French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru) are a favorite with snorkelers and divers. Not only do they stand out in their natural reef environment, but they also have personalities that drive them to investigate any visitors. And that natural curiosity makes them every bit as enjoyable to house in a marine aquarium – provided you have the space.
Table of Contents: French Angelfish Care
Navigate using the links below, or you can read through the entire article if you want a complete picture of their care. It’s up to you.
- Common Names: French angelfish, French angel, Angelfish
- Scientific Names: Pomacanthus paru
- Size: 16-24 inches (40.6-61cm)
- Minimum Tank Size: 250 Gallons (946L)
- Reef Safe? No
- Care or Experience Level: Moderate
- Preferred Diet: Omnivore
- Original Part of the World: Western Atlantic; Gulf of Mexico; Caribbean Sea
French angelfish rank as one of the most popular in their group, courtesy of their coloring. The background of rich blue-black scales is set off with tracings of yellow. And that pattern extends along the sides, around the eyes, and up to the dorsal fin. You’ll also see a patch of white on the face. When you catch them in the perfect shaft of sunlight (or under your tank lighting), the yellow and white highlights help them stand out from the crowd.
Even juveniles look stunning in their own right. Of course, people often mistake them for a different species. You won’t see the same sprinkling of yellow. Instead, they have three vertical yellow bands over a black background. As they age, the bands break up into the highlighting of the adults. This can make for some interesting patterns as they’re in the process of transitioning from one to the next.
As with other members of the angelfish family, Frenches have a spine tucked behind their preopercle bone (the cheek). It has a serrated edge when the fish are young, but it smoothes out while they’re transitioning to adults. You’ll still want to keep the spine in mind whenever you go to handle them, though. And it CAN get caught in netting.
These fish are popular for ecotourism, but they’ve also found their way into people’s diets in Singapore and Thailand. Unfortunately, they’re not the SAFEST fish to consume. You’ll find French angelfish listed as a risk to cause ciguatera poisoning.
French Angelfish Lifespan
French angelfish prefer the tropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean, hugging the belt between Florida and the Bahamas down to Brazil. They’re also seen in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Caribbean Sea.
Often traveling in pairs over the reefs, divers will return over and over to the same sites to photograph their favorite fish. And they’ll encounter them for up to ten years. Of course, Frenches don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re approximately 10 inches (25cm) long. So if you bring a juvenile into your marine aquarium, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy them.
Snorkelers, in particular, love French angelfish. Despite their size, they don’t venture deeper than 15 feet (4.5m) down to the coral reefs they prefer. This makes them easy to spot in the wild. They use the reefs for feeding and as an easy hiding place from the predators that might hunt them when the light slips away at night.
And while their native environment might set an aquarist’s imagination alight with possibilities for décor, keeping Frenches in captivity is tricky. You need to keep their nature and diet in mind to make sure they stay healthy. This means plenty of live rock and sponges – their preferred grazing sources.
You can also set up cavities for them to explore. In tanks, aquarists often find their French angelfish behaving almost like faithful canines. They’re curious and follow people they recognize around. The caves provide enrichment since it’s doubtful you’ll need to protect them from a large carnivore looking to make a meal out of them. Instead, Frenches often turn into the bullies of the tank. So the caverns will provide escape zones for their tank mates!
French Angelfish Tank Size
French angelfish have the potential to reach up to 24 inches (61cm) in length. That isn’t as common as the 16 inches (40.6cm) usually seen in captivity, though. Either way you slice it, they’re NOT small fish. And as they need to cover plenty of territory to fill their bellies, you can’t get away with an average-sized tank.
You’ll need a minimum of 250 gallons (946L) if you want to keep ONE French angelfish content. And if you have aspirations of setting up a pair? You’ll need to upgrade. They’re territorial. This means clearing out a room to house the aquarium. It’s one reason most aquarists decide to keep a single angelfish as a centerpiece.
Are French Angelfish Reef-Safe?
People see French angelfish all over coral reefs in the wild. But they’re the furthest thing from reef-safe. During their daily grazing routines, they nip at any invertebrate that doesn’t get out of the way fast enough. That includes:
- Corals (Soft OR Stony)
- Feather dusters
Even if the angelfish doesn’t get much nourishment from the invertebrate (say, the poor clam), the mollusk can end up “clammed up” (couldn’t resist) for so long, they end up starving. It’s not a good situation. And if you’ve ever seen a V-shaped notch taken out of a sponge during a dive? That’s the work of an angelfish. So you can imagine the damage they can wreak in a reef tank.
Some aquarists have managed to keep French angelfish with some of the “sturdier” soft corals. In other words, those with the most noxious chemical defense might stand a chance of holding their own:
And if you pair your sea anemone with a clownfish, they’ll stay safe. That striped “guard fish” will protect their home from any nibbling by the angelfish.
French Angelfish Diet
French angelfish are omnivores. And while that might suggest you can get away with tossing anything into your marine aquarium, you need to lean heavier on the green side of things. This means plenty of marine algae. (Supplementing with Spirulina works, too) Otherwise, add in occasional sponges and Mysis shrimp.
You don’t want to forget the size of Frenches, either. Feedings three times a day will prevent them from looking at the remainder of the tank for snacks. And that’s why you need that live rock. They CONSTANTLY graze throughout the day. If you don’t keep up with their caloric needs, they’ll start picking at anything in the aquarium that looks like it might resemble a food source. (Which can lead to problems with their tank mates)
Juvenile French angelfish work for their meals. They set up cleaning stations on the reef. The fluttering of their fins attracts plenty of “customers” to their side. Then they pluck ectoparasites from the bodies of other fish that queue up for their services:
Ironically, as Frenches get older and larger, they turn to others for those same cleaning services. And if you have cleaner shrimp or a neon goby, your angelfish will spend a good portion of the day in their company.
Divers and snorkelers often see French angelfish in pairs. The two define a territory on the reef and guard it jealously. They don’t mind if humans come by; they’ll swim up to cameras and masks for a closer look (personal experience). However, other fish – especially another angelfish species – are a different story. They’ll chase them out of the area if they feel they pose a threat to their chosen grazing grounds. And that semi-aggressive behavior makes them challenging to integrate into certain marine tanks. It can even make keeping more than one French angelfish together tricky (unless you happen to get a bonded pair).
A fish-only tank works well in this situation. But you’ll need to select tank mates that can hold their own with the angelfish’s dominant personality. And they can’t look anything like a French angelfish (or ANY angelfish). That usually limits you to:
You DON’T want to include slow-moving or sedentary fish in the aquarium, especially if they resemble rock, coral, or sponges in any way. French angelfish are curious, but they’re not the brightest fish in the world. They’ll pick at ANYTHING that looks like food. That means nibbling at fins, tails, or even EYES! So skip adding these poor fish if you want to bring a French home:
Spawning in wild French angelfish takes place during the summer months (April-September). Pairs move to the deepest parts of the reef shortly before dawn. The two chase one another in short bursts. Then they rise through the water, drawing close enough for their vents to almost touch. They release the eggs and sperm, almost at the surface. A female French will produce anywhere from 25,000-75,000 eggs at a time. The eggs drift with the current, hatching around 20 hours later. The fry stay with the plankton until they reach approximately 15mm in length. Then they sink to a reef.
It’s a simple spawning plan, right? And if you KNOW you have a bonded pair, you can probably attempt to breed them. Frenches are monogamous. And while they don’t always remain together permanently, they’ll stay with one another if there aren’t any other choices. It’s when you’re attempting to create a pair that’s troublesome. Because males and females? They look the same.
You DO need to wait until they hit that 10-inch (25cm) length before your Frenches will be sexually mature. But after that, you’ll have to hope you have one of each. And since they ARE semi-aggressive and territorial, you may struggle with your breeding project.
French angelfish look impressive against colorful backgrounds. And they have curious personalities that make them enjoyable to be around. But you still want to keep their pros and cons in mind before adding one to your marine aquarium:
- French angelfish look stunning in both their juvenile stripes and adult highlights.
- Cleaning stations play an essential role in this species of angelfish’s life: whether running them as a juvenile or taking advantage of them as an adult.
- Frenches form monogamous pairs, making it easier to consider breeding them (if you have the tank space).
- French angelfish require constant sources for grazing, including live rock and marine algae. Otherwise, they may start searching for other sources of nourishment among the tank’s residents.
- These angelfish are NOT reef-safe!
- Even if they aren’t on the menu, slow-moving or sedentary tank mates – such as stingrays or clams – may find themselves harassed by the constant picking of a French angelfish.
Who doesn’t want a fish that behaves like a friendly dog? Of course, if you’re interested in French angelfish, you’ll also want to know as much about them as humanly possible.
This YouTube video shows a wild French angelfish feeding around a growth of fire coral:
Want to learn more about the best French angelfish tank mates?
Maybe you’re curious about other cleaning fish:
When you hit popular diving spots throughout the western Atlantic, you know you’re going to encounter a French angelfish. They’re every bit as interested in humans as we are in them! And adding these stunning black and yellow fish to your aquarium? It’s a great idea – IF you have the room to spare. But keep them away from corals. And, you know, anything they might mistake for coral.
- Debelius, H., Tanaka, H., and Kuiter, R. 2003. Angelfishes: A Comprehensive Guide to Pomacanthidae.
- McDavid, J. 2008. Large Angels in the Home Aquarium, Part 1.
- McDavid, J. 2008. Large Angels in the Home Aquarium, Part 2.
- Michael, S.W. 2007. The 101 Best Saltwater Fishes: How to Choose & Keep Hardy, Brilliant, Fascinating Species That Will Thrive in Your Home.
- Michael, S.W. 2004. Angelfishes & Butterflyfishes: Reef Fishes Series.