Queen Angelfish

Queen angelfish. Image © David Snyder
Queen angelfish. Image © David Snyder

Holacanthus ciliaris

This vibrant oval-shaped reef fish has trailing dorsal and anal fins and a triangular tail. It is blue-green with blue and yellow highlights on its fins, and can be differentiated from the similar blue angelfish by the prominent dark ringed ‘crown’ spot on its forehead. These fish are somewhat solitary, probably forming long term breeding pairs, and reside at the bottom of coral reefs, eating sponges and some marine invertebrates.

Order – Perciformes
Family – Pomacanthidae
Genus – Holacanthus
Species – ciliarus

Common Names

Angelfish, blue angelfish, golden angelfish, queen angel, queen angelfish, and yellow angelfish are common English language names. Other common names include anjo-rainha (Portuguese), demoiselle royale (French), gele engelvis (Dutch), guinea (Spanish), hokuro-yakko (Japanese), isabelita (Spanish), königinfisch (German), nefrytek krolweski (Polish), and parum-dourado (Portuguese).

Importance to Humans

Queen angelfish often observes divers from a short distance. Image © George Ryschkewitsch
Queen angelfish often observes divers from a short distance. Image © George Ryschkewitsch

Human consumption of this fish has been implicated in cases of ciguatera poisoning. Ciguatera poisoning is caused by the bioaccumulation of ciguatoxins in the flesh of tropical marine fishes. Ciguatoxins are produced by marine dinoflagellates that grow attached to marine algae and as such may be incidentally ingested by herbivorous fishes. Large piscivorous reef dwelling fishes occupying the apex of the food chain become reservoirs for the highest amounts of ciguatoxin by feeding on other members of the reef community. Poisoned people report gastrointestinal maladies that may last several days, a general weakness in their arms and legs, and a reversal in the ability to differentiate hot versus cold. The illness is serious and symptoms may persist for weeks.

They are somewhat shy but occasionally curious, and often observe divers from a short distance. They are harvested commercially, for the aquarium hobby rather than as a food source. Their value seems to stem directly from the beauty that they add to their surroundings.


Check the status of the queen angelfish at the IUCN website.

The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species.

Geographical Distribution

World distribution map for the queen angelfish
World distribution map for the queen angelfish

The queen angelfish is a subtropical insular species, preferring reefs that surround offshore islands. The queen is limited to tropical western Atlantic waters, ranging from Bermuda to Brazil and from Panama to the Windward Islands. The species is most abundant throughout the Caribbean.


It stays near the bottom in coral reef habitats. The queen angelfish can be found from nearshore shallows down to the deepest portion of the reef where the lack of light inhibits coral growth (approximately 230 feet (70 m)). They are generally solitary or found swimming in pairs through the gorgonians and corals of the reef.


Queen angelfish. Image courtesy Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Queen angelfish. Image courtesy Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Distinctive Features
The queen angelfish is considered by some to be one of the most beautiful fish in the ocean. It is a deep bodied, highly compressed fish with a blunt, rounded head and a singular continuous dorsal fin.

Its brilliant blue and yellow color easily separates it from all other western Atlantic angelfish species except the blue angelfish (Holacanthus bermudensis). These two species are very similar in coloration but the queen has a dark, ringed spot with blue dots on its forehead that resembles a crown. The queen is also more iridescent than the blue and has a completely yellow tail. These two species have been known to occasionally interbreed and create a hybrid that shares color characteristics of both the queen and blue. The hybrid is rare and, unlike its benthic parental species, it swims about reef tops.

Queen angel juvenile. Image © Keri Wilk
Queen angel juvenile. Image © Keri Wilk

The appearance of the juvenile angelfish is quite different from that of the adult. They are dark blue with a yellow tail, a yellow area around the pectoral fins, and brilliant blue vertical bars on the body. The juveniles of the queen angelfish and the blue angelfish are so similar in appearance that the only way to tell them apart is to note the curvature of the bars on the body. The queen juvenile has curved bars while the blue juvenile has straighter bars. The juvenile queen prefers offshore reefs while the juvenile blue prefers inshore reefs, bays, and channels. As the juvenile queens grow larger, their color gradually changes from the dark blue of youth to the iridescent blues and yellows of the adults.

They have small protractile mouths that contain slender brush-like teeth in a narrow band.

Queen angel and blue angel hybrid. Image © George Burgess
Queen angel and blue angel hybrid. Image © George Burgess

Size, Age, and Growth
The adults can reach lengths of 18″ (45 cm) and weights of up to 56 ounces (1,600 grams).

Food Habits
The queen angelfish feeds on a variety of marine invertebrates including sponges, tunicates, jellyfish, and corals as well as plankton and algae. Stomach content analysis has concluded that the majority of the diet is made up of sponges. Young individuals feed by setting up cleaning stations, picking parasites off larger fish.

The adults are found in pairs year round, perhaps suggesting a long-term monogamous bond. The pairs reproduce by rising up in the water, bringing their bellies close together, and release clouds of sperm and eggs. The female can release anywhere from 25 to 75 thousand eggs each evening and as many as ten million eggs during each spawning cycle. The eggs are transparent, bouyant, and pelagic, floating in the water column. They hatch after 15 to 20 hours into larvae that lack effective eyes, fins, or even a gut. The large yolk sac is absorbed after 48 hours, during which time the larvae develop normal characteristics of free swimming fish. Larvae are found in the water column and feed on plankton. The larvae grow rapidly and about 3-4 weeks after hatching the 15-20mm long juvenile settles on the bottom.

Florida reef scene with corals and sponges - food for the queen angelfish. Image courtesy NOAA
Florida reef scene with corals and sponges – food for the queen angelfish. Image courtesy NOAA

The juveniles are solitary and live primarily in and around colonies of finger sponges and coral. They are vigorously territorial and have been known to set up cleaning stations along the reef within their territory. These are areas where larger fishes allow a smaller creature to remove any parasites from its body. A sort of truce among predators and prey prevails at the cleaning station. The large fish remains motionless and allows the smaller fish access to sensitive areas such as the gills. The small fish in turn trusts the larger fish not to eat it.


The queen angelfish was first described and named in 1758 by Linnaeus, with an original name of Chaetodon ciliaris. This fish was later given a new scientific name of Holacanthus ciliaris (Linnaeus, 1758). Synonyms used in scientific literature that also refer to this fish include Chaetodon squamulosus Shaw and Nodder 1796, Chaetodon parrae Bloch and Schneider 1801, Holacanthus cornutus Desmarest 1823, Holacanthus formosus Castelnau 1855, and Angelichthys iodocus Jordan and Rutter 1897.

Prepared by: Casey Patton and Cathleen Bester