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Toward a greater understanding of North Carolina's aquatic resources . . .
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Is a Spadefish the Same Thing as an Angelfish?

20 November 1998


The Atlantic Spadefish is sometimes mistaken for an angelfish because of the shape of its fins. Spadefish and Angelfish are members of two separate fish families: Ephippidae and Pomacanthidae.


The spadefish, or Chaetodipterus faber, is common off the coast of North Carolina. It is often found schooling around the many shipwrecks along our shore, and it can be seen in the North Carolina Aquariums’ logo!

The spadefish is generally larger than the angelfish. It can grow to three feet in length, weighing as much as 20 pounds. Because of its size, sportfishermen enjoy catching this fish -- it has a reputation for tenaciousness. Two species are found in North America: the Atlantic and Pacific spadefish.


Young spadefish are entirely dark brown or black with white molting. Adults are silvery with four to six black vertical bands on each side. Very large spadefish sometimes lack the dark stripes. Its deep, short body allows it to make quick and easy lateral movements in tight spaces such as shipwrecks.

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The spadefish can be found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Bermuda and in the Gulf of Mexico as far as the southeastern coast of Brazil. It prefers shallow coastal waters and is often found in large schools around natural and artificial reefs.

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The French Angelfish is similar is body shape to the spadefish.   It is generally found in warmer waters.


The spadefish spawns in the spring and summer. Small juveniles sometimes drift on their sides, mimicking floating debris as a means of protection from predators. Crustaceans and small encrusting invertebrates are favorite foods of the spadefish, It finds these morsels around wrecks, buoys, pilings and hard bottoms. Spadefish may also eat the tentacles of jellyfish!


Angelfish are known as small to medium-sized fish. The Gray Angelfish is one of the largest, reaching 14 inches long. It may be one of the hardiest of the angelfish species as well, since it is no stranger to colder New England waters. Most angelfish prefer warmer tropical waters. Of the 74 known species of angelfish, only six live in the Atlantic Ocean. Most angelfish species are found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.


Many angelfish are quite colorful, particularly juveniles, and are favorites of aquarists. The Queen Angelfish, found in waters off Bermuda, northeast Florida and the north Gulf of Mexico to Brazil, has a deep blue body with an orange spot on each scale. Its entire caudal fin is yellow to orange. Despite its brilliant color, the Queen Angelfish can blend in perfectly with its reef environment to avoid predators.


While spadefish feed on shellfish, many angelfish species prefer to eat sponges. They are diurnal, which means they are most active during the daytime.