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Angelfish Species (Pterophyllum Scalare)

The Angelfish is one of the most popular aquarium fish in the hobby, and is known by almost all fish keepers. Ideally suited to larger, moderately planted aquariums, angelfish can become prized specimens in the right environment.


The name 'angelfish' relates to the fishes appearance rather than its nature, as being part of the cichlid family, its behaviour is sometimes far from angelic! Providing you are aware that angelfish can sometimes be a little aggressive, but not unmanageable, a pair or shoal of angelfish can make a great addition to a community aquarium.

AngelFish Species Part of the Cichlid Family

Angelfish are part of the Cichlid family, although they appear very different from a 'typical' Cichlid, if there is such a thing. The genus name of the angelfish, 'Pterophyllum', roughly translated from the Greek language, means 'winged leaf', relating to its tall, laterally compressed shape, and gliding motion.

There are three distinct species; P. scalare, P. altum, and P. leopoldi. The most common of these is P. scalare, which can be found in a wide range of captive bred forms, and is the focus of this article, although captive bred specimens are most likely an indistinct cross between species. P. altum, or the Altum Angel, is a taller fish, and the largest species, growing up to 25cm tall (including fins) and 18cm long. Altum angels make stunning specimen fish, although it is not uncommon to see normal angels sold as Altums, so be wary when purchasing. P. leopoldi are very rarely seen for sale and in contrast to altums, are more elongated, and if you are used to seeing normal angelfish they can look oddly stretched.

Angelfish Variations

Angelfish in the wild have a silvery-brown base colour with dark brown to black vertical stripes, which provides decent camouflage for hiding amongst vertical roots and driftwood at the edges of waterways. Depending on the area of collection, slight variations of colour and patterning can be seen, but the basic appearance is the same.

Most fish available in the hobby are captive bred, although more wild specimens have appeared in recent years. There are a large variety of captive bred colour forms now available, including marbled, pearl-scale, half-black, black, leopard, gold (yellow), albino, and koi, which have black and gold markings on a white body. In addition to these, there are also veil-tail forms and crosses of all the varieties. As with many fish however, the wild-type variety looks more natural, and is usually less likely to develop health problems, and more likely to breed successfully.

What Is The Natural habitat of Angelfish?

Angelfish originate from the Amazon River basin in South America and prefer the slower moving sections of water, where they hide amongst the roots and driftwood to ambush small prey, usually small fish and surface insects. Whilst many angelfish are found in these open areas, some are also found in heavily vegetated pools and flooded regions during the flood season.

Aquarium conditions for Angelfish

Although angelfish are often recommended for planted aquariums, in the wild adults are usually found in areas with little vegetation and only the young fish, which form shoals, stick close to vegetated areas for protection. Re-creating roots and driftwood in a vertical fashion, using the majority of the aquariums height, creates an ideal environment, but if this is not possible, tall plants make a perfect substitution.

Whilst sometimes referred to as a soft-water fish, natural conditions vary and angelfish can be kept in water with a pH ranging from 6 to 8. Hardness should ideally be between 5-15 dGH, and whilst angelfish can adapt to harder water, breeding may become more difficult. Angelfish also have a wider temperature range than some tropical fish, and can be kept anywhere between 24-30C (75-86F)

Feeding your Angelfish

Angelfish are natural predators, but they will become lazy if given a regular supply of food, so they will not usually harass smaller fish that they have been raised with. It is not wise however, to introduce small fish to an aquarium containing adult angels, since any unfamiliar fish small enough to eat will be quickly devoured. Whilst angelfish are not fussy eaters, and will readily eat dried foods, the addition of small meaty foods such as rich frozen or live foods like bloodworm will help to maintain ideal health, and even encourage spawning.

Behaviour - How do Angelfish Behave?

Angelfish are part of the cichlid family of fish, and the aggressive and territorial tendencies that are seen in most cichlids can also be seen in the angelfish. Under normal circumstances, aggression is directed towards other angels, and other fish are ignored unless a pair of angelfish are breeding, in which case they will defend a small area around the spawning site against all on-comers.

When keeping angelfish it is best to have either an established pair, or a larger group of at least six fish, so that aggression is spread out and reduced to small bouts between individuals, rather than continual bullying of a weaker fish. From a group, several pairs may emerge, and whilst even two fish in a pair may have an occasional bout, they are very loyal and will even defend their partners from attack. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to sex angelfish unless they are about to spawn, so it is not possible to select a ratio of males and females from a young group.

Breeding Angelfish

Angelfish are relatively easy to breed, they form monogamous pairs, and are very good parents. Whilst the last sentence is true for the species, things tend to get a bit different with captive bred specimens, which are well known for loosing their natural breeding instincts. Mistakes made by captive bred individuals include unfertilised eggs, eating the eggs by accident (the parents clean and move the eggs with their mouths), lack of defence, and predation of the fry. In many cases, captive bred specimens simply need a bit of practice before their instinctive parenting skills return, and may be capable of raising a successful brood after a few failures.

Once a pair has formed, the two fish will select and defend a spawning site. Ideally, the fish will choose a large, flat leaf, or a suitable piece of wood to lay their eggs. A good parent will continually attend the eggs, fan them using the fins to provide oxygen, remove diseased or infertile eggs, and clean the eggs in their mouth before returning them to the spawning site. Care continues to the young, which are continually moved around the spawning site until they are free-swimming, usually after about a week, and defended for a short period after until they become too lively and swim away from the parents.

If your angelfish are not great parents, or you wish to have a greater control over the development of fry, it is relatively easy to remove the eggs after spawning and transfer them (attached to whatever object they were laid on) to a hatching/raising tank. In this separate tank they should be placed near a gentle flow of water (e.g. from a low powered air pump) to provide oxygen, and any eggs which turn white should be carefully removed with tweezers, since these will be infertile and may become covered with fungus, which could spread to other eggs and fry. The young survive on their egg sacs for several days so will not need to be fed until they are free swimming. Liquid fry foods, and very small baby brineshrimp make good starter foods, progressing onto larger foods and crushed flake as the fry grow.

Angelfish in a community

Since angelfish can easily grow to reach 15cm, and are natural predators, tiny fish are not good tank mates, but most medium sized and peaceful fish will mix well with angels. As mentioned earlier, aggression in angelfish is normally directed towards other angels, but in case of spawning activity, it is wise to make sure the aquarium has plenty of space, and that tank mates do not include any overly delicate fish of a similar shape.

A single pair of angelfish can be kept in an aquarium measuring 75cm (2.5 feet) long, providing the aquarium is tall (45-60cm) and very lightly stocked. Otherwise, a 120cm (4 feet) long aquarium is a minimum size for two adult pairs to allow sufficient space in case of spawning. Angels are hardy species, but many fish keepers have had losses when introducing angels to new aquariums, so avoid introducing the fish to aquariums less than two or three months old. Otherwise, the angelfish is a fish full of character and should make a good addition to any reasonably sized community aquarium.

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