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Do Angelfish Have Teeth? Does Their Bite Hurt?

Do Angelfish Have Teeth? Does Their Bite Hurt?

Have you ever been bitten by an angelfish? I have – a couple of times during feeding. And although it didn’t hurt outright, it was still a weirdly painful sensation. Got me wondering, “do angelfish have teeth?”

They’re opportunistic fish that won’t hesitate to eat smaller species when the opportunity strikes. But how do they do so? Do they swallow whole or chew into smaller bits first? 

And by the way, did you know freshwater angelfish are actually cichlids? 

Yes, I know they don’t sport thick lips, stocky bodies, and the notorious temperament cichlids are famed for – but at the end of the day, they’re cichlids.

Anyway, let’s get back to the main query now! 

Do Angelfish Have Teeth?

Yes, angelfish have teeth – a well-developed set of teeth that can bite and tear down smaller fish in a jiffy, in fact. However, the teeth aren’t located in the jaws as they’re in mammals. Instead, angelfish have a set of pharyngeal teeth in the throat.

It is a general rule that most fish, including angelfish, don’t chew food in their mouths as we do. They possess an advanced set of pharyngeal teeth that can easily grind and crush food into smaller particles. 

Therefore, angelfish are classified as ‘pharyngognathus’ fish, like the rest of their cichlid cousins. 

Angelfish have a unique pharyngeal jaw system with teeth. And it allows them to protrude their lower and upper jaw away from their head and bite down with great force. 

If you have a thing for zoology jargon, here’s a treat for you. Otherwise, you can entirely skip this part! 

The pharyngeal jaws have evolved from a particular arch of the endochondral bone – branchial basket – that supports the gills. 

Thus, pharyngeal jaws come equipped with powerful muscles and a robust set of plastic teeth. The teeth are concentrated on the tooth pads of the pharyngeal jaws in a comb-like arrangement. 

And what’s notable is that the teeth’ morphology can be modified in response to the prey items being devoured. 

If you want to learn more on the subject, here’s a link to the research journal

Do Freshwater Angelfish Have Teeth? 

altum angelfish
Credit: Jeff Kubina (CC License)

Yes, freshwater angelfish have teeth. There are at least 20 variations of freshwater angelfish, and all of them possess teeth. 

Actually, the answer I gave in the upper segment was freshwater angelfish. 

All freshwater angelfish variants have a single nostril and two sets of jaws. 

The first jaw is flexible and produces a negative pressure to suck in food and prey. 

And the second jaw is the pharyngeal jaw positioned in the throat – the one we discussed above. 

The second jaw houses a comb-like arrangement of teeth like bristles – helping them grasp food easily. 

Do you know angelfish lose and grow new teeth throughout their lives? I wonder if they have tooth fairies too. 

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Do Angelfish Bite Each Other?

Yes, angelfish bite each other quite often. And this disposition isn’t just limited towards their own species. Angelfish also bite other fish – especially small ones. In fact, they are notorious for their fin-nipping trait. 

Thus, it’s never a good idea to house them together with fish with long, flowy fins like bettas and fancy guppies. 

And by the way, they’re often forced to have a taste of their own medicine. If kept with small schooling fish like barbs and tetras, these fish will nip your angelfish’s fin relentlessly and make its life miserable. 

If your angelfish often engage in duels, you will notice that the fish are most likely missing a few scales, sustain injuries in the eyes and mouth area, have fins and tails nipped, and jaws dislocated. 

And these are all telltale signs that angelfish make ‘efficient’ use of their powerful jaws and advanced teeth when they’re fighting other fish. 

Do Angelfish Eat Other Fish? 

If the situation is favorable, angelfish won’t think twice before devouring smaller fish. In the wild, neon tetras are a part of their staple diet. Therefore, don’t be surprised if your tetras go MIA in the tank. 

While angelfish may seem to initially get along with other fish in the tank, they’ll start having issues sooner or later – especially when they’re expecting. 

So, it’s never a good idea to keep smaller fish alongside your angelfish until and unless you’re okay with them becoming gourmet meals.

Why Do Angelfish Bite Each Other And Other Fish?

Although angelfish are semi-aggressive cichlids, they don’t go around biting each other or some other fish for no reason. 

They resort to this violent tactic when they’re stressed and agitated. And the reason behind stress and aggression could be lack of space and resources, an overcrowded tank, mating and breeding aggression, poor water parameters, and a fight for the pecking order. 

altum angelfish
Credit: Dornenwolf (CC License)


Angelfish can be aggressive, but behind the veil of aggression, there’s often perplexing stress tormenting them. And as mindless as we’d like to deem them, they are intelligent beings able to feel a wide range of emotions. And unfortunately, stress is one of them. 

Your angelfish can become stressed for several reasons. It could be foul water, lack of space and privacy, loud noises and constant footfall, too much light, and a threat to their offspring. 

And when angelfish are placed in a fight or flight situation, being the cichlids they are, they’ll turn to bite. 

Besides the aggressive demeanor, some other obvious signs of stress in angelfish are:

  • A lack of appetite 
  • Lethargy 
  • Erratic swimming patterns 
  • Dull coloration 
  • Aloofness and excessive hiding

An Overcrowded Tank 

Angelfish may not be the biggest fish in the tank, but they definitely need a generous share of space. This is especially true when they’re spawning – they become incredibly intolerant of ‘intruders.’ 

The minimum recommended tank size for a pair of angelfish is 20 gallons. But I’d say that’s still not enough. So whenever possible, always opt for a bigger tank. 

And that’s because small tanks come with one too many caveats. 

For starters, it will stress out your fish, who fight for space and resources. You already know that. Lack of enough space also means a lack of enough hiding places. Your fish will have nowhere to go when it’s feeling anxious or needs to relax. This will only add to their aggression and encourage fights. 

Second, the tank’s water will become dirty a lot quicker. The tank and its inhabitants will become prone to a spike in levels of harmful compounds like ammonia and nitrite. And as you already know, they can be detrimental to fish even in the slightest amounts. 

And lastly, small tanks are also known to stunt a fish’s overall development. Your angelfish won’t have enough room to stretch its muscles as much as it’d like. Also, fish are known to secrete pheromones that inhibit the growth of other fish in the tank. Smaller the tank, the higher the concentration of these chemicals. Now connect the dots. 

Mating Aggression 

Angelfish reach sexual maturity at around 6-12 months of age. And do you know the clutch size can vary from 100 to 1000? That’s something! 

Studies have shown that larger and assertive males have the upper hand when choosing a partner. So naturally, weaker and subdued males are often rejected by the females.

In an angelfish’s world, the males must compete to assert their dominance and prove their prowess to attract a female. Naturally, therefore, they will engage in duels – and often resort to biting – as well as head and tail-butting. 

Hence, to avoid injuries in the tank, you need to remove the mated pair to a separate breeding tank as soon as pairs are formed.

Breeding Aggression 

Angelfish make great parents. They dotingly care for their eggs and young ones. So, it’s natural they become suspicious and overprotective when a curious visitor drops by. They don’t take these kinds of unsolicited visits too well. 

As a result, they won’t bat an eye before lashing out at the intruder and potentially biting it. 

As a matter of fact, the aggression starts brewing even before the eggs are laid. The gravid female will become irritable and short-tempered in general. 

Therefore, it’s imperative to keep the mated pair in an exclusive breeding tank to breed and rear their young ones peacefully. 

A Fight For Hierarchy

Angelfish are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for. Several researchers have pointed out that there exists a complex social hierarchy and pecking order in the tank that’s determined through combat. Yes, combat – you heard that right. 

And to establish ‘law and order’ in the tank, angelfish will fight using their tails as clubs and mouths to bite and wrestle. 

But that’s not all. They can even communicate social status through chemical signals contained in the poop and urine they release into the water. 

So, turning to hostility and biting the ‘enemy fish’ is not expected behavior in angelfish when they’re fighting for a good place in the pecking order. 

Poor Water Quality 

I cannot stress enough the importance of clean water for fish. The ammonia and nitrite levels should always clock in at 0 PPM, whereas nitrate levels can reach up to 20 PPM. 

Likewise, the temperature should clock in between 78-84 degrees F, and pH should be maintained at 6.8-7.8.

Anyone would be irritated and agitated if their living conditions weren’t right. And angelfish are no different. 

If the water they’re swimming in is polluted or has the wrong parameters, they become pretty severely stressed. And you know what happens when they’re stressed, right? They will resort to lashing out at each other. 

Do Angelfish Bite Humans?

Yes, angelfish bite humans too. I’ve actually been bitten on a number of occasions. The bite isn’t downright painful, but you’ll be left feeling a weird, pressured sensation in the finger.

Not all angelfish bite humans. And the context is also super subjective. But as always, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

90% of the times I’ve been bitten, it was because the fish were defending their eggs. So yep, they make pretty good parents. 

Plus, there’s not really a reason to stick your finger into the tank for no reason unless you plan to sniff it for that fishy smell later (a joke, obviously). 

Whenever you put your hands or fingers into the tank, it will profusely stress out your angelfish. They will naturally and obviously think that you’re a predator. 

While some may cower in the corner, the ballsy one will attempt to ‘defeat’ you by biting! 

Other times, the reason behind the bite is naivety. Yep, naivety. 

The angelfish may sometimes confuse your finger for food. And that’s a pretty honest mistake, I must say! 

I know a few hobbyists who love to hand-feed their fish, but independent little angelfish don’t like being coddled. 

I’ve learned my lesson the hard way, but if you don’t want to get bitten by angelfish in the future, only place your finger/hand into the tank if the situation really demands it.

Also, pour and sprinkle the food from a ‘good’ distance. 

An angelfish’s bite may not hurt you physically, but it sure will hurt your feelings and leave you feeling betrayed. Trust me, I’ve been there! 

Are My Angelfish Kissing Or Biting?

Angelfish can give the French a run for their money. 

These fish often indulge in lip-locking. Sometimes, this is a romantic gesture – a part of their spawning session. Other times, it’s a confrontation – not a pleasant one. 

When lip-locking is also accompanied by one fish chasing the other, the subdued fish running for cover or cowering to the corner, and visible signs of injury on either party, this means the fish are fighting, not making love. 

If you notice this kind of behavior in the tank more often, you need to intervene and put a stop to it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with fish dead from injury or stress. 

However, not all lip-locking antics lead to violence. Angelfish often lock lips while choosing a potential partner to mate with. 

In this case, lip-locking will be accompanied by signs like playfully circling each other, digging pits in the substrate, and a swollen belly in females. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Credit: Emoke Denes (CC License)

Where Do Angelfish Live?

In the wild, angelfish inhabit the waters of tropical South America – including a sizable part of the Amazon River system. They are almost exclusively found in quiet, slow-moving waters of dimly lit areas.

They prefer swimming under overhanging vegetation or among trees and plants that have fallen into the river. 

How Big Do Angelfish Get?

In captivity, angelfish will grow only around 6 inches long. You can say they get to the size of a small saucer! Therefore, they need a pretty big tank. 

The minimum recommended tank size for a pair of angelfish is 20 gallons. If you want to keep a school of them, you’ll at least need to get an 80-gallon tank. 

Also, since these fish grow quite tall, you need to pay extra attention to the tank’s height. You should get a tall tank that easily accommodates their long and erect fins. 

Angelfish Behavior And Characteristics – Are They Mean?

Angelfish are best described as semi-aggressive fish. They aren’t super mean like oscars and convict cichlids, but they’re no saints either. 

Angelfish are territorial. Therefore, you should always opt to understock the tank for these fish. They will bite and nip at other fish – especially smaller ones – if they feel their territory is being encroached on or trespassed. 

And the aggression is heightened during the breeding season as they make doting parents. 

Therefore, they are best kept in their own tall tanks separate from other breeds. 

Final Words: Do Angelfish Have Teeth?

Yes, angelfish have teeth. But their teeth’ anatomy and location are drastically different from a mammal’s. For example, angelfish have a well-developed set of pharyngeal teeth located in their throat.

Their advanced pharyngeal jaw system with teeth lets them protrude their upper and lower jaw away from the head and bite and tear down with great force! 

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