One for the Angels...

Is there a more iconic aquarium fish than the Angelfish, genus Pteroyphyllum?

(Image by mendel, released under CC BY-SA 1.0)

Wait, don't answer that! Well, seriously, there is hardly a more majestic, regal aquarium fish- one which truly lives up to its name. We have a lot of customers who are duly obsessed with this fantastic fish, and other members of the genus. Today, we're going to take that botanical-flavored look at one of the hobby's most popular families of fishes. As in our previous looks at other fishes, we're absolutely not going to do the usual run down on their care, selection and, no, no! 

(Pterophyllum altum. Released under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. Taken by Jeff Kubina)

Instead, let's look at how we can use botanicals to replicate their unique wild habitats and the physical conditions from which they hail.

I'll- gulp- look at them more or less collectively here...I mean, three species isn't too bad to "generalize" with, right? Okay, I know that there are some significant differences in keeping say, domesticated P. scalare than wild P. altum or P. leopoldi...It's no mystery that the Angels come from the Amazon/Orinoco basin and other waters  in tropical South America. 

And of course, our love for the endemic fishes of this region gives us a bit of experience when it comes to setting up the physical parameters that these fishes tend to favor (mainly talking about pH here- 6.0-7.0 being the generally accepted range, and hardness, which ideally is 1DkH or lower...but you knew that already). Yes, they are found in nature in much lower pH ranges, but for our purposes, let's just say "soft, acid water" works. Sure, we could probably devote a whole piece to environmental conditions and water quality as it relates to these fish, but you get the idea...

And of course, there are lots of ways to get there...starting with RO/DI source water and enhancing with materials like leaves, peat, etc to achieve blackwater, humic-susbtance-rich conditions. For a fascinating look at the benefits of humic substances and how to incorporate them into your aquatic environment, be sure to check out the recent guest blog we ran in "The Tint" on the topic by Vince Dollar.

Since we're talking about tank setup, let's literally start on the bottom here...In my opinion, you'd want to start off with a fine, relatively inert substrate materials...My "go-to" is CaribSea "Torpedo Beach" sand. I've used it for years in a variety of setups, including wild Angelfish tanks, and it's proven to be both utilitarian and aesthetically "neutral"- a perfect "base material" to which you could add stuff like "Fundo Tropical" or materials such as Coco Curls, Banana Stem Pieces, "Lampada Pods", etc. etc to simulate the "matrix" of botanical materials often associated with the river environments from which these fishes hail. You can even incorporate twigs and broken pieces of driftwood as well. And of course, leaves!

First off, it's well known that Angelfishes don't like strong water movement, and can easily become stressed out in a high-flow environment. In fact, the fishes seem to be ecologically adapted for flitting in and out of tight spaces, like dangling tree roots, branches, and aquatic plants. They feel most at home when cruising (notice I didn't say "flitting"- 'cause that's what Tetras do!) in and out of these vertical tangles of material, so it goes without saying that we need to 'scape with some vertical features as the predominant elements. 

They live in a "vertical-favored" environment, which is evident in their compressed morphology, isn't it? This tips you off that a tall tank is a rational necessity when keeping these 20" (approx 50cm) and up world nicely. This, of course, means that you have to think a bit differently when planning a tank for these guys, right?

From a botanical perspective, it makes sense to orient your wood pieces in a more "vertical" fashion, to create those little pockets that these guys seem to favor. This is easy to do, but of course, it means that you'll either need bigger pieces, or pieces that have longer branches, so when you orient them "vertical" you'll derive a greater benefit from them! Our preferred wood for this type of orientation is the graceful and (mercifully) relatively abundant/inexpensive Manzanita, which lends itself very well to this type of setup!

And of course, you'd want to incorporate some other botanicals, reminiscent of what you'd find in the wild habitats of these unique fishes. Our suggestion would agin be to incorporate materials that can be oriented in a vertical position, such as the Dried Banana Stems, which may be intertwined and incorporated into a "matrix" of other wood  pieces. 

Of course, it goes without saying that there are lots of great aquatic plants to incorporate in an Angelfish setup...We'll leave that to you to sort out, as there is a ton of information out there on this topic!

To further simulate this tangle of material in which these fishes are often found, you could even consider incorporating some submerged roots of terrestrial plants, such as Philodendron, Pothos, bamboo, etc. These plants can be secured to the sides of the aquarium, where they will take root and grow, giving you a unique "topside" display as well as providing the benefit of the tangled roots in the water. An old trick that's been used many times- and just so happens to work perfectly with the aesthetics we're trying to create!

I would almost always want to incorporate some random pieces of palm-derived botanicals in a South American-flavored aquarium, and this one is no exception. The relatively sluggish waters from which Angels come from often have an abundance of vegetation falling into the water, palms amongst them. Materials such as "Rio Passaro" and "Rio Fruta" are palm products, and when scattered here and there amongst the substrate, add an extra note of realism, IMHO.

And of course, you could easily incorporate palm fronds themselves, as our friend Tai Strietman has done so wonderfully in his Amazonian aquariums!

Of course, we've only scratched the surface here, and there are tons more materials and ideas you could incorporate. However, I think you get the idea that botanical-style blackwater aquariums are near-perfect for creating realistic, natural-looking displays for the Pterophyllum. Obviously, breeding setups demand different sort of physical characteristics, but, suffice it to say, if your goal is to create a natural-themed aquarium display habitat for these fantastic fishes, using aquatic botanicals in conjunction with other readily-available natural materials is certainly a great way to go.

As with many fishes, the natural habitats where Angels come from are threatened, and creating beautiful aquarium displays featuring not only the incredible fish, but highlighting the biopic niches that they inhabit, will provide a greater appreciation for hobbyists and causal observers alike for these precious natural treasures.

And greater appreciation often leads to greater efforts to preserve and protect both the fishes and the environments for future generations to enjoy.

Just one of the many benefits you'll derive when you build "one for the Angels..."

Until next time- stay inspired by nature. Stay creative in your interpretation. Stay dedicated. 

And stay wet!

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

October 14, 2016

You asked for it, buddy! :)

Brian Byers
Brian Byers

October 14, 2016


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