In the world of the tropical fish hobby, it is safe to assume that most aquarists have kept the common angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare) in one form or another. Since the introduction of angels to the American public in the early 1900s, numerous color forms have been made available to the wholesaler, retailer and consumer due to the hard work and painstaking care of breeders around the world. Combining the many available color and pattern strains with the traits of standard, veiltail or long veiltail finnage has added to the many lovely variations of the common angel.
Over the years, as breeders became increasingly efficient at breeding and raising angels, P. scalare became, well, almost commonplace. With so much emphasis paid to P. scalare, the remaining two members of the genus Pterophyllum have not received the same attention as their well-known cousin.
The long-nosed angel, Pterophyllum dumerilli, is definitely the least seen of the three angel species. These cichlid fish are rarely imported and, unfortunately, very little information has been gathered on their care and breeding habits or water chemistry requirements. The fish is characterized by silver and black bands, typical of all the wild examples of the genus, but sports a dark spot found at the base of the dorsal fin and a longer nose than the other two species. P. dumerilli has not been spawned in captivity.
Still considered a rarity, Pterophyllum altum, known as either the deep angel or altum angel, is imported somewhat more frequently than P. dumerilli. To the true angel fancier, this greater availability is very fortunate, because the altum is easily the most beautiful of the three species.
Admittedly, the altum will be hard to find in your local pet shop. Should you happen to come across some and decide that you would like to set up an aquarium for them, it is important that you learn about the fish and its requirements (as you should all fish). The conditions needed for the altum angel to thrive are much different than for any aquarium-raised or wild P. scalare. If you are willing to meet the requirements of the altum, however, the challenge can be very rewarding.
In 1903, Pellegrin first described P. altum as a distinct species, and to date it has been found only in the waters of the Rio Orinoco in Venezuela. P. altum differs physiologically from P. scalare in a number of ways — most obiously, the higher count of soft dorsal and anal fin rays. In addition, its long dorsal and anal fins, more vertical form and strongly concaved forehead area give it an unmistakably regal appearance. P. altum has very rarely been spawned in captivity. As a result, all specimens that you chance to see in retailers’ aquariums have been imported.
Although wild P. altum and P. scalare sometimes share the trait of having their dorsums flecked with reddish-black dots, only the altum will have a second dark head bar slightly indicated, running down between the dark bar passing though the eye and the bar starting at the base of the first dorsal spines. The unpaired fins of the altum do not have the light markings that P. scalare exhibits on its unpaired fins. The mouth parts of P. altum are notably extended away from the front of the head, much more than P. scalare. You will also notice that altums have a curious habit of “yawning.” If you have a chance to watch this happen, you will see that when fully opened, their mouths are much larger than they actually appear when closed.