Swordtail Fish

Green Swordtail, Red Swordtail

Family: Poeciliidae Red Swordtail Fish, Xiphophorus helleriiRed Swordtail FishXiphophorous helleriiPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy David Brough
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i have two tuxedo platies and two ornage platies and a red swordtail i just got them yesterday and i am new to this aquarium thing but i was really wanting to get... (more)  wyatt Shaw

The most popular aquarium fish next to the Guppy is most certainly the Swordtail!

The Swordtail Xiphophorus hellerii is extremely popular. This is because it's one of the prettiest fish for an aquarium and is very hardy. In its wild form it has an olive green body with red and yellow along the sides and sometimes colorful speckles on fins and is most commonly called the Green Swordtail, and also Red Swordtail. But the fabulous color forms selectively bred in captivity are what it's highly prized for today with a variety of descriptive names.

The Green Swordtail is similar in shape to both the Platy fish and the Guppy. It has a bulkier body than either of those two though, and also has a "sword" extending from the bottom of the male's tail fin. It is often thought to be named for the "sword" shaped extension of its tail fin, but the Swordtail was actually named for the sword-like appearance of the male's anal fin. This is a specialized anal fin that develops as the male fish matures. The middle rays of the anal fin are modified into a narrow copulatory organ called a gonopodium.

A beautiful male sporting a "sword" tail is one of the most striking physical characteristic possible by any aquarium fish. Even though there is no apparent purpose for this tail fin, it is 1/4 to 1/3 the total length of the fish. The wild species have an even more majestic tail, with swords up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length. The tail fin's sword is shorter in tank bred specimens but it is complimented by the wonderful colors that are now available.

What's in the name?
Xiphophorous means "bearing a sword"
hellerii named for Carl Heller

Like the Platy fish, Swordtails have been interbred to produce all kinds of interesting colors and different types of finnage. Some of the more common varieties of this Swordtail fish are: Red, Red Wag, Red Tux, Painted, Neon Green, Marigold (and wag), Pineapple, Black, Red Twin bar, Sunset, and Gold Tuxedo.

Some other types of Swordtail fish that are occasionally available are the Montezuma Swordtail (Spotted Swordtail) Xiphophorus montezumae, Delicate Swordtail Xiphophorus cortezi, and Mountain Swordtail Xiphophorus nezahualcoyotl. There are also a couple of dwarf species, the Pygmy Swordtail Xiphophorus pygmaeus and Panuco Swordtail Xiphophorus nigrensis, that are sometimes available. These dwarfs are similar to the others but smaller, and not quite as hardy.

Swordtail fish are not only pretty, they are easy to breed and fast growing. They are quite hardy so make a wonderful fish for the beginner. They are generally peaceful lively fish that swim in loosely grouped schools and are good in a community. They do best in a well planted tank with lots of room to swim around. Provide floating plants to protect the young as the parents often eat their fry. Like all livebearers, they do like a bit of salt though it is not necessary.

For Information on keeping freshwater fish, see:
Freshwater Aquarium Guide: Aquarium Setup and Care


Geographic Distribution
Xiphophorous hellerii
Data provided by FishBase.org
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Cyprinodontiformes
  • Family: Poeciliidae
  • Genus: Xiphophorous
  • Species: hellerii
Swordtail Fish, Green Swordtail

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Swordtail fish in a community aquarium

Beautiful Swordtail types in a nicely planted community tank with tetras and neons as companions.

Swordtail Fish - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Size of fish - inches: 6.3 inches (16.00 cm)
  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gal (76 L)
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Temperature: 64.0 to 82.0° F (17.8 to 27.8° C)
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Green Swordtail Xiphophorus hellerii was described by Heckel in 1848. They are found in North and Central America, ranging from the Atlantic slopes of southern Mexico (Rio Nantla, Veracruz) to northwestern Honduras. They have been introduced to, and become established, in a number of countries in southern Africa and along the east coast of Australia.

Wild strains exist in many color variations of the Green Swordtail X. hellerii. These fish are not endangered nor are they listed on the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species. Other common names this species is known by are Swordtail and Red Swordtail

There are a variety of other Swordtails species that are occasionally available in the aquarium trade as well. These include the Montezuma Swordtail (Spotted Swordtail) Xiphophorus montezumae, Delicate Swordtail Xiphophorus cortezi, and Mountain Swordtail Xiphophorus nezahualcoyotl. There are also a couple of dwarf species, the Pygmy Swordtail Xiphophorus pygmaeus and Panuco Swordtail Xiphophorus nigrensis, that are sometimes available.

The Spotted Swordtail Xiphophorus montezumae was introduced into the aquarium hobby as early as 1864, while the popular Green Swordtail was first introduced in 1909. The Green Swordtail X. hellerii is the most available. The other species, though similar, are not always as large and are often more delicate.

The Green Swordtail occur in all types of waters, and prefer heavily vegetated areas. They are mostly found in rivers and streams, but are also found in warm springs, canals and ponds. Though not a schooling fish but enjoys the company of other swordtails so will often shoal. They feed on plant matter, worms, crustaceans, and insects.

  • Scientific Name: Xiphophorous hellerii
  • Social Grouping: Groups - Enjoys being with other Swordtail fish even though it is not a schooling fish.
  • IUCN Red List: NE - Not Evaluated or not listed

Description

The Green Swordtail is a moderate in size with a sturdy elongated body. Females are larger, reaching up to 6.3 inches (16 cm) in length while the males are somewhat smaller at 5.5 inches (14 cm). Along with the Mollies, Guppies and Platy fish, it is a member of the Poeciliidae family of Live-bearing Toothcarps, which are distinguished by having teeth in both their upper and lower jaws.

Koi Swordtail, Male/female pair
Koi Swordtail (male & female) Photo Courtesy David Brough

Swordtail males are smaller and slimmer with a "sword" on the caudal fin (tail fin). Also as the male fish matures, the middle rays of its anal fin become modified into a narrow copulatory organ called a gonopodium.

The basic color of the wild Swordtail is an olive green body with red, yellow or brownish stripes along the lateral line of the sides. They can also have speckles on the dorsal fin, and sometimes on the caudal fin. The "sword" on the caudal fin is yellow with a lower black edge. In nature mutations occur frequently so there also exist many color variations in wild strains.

Selective bred Swordtails of the Green Swordtail come in many colors and mixtures of colors. The colors of these mutations include red, green, black and albino though the most well known is red.

Pineapple Swordtail, Female
Marigold Swordtail (male) Photo Courtesy Coryator

Males have also been developed with exaggerated finnage and there are now high-fin varieties and lyretail swordtails, those with two swords instead of one. Even some females now have a sword.

Most hybrids are crosses between the Swordtail Xiphophorous hellerii and the Platy fish Xiphophorous maculatus.

Early ornamental Swordtail varieties:

Some of the first popular swordtail varieties were named after the cities in Germany where they were first bred, these include:

Blood-Red Swordtail, Female
Blood-Red Swordtail (female) Photo Courtesy Newman
  • Berlin Swordtail - a Red Swordtail with black spots.
  • Frankfurt Swordtail - red on the front half of the body and black on the back half.
  • Hamburg Swordtail - has a body that is as black as possible with yellowish fins. The scales on the sides are shiny with a greenish or bluish metallic sheen
  • Wiesbaden Swordtail - along the sides of the body and down into the tail is black with shiny scales, the back and abdomen are green or red.

Popular cross-bred types of Swordtail fish:

Varieties with black markings include fish that have a black tail and are called a "wag tail." Those varieties that have black markings on about 3/4 of the body, but not on the tail, are called a "tuxedo."

Pineapple Swordtail, Female
Cherry Swordtail (male) Photo Courtesy Ken Childs
  • Green Swordtail - the body is green with a red, lateral zig zag pattern.
  • Green Wagtail Swordtail - a Green Swordtail crossed with a Wagtail Platy.
  • Green Tuxedo Wagtail Swordtail - a Green Swordtail crossed with a Tuxedo Wagtail Platy.
  • Red Swordtail - ground cover is red, overlaid with a dark red cover color. This fish is a cross between the Green Swordtail and the Red Platy. Sporting different shades of red some examples are called the Bloodred Swordtail, Brickred Swordtail, and Velvet Red Swordtail.
  • Red Wagtail Swordtail - a Green Swordtail crossed with a Red Wagtail Platy.
  • Red Tuxedo Wagtail Swordtail - a Green Swordtail crossed with a Red Tuxedo Wagtail Platy.
  • Variegated Swordtail - fish are a mixture of colors with no set pattern.
  • Hybrid Swordtail - This is the same fish as the Salt-and-Pepper Platy, but if they retain the "sword" then they are called a Hybrid Swordtail rather than Salt-and-Pepper Platy. No two fish are alike but contain bits of black, red, yellow, and green blotches.
  • Marigold Swordtail
  • Black Nubian Swordtail
  • Pineapple Swordtail
  • Neon Swordtail
  • Koi Swordtail
Pineapple Swordtail, Female
Pineapple Swordtail (female)

The average lifespan of Swordtail fish is between 3-5 years, though they can live longer with optimal care.

  • Size of fish - inches: 6.3 inches (16.00 cm) - Females can get up to 6.3 inches (16 cm) in length while the males are somewhat smaller at 5.5 inches (14 cm).
  • Lifespan: 5 years - On average these fish will about 3-5 years, but if well cared for they can live even longer.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

The Swordtail fish is hardy and generally peaceful, making it suitability for community tanks. It's also easy to care for and to breed, making it a great choice for the beginning aquarist. Make sure you select only healthy fish and provide a good tank and varied diet to offset any potential problems.

A male can demonstrate territorial aggression towards other males however, and sometimes other fish, especially older males. So it's best to keep only one male or to have several to divert their aggression. Also, the Swordtail is an accomplished jumper, so be sure to provide a secure cover for the aquarium.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Very Hardy
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Beginner

Foods and Feeding

Since they are omnivorous, the Swordtail fish will generally eat all kinds of fresh, frozen, and flake foods. In the wild their diet consists of worms, crustaceans, insects, and some plant matter. In the aquarium they will gladly eat most commercially prepared fish foods as well as supplementary live and vegetable based food. Feed brine shrimp (either live or frozen), tubifex,, or blood worms as a treat. This fish is not a picky eater but should be fed a varied diet several times daily, in small amounts.

  • Diet Type: Omnivore - This fish is an omnivore, however it appreciates a higher vegetable component in its diet. Supplementing processed foods with blanched lettuce is an excellent way to facilitate this need.
  • Flake Food: Yes
  • Tablet Pellet: Yes
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet
  • Vegetable Food: Some of Diet
  • Meaty Food: Some of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day - Feed small amounts several times a day, what the fish can consume in about 3 minutes each time.

Aquarium Care

The Swordtail fish does not require special aquarium care and are not too demanding about their tank. Still the tank should have regular water changes of 25% every 2 -4 weeks. It will need more or less depending how many fish there are and the condition of the water.

As with most of this family, it is also advisable to add 1-1.25 teaspoons of aquarium salt per gallon. Be sure to only replace water with salted water if that is what was from the tank. Water which evaporates will leave salts behind, so there is no need to add more salt if you are topping off evaporated water.

  • Water Changes: Monthly - Do water changes of 25% every 2-4 weeks, more often with heavily stocked tanks.

Aquarium Setup

The Swordtail fish are moderately sized, active fish that need plenty of room for swimming. A 15 gallon tank could house a single individual with some company although this fish would be much happier in at least a 20 gallon tank. with a few of its own kind. Generally it is best to keep a single male with a small harem of females unless the tank is large enough to house a more evenly mixed group. Be sure the tank is covered as they are accomplished jumpers.

Most any type of gravel works fine for a substrate, but these fish will appreciate an aquarium that is well planted. They are tolerant of water conditions but good filtration is very helpful in maintaining stable water. Filtration systems remove much of the detritus, excess foods and waste. This in turn helps to keep the tank clean and maintain the general health of the fish.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gal (76 L) - Fifteen gallons could house a single individual but a small group needs at least a 20 gallon tank.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: Yes
  • Substrate Type: Any
  • Lighting Needs: Moderate - normal lighting
  • Temperature: 64.0 to 82.0° F (17.8 to 27.8° C)
  • Range ph: 7.0-8.3
  • Hardness Range: 12 - 30 dGH
  • Brackish: No - This is not a brackish water fish, but it does appreciate a little salt in the water of about 1-1.25 teaspoon per gallon of water.
  • Water Movement: Moderate
  • Water Region: Middle - These fish will swim in all areas of the aquarium, but mostly in the middle.

Social Behaviors

The Swordtail fish are generally peaceful lively fish that swim in loosely grouped schools. They are generally considered a good community fish though sometimes they will eat their own, and other fishes, fry. Males get aggressive with each other, so a ratio of one male with several females works best. Aside from that, the individual fish vary from being peaceful harmonious tankmates to being bullies. Older males especially can tend to be aggressive toward each other and other species.

This fish combines well with most other good natured fish of similar size. But this fish can have quite extensive fins which are often too tempting for fin nippers to resist, so it's best to avoid combining them. Fishes such as Mollies, Platy fish, Angelfish, armored catfish (Corydoras) and plecostomus, and larger Characins such as the Black Skirt, Red Serpae, and Silver Tip make good tankmates.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful - This is generally a peaceful community fish, but males can sometimes get aggressive, especially older males.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species - conspecifics: Yes - Males can get aggressive with each other, so it's best to keep one with a few females, or keep several males to divert aggression. They will chase and eat their fry.
    • Peaceful fish (): Safe - f a Swordtail fish has long fins, mixing it with fin nippers should be avoided.
    • Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (): Threat
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (): Threat
    • Slow Swimmers & Eaters (): Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe - not aggressive
    • Plants: Safe

Sex: Sexual differences

Only the male has the "sword" extension on the bottom of the tail fin. The male is also slimmer and has a "sword" shaped anal fin called a gonopodium. The female has a fan shaped anal fin, is rounder of body, and will have a spawning patch at breeding time.

There is an occasional tendency for a female Swordtail to change sex and develop a "sword" on her tail, especially when old or affected by parasites. She may even attempt courtship with another female, though the majority of the time they are infertile.

Breeding / Reproduction

This live-bearing fish breeds readily in the home aquarium without special attention if well fed and cared for. In fact, they can quickly overpopulate an aquarium. For breeding swordtails, little more is required than to introduce both genders into the aquarium. Although they generally attain sexual maturity at about 8 to 12 months, they have been known to start breeding as young as 3 months of age.

On occasion, with certain environmental conditions, a female of this species has a tendency to undergo sex reversal. She may develop a "sword" on her tail and may attempt to spawn with another female, though most of the time this female will be infertile.

To selectively breed Swordtails fish, provide a breeding tank that is 10 to 20 gallons in size with gentle filtration. You will notice a female is pregnant when she develops a gravid spot, a dark mark on her abdomen. The gestation period is about 24 to 30 days.

Monitor the fish closely when she is close to giving live birth. Swordtails will chase their fry and may eat them if given a chance. The young will be consumed unless they are removed, isolated as with a breeding trap for example, or simply given enough hiding spaces such as dense rooted or floating plants. The female Swordtail can have between 20 - 200 fry, but usually it's about 80. For more information, see the guide for breeding Livebearing Fish: Breeding Freshwater Fish - Livebearers.

  • Ease of Breeding: Easy

Fish Diseases

Swordtails are relatively hardy and do not have any particularly strong weaknesses for certain diseases. Still they are subject to the same diseases as other tropical fish. One of the most common freshwater fish ailments is ich. The best way to proactively prevent disease is to give them the proper environment and give them a well balanced diet. The closer to their natural habitat the less stress the fish will have, making them healthier and happy. A stressed fish is more likely to acquire disease.

Anything you add to your tank can bring disease to your tank. Not only other fish but plants, substrate, and decorations can harbor bacteria. Take great care and make sure to properly clean or quarantine anything that you add to an established tank so not to upset the balance. For information about fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.

Availability

The Swordtail fish is among the most commonly available and is usually modest in price.

References

Author: Clarice Brough, CFS
Available From These Merchants
Green Swordtail Xiphophorus Helleri Green Swordtail Xiphophorus Helleri
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Red Swordtail 1.5 2.5 Length Red Swordtail 1.5 2.5 Length
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Lastest Animal Stories on Swordtail Fish


wyatt Shaw - 2014-12-28
i have two tuxedo platies and two ornage platies and a red swordtail i just got them yesterday and i am new to this aquarium thing but i was really wanting to get an eel i have excelllent hiding spots in the 50 gallon tank including a brick and some rocks stacked to create a tight hole but i am worried about the eel eating the other fish what should i do and what type of eel should i get if i do get an eel????

  • Clarice Brough - 2014-12-29
    Sounds like a great tank! You could add one of the Spiny Eels, like the Zig Zag Eel, that don't get too big. They stay close to the bottom, feed on small foods like worms and brine shrimp... and mostly ignore their tankmates.
Reply
amalsyikin - 2014-11-22
I've just realized that my swordtail was having the babies when she's dead. I took her body out from the tank and saw her babies were still inside the womb(didn't noticed alive or not). I buried them at my backyard :(.. My question : 1) what may caused the dead? The mother is stressed because of giving birth? Or else? 2) should i took out the babies out of the womb? thank you (who replied me the answers :) )

  • arriyah - 2014-11-22
    you should have took the babies out of the womb
Reply
arhelh2051@sbcglobal.net - 2014-10-19
i want to purchase a gold tux swordtail please advise where i can order thank you....emma lee

Reply
Connor - 2014-10-15
I have one male red swordtail and he is a gorgeous fish and gets on with my red finned platies, mollies, clown loaches, penguin tetras and my neon tetras. But does anyone know when my female red tail platy will give birth because she has been pregnant for ages and has had no babies?

  • Clarice Brough - 2014-10-17
     The average gestation period of a live bearer is about 28 days, so if its been longer than that she may not be pregnant.
  • Connor - 2014-10-19
    Thank you very much for your help and during the time we have had we have had 5 babies and we think it is her because she has got a lot thinner.
Reply
arhelh2051@sbcglobal.net - 2014-10-19
i want to purchase a gold tux swordtail please advise where i can order thank you....emma lee

Reply