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  • Source: Copyright

    Species: Pterophylum altum

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    Species: Pterophyllum leopoldi

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    Species: Pterophyllum scalare

  • Species: Pterophyllum scalare black marbled

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    Species: Pterophyllum scalare golden veiltail

Angelfish: new names, new species

Angelfish are among the most popular of all aquarium fishes. They are available in countless varieties, and their attractive colours, generally peaceful natures, and very unusual shape make them showpiece fish either in a community tank or on their own. A surprise to many newcomers to the hobby is that angelfish are cichlids, and therefore closely related to things like oscars and mbuna.

Angelfish are native to South America, where they are found in both ‘blackwater’ and ‘whitewater’ habitats. A blackwater river like the Rio Negro contains very soft, acidic water than is transparent but tea-coloured stained by all the decaying plant matter in it. A whitewater river, like the River Amazon, may be soft or moderately hard, and the water tends to be less acidic than that in a blackwater river. As the name suggests, the water is usually cloudy, usually the colour of milky coffee, thanks to a heavy load of silt. Because angelfish occur in both types of water, though not so much in the really acidic waters favoured by discus, they do have a certain level of adaptability. Over time, aquarists have taken advantage of this trait to breed angelfish that do well in the hard, alkaline water many aquarists enjoy. In fact, compared with their wild ancestors, the domesticated varieties of angelfish can be considered essentially hardy fish.

In terms of ecology, wild angelfish live in the flooded forest habitats of tropical South America, among the sunken vegetation and tree trunks. Their silver and black vertical banding helps them to hide among the shadows, and their strongly compressed body shape lets them slip into tangles where large, predatory fishes cannot go. Angelfish feed primarily on mosquito larvae and other aquatic insects, but they also eat small fishes, including tetras. Outside of the breeding season they form loose schools with a distinct hierarchy, but when spawning pairs drift off and hold territories, laying their eggs on vertical surfaces such as tree stumps. No angelfish lives anywhere with a strong flow of water, and in fact what these fish prefer in the wild as well as in captivity is warm, clean water with only a very gentle flow.

Artificial varieties

Almost all the angelfish on sale are artificial varieties of a single species, Pterophyllum scalare. In older aquarium books this fish is sometimes called Pterophyllum eimekei, but either way, this is the classic angelfish with the round body and tall dorsal and anal fins. The wild-type fish is basically silver, with four dark vertical bands, one through the eye, two across the body, and a fourth at the base of the tail. The eye is usually red and the typical length of an adult specimen is about 7-10 cm, though rare specimens are quite a bit larger. Tank-bred wild-type angelfish do get traded, but they aren’t as popular as the artificial forms, of which the two most commonly seen seem to be ‘golden angelfish’ and ‘marbled angelfish’. Golden angels are yellowy and at their best lack any trace of the dark vertical banding typical of wild angelfish. Marbled angelfish are silver with black markings like the wild-type fish, but instead of simple vertical bands, they are mottled with a variety of black squiggles and spots. It’s quite common to see marbled angelfish with a bit of yellow or orange on the head and dorsal surface, and these are sometimes called ‘orange marble angelfish’.

Among the more exotic varieties are the ‘koi angelfish’ and the ‘black angelfish’. The koi angel is covered with patches of silver, white, orange, and black, and is one of the most sought after varieties in the hobby. On the best specimens, the orange shade is distinctly reddish, approaching that of a koi carp in colour, and well-patterned fish of this type demand premium prices. Black angelfish are, as their name suggests, very dark indeed. In the best fish, the entire body is so dark that the overlying vertical bands can barely be seen. Black angelfish are difficult to produce and good quality fish are rare, and consequently these impressive fish tend to be expensive. A peculiarity of this variety is that it tends to be a bit smaller but more aggressive than many of the other angelfish varieties. Besides colouration, domesticated angelfish vary in the length of their fins, with ‘veil-tail angels’ being especially popular. These fish have extra long fins, and while this doesn’t seem to cause them major problems, they do tend to be rather slow and are best kept away from regular angels, otherwise the veil-tails will lose out at feeding time.

When shopping for angelfish, it is important to judge the quality of the fish on offer. Check that the fins are all properly developed and of even length, and make sure that the colours and patterns match the standards for the variety in question. As with anything else, you “get what you pay for” and if you’re looking to breed angelfish, it’s essential to start off with good quality stock.

Wild angelfish

Although Pterophyllum scalare is the common angelfish in the hobby, there are two other species currently recognised by ichthyologists, Pterophyllum altum and Pterophyllum leopoldi. The latter species is sometimes referred to by another name, Pterophyllum dumerilii, in older aquarium books. Both Pterophyllum altum and Pterophyllum leopoldi do get traded periodically, the first a little more often than the second. Usually, but not always, they are wild caught, and they are invariably more expensive than common angelfish.

Pterophyllum altum is sometimes called the ‘tall angelfish’ and with good reason: this fish can reach as much as 20 cm in height, and 18 cm in length. Compared with a wild-type common angelfish its body is less circular and more oval, but otherwise the basic colouration is similar. One difference is that the eyes are not red, as they are on wild-type common angelfish. The head is also a bit more angular, and the snout especially is more elongated and slightly upturned. The dark vertical bands are brownish-grey edged with white rather than plain black, and this immediately sets them apart from the other species of angelfish. These are exceptionally impressive fish, and in the right tank simply cannot be beat. Given that the adults are rather large, a deep aquarium is essential, with at least 60 cm of depth being required. Pterophyllum altum has never been a common fish in the hobby, but it is periodically available and can usually be obtained without too much difficult.

Pterophyllum leopoldi is known variously as the ‘dwarf angelfish’ and the ‘Roman-nosed angelfish’, both references to its very distinctive appearance. Looking a lot like small, dumpy wild-type common angelfish, it also has rather peculiar snout that is indeed best described as being Roman-nosed! Pterophyllum leopoldi get to about 10 cm in length and can be most easily distinguished from the other species by a large black spot that lies between the second and third vertical bands and close to the base of the dorsal fin. Along the edges of the black bands are fairly wide off-white bands, giving the fish an overall stripey appearance rather different to the thin black bands and plain silver ground colour of typical wild-type Pterophyllum scalare. Historically, Pterophyllum leopoldi has been virtually absent from the trade, but it has been turning up a bit more frequently in recent years.

A third species of wild angelfish is known in the trade as the Peruvian angelfish or Peruvian altum. It is currently believed to be a variety of Pterophyllum scalare, but this may change in time. Peruvian angelfish have the tall body of Pterophyllum altum but the colouration of Pterophyllum scalare. Highly attractive fish, these are rare and expensive. Note that the different species of angelfish shouldn’t be mixed together, as hybridisation might occur. Although this hasn’t been recorded in the aquarium literature yet, the potential is there, and any resulting offspring would be of little value to the hobby.

Angelfish care

Domesticated angelfish varieties are essentially hardy and easy to keep. They will adapt to most water conditions. Soft and slightly acidic water would be best, but they seem to thrive in moderately hard and alkaline water as well. Warm water, at least 25 degrees C, is important, and if kept too cool angelfish are prone to disease. In terms of diet, these fish will eat most anything, from flake and cichlid pellets through to live foods such as brine shrimp and bloodworm. A variety of foods are perhaps best, though frozen bloodworms seem to be a particular favourite and most angels will gorge themselves on these given the chance!

Housing domesticated angelfish varieties isn’t difficult either, as these fish are generally very well suited to community tanks, with two caveats. Firstly, they are predatory, and will eat neons, glowlights, small guppies, and other such species. It is best to house them alongside tankmates such as hatchetfish, bleeding heart tetras, Corydoras, plecs, and so on. Peaceful gouramis seem to work well with domesticated angelfish, as do clown loaches. The second thing to be careful of is that angelfish can be aggressive, and it isn’t uncommon to encounter an angelfish that bullies everything in the tank. As with most other hierarchical schooling fish, when kept in a group of six or more, the fish tend to settle down and cause few problems, but when kept in smaller groups, the dominant fish can bully the other angels in the school. Solitary angels, if they have no one else to bully, may even turn on other fishes in the aquarium (gouramis and other cichlids seem most at risk). So despite their angelic appellation, it is important to treat these fish as the cichlids they are and be aware of the possible social behaviour issues.

Wild-caught angelfish, of whatever species, tend to be much more demanding than the common angels. Water chemistry is important, and soft and slightly acidic water (pH 6) is certainly recommended. Warmth is critical too, and these fish should be kept at 28-30 degrees C. Finally, water quality is important as well. These fish are very intolerant of ammonium and nitrite, and even prolonged exposure to high levels of nitrate will cause harm. Adequate filtration and regular water changes are therefore essential. Wild-caught angelfish can eventually be weaned onto the same sorts of foods as the domesticated varieties enjoy, but in the short term at least live foods are usually important. Aquatic crustaceans, insect larvae, and small earthworms are all enjoyed. Tankmates should be chosen with care, and limited to species that will tolerate the same water chemistry and temperature as the angelfish.

Breeding angelfish

Domesticated angelfish are obviously breedable, given that almost all of the ones offered for sale have been bred commercially, but they are notorious for being difficult to breed in home aquaria. The problem isn’t getting them to spawn, as angelfish will usually pair off and spawn rather readily, the tricky bit it getting the parents not to eat their egg. For this reason, standard practise is to remove the eggs immediately after spawning and rear them manually. You can let nature take its course though, and eventually even ‘bad’ parents seem to get it right and eventually settle down to rear their brood properly.

Complicating matters further is that juvenile angelfish are impossible to sex by eye, so the only way to get a pair of angelfish is to buy six and then let them pair off as they mature. Adult angelfish are almost impossible to sex, but a day or so before spawning the genital pores of the two sexes do become sufficiently distinct that they can be told apart reliably. The female has a longer one than the male. While they’re spawning, it’s easy to spot which one is laying the eggs and which is shedding the sperm, and then make a note of which fish is the female and which the male. Trying to buy one male fish and one female fish from an aquarium shop usually does not result in a pair, and more likely ends in misery as the male beats up the female.

To encourage spawning the water chemistry should be gradually softened and acidified, and the warmth increased a little. The parents should be provided with a rich diet, ideally with lots of live food. It is usually easier to move a pair of angels to a separate breeding tank at this stage. Spawning takes place on a vertical surface, most easily something like a piece of slate or an upturned flowerpot. In theory at least, both parents guard the eggs, keeping them clean and removing any fungused ones. In practise, it is usually simpler to remove the parents back to main aquarium, and take over the rearing of the eggs and fry. It is a good idea to add some anti-fungal medication to the aquarium at this stage, and keep up with course of treatment across the next month or so until the fry are visibly strong and healthy.

The eggs hatch after about two to three days, and the fry are free swimming a couple of days after that, and certainly within a week of spawning. Newly hatched brine shrimp are the classic first food for angelfish fry, but liquid fry food seems to work well too. As with rearing any other fish, the trick here is provide regular feedings (at least 4-6 times per day) while performing enough water changes to keep the water clean.

Learning more

A good book for learning the art of keeping angelfish is “My Angelfish” in the Aqualog Mini Series. “South American Cichlids 4” in the Aqualog series covers all the species and varieties and angelfish, along with their close cousins, the discus.

My Angelfish.

Aqualog South American Cichlids Vol 4.

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