Flamefish, Apogon maculatus

The Flamefish, Apogon maculatus, whose common Spanish name is cardenal manchado, is a species in the Cardinalfish or Apogonidae Family, known collectively as cardenales in Mexico. Globally, there are 190 species in the genus Apogon, 17 of which are found in Mexican waters, twelve in the Atlantic and five in the Pacific.

The Flamefish have small laterally compressed oblong bodies. They are overall dusky-reddish in color with a round black spot under their second dorsal fin and a broad black saddle on their caudal peduncle. They have a black stripe through their eyes that extends from the snout to the gill cover and is bordered above and below by thin silver stripes. The intensity of the black spotting and the markings within and around the eyes vary significantly from fish to fish. The rear margins of their anal, caudal, and second dorsal fins are occasionally dark. Their head is large with a short, pointed snout, large eyes, and a large oblique mouth equipped with bands of small teeth. Their anal fin has two spines and eight rays; their caudal fin is concave; their first dorsal fin has six spines; their second dorsal fin is well-separated with one spine and nine rays; and their pectoral fins are exceedingly long. They have 13 or 14 gill rakers on their lower arch. Their lateral line is complete and extends into the tail base. They are covered with rough scales.

The Flamefish are found in seagrass beds, tidal pools, and coral and rocky reefs at depths up to 400 feet within waters that range in temperature from 22oC (72oF) to 26oC (78oF). They reach a maximum length of 11.0 cm (4.3 inches). They are nocturnal predators emerging at night and forming small schools while remaining secluded during the day. They consume small fish and small invertebrates including crab and shrimp. They are one of the rare marine species exhibiting oral brooding; males incubate the fertilized eggs in their mouths for several days before releasing hundreds of 2 to 4 mm larvae into the ocean which remain in planktonic form for several weeks before developing into juveniles.

In Mexican waters the Flamefish are found in all waters of the Atlantic.

The Flamefish can be easily confused with the Oddscale Cardinalfish, Apogon evermanni (small black spot followed by smaller white spot at base of second dorsal fin), the Twospot Cardinalfish, Apogon pseudomaculatus (tail spot, if present, round and not elongated; straight caudal fin margin), and the Whitestar Cardinalfish, Apogon lachneri (dark second half of anal and dorsal fins). Note: the Flamefish is virtually identical to the Twospot Cardinalfish in both appearance and morphology. I have differentiated the two species presented in this website based on the tail shape, i.e. lunate versus straight. Since the majority of these fish come with incomplete markings including the bars through the eyes and the spotting at the base of the tail, DNA profiles of each are needed to confirm their identities without dispute.  I also believe that there is a possibility that the DNA profiles will indicate that they are actually one and the same species.

From a conservation perspective the Flamefish are currently considered of Least Concern with wide distribution and stable populations. The highly invasive Red Lionfish, Pterois volitans, recently introduced in the Caribbean, are known to consume Flamefish. The Flamefish are utilized in the aquarium trade as they are easy to maintain, however they tend to fade in color and are known to be aggressive toward other tank mates. They can spawn in captivity but most of their fry does not survive. They are readily available via the internet.

Flamefish, Apogon maculatus. A pair of fish caught from coastal waters off Key West, Florida, March 2017. Length of each: 3.7 cm (1.5 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Dean Kimberly, Atlanta, GA.