Breeding Fish FAQ – part I

Fish breed in many ways, and yes you can watch. In fact, watching fish breed is one of the great fascinations in the hobby because there are so many interesting strategies among breeding fish.

How to breed betta fish

There are two main strategies that fish use: egglaying and livebearing.

Livebearing fish do what the name suggests. The female gives birth to fully formed, free-swimming young. The female fish is internally fertilized by the male fish, and carries the fry for about a month before delivering them. Upon delivery, the babies swim off, hide, and begin searching for food.

Livebearers include the popular mollies, platies, swordtails, and guppies. Other livebearers are halfbeaks, anableps, and fish in the Goodeid family. They are easy to sex, as the female is larger, and the male has a rod-like anal fin called a gonopodium that he uses to internally fertilize the female. After fertilization, the female can produce multiple batches of babies without a male present.

Egglaying is also what the name suggests: the fish lay eggs instead of giving birth to little fish. As the fish grow, they hatch into fry with an attached yolk sac, and then mature into fish. The process usually takes around a week to 10 days, although it can vary widely.

Egglayers have many methods of laying their eggs
Egg scatters usually scatter eggs around weeds, or onto gravel. The male chases the female during spawning, and the eggs are fertilized as they fall. Spawning runs can be spectacular to watch since the fish race around the tank and ignore anything else, including food. Examples of egg scatterers are tetras, barbs, rasboras, and danios.

Substrate spawners are a little choosier about where they put the eggs. They lay eggs that attach to some sort of substrate. Plants, rocks, wood, and even the aquarium glass may be chosen as a spawning site. Both fish participate in the egg laying, with the male fertilizing the eggs as the female lays them. Examples of substrate spawners are many catfish, some cichlids, and killifish.

Bubblenest builders lay their eggs in a nest of bubbles blown by the male fish. The bubbles are held together with saliva and look like foam. They tend to attract infusoria that the babies can eat, and keep the eggs at the surface of the water, where they are well-oxygenated. The eggs are laid a few at a time, and carefully placed in the nest where they hatch. Examples of bubblenest builders are bettas and gouramis.

Mouthbrooders actually keep their eggs in their mouths until the eggs hatch. The eggs are again laid a few at a time, and once the male fertilizes them, the parent doing the mouthbrooding gathers them up in his/her mouth. That parent eats sparingly, if at all, until the baby fish are released. Examples of mouthbrooders are male arowanas and female cichlids.

Marine fish also lay eggs. Some are substrate spawners, but many lay pelagic eggs that float in the plankton. There the eggs hatch into a larval stage, and the larvae float freely and eat tiny plankton until they grow into fish. See the Moe reference for a more complete description.

Breeding and Agression

“Help! Why have my angelfish (or kribs or African cichlids) started killing everything in my tank?”

“Why did my female platy just turn around and eat her babies?”

“I think my tetras spawned. Where are the eggs?”
Parental care in the fish world varies widely. Parents can be anywhere on a continuum from eating all their eggs or fry, to both parents fiercely guarding their eggs and fry.

Many fish parents show some common behaviors, so I will discuss them here.

Most fish consider any and all fish eggs and young to be a tasty treat. Therefore most fish will not hesitate to snack on any they find, including their own. This means that egg scatters and many substrate spawners really cannot be bred in a community tank, as the eggs will quickly be eaten by the parents and other fish. Marine fish and invertebrates also eat eggs. Livebearers are especially notorious for eating their young.

A few fish ignore their eggs or fry, and so can be bred in a species tank. White cloud minnows can breed this way, and many killifish will at least ignore the eggs. Baby killies are fair game, though. Guppies will also often ignore babies.

Other fish have one parent that guards the eggs and fry. Most bubblenest builders and mouthbrooders operate this way, as do some substrate spawners. The responsible male or female stays with the eggs and young, until they are free swimming. With bubblenest builders, the male tends the nest, blows bubbles as they pop, and keeps any falling eggs or fry in it. He will also defend the nest against other fish. Mouthbrooders simply hide their eggs in their mouths, and some substrate spawning catfish will hide the eggs underneath them. Certain substrate spawning cichlids also have one parent care for the eggs and fry.

A more common setup among cichlids is to have both fish guard and care for the young. This setup can be really fascinating to watch. The parents will take turns fanning or blowing fresh water onto the eggs, and removing any fungused eggs. They will also fiercely defend the spawning site, which can often cause injury or even death to other tankmates. Once the eggs have hatched, the parents will also guard the fry. Some fish will even move the fry to a different place each day. Once the babies are free swimming, some fish continue to guard them, while others end their parental duties. Many African cichlids guard their babies until they spawn again. Discus even feed their babies off of their slime coats.

A more extreme version of guarding is practiced by some Tanganyikan cichlids. There, older siblings will stay around the nest and help the parents defend subsequent spawns. The babies are allowed to stay until breeding age, when they are driven off.

See also breeding fish FAQ part II.

By “Mr. A. Non c/o Calypso”
Article donated by Gerald Jennings of

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