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Freshwater Angelfish: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

In the tranquil waterways of South America thrives a distinctive and strikingly beautiful species – the freshwater angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare). This species, characterized by its unique shape and vibrant patterns, has become extremely popular with aquatic enthusiasts worldwide.

It’s not just an eye-catching aquarium favorite but also an intriguing creature in its natural habitat, with behaviors and characteristics that contribute to the richness of the ecosystems they inhabit.

This article delves into the fascinating world of freshwater angelfish, exploring their biology, behavior, and the challenges they face in the wild.

The Freshwater Angelfish at a Glance


Superclass:Osteichthyes (Bony fish)
Species:P. scalare

Essential Information

Average Size:6 inches (15 cm) in length, and 8 inches (20 cm) in height.
Average Weight:Not typically measured due to slender body and aquatic lifestyle.
Average Lifespan:Up to 10-12 years in the wild
Geographical Range:Amazon River Basin in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil
Conservation Status:Not evaluated by the IUCN, but facing pressures from habitat loss and pet trade.

Species and Subspecies

While ‘freshwater angelfish’ typically refers to Pterophyllum scalare, the Pterophyllum genus actually contains three recognized species: Pterophyllum scalare, Pterophyllum altum, and Pterophyllum leopoldi.

Pterophyllum scalare, the species we’re focusing on, is the most common and widely known. It is characterized by its distinctive triangular shape and a broad range of color patterns.

Pterophyllum altum, or the Altum Angelfish, is the largest species and has a more elongated body shape. They are less common in the aquarium trade due to their need for larger tanks and specific water conditions.

Pterophyllum leopoldi, the smallest species, is often referred to as the “dwarf angelfish.” It features a more rounded shape and a distinctively different fin structure compared to its counterparts.

Angelfish - freshwater


Freshwater angelfish are remarkable for their unique, laterally compressed bodies and large, triangular dorsal and anal fins, which give them an almost angelic appearance. On average, they reach a size of up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length and up to 8 inches (20 cm) in height in their natural environment.

They come in a variety of colors and patterns, ranging from silver and black to gold, marbled, or even striped. The placement of dark stripes across their bodies serves as camouflage and a mechanism to confuse predators.

Sexual dimorphism is not highly pronounced in angelfish. Males and females look quite similar, and it can be challenging to distinguish them outside of the breeding period. During spawning, females develop a noticeable breeding tube (a small, protruding organ for laying eggs), which is less visible in males.

Habitat and Distribution

Freshwater angelfish originate from the Amazon River Basin in South America, inhabiting slow-moving or still waters in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil.

They can be found in a variety of habitats including swamps, flooded areas, and river basins, with a preference for areas with dense vegetation.

This aquatic foliage not only provides them with cover from predators but also offers ideal spots for laying their eggs. The warm, acidic conditions of these waters are also mimicked in aquariums to provide the best environment for their survival.

Angelfish closeup


Freshwater angelfish are diurnal creatures, active during the day and resting at night. They are highly territorial and can display aggressive behaviors, especially during spawning periods. In their natural habitat, they establish and protect their territories against intruders, and the same behavior can be observed in an aquarium environment.

Angelfish are generally solitary but form monogamous pairs during the breeding season. These pairs will work together to protect their eggs and young, displaying a high level of parental care unusual for many species of fish.

Communication in angelfish is primarily visual, using body language and color changes to signal different states of mind, like stress, readiness to mate, or defending territory.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Freshwater angelfish are omnivores, but their diet leans more towards carnivorous. They feed on a wide variety of foods, including small crustaceans, insect larvae, small fish, and plant matter. In an aquarium setting, they’re usually fed a diet of flake foods, brine shrimp, bloodworms, and plant-based foods.

Their hunting behavior is largely ambush-based. Angelfish use their unique body shape and coloration to blend into their surroundings, lying in wait for unsuspecting prey to swim by before launching a quick attack.


As juveniles, freshwater angelfish face threats from a variety of larger fish species, birds, and other aquatic predators. Their striped body pattern serves as an effective camouflage, breaking up their body outline and making them less visible to predators.

As adults, their large size and aggressive behavior deter many potential predators. However, they remain susceptible to large predatory fish and birds.

Their slow movement can also make them an easy target for human poachers in regions where they’re considered a delicacy or are caught for the aquarium trade.

Angelfish portrait

Reproduction and Life Cycle

The breeding habits of freshwater angelfish are fascinating. During the breeding season, which can occur several times a year under the right conditions, males and females form monogamous pairs.

The pair will select a smooth vertical surface, like a rock or leaf, upon which to lay their eggs. The female lays the eggs in neat rows, after which the male fertilizes them.

There is no specific gestation period as angelfish lay eggs rather than giving live birth. The eggs will typically hatch within 2-3 days, depending on the water temperature.

The number of offspring can vary widely but is typically between 100-1000 in a single spawning event. After the eggs hatch, both parents play an active role in caring for the young, defending the territory from potential predators and fanning the eggs to ensure they receive enough oxygen.

Conservation and Threats

Freshwater angelfish are not currently listed as threatened or endangered by any major international conservation organization. However, habitat loss due to deforestation and water pollution represents significant threats to their populations in the wild.

In some regions, they are also at risk due to overfishing for the aquarium trade. Captive breeding programs have been successful and are a primary source for the aquarium trade, helping to reduce the pressure on wild populations.

Efforts to conserve angelfish populations largely focus on maintaining and protecting their natural habitats, enforcing sustainable fishing practices, and educating the public about the importance of these beautiful creatures to the health of freshwater ecosystems.

Fun Facts

  1. The name “angelfish” is due to their angelic appearance when seen from the side, resembling an angel’s wings.
  2. Angelfish are cichlids, a family of fish known for their intelligence and complex behaviors.
  3. These fish are known for their aggressive and territorial behavior during spawning, showing a different side to their angelic appearance.
  4. Despite being popular in the aquarium trade, in the wild angelfish prefer dimly lit areas with dense vegetation.
  5. Angelfish are able to change their color based on their mood, health, or in response to threats.

Frequently Asked Questions

How big can freshwater angelfish get?

In the wild, freshwater angelfish can grow up to 15 inches tall and 6 inches long. In captivity, they usually reach around 10 inches in height due to the constraints of aquarium size.

How long can freshwater angelfish live?

With proper care, freshwater angelfish can live for up to 10-12 years in captivity.

Are freshwater angelfish aggressive?

Generally, angelfish are peaceful, but they can become territorial, especially during breeding periods. It’s important to provide enough space in the tank if keeping multiple angelfish together.

What do freshwater angelfish eat?

Freshwater angelfish are omnivorous. In the wild, they eat a varied diet of small crustaceans, plant matter, and even smaller fish. In an aquarium setting, they will eat flake food, live and frozen foods, and plant-based foods.

Can freshwater angelfish live with other fish?

Yes, but tank mates should be chosen with care. Avoid keeping them with fish that are small enough for angelfish to swallow or with species that are known to nip fins, as angelfish have long, flowing fins. Also, due to their size, they require a larger tank than most tropical fish.

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