands I am always on the lookout for the most beautiful of all Caribbean reef fishes, the queen angelfish. If followed too closely, they sneak into a hole and then turn to look at you, but never give you a good profile shot. However, I know that they feed a great deal on sponges, and occasionally you can be lucky and find a hawksbill turtle chowing down on a sponge at a reasonable depth giving you decent bottom time. The turtle is a sloppy eater and there are lots of loose pieces of sponge and scraps to be had, a perfect size for the angelfish’s small mouth. 

Queen angelfish are also present at cleaning stations, particularly the juveniles,and will clean parasites off larger predators like groupers and jacks. In the tropical eastern Pacific, a close relative, the king angelfish will be a major player at cleaning stations and along with the barberfish (a butterflyfish species) will cover scalloped hammerheads as they come close to the stations to be cleaned. In such exotic locations as Cocos Island and in the Galapagos, these angelfish form large schools and the sight of them cleaning a large shark is quite a spectacle.

Apart from sponges, the queen angels consume a wide variety of tiny invertebrates, soft corals and tunicates in their normal depth range from the shallows down to one hundred meters.  Their mouths are protractible and have fine, brush-like teeth. Typically, one finds them slowly browsing along the reef picking at minute bits of coral tissue, and invertebrates that are lurking in crevices.

This species is found throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, to Bermuda, so may be considered sub tropical and tropical. By no means the largest of the angelfish species, they grow to a maximum of forty centimeters, and weigh just a couple of pounds. Because of its vivid blue and yellow colour, gorgeous face markings and unique shape, it is widely used to advertise dive shops and exotic dive destinations in numerous publications. Easily identifiable from a distance because of their flattened rhomboid shape and brilliant colours, the queen angelfish is truly the queen of the reef and a great subject for an underwater painting.

It is likely the angelfish has a protracted spawning season as pairs can stay together over many months. Other similar, but larger species, such as the gray angel and French angel, may pair for life. Following spawning, as with most tropical species, eggs hatch within twenty four hours and the larvae are planktonic, feeding and growing rapidly and then settling on a new coral reef habitat as juveniles. They are protective of their patch of reef and often engage in cleaning other fish and rays. The colouration of juvenile is different from the adult, but just as spectacular and combined in the same image make a wonderful work of art.

Queen angelfish are long lived and may be encountered in the same reef for many years. They are common but not abundant having few predators. Only man has exploited them to any great extent. For defense, they rely on their ability to fit into crevices in the coral to evade predators. Also, they have two very large backward facing spines on their pre-operculum, which they use to good effect with violent head shakes when held. In some Caribbean islands, they are harvested in fish traps or by spear fishing for food. In other locations, they are taken mostly as live animals for use in the aquarium trade but are not yet considered over exploited anywhere in their range.

So the next time you encounter a queen angel browsing along the reef, try to get the best shot ever of this magnificent creature while you wonder why it evolved with such striking markings and coloration.

It is our collective responsibility to conserve all marine creatures and maintain the biodiversity of this planet. Safe diving!

Guy Harvey 

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