By: Dr. Thomas R. Reich PhD
While goldfish have been kept as pets for hundreds of years, the tropical fish hobby owes its great success to the comical little Guppy – the first “tropical” fish to gain widespread popularity. After more than half a century of cultivation, the Guppy is still the most popular tropical aquarium fish. More than a few aquarists have been introduced to the hobby by a gift of guppies from a friend. In his book, “Exotic Aquarium Fish”, Dr William T. Innes refers to the Guppy as the “missionary fish” because it has made so many converts to the aquarium hobby. But what could be unusual about a fish as common as the common guppy?
The Guppy has been introduced to so many places throughout the tropical America’s that it is not certain just what the original habitat of this fish was. However, most scientists believe that the Guppy’s original home territory was Venezuela, Trinidad and the Guyana’s. This fish is extremely plentiful in these countries. For instance, every drainage ditch in the city of Georgetown, Guyana teems with Guppies.
Credit for discovering the Guppy is generally given to the Reverend John Lechmere Guppy, who is supposed to have collected specimens in Trinidad in 1866. But even this little bit of Guppy history is clouded by doubt.
This bit of Guppy lore goes something like this. About 1860, an English naturalist, Lechmere Guppy, Sr., living in Trinidad, used to send to the British Museum collections of natural history specimens. Among some fish that he sent home was a tiny, brightly colored little fellow that was described as a new species and named, after him, Girardinus guppyi. After it had enjoyed years of popularity as an aquarium fish, and had become known to aquarists by the specific name guppyi, someone discovered that the same fish, years earlier, had been described as Lebistes reticulates. In the meantime guppyi had been shortened to guppy, and no matter what changes are made in fish catalogues, book on aquaria, or labels on exhibition tanks, guppies will be guppies as long as the little fish retain their deserved popularity among fish fans.
There is another fish from Trinidad which has the official right to the name of Mr. Guppy. This is Hemibrycon guppyi, but as it is a much larger fish than the Lebistes reticulates, is rarely seen in aquaria due to its violent nature, and is an egg-layer, there is not the slightest danger of confusing the two. Guppies, in spite of their tiny size, are useful citizens of whatever pond or stream they have been introduced to and inhabit, as one of their favorite foods is the “mosquito larvae” which they can eat almost their total weight of every day! As, in nature, this little gem is always prolific (they are known in the West Indies as “million fish”) the sum total of their efforts in mosquito control has made much of Florida inhabitable, as well as many other areas of the world.
The extent of the Guppy contribution is debated but they seem as desirable in nature as they are in the aquarium. From the beginning of Guppy culture, it was noted that males showed great variety in fin shapes and colors. No two wild male guppies were ever exactly alike.
Through the years guppy fanciers have carefully selected until there are now more guppy varieties than could possibly be described here. Literally every color is seen on male guppies. There is even one variety, the golden guppy, in which both sexes are yellow all over. Several guppy varieties are worth virtually nothing, yet are sold as feeder fish and still fulfill a valuable purpose to the aquarist. Some males have beautiful sword like extensions on their tails.
The extension may be on the top or the bottom. It will come as no surprise that these are called swordtail guppies. In another variety, there is a sword extending from both edges of the tail. These are called lyre tails. Still another variety produces males with an iridescent green netlike pattern over the tail fin and body. These are called lace or snakeskin guppies. But the aristocrat of guppy varieties is the veil tail guppy, prize specimens of which have sold for more than $100.00 a pair. In the veil tail the tail has been developed into a broad triangle, sometimes as long as the fish’s body. The dorsal fin extends back like a long plume.
Veil tails come in many exquisite colors. The king of guppy breeders was Henry Kaufman, of Trenton, New Jersey. Mr. Kaufman’s veil tail guppies were known the world over as the finest money could buy. Many of the strains available today were originated by his organization. Kaufman won so many world championships, national and local contests with his guppies that he retired from competition in 1966.
So popular is the guppy that there are national, international, and local guppy breeders associations. These organizations, much like rose societies and kennel clubs, exchange information, set standards for prize guppies, and sponsor guppy contests. The guppy may be plentiful, but it is hardly fair to refer to it as the “common” guppy.