Angel Breeding -- Water Conditions

By C. Moormann

Some suggestions on breeding angels.

Assorted Angels (Pterophyllum scalare)
Click to Enlarge

Pic 2
Angel Breeding -- Water Conditions
    Here is a little article that will hopefully be helpful to someone who has tried breeding angels and failed. You can see some of our angels on YouTube at link(s)

I recently had an on-line discussion about water quality issues and angels and I thought I would write up the results here. I have actually spent a lot of time thinking about all this in the past and have started writing a book on large-scale production of ornamental fish -- this will be a chapter in the book. It seems that a lot of things work at a low level but when scaled up -- nightmares develop -- and I wanted to pass along some tips to potential breeders. A receipe that works for one guy does not work for another. Have you ever wondered why most cichlids can breed in a community tank and the parents can raise up a cloud of fry that you can siphon out and work with -- but no one does this with angels. Follow along here and I have an answer and a procedure you can try. The calcium level is the main issue in angels and oscars -- with most of them dying if put in hard water before reaching a certain size. This is an unexplained mystery but be assured that I can continue to muddy the water with more unexplained mysteries. Ten years ago I was selling over 20,000 angels a year (mostly to wholesalers -- one of which was supplying Walmarts west of the Mississippi. To get there with my water supply forced me to do some studying and experimentation. My water here comes from an underground aquifer from a canyon 5 miles west of me that has had mining in the past and who knows what is in the water but it sometimes comes in at 990 ppm and is never very low -- always above 550 ppm. First it is apparant that angels will not breed in hard water -- but why? -- and when they do lay eggs why do they not hatch?? My research led me to the following theory: eggs and sperm each have a different 'protein coating' on them that when the two proteins/enzymes combine it provides the stimulus to put the sperm through the chorion and then into the embryo (kind of like part A and part B of epoxy glue). Consider this: no picture of sperm I have ever seen has a visible point/teeth/edge to puncture it's way into the egg -- the acid enzyme hole entry seems indicated. Give me another method please -- the sperm does not even have a mouth. A corellary to the theory is that one or both of the two 'coatings' is easily dissolved/destroyed/corroded/encrusted by improper water conditions -- consider silicone glue which has been exposed to air/moisture and gets a 'skin' on it -- and is no longer the sticky glue we need. I worked in medical engineering for many years and all of our RO systems had to be made of plastic plumbing and valves or the RO water would pull metal out of the pipes and into the water. Something similar happens with angel eggs and they will not hatch when the breeders are in pure/RO water. Study the documents that come with Marc Weis's RO-Vital. He has apparently figured out the receipe of proper salts/minerals/electrolytes but it is a proprietary secret like the Coke formula. I used the stuff and was able to easily breed neons (raising them up is a different story) and I suspect that following his RO receipe angels would be easy to breed. So if you are following along we should agree that a certain 'weight' or 'electrolyte' ppm at the proper level to avoid dissolving or corroding one or both of the coatings is indicated. Let's call this portion of the calcium/electrolyte issue 'coatings 1.0'. I had a fellow fish breeder in Idaho that had well water that would give 95% hatch rates while my best rates were 50% or lower with a lot of water mixing and testing -- damn his good luck! I am guessing that optimal was around 100 ppm and above that the yield decreases rapidly -- what is in the water is important but more about that later. His pairs could still not raise up the fry and he hatched them artificially in his good water. I started out with 25 pairs set up with pvc tubes and mixed water in the tanks and whenever I saw eggs I would pull out the tube and set it up in a gallon jar with air and methylene blue -- after a few days they hatched or did not. Here is where I made the coatings 1.0 discovery. My daughter would come down and help me and the process I developed was to take the tubes after shaking off the wrigglers and put the used tubes in a bucket of bleach/water to clean up the dead eggs and fungus to make the tubes ready for the next time. If none of the eggs hatched -- the tube of infertile eggs would also end up in the bucket. When I pulled a tube with eggs from a breeding pair and set up the bottle to hatch the eggs, my daughter would get a clean tube from the bucket to replace the tube so the pair would have a clean tube in the tank for their next spawn. One day she said 'Daddy there are eggs on this tube' -- and sure enough there were. Now how could that be? All of the other tubes in the bucket were clean and there was no fungus on the tube with the eggs. My guess is that the bleach/water solution was at a strength that dissolved the loose stuff but was below the strength to take on the embryo cell wall. On research of this on the internet I found that all eggs 'autoactivate' in seconds to minutes with or without the effect of the sperm and the embryo cell wall hardens -- and shrinks a little and forms a hard shell. To clarify using my coatings theory 1.0 -- if the sperm and eggs have the proper set of coatings and the sperm enters -- the egg is fertilized -- and the egg activates with the inner enbryo shell shrinking and hardening. The outer shell or chorion is still there and is now 'dead' and will develop some fungus even with the inner embryo alive and fertile. The problem here is that the inner embryo will 'autoactivate' and harden/shrink even when it has not been fertilized -- and this happens only seconds after the egg is laid. The 'autoactivated' eggs are alive but not fertile and will last a few days. Note that this could account for the slight difference in colors of some cichlid eggs. The internet has changed since then and I looked but could not find a link to the article I read once where a Japanese biologist got the Nobel prize I think for developing a solution to mimick the properties of the females egg cavity (peritonial cavity) . He developed it using medaka fish and the solution was named after him and has been used for years in in-vitro fertilization. It still does not extend the time to autoactivation by more than a few seconds but it is helpful. Only a few species of urchins has a time to autoactivation more than a few seconds. This autoactivation is why the male must quickly follow the female and fertilize the eggs immediately -- it probably insures that the chosen male has the only chance. So my Idaho friend's water held off autoactivation longer or left the coatings intact for proper chemical penetration of the chorion -- take your pick. A further benefit for my Idaho friend was that with an almost perfect hatch, he was not fighting the problem of the 50% infertile eggs polluting the water. A further example of the effect of water on the coatings can be related by asking you first: have you ever had angels raise up their fry?? -- or do you pull the eggs and take over?? I have personally had only one spawn where the parents were able to raise them up to a cloud of fry -- and I have had one fish friend that did it 2 or 3 times. Why is this?? Most other cichlids can raise them up easily into a cloud of fry -- with the possible exception of Discus. A study of the differences between most cichlid spawnings and the conditions of the successful cloud spawns of my experience gave me coating theory 2.0. Angels and discus lay eggs on vertical surfaces rather than on rocks or caves like other cichlids and this in combination with the differences in parental brooding is the main clue. Most cichlids make new/clean pits every day and move the wrigglers from pit to pit until they are swimming. In a bare tank a corner will do and most people expect the angels to do this and accuse the angels of stupidity/incompetence when they probably just eat the wrigglers after they hatch off the vertical surface. My single success showed me what actually happens and that accusing the angels of cannibalism/skittishness is all vicious slander. The angels take the hatched wrigglers away from the fungused eggs and in the case of hatched eggs -- it is the shell or chorion that is fungused. They don't put them into a pit as other cichlids do but try to spit them onto a leaf or something somewhat vertical near the surface. When they don't stick and just fall to the bottom the parents treat them like damaged goods. Theory 2.0 says that there is a sticky coating on the heads of the fry that in optimal conditions keeps them sticking on the post when they swim into the post head-first and allows re-sticking in a new area by the parents. Stickyness is there in the wild and in my sucessfull experiences and it has to do with the tank setup. My friend Jay had a 300 gallon tank set up for plants with a CO2 system and drastic lighting with few fish and my success was in a system with 24 hour lighting in tanks choked with plants. My theory is that the plants with high lighting and CO2 were like race horses waiting for the gate to open and as any nitrates or phosphates formed -- they were immediately taken up by the plants and converted to plant growth. Read this as super-low levels of nitrates and phosphates. The 'ate' suffix in phosphate and nitrate refers to the ionization in the water that makes the chemicals a really mild acid that either skins over the sticky coating or dissolves it making the wrigglers vertically challenged. The mild acid of dissolved CO2 somehow does not count as the fish expect it and have evolved in the 'black' water of the amazon where 'black' means that it is not green due to the absence of fertilizers -- meaning phosphates and nitrates. When the parents cannot make vertical nesting work they give up on the little defectives -- and eat them. You can verify this for yourself by making sure that your hatching bottle has pure RO water in it and you will notice that when the fry start their little quick bursts of swimming they will mostly stick to the glass rather than end up back on the bottom. The problem here for most people will be that they think in terms of soft water from the tap which can have nitrates and phosphates in it. If the water is produced by a good RO unit -- no phosphates and nitrates will be in the resulting water. So to summarize coatings 2.0 -- the proper water conditions match the black water of the Amazon basin and there is nothing there to dissolve or coat the sticky glue on the heads of the fry and they are able to stick themselves up high or their parents can. I should say here that the sticky head issue is only relevent to having the pair able to raise up a cloud of fry. If you are hatching the eggs yourself it may not matter if they have sticky heads -- the next water quality issue is the presence of ammonia. To put it into the perspective of the Amazon basin -- there is apparantly some initial hardness to the water at the time of the egg laying -- perhaps the initial water has some lime/sediments kind of like the way the first few minutes of rain can have stuff in it but after it rains a while the rain is more pure and clean. The fish will breed in the initial slightly mineralized water of coatings 1.0 (remember the eggs will not hatch if laid in pure RO) but the continuation of the rain will produce the pure 'black water' conditions of coatings 2.0 by the time the eggs hatch. A distinction in the water quality of coatings 2.0 is that the absence of nitrates and phosphates only affects the stickyness of the fry. My friend in Idaho could produce perfectly good yields by doing water changes to keep the ammonia levels way down. Once you are past the fertilization and hatching, the most important issue is the ammonia level. The fry are expecting very low levels as they would have in the Amazon basic rainwater runnoff. Note here that if you are a breeder having trouble raising up the fry with apparantly good filters in even mildly hard water -- try pure RO for the fry anytime after fertilization. They will live as long as it is good RO and you resist the urge to mix. Apparantly the level of ammonia is really low in RO or as stated below -- there is some reason to believe the ammonia is less toxic in RO. I have killed many South American cichlid fry before learning this lesson. Please note that in the cascading water system mentioned below -- the water is continually replaced by non-ammonia water so if you have that perfect water like my Idaho friend you can make it on very frequent water changes. Otherwise use pure RO and as I said before -- no mixing. Part of the on-line discussion that got me to write this page had to do with when you could put pansies like angels and oscars into hard water. The discussion started with Electric Blue Jack Dempseys and how perfect they look until I put them into hard water and then they start having what appear to be genetic defects and unexplained deaths but I am suspecting some weird affect of the water. Just as my Idaho freind had some pretty magic water I have a EBJD friend in NY and a local friend in Salem that appear not to have the same issues I have. More research on my part is needed here but in any case I don't recommend putting the fry into non-RO water until their little wings are fairly high. Now for another instance of water magic. Go into your bathroom and check out the water tap for corrosion. In the good old days when there was a separate tap for cold and hot -- only the hot tap was corroded. When my shower or bath valves start leaking it is invariably the hot water tap/seal that is corroded. If you dig into the plumbing you will find hardening of the arteries only on the hot side. Why is this?? If you take a glass of room temperature water and dissolve salt or sugar in the glass until no more dissolves, then pour only the water into another glass and put it in the refrigerator it will have some of the salt or sugar precipitate out of solution since at cooler temperature less can be in solution. Following that analogy consider that all of the calcium carbonate in our water was dissolved by going through lime/etc. before reaching our tap. But the temperature of the water was almost certainly cooler before reaching your much warmer house and the hot water is even warmer and should be precipitating nothing -- it should dissolve some lime. What is happening here? The answer will be in the next segment. The use of Methylene blue raises another neat mystery. My theory on how it works is that living things in water have a complicated mucous coating that is a barrier to bacteria/viruses/etc. When the eggs die the mucous barrier stops and the slightly toxic dye penetrates and prevents fungus while the live eggs are unaffected since their mucous layer is intact. The light wave screening ability seems unlikely otherwise we could just hatch them in the dark. The dye is useful in easily seeing the fertilization yield. I don't usually use methylene blue and I have found a better way. Back in the days of my angel production I finally got tired of mixing and testing water and took my 25 pairs and some others and set them up in a friend's basement in Murray Utah where his water was much better for fertilization. The eggs usually fertilized well and hatched -- all usually came up to free-swimmers but died in his set up since he did not use RO and apparantly his tap water was from a well with ammonia. He had no water softener. I took them over to my ammonia-free hard water and at least I had wrigglers for my experiments. He would pull the eggs and set them up in a jar with the dye and an airline and I would come by every couple of days and pay him $10 for a batch of wrigglers -- usually still on the post. He was getting $300 a month from me but I no longer had to mix water and I figure I had over 80,000 volunteers a year for my experiments. I finally came up with a method using tap water and it would appear that with the wrigglers being past the coatings issues the next chemical affecting them is ammonia. All ammonia test kits I have seen read zero when there is still enough to kill angel fry. The plant jungle method above works or distilled or RO water changes but I set up a drip system with hot water dripping into small tanks that overflowed cascade-style to the drain. They were configurable to allow the eggs or wrigglers in the newest water with larger and larger fish downstream with of course none of the wrigglers in water downstream of the free-swimming fish fed with baby brine. There were charged sponge filters and about 100 gallons a day of water going through. The hot water went through a water softener first which may have removed the ammonia -- it only removed about 1/2 of the ppm -- usually still around 200 -- 300 ppm but the fry and wrigglers survived. I think most aquarists think water from a softener has salt or sodium in the output water but whatever happens it works. The answer to the quiz above is that the water going through the water heater is at an elevated temperature and at the elevated temperature the dissolved calcium carbonate is converted to calcium bicarbonate which precipitates out on your pipes as it cools. It goes from dissolved lime to dissolved marble. A side note on this is that the global warming feared may all be taken care of by the equilibrium producing effect of the calcium carbonate/bicarbonate cycle. The bicarbonate form is marble or dolomite and sinks the calcium and the offending CO2 leaving the world safe. A small increase in water temperature may just automatically adjust the CO2 levels downward and produce more marble and eliminate the need for drastic measures by humans. The water most people put in their tanks is a mixture of cold water (not coverted) and even the water from the hot water side is mixed in the water heater and may not all be converted to the level of a slow drip of all hot water. What exactly is in the water I don't know but I could raise lots of angels in hard water with no manual water changes. I read somewhere that in soft water ammonia is in a less dangerous chemical state but there were no details in the article. Possibly the affect of ammonia in calcium bicarbonate water is different. A side note on this is that everyone knows that ammonia and nitrites are bad and tend to kill your fish -- but the people telling you this don't tell you 'how' it kills the fish. After much searching, I found one article that explained the process. A good way to explain it would be to have you picture blood cells like little red Lego bricks with the six or eight connection points on them. Normally only oxygen and CO2 end up on the connectors and your lungs cells exchange the CO2 for oxygen. The problem with nitrites and ammonia is that they fill up the connections and make them unavailable for the normal oxygen and CO2 exchanges. Carbon monoxide works in a similar manner taking some time before all of the connectors are filled while arsenic and most poisons fills them up quickly and doesn't let go -- thereby killing the poisoned creature -- as if it was suffocated. At this point I can give you a method to try if you want to have your angels raise up a cloud of fry. First the water must be between 100 to 200 ppm for the eggs to properly fertilize. Once the eggs are laid, change out the entire tank of water with RO before the eggs hatch. The parents will do just fine in RO and as long as you continue doing water changes to remove the build up of ammonia, nitrates, and phosphates -- the wrigglers will have sticky heads and the pair can move them around at the top and the ammonia will not kill them. Remember to mix the water back to 100 -- 200 ppm before you breed them again as they will not be able to fertilize the eggs in RO. You can refute the angel breeders that think the F0 is the ultimate form of the fish -- that all developed angels have even lost the instinct to properly raise them up. They are not degenerates -- just unable to perform the entire process in the wrong water conditions. Now to confuse you more I have two more water quality issues. One has to do with 'fin burning' and I actually have to plead ignorance of the total solution -- but I have some suggestions. I don't usually have the problem in my tanks but I have in the past. I have recirculating systems with larger tanks or connected tanks with equivalent gallons of typically over 100 gallons and that may be the answer. It is definitely not water changes since I do one every month or so and not the religious 25% weekly most people perform. I have not been breeding angels but have two or three friends that I buy fry from at about 1/2 of dime size and grow them out. They always have some larger ones and they are usually severly burned -- but after a few weeks in my tanks they have grown the fins back -- go figure. I usually have them in the hard tap water so I don't think it is the ammonia. I have not gotten out to see the fry in my breeder friend's tanks but possibly it is the smaller size of the tanks. My Indonesian fish farmer friend Daniel once told me his secret to raising tall-finned angels -- tall tanks. He was where my breeder angels went when my Murray friend Conrad turned 62 and gave up all strife to live off of his Social Security checks. I gave all of the breeders to Daniel with the stipulation that he was to sell me 350 dime-size angels per month for twenty cents each I think. As I indicated at the start of this article -- sometimes things that work at a small scale don't work when scaled up and Daniel was a good example. Believe it or not he had never seen any kind of filter or any kind of processed fish food (like flakes). Apparantly in Indonesia they manage to do everything with live food -- mosquitoes, daphnia, bloodworms, etc. I mention the process used in my chapter on brine shrimp and daphnia culturing -- we occidentals just don't use strong enough fertilizer. In any case Daniel had been in the United States for years and did not even think of raising angels as he had on an Indonesian fish farm until he saw me catching brine shrimp at the local marina. When he saw that he could get the free shrimp he started breeding angels in tall tanks with heaters, airstones and drastic water changes. He did really well until he scaled up with my fish and began to have higher populations in the tanks -- some deaths and fin burning. I showed him how to make undergravel filters with a fine mesh glued over the undergravel plates that allowed the use of fairly fine sand such as quartz sand with an airstone providing the lift. This solved the problem for a while until his water supply changed and just like Conrad before him (he was 62 also) he would not install a water softener or RO unit or use resin pillows to soften the water. I find that the world is full of stubborn people. Most people get their water from wells but the water is pumped into a grid that can vary when more demand is on one end of it and after getting most of your water from a 'good' well for years, a new subdivision changes the flow and your water is different. In the cases of both Conrad and Daniel the water would be alternately good and bad then always bad (too hard for proper fertilization) but they expected the flow to change back like a change in the wind -- but it never happened. In any case 'fin burning' is a serious problem but I suggest some experimenting with filters, water changes, and tank sizes and you should be able to solve the problem. A side note to fin issues is the belly sliders, lack of ventrals on some angels, and the weird humps and points sometimes seen on their heads. The breeding establishment wants to believe it is poor genetics -- namely too much inbreeding -- and fall back onto the old love of the F0 fish to outcross back into your strain. I remember a fish breeder from Thailand who was a speaker at a cichlid convention. He had slides showing the defects and as he pointed out that most were 'environmental' rather than genetic, the peanut-gallery at the back disputed most of the calls. I am with the Thai guy and find that it is the water quality and some bacterialogical action is working there. As with the fin burning, experiment and see if you can eliminate the problem. Variations in blushing and warts on the lips may be genetic -- let me know if someone has insight on those defects. The last issue of water quality is probably the most important if you are supplying angels to a market. You may have noticed that no stores carry really small angels or oscars and there is a logical reason for it -- but stick with me and once you understand the principal involved -- perhaps you can educate a LFS owner and sell them small stuff -- fat chance. Oddly enough angels once they reach about 1/2 inch or so appear to be immune from the types of afflictions that rot fins, clamp fins, and otherwise kill most tropicals. That is -- the angels may still die but it will be from some invisible killer not easily identified. The reason in my opinion is internal round worms called heximita. Good luck getting much real info from the veterinarian types -- up until about 15 -- 20 years ago the same round worms were call octomita (oops -- a slight counting error). What is now apparantly counted properly (hence the renaming) is the little grappling hooks the worms use to stay put in the intestinal track. I don't know if they feed on the stuff in the track or on the fish through the intestinal wall but it has the effect of a death by a thousand cuts apparently. A proper parasite should not overtax the host organism but the stresses in our fishkeeping methods and especially in the catching, sorting, shipping, and multiple environments that stress out the fish cause a reaction in the parasites that pushes them out of the 'proper parasite' mode. My theory is that the stress causes a change in the internal chemistry of the intestinal track of the fish. The parasite is like a vernal pool animal that thrives and breeds in the ponds formed by the spring rains but gradually dries up as summer starts. Just as daphnia, brine shrimp, and other crustaceans lay wintering eggs when the water conditions deteriorate, the hexamita lay many, many more eggs until there are so many parasites that it kills the fish. The trick to successfully avoiding the death by a hundred thousand cuts is to reduce the stress and thereby avoid triggering the end of summer egg fest or better yet to lower or eliminate the parasites. Discus breeders design water systems to have the fish in bare tanks with flow systems to wash the feces out to avoid reinfecting or increasing the parasites in the fish. The asians also have a method of putting the discus at 100F for two weeks with a lot of circulation and oxygenation that apparantly kills all of the parasites. What I have found is a similar method -- raising the fish in warm water (90F or so). I discovered the method by accident but by being observant. We used to have to sort through hundreds of angels to find the numbers to supply the shops and wholesalers and the basic drill is to catch out a hundred from one tank and sort out 80 or so and repeat that with other tanks until the order is filled. The thing I observed after this is that in the quantities of fish put back into the tanks that were not up to size there either were or were not mysterious deaths the next day or so. It turned out that the fish from warm tanks up above (80 to 90F) had zero or few croakers while the cooler water tanks (70F or so) sometimes had some serious casualties. My take on this is that the warmer water had several things going for it. First the fish were more active and food was going through the intestines faster and of course the fish is eating more and has more stamina. But more than that I think the internal temperature was higher and with less oxygen in the gut there could be fewer parasites. If you consider the stress as causing the parasite level to double for instance -- doubling a low number would still leave the fish at a non-lethal level while if the parasite numbers were already high a doubling would reach a fatal level of the knife cuts. Anyway with this figured out and all fish going out only after a period in warm water -- the fish had less casualties at the stores and you could develop a fairly good reputation. You don't sell over 20,000 angels a year if they are weak and dying for the store and customers. A secondary issue here is to have filtration that could hopefully prevent a lot of re-infection as the eggs are produced. Knowing all this I tried to get the LFS owner to put the angels in a upper tank or a very warm tank but good luck there as they really don't need any input from me. Knowing all this water quality stuff should arm you with all that you need to produce a lot of angels -- if you can find a market for them. Good luck.