Category: Live Bearers

All about Live Bearers.

Raising and Care of Belonesox belizanus

I first acquired these fish at one of our local fish store’s opening. They caught my eye because they were unusual and very rarely seen locally, and they looked big and mean. These fish could almost be in the same class as the bruisers of the cichlid world, but to my liking they are LIVE BEARERS. They come from Central America; specifically southern Mexico, south to the Honduras. They do very well in Calgary hard water and thrive in hot temperatures, as high as 35C. The females grow very long, and can go up to 20cm in length, with the males about half that size. So they need a large tank with good plant coverage and space to roam.

I bought two females and one male and happily put them in a 120-liter tank by themselves at around 25C. But to dismay they very quickly got some fungus growing on those very long, large mouths; and they seemed to be listless. So into the literature I went to find out anything I could about these fish, but very little could be found. So onto the Internet I went, and again the same lack of information. I decided to add some salt and up the temperature to 30C. Within a week all was well with the females, but I lost the male and the females looked hungry. The two females were sharing a tank with a large discus and didn’t seem to bother each other and both enjoyed the heat.

I tried to feed frozen foods, white worms, and all sort of other dry combinations but I soon learned that these females had already been spoiled with live feeder fish. Now I don’t like to feed using this method as I’m too much of a nature lover to knowingly put live fish into a situation where they will have no choice but to meat their maker. But after much deliberation I gave in and finally fed them their choice in life. Now I have been told that if you can get fry from day one you can train them to eat other (non-living) diets. Ah: a challenge for me to see if this is possible. I have already had this success with my oscars so let’s see if these bad girls can also be changed. That would mean starving them for at least a while, but this is risky, and remember I had lost the male and I didn’t know if my two females were pregnant. As with other types of large live bearing species that have monster fry, it is sometimes very hard to tell if the females are gravid due to their size and the way the fry lay lengthwise in their mother’s womb. So back to the Internet and the books to find out all I could about the breeding of my new live bearing bruisers.

Again very little seems to be written about how long it takes for them to give birth, or how they breed, or even if the females carry the males’ sperm for a number of months. I had two options: either spend more money on another male ($10.00 CDN); or wait and see. All right, everyone knows (because I’m the club treasurer) that I’m cheap. So next came the waiting game. One morning as I’m doing their morning feedings I notice these small, thin, stick-like objects floating around in the hornwort. Oh no, I thought to myself, I have leaches in my tank! Just look at them all…they must be from that darn fish store, right? Wrong! Well, guess what? They weren’t leaches… they were pike minnow fry and they were huge! At least 1cm to 2cm long. There were about 25 fry, all hanging out in the hornwort and dashing around very quickly every time I went near them. I did find some info that indicated that the females wouldn’t bother their own fry or eat them as soon as they were born. But looking into those hungry eyes I wasn’t taking chances. Out the fry came and all are happy.

A few days later there was more fry, from the other female. Again, there was around 25 fry from this second batch. Out they came too. Now these fry are in small show tanks (5 liters) and its time to test them out with other types of food. It did take a couple of days but soon they were eating frozen foods and white worms. They love to chase white worms around on the bottom of the bare tank. The next question to be answered was “do the females need a male to fertilize them again every month as do the goodeids, or do they carry the sperm packs for a few months, as do other poeciliids? I spent a long month waiting for these answers.

But back to the children. They did very well for over the month, but do to technical difficulties with Trans Alta Utilities and the electrical supply to my home, I lost one whole tank of fry and half of the other tank before we got back the power. BOO HOO. I also noticed that some of the smaller fry were loosing pieces from their tails and the larger fry had very fat tummies. Watch out! It looks like we have a case of big fish, little fish. So I started to feed more often and larger amounts and gave them more room to run away and hide.

The end of the month comes along, and low and behold I see another batch of fry, but this time only eighteen in number. So there is my answer: females do carry the male sperm for a few months, and don’t need monthly fertilizing as do goodeids. But much to my disappointment the second female hasn’t dropped any more fry, and now a few months later, both females are not dropping.

The fry are growing well in larger tanks. They are still being fed non-living food. Some interesting things about the original females are that they won’t eat anything but live food, no matter how long I starve them. They seem to only hunt and eat at night when the lights are off. Their hunting style is to hide in the plants at the top, then quickly dash out at the feeders, trying to grab one in one fell swoop. Sometimes they get their mouths full and sometimes they totally miss. But it seems that their hunting is a single hit or miss procedure, and they don’t worry about chasing the feeders or trying repeatedly to get them. I guess their attitude is that the feeders aren’t going anywhere, so we’ll try again in a little while.

Hopefully in a few months the fry will start breeding and I can continue to see if I can keep them completely off of live fish as food. There are some interesting black colorings on the tails of the fry. This could be the differences in the sexes when young, but as they grow older they seem to loose these markings. There already is a size difference showing, which is certainly indicating that the young females are starting to show their growth difference over the young males.

The two moms are still happily awaiting some male companionship and are easily sharing their home with the large discus. But be aware that anything small enough to fit into their large mouth is certainly fair game to them.

So if any aquarist would like to have one of the flesh eating, large mouthed, big bruiser type fish with an attitude, and are tired of the cichlid people saying “Ah, it’s one of those live bearers; you know, feeders for my cichlids”, just show them one of these big babies that look like alligators and a new respect for live bearers will certainly not be far behind. ?

Live Bearers: Mr. Genetics vs. Mother Nature

Live bearers are probably the first tropical fish that most of us start out with a long time ago – myself included. If you’re anything like me you fell in love with these wonderful fish and over the years you still keep a variety such as guppies, mollies, platies, etc. etc. But over those years the state of the live bearers have gone down, down, down. It is with a sad heart that I witness the sorry condition that we see in the live bearers that are available in our area – Calgary.

Many a time I go into the stores and see atrocious things being done by the big breeding farms that supply the live bearers to this area. So I would like to give you some hints on what to look for and what to see if you are contemplating purchasing any fish, but specifically live bearers.

First lets start with your basic beautiful guppy – OK. How many times have you seen just absolutely stupendous, rainbow colored guppies both females and males swimming around in a store tank with a price tag of $5.95 each. Too hard to walk away from – even I still succumb to these creatures, pop down my money and go happily home. But to my dismay one month, then two months, and even three months go by and no fry, and deaths start to occur. Why do live bearers have such a hard time adapting to my tank – the other types of fish I bring home don’t and I always get fry every month or so – why why why ??? Well the answer to this and many other questions is usually too much inbreeding, hormones in the food, or basically bad genetics.

The first thing you should look for in a tank of guppies is why they always separate males from females? If you look at all those beautiful males you will notice that most have trouble swimming (due to extreme tail length) and when put in with females they would have a very difficult time catching the females. They get stressed out and eventually die. Not a good choice if you’re a retailer. Also if you’ve ever seen normal wild males (have a look at a tank of healthy feeders -good luck in finding some) you will notice that male guppies will chase anything anywhere, and try to breed with it. That’s not so in a tank of genetically breed males. Oh they swim around OK but no where near the virility as wild stock does. And the reason you’re not getting any fry is usually that either one or both of the sexes are sterile – the unfortunate effect of bad breeding. The same things can be seen in the females from these gorgeous lines. Notice that the females (all separated again) are neither gravid nor nice and big and plump with the impending birth of fry like the boring, drab wild females (even in the feeder tanks). As a matter of fact, most can look pretty long and lanky and sickly because (again) genetics has a way of taking back what it gives forth. So before you buy these beautiful guppies, sit and watch them for a while and see if you think they act normally. If not, be prepared to have them at home for only two or three months as they simply will not do well.

Now, let’s see if other live bearers such as mollies are better to buy for the kids. Again the same rules for guppies can be applied here to mollies. But mollies are being inter-bred so badly by the fish farms that they show the poor results very quickly. There are so many types now such as gold dust mollies, Dalmatian mollies, salt and pepper mollies, and the list goes on. If you observe the fish in the store tank you will see that they look very fine. But if you ask a clerk you might be surprised that the reason they look so fine is that they are heavily salted. Yes, salted. You see mollies like to go between fresh and brackish water in the wild and adapt very well to the changing salt concentrations. But when Mankind starts it’s wonderful inbreeding program, voila Mother Nature and Mr. Genetics pay you back by limiting this fishes ability to adjust to the different salt levels, and so now they can only stand one or the other. So what happens is the tanks are salted to brackish levels so the fish look and feel well for sale purposes, and it keeps the dreaded ich away that shows up so well on totally black mollies. Now don’t blame the retailer: he has no choice. If you want to buy these fish then he has to bring them in for you and try to keep his investment alive at all costs. It’s not his fault, it is simply the big-time breeding farms. So if the kids must have those mollies be prepared to set up the same salt condition that they were in at the store. If you’re not sure either ask or better still measure with a test kit.

Other live bearers have similar problems as guppies and mollies. For instance, there’s the swordtails – Xiphophorous species. The same genetic manipulation is happening with the swordtails. More Mr. Genetically generated colors. But with the swordtails Mother Nature pays Mankind back by producing very small numbers of fry (if any) every month. Also the male sword and body lengths are getting smaller and smaller all the time. Females show a very ferocious attitude towards males and it seems they will go out of their way to kill them. Why? Because Mr. Genetics has made the males smaller (but prettier colors) and the females have remained larger but with an attitude that rivals even some cichlid families. There is a tendency for the swords of today to be very difficult to feed and it seems that they acquire intestinal eating disorders very easily. Again, Mother Nature at her best. The word of advice on swords of today’s stock supplies is that they are pretty to look at but difficult to keep or maintain for any length of time.

As you can tell I can go on and on for a while on this topic, but I won’t. There are some rules that fish keepers can follow when buying live bearers. One is to observe the fish in the store tank with a wary eye and a knowledgeable mind. If they don’t look quite right, then stay away from that particular tank. Second understand what has happened to those fish genetically to get the long fins and beautiful colors so that you can prepare both yourself and the home tank for their best chance of survival. Third, try some wild stock instead. I have found many a wild live bearer over the years (as have others) and still have them today, healthy and multiplying. An example is a species of wild molly that either I or someone else in the CAS found. They are very similar to the sailfin mollies and are very pretty to look at. Yet I have had them for at least two years and they are doing well. And there are many fish people who regularly order good quality guppies from very reputable breeders, such as the members of the IFGA in the States. Get in with one of the orders now while the weather is warm. These specimens cost more than pet store fare, but the rewards will last for years instead of a few weeks to a few months.

And here is my dream that I had last night (I was fly fishing and caught some very beautiful wild trout and released them!), that there be no more Mr. Genetics and no more Mother Nature paying back Mankind’s silliness. Oh what a dream that was but it will never happen as long as the retailers still have the purchaser who insists on Mr. Genetics. ?

The Cardinal Brachy: Brachyraphis roseni

Fishes of the genus Brachyraphis originate in Central America where they inhabit principally the Atlantic and Pacific slopes and drainage areas. Brachyraphis means “short needle”, referring to the gonopodium of the male. They are generally a cannibalistic and aggressive fish best kept in a species aquarium.

Brachyraphis roseni is a recently described (1988) species that ranges from southeastern Costa Rica through western Panama. Females reach 7 cm in length while males reach about 5 cm. The dorsal fin on both males and females is orange on the outer half and is banded with black. The female also has orange on the frontal area of the anal fin followed by a black stripe running from the body to the bottom edge of the fin. The male has a black stripe that runs from the body along the top of the gonopodium. Both sexes have seven or eight faint bands running vertically along the anterior portion of the body and the scales are edged in black giving a net-like pattern. The contrasting orange and black markings on this fish make it one of the more colorful wild-type livebearers available.

I acquired two pairs at our annual show auction in September of last year. Both males and females were about 1 inch in length and since then the males have not exceeded that size but the two juvenile females have reached about 5 cm total length. They are housed in a 20-liter aquarium quite full of Java moss but some open area is available for swimming. Filtration is by sponge filter and the water is regular Calgary tap water (240 PPM and 7.8 pH) to which 1mL salt per 2 L of water has been added. The fish receive brine shrimp nauplii and Spirulina flake at each feeding, and occasionally get a treat of white worms. Water changes of about 50% are done every two weeks.

The fish grew and with time I began to look for signs that the females were gravid. I observed the males coming along side the females from behind and to one side almost as though they were trying to sneak up on them. Usually their advances were spurned, sometimes quite aggressively, but on occasion copulation took place. The females became quite full-bodied at the front but never got that squared-off body shape that, in other livebearer species, indicates the imminent drop of fry. I was surprised to see two fry come out of the Java moss one evening at feeding time, not so much by their presence but by their size. They were about 1 cm long and were clearly not newborns.

I began to watch the females more closely because I had not been aware that fry were in the tank but it did me no good. I was never able to predict when fry would appear. One evening, again at feeding time, I saw a few small, newborn fry resting on the bottom of the tank. I collected them into an ice cream bucket and checked the tank every 15 minutes to gather newly dropped fry as they appeared. I’m not entirely clear on what happened that night. Although I looked at both of the females very carefully, I couldn’t tell which one was dropping fry. I gathered 35 free-swimming fry, two belly sliders, and two dead fry so the possibility exists that they were both dropping fry (brood numbers are reported to be around 20) but it seems unlikely.

The fry were set up in a 20-liter tank with the same general conditions as the parents’ but with much less Java moss. After all, I didn’t expect them to eat each other (and they didn’t). They ate brine shrimp voraciously and grew quickly. When they were about 1 month old, I began to include Spirulina flake food into their feedings, which they accepted readily. By two months of age, they were about 3 cm total length but all had the same markings and body shape, namely those of a female. I know that with some fish, the water chemistry can affect the sexual distribution of the fry but wasn’t expecting it in livebearers. It wasn’t until 21/2 months of age that the gonopodium began to develop on the males and they began to slim down to the more characteristic male shape. At 3 months of age, both males and females are about 4 cm long. They eat Spirulina flake exclusively and are hearty eaters.

Their cannibalistic and aggressive tendencies make Brachyraphis roseni somewhat of a specialist’s fish but they are attractive, hardy and quite enjoyable to keep… in a species tank, of course!



Livbearing Fishes by John Dawes, Blandford Publishing, London, England 1991.

A Fishkeeper’s Guide to Livebearing Fishes by Peter W. Scott, Tetra Press 1987.

Livebearing Aquarium Fishes by Kurt Jacobs, 2nd Edition T.F.H. Publications, 1973.