The Swordtail, Xiphophorus helleri, is a very popular fish from the rivers and streams of Central America on the Atlantic side. The Swordtail is related to the Guppy and is as easy to breed.
The Swordtail is larger than the Guppy reaching four and a half inches (12cm) long.
The Swordtail is native to central America, extending into the southern parts of North America, on the Pacific side of the watershed. Its native habitat includes the River Nantla. This fish is very closely related to the Platy which comes from the Atlantic side of the watershed. The Swordtail and the Maculata Platy are freely inter-fertile and many of the fish we buy are descended from a hybrid between the two.
It is native to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
has been introduced into the following countries, arranged by continent.
Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan,
Singapore, Sri Lanka and Taiwan in Asia.
Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia in
Bahamas, Belize, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique,
Mexico, Puerto Rica and the USA in North America.
Australia, Fiji, Guam,
Hawaii, New Caledonia, New Zealand And Papua New Guinea in Oceania.
Brazil and Colombia in South America. The only continent it has not been introduced to is Antarctica.
The Swordtail is a tropical fish although it can take slightly colder conditions than many tropical fish. A temperature of 24̊ C (75̊ F) is suitable for a mixed tank including this fish. The Swordtail likes harder water than most of the tetras, and has a high tolerance for salt. Salt can be used for preventing and curing some diseases, but beware if trying this. Swordtails bred in high salt (sometimes half the salt percentage of the sea) tend to have little resistance to diseases and can die when put into normal fish aquariums.
The Swordtail generally prefers slightly alkaline water. For a mixed tank including Swordtails I suggest neutral (7).
Swordtails are omnivores and eat both live food like mosquito larvae, daphnia and baby fish as well as some algae. In an aquarium they will eat any normal fish food.
The Swordtail is not a strongly schooling fish, so large groups are not necessary although they can be kept and look very nice. Two males may cause problems to each other. They do not have stand up fights like the Siamese Fighting Fish, but unless distracted by enough females may squabble a bit.
Swordtails are a community fish and suitable companions include the other smaller peaceful fish such as Rummy Nose Tetras, Harlequin Rasboras, Lemon Tetras , Neon Tetras, Black Widow Tetras, Cardinal Tetras, Emperor Tetras, Head and Tail Light Tetras, Glass Bloodfin Tetras, Glowlight Tetras, Guppies, Endlers Guppies, Neon Tetras, Peppered Catfish, Siamese Fighting Fish, White Cloud Mountain Minnows and Zebra Danios. Not all these common companions are compatible with each other. Most of these fish will eat baby Swordtails.
In the pair of red wagtail swordtails above, the fish on the right has the sword and gonopodium that mark it as a male. The picture below shows a red male above a pineapple female.
Swordtails are livebearers like the Guppy and the Great White Shark. Like both these fish the Swordtail will sometimes eat their own babies. If the Swordtails are kept in a well planted tank without crowding there is more chance of the babies surviving. The gestation period of Swordtails is about 28 days.
For breeding I suggest a ratio of three females to each male. Only the males have the extension of the tail that gives the fish its name. Experiments show that female Swordtails prefer larger males with a longer sword. Many aquarists do as well. Immature males look like females. An early developing male will usually end up as a smaller fish than a late developing male. Before the sword develops the sex can be seen by the developing gonopodium. This is a modification common to others in this group of fish. The anal fin under the middle of the fish becomes elongated and is used to transfer the packets of sperm, called spermatophores to fertilize the female. The gonopodium is functionally similar to the penis of Monotreme mammals, but structurally different.
When they get older, some female Swordtails will change into males. Not all these males are fertile, but any babies the 'male' fathers will be female. This ability is hereditary.
Never release your pet fish or put them in the position of being accidentally released. The Swordtail has got into waterways in several places, and is causing serious problems to the native fish. In parts of the Brisbane River, introduced species make up over 80% of the total fish. These are not all Swordtails, but in sections they are the most common fish. In the Brisbane River Swordtails six inches long have been caught. For an extreme example of the damage introducing other species can do, see the Lake Eacham Rainbowfish Fact Sheet for an account of the Extinction of the lovely Lake Eacham Rainbowfish.
Sources and Picture Credits
I gratefully acknowledge the following sources of general information about the swordtail. Fishbase, Mary Reed of Ohio University, Sexual selection in the Swordtail and the evolution of ornaments, Department of Fisheries of the Western Australian Government, Aquatic Community, Animal World, liveAquaria.com, and turrbal environment.
The Green Swordtails above were in training at NASA for a flight on the space shuttle.
The picture of the male and female red wagtail swordtails is by Adam G. Stern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
The picture below the sexing section is by Ltshears (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons