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Wild Guppies on a Budget

By D. Proctor

This article appeared in issue 216 of LIVEBEARERS, the Journal of the American Livebearer Association

Like a lot of people, my addiction to fish keeping started both at a young age and with guppies. When I was in sixth grade a classmate brought a one gallon pickle jar full of guppies to "show and tell," and I was hooked. Back then the internet essentially did not exist, so my selection of fish was limited to whatever happened to be in the local pet store. I started with fancy guppies, but then one day I spotted something else that caught my eye—feeder guppies. The variety of colors and fin types of these fish has always held my interest. When I got back into keeping fish a few years ago I knew I wanted common guppies, and I decided on starting with feeder guppies instead of ordering "wild" guppies from various sources on the internet. In this article I'm going to talk about why I think feeder guppies are a good choice for people who like wild-type guppies, and some tips on how to get started with them.

What are feeder guppies?

Generally, feeder guppies are raised on fish farms in outdoor ponds in Florida. They are descended from fancy guppy culls that were thrown in the ponds and left to breed at random, and I've heard of at least one farm in which the feeder pond has been allowed to do its own thing for over 30 years. Because the traits we find attractive in fancy guppies are not adaptively advantageous in the wild, over many generations they disappear. So feeder guppies have "reverted to type," in other words, have lost most of the characteristics of domesticated guppies and resemble their wild ancestors. Wouldn't "true" wild guppies be better?

If you're thinking of keeping wild-type guppies, which is better really depends on your purpose. If you want to preserve a specific wild phenotype from a collection location, then wild guppies are obviously what you want. I would suggest that for just about any other purpose, feeder guppies are ideal. I have heard the argument that feeder guppies are undesirable because their genotypes are not the same as their wild ancestors. I would argue that this is an invalid criticism because as soon as you collect fish from the wild, you have a group of animals that are not representative of the wild population. Your so-called authentic wild fish have a different gene pool than the wild population they have come from. You've created a founder's effect, so that the genotypes and phenotypes of your new smaller population are (just from sampling error) not representative of the founding population. This will only become exaggerated through future generations of inbreeding and genetic drift.

What are the advantages of feeder guppies?

Feeder guppies are very diverse in appearance. I've had top swords, bottom swords, double swords, and many other fin types. I've had diverse colors, ranging from pastels to bright metallic colors. Most of the time you'll pay a high price on the internet for a trio of wild guppies. Unless they are first generation from the wild, they are probably highly inbred and you will end up with a lot of common guppies that look similar. That's fine if you're after a uniform, specific phenotype, but otherwise it is undesirable. Feeder guppies are much cheaper than "true" wild guppies. At a local store I recently bought 50 for $5.00 (that's 10 cents each!), and the more you buy the cheaper they are apiece. Another advantage to buying feeder guppies is that it promotes one of the goals of the American Livebearer Association—conservation. As Ben Seghers points out in a recent talk he gave at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (watch it on YouTube here), although guppies are probably not in danger of extinction, their population diversity is potentially in danger due to collection practices. When large numbers of fish are collected by scientists and hobbyists alike, it's possible that some genotypes and phenotypes could be eliminated from wild populations. Since there is a wide array of phenotypic diversity in feeder guppies, a hobbyist need never collect or buy wild collected fish. Buying these wild-type feeders has the added benefit of supporting U.S. fish farms, which is ever more important in this age of business competition with cheap imported fish.

But aren't feeder guppies diseased?

Generally this is true. Your typical feeder guppies have been in cramped conditions for weeks. Water quality becomes poor, so bacterial infections and other diseases or parasites have a chance to present themselves to weakened fish. Since they were raised in outdoor ponds, there is the potential for all sorts of diseases. But keep in mind this is all because of poor treatment as the fish wind their way through the distribution system to your store, not because feeder guppies are any more innately diseased than any other fish. Feeder guppies are hardy animals. When you consider all they've been through before and after they reach the pet store, it's amazing any live at all. They are accustomed to exposure to pathogens and parasites in the wild, and haven't been sheltered from that for generations like many domesticated guppy strains that have become fragile.

How do I bring feeder guppies home?

I have brought feeder guppies home several times using the following methods. It takes a little patience and the understanding that depending on their condition when you find them, you could lose as many as 50% of the fish you take home.

Some pet stores do not keep their feeder guppies out in the store, but in a back room instead. If that's the case it doesn't hurt to ask if you can inspect them first. The salesperson might look at you like you're crazy, but it's worth a shot. I've been asked a number of times what I am feeding the guppies to, and I'm often met with a bewildered gaze when I explain that I just like to keep them as aquarium fish.

When you look at the feeder guppies in the store you're looking for two things. First, are they the kind of feeder guppies we want? We want wild-type fish, not the store's fancy culls. Some stores just throw fancy culls (or unwanted fry) in a tank and sell them as feeders. They will retain fancy traits to varying degrees, such as delta tails or half-black bodies. They often have unattractive “muddy” colors from having bred randomly with other fancy guppy strains. That's fine if you're throwing them to a piranha, but we want feeders that look like wild fish. If I see fancy culls in the feeder tank I'll look for a different pet store. Alternatively, you could ask the store to specially order feeder guppies.

The second thing you want to assess is how sickly they are. This is because it will help you estimate how many you should buy. Of course, this also depends on how many tanks you intend to devote to them, and tank size. In general, if it is your typical pet store feeder tank with a bunch of dead or dying fish, infections, fin rot, etc. I would start by buying twice as many fish as you ultimately want to start with.

Take them home and empty them in a jar or spare tank. Any fish that are very lethargic or unable to swim properly, or basically just sitting on the bottom should be euthanized right away. These fish will not recover no matter how you try to nurse them to health, and it's better to remove them now so they don't contribute to polluting the tank. If you see any obvious signs of parasites on any fish, cull those as well. I once had a batch with brown cysts on several of them, and try as I might the only thing I could find out about them was an obscure photo caption in an old guppy book that referred to them as encapsulated worms. I culled those fish right away rather than deal with which medications (if any) would eliminate the parasites.

Make sure the tank you're going to put them in is cycled and has no living plants. I prefer a bare bottom tank with sponge filters for this. If the tank isn't cycled, you're only making the process that much more difficult (I've learned this the hard way). Acclimate the fish using your preferred method, but when you place the fish in your tank be sure to put as little of the bag water in the tank as possible. Who knows what all is in that old water, so you want to transfer as little of it as possible to the tank.

After placing the fish in the tank, I add one teaspoon of canning salt per gallon of water and just let it dissolve on its own. If you have any multispectrum antibacterial/antifungal medication you can dose them with that as per instructions, and it may hasten their recovery. If you go that route I would use a medication, not Pimafix or Melafix. I've used both of these in the past, and I feel like they damage the beneficial bacteria in the tank and I haven't had good luck with it treating this level of acute infection. Give the fish a course of medicated anti-parasite food to treat ay internal parasites. I've had good luck with a product made by Jungle, which can be powdered to make sure all of the fish can eat it.

Keep an eye on the tank, and in the morning and night remove dead fish and euthanize any that appear like they won't recover (as mentioned above). If you are using medication, follow that course before doing any water changes (or per instructions), otherwise change 10% of the water every other day for two weeks, replacing the salt by volume. After that you can change 10% of the water once per week. After four weeks if the fish seem to be significantly recovering, no longer add salt with water changes. Once the salt is sufficiently diluted you can add plants if desired. Use your judgment and feel free to adjust this process depending on the condition of your fish. These suggestions are for the worst-case scenario where the fish are in very rough shape at the start. You will likely end up with 50% of the fish you started with. Recently I bought a batch of feeder guppies that was unusually healthy and I only lost 10% of them! When you first buy them you probably won't be impressed with their beauty. Their colors are muted from stress, disease, and probably malnutrition, but as they recover and you begin to feed them quality food you'll notice a big difference after a few weeks. After a month they won't even look like the same fish you originally bought.

Now enjoy your wild-type guppies!

Once you've gone through this process you'll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of your fish. Feeder guppies are not “garbage” fish. On the contrary, if you appreciate wild-type guppies, you'll find that feeders are every bit as beautiful as any “true” wild guppies you've seen. In addition, keep an eye out for hitchhikers when you examine a pet store's feeder tanks. I've found Heterandria formosa and Gambusia mixed in with the feeders. I've also heard of others finding Poecilia vivipara. If you live in an area that has several pet stores, particularly smaller independent stores, it can be interesting to visit all of them to look at the feeders. I've found that sometimes the feeders have a slightly different appearance between stores, maybe because they come from different fish farms. You might think of the feeder ponds at different farms as different populations. A few years ago I moved to another state, and had to get rid of the feeder colony I was keeping at the time. That particular group had great looking males and relatively large, richly pigmented females of the wild-type, with olive colored highlights and compact bodies. They were very attractive fish, and I regret losing them.