The Angelfish Chronicles

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© Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod (H, 1976)

A young Rio Negro angel. The fish was very black when captured,...

The greatest of all dreams are those that can never be fulfilled. Some men dream about flying like a bird...or diving into the sea 1,000 meters in a free-dive (and coming back to tell about it)... my dream has been to photograph every fish in the world. Since a dream can be fulfilled a little at a time, I decided to photograph my fishes genus by genus, and I started with the two genera closest to my heart (and having the fewest species)...Symphysodon, the discusfishes, and Pterophyllum, the angelfishes. I had already photographed and collected every know species of discus, and now I was about to set out to collect the missing link in the angelfishes.

Click on map to view full size map.(90.9kb) 

Fig. 1. map of the Amazon basin showing selected areas of the angelfishes' range (1-11).

When Dr. Leonard P. Schultz worked up the genus Pterophyllum he included in his writeup a map showing the distribution of the various species. His map showed no collections of angelfish in the Rio Negro of Brazil, from Manaus through Barcelos. This area is famous for its unique fauna, since it cantains the beautiful cardinal tetra, Cheirodon axelrodi, and the blue discus, Symphysodon discus. The blue discus is an example of the area's unique fauna, since it is found only in the Rio Negro, but the cardinal tetra has been found as far away as Columbia.

Selia Fonte handing down the collecting nets to Dr. Axelrod.)

In September of 1975, I planned a trip up the Rio Negro to collect all three fishes...The cardinal tetra, the blue discus and the missing angelfish. As usual my trip started in Manaus, where Willi Schwartz (Aquario Rio Negro, P.O. Box 381, Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil) has his fleet of boats used solely for collecting aquarium fishes. Willi loaned me a boat and a full crew. I was lucky that the crew was composed mainly of Indians from the region of the black water (Rio Negro). My crew chief was Selia Alfonso Fonte; he had his wife Raimunda with us as cook, the engineer was Christian de Braga, and the fisherman was Manoel Nena, who brought his 5-year-old son as our helper. Raul Fonte, father of Selia, was also along, because he knew several Indian dialects.

As we left Manaus at high noon on the 7th of September, I was amazed at the modern-looking skyline of the city. Since it became a free port, Manaus has been growing and growing, until now it is a modern city with traffic jams, water shortages and brown-outs. It was delightful to get farther out of town and lose sight of the huge white concrete superstructures, and the air started to smell sweet...then I saw it! Ugly black smoke pouring out of a chimney, defacing the beautiful blue shy with a horrible scar. The jungle was being robbed of its wood and life-giving oxygen capability to make a very cheap quality plywood. Already filth and debris were being dumped into the Rio Negro. How long would it take to make the magnificent Rio Negro another Hudson or Danube or Thames, where slime and filth kill every edible fish? I was even happy to pass the houses of some of the workers where the Oriental technique of waste disposal was utilized...with the outhouse standing on posts over the water, feeding the fish human waste. But this sophistication degenerated into areas farther up the Rio Negro where the whole house was elevated above the water! The advantage of this sort of building was that it kept out most of the crawling things, including (but not limited to) snakes, scorpions, rats, cats, dogs, beetles, spiders and kids. It also kept the house pretty messy basements to worry about!

The natives' houses are built high off the water on stilts.

It only took us three days in our Deutz 3-cylinder powered diesel boat, 45 feet long, to make it to Igarape Anapichi and Igarape Apania. These are two large ditches which swell to 1000 yards in width during the high water season; they always contain blue discus hiding at the bases of the submerged trees and logs. I could hardly wait for us to find a sandy beach on which to land. I pulled out the gangplank, walked down the skin-polished board and had Selia hand me the nets. We picked this particular landing spot because there were a few Indian houses there and it had a sandy beach as contrasted to a flooded area where there is no beach at all. In a few minutes two beautiful girls came out to greet me. Their home was a thatched roof hut raised about 5 feet off the ground to protect it from rising waters.

Dr. Axelrod standing in the coffee-black flood waters.

This was exceptionally high water for September, and some people said the water was 30 feet higher than normal. I could believe it, for when we took two dugouts into the "jungle" to look around we found the jungle was UNDERNEATH us and the only thing sticking out of the water were trees over 40 feet high! The bottom in this area was a soft carpet of decaying leaves.

We kept going into the jungle, deeper and deeper until we arrived at trees which grew higher. This meant, of course, the the water was lower, since the only way we could judge the depth of the water was by the height of the trees. Naturally those trees growing on hills looked taller, since they stuck out of the more. Finally we were joined by other Indians, who took us to an area where we could stand in knee-deep water. I gently stepped into the coffee-black water; I looked like the "great white hunter" with my plaid shirt and straw hat, quite in contrast to some of the Indians. There were thousands of tiny fishes moving about, and catching them with so much debris in the water would be quite a problem. The bottom was soft and gentle, because it had several feet of leaves padding each of my steps. These leaves were brewing, like tea leaves, gently turning the water blacker and blacker as the rain tried in vain to dilute the tannic acid. The pH was rather high (for the Rio Negro) at this time, almost 5.0, and the water temperature varied from 82 degrees to 90 degrees, with an air temperature of 84 degrees. How proud I was of the accurate thermometer that I used! Dr. Schultz had given it to me in 1953.

In the background is our motor launch, the Arapaima,...

We cleared an area of about 20 feet square and collected some of the fishes. They were mostly tetras of a rather unspectacular color, but a beautiful striped Leporinus, a lovely dwarf cichlid and a score of 2-inch long piranhas were the highlights of our efforts. Where were the discus and angelfishes? Didn't you know these fishes hide and run away from the slightest disturbances during the day? You might catch the occasional angelfish with a seine, but try catching a discus! Never!

So, back to the boat Arapaima. By the way, the name "Arapaima" is the name of the largest Amazonian fish, Arapaima gigas. This boat was named after the fish because when it was named it was the largest boat the Willi it is the smallest! The fish business was good to Willi, I guess.

On the boat we had a little siesta. I had my usual meal...spaghetti. I ate spaghetti, by the way, everyday for 10 days. It was the only food I had. We couldn't catch fish large enough to eat since the water was so high and our 50-foot seines were all we had was spaghetti and sun-dried, smelly beef. I preferred the spaghetti.

Proceeding deeper and deeper into the jungle, the trees were showed more of their trunks above the water line.

As the party proceeded deeper and deeper into the jungle the trees showed more of their trunks above the water line; it was assumed that the water depth in this flooded area was less than in the other flooded areas, depth of the water was being judged by the height of the trees extending above it. Eventually a spot was reached in the jungle at which the water was only knee-deep. Dugouts were maneuverable above the flooded jungle floor until the water became too low for navigation.

I guess I looked rather silly,...

At 7 pm it was time to get up. Night-fishing for angelfish and discus was on the schedule, and I was so exited I could hardly wait. I jumped into the dugout with my waterproof flashlight, two dipnets and a plastic box and was ready to go. I felt a little foolish as I waited almost an hour for the rest of the crew to come with me. Selia and his wife showed me their secret weapon. They took an ordinary flashlight and attached it to a headpiece which was quite comfortable. Then, using a regular automobile battery, they had hours of power...and a strong rechargeable battery. My dry cells lasted only an hour!

Silas ("Silia") Fonte charges his battery-operated headlamp...

The team of the husband and wife Fontes was remarkable. They spoke very few words, but Mrs. Fonte would light a cigarette and shove it into her husband's mouth, whether he wanted it or not. Finally, everything was ready, and we quietly paddled the few hundred yards from our parked boat to the thick trees. I fished in the same boat as Selia Fonte; two other boats joined us, fishing in other areas.

An actual fishing scene. In the background is Silas, slowly bringing his net under a fish.

We were very quiet and heard every little noise. Expertly, Selia pulled the boat through the trees, slowly and methodically training his head-mounted flashlight into the water. Though the water was black, the light could penetrate about a foot deep, and the shiny, reflective quality of the scales of a fish was so obvious that we didn't miss very much. Our Indian engineer has a head-set connected to a car battery and two plastic containers in his dugout in which he can carry his fish back. Suddenly I saw a telltale shine. It took me a few seconds to recognize that it was an angelfish and I carefully netted the fish, slowly bringing the net up under it. The fish was about 6 inches under the surface of the water, and resting almost against a tree, protected from almost all sides and from below. We caught about 8 angelfish that night, and here are the notes from my diary:

"The two specimens of Pterophyllum which were under 5 cm. were long-finned and dark. Certainly this is the stock from which the longfinned and black angels derived. They were not hybrids after all!! Maybe that's why no one ever stepped forward to take credit for having developed them??"

The Rio Negro angelfish that prompted Dr. Axelrod to look further into the angelfish situation...

By the time I was able to photograph them, they had faded substantially, but they still showed a lot of black on their bodies and in their fins. As I studied the angelfish I became more and more excited!! Their dorsal fins were twice as long as their anal fins. This gave them a very weird appearance... like the marine Moorish idol! Possibly this was a new species. The more I studied them, the more I was sure they were something important. I could hardly wait to get back to compare them with Pterophyllum altum, which I found even after having found enough of the missing links in the distribution of the angelfish in the Amazon River system, I still had discus and cardinals to collect...and write about, since no one has ever photographed their range and habitat. I'll let Warren Burgess finish the story about my new angelfishes!

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