We're No Angels

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Leopold's Angelfish. JJPhoto.dk

By Mary E. Sweeney

[edit] Creating a Community Around the Not-So-Angelic Angels

How the Angelfish came by its name is a mystery to me.

Yes, I guess I could see where their distinctive dorsal and anal fins could suggest wings, and indeed they are lovely to look at, but angelic? You must be joking.

Angelfish are among the best-known of the tropical aquarium fishes, about neck and neck with the ubiquitous Guppy. Even outsiders (non-hobbyists) can accurately name three fish: the Goldfish, the Guppy, and the Angelfish. Yes, the Angelfish has been in the hobby a long time and enjoys great PR — who doesn’t know about that Wanda fish? — but it doesn’t always have a sterling reputation as a good tankmate.

The common freshwater Angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), is a cichlid, and thus from a family of thugs no matter how you dice it. More often than not, the innocently bought little Angelfish brought home by a new fishkeeper with smallish aquarium ends up terrorizing, if not eating, its smaller, meeker tankmates.

A pair of Angelfish is a formidable presence in the aquarium. Soulkeeper/GNU

Angelfish can be kept in community arrangements, as is often demonstrated in print and on film, but there are considerations. Let’s have a look at how we can get away with keeping the domineering Angelfish with those fish that are merely mortal.

[edit] Safety in Numbers

One strategy when keeping testy species is to buy only one and surround the beast with schools of attractive but inoffensive ditherfish. Having a single specimen eliminates a lot of the territorial behavior that can make life hard on the tankmates of courting cichlids.

Some suitable tankmates that come to mind are danios, Silver Dollars, the larger tetras like Serpae Tetras and Silvertip Tetras, larger livebearers, Corydoras catfish, and plecos (though it’s best to keep an eye on the pleco, at times they develop a taste for the body slime of flat-sided fish like Angels and Discus).

Angelfish don’t generally squabble with groups of active schoolers and this combined with the viewing pleasure one gets with a school of almost any fish makes the whole enterprise appealing indeed. One note: a large angelfish can, and will, chase down and eat whole school of small Neon Tetras.

[edit] Safety in Space

One time-tested approach when keeping Angelfish — and indeed many species that can get cantankerous — is to use a larger aquarium than is strictly required just to maintain the fish. Lots of room makes is easier for everybody to stay out of everybody else’s way.

By the same token, bottom-dwellers like Corydoras, Brochis, and Aspidoras seldom run into trouble even with mated Angelfish pairs because they so rarely venture up into the Angelfish territory, the Angelfish being primarily interested in the middle and top levels of the tank.

When you’re looking for breeding pairs, having a reasonably spacious tank is recommended. A mated pair of Angelfish swimming in sync and exhibiting breeding behaviors is a wonderful sight. Start with six or eight young fish and let them choose their own mates when they mature. You'll likely end up with at least one pair, and, depending on the size of the aquarium, you may want to pass the others along to friends or back the local fish store.

Angelfish pairing off will warn away any curiosity-seekers if they should happen to be feeling possessive of a specially cleaned corner or in the company of heir chosen member the opposite sex.

Speaking of sex, when a mated pair of Angelfish is in active spawning mode, all bets are off. It is wiser and kinder to keep pairs by themselves if spawning the fish is your goal, or rather their goal by virtue of proximity. It is an affliction to keep non-participants in an aquarium with fish that guard eggs and fry, and no one can ever say that Angelfish are not attentive to their eggs and fry, right up to the second that they eat the whole spawn in futility.

[edit] Safety by Design

Many times the most successful aquariums have the fewest fish. The fish are secondary to the plants and the “look” of the whole aquascape. It’s not always necessary that the fish be the primary attraction of the aquarium. When there are less fish than expected and more plants, driftwood, and other visual barriers, there is a tremendous reduction in the amount of aggression that gets spread about.

Angelfish, like so many other smart fishes, like a place where they can get out of the public eye from time to time. This is nicely accomplished in the planted aquarium. When you’re planning planting for Angelfish, carry on with that tall, slim theme and use something like Corkscrew Vallisneria for its height with heavier planting on the sides and the back of the aquarium.

Leave open space in the center front so you can get a good look at the fish framed by the plants. The angels will generally manage to swim in between the tall plants without ever stirring a leaf. Use low grasses, like the Pygmy Chain Swordplant (Echinodorus tenellus) in the front and center of the tank for a very pleasing contrast. This may be the aquarium you want to place so it receives a little natural sunlight every day. Good plant growth requires good lighting and time. Add a nice piece of driftwood and you’ll have a tank that is as pleasing to the fish on the inside as it is to the viewers on the outside.

[edit] Substrates

The substrate should be at least 5 cm (2 in.) in depth if you are going to have good results with the plants. Make sure the substrate is well cleaned before you add it to the tank. It is far easier to clean the dust out of the gravel before it is installed in the new aquarium than after. It is so annoying to try to remove the gravel dust from a tank in the living room when the whole process could have been handled with much less fuss in the tub or the back garden.

Some aquatic plant enthusiasts use a layer of laterite below the gravel. This substance is a perfectly natural fertilizer and useful for the plants, but if you do use it, be careful not to stir the gravel too enthusiastically or you’ll have a filter full of laterite, which kind of defeats the purpose of placing it under the gravel to benefit the plant roots.

While CO2 fertilization nearly guarantees wonderful plant growth, many aquarists — including yours truly — have maintained and enjoyed perfectly lovely aquaria without deliberately adding CO2 or much else other than fish food. Returning to the subject of tall and slim again:

Angelfish are among the few fishes that are taller than they are long. This makes the height of a so-called tall “show tank” beneficial when keeping angelfish. The show varieties that have been bred for extended finnage will certainly develop maximal fin length in a tall tank, but any Angelfish is improved by being kept in a tall aquarium. One wouldn’t realize this until given the opportunity to see siblings reared under both conditions. There is a significant improvement in fin shape and length in the fish that have been reared in deeper water.

[edit] Choice Foods

Angelfish are generally hearty eaters that will accept a wide variety of the usual aquarium foods. Live foods, of course, are favorites, and if you are thinking of breeding these fish, live foods are recommended at the very least during the conditioning phase two or three months before maturity, which is usually in the fall of their first year. Enriched adult brine shrimp, bloodworms, and white worms will all be accepted greedilly. It is not unusual, however, for Angelfish to live out full and perfectly healthy lives on flake foods.

[edit] Which Variety?

It’s nearly impossible to name all the varieties of Angelfish on the market today. There are pearlscales, diamonds, koi, black lace, grey ghosts and just about any other descriptive term one can imagine. The wild-type Scalare is a silver fish with four black vertical stripes (seven in youth) on the body. A red eye is very desirable, but not so easy to find anymore.

Especially attractive is a black veil-finned angelfish with a red eye.... ah, so many fish, so little time. Some people think that the commercial Angelfish have been produced by crossing different species of wild Angelfish, and though this is certainly possible, there is no remedy needed or available and we must simply accept and enjoy the fish that we have access to in the present-day hobby. For the “purists,” there are still wild-type Angelfish available in the shops from time to time or by special request.

If you are bent on keeping the coveted Altum Angelfish (Pterophylum altum), know that this large, dramatic species demands expert husbandry and a spacious, tall aquarium of its own.

Also a rarity, Leopold's Angelfish (P. leopoldi) is the smallest known of the genus and is sometimes known as the Dwarf, Long-nosed, Roman-nosed, or Teardrop Angelfish. It is much like P. scalare but a somewhat less aggressive and best kept in its own species tank.

[edit] Water Conditions

Angelfish come from an environment where the water is very soft and acid, however our domestic strains have adapted to a wide range of water types after having been bred in captivity for decades. There are very few tap water conditions that Angelfish will not thrive in (as long as these conditions do not include total neglect.)

Angelfish do quite well in mid-range temperatures. Since they are cold-blooded animals, they will live longer at temperatures in the lower range of the acceptable. One disadvantage, however, is that Angelfish are susceptible to White Spot if they are chilled. The best solution to this is to increase the temperature and use a patent medicine to control the parasite.

[edit] Today’s Top Tip

The finnage of young Angelfish are permanently damaged if they are reared or held in water with high nitrogen content (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate). The dorsal fin looks like it was cut off at an angle with a pair of scissors when the fish has been kept in toxic water. This will not improve even when they continue to grow in your good water quality, so that’s a little thing to look out for when shopping for Angelfish.

Image credit: JJ
Text credit: MES
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