Wild Angelfish Species

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The Pterophyllum genus is very wide ranging and extremely diverse in appearance. This diversity has caused some speculation when it comes to identification of many wild collections. There are currently three species of Pterophyllum recognized. They are Pterophyllum scalare, Pterophyllum altum and Pterophyllum leopoldi.

Naming Synonyms for Wild Pterophyllum Species The first name is the recognized species name. The synonyms are prior names that were proven incorrect and changed to the current name.

  • Pterophyllum scalare - synonyms are Pterophyllum eimekei
  • Plataxoides dumerilii, Pterophyllum dumerilii, Zeus scalaris
  • Pterophyllum leopoldi - synonyms are Plataxoides leopold

Preserved angelfish image

Preserved specimen of Pterophyllum scalare from Dr. Kullander study.

P scalare angelfish image

Pterophyllum scalare showing typical profile

P scalare angelfish image

Pterophyllum scalare that exhibits a brownish hue. Fish similar to these are often sold as Peruvian Altums, in error.

scalare angelfish image

Pterophyllum sp. that was sold as Pterophyllum leopoldi. We suspect it is an unnamed species. Kullander suggests that similar fish are a Peruvian form of scalare. It has a lower lateral line scale count than Pterophyllum scalare, longer curving ventral fins and no distinctive predorsal notch.

P scalare angelfish image

Same as prior photo. This Peruvian form of Pterophyllum is very attractive.




P scalare angelfish image

These were imported as a Peruvian altum, but are positively Pterophyllum scalare. Altums have much wider, brownish bars, and more of them. Notice the strongly notched predorsal contour which differs from the wild in the previous photo.


P scalare angelfish image

Pterophyllum scalare that was likely collected in Peru.






P scalare angelfish image

A 5 month old Pterophyllum altum. Notice the wider bars. A key identifier is the white space between the brownish bars. This white space is narrower than the bars. The bars are also browner and the intermediate bars are more prominent than in other angelfish species. This is especially noticeable in the 2nd photo, showing an older fish. The strongly notched predorsal contour will become more pronounced as the fish ages.

P scalare angelfish image

This photo is showing an older altum. The strongly notched predorsal contour will become more pronounced as the fish ages.




We have observed many differences from the classification literature on fish that are labeled as a particular species. For instance, we've had fish labeled as Pterophyllum scalare with both notched predorsal contours and others with straight predorsal contours. The classification literature says that scalare have strongly notched predorsal contours, so what are these fish with the straight contours? They are definitely not Pterophyllum altum, and do not fit the characteristics of Pterophyllum leopoldi either. Also, where's the notched contours on our domestic scalare (as everyone calls them)? Some have it, most don't. Unlike Pterophyllum scalare and Pterophyllum altum, Pterophyllum leopoldi has a straight predorsal contour. There are at least two distinctively different wild angelfish with this straight contour. One appears to be an unidentified species, quite different from Pterophyllum leopoldi descriptions. We've seen both imported under the name Pterophyllum leopoldi, with the true Pterophyllum leopoldi most commonly imported under the incorrect name, Pterophyllum dumerilii. As a side note, Pterophyllum dumerilii does not exist. It is not a valid species name. Incorrect names from importers are common, therefore passing on this information when naming wild angelfish types, is likely to be incorrect.

Taking all this into account, our opinion is that there is at least one and probably more wild angelfish species yet to be classified, and at least two and probably more wild angelfish species that make up our domestic strains. Therefore, we think that those who classify our domestics as Pterophyllum scalare are most likely making assumptions that may not be correct.

Pterophyllum systematics is currently being studied and there is reason to believe that there will be some adjustments to the species level nomenclature in the near future.

Domestic Angelfish Origins: Many people assume that Pterophyllum scalare is the only species that makes up our domestic varieties. There is considerable reason to believe that this is not the case. There is a high probability of there being at least a couple species of angelfish, yet to be classified and that these likely make up a significant percentage of the background of our domestic angelfish . We frequently import wild angelfish and we have noticed some significant physical differences on fish that are supposedly Pterophyllum scalare. Some have larger scales (lower scale counts along the lateral line). Others have markedly different predorsal profiles compared to the classification literature describing Pterophyllum scalare. Some have great variation in fin shape and length, such as a strongly curving pelvic fins on one that is commonly labeled as Pterophyllum leopoldi by the exporters. We are quite certain they are incorrectly named. Kullander suggests these are Peruvian forms of scalare). Radical physical differences also suggest that some of these fish may indeed be an unidentified species.

Our domestic strains are the result of many decades of selective breeding. For the most part, the original crosses of wild angelfish were unrecorded and those that were tracked, were most certainly done by people who didn't know the difference between the angelfish species. This makes the origins of our domestic angelfish totally unclear. Our domestic strains are most likely a collection of genes resulting from more than one species of wild angelfish combined with the selection of mutations in domesticated lines over the last 60 or more years. All this results in creating a domestic angelfish that is a true hybrid with little more than a superficial resemblance to wild Pterophyllum species. It is strictly a man-made ornamental fish that is not meant to be re-introduced to the wild. It is simply foolish to say they represent any species of wild angelfish.

Collections of wild angelfish have brought forth the theory that all or some wild types (including Pterophyllum altum) are prone to interbreeding in the wild. This is not very likely, but its is currently being studied by a few scientists. There is the possibility that flooding of South American fish wholesale operations, released some angelfish into waters they are not normally found in. This may have resulted in some hybridization. Hopefully, some new evidence will clear this up. Regardless of what occurs in the wild, interbreeding of Pterophyllum species in captivity was, and is a definite probability.

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