Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Tough Love" for Guppies? Can it really work?

I've been experimenting with keeping a cool/temperate water fish tank, keeping various fish that are said to tolerate temperatures on the cooler side. One of the fish that is often mentioned for this, is the Guppy.

There is also a great deal of argument about it. Guppy's are, in fact, from the tropics. Yet they have been known to do well at temperatures lower than many tropical fish like, and even survive temperatures even lower, for brief periods. This invariably leads to discussions about the hardiness of Guppies.

Some claim the natural hardiness of Guppies has been bred out of them, as they have become more and more in-bred in order to create fancier and more dramatic fish. But still others claim, that the hardiness of Guppies has more to do with how you keep them; that over-pampering them creates a "weak" fish.

Some of the most interesting posts I've seen on this topic, are on the GuppyTruth blog:

"Killing Them With Kindness" by Anthony Fischinger
[...] In Chicago in the 70's and 80's when I was growing up there were dozens of pet stores that had multiple tanks of fancy guppies. Some carried a dozen or more varieties and the quality of fish then was high enough to shock many new to the hobby today if they could travel back in time and sees them.

Fancy guppies at that time were hardy fish, recommended to all beginning fish keepers. They were a joy to keep and rarely got sick in my experience. A lot of friends I had in those days growing up kept guppies in peaceful community tanks, even some with angelfish, and the guppies thrived.

Back in those days, I did water changes and major tank cleaning once a year, since my mom hated water on the floors. I usually just added water to replace that lost by evaporation. I always had live plants in the tanks, and so did many others in those days. I think that was and remains a key to success-- the plants prevented ammonia spikes and nitrate buildup and provided a margin of safety when mistakes in overfeeding were made. The fish just seemed to be happier as well with some live plants in the tanks.

I also didn't realize it was important at the time, but aged tank water and the gunk in gravel contain infusoria that are both a food source for fry and a source of challenge to the immune system of the guppies.


The hygiene hypothesis basically contends that people raised in too sterile of an environment are more susceptible to nagging illnesses. I believe wholeheartedly and speak from experience that this also applies to keeping guppies. One of the biggest hurdles the guppy hobby needs to clear today is that of loving them to death. Expensive trios that die when moved to a new environment with good water parameters before fry are dropped is, to me, totally unacceptable, as are fish that need constant medication to stay alive. A lot of eager first time hobbyists are lost forever after a bad experience with expensive fish.

I was an experienced guppy keeper and was disgusted when I re-entered the hobby and found fish difficult to keep alive. Warning bells go off now for me when a breeder recommends elaborate preparations and attention to pH and hardness and medications, other than possible a bit of salt and worming/parasite medications for the arrival of a trio. Their directions might be meant to help a novice but they make me a bit nervous nonetheless. Let me say that as long as a breeder will stand by their fish and guarantee a drop of fry, I have no problem with them and would buy fish if needed without reservation. I also think a shift to sending fry packages versus trios would be of benefit to the hobby, as they acclimate easier.

Guppies should be able to tolerate a wide range of PH and hardness and a fairly wide range of temperature conditions, from acidic backwater filled with tannins to even full saltwater, and from the 50s to the 90s in temperature for at least short periods. I have had my fish survive in both during the last year, I had some fish outside in barrels in dark tannic waters and I gave culls to a friend that acclimated them to saltwater over 24 hours to use as feeders. I rescued some stunned fish from a barrel after an early fall freeze that dropped the water temperature to the low 40's, they were dying and wouldn't have lasted long but recovered fully.

I think the root of the problem is that we are killing them with kindness, raising them in sparkling clean tanks with frequent or constant water changes. A return to simpler methods of guppy husbandry is needed. I think a change is also needed in how we select our breeders. I used to think that inbreeding over too long of a period was the main problem, but mine eyes have seen the glory, so to speak, and I have seen that for even the weakest inbred fish there is hope of recovery of vigor, hardiness, and deportment through selection and husbandry. I have brought strains back from the brink of extinction in my fish room and so have others. The problem really doesn't seem to be the inbreeding like I originally thought, but instead selecting the wrong breeders out of a population. If you breed the two wrong fish, there will always be problems. You can't improve and win with a strain you can't keep alive.

Guppies need to be a pleasure to keep, not a burden. Vitality and deportment and favorable responses to stressful conditions need to be the, most important selection criteria if a strain is hard to keep. Perfection of conformation can be worked on conventionally once the fish are easier to keep healthy.


The best way to start a toughening process with a strain is with a new drop of fry. I keep up to several hundred fry in a 2.5 gallon tank for several weeks without changing the water, and they grow like weeds. The tank has a box filter with aragonite and floss in it. The tank is filled at least 50% by volume with hornwort. I like hornwort since it does well and grows very fast even under relatively weak lighting if you let it float. A cheap 4 foot shop light a few inches above a row of tanks is plenty to keep it going.

It you are doing this for the first time, shake out the filter that is ready for cleaning and seed the tank with a few ounces of the dirty looking water. This will add filter bacteria and some infusoria to help jump start the immune systems of the fry. Snails or some water in which they have been kept can be added to help seed the tank with some infusoria. If the tank is kept under 24 hour lighting, with a lot of plants or green water, several hundred fry can be kept in a 2.5 gallon tank for several weeks without the water parameters going out of whack.

When I feed, I push the plants aside, so there is a bare area of surface. I feed them decapsulated brine shrimp and spiralina flake and they grow nicely despite the crowding .By the end of 3 weeks there might be a half inch of mulm and detritus on the bottom and the tank walls might have a lot of algae on them.

I guess I am also selecting for fish that grow well despite crowding, though it didn't really hit me until I was writing this was selecting for fish that were able to tolerate crowding and stay healthy, I guess I got a two for one there. I dump the entire contents of the tank into a 29 gal and immediately remove all the males to their own tank. I scrub at least one or 2 sides of the 2.5 gallon tank with a diaper wipe and refill it for the next batch of fry. I do not try to get it sparkling clean.

As for the 29 gal tank, I might keep up to 500, one month to 2 month old fish in it during the culling process. My 29 gal is in front of a sunny South window and is green water. Sometimes, I will do a water change just so I can see the fish to cull and sort.


The toughening process can be gradual and I am giving a lot of detail so people can pick and chose what might work for them in their fish rooms. There is more than one way to go about the process as Greg has proved. I gradually let water go longer between changes, letting the interval go longer if the fish looked OK.

Also raise some fish outdoors between April and October, roughly between last and first frost. I take a few fish outdoors and acclimate them over an hour in bags in 55 gal barrels in partial shade in Spring when water temps are in the 50's and then add a cow patty to each barrel to grow green water and daphnia for them. I just give them anti-protozoal and anti-worm flake food when I bring the best of them indoors in the fall, usually when the water temps are in the 50's.

This is an additional and optional selection step for fitness that is hard to do indoors and I get a lot of extra gallons to raise fish in, most of which go to become feeders, only a few of the best come back indoors to the breeder tanks. My strains are relatively new so large numbers help, I have a lot of culling to do but they are still improving, I was told my fish made a good showing last year at the one show I took them to. Now that they are a pleasure to keep, I can spend the next few years fine tuning them, and the process will not be fraught with worry for their viability. [...]

These are just a few excerpts (I also added some extra paragraph breaks). There's LOTS more on his blog, fascinating stuff.

When I was a kid, I remember a friend of my mothers, who kept a 10 gallon tank. She hardly fussed with her's at all, and her tank was pretty healthy. The more I fussed with mine, the more problems I had. She said it was better not to disturb things too much. I eventually followed her example, and I also had better results. Reading about these guppies reminded me of that.

He's got other good posts too, like The Green Water Miracle, and Answers to questions people ask.

And of course, there was the post that originally lead me to his blog:

Cold Water Guppies
In April of 2004, I read an article in the April 2004 e-Bulletin of GuppyLabs entitled “The Full Blue of Rio de la Plata – Part One” by Rosario Arijon. In this piece, the author described how a certain Professor Daniel Tejedor, a man of impressive credentials, maintained a fish farm in Olidin, Uruguay where many varieties of ornamental fish were raised. Of specific note was the fact that the gentleman raised, among these various species, guppies that were perfectly adapted to breed at 18 degrees Celsius, and live at 14 degrees Celsius. That is 57.2 to 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit! “No way,” I thought. At the time, I was barely keeping my fragile IFGA strains alive at a constant 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and drops of fry were out of the question! Further, I would later find out I was dealing with some of the tougher strains. Was there a misprint in the GuppyLab’s article? It was just so inconceivable to me.

Over the years that followed, I would occasionally search the web for any other corroborative information on “cold water guppies”. I found some who swore they had some in ponds or in coldwater tanks with goldfish, but other forum members would always dismiss the claims as lies, or insist such guppies were, in fact, Gambusia (mosquito fish). One rather famous American guppy breeder claimed that he knew for a fact guppies would not reproduce below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and as a long-time New England resident, he should know.

My interest in the subject was born out of a bit of necessity. As the owner and inhabitant of a 115-year-old Victorian cottage, things can get a bit, shall we say, “drafty” in winter. The fact is that the house does not get above 68 degrees from November until the first of April. Due to high utility bills, even those with modern homes typically set the thermostat to 70 degrees during the winter. In my case, with winter temperatures between 10 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit, my home never sees anything warmer than 68 degrees even with the furnace running non-stop. It is usually around 64 degrees through most of the winter.


The Great Recession of 2008/2009 found me returning to school for nursing, while pinching pennies to cope with ever-rising energy costs. If I was to have this many tanks of guppies, they would have to be able to survive at room temperature, whatever that “room temperature” was. Either that, or perhaps my living arrangements were better suited to goldfish. Cold water guppies were no longer some esoteric consideration, but a hard cold reality, no pun intended. [...]

Anyway, there's lots more. If you find the topic of Guppies and temperatures interesting, you'll appreciate it.

You might also find this shorter piece, by another Guppy breeder, to be of interest too.

1 comment:

Ron D said...

I have also found that not pampering my guppys worked better than frequent water changes. I also found that a lower PH seemed to work better. tanks that naturally had the PH go lower did better than the tans I kept adjusting the PH to 7.0.
I am the one that took your web picture. Here is a link to more pictures including all the guppy colors and a few more in the dream tank picture.