American Oceans

Queen Angelfish

Queen angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris) are one of the most iconic reef fish. They are one of 86 species of angelfish, a species most closely related to the butterflyfish. 

queen angelfish holacanthus ciliaris with blue circular crown

The queen angelfish looks most similar to the blue angelfish (Holacanthus bermudensis). The biggest visual difference is that they are decorated with an electric blue circular “crown.”

It’s in the middle of their head, which gives them their name.

Characteristics & Appearance

Queen angelfish are among the most striking reef fish. While their bright coloring would seemingly make them seem conspicuous, they actually blend in well among all the bright colors of reef animals. 

Weight & Length

Queen angelfish can grow up to 18 inches (45 cm) long, and they can weigh up to 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg). 

Physical Characteristics & Color

The family name for angelfish, Pomacanthidae, comes from the Greek words for thorn (poma) and cover (akantha).

queen angelfish thorn cover spines characteristics

The “thorn cover” refers to the preopercle spines which cover their gills and helps them to breathe and feed.

Queen angelfish change colors as they age. Juvenile angelfish are mainly bright yellow with a dark-brown or black area between the head and tail fin.

The brown and black will lighten and finally disappear as it ages, turning to yellow. The primary color of a queen angelfish is a yellow gold color.

queen angelfish with brown and black color

It has electric cerulean blue or aqua highlights around its dorsal and anal fins. Sometimes it has both colors as trim.

Iridescent orange and purple highlights are also common. Some have stripes in cerulean blue and aqua. 

Their dorsal and anal fins flow dramatically behind them, extending far beyond the length of their tail.

Queen angelfish get their name from the round crown-like marking in the middle of their forehead.

This “crown” also can look like a large eye, making predators think the fish is bigger than it is. They have beak-like mouths and small bristle-like teeth. Their mouths are sometimes blue. 

Queen angels have stout spines on their gill cowl. They also have 14 spines and 19-21 soft rays on their dorsal fins, along with three spines and 20-21 soft rays on their anal fins.

Lifespan & Reproduction

Queen angelfish live 15-20 years in the wild or in captivity with proper care. While their abdomens almost touch during mating, queen angelfish come in contact with each other to mate.

Instead, they use broadcast spawning. The female releases 25,000-75,000 eggs into the water while the male releases its sperm.

Releasing eggs into the water column above the reef increases the likelihood the eggs will be fertilized without reef predators eating them. 

During a single spawning season, queen angelfish may release as many as ten million eggs. Their transparent eggs hatch 15-20 hours after fertilization.

It takes only 48 hours for the larval large yolk sac to be absorbed and for the larvae to develop characteristics that allow them to swim. It then takes 3-4 weeks before the juveniles are ready to come down to the reef to live.


Queen angelfish live on warm water coral and rocky reefs in the Caribbean Sea and western part of the Atlantic Ocean.

Where Does the Queen Angelfish Live?

Their range includes coastal areas along eastern Florida, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, all the way down the eastern coast of Mexico and Central America.

They also thrive along the north and east coasts of South America and around Caribbean countries and islands. 

While juvenile queen angels begin life in the water far above the coral reef, adult queen angels are benthic, living at the lowest ocean level. 

Adult angelfish restrict themselves to the shallowest parts of a coral reef, so they are most often found in waters anywhere from three to 230 feet (1-70 meters) deep. 

Food & Diet

Angelfish eat a variety of foods on the coral reef.

What Does the Queen Angelfish Eat?

Before coming down to the reef to live, queen angelfish larvae subsist entirely on plankton. Once they reach the reef, juvenile queen angelfish eat filamentous algae and parasites off of larger fish.

Juvenile queen angelfish set up a medical spa in the seagrass where fish suffering from parasites come by regularly to have their parasites removed.

Adult queen angelfish feed almost on sponges they find around the coral reef. However, they are also foragers that eat a variety of sessile reef plants and invertebrates.

Some of their favorite snacks include algae, hydroids, bryozoans, soft corals, sea fans, tunicates, anemones, jellyfish, and loose organic matter fragments.

As an aquarium pet, queen angelfish will eat flake food, Spirulina, dried algae sheets, brine shrimp, Mysis shrimp, nori, chopped vegetables, and chopped fish pieces. They need to eat three times a day.

Threats & Predators

The main threats to queen angelfish are humans who harvest them for the aquarium trade and large reef predators.

Human Threats

Queen angelfish are popular in saltwater aquariums, so humans harvest them for the aquarium trade. They’re harvested more in Brazil than in any other place.

There is a harvest management plan in place so that queen angels do not become overharvested. In Brazil, collectors cannot exceed 10,000 specimens.

However, this quota is far more than the current collection levels. In five years, collection numbers are around 44,000.

Humans do not often catch queen angelfish for food. Consumption can cause Ciguatera poisoning, resulting in gastrointestinal issues and weak arms and legs.

This poisoning is caused by an accumulation of ciguatoxins in the fish’s flesh. Dinoflagellates that attach themselves to marine algae can contain ciguatoxins. When fish eat algae or other fish that eat algae, they can become infected. 

Climate Change & Global Warming

Queen angelfish have become increasingly threatened by the destruction of coral reefs. Efforts to restore coral reefs can prevent them from becoming endangered. Luckily, some of the reefs in which they live have become protected areas. 


Larger fish are the primary predators of queen angelfish. Their predators include sharks and barracudas.

Their thin laterally compressed body shape allows queen angels to shimmy between corals to more easily escape large reef predators.

Other Threats

The queen angelfish population at St. Paul’s Rocks in Brazil is the most susceptible to overcollection for the aquarium trade because they have unique and varied color patterns.

However, collecting queen angels from there is an expensive endeavor since the island is 1000 miles from land. 

Conservation Status

Queen angels can be found in great numbers in their natural habitat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists queen angelfish as having a stable population and being of little concern. 

Fun Facts About Queen Angelfish

  • Unlike some other angelfish species, queen angelfish are shy. They are usually found alone or as a part of a long-term monogamous pair. 
  • When Queen Angelfish get old, the younger Angelfish helps them out!
  • They can communicate with each other by changing their coloration, especially during mating. Males display their pectoral fins and flick them outward in an attempt to tempt the female to mate.
  • When juvenile angelfish first come down to the reef to live, they are only 0.59 to 0.79 inches (12-20 mm) long.
  • All queen angelfish in Bermuda are hybrids that have crossed with blue angelfish (Holacanthus bermudensis). This hybrid is called Townsend Angelfish (Holacanthus cilaris).
  • Queen angelfish use their pectoral fins for swimming.
  • Angelfish benefit from a lateral line which is a series of fluid-filled ducts in their body that help them sense small vibrations in the water from approaching predators. 
  • All angelfish are protogynous hermaphrodites, which means that females can turn into functional males if no males are present.
  • Angelfish are hardy and able to adapt to water pH and hardness that are less than perfect.
  • In captivity, queen angelfish need to live in at least a 100-gallon take but preferably in a 180-gallon or more tank. Pairs need at least a 220-gallon tank.

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