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Pterophyllum altum

Pterophyllum altum, Photo: Michael Lahanas

Cladus: Eukaryota
Supergroup: Opisthokonta
Regnum: Animalia
Subregnum: Eumetazoa
Cladus: Bilateria
Cladus: Nephrozoa
Cladus: Deuterostomia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
Superclassis: Osteichthyes
Classis: Actinopterygii
Subclassis: Neopterygii
Infraclassis: Teleostei
Superordo: Acanthopterygii
Ordo: Perciformes
Subordo: Labroidei
Familia: Cichlidae
Subfamilia: Cichlasomatinae
Genus: Pterophyllum
Species: Pterophyllum altum


Pterophyllum altum (Pellegrin, 1903)

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, Orinoco River and Essequibo River basins 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.


The freshwater angelfish was first talked about by Lichtenstein in 1824. Being scientifically named Pterophyllum scalare (pronounced: Ter'-o-fill" lum ska-la're), the meaning of Pterophyllum is; "winged leaf".

It was not until the late 1920s to early 1930s that the angelfish was bred in captivity in the United States.

In 1963 another species of Pterophyllum were discovered, P. leopoldi, this species was described by Gosse. In the beginning they were first described under another name, with P. leopoldi becoming the valid scientific name. Prior to that a species by the name of Pterophyllum altum had been discovered in 1906 by Pellegrin. There may still be undiscovered species in the Amazon River. New species of fish are discovered with increasing frequency, and, like P. scalare and leopoldi, the differences may be subtle. Scientific notations describe the P. leopoldi as having 29–35 scales in a lateral row and straight predorsal contour. Whereas, the P. scalare is described as having 35–45 scales in a lateral row and a notched predorsal contour. The leopoldi show the same coloration as scalare. Leopoldi can show a faint stripe between the eye stripe and the first complete body stripe and a third incomplete body stripe between the two main (complete) body stripes that extends three-fourths the length of the body. Whereas, the scalare's body does not show the stripe between the eye stipe and first complete body stripe at all, and the third stripe between the two main body stripes rarely extends downward more than a half inch, if even present. The leopoldi fry develop three to eight body stripes, with all but one to five fading away as they mature, whereas scalare only have two in true wild form throughout life.

Angelfish were bred in captivity for some 30 years prior to leopoldi being described; possibly longer outside the United States.

P. altum

Pterophyllum altum, also referred to as the Altum Angelfish, Deep Angelfish, or Orinoco Angelfish,[1] occurs strictly in the Orinoco River Basin and the Upper Rio Negro watershed in Southern Venezuela, Southeastern Colombia and extreme Northern Brazil.[2] 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 over 40 cm. Its natural base color is silver but with three brownish/red vertical stripes and red striations into the fins. The species may show red spotting and a blueish green dorsal overcast when mature and when aroused exhibits a black operculum spot. Characteristic of this species is an acute incision or notch above the nares (supraorbital indention). All true Orinoco Altum 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", may not exhibit the trait or it may appear in a lesser degree. The true wildcaught Orinoco Altum is among the most challenging among tropical fish to breed in captivity. Most Altum Angels are more frequently found in the well oxygenated, extremely soft waters of Upper and Middle Orinoco tributaries shed from the Guiana 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 and 84 °F (26 and 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 the submerged leaves of plants and trees in the flooded rainforest, P. altum prefers to spawn on submerged roots and tree branches in a moderate water current. This species is recommended for intermediate to advanced aquarists due to the detailed maintenance it requires for proper health. Pterophyllum altum is the national fish of Venezuela and an image of the fish appears on some currency bills of that country.

P. leopoldi
Pterophyllum leopoldi

Pterophyllum leopoldi, also referred to as the teardrop angelfish, long-nosed angelfish,[3] dwarf angelfish, or Roman-nosed angelfish,[4] is a river dwelling angelfish species that originates from rivers in the Amazon River basin along the Solimões River, Amazon River, and Rupununi River.[5] 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.[3] The species was originally described as Plataxoides leopoldi in 1963 by J.P. Gosse,[6] and is frequently misidentified as P. dumerilii when the species is imported in the aquarium trade.[7] P. leopoldi is the smallest of the angelfish species and the most aggressive.

P. scalare

Pterophyllum scalare, the species most commonly referred to as angelfish or freshwater angelfish,[8] is the most common species of Pterophyllum held in captivity. Its natural habitat 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.[9] 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).[9] 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.[10]

Angelfish in the fishkeeping hobby
A group of Pterophyllum altum

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.


The most commonly kept species in the aquarium is Pterophyllum scalare. Most of the individuals the aquarium trade are captive-bred. Sometimes, Pterophyllum altum is available. Captive bred P. altum is available but occasionaly. Pterophyllum leopoldi is the hardest to find in the trade.


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 to. 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 prefer water with a pH of at most 7.0. Though most Pterophyllum scalare will thrive in a wide range of pH values. Even though angelfish are a member of the Cichlid family they are generally peaceful, however; the general rule "big fish eat little fish" applies. 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, breeders have experienced both the total refusal of the remaining mate to pair up with any other angelfish and successful breeding with subsequent mates.

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 more than 1,200 eggs, depending on the size and health of the female fish. As both parents care for the offspring throughout development, 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 brine shrimp (Artemia spp.) or microworms. It is generally accepted that brine shrimp are the superior choice for fast growth rates of fry.

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


Angel Fish while depositing a line of eggs. Black is female.

Angel Fish eggs ready to open

Compatibility with other fish

In pet stores the freshwater angelfish is typically placed in the semi-aggressive category, but that might prove false with some fish. For example, platies, tetras and plecos all are compatible with angelfish, although some tetras and barbs will usually nip at their long fins.

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 .

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 three 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 Veil Angelfish - P. scalare

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 Veil Angelfish - P. scalare

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 Angelfish - P. scalare

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 Angelfish - P. scalare

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.

Gold Pearlscale Angelfish - P. scalare

Pearlscale (p/p)

Pearlscale is a scale mutation. The "pearlscale" angelfish is also called the "diamond" angelfish in some regions due to the gem-like iridiscence on its scales. 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 is 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.


1. ^ "Altum Angelfish, Orinoco Angel, Deep Angel". Retrieved 2008-05-19.
2. ^ Pterophyllum on FishBase.
3. ^ a b Juan Miguel Artigas Azas (2007-04-10). "Pterophyllum leopoldi (Gosse, 1963)". The Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved 2008-05-18.
4. ^ "Angelfish: new names, new species". Tropical Fish Finder. 2007-02-21. Retrieved 2008-05-19.
5. ^ Pterophyllum on FishBase.
6. ^ Ed. Ranier Froese and Daniel Pauly, ed (2008-02-21). "Synonyms of Pterophyllum leopoldi (Gosse, 1963)". Fishbase. . Retrieved 2008-05-18.
7. ^ Hougen, Dean (May/June 1994). "Cichlids of the New World: An Unexpected Acara and Part II - High-bodied Acaras". Aqua News (the Minnesota Aquarium Society). Retrieved 2008-05-19.
8. ^ Ed. Ranier Froese and Daniel Pauly, ed (2008-02-22). "Common names of Pterophyllum scalare". Fishbase. . Retrieved 2008-05-16.
9. ^ a b Pterophyllum on FishBase.
10. ^ Ed. Ranier Froese and Daniel Pauly, ed (2008-02-21). "Synonyms of Pterophyllum scalare (Schultze, 1823)". Fishbase. . Retrieved 2008-05-16.

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