The name ‘angelfish’ is often associated with salt water aquariums, but there is a freshwater angelfish that shares this name as well. Highly regarded by aquarium enthusiasts, this fish is sometimes known as the king of the aquarium.
They develop vivid colors and bold personalities as they mature. Pterophyllum scalare, the freshwater angelfish, allows freshwater fish keepers to enjoy the flowing lines, vibrant appearance, and curious temperament which distinguish their marine namesake.
First described in 1823 by German zoologist Hinrich Lichtenstein, the freshwater angelfish is native to South America, specifically the Amazon river basin. They belong to the cichlid family (cichlidae), and technically have no relation to the marine angelfish species. Nor do they resemble other cichlids
The angelfish is a unique freshwater species, and is among the most recognized fish for both novice and expert fish keepers. They have been fixtures in home aquariums for a century, and several varieties have been bred for different colors and physical features. They can live for up to 10 years with proper care and maintenance.
They are relatively easy to keep, so much so that nearly all fish are the descendants of captive breeding. It is very rare to find any angelfish that have any close relationship to fish captured from the wild. This should provide comfort to any owners concerned with the environmental impact of keeping aquarium fish.
Appearance: Size and Color
The scientific name of the freshwater angelfish, Pterophyllum scalare, translates roughly to ‘winged leaf.’ This naming is a nod to their graceful appearance and delicate fins. Some individuals can be up to 10 inches in length, but most will reach 6 inches and stop growing.
Their tails may grow to give the angelfish a height of 8-12 inches, also depending on the individual and sub-species. These proportions make the angelfish among the largest fish available for freshwater aquarium keepers. They will stand out in a tank for more than their size, however.
The angelfish has a tall, triangular body, which comes to a sharp point at their mouth. Their eyes are set just behind the mouth and above the gills. The color of their eyes will depend on the sub-species of angelfish. Silver is most common, but orange, red, yellow, and pearl white can be found as well.
Males and females are extremely difficult to tell apart. They do not have any specific sexually dimorphic traits. During their mating cycle, however, the female will swell slightly from the eggs she is carrying, and males may be seen taking an interest in her.
Their most noticeable physical features are their tall, wing-like fins that arc towards the rear of their body. These fins are so thin that they can appear translucent, and can have a number of different colorations and patterns. In adulthood, streaming tendrils will develop from their tail fins, adding to the graceful nature of their swimming.
On some individuals, a pair of long ventral fins may hang down from the face. These fins look like the whiskers, or barbs, of catfish and other species. The angelfish may use these to feel about in their surrounding environment. They also may be helpful in digging small depressions in the mud for the fish to locate food, or create nests for their eggs.
Variations and Subspecies
The most common color pattern found in most pet or fish stores are silver, with four black stripes. These stripes are vertical, and run across the body and fins. Occasionally, these stripes will lead to a mottled appearance on the body of the angelfish.
Experts think that the fish originally evolved to have this appearance in its native Amazon basin. The silver color would allow it to mimic light rocks and sand. The dark stripes would allow the angelfish to camouflage themselves in the shadows of trees hanging above the river.
The popularity of the angelfish has led breeders to select for certain appearances and colorations. One such variety is called the veilfin, named for the exceptionally delicate, translucent nature of its fins. A super veilfin is an angelfish bred from two veilfin parents. These will often have even longer, more elaborate fins.
Other popular sub-species for the angelfish have marbled, leopard, gold, red blush, or pearl colorations. In these color patterns, owners will find gold, red, orange, yellow, pink, green, blue and brown, depending on the breeder and varietal.
Among the newest, and most sought after color varieties, is the Philippine blue angelfish, also called cobalt blue. The Philippine blue varietal can be identified by the bluish-green color of their heads. The rest of their body may have a silver, pearl, or smoky base color, and can be found with or without black stripes.
Freshwater angelfish are considered a moderately aggressive but still community safe, aquarium fish. This means that they will not generally harass other fish, but that they will also not allow themselves to be bullied.
Angelfish are not particularly social, but adults can be kept with one another in a suitably sized tank without territorial squabbles. They do not often school together, but may explore the features of your tank in small groups from time to time.
If you see them kissing, this is not an affectionate gesture. This is one way the angelfish engage in conflict, so if it is a consistent behavior in your tank, you may need to remove one of the fish.
They will, however interact more as the females enter their mating cycle. They also may become more highly aggressive and territorial as the female prepares to lay her eggs.
They are active swimmers and curious by nature. These traits, combined with their size and coloration, will make them one of the most visible members of any freshwater tank.
While the freshwater angelfish is considered moderately aggressive, you will see personalities vary between individual fish. Some may feel the need to establish a hierarchy in your tank, depending on the other species you keep. Other may feel content within the confines of the shoal.
You should not keep them with fish that will nip at their fins, such as tiger barbs and certain tetra species. These will stress the angel, and may impact their health and longevity. It may also provoke conflict in the tank, and the angel, as a larger fish, may bully or kill the offending fish.
Rasboras, larger barbs, and catfish are good tankmates for the angelfish. Their size will generally keep the angelfish from being an opportunistic aggressor. In general, you will want to keep an eye on your fish to ensure that there is minimal stress and conflict for all of your species.
In the wild, the freshwater angelfish is carnivorous. They will feed on shellfish and invertebrates on the river bottom. They also prey on smaller, slower moving fish throughout the water column. Food particles drifting in the current also make up a portion of their diet. That can include plant matter, as the angelfish is opportunistic, and is happy to nibble on whatever happens to fit in its mouth.
Dry foods, such as flakes and pellets, will be appetizing to the angelfish. They should also be given meaty foods that allow them to hunt and forage, as they would in the wild. This can include brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, and bloodworms.
Ideally, you should try to switch their food on a daily, or semi-daily basis. They will eat one to two times per day. Only give your angelfish what they can eat in 3-4 minutes. Any excess food may contribute to waste and algae buildup in your tank.
Fiber from plant matter makes up a portion of their diet in the wild, so try to select pellets and flakes based on this need. Some owners report success feeding them greens such as spinach, so don’t hesitate to get creative and find out what your fish enjoy.
They are hearty eaters, and tend to be excitable around food. This makes feeding them something to look forward to, rather than a chore.
Breeding is often difficult with aquarium fish, and sometimes requires perfect conditions for the pair to mate. Not so with the freshwater angelfish, which can generally spawn with ease in most tank setups. Some breeders recommend raising the temperature of the tank to 27 degrees celcius to induce breeding.
The fish form monogamous pairs, and will select their own mates. If breeding is something you hope to do in your tank, consider buying at least six fish, to allow them choices in partner selection. Once the male fertilizes the females eggs, she will lay them in rows, generally at the base of a rock. A tall, vertical rock is preferable, as it offers concealment and shelter.
Most captive angelfish make excellent parents. They will guard the eggs together, and when the spawn hatches, they corral and monitor the safety of the fry. They will not necessarily be aggressively territorial, but will not hesitate to nip and ward off other fish.
The angelfish fry will begin eating almost immediately, and will thrive on the same food as their parents. A meatier diet may be healthier for the first few weeks, so bloodworms and frozen pellets can be more frequently used in your tank.
Experienced breeders will use a spawning tank to ensure the health and safety of the fish and their eggs, but this is not a necessary step. Fish that are stressed may eat their own eggs, however, so your tank environment should be closely watched for successful breeding.
Pairs will begin breeding between 9-12 months of age. As the guppies grow, they will eventually split off from the parents, at which time the spawning cycle can begin again. At three years of age, they will spawn less frequently until they stop altogether.
Given that the freshwater angelfish is native to the waters of the Amazon River Basin, owners will want to replicate this tropical environment in their home aquarium. The keys are warmth, light, shelter, and substrate for the angelfish to maintain good health.
A tank of at least 30 gallons is recommended, with 55 gallons providing a more comfortable space for them. In a small tank, their fins may not develop fully. They may also be more easily stressed, which leads to unhealthy levels of certain flagellates that are generally always present within the angelfish.
Your water should be kept at a temperature between 75 to 82 degrees fahrenheit. Most sub-species can handle a pH between 6.5 – 7.5, but the Pterophyllum leopoldi is pickier, needing a pH between 6.8 – 7.0.
Water hardness, the measure of dissolved calcium and magnesium in your aquarium water, should be between 54 and 145 parts per million. Be sure to change out 25% of the water monthly to prevent bacterial build up.
Freshwater angelfish will do best with 8-12 hours of light per day. This can be done through either natural light, or artificial tank lighting.
Exact numbers will not be a huge concern with angelfish. Consistency in your tank levels is key, as any changes may stress them, and leave them vulnerable to infection and parasites, including Ich and fin rot.
Ich can be spotted by the salty-looking white residues that appears on the fish scales. Most vets and supply stores sell treatments for your water. You can also raise the temperature of your tank to accelerate the death of the parasite. Avoid using heat for bacterial or viral infections, however, as this may cause the infection to multiply. Instead, ask a vet or supply store for the correct medication based on the symptoms you observe.
In the wild, the fish populate the slower moving pools of the Amazon River Basin. Food in these areas is easier to come by, and they can lay their eggs securely. In your home tank, they will not do well with a strong current, so a low-to-medium strength filter and pump should be sufficient.
Try to recreate the natural features they might find in the wild to keep your angelfish happy. This should involve some form of substrate, which can be mud, sand, small pebbles, and wood chips. The angelfish will enjoy digging among these features.
Larger pieces of driftwood will provide the fish with areas to explore, and broad-leafed plants provide them with shelter. Floating plants are also suitable, as these mimic the plant matter that would drop from the forest canopy into the river.
As mentioned previously, they prefer vertical rocks for egg-laying, and flat slabs of slate and other rocks are ideal.
The Fish For You?
The freshwater angelfish is community safe, an active swimmer, and can tolerate variance in their tank conditions to accommodate other species. Perhaps best of all, they are a striking fish that can be found in a wide variety of colors and fin variations. As they school and swim together, that effect is multiplied.
New aquarium owners will appreciate the ease with which they take to most set-ups, but should still introduce them carefully. More experienced fish keepers may enjoy the challenge of selecting breeding pairs for spawning.
As the so-called kings of the aquarium, they will bring natural aesthetic beauty to any home. It is important for their safety and happiness to provide them with enough companions of their own kind. With proper diet, tank maintenance, and attention to their health, freshwater angelfish can live up to 10 years, providing owners with an exceptional fish-keeping experience.