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. ?