While many angelfish have broad ranges in the Pacific or Atlantic, others are found in only a few locations. One of the more famous is this beautiful species, named for Clarion, one of the Revillagigedo Islands off the Pacific coast of Mexico. These islands are its center of distribution, but they are also found around remote Clipperton Island, and occasionally around the tip of the Baja Peninsula. Though kept in aquariums for more than 40 years, it remains a prized exhibit, collected only under special permit from the Mexican Government.
In contrast to many other angelfish, which live in pairs, swallowtail angels, in the genus Genicanthus live like fairy basslets, with a dominant male guarding a harem of females. As with fairy basslets, if the male dies, the dominant female will become male and take charge of the harem. This species is found only in the Red Sea and the Western Indian Ocean. Only the male has the zebra pattern but only the female has the black stripes at the top and bottom of the tail, commemorated by the Latin name “caudovitatu”, which means “striped tail”.
The ten species of swallowtail angelfish stand out among the marine angelfish family. Instead of staying close to the reef, and feeding on coral polyps and other stationary organisms, swallowtails consume plankton in the water column. While the sexes of other angelfishes are colored alike, male and female swallowtails look very different from each other. Only described to science in 1970, this species occurs off Japan and Australia, and far out into the Central Pacific, but is absent from the Indo-Pacific. Only the male has stripes.
The DWA’s collection of coral reef fishes is internationally recognized for rarely-exhibited species. Marine angelfish (not to be confused with freshwater angelfish, which are cichlids) are a specialty and the Spectacled angelfish, also known as the Conspiculatus angelfish because of the “spectacle-like” rings around its eyes, is one of the most admired. This fish is found in the subtropical waters of Lord Howe Island and is considered rare in the aquarium industry. In 1994, the DWA was the first aquarium in the world to feature a Lord Howe Island exhibit.
The males and females of all swallowtail angels differ in color, but in this case, the difference is so extreme that the male was given the species’ scientific name in 1934, while the female was described as “Holacanthus fuscosus” in 1970. Only aquarium observations confirmed they were the same species. In Japan, this species is found only in Okinawa and “The Seven Islands of Izu” (of which there are actually around a dozen). It is also found off Taiwan and the Philippines.
In most of the swallowtail angelfish species, the male has a more complicated pattern than the female. This species, found from the Philippines to remote islands of the South Pacific, is an exception. The male has a pattern of gold strips bordering a broad pinkish band. The female has a striking pattern of black, white, and purplish-blue. The Latin word “bellus” means “beautiful”. The Greek word “genicanthus” means “cheek spine”.
Easily growing over a foot in length, this is one of the most popular fishes with divers in the Bahamas, Florida, and other places in the Tropical Atlantic. It is a typical sight in Texas’ Flower Garden Banks sanctuary. While adults are black with golden edging to their scales, juveniles have a pattern of broad yellow bands, which serve a “Barber’s Pole” purpose, since young French angels are “cleaners” of much larger fishes that do not harm them. Adults eat mostly sponges. This has been a favorite aquarium exhibit for more than a century.
One of the first salt water tropical fishes to be kept in aquariums, this beautiful fish was exhibited live by P.T. Barnum (of circus fame) at his American Museum in New York in the 1860s and has remained a popular species in public aquariums ever since. In the 1930s, the New York Aquarium sent specimens all the way by ship to East London, in South Africa, in exchange for turkeyfish. In parts of its extensive range in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tropical Western Atlantic, it is a food fish. Its wild diet is almost exclusively sponges.