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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

* This is the Veterinary Version. *

Breeding and Reproduction of Fish

By Ruth Francis-Floyd, DVM, MS, DACZM, Professor, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida

In an aquarium or pond, successful breeding largely depends on nutrition and environmental conditions that are sometimes very specific. In the wild, these conditions might be seasonal changes, water conditions, the amount of daylight, and the availability of specific food sources. The amount of daylight is generally less important in tropical species, because hours of sunlight in tropical regions nearer the equator stay fairly constant year round. Temperate or coldwater fish, such as goldfish and koi, may be more affected by shorter and longer days of the seasons further north or south. Certain conditions often trigger a particular species to breed. For instance, during the wet season in the tropics, rains may wash extra nutrients into the swollen rivers, leading to a greater abundance of available food and plants, which can be ideal breeding conditions for fish.

In aquarium and pond fish, healthy breeding stock must be of spawning age. You will need to research the nutritional and environmental needs of the particular species you want to breed. These conditions are almost as varied as the number of fish species (see Table: Types of Fish Reproduction). Proper substrate, cover, temperature, pH, live foods, lighting, and number of fish are all likely considerations.

Types of Fish Reproduction

Types of Egg-Layers

Where Eggs are Laid

Fertilization Method

Common Species

Mouthbrooders

In water, then collected in mouth once fertilized and held there until birth; some hold fry in mouth for up to a week after birth

Fertilized by spawning before gathered in mouth

Fresh water cichlids, bettas, cardinal fish, gobies, blennies

Nest builders

A spot in substrate, a structure made of plant materials, bubble nest (foamy structure)

Spawning

Bass, bluegill, stickle-back, gourami, bettas

Egg scatterers

Sticky eggs are laid within a certain area under cover; non-sticky eggs set adrift in open water

Male swims by and sprays semen, or milt, around the area

Cardinal tetras, tiger barbs, zebra danios, goldfish, koi

Egg depositors

Sticky eggs are laid in one spot, usually substrate or glass

Male swims by and fertilizes eggs

Rainbow fish, killifish, dwarf cichlids, clownfish

Egg buriers

Buried in soft substrate

Male dives into substrate to fertilize eggs

Killifish, rare and endangered species in the wild

Sexing Fish

Determining the sex of a fish can be difficult or easy, depending on whether physical differences are visible. Males of some species may be larger and showier than females. Information on how to sex a particular species may be obtained from your veterinarian, books, hobby magazines, the Internet, and other sources.

Live Bearers

Fish reproduce by bearing live young or by laying eggs. Livebearers give birth to fully formed and functional young, called fry. The eggs are fertilized and hatched within the female. Most livebearers have fewer and larger fry than egg layers, because the fry need to be more developed and large enough to fend for themselves after birth. Most species of livebearers kept in home aquariums are generally easy to breed. Identifying sexes is usually easy as well. Males are generally larger and have larger, longer, more ornate and colorful fins than females. For instance, only male swordtails have the “sword” on their tails, and male guppies have larger, more flowing tails that are brightly colored.

Fry should be separated from adults, because the adults (including the parents) tend to eat them. Small live or frozen food and crushed flakes are good for feeding fry. Species of freshwater livebearers include mollies, platys, swordtails, and guppies from the Americas, and the 20 or so halfbeak species from Asia.

Egg Layers

Egg layers spawn by several means, including egg scattering, egg depositing, egg burying, nest building, and mouthbrooding. In all cases, eggs are laid and fertilized outside the body. Nest-builders and mouthbrooders are generally good parents, protecting the eggs and fry from aggressors. Many cichlid species, such as freshwater angelfish, are nest-builders.

Egg scatterers, egg depositors, and egg buriers may or may not defend the eggs and fry. Usually, the fry need to be separated from the adults to prevent the larger fish from eating them. Egg-scatterer females lay their sticky eggs in various places within a certain area (often in areas that provide some sort of cover), while others set nonsticky eggs adrift in open water. Egg depositors pick one general spot to lay sticky eggs, usually on the bottom substrate and sometimes on the aquarium glass. In saltwater, clownfish are depositors, guard their eggs and fry, and are the most likely species to be bred by hobbyists. Egg buriers either dive into soft substrate, or the male pushes the female into the soft substrate to lay. The male then dives in to fertilize the eggs. In a tank breeding environment, peat moss is often a good choice for the substrate.

Care for Newborns

Usually, fry should be separated from the adult fish and placed in a nursery environment. Mouthbrooders will eventually expel the fry, even though the fry are still quite vulnerable. Removing fry from outdoor ponds can be difficult. Ideally, a separate, smaller aquarium should be set up to receive them. Conditions should generally be kept much as they are in the main aquarium or pond. There should be some kind of cover for the fry, so they are safe, secure, and free from stress. The aquarium should be filtered, but the pump should not be so powerful that it sucks in the fry. Several commercial baby fish foods are available. Alternatively, finely crushed flake and tiny live or frozen foods can be fed.

Another option is to purchase a nursery. Nurseries are made of a box frame with a fine mesh netting for the walls and floor, or plastic grids for the same purpose. They are usually built to hang from the top lip of the aquarium into the water. The mesh or grid prevents the fry from escaping, while keeping them safe from the larger fish. The open tops allow access for feeding and other purposes.

A nursery keeps fry separated from larger fish that may eat them.

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* This is the Veterinary Version. *