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Freshwater Angelfish (Pterophyllum genus)


Originally from the Amazon and Orinoco river systems Angelfish seem calm and serene as they glide through an aquarium. A majestic fish they are readily available and captive bred strains are adapted to most water conditions. In the wild type their camouflage allows them to hide in tall plants and the tree roots hanging over the banks of these rivers. Breeding occurs on the flooded river banks during the wet seasons.

Having been bred in captivity for well over a 100 years Angels come in a variety of colours, fin shapes and scale varieties. There are three separate species of angels, although only one is commonly seen in captivity.


Of the three species Pterophyllum scalare is the one most commonly seen. First described in 1823 or 1824 there are only subtle differences between this and Pterophyllum leopoldi. The more unusual and far more expensive Pterophyllum altum is available in the hobby and are being bred by hobbyist and specialist breeders. A larger member of the genus than the more common p. scalare, Altum angels are for the more advanced keeper. They come from a black water habitat which is extremely soft, and acidic. In captivity it is better to aim for pH 4.5-5.8 and 0 conductivity. This is commonly achieved using RO (Reverse Osmosis) water.

Morphs of P. scalare include the wild type striped colouration, silver bodied fish, almost pure black, veil tail examples, gold coloured, koi, marble, pearl scale, blushing and a whole host more. Sadly the more advanced colours come from inbreeding and they can be more sensitive.

In the wild angels are an aggressive species when defending their young and other members of their shoal. They have been filmed circling round and forming a defensive line against piranha and other predatory fish. Discus will sometimes shoal with angels for the protection they can provide.

They will eat other fish if they are small enough to be eaten, and can become aggressive against everyone else in the tank when they are spawning or raising their young. However as slow swimmers and with long trailing fins, they can’t be kept with more aggressive fish or fin nippers.

Tank Setup

For P. scalare remember that they grow large and tall, a minimum height for the tank is 40cm, and anything smaller than 90cm for a pair will probably be too small. They prefer slow flow conditions but still need a good filtration, they need slightly higher temps than other tropical fish, so aim for 27°C. pH should be slightly acidic and water should be as soft as you can manage, but stable water is better than wild changes, so if a choice between altering you water and causing changes, or acclimatising them to your local water, go for the later.

In the wild they prefer to remain amongst the plants, so a well planted aquarium will make them feel more secure. Using sand will look more natural than gravel, and bog wood and leaf litter will give the water that tint that looks like river the species comes from, and the tannins give the extra benefits of having antiseptic properties.


Tank bred angels will readily except a variety of flake food, and live foods. They will also snack on any tank mates small enough to fit in their mouths.

Tank mates

I personally keep my angels as the centre piece of my tanks, along with a shoal of Corys on the bottom and a Bristlenose plec or two. Some keepers have a school of small tetras in the tank, which often become an expensive snack for the angels once they get big enough. With the need for the higher temps and the soft acid waters its worth keeping to tank mates from the same geographic region.

There is a lot of debate regarding discus and angels being kept together. Angels are more boisterous and aggressive, and may carry parasites that will affect the discus. But they do school together in the wild. Yet in the wild they will shoal in groups of hundreds, and have acres of space to play with. If both are tank bred and healthy it may be worth giving it a try, but you may need a second tank to split them up in the worst case scenario.


Angels are quite difficult to sex until they’re breeding, so most keepers grow on a group of young and wait for pairs to form. I’ve personally always found that in a mixed group of morphs the females will select the closest morph to their own, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and the presence of a wild type male will break this rule as the females compete for him. In general males will have a hump on their forehead, but this can be subtle and difficult to distinguish.

As with most cichlids Angels have parenting down to a fine art, but be aware that the other fish in your tank may see the eggs and fry as a snack. If they’re on their own, or in a very lightly stocked tank it may be worth letting them raise the eggs to fry on their own, but you may have a few hundred angels on your hands, and unless you selected the parents very carefully they may not look anything like them.

You can remove the eggs and allow some gentle air flow over the eggs, if left with the parents they would gently fan them to keep on top of fungus and keep the eggs healthy. Some breeders use methylene blue, or put a few cherry shrimps into eat the infertile eggs and keep things clean. Using a sponge filter in a bare bottomed fry tank will give the low flow they need whilst keeping the tank clean. Feed a good quality live food small enough to fit in tiny mouths.

Dream tank

My personal dream tank will be about 5 foot long and 2 foot tall with soft lighting through slightly tannin stained water, bog wood and leaf litter over a pale sand floor and the back and sides of the tank heavily planted with Amazonian species. A small group of Altum angels and a shoal of emperor tetras with a pair of Bristlenose plecs and a shoal of Corys. With my water I would have to use RO water and add back the minerals, and it will need a few huge external filters.

There is an Angel out there for most suitably sized tanks so with a little research and you can find the Angel for you and the correct tank mates.