Family : Pomacanthidae
Text © Giuseppe Mazza
English translation by Mario Beltramini
Pomacanthus arcuatus (Linnaeus 1758) belongs to the class of Actinopterygii, the ray-finned fishes, and to the order of Perciformes.
Commonly known as Grey angelfish, it is one of the biggest members of the family of the Pomacanthidae, that nowadays counts 8 genera and about 90 species.
The name of the genus Pomacanthus comes from the Greek “πῶμα” (poma) = cover, and ἄκανθα” (akantha) = spine, with reference to the showy protruding spine placed at the base of the operculum and characteristic of all angelfishes, a sort of a “cover” protecting the gills.
The specific name arcuatus, in Latin “arched”, reminds the presence in the young individuals of yellow vertical arched bars, not to forget the general profile of the adults, curved like an arch.
The Grey angelfish lives along the American coasts of western Atlantic, and like the analogous Pomacanthus paru, bears the cold better than the other congeners.
In the USA, in fact, we find it starting from the North England waters. It is then at home in Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean, reaching southwards, in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro. Recently, it has been introduced in Bermuda.
It lives in madreporic environments between 2 and 30 m of depth. The adults frequent the steep sides of the reefs, rich with cracks where they can rapidly go, flat as they are, to spend the night and to avoid the predators.
Conversely, the young grow in shallow waters, hidden among the corals and in the seagrass meadows.
Pomacanthus arcuatus can reach the 60 cm of length with a weight of 1,8 kg, even if, usually, slightly exceeds the 45 cm, and when 23 cm long is already able to reproduce.
The body is flat, discoidal. The mouth, oblique and fleshy, is relatively small, with protruding lower jaw and combed teeth. There is only one big scaly dorsal fin, rounded at the apex, with a characteristic arcuate filament that over time exceeds the caudal fin in length. It counts 9 spiny rays and 31-33 soft.
The anal fin, identical but smaller, displays 3 spines, 23-25 unarmed rays and an analogous long filament. The caudal fin, also protected by scales, is rounded in the young specimens and then tendentially truncate. The pectoral ones, pointed at the apex and roundish in the lower margin, count 19-20 soft rays and the ventral are long and have no spines.
Head apart, the body is covered by large ctenoid scales, that is with serrated edges rough to the touch. They are grey or brown at the centre, with a clear border that draws an elegant pattern on the sides.
Lips and chin are white, and the pectoral fin is yellow, but only on the inner side. This is one of the elements distinctive with Pomacanthus paru, that has, in return, on the pectoral ones a showy yellow bar at the base of the outer side.
Moreover, in this species the eye is surrounded by a yellow ring like the border of the scales on the background colour tending to blue, so much that, with a thought to the French flag, in the US it is commonly called “French angelfish”. Also the dorsal filament is finally yellow like the long spine of the operculum, that in Pomacanthus arcuatus is grey.
Conversely, the livery of the first juvenile stage of the two species is almost the same. The background colour is black with arcuate yellow bands crossing the body, present also on the snout and at the base of the tail, and bright blue spots on the pelvic fins, the anal and the dorsal ones. But the yellow caudal band of Pomacanthus paru is a ring that isolates a black spot and the frontal one does not continue on the upper lip like in Pomacanthus arcuatus.
Growing, the yellow bands of the Grey angelfish shorten and fade to become whitish in the intermediate livery.
The Grey angelfish is omnivorous. It mainly eats sponges, but also tunicates, zoantharians, gorgonians, hydroids, bryozoans, and small benthic animals, without ignoring the algae and the marine phanerogams.
In their early days, the young individuals behave as cleaner fishes, freeing various fish species from the ectoparasites.
Like Labroides dimidiatus and analogous species that nourish the whole life round in such a way, they move to the “cleaning stations”, fixed places where the big fishes, often with the mouth wide open, lose their aggressiveness and queue patiently to be cured, as if they were in a dental or dermatological cabinet.
It will be the contrary when adults. It will be their turn to get the skin cleaned by the old colleagues at work, such as Bodianus pulchellus or Bodianus rufus, also cleaners when young, to which adds, when resting on the seabeds, a slender small shrimp of the Caribbean islands, the tiny Ancylomenes pedersoni, less than 3 cm long, that nourishes of fishes’ external parasites.
Pomacanthus arcuatus is not afraid of man and often lets itself be approached and photographed by the divers who find it mostly alone, paired or in small groups, at times mixed with Pomacanthus paru.
Confident and friendly, this nice fish often ends up in the pot, being its flesh excellent, even if at times are reported instances of ciguatera, a serious food poisoning connected with the presence of poisonous organisms in their diet.
Even if it has been bred and reproduced in captivity, the Grey angelfish moreover is very fished for the aquaria, so much that in Brazil, where the numbers appear remarkably reduced, cannot be exported more than 3.000 specimens per year.
Pomacanthus arcuatus reproduces, depending on the zone, between April and September.
Usually, spawning takes place at dawn. The pairs, after a ritual made of short pursuits, ascend together to the surface releasing eggs and gametes.
Then they separate and reach the seabed again to repeat the operation. Every time, the female entrusts to the currents 25.000-75.000 eggs, almost 1 mm broad, that will hatch 15-20 hours after the fecundation.
The larvae often grow at the shelter of floating algae and go down to the bottoms only when 15 mm long. The resilience of the fish is low, as more than 14 years are necessary for doubling the populations decimated by the events, but in 2009 it was inserted in the Red List as “Least Concern”.
In 2021 the vulnerability index however already marks 67 on a scale of 100.
Chaetodon arcuatus Linnaeus, 1758; Chaetodon lutescens Bonnaterre, 1788; Chaetodon quinquecinctus Cuvier, 1829; Pomacanthus balteatus Cuvier, 1831; Pomacanthus cingulatus Cuvier, 1831; Chaetodon littoricola Poey, 1868.