Described by Tutaj9 as “An American Beauty”, this strikinglylovely and peaceful algae eater deserves a better break. Of the hundreds ofspecies of killies kept and propagated by dedicated specialists, very fewqualify as a suitable fish for the more casual aquarist. The American-Flagfish, Jordanella floridae is a notable exception. Misunderstood, improperlyidentified, and frequently described inaccurately in the general aquariumliterature, this pupfish deserves a place in many community tanks that it hasbeen denied by an undeserved reputation. While consuming algae like the bestSiamese Algae Eater, it is beautiful, rugged and extremely tolerant of variedwater conditions. Highly prized in Europe, maybe it’s too close to home,here, for proper appreciation. Recently priced at less than $3.00 in localstores, it is a colorful bargain when it matures.
Originally thought to be a cichlid, this native of the gulf coast, butprimarily Florida, also was identified with the sunfish. Now known as aunique, single-species genus of native American pupfish, it has uncannybehavioral resemblance to both the sunfish and cichlid groups. The spinydorsal ray is unique among cyprinidontidae. The only time the Jordanellafloridae shows belligerence, above that of a molly, is during courtship andwhen guarding eggs. At that time, the female, or any territorial invader, isat real risk from an irate male, who can do serious damage. This is nodifferent than almost any nesting cichlid or gourami.
The generic name is for David Starr Jordan, the first president ofStanford University. The species name is for the state where it is mostprevalent. The habit of shipping wild specimens from selected gatheringgrounds in Florida has left the species free of the dominance of uglymutations that have ruined many other good aquarium fish. Typical J. floridaeof today probably look identical to the specimens so eagerly greeted inEurope over 70 years ago. Unfortunately, that appearance gets masked in theliving conditions of many fish shops, and poor understanding of the needs ofthis fish often has turned a real swan into an ugly duckling.
As in most killifish, the male and female are different in appearance, buttheir coloring is as variable as any chameleon. Each has a different kind ofattractiveness, but both may be quite dull and drab in the wrongconditions. Their behavior is as interesting as their appearance. In thispaper, the author proposes a hypothesis to answer the question of why thereare so many conflicting descriptions of this species. The breeding behaviorunder two different environments, and their general behavior is described,following the description of the fish and proper living conditions. Aconcluding section puts forth the hypothesis. A proposal for defining correctconditions for keeping and breeding Jordanella floridae is advanced.
The body is much shorter and more laterally compressed than most othercyprynodonts. The unique spiny fin rays and unusual body qualify it for aseparate genus. The body of both sexes is similar, with the male size about25-30% larger than the female (3″ vs. 2 1/4″) flattenedsunfish-like shape, with dorsal and anal fins displaced to the rear, gives itan unmistakable silhouette. It is easily the most colorful of our nativeaquarium fishes, rivaling the dwarf gourami in overall attractiveness. Theorigin, unique shape, and bright colors should qualify the Jordanellafloridae as the signature fish in the AKA logo, rather than some non-nativethat is rarely kept by most modern killifish aquarists. The particular colorpattern of the male is even more reason we should proudly display this fishas our logo.
In a well lit, heavily planted tank, the male takes on the appearance thatleads to the common name. “American-Flag Fish” requires the hyphen of acompound adjective, for the male looks as if he dressed in the nationalpennant. [Almost all other authors and editors seem to miss this simplegrammatical point] With red stripes on the sides, and an upper fore-quadrantof deep blue, the resemblance is uncanny. The iridescent green-white spot oneach scale makes the stars in the blue field, as well as the “white” rowsbetween the red stripes (if you don’t mind a grass-stained look to thewhite). The upper and lower edges of the scales are bright red, formingsolid, horizontal, brilliant red stripes. The transparent unpaired fins are apale sky blue, but dorsal and anal are so covered with red markings that redis the dominant hue.
The female sports a false eyespot in the center of her side, directlybelow the start of her dorsal fin, and another in the rear base of her dorsalfin. Her basic color is tan to gray, and only the central portion of two orthree scale rows may carry the iridescent green shine. She has achameleon-like ability to shift colors and patterns in all kinds ofinteresting ways. Sometimes a checkerboard, then vertically barred, her mosthappy appearance is to echo the central eye spot several times back towardthe caudal fin, each spot with less contrast as the tail is approached. Atthe height of breeding passion, she can become a buttery bright yellow, withalmost no dark body markings.
The eyespot on the side of the male is still present, exactly at the rightangled corner of the blue star field. It is not so hard-edged and welldefined as in the female. While the male loses his dorsal spot as he matures,the female’s jet-black dorsal spot has a brilliant white “iris,” making itmore obvious than her normal eye. It should confuse many predators.
The male flashes his bright red unpaired fins, to attract the female’sattention, and uses them in the actual mating as described below. The upwardfacing mouth has somewhat wide fat “lips.” His sharp teeth are capable oftaking neat bites out of swordplant leaves, if enough algae, riccia andduck-weed aren’t present to satisfy the craving for vegetable matter. Theirface has an expression that some have described as “froggy.”
Like many partially vegetarian fish, the routine behavior is a slow anddignified search for algae, and a calm resting position among top weeds. Inshallower tanks, the resting position may be nearer the bases of plants. Amated pair will spend most of their non-breeding time in close proximity,with lots of affectionate brushing and touching. Rarely will they allow theother out of visual range. While seldom molesting others, more aggressivespecies can cause the floridae to become timid and to hide. Like manykillies, the young do become frantic when frightened, but this tends to goaway with age. Small babies are often very hard to see. They instantly divefor cover at any approach to the tank.
The most striking behavior is during mating, described in detailbelow. The spawning behavior is radically different in different conditions,which has led to a lot of confusion in the literature. 1,3-8,10Hopefully, this report will start to clarify this point, and future effortscan proceed with better direction. Most of the cited references contain somematerial factual errors, and only the JAKA/Killie Notes references should betrusted. 2,9 In particular, the males are larger than the females,they are very brightly colored, they don’t “dash around” the tank, and theydon’t molest other fish, despite the claims of some famousencyclopedists.
The literature is, again, somewhat divided on desirable conditions. TheJ. floridae so readily adapts to very different situations that most statedconditions are probably correct. This author has obtained viable eggs fromthe same pair, both in soft, too-warm, deep, acid water, and shallower, hard,cooler water. The only requirement seems to be reasonable acclimation, andadequate mix of animal and vegetable matter in the diet.
They first spawned in the top plants of a 55 gallon “Amazon” planttank. Since the temperature was 81°. and the hardness was down around 2dGH, with pH about 6.2, the spawning was a complete surprise. Theseparameters were well outside the range of almost every reference, yet thefloridae happily deposited eggs on hygrophila leaves, duck-weed roots,floating water sprite and anything else near the surface. Introduction of apower head caused enough surface turbulence that they tried spawning on lowerplants and an algae-covered log. They went back to surface spawning when thecurrent was directed slightly downward, leaving some still corners at thesurface. They never attempted to spawn on the bottom.
Some days after completion of the spawning round, they were generallypeaceful. However, an Apistogramma macmasteri pair started defending a newbrood, and the female J. floridae simultaneously showed some tatteredfins. Moving the pair quickly to an old 10 gallon tank, they received onlyhastily drip-acclimation to the 74°., hard-water tank. dGH was estimatedat about 20, but was not measured, at the time, and pH was well above 7(above 7.4 without CO2 injection). The depth of the 10 (8.5″ gravelto surface) was much less than the tall 55G show tank (16″ salt hadbeen added earlier, but intervening partial water changes made the residualconcentration uncertain.
Heavy rear-corner planting in the 10G filled all the swimming space but acentral clearing by the front glass. This turned out to be an observationaljackpot, for the area chosen for next spawn was within range of a stronghand-held magnifying glass, in the center of the clearing.
Even with the abrupt change in conditions, the male harassed the female,and, within a day, spawning resumed. Fussy about conditions, they arenot!
Spawning — High vs. Low
The initial spawning in the 55G tank was at odds with the sunfish-likedescriptions in many books. The tendency was to just say those authors werebusy quoting each other and had not bothered to observe that the Jordanellafloridae was a typical killifish that should spawn in mops near thesurface. After all, everyone “knows” killies don’t guard their young.
In the shallower tank, the difference in behavior was almostunbelievable. The mating dance changed completely, and the egg-laying lookedalmost as if it really was in the gravel. The male fanned the eggs, and inall ways fit the cichlid-sunfish-like pattern, described so often,before.
In the tall tank, earlier, eggs were rescued from the floating roots ofduck weed and placed in a small fishbowl to gestate and hatch. One egg evenfloated in the meniscus at the top of the water. They weren’t very sticky,and the one egg led to the belief that the eggs were buoyant. Later, theauthor observed that bottom-laid eggs were not buoyant. They pulled onattached fine strands of algae to hang down when undisturbed. The differencein spawning was so great it leads to speculation that the salinity or fatcontent of the eggs might be different for deep-water spawning and forshallow-water bottom spawning, to minimize egg loss.
The original mating behavior, in the deep tank, started with a male danceto attract the female. When she was receptive, she would swim up to him, andthen lead him to some, often distant, part of the tank she had chosento deposit her eggs. Snuggling together, head-to-head, she was always on top,with the male cupping her from below as they semi-inverted to push her ventup against the plants chosen. His unpaired fins all curled to clasp her in acup as they lay on their sides, nearly parallel to the surface, and vibratedalong the plants. Repeated several times each evening, there were long restperiods while they recovered. When resting, they tended to stay close andkeep within easy eye-contact range.
In the smaller tank, the male so severely chased and bit the female thatphysical separation became necessary. He, not the Apisto, had been the finshredder. Despite the fighting, both tried to find a way through theinstalled barrier. By the next morning, they were getting so frantic that itwas removed. Spawning was resumed, right away.
This time, the female clearly led the dance. It takes quite a bit of room,and smaller tanks could be a problem here. She grabbed the exact center ofthe clearing, and pointed herself directly away from the male. Flickinglittle puffs of water at him with her tail, as he circled the clearing(always in a clockwise direction), he displayed his fins to her. She rotatedwith him to keep him visible in both eyes, and her tail pointed directly athim. Gradually, his circles tightened and/or she backed up until her tail wasactually stroking his side with each flick. When he became sufficientlyaroused, they moved to a side-by-side position and started a vibratingspawning pass over the gravel. Cupping his anal fin near her vent, shedeposited the eggs on plant strands in rows as they slowly wriggledalong.
Watching with a magnifying glass, it was possible to observe indetail. The spawning “in the gravel” was no such thing. Every single egg wasgetting deposited on a strand of hair algae, a root, or strand of Javamoss. No eggs were seen attached to, or free, in the gravel.
Driving the female away, the male groomed and fanned the egg site. Hethrust forward with his caudal fin and backward with his pectorals to createa strong current over the eggs, while tilted, head down, at about 30°the horizontal over the “nest.” Several spawnings were completed, over thenext few days, before he drove the battered female away for the last time. Hediligently fanned and watched the eggs, driving the female into hidingwhenever he could see her, and threatening the author whenever he approachedthe glass for a closer look.
Some eggs were lost to ramshorn snails (which the father ignored), butmost hatched successfully, after about a week. No infertile or fungused eggswere observed. A portion of the spawned-on plants was removed, early in theprocess, to a small floating container, but most were left with the parentsto see what happened. When all the eggs were hatched, the male still fannedand watched over them. The parents were finally returned to the big tank asthe babies started to scatter on the second day after hatching started. Theseparated fry were returned from the floating container to the tank and thebabies were started on infusoria, to supplement the already-active fauna ofthe aged water in the tank.
Yield of viable, free-swimming fry was very poor in the 10G tank. Theearlier eggs, collected in the deep tank, hatched in a much shallowercontainer, with much better results. Many killies do not develop properswim-bladder function if trapped in too-deep water, and it is easy tospeculate that this is true here, too. The fry struggle very hard to reachthe surface as soon as they can swim. The few who do, seem to grow better andswim better than the ones left belly-sliding on the bottom. The ability tostay at the surface seems related to the first attempts to get there. Fillingthe swim bladder with air, early, may be critical.
Combining the need for shallow water in the babies, and the two radicallydifferent spawning behaviors leads to an interesting hypothesis. The spawningof the Jordanella floridae is simply adjustable to the early needs of theyoung.
In deep water, surface spawning on free-floating plants allows the eggs tobe blown ashore, where the hatching can occur in shallow water. In shallowerwater, the protection of the parent is more safe, so the eggs are laid in anest and protected. In nature, 8.5-inch-deep water is rarely more than a fewfeet from shore, so shallow water easily could be reached by belly-slidingfry. Unfortunately, the 10G tank did not provide that protection, and most ofthose fry did not get to the free-swimming stage. While algae growth wasprolific in the old water of this tank, the hydra came out in droves tofurther deplete the fry population. The fry do not swim well for the firstcouple of days, so were easy prey. Only five or six, that probably started inthe floating container, survived.
The next variation on a theme will be to collect eggs and test the growthof fry hatched at several different depths, to see if an optimum can bedefined. The results may take a while, so they will have to be reportedlater.
It may be better to keep only males for quantity display in the communityaquarium, like dwarf gouramis. While mildly territorial, they do welltogether if given a little room, and will even school in groups. Parboiledspinach, algae or veggie flakes should supplement live foods and regularflake food, if the softer plants are to be protected. After all, these arepupfish, with long intestines, and they like and need some vegetablefood. Their grazing will, however, tend to keep unsightly hair or beard algaeunder control. They are less expensive and much more ornamental than almostall other really effective algae eaters.
The breeding roughness and fierce male guarding of the young might suggestthat females should be kept only for breeding, and raised/maintainedseparately from the males, once breeding age is reached. This author soenjoys their normal affectionate behaviour that it seems a shame to keep themapart. If kept with a male, in a small tank, just provide plenty of hidingplaces for the female. Otherwise, the spawning-frenzied male might causesevere injury to her fins.
This is an easy-to-breed species, and would be an excellent andentertaining first breeding project for someone just starting out inkillifish culture. Who knows, we might eventually get enough out at our ownshows to rival the large numbers usually entered in the DKG show.