Pterophyllum altum


Pterophyllum is a small genus of freshwater fish from the family Cichlidae known to most aquarists as "Angelfish". All Pterophyllum species originate from the Amazon River basin in tropical South America. The three species of Pterophyllum are unusually shaped for cichlids being greatly laterally compressed, with round bodies and elongated triangular dorsal and anal fins. This body shape allows them to hide among roots and plants, often on a vertical surface. Naturally occurring angelfish are frequently striped longitudinally, colouration which provides additional camouflage. Angelfish are ambush predators and prey on small fish and macroinvertebrates. All Pterophyllum species form monogamous pairs. Eggs are generally laid on a submerged log or a flattened leaf. As is the case for other cichlids, brood care is highly developed.

P. altum

Pterophyllum altum, also referred to as the altum angelfish, deep angel, or Orinoco angel, occurs strictly in the Orinoco River Basin and the Upper Rio Negro watershed in Southern Venezuela, Southeastern Colombia and extreme Northern Brazil. Its natural color is also silver but with three brownish/red vertical stripes and red striping patterns into the fins. The species may show red spotting when mature and when aroused exhibits a black operculum spot. Characteristic of this species is an acute incision or notch above the nares. All true (pure) specimens show this trait, whereas commercial hybrids product of crosses to Pterophyllum scalare, that are occasionally performed by breeders to sell them as "Orinoco Altum", will most likely not show this trait or show it to a much lesser degree. The true wildcaught Orinoco Altum is among the most challenging among tropical fish to breed in captivity. The species is the largest of the genus and specimens exceeding 50 cm in height (from tip of dorsal to tip of anal fin) have been reported in the wild; in aquariums, specimens are known to have grown to +40 cm. Altum Angels are more frequently found in the well oxygenated, extremely soft waters of Upper and Middle Orinoco tributaries shed from the Guyana Shield Highlands, preferring a pH range between 4.5 to 5.8. These are very transparent blackwaters with almost nil conductivity. Temperature range in these waters is between 78°F (26°C) and 84°F (29°C). They are also found in the Atabapo River and Inirida River floodplain, down the Casiquiare and Guainía floodplain where the Rio Negro is born, before entering Brazilian territory. Unlike P. scalare(mentioned above) which prefer to spawn on plants, P. altum prefers to spawn on submerged roots and tree branches. This species is recommended for intermediate to advanced aquarists due to the detailed maintenance it requires for proper health.

P. leopoldi

Pterophyllum leopoldi, also referred to as the teardrop angelfish, long-nosed angelfish, dwarf angelfish, or Roman-nosed angelfish, is a river dwelling angelfish species that originates from rivers in the Amazon River basin along the Solimões River, Amazon River, and Rupununi River. It is distinguished from other members of the Pterophyllum genus by the absence of a pre-dorsal notch and by the presence of a black blotch at the dorsal insertion on the 4th vertical bar. The species was originally described as Plataxoides leopoldi in 1963 by J.P. Gosse, and is frequently misidentified as P. dumerilii when the species is imported in the aquarium trade.

P. scalare

Pterophyllum scalare, the species most commonly referred to as angelfish or freshwater angelfish, is the most common species of Pterophyllum held in captivity. Its natural habitat includes the Amazon River basin in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, particularly the Ucayali, Solimões and Amazon rivers, as well as the rivers of Amapá in Brazil, the Oyapock River in French Guiana and the Essequibo River in Guyana. It is found in swamps or flooded grounds where vegetation is dense and the water is either clear or silty. Its native water conditions range from a pH of 6.0 to 8.0, a water hardness range of 5 - 13 dH, and water temperature ranging from 24° to 30°C (75° to 86 °F). It was originally described as Zeus scalaris in 1823, and has also been described be several different names, including Platax scalaris, Plataxoides dumerilii, Pterophillum eimekei, Pterophyllum dumerilii, and Pterophyllum eimekei.

Angelfish in the fishkeeping hobby

Angelfish are one of the most commonly kept freshwater aquarium fish, as well as the most commonly kept cichlid. They are prized for their unique shape, color and behavior. Many hobbyists consider angelfish to be a relatively intelligent fish, able to recognize their owners.


Angelfish are kept in a warm aquarium, ideally around 80°F (27°C). They will do best if fed a mixture of flake, frozen and live food. Care should be taken to not overfeed, they will continue to eat even what they do not need. This will lead to a buildup of fats resulting in inactivity and early death. Angelfish will do best if kept in an acidic environment, pH should be below 7.5 (note: 7.5 is still slightly alkaline - acidic is defined as below 7.0). All angelfish will need water with a pH of at most 7.0. Even though angelfish are a member of the Cichlid family they are generally peaceful, however; the general rule "big fish eat little fish" applies. Other aggressive fish should not be kept with angelfish because their flowing fins are vulnerable to fin nipping. Some smaller more aggressive fish may even nip at the fins of these fish.


P. scalare is relatively easy to breed in the aquarium, although one of the results of generations of inbreeding is that many breeds have almost completely lost their rearing instincts resulting in the tendency of the parents to eat their young. In addition, it is very difficult to accurately identify the gender of any individual until they are nearly ready to breed.

Angelfish pairs form long-term relationships where each individual will protect the other from threats and potential suitors. Upon the death or removal of one of the mated pair, some breeders have experienced a total refusal of the other mate to pair up with any other angelfish; others have had more success with subsequent mates. Both parents care for the young.

Depending upon aquarium conditions, P. scalare reaches sexual maturity at the age of six to twelve months or more. In situations where the eggs are removed from the aquarium immediately after spawning, the pair is capable of spawning every seven to ten days. Around the age of approximately three years, spawning frequency will decrease and eventually cease.

When the pair is ready to spawn, they will choose an appropriate medium upon which to lay the eggs and spend one to two days picking off detritus and algae from the surface. This medium may be a broad-leaf plant in the aquarium, a flat surface such as a piece of slate placed vertically in the aquarium, a length of pipe, or even the glass sides of the aquarium. The female will deposit a line of eggs on the spawning substrate, followed by the male who will fertilize the eggs. This process will repeat itself until there are a total of 100 to up to 1200+ eggs, depending on the size and health of the female fish. The pair will take turns maintaining a high rate of water circulation around the eggs by swimming very close to the eggs and fanning the eggs with their pectoral fins. In a few days, the eggs hatch and the fry remain attached to the spawning substrate. During this period, the fry will not eat and will survive by consuming the remains of their yolk sacs. At one week, the fry will detach and become free-swimming. Successful parents will keep close watch on the eggs until they become free-swimming. At the free-swimming stage, the fry can be fed newly-hatched frozen och fresh (i.e. alive) brine shrimp (Artemia spp.).

P. altum is notably difficult to breed in an aquarium environment.

Strains of Angelfish

Most strains of angelfish available in the fishkeeping hobby are the result of many decades of selective breeding. For the most part, the original crosses of wild angelfish were not recorded and confusion between the various species of Pterophyllum, especially P. scalare and P. leopoldi, is common. This makes the origins of "Domestic angelfish" unclear. Domestic strains are most likely a collection of genes resulting from more than one species of wild angelfish combined with the selection of mutations in domesticated lines over the last 60 or more years. The result of this is a domestic angelfish that is a true hybrid with little more than a superficial resemblance to wild Pterophyllum species. It would be inaccurate to say that they accurately represent any species of wild angelfish, although they most resemble P. scalare and are frequently referred to as such.

Domestic angelfish have been bred and crossbred for several decades. There are hundreds of mutations of little importance by themselves. Much of the research into the known genetics of P. scalare is the result of the research of Dr. Joanne Norton, who published a series of 18 articles in Freshwater and Marine Aquarium (FAMA) Magazine. Those articles are reprinted at .

Common Phenotypes

Silver (+/+)
The silver angelfish most commonly resembles the wild form of angelfish, and is also referred to as "wild-type". It is not, however, caught in the wild and is considered domestic. The fish has a silver body with red eyes and 3 vertical black stripes that can fade or darken depending on the mood of the fish.

Gold (g/g)

The genetic trait for the gold angelfish is recessive, and causes a light golden body with a darker yellow or orange color on the crown of the fish. It does not have the vertical black stripes or the red eye seen in the wild angelfish.

Zebra (Z/+ or Z/Z)

The zebra phenotype results in 4 to 6 vertical stripes on the fish that in other ways resembles a silver angelfish. It is a dominant mutation that exists at the same locus as the stripeless gene.

Black Lace (D/+) / Zebra Lace (D/+ - Z/+)

A Silver or Zebra with one copy of the Dark gene. This results in very attractive lacing in the fins. Considered by some to the most attractive of all angelfish varieties.

Smokey (Sm/+)

A variety with a dark brownish grey back half and dark dorsal and anal fins.

Chocolate (Sm/Sm)

Homozygous for Smokey with more of the dark pattern. Sometimes only the head is silver.

Halfblack (h/h)

Silver with a black rear portion. Halfblack can express along with some other color genes, but not all. The pattern may not develop or express if the fish are in stressful conditions.
Sunset Blushing (g/g S/S)
The Sunset Blushing has two doses of gold and two doses of Stripeless. The upper half of the fish exhibits orange on the good ones. The body is mostly white in color, fins are clear. The amount of orange showing on the fish can vary. On some the body is a pinkish or tangerine color. The term blushing comes from the clear gill plates found on juveniles. You can see the pinkish gill underneath.

Koi (Gm/Gm S/S) or (Gm/g S/S)

The Koi has a double or single dose of Gold Marble with a double dose of Stripeless. They express a variable amount of orange that varies with stress levels. The black marbling varies from 5%-40% coverage.

Leopard (Sm/Sm Z/Z) or (Sm/Sm Z/+)

The leopard is a very popular fish when young, having spots over most of their body. Most of these spots grow closer together as an adult so it looks like a chocolate with dots on it. (Smokey x Zebra)

Blue Blushing (S/S)

This is a wild-type angelfish that has two Stripeless genes. The body is actually grey with a bluish tint under the right light spectrum. An iridescent pigment develops as they age. This iridescence usually appears blue under most lighting.

Silver Gold Marble (Gm/+)

A Silver angel with a single Gold Marble gene. This is a co-dominant expression of Silver and Gold Marble, so you see traits of both.

Ghost (S/+)

A fish that is heterozygous for Stripeless. This results in a mostly silver fish with just a stripe through the eye and tail. Sometimes portions of the body stripes will express.

Gold Marble (Gm/g or Gm/Gm)

A gold angel with black marbling. Depending on whether the Gold Marble is single or double dose, the marbling will range from 5% to 40% coverage.

Marble (M/+ or M/M or M/g or M/Gm)

Marble expresses with much more black pattern than Gold Marble does. The marbling varies from 50% to 95%.

Black Hybrid (D/g or D/Gm)

Cross a black with a gold, and you get black hybrids. A very vigorous black, that may look brassy when young. Does not breed true.

Pearlscale (p/p)

Pearlscale is a scale mutation. The scale have a wrinkled, wavy look that reflect light to create a sparkling effect. Pearl develops slowly, starting at around 9 weeks of age. In can be inhibited by stressful conditions. It is recessive, requiring both parents to contain the allele. It looks best on light colored fish like Gold, Gold Marble, Albino, Silver and Zebra. It's difficult to see on dark fish and blushing angelfish.

Black Ghost (D/+ - S/+)

Same description as a Ghost, with a darker appearance due to the Dark gene. Very similar to a Black Lace without complete stripes. Ghosts generally have more iridescence than non-ghosts.

Albino (a/a)

Albino removes dark pigments in most varieties. Some, like Albino Marble will still have a little black remaining on a percentage of the fish. The eye pupils are pink as in all albino animals. The surrounding iris can be red or yellow depending on the variety of Albino.

See also


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