Freshwater angelfish – how to keep, care, feed and breed

Angelfishes (lat. Pterophyllum scalare) is a fish kind of Cichlidae family. They are one of the most popular and widespread aquarium fishes. This is a large, gluttonous fish that feeds on fish juveniles and prawns, even though it is rather good-looking and has quite an interesting behavior. It is large with high and flattened from sides body of rather varied coloring – all these made angelfish one of the most spread and popular fishes among aquarists.


Pterophyllum kind got its name from the Australian zoologist Johann Jakob Heckel (23 January 1790 – 1 March 1857) in 1840. The name origins from the Greek ‘πτερος’ — «a wing,» and ‘φυλλον’ — «a leave» which literally means ‘a wingy leave.’

However, before Heckel, an angelfish was described by two zoologists: Martin Hinrich Carl Lichtenstein (1780 – 1857) and Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832), in 1823 and 1839 correspondingly. They gave it a specific name of scalaris, but they didn’t finally define its generic assignment, which required a closer definition.

Heckel also deserves credit for defining angelfish as a new separate genus that consists of one kind — Pterophyllum scalaris. After revision in 1862, the generic name remained unchanged, but the kind name’s ending was changed from «scalaris» to «scalare» according to Latin language rules.

Later two more species were added there — Pterophyllum leopoldi and Pterophyllum altum. But the scientists didn’t stop at this stage, they continue working on it, and according to the estimates of some ichthyologists, the kind should consist of a larger number of kinds.

Pterophyllum species include three types:

Altum angelfish

Pterophyllum altum or altum angelfish (Pellegrin, 1903) is about 30 cm long from their dorsal to fluke fin end. They inhabit the Orinoco River Basin and the Upper Rio Negro in South America.


Pterophyllum scalare or freshwater angelfish (Liechtenstein, 1823), its habitat is large and small rivers of the Amazon River basin (Peru, Colombia, and Brazil).

Leopold’s angelfish

Pterophyllum leopoldi or Leopold’s angelfish (J. P. Gosse, 1963), its habitat is a midstream of the Amazon River (between Manacapuru and Santarém).

In English, the fish got the name «Angelfishes» due to its tall fins. In German, they are called «Segelflosser» (formed from the word «segel» that means a sail). In Spanish it is Peces ángel or Escalares.

Angelfish was introduced to a wide audience in 1911. They were bred in Germany in 1914 on the threshold of World War I. Those days it was very expensive, and the breeding technologies were kept in strict confidence. Only several years later, aquarists in the West mastered the angelfish breeding technology.

After this, they started selective breeding programs since the fish’s growing popularity required new shapes and colors. This line breeding became so extensive that now the wide variety of breeds created are taken for granted by many.

Biotope in the wild

Angelfish is a tropical freshwater fish. It prefers waters with a slow flow in South America: in the Amazon river central basin and its tributaries in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. In the wild, it inhabits thickly planted areas, where they feed on fish juveniles, insects, spineless species, and plants. They prefer waters and rivers with slow flow and thick vegetation. Ponds, where they dwell, have warm, soft, and slightly acidic water.

The fish flattened body shape allows it to swim in thick aquatic vegetation and its dark vertical stripes make them less visible for predators. In the wild, angelfish normally live in small schools.


In the wild, angelfish have a silvery body flattened from sides with dark stripes, large fins, and sharpened head shape. Reproductive fish fluke may have some long thin rays. Such fin shape helps the fish to hide among plant roots and leaves. For the same reason, in the wild, it has vertical dark stripes on its body.

However, it’s a rather difficult task to describe angelfish that are on sale nowadays. As a result of line breeding made by amateurs, a huge number of angelfish color variations were obtained – from golden to black.

The adult species grow to be 6 in (15 cm) long and about 10 in (25 cm) tall.


Angelfish as a pet and difficulties in keeping

The fish is of medium difficulty in care. However, it can’t be recommended to beginners since it requires a tank of a rather large capacity, stable water parameters, and they may show aggressiveness towards some small fish. They can be kept in community tanks, but don’t forget that this is still a cichlid fish, and it’s not desirable to keep it together with some small fish.

Although angelfish may suffer from other fish attacks – tiger barbs and black tetras may nip the fish fins all the time.

Care and keeping in a tank

Scientific NamePterophyllum scalare
Common NameAngelfish, angel fish, freshwater angelfish, veil angelfish
Ease of keepingEasy
Lifespan10 years and more
Tank size200 liters (52 gallons) and more
TemperamentPeaceful with fish of equal size
Tank typeCommunity of large fishes
Temperature26 to 30 °C (75 to 86 °F)
Water hardness3–10 dGH
Size6 inches (15 cm) and about 10 in (25 cm) tall

Angelfish is rather not demanding, and their lifespan is longer than 10 years provided with proper tank conditions. It’s better to keep them in a school of 6-10 species. You can see some hierarchy in it. Larger species get the best places in the tank, but at that, you can add some new species to it.

The record shows that adult species treat them well. In general, the more fish is in the school, the less intraspecific aggression they demonstrate. If there are more than 10 species in the group, the dominating species’ attention will be scattered, and the weakest ones will get less attention, correspondingly. Despite its peaceful temper, angelfish can demonstrate aggression towards small fishes treating them as potential prey.

Tank setup

Angelfish are very timid by nature. Any abrupt movements near their tank, turning lights on/off, loud sounds may scare the fish, and they react to these by sharp movements in different directions. As a result, they may get injured when hitting tank decorations and walls.

The tank may have any decorations but without sharp edges, which may harm the fish.

Tank plants in a tank with angelfish

Despite that, many sources mention complete compatibility between angelfish and tank plants, this isn’t so. Adult species eagerly plough up from the fast-growing substrate plants with the weak root system (for example, Hemianthus micranthemoides). If this happens, add some fish food containing spirulina into the fish diet.

In a tank with freshwater angelfish, you should keep plants with a strong root system, for example, echinodorus. The plants should have large wide leaves since the fish likes to lay its eggs on these.

The desirable length of light is from 8 to 12 hours.

Water parameters

In the wild, the fish inhabits slightly acidic and rather soft water, but nowadays, the fish adapts to any tank conditions quite well. Currently, it is not that demanding as it used to be, and it can dwell at both a wide temperature range and water chemical composition.

Let me remind you that this is a tropical freshwater fish and water temperature is crucial in this case. Optimal water parameters for angelfish are the following: water temperature from 26 to 30 °C (75 to 86 °F), hardness 3 to 10 °dH, pH 6.0 – 7.0. Nitrates level should be maintained lower than 100 mg/l.

The fish can stang a short time water temperature decrease up to 18-20°C, but you shouldn’t overuse this fact.

Tank size

Due to its body shape, it’s desirable to keep angelfish in a tank not less than 44 gal (200 liters) large. However, if you plan to keep several fish, it’s better to get a tank of 400 liters capacity. Another advantage of a large tank is that when fish spawn, they feel safer and don’t eat their eggs that often. Besides, this is a tall fish, and the tank walls should be high enough for it. The minimum water column height in a tank should be 16 in (40 cm).


Water filtration and aeration, as well as weekly tank bottom cleaning with partial water renew, is a must. Angelfish body isn’t made for swimming in high-flow waters, so the tank filtration should be quite moderate. Strong water flow makes the fish feel stressed and slows down their growth since they spend their energy fighting with the flow. Weekly water renew is obligatory (about 20% of the total tank capacity).


The fish prefers feeding close to the water surface, but it can also take food in the middle water layer or pick it up from the bottom.

It is omnivorous, and in a tank, it eats all the types of feed: live, frozen and artificial. The basis of their diet may include qualitative flakes, and live or frozen feed (tubifex, blood worm, brine shrimp, corethra) may be given as an addition to the main diet.

It’s important to keep in mind two main things about this fish – it is a gluttonous one, so you mustn’t overfeed it no matter what.

Also, be careful when feeding the fish with bloodworm, or you may even exclude it from the angelfish diet since if the fish has eaten just a bit more of blood worms than it should, it’ll have very bad flatulence. It’s much safer to feed the fish with some brand feed of high quality.

It’s more important to keep the balance of fiber and protein in the diet. In the wild, most angelfish species’ feed includes 50% to 85% of fibers from the total food weight. However, only a few fish food manufacturers take this peculiarity into account when creating their products.

Some manufacturers use raw plant food additions to keep the fish coloring intensity and their health. It’s easy to meet the need for fresh plant components in the fish diet by adding lettuce and spinach.

Also, you may feed the fish with small pieces of new zucchini or any other squash. Spray these vegetables with boiling water and blanch for some time, then cool them before giving them to it.

Tank mates

Angelfish may be kept in a community tank. However, you should keep in mind that it’s still a cichlid fish, and it may be aggressive towards other smaller fish. It becomes especially aggressive during spawning when warding off intruders from the nest.

The same may happen to the fish juveniles and shrimps – they may become angelfish feed. The fish stick together while they are young, but the adult fish form couples and become rather territory-dependent after this. The fish is a bit timid, and it may get scared of unexpected moves, sounds and lights turned on suddenly.

So who can be a perfect angelfish tank mate? The answer is – quite a variety of large and middle-sized fish. You should avoid completely small-sized fish like celestial pearl danio.

Angelfish can be kept together with live-bearing fish (but angelfish eating guppy fry): platy, mollies, swordtail, and guppies (except Endler’s guppy). Keep in mind that you won’t see any of their fry. Also, angelfish tank mates may be – betta, gourami, glowlight tetra, back neon tetra, bolivian ram, corydoras julii, dwarf gourami, emperor tetra, kribensis, neon tetra, pygmy cory, Siamese Algae Eater, and many other fishes.

Can angelfish and goldfish live together? Keeping them together is a mistake. Goldfish requires chilly water while angelfish – cleaner one (goldfish constantly digs the tank bottom and scatters food leftovers). I don’t recommend keeping angelfish and goldfish together.

Barbuses are also poor angelfish tank mates. They may nip its pectoral fins. In my experience, a school of rosy barbs left all angelfish almost without their long fins.

Often angelfish are put into a tank with discus, which is also not the right thing to do. High temperature in a tank with discus differs from the one comfortable for angelfish.


Sex differences

It’s impossible to see between male and female before they become reproductive, and even then, you can be sure that it’s a male or female only during their spawning period. There are some indirect indicators, like – the male is larger, and it has a larger forehead, but still, it doesn’t guarantee anything. At the age of 10-12 months, you can recognize a male by his forehead. It becomes steeper than that of the female. This feature is also peculiar to other cichlid kind males. The female fish anus is bulging.

However, in general, all these characters are quite relative and individual. They become visible only during the second year of the fish life, and they don’t give a 100% guarantee of precise sex definition.

You can see if the fish is ready for spawning by the sharpened-shaped spermoduct appearance on the male’s body, while a short and wide terebra that looks like a small tube becomes visible on the female’s body.


Angelfish form a stable couple. Since angelfish choose their couple on their own, the best way to get such a couple is to buy 6 or more fish and grow them till they choose their matches. Quite often, a tank owner finds out that angelfish spawning has started only when he sees angelfish eggs in one corner of the tank and all other tank inhabitants in the other one. But if you are attentive, you’ll see a couple that is getting ready for spawning. They stick together, ward other fishes off, and they are guarding their nook in the tank.

When preparing the breeders, you should pay precise attention to their diet. Overfeed leads to their obesity and, as a result, to sterility. At that, both males and females are equally prone to obesity. No reproductive products appear in their bodies, therefore no offspring can be expected.

A hygienic spawning tank is usually used for angelfish spawning. It has no substrate, and plants, while an artificial plastic leave is used as a spawning surface. It should be fixed so its surface is at 45 degrees angle to the tank walls.

Water spawning can be prepared by adding water from the tank to the filtered water in the ratio of 2:1. The water hardness shouldn’t exceed 8 dGH, and the pH value should be within the range from 6,5 to 7. To stimulate spawning, the tank water temperature is increased to 79-82ºF (26-28°C). It is desirable to introduce intense all-day-round aeration.

A formed couple of breeders should not be separated in the future. When it is ready for spawning, you’ll see the excited fish swimming actively around the tank, looking for a proper place to lay eggs. They usually use a wide leaf of a tank plant or any plastic plate, tank glass, or even a hoose.

After selecting a proper place, the breeders thoroughly clean it. At that, they are guarding the place against intruders. The process may take from 2 to 5 days, during which the fish reproductive products get ready.

When the spawning begins, the female lays eggs in rows or randomly on the prepared surface. The male follows the female and fertilizes the eggs. During the whole spawning time, angelfish lays on average from 500 to 600 eggs.

After laying the eggs, the breeders start taking care of them by waving them with their pectoral fins and warding other fishes off. Not fertilized eggs get white on the second day, and the breeders remove them.

In commercial breeding, after laying the eggs on the artificial substrate, either the breeders or the plate with eggs is removed from the spawning tank. To avoid the eggs’ fungus infection, a special anti-fungus solution is added to the water (methylene blue solution). Whitened dead eggs are removed from the substrate with a thin pipette every day.

To provide the eggs with oxygen, put the sprayer under the substrate with eggs. The airflow is adjusted to create constant slow water flow around eggs.

Currently, commercial angelfish breeding is performed as mentioned above. Such an approach improves fish productivity. However, it leads to the gradual vanishing of the breeders’ parental instinct.

As a result, nowadays, it is a rare case and a big success to find a couple of breeders that will take care of their eggs and will be able to grow the juveniles.

After the larva hatch, the breeders take them from one place to other several times. The larva has an outgrowth on top of its head, using which they attach to various surfaces.

Several days later (5-9 days), which depends on water temperature in the spawning tank, the juveniles start leaving the place where they spent all their previous days.

At the tank water temperature 32°C, they start to swim in 5 days, and at 28-29°C — in 6, at the temperature 26-27°C they start to swim in 7 or more days. It becomes obvious that water temperature decrease at 6-8 degrees increases their development time by almost twice. The slow pace of juvenile development has its advantage. They grow to be stronger and enduring towards various factors.

The breeders try to get them to the nest for some time more, but then they see that it’s useless, and they stop preventing the formation of the juvenile’s school. They take care of it and guard it later on.

However, the breeders mentioned above are seldom the case. Quite often, especially inexperienced angelfish eat their offspring at various stages of their development. This may be caused either by stress when the fish spawn in a community tank and they are distracted by others or by the fact that the fish couple is young and not experienced.

As soon as the juveniles start to swim, you should start feeding them with infusorians. As they grow, you can give them food of larger size. The juveniles have a good appetite, so you should feed them several times a day but in small portions.

Angelfish become reproductive at the age of 1-12 months.

In conclusion, we should mention that angelfish are very sensitive to various medicinal preparations. So, if they get ill, it’s better to raise the tank water temperature to 32-35°C, which the fish stand quite well, but pathogens and parasites die.