Pterophyllum scalare – Angelfish

Angelfish or Pterophylum scalare is one of the most popular inhabitants of the tropical aquarium. They need at least 50 centimetres of water height!

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Pterophyllum scalare – Angelfish

The name Pterophyllum comes from ancient Greek and means “Fins like a leaf”. Scalare comes from Latin and means “ladder”. This is a reference to the stripes on their flank that resemble the steps of a ladder. Their common name is Angelfish. The name Angelfish is also used for a family of saltwater fish, Pomacanthidae.

The genus Pterophyllum is part of the family of the Cichlids (Cichlidae). A very large family in which there are about 221 genera and more than 1670 species. The genus Pterophyllum itself has only three species. Pterophyllum scalare, Pterophyllum altum and Pterophyllum leopoldi. Most aquarium enthusiasts just call all three species Angelfish. Pterophyllum scalare was first described by Schultze in 1823.

Over the years, Pterophyllum scalare or Angelfish has seen many different names. The following names are not valid synonyms: Zeus scalaris, Platax scalaris, Plataxoides dumerilii, Pterophyllum dumerilii, Pterophyllum eimekei, Pterophillum eimekei.


The first Angelfish were exported to Europe as early as 1907. Their shape and stripes made them coveted aquarium fish. The articles that were published at the time also made it clear that keeping and breeding were very difficult. Not enough was known about water values, as a result of which the egg deposition failed. By catching food from local ditches, the fish often had parasites and fungi. Something for which no medicines existed at the time.


Pterophyllum is clearly distinguishable from other cichlids. As the scientific name already shows, they are roughly in the shape of a leaf. The dorsal and anal fin extend far from the body, as do the pectoral fins. The wild type Pterophyllum scalare has a silver ground colour with four vertical black stripes on its flank. These stripes fade when stressed and darken when the Pterophyllum scalare feels good, especially when mating. It is also one of the ways in which the Angelfish communicate with each other.

Angelfish are usually higher than they get long. The body can reach a length of about 15 centimetres, if you add the fins to it, they will become about 20 centimetres long. The dorsal and anal fin stretch a little further so that the height of the Pterophyllum scalare can reach about 25 centimetres.

Pterophyllum scalare can be distinguished from Pterophyllum altum in that the altum at the top of the head at the level of the top of the eye has a sharp inward kink, this is often referred to as a saddle nose. The stripe drawing of the black bands is the same, but between bands 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, we see a lighter greyish-green band with the Pterophyllum altum. Pterophyllum leopoldi is the easiest to distinguish because the middle black stripe does not continue downwards, but rather it is a dark spot high on the flank.

Difference between male and female

The difference between the male and female is normally not visible in Angelfish. Only when pairing you can see a difference in behaviour. Males are more aggressive and territorial. When laying the eggs, the egg-laying tube of the female becomes visible.


In terms of character, the Angelfish can be described as a calm fish that moves stately through the aquarium. He is friendly to other fish. The Angelfish is very fond of rest so do not place them together with too active fish. If the Angelfish is placed in an overly busy aquarium, this is often reflected in its colours, the stripes will then fade. As they age, the fish also becomes calmer and more stately in behaviour.


A behaviour that is not very well known, is brushing. Angelfish are real schooling fish and have a mutual bond. In doing so, they brush each other. If you look closely you can see that they sometimes show their flank to another Pterophyllum scalare where they vibrate with their caudal fin. The other Angelfish then starts brushing. Even when two Angelfish have a fight, this sometimes ends in brushing. Either one gives up, shows his flank and vibrates with the caudal fin. The other then brushes the flank and peace has returned. In the aquarium, it is not clear what exactly the fish do when brushing. After all, there are no parasites that they nibble at.

Angelfish variants

A number of local variants of the Pterophyllum scalare have been discovered over the years. Because it is such a popular aquarium fish, they are bred massively. Wild-caught specimens are uncommon. The offered animals often deviate from the wild-caught specimens. They have larger scales, other shapes or colours. Some breeding lines themselves have produced completely different coloured specimens.

A couple of wild variants include:

  • Pterophyllum Emeikei
  • Pterophyllum scalare Red Shoulder
  • Pterophyllum dumerilii

Breeding strains include variants like:

  • Pterophyllum scalare Black
  • Pterophyllum scalare Marbled
  • Pterophyllum scalare Gold
  • Pterophyllum scalare Silver
Pterophyllum scalare - Angelfish - Silver

Pterophyllum scalare – Angelfish – Silver


The habitat for Pterophyllum scalare is quite extensive. It includes parts of Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, Peru, Colombia and of course Brazil. They live in different river systems such as the Amazon, Rio Oyapock, Rio Essequibo, Rio Ucayali, Rio Solimaues.

Angelfish live in the slow-flowing waters where they dwell among the underwater plants, branches and shrubs. The larger rivers and streams are avoided. The water in the main rivers flows too fast for the Angelfish. The hunting fish species such as the Piranha and Payara armatus are also found in these larger rivers.


In the wild, the Angelfish is a true omnivore. They mainly feed on invertebrates, insect larvae and other underwater animals. In the aquarium, it is not a picky eater. They take flakes, granules, frozen food, dried food, etc. Make sure that they are fed alternately to keep them healthy. Frozen or live food is especially popular.

The Angelfish is a real cichlid. Smaller fish species are quickly mistaken for feed. For example, if you buy small Cardinal Tetras and the school quickly shrinks in numbers, chances are that your angelfish will occasionally eat one.

The Aquarium

Pterophyllum scalare needs an aquarium of at least 100 centimetres long and 50 centimetres high. Because it is a fish that feels better in a group, we recommend keeping a larger aquarium for that group from about 150 centimetres in length. A group of angelfish consists of at least 5 fish. But rather more.

The height of the water level is very important. Because this species becomes relatively high in relation to other fish species, a water height of 50 centimetres is actually the minimum for an adult Angelfish. Don’t forget that they can grow up to 35 centimetres high!

They love to float between Valisnerias and other stem plants. So you can easily set up the aquarium with Vallisneria, sword plants and, for example, tree roots between which the Pterophyllum scalare can reside.

Also make sure to create enough open swimming space, which they would really appreciate. Too much current in the aquarium is not appreciated.

The water may be mildly acidic to neutral with a pH of 6 to 7.5. The temperature can be between 24 and 30 degrees Celsius. Keep in mind that in nature the periods with very high or very low temperatures do not occur all year round. It is not always good to constantly keep the maximum or minimum temperatures.

Spawning Tank and Conditioning

To breed with angelfish you need a breeding couple to start with. Because you cannot tell males from females and not all fish form a couple, you have two choices to obtain a couple.

Go to an Angelfish breeder with a good reputation and buy a breeding pair there. Before taking over the pair, check if you are satisfied with the shape of the fish, the fins, the colour and whether they are eating well. Also, view the offspring of this couple.

Usually, this method is fairly expensive and there is no guarantee that the couple will also spawn at your home because the water values are somewhat different. However, there is a good chance that they will continue where they left off if you offer good water conditions.

Second method

The second method is a bit cheaper. Buy about 8 to 10 young Angelfish. Again, find Angelfish that have the correct shape and colour and pay close attention to health and that they eat well. Let the fry grow up. Eventually, a couple will form in this group.

This method may take a little longer. The Angelfish only reach sexual maturity after about 6 to 9 months.

The breeding tank only needs to contain about 100 litres of water, but it must be sufficiently high. Place the aquarium in a quiet place so that the angelfish are not disturbed too much when mating and caring for the eggs.

Place a flat stone in the aquarium at an acute angle. Place a second stone on the bottom so that the upright stone does not slip. Use a sponge filter for filtering. To give the female some shelter, you can place a sword plant in a pot and place it 10 centimetres from the stone. Keep the bottom bare, so do not use sand or gravel.

Feed the pair alternately with flakes, frozen and live food. The variety is important, but frozen foods such as white mosquito, black mosquito and tubifex should not be missing in the diet.

The Spawn

When the couple is ready to spawn, they automatically become interested in the flat stone. This is thoroughly cleaned in preparation for depositing the eggs. The egg-laying tube is now visible in the female. The stripes of the Pterophyllum scalare are now at their darkest and most beautiful.

The female slides her belly over the stone and deposits her eggs on the flat stone. The male follows her closely and fertilizes the newly laid eggs. A nest can initially consist of up to 500 eggs. However, many of these eggs will not be fertilized or mouldy. The parents fan and take care of the eggs in turn. They remove eggs that are mouldy.

Rearing the Fry

The Angelfish eggs hatch after about 2.5 days, depending on the temperature. The young fish are then still attached to the stone. Sometimes they are moved to another place by the parents. After about five days they can swim freely. You can feed them from then on.

In the initial phase, you can feed the fry with freshly hatched brine shrimp. Feed them a few times a day to help them grow well. After about five weeks you can add finely chrushed flakes.

As the fry grow up, the breeding tank will become too small for all the fish. Then move the fry to a rearing tank of at least 150 litres. Make sure you clean the aquarium regularly and siphon off the dirt. Young Angelfish are sensitive and do not tolerate polluted water. Therefore, also change very regularly and a lot. Under the right conditions, they are large enough to be sold after 8 to 12 weeks.

Some couples eat all eggs or fry the first few times. Normally I am an advocate of breeding with the help of the parents, but you can also remove the eggs after hatching and let them hatch by themselves. These two breeding reports provide more information about this method:


Pterophyllum scalare or Angelfish is a very interesting fish in terms of behaviour and can easily be kept in a community aquarium. It is often the eye-catcher in the aquarium around which the stock of fish is built. Provided you meet their wishes, they are a species that can live to be more than 10 years old and show you a beautiful spectacle from start to finish.



John de Lange

Copyright images

J. de Lange

Jason Show – Some Tips on Breeding Angelfish

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