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The Giant Sailfin Mollies of Central America: Poecilia velifera and Poecilia pet

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An article I did on the history and breeding of P. velifera and P. petenesis with a post script. I still need to add the history of breeding all black pure P. velifera in Florida in the 1930's.

The Giant Sailfin Mollies of Central America: Poecilia velifera and Poecilia petenensis: Part I

As a child growing up in the 1960’s on the Gulf Coast of Texas there was a drainage ditch not 50 yards from my front door. For someone interested in the natural world this simple ditch was a constant source of discovery. Its shallow water was filled with frogs, snakes, crayfish, insects, plants, Gambusia and, most enticing of all – Poecilia latipinna. These sailfin mollies would gather in small groups with the four inch males displaying their striking dorsal fin before the females or other males. With the sun providing the lighting, these displays of blue and orange were stunning. Within this population there were always a few black spotted and solid black males and females. For a boy with a dip net the black ones were the prize. Collecting these native jewels became a summer pastime and a life long love affair with all three species of sailfin mollies was born: P. latipinna, P. velifera and P. petenensis.

As beautiful as those wild P. latipinna were dancing in the sun, they were nothing compared to the black and white photograph by Dr. Carl L. Hubbs of Poecilia velifera in William T. Innes’ classic EXOTIC AQUARIUM FISHES. I must have checked the “Innes Book” - as it is known - out of our local library at least once a month and time and again I found myself staring at this photo of a gorgeous male velifera with its enormous dorsal fin covered in tiny pearl-like dots and spread out like the sail of a boat just catching the wind. Innes dubbed this beauty the “aristocrat” of the mollies. Others referred to it as “the king of the livebearers.” Needless to say, I began to search for “the king” but in the 1960’s P. velifera was not to be had. It might have been in the hobby in Europe and maybe a few old-timers still bred it in the US but on the whole it was the stuff of legend.

One Christmas around this same time, I received as a gift Herbert Axelrod’s book ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TROPICAL FISH and it was in this book that I was introduced to the third species of sailfin mollies – Poecilia petenensis. On page 524 of the 1965 edition there is a photograph by Sam Dunton of a stately pair of petenensis. From the photograph it was clear the large dorsal fin on male petenensis was not quite as nice as the one found on male latipinna muchless the even more regal one found on male velifera, but as if to compensate for the slightly smaller sailfin petenensis reportedly carried its sail erect more often than the other two species. What was obscured in the Dunton photograph was a feature of the male petenensis that I would later learn about from reading Günther Sterba’s monumental work FRESHWATER FISHES OF THE WORLD. Male petenensis carried a small black sword-like extension on the bottom of their caudal fins – a “swordtail” molly!

Needless to say, if by the 1960’s velifera was a legend in the hobby, petenensis was almost a myth. All this was about to change, but first a look at a bit of history.

It can be said that the modern tropical fish hobby received its start in pre-WW I Germany. One of the early centers of this new pastime was the port city of Hamburg. To supplement their income, sailors traveling to the tropics would collect small fish thought suitable for the home aquarium and sell these wonders to hobbyists upon their return to Germany. In time an organized import/export business developed around this exotic hobby. The premier firm in this new and profitable international business was naturally located in Hamburg and its name became famous the world over – Aquarium Hamburg. In addition, Hamburg also supported one of the finest aquarium societies to ever exist. It was named after the man considered the father of aquarium keeping in Germany: Emil Adolf Rossmassler. Simply called “Rossmassler”, this Hamburg aquarium society counted among its members one of the all time giants of the tropical fish hobby: Johann Paul Arnold.

Whenever you see the scientific name of a genus or species of tropical fish formed from the name “Arnold” it was probably given to honor J. P. Arnold. He was to the German tropical fish hobby what William T. Innes was to the American hobby and, incidentally, Arnold and Innes were old friends. Arnold was one of the first hobbyists to establish contacts with the leading ichthyologists of his day and he often sent them specimens of the many unknown species which he purchased from Hamburg’s fish collecting sailors. In fact, Arnold can be credited with establishing the model for the mutually beneficial relationship between serious hobbyists and scientists that has come to characterize our hobby today. Just such a relationship led to the description of P. velifera.

In volume 10 of his magazine Aqua Geograhia, Heiko Bleher recounts the first importation of P. velifera into Germany:

In 1913 a giant form of “M” [Mollienisia] [In the 1960’s the species assigned to the genus Mollienisia were included within the genus Poecilia thus making Mollienisia an invalid name] latipinna – or so it was thought – arrived from Progresso on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. These fishes were well over 15 cm in length and males had larger dorsal fins than seen previously. They arrived in a can full of very dirty water – many were dead, and several more died after being transferred to an aquarium before it was realized that the dirty water contained salt and accordingly cooking salt needed to be added to the tank. Progresso is on the coast and the local “Mollies” are generally found in brackish water. All the fishes in this first importation succumbed, but not before a few fry had come into the world.

Johann Paul Arnold, a well known ichthyologist, obtained a few individuals from Mr. Neve and preserved them in alcohol for subsequent examination…He sent the preserved specimens to his fellow ichthyologist Charles Tate Regan in London, and the latter replied as follows: ‘The Mollienesia [P.] appear to be a new species, they resemble M. [P.] petenensis, described by Günther in 1866 from Lake Petén in Guatemala, but they have 18 rays in the dorsal fin instead of the 14-16 in M. [P] petenensis.” Regan described the fishes from Progresso as M. [P.] velifera ‘sail-bearing’), and in consequence they have become known to aquarists as ‘Sail-fin Mollies.’ [Regan uses an ‘e’ before the ‘s’ in Mollienisia rather than an ‘i’.]

A drawing by Arnold of a pair of velifera was made in 1914, probably from this first importation, and it was published at least as early as 1915 in the United States. Arnold and Ernst Ahl included Arnold’s 1914 velifera drawing in their 1936 book FREMDLANDISCHE SUSSWASSERFISCHE (FOREIGN FRESHWATER FISHES). This book was considered the German “Innes Book.” The drawing does not quite capture the size and shape of the male velifera but it does offer a nice representation of the female, particularly the female’s compact and rather thick body shape.

An additional drawing by Arnold of a lone male velifera was published in 1934 in the German book ZIERFISCHE SEETIERE IHRE PFLEGE UND ZUCHT (loosely translated as ORNAMENTAL FISH AND SEA ANIMALS THEIR CARE AND BREEDING) by another influential early German aquarist Wilhelm Schreitmuller. The printing of the drawing in this book makes it impossible to read its date but judging from the fish depicted I would guess that Arnold based his figure on the lone male velifera in the before mentioned black and white photograph by Dr. Carl L. Hubbs. The similarities between the fish in the photograph and Arnold’s drawing are quite noticeable, plus the photograph by Hubbs first appeared in the February, 1933 issue of The Aquarium magazine in an article by Hubbs entitled “Species and Hybrids of Mollienisia.” The 1933 date would have given Arnold ample time to create a new drawing of velifera based on Hubbs’ photograph for Schreitmuller’s 1934 book. Of course, it is possible that Hubbs and Arnold simply had similar male fish.

It is difficult to say when P. velifera first appeared in the US hobby. Ross Socolof in his endlessly fascinating and historically indispensable memoir of the men and women who invented the Florida tropical fish farming industry CONFESSIONS OF A TROPICAL FISH ADDICT mentions that by 1929 William Sternke was offering P. velifera for sale at $2.50 a pair from his farm in Florida. Sternke had imported the fish from the Yucatan. Sternke’s own account of importing velifera, an importation he claims was the first into the US, can be found in the 1956 edition of TFH’s booklet MOLLIES AS PETS. Sternke lists 1930 as the date of the original importation. He goes on to say that in 1934 he crossed his line bred strain of all black P. latipinna with P. velifera to produce “an outstanding Black Sailfin”. It is believed that fish from this latipinna x velifera cross were used by William T. Innes to create his legendary illustration of Black Sailfin Mollies in EXOTIC AQUARIUM FISHES.

Aquarium hobby history pioneer, Al Klee, in his late 1960’s and still absolutely essential Pet Library booklet KNOW HOW TO BREED LIVEBEARERS provides further clues on the introduction of P. velifera into the US. He writes that in 1932 a breeder in Florida named J. C. Thompson obtained 5 black spotted P. velifera fry out of a batch of 35. With these 5 fry, Thompson worked on two strains. Three of the black spotted velifera babies were given a pond to themselves to reproduce and reproduce they did. Within a short while, Thompson had a pure strain of all black velifera. The other two fry, both males, went into a pond with virgin black latipinna females and soon another latipinna x velifera cross was developed. Klee describes Thompson’s strains as having much better black color than Sternke’s fish. Klee also states that 1932 and not 1934 was the year Sternke developed his latipinna x velifera strain. Klee goes on to report that the other -- and maybe original – breeder of Black Sailfin Mollies, William Schaumberg of Crescent Fish Farm in New Orleans, Louisiana also crossed his line bred strain of all black latipinna with P. velifera in 1932 producing a superior sailfin fish.

Is it any wonder that the Black Sailfin Mollies of the early 1930’s were such prized and not to be forgotten specimens easily commanding the asking price of $25.00 a pair? Why these Florida bred latipinna x velifera strains were allowed to disappear by the 1950’s remains a mystery for by the 1950’s it would seem that the once magnificent velifera sailfin on commercial Black Sailfin Mollies (see Innes’ illustration) had returned to the far less showy dorsal dimensions of latipinna. Maybe crosses with P. shenops and petenensis to improve hardiness in Black Sailfins were to blame. Whatever it was sailfin mollies possessing the quality of these 1930’s strains would not reappear on the world market until the mid 1970’s in the form of the Gold Sailfin Molly.

Velifera itself was always overshadowed in the US hobby by the native latipinna and by the Black Sailfin strains. Obviously, farm and tank raised strains were established, but certainly by the late 1950’s velifera had pretty much disappeared from American hobbyists’ tanks. There are isolated reports by specialist breeders in the 1950’s and early 1960’s but even these can be counted on one hand and could unknowingly be referring to latipinna. This development is made all the more surprising when one considers that wild, farm or tank raised P. velifera are much easier to keep than wild, farm or tank raised latipinna and, even more important, tank raised male velifera, on the whole, develop much finer sailfins under their aquarium conditions than latipinna males are want to do. Tank raised velifera males can produce sailfins easily equaling those in wild caught males if provided with the correct conditions. Latipinna can too but success is not as easily assured. Frederick H. Stoye was one of the first breeders of velifera to point out this positive trait.

In the pages of the March, 1933 issue of The Home Aquarium Bulletin, Stoye penned one of the best pieces ever written on Poecilia velifera: “Mollienisia [Poecilia] Velifera (Regan) The Giant Yucatan Sailfin.” Considering that Stoye, a particularly talented early breeder of tropical fish in the US, states in this article that male velifera require 16-24 months to fully mature, it is safe to assume that Stoye had acquired P. velifera by 1930 or 1931. If that was indeed the case, he probably purchased his fish from the before mentioned 1929 or 1930 offering by Sternke. It is worth quoting Stoye’s appeal to the aquarist’s creative imagination which serves as the introduction to his article:

Follow me on an imaginary trip to the land of the ancient Aztec civilization, the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan. This southernmost state of our neighbor republic has an area of over 35,000 square miles (about three quarters that of the state of New York), is rectangular in shape and juts into the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the extensive coastal region is low and abounds in quiet pools, lakes and streams. They extend inland for miles and are banked and overhung by a luxuriant growth of tropical vegetation. The sky is blue, the sun hot and an amazing variety of birds, butterflies and other insects bustle about.

This is the home of the King among live-bearers, Mollienisia [Poecilia] velifera. Let us go for a few miles inland and select a likely-looking body of water. This seems to be a good spot. As far as the eye reaches we behold an expanse of water bordered and partly overgrown with seemingly impenetrable plant thickets. The water looks dark and ominous, endless lilypads cover the surface, the bottom is carpeted with masses of aquatic plants. In some places these almost reach to the surface, in others there are large clearings indicating a water depth of six to ten feet or more.

While we are endeavoring to enjoy the beautiful scene, a six inch long diamond-studded object flashes through the water underneath the lilypads. ‘What was that?’ we ask ourselves. Before the thought is formed we see another and a third. They are in hot pursuit of somewhat smaller and duller colored females. But look over yonder in that clearing! Do you see those two big males in harmless combat? Their sides are a light blue-green, well peppered with glittering spots that look like hundreds of diamond splinters reflecting the light. The gill covers are a rich brass to gold. The throat and underside of the body are orange to rich red-orange. Their fins are spread until they seem to split. The dorsals are fully two inches high and as long as the body. Numerous light spots and darker – brown, orange, blue and red – markings are arranged in a pleasing pattern. This often takes the shape of semi-circles and produces a peacock effect. The caudal fin is similarly colored, but here the light and dark spots are aligned vertically and form narrow curved bars. The lower part of this fin is free from spots and often has a dusky lower edge and a slightly prolonged tip.

So, don’t you want to run out a buy a tank full of these beauties!?

Stoye goes on to describe in great detail the keeping and breeding requirements for raising choice specimens of P. velifera. He stresses the use of large tanks. He recommends putting two males and three to five females in a 50 gallon tank. A thick growth of algae in the tank for feeding purposes is considered a top priority when keeping and raising velifera. Stoye found that velifera seemed to like temperatures as high as 90F but states that a temperature around 80F or a bit more is best. He suggests keeping the adults at 75F during the winter months to discourage breeding and thus give the fish a bit of a rest. Stoye notes the long gestation period for the development of velifera fry – usually close to 8 weeks. Happily for aquarists of Stoye’s day, he mentions that several firms were offering beautiful imported velifera at the time of his article. In fact, in the August, 1933 issue of The Home Aquarium Bulletin Stoye himself will offer young tank raised velifera for sale from his hatchery in Sayville, Long Island. One would think velifera was well on its way to becoming a mainstay in the US hobby.

Frederick H. Stoye’s expression of his love for P. velifera did not stop with this enjoyable article. In the second edition (1935) of his book TROPICAL FISHES FOR THE HOME, Stoye once again painted a glowing picture of this species and made a point of stressing the positive trait of velifera in captivity – the tank raised males develop sailfins equal to wild caught males. By 1935, Stoye states that it only takes 12 not 16-24 months to raise a fully developed choice male velifera. I concur with Stoye on this point as I was able to mature excellent male velifera within 12 months. Stoye also mentions the all black P. velifera then in development and writes that its appearance will mark the pinnacle of sailfin molly development.

In addition to Stoye, a former resident of the Yucatan, Manuel C. Diaz happened to read a series of articles on Mexican fish which appeared in The Aquarium magazine in 1945. Diaz was living in New Mexico at the time and the article inspired him to send William Innes a letter recalling Diaz’s adventures as a young aquarist growing up in the Yucatan. Innes published Diaz’s letter in the September, 1945 issue of The Aquarium. In this letter, Diaz cannot stop singing the praises of P. velifera. His closing paragraph is worth quoting at length:

It may be a matter of distant fishes being the finer ones, but I cannot help feeling that Mollienisia [Poecilia] velifera, which I cannot obtain now, are far finer fish than M. [P.] latipinna. After knowing the former so well it does not seem to me that the M. [P.] latipinna are anything to talk about, either as to vigor, coloration or, especially, development of the dorsal fin. I hope that before long some of these beautiful Yucatan Mollies may become available again in the U.S.A.

In the December, 1947 issue of the Aquarium Journal published by the San Francisco Aquarium Society, our friend Stoye would once again address the beauty and captive suitability of P. velifera in his remarkable but long forgotten, lengthy series of articles covering from both the scientific and hobbyist point of view the vast majority of the families and species of tropical fishes available to the aquarist at that time. This particular article in the series was entitled “The Fishes of The Order Cyprinodontes…Part 3. The Livebearers (continued).” The entire series of articles is unique and deserves to be reprinted. Stoye was a giant in the hobby and when it came to information on breeding fish he was far more informative than his contemporary W. T. Innes due to the simple fact that Stoye was a more active and accomplished breeder of tropical fish than was ‘Ole Bill Innes.’

P. velifera might have been commercially available in the American tropical fish hobby as late as 1954. There is a poor quality black and white photograph of a fine adult pair of velifera in a little known aquarium book that appeared in its second edition in 1954. The book was titled THE TROPICAL FISH BOOK and its author was a professional writer by the name of Ruthven Todd. Most of the photographs in the book are the black and white ones provided by the New York Zoological Society (NYZS) and often used in aquarium books of the period. Unfortunately, none of the photographs used in the book are individually credited. The NYZS photographs are fairly easy to identify even without individual credits as they were all taken using what can only be called a NYZS “house style”. Some of the photographs in the book do not show this “house style” in their composition and one is left to guess their source. In his acknowledgements, Todd mentions the premier tropical fish store of the period Aquarium Stock Company of New York City as having been helpful to him when writing his book. Did the Aquarium Stock Company provide fish to be photographed or even the photographs themselves? They did publish a ‘slick’ mail order catalog with fish photographs for many years. The black and white photograph of the velifera is one of the photos that does not reflect the NYZS “house style.” Could it have been taken at Aquarium Stock Company expressly for the book? We don’t know; we don’t even know the date of the photograph. But it is a possibility. Was velifera still available in New York fish stores in the early 1950’s?

Aquarium Stock Company aside, velifera was undoubtedly extremely rare in the US hobby by the 1950’s. Europe was another matter though. The extraordinary Dutch aquarist and world famous aquarium fish photographer Arend van den Nieuwenhuizen supplied at least two color photographs of a pair of P. velifera taken sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s to the popular Pet Library series of publications on tropical fish, available almost wherever tropical fish were sold in the mid to late 1960’s (and beyond). One of Nieuwenhuizen’s photos was also used in the 1971 English translation of Kurt Jacobs’ groundbreaking work on livebearers LIVEBEARING AQUARIUM FISHES, originally published in the old East Germany in 1969.

Nieuwenhuizen’s fellow countryman G. J. M. Timmerman supplied TFH publications with both black and white and color photographs of a beautiful pair of P. velifera, one of which (black and white) appeared in the previously mentioned 1956 TFH booklet MOLLIES AS PETS. Unfortunately, some of these same photographs (color) were identified as P. latipinna in later editions of this booklet retitled MOLLIES IN COLOR (1968). This unexplainable misidentification of the fish in Timmerman’s photos also occurred in other TFH books of the period.

To make matters even more confusing, on page 14 of MOLLIES IN COLOR (1968) there is a black and white photograph of a spectacular male velifera (and correctly labeled as such) spreading his enormous dorsal fin. The photograph was taken by the well known Czech aquarist, photographer and regular TFH contributor, the late Rudolf Zukal. (Apparently Zukal owned a tropical fish store in the (then) Czechoslovakia.) Unbelievably, on the very same page, another black and white photograph by Zukal of a far less spectacular pair of velifera is identified as latipinna! With this random misidentification, well accepted distinctions between latipinna and velifera began to be blurred for the hobbyist. At least the great German aquarist Günther Sterba did not make any identification mistakes when he published a color photograph by K. Quitschau of a stunning male velifera in his 1973 Pet Library book DR. STERBA’S AQUARIUM HANDBOOK, also originally published in the former East Germany but in 1972.

Great Britain’s aquarists supplied at least two color photographs of male velifera. The first one appeared in the late-1950’s in a fine book entitled ALL ABOUT TROPICAL FISH. The authors of the book Derek McInerny and Geoffrey Gerard even identify the name of the British aquarist who supplied the fish for the photograph – Mr. A. Gale. The second British photograph of a male velifera appeared on both the cover and in the text of THE COMPLETE AQUARIST’S GUIDE TO FRESHWATER TROPICAL FISHES (1970) edited by John Gilbert. (The book required an editor as each of its various sections was written by a different expert on that particular section’s subject.) The color photograph used in the book was taken by someone named Pengilley and it captures a live male velifera spreading what has to be one of the tallest sailfins ever recorded on film – simply breathtaking. Gilbert’s book also includes one of the previously mentioned color photographs of velifera by Nieuwenhuizen.

One more color photograph worth mentioning of an extraordinary male velifera was published in the late 1950’s in the legendary 12 volume (Possibly 14 volume, people are not sure) loose-leaf German aquarium book which begin publication in the mid-1930’s and continued issuing supplements into the 1960’s: DIE AQUARIENFISCHE IN WORT UND BILD (AQUARIUM FISH IN WORD AND PICTURE) by Holly, Meinken and Rachow. The photo is by a Dr. Kerber and it shows a large male with deep color, wonderful patterning and exceptional size in both the body and sailfin. Photos such as these makes one wonder how anyone could ever confuse velifera with latipinna.

European hobbyists of the period did not limit themselves to only photographs of velifera. In the October, 1950 issue of the German aquarium magazine DATZ - Duetsche Aquarien und Terrarien Zeitschrift – and later translated and reprinted in the December 1951 issue of the always informative American aquarium magazine Aquatic Life edited by August Roth - there appeared an article on raising velifera by one Rudolf Tannert: “Mollienisia [Poecilia] Velifera – The Queen of Live Bearers.” In his article Tannert writes that he raised velifera continuously for 15 years in his aquariums and only lost the strain due to the effects of inbreeding. This would mean that Tannert first acquired his velifera around 1935. According to Tannert, his original fish were wild imports from the Yucatan. His description of the species is worth noting:

It makes me happy and enthusiastic having my friends and visitors rave about its [velifera] pearl-studded blue green coat, the orange-saddled tail and the giant red-bordered and beautiful ornamented dorsal fin.

Tannert’s experience breeding velifera in captivity over time mirrors the before mentioned notes by Stoye on the species:

I understood that only a few special breeders were able to develop the fish to the equivalent of the imported stock. I have learned that with excellent care and kept in perfect condition one may obtain good results and the number of poor males will be very small. …For most satisfactory results a tank not less than 36 inches should be used, abundant food must be available and extreme care are the main requirements for their successful breeding.

In 1954, the previously mentioned Aquarium Stock Company of New York City commissioned a translation and then published as a single book a series of valuable German booklets on breeding various tropical fish. In its English translation the book was entitled BREEDING AQUARIUM FISHES and its authors were two experienced German fish breeders Julius Nachstedt and Hans Tusche. The book’s popularity was due to its detailed information on breeding what were then known as the “problem fishes” – egglaying species requiring soft acid water for their successful care and reproduction in the home aquarium. (Today, aquarists are well aware of the needs of such species, but in the early 1950’s such knowledge was far from common.) Amazingly, a section on breeding Poecilia velifera was included in this gem of a book accompanied by a nice black and white German photograph of velifera that dates back to at least the 1930’s.

Another of the brilliant German breeders of the period Walter Bertholdt, a man who was also a frequent contributor to the Aquarium Journal and The Aquarium magazines, penned an article entitled “Breeding Mollienesia” [Poecilia] for the April, 1960 issue of the Aquarium Journal. The article focuses on sailfin mollies in general and velifera in particular with Bertholdt echoing many of Stoye’s and Tannert’s comments concerning the breeding and care of velifera. He stresses that sailfin mollies feel happiest in tanks of at least 40 gallons and require abundant food as they are heavy eaters. (My own experience bares this fact out and lack of food – dried, frozen and LIVE! - is one reason people have difficulty with all sailfin mollies. Mollies are relatively expensive to feed.) While P. petenensis is never mentioned in Berthodt’s article, his piece is accompanied by an unlabeled black and white photograph of a pair of Poecilia petenensis! The likely history of this photograph makes it of great interest. It first appeared in the before mentioned December, 1947 issue of the Aquarium Journal and was credited to Dr. C. L. Hubbs. This would be Dr. Carl L. Hubbs. As will be explained in more detail below, Dr. Hubbs collected petenensis in 1934 which makes this photograph probably the one commercially available visual record we possess from Dr. Hubbs’ 1934 collection and possibly the first photograph ever published of live petenensis.

It appears that Poecilia petenensis was first reported in the German aquarium hobby a few years before velifera, in 1908 by Thumm – a particularly gifted, early illustrator of aquarium fishes. It is unclear if an aquarium strain was established. An additional report on P. petenensis in the German literature was made by Arnold in 1938. After that, petenensis does not seem to have received much attention in the German hobby, at least until at least the 1970’s.

Before diving into the US aquarium history of Poecilia petenensis it should be noted that at the start of the 21st century there is a controversy surrounding its correct name. In 2002, Dr. Fred N. Poeser published a paper in Contributions to Zoology essentially treating as an unnamed species the sailfin molly species known for well over a century as Poecilia petenensis. Poeser’s reasoning for treating the sailfin molly species P. petenensis as a previously unnamed species is based on following a rather complicated history involving several taxonomists, name changes between two genera and several species, plus what became the use of the same name for two separate species in one genus after two different genera (Mollienisia and Poecilia) -- both of which were attached to molly species at various times -- were combined into the single genus Poecilia. Clear? I hope so. Applying his understanding of the accepted rules of scientific nomenclature to this mess, Poeser believes that the sailfin molly species formerly known as P. petenensis is actually nameless and so he has chosen to give it a (new) name – Poecilia kykesis. Apparently, the jury is still out on which name will be recognized as the official one, so I have chosen to retain Poecilia petenensis in this article. Maybe this article will help stimulate an official announcement on the status of the names petenensis and kykesis.

The first published account of petenensis I can uncover in the American tropical fish hobby is an article by W. T. Innes entitled: “The Beautiful ‘Spiketail’ Mollienesia” [Poecilia] that appeared in the July, 1938 issue of The Aquarium magazine and was illustrated by a black and white photograph (also by Innes) of a lovely young pair of Poecilia petenensis. The article was later included in Innes’ 1951 book AQUARIUM HIGHLIGHTS. Innes does not come out and directly identify the source of his petenensis in the article but his few statements regarding the source of the new fish make it appear to be either William Sternke of Sunnyland Fish Farm in Florida or Albert Greenberg of Everglades Aquatic Nurseries also in Florida.

Now, there is no way to tell for sure who provided Innes with the fish but I feel that Sternke is the more likely source. Sternke reports in the 1956 TFH booklet MOLLIES AS PETS that he received his petenensis from fish collected on an expedition led by the before mentioned noted livebearer pioneer Dr. Carl L. Hubbs and that he (Sternke) commercially raised these fish for a number of years. Sternke does not say when the Hubbs expedition occurred, but in an article entitled “The Royal Mollies from Lake Petén” which appeared in the March-April 1955 issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine its author, the noted Xiphophorus geneticist Dr. Myron Gordon, mentions Hubbs returning with live petenensis from a 1935 expedition to Lake Petén. Gordon’s dating of the expedition may be a bit off as the “Biographical Chronology” in the “Guide to the Carl Leavitt Hubbs Papers, 1920-1979” archived at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library in La Jolla, California lists 1934 as the date of Hubbs’ collecting trip to Guatemala. For this article, I have chosen to follow the Scripps Institute and use the 1934 date. Either of these dates would have easily allowed Sternke -- or Greenberg for that matter -- to breed and raise petenensis, establish a commercially available strain and then send specimens to Innes to advertise in The Aquarium.

Dating aside though, I tend to doubt it was Albert Greenberg supplying the petenensis based on a couple of stories Socolof tells in his CONFESSIONS OF A TROPICAL FISH ADDICT. First, Socolof writes that Greenberg obtained petenensis on his own as early as in 1932. In addition, Socolof reports that Greenberg commercially raised petenensis for many years but sold them to the aquarium market as native Green Sailfin Mollies -- latipinna! Socolof notes that other Florida fish farmers wanted to know how Greenberg at his Everglades Aquatic Nurseries managed to breed “native” Green Sailfin Mollies that were so much sturdier than the ones the rest of the farmers either collected or bred. You see, according to Socolof, to outsmart the competition, Greenberg kept the secret that his special “native” Green Sailfin Mollies were in reality the far hardier species petenensis! Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely he would send the fish to Innes for national and international coverage.

Despite the above mentioned article, William T. Innes failed to include Poecilia petenensis in his masterpiece EXOTIC AQUARIUM FISHES. This omission was most likely due to an editorial policy dictating the choice of species covered in the ‘Innes Book’. Innes felt only those species the average hobbyist had a chance of obtaining either at the local fish store or through an aquarium society should be included in the book. He did not wish to tease the appetite of the reader with species that were on the whole unobtainable. Of course, Innes’ future rival, Herbert Axelrod, would pursue the exact opposite editorial policy in the pages of his TFH publications.

The before mentioned 1955 Tropical Fish Hobbyist article on petenensis by Dr. Gordon contains an additional piece of interesting history regarding this species. According to Gordon, live petenensis individuals collected by Dr. Hubbs on his 1934 expedition were also given to William Schaumberg of Crescent Fish Farm in New Orleans, Louisiana. For the record, Schaumberg, along with Sternke, is credited with developing the best latipinna, latipinna x velifera and maybe even latipinna x ‘shenops’ or latipinna x ‘shenops’ x velifera Black Sailfin Mollies of the 1930’s. (It gets a little crazy if one tries to be accurate with recording the species involved in these 1920’s and 1930’s crosses since the available documentation is rather sketchy and the potential number of species in the hobby at that time that collectively went under the name ‘shenops’ is unknown.)

Putting aside the number of potential species involved in their respective breeding programs, both Schaumberg and Sternke initially collected the naturally occurring all black/black spotted fish found in pure wild populations of latipinna - Sternke in Florida and Schaumberg in Louisiana - and with a bit of selective breeding used these wild caught morphs to develop a strain of Black Sailfin – pure latipinna - Mollies. Whether or not both men also used each other’s fish – or those of an even earlier Black Sailfin Molly collector/breeder – Jack Beater – to develop their respective strains is unclear but likely. What is known is that all black/black spotted wild latipinna occur over nearly the entire Gulf Coast region of the United States making independent development more than possible.

Anyway, Schaumberg’s newly acquired petenensis were placed in a pond to reproduce but Schaumberg neglected to remove all the latipinna from the pond resulting in a hybrid strain. It is not known if the latipinna the petenensis accidentally came in contact with were Schaumberg’s Black Sailfin latipinna strain, a hybrid sailfin strain or simply the common wild color/caught latipinna – known as Green Sailfin Mollies. Whatever strain it was, it spelled the end of Schaumberg’s petenensis. In his article, Gordon claims this was the last time the pure species was heard from in the hobby up until his own 1954 expedition to Lake Petén netted a surviving trio of wild petenensis. Gordon’s claim must have been news to both Sternke and Greenberg! If Sternke and Socolof are right, it would seem that pure petenensis did manage to lurk around the edges of Sailfin Molly keeping and breeding in the 1930’s and maybe even a bit later.

In 1956 Dr. Myron Gordon published an additional two-part article on his collecting trip to Lake Petén entitled “Platies and Mollies”. It appeared in the September and October 1956 issues of the Aquarium Journal. While much of the material concerning petenensis in this article had already appeared in Gordon’s 1955 Tropical Fish Hobbyist article, it is worth quoting the passage recalling his first encounter with Poecilia petenensis in its native habitat:

As Senor Castellanos flashed his electric light between the beached native dug-out canoes, I noticed a number of pale grey, ghost-like, fish-like objects. At first they were practically motionless; then gradually they began to stir in the glare of the persistent light and their shadows revealed their outlines. As they swam closer to the shore, I saw their high, sail-like fins which broke through the surface of the murky water. I realized at that instant that the fish were Mollienesia [Poecilia] petenensis…

In his articles Gordon mentions distributing tank raised offspring from the lone trio of wild petenensis collected by him in 1954 to scientists and aquarists in both America and Great Britain but within a short while petenensis was once again lost to the hobby. Sam Duncan’s famous photograph of the wild petenensis collected by Gordon continued to appear in various TFH publications over the following years. Books such as Sterba’s FRESHWATER FISHES OF THE WORLD and Jacobs’ LIVEBEARING AQUARIUM FISHES offered brief entries on the species, as well as velifera, but neither the lovely Poecilia petenensis nor the regal P. velifera would make a return appearance in the American tropical fish hobby until the early 1970’s.

In 1970, with the rise in popularity of killifish thanks to the pioneering effects of the American Killifish Association (the forerunner and model for all such national aquarium fish specialty organizations today, including the ALA) and the creation of the American Cichlid Association which came to dominate the national club scene due to the explosive popularity of East African rift lake cichlids, Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine kicked off two soon to be highly influential monthly columns both authored by Dr. Robert Goldstein covering these popular families of fishes. The columns were entitled: “Killie Corner” and “Cichlid Notes”. At the time, private collecting trips by aquarium hobbyists to the lands where our fish originate were still rare, although a few such trips were beginning to occur. Just as they had led the start of the tropical fish hobby in the early twentieth century, enterprising German aquarists were among the first to point the way in this exciting new development in our hobby; something that has become a dream if not a mandatory rite of passage for today’s serious aquarists. Dr. Goldstein was one of the first Americans to travel the globe in search of desired species and in his “Killie Corner” column in the March, 1972 issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine he recounted the success of his late 1971 collecting trip to the Yucatan in Mexico. Most of his report dealt with the various killifish species he had acquired on his adventure but in the next to last paragraph of the piece, almost as an after thought, Dr. Goldstein penned a few words that immediately caught the attention of this young molly lover’s heart:

Two livebearers [Poecilia (Mollienesia) velifera and Gambusia yucatana…] abounded. [Note Goldstein’s use of the ‘e’ rather than an ‘i’ before the ‘s’ in Mollienisia.]

They were followed by a few more words in the last paragraph of the article that turned attention into instant joy:

It looks as though I will have breeding stock of the…molly…. These will be released through the appropriate channels….

Poecilia velifera was back and I had to have it!

What were these “appropriate channels” of distribution to be? Well, in January of 1972 the late Dr. Joanne Norton officially launched the American Livebearers Association with the publication of the first issue of its bulletin Livebearers. The exchange editor of my local aquarium society received a copy of the bulletin from Dr. Norton and knowing my interest in livebearing aquarium fish informed me of the new club’s existence. I was already a member of the American Killifish Association, so I was well aware of the extraordinary value to be found in joining the national specialty associations - primarily sound information and new, superior and/or rare species and strains. Happily, I sent off my yearly dues of $5.00 and found my name listed among the new members in the May, 1972 issue (#3) of Livebearers.

But it was the January, 1973 issue (# 7) of Livebearers that excited me to no end. In a brief note entitled “More Mollies for ALA” Dr. Norton announced that members (mostly herself) of the ALA possessed both P. velifera and, unbelievably, P. petenensis. All of a sudden both sailfin molly legends had re-entered the hobby. Due to the timing of the note’s appearance I assumed Dr. Goldstein was the source for the velifera, but from where had the previously unannounced petenensis arrived? The answer was quick in coming.

In the May, 1973 issue (#9) of Livebearers, Dr Norton authored an article entitled “Notes on a Giant Sailfin Molly”. In this article, Dr. Norton chronicled the slightly humorous exchange that occurred between her, Ross Socolof and the late Dr. Robert R. Miller over a shipment of unidentified wild mollies that arrived with Socolof’s good friend, the late Russell Norris of Guatemala when Norris visited Socolof’s Florida fish farm in May of 1972. In the article, Norton quotes from a letter written to her by Socolof on May 3, 1972:

He [Norris] brought with him a mixed bag of mollies including four males and one female velifera. I will send you [Norton] by return if you want 1 P. velifera male. I will try to get more velifera females as the one and only fish makes me nervous so cross your fingers and hope progeny develop. I would like to get more and breed the P. velifera as it is magnificent. I would like to see a P. petenensis before I die. I have collected Lake Petén three times and have never seen one.

Norton goes on to write:

Ross was to discover soon that he already had P. petenensis on his fish farm, as it turned out that the molly he had was P. petenensis instead of P. velifera!

Dr. Norton had sent a preserved male of this as of yet unidentified sailfin molly species to the recognized authority on the fishes of Mexico, Dr. Robert R. Miller and Dr. Miller quickly put the matter to rest: Socolof’s fish was Poecilia petenensis.

Two follow-up letters by Socolof to Dr. Norton informally record the history of these petenensis as Socolof worked to establish a strain at his farm.

June 23, 1972:

I have received additional P. petenensis females. I only have 13 females but that should be enough to get me started.

August, 29, 1972:

I have 13 females which I put in a dirt pool with some juvenile dwarf gouramis. My field manager tells me that there are young in the pool. I am attempting to get a few back to make sure that they are what I hope they are and not guppies or other strange and unwanted creatures that have a habit of appearing where least expected.

A final letter dated January, 1973 stated that Socolof now had an established stock of Poecilia petenensis – the Spiketail Sailfin Molly was back! Dr. Norton’s article did not mention when this new population of petenensis would be available to ALA members but chances were it wouldn’t take too long as the new population of velifera was already making the rounds.

In the Trading Column of the March, 1973 issue (#8) of Livebearers, for the first time Dr. Norton offered the general membership 10 young Poecilia velifera for next to nothing - “$10 post paid.” My order was placed immediately and in a short time 10 thick bodied, silvery blue dotted, inch and half beautiful velifera babies were swimming in a 20 gallon high aquarium placed in front of a window in my fishroom. In her listing of the velifera young, Dr. Norton did not include a population code or designation as this was before such notations were common practice in the hobby, but in the May, 1973 issue (#9) of Livebearers, Dr. Norton noted for the first time in print that her population of P. velifera came from Dr. Goldstein’s 1971 Progresso, Yucatan collection. For a number of months, she continued to offer velifera in her regular listing of available species in the Trading Column of Livebearers.

In the March, 1973 issue (#8) of Livebearers there also appeared a note from early ALA member and molly breeder Rulon Hancock describing his success with crossing velifera with P. mexicana - a cross Dr. Norton herself would soon make; therefore, it is safe to assume Dr. Norton had already distributed velifera adults to a few selected ALA members. In addition, Hancock should be remembered for being the first to cross this population of velifera with the latipinna x ‘shenops’ based lyretail mollies of the day. Hancock’s work with velifera crosses pre-dates by a few years the soon-to-be introduction of new commercially bred velifera based molly strains – only this time from Asian fish farms. Hancock’s cross produced a stunning strain of lyretail sailfins which Dr. Norton herself described as one of the best she had ever seen. Dr. Norton’s photograph of an adult male from Hancock’s cross caught spreading his spectacular dorsal and wide caudal fin accompanied Dr. Norton’s article the “Peach Molly and Other New Mollies” in the September, 1986 issue of Freshwater and Marine Aquarium (FAMA) magazine.

I did not acquire petenensis from the ALA and I don’t recall Dr. Norton or anyone else offering it for sale while I was a member (1972-1974). No, I stumbled on petenensis at one of my local fish stores. If memory serves, it was either in late 1975 or early 1976. I happened to be driving down a popular street in Houston, Texas when I noticed a new fish store had opened. Like any self-respecting fish nut I had to stop to check it out. I didn’t expect much as it was brand new and rather small. Boy, was I wrong! As I walked down the fish aisle I stopped in front of a tank of what I thought were rather nice wild type latipinna mollies. Imagine my surprise when I took a closer look and noticed a little black spike on the lower edge of one of the male’s caudal fin. And it wasn’t just on one. All the males in the tank had the little black sword extension on the caudal. Not only this, but the males all had their sailfins held more or less erect and their dorsal fins were long and low with a definite descending line from front to back. These were the obvious characteristics of petenensis! I had found the legend in the flesh. I can only assume they were from Socolof’s stock and maybe actually from his farm. I did not ask. I did buy several pairs though as they were selling for peanuts. I finally had breeding colonies of my two dream species: Poecilia velifera and Poecilia petenensis. But the story of these species in the aquarium hobby and my fishroom does not stop here.

Around this time, probably 1976 or so, an interesting commercial strain of sailfin mollies first appeared on the market apparently originating on Asian farms. They were and still are called Gold Sailfin Mollies and for all practical purposes looked and still look exactly like an exceptionally nice albino form of Poecilia velifera. I say this because the male Gold Sailfin Mollies carry the multitude of little pearly white dots between the fin rays in their dorsal as are found in the dorsal fins of wild caught velifera males. (See Dr. Carl L. Hubbs’ photo of a wild velifera male in Innes’ EXOTIC AQUARIUM FISHES.) Latipinna and petenensis males do not have these lovely dots. Although there is always the possibility of multiple molly species playing a role in the development of any strain, the previous form of Albino Sailfin Mollies available in the hobby, pre-dating the Gold Sailfin Mollies by about 40 years and still bred today, was a latipinna mutation first bred in Florida. The dorsal fin of these males carries the little solid colored dashes between each fin ray that are typical of latipinna males but, to my knowledge, not found in velifera males. To see the difference between the Gold Sailfin Mollies and latipinna Albino Sailfin Mollies take a look at Innes’ photograph of a wild latipinna male in EXOTIC AQUARIUM FISHES and Axelrod’s photograph of a male latipinna Albino Sailfin Molly on page 710 of the 1965 edition of ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TROPICAL FISHES and compare them to the photograph of the male Gold Sailfin Molly found on the cover of the November, 1994 of FAMA. But it isn’t only the dots rather than dashes in the dorsal fin of the male Gold Sailfin Mollies that suggest velifera genes; it is the overall body and fin size of the fish.

Properly raised adult Gold Sailfin Mollies are enormous, much bulkier in their bodies than latipinna based molly strains. Gold Sailfins also carry the tall almost cup shaped dorsal fin characteristic of velifera males as opposed to the more rectangular shape of the male latipinna sailfin. Additionally, the males of this strain are blessed with the intense orange coloration around the head and chest as is found in wild velifera males – even more noticeable in the non-albino or Green Sailfin form of the Gold Sailfin Molly which became available soon after the albino or ‘Gold’ form was commercially released. The females of both the Gold Sailfin and its non-albino Green Sailfin form are even noted for carrying a bit of orange coloration under the throat and a few orange dots on the body. Latipinna females, as a rule, do not have this orange coloration. The Gold Sailfin females also possess the deep body form of velifera females, particularly in the area of the body between the gravid spot and the start of the caudal fin. A well formed velifera female has a body not unlike the supposed ideal shape for a quality female delta tail guppy – though obviously a good deal larger. Adult latipinna females are not nearly as thick in the body as velifera females. These obvious morphological similarities between Gold Sailfin Mollies and P. velifera led some to count the number of fin rays in the dorsal fin of the Gold Sailfin males in an attempt to discover whether or not these Gold Sailfin Mollies and all related strains (Silver, Black, Green, Marble, Chocolate, etc) were velifera, latipinna or a hybrid between the two species – if not more!

One of the best investigations of this problem appeared in an article by Dr. Harry Grier in the previously mentioned November, 1994 issue of FAMA entitled “Those Magnificent Sailfin Mollies.” Dr. Grier reported that he found anywhere from 16-18 fin rays in the dorsal fins of male Gold Sailfin Mollies and other related molly strains. The accepted number of dorsal rays in wild male velifera is said to range from 18-19. Wild latipinna males sport between 13-16 rays in the dorsal fin. So, are the Gold Sailfins exceptional latipinna, average velifera or a hybrid between the two? Unfortunately, an official article chronicling the development of these Asian bred mollies, now available the world over in an ever increasing choice of strains - and often with less and less spectacular body size and finnage - has never appeared in the English language aquarium literature or to my knowledge in the aquarium literature of any other language.

Lacking such a history, our best guess is that the Asian farms obtained wild velifera at some point in the late 60’s or early 70’s and proceeded to hybridize this species with available latipinna based sailfin and lyretail sailfin strains. It would seem that once the desired color or fin type was produced these crosses were then bred back to pure velifera to create a velifera-type strain. This theory is supported by the before mentioned fact that gorgeous, apparently velifera based Green Sailfin Mollies from Asia appeared in the aquarium trade soon after the mid-70’s introduction of the Gold Sailfin Mollies and as noted these “new” Green Sailfins appeared to be almost identical in appearance to wild velifera. One did not have to look through the prism of albinism to see the similarities. It is still possible though that the initial Gold Sailfin Mollies were simply an albino mutation of pure velifera stock. We may never know. Whatever the story, velifera based sailfin mollies have now all but eliminated latipinna and latipinna based sailfin mollies from today’s home aquariums. It’s ironic to think that the one species of fish which was both native to North America and popular in the US aquarium hobby – Poecilia latipinna – is now one of the rarest livebearers in captivity!

I was able to maintain pure lines of both velifera and petenensis for a number of years in my fishroom and I even attempted without any luck to cross velifera with the wide tail veiltail mollies that Steven Saunders developed and Dr. Norton popularized in the 1970’s and which were sadly allowed to disappear from the hobby in the 1990’s. Life has a way of changing one’s course and by the early 1980’s my love of fish had taken a backseat to young adulthood and career. When I re-entered the hobby in a big way beginning in the early 1990’s, neither petenensis nor velifera were to be found. I had to start searching all over again.


Giant Sailfin Molly article Part II

This second search for the Giant Sailfin Mollies did not end until 2004 during a chance email conversation with Dr. Bruce Turner. Bruce is well known in livebearer circles for his early work with Goodieds, but long before Bruce became interested in this endangered family of livebearing fishes he was already a mover and shaker in the world of killifish. In fact, Bruce was one of the founding members of the American Killifish Association in 1962 and is responsible for helping to populate our tanks with many new and rare killifish species over the years. As a teenager in New York City, Bruce corresponded with almost every important aquarist in the world – long before the internet, emails, and inexpensive global calling. Bruce wrote letters. Some of those letters went to people like the great Louis Leakey of human evolution fame. Dr. Leakey shared an interest with Bruce in killifish of the genus Nothobranchius as many “Nothos” were from Dr. Leakey’s human fossil filled backyard – Kenya. Thanks to Bruce’s initial inquiry, Dr. Leakey helped supply American hobbyists with a number of new Nothobranchius species. I guess Bruce learned to return such favors. The moment in our conversation after I mentioned how pure wild strains of Poecilia velifera and P. petenensis were no longer available in the livebearer hobby, hadn’t been for years and, most surprisingly, most hobbyists didn’t even seem to notice or care about the absence of such magnificent species, Bruce said, “I know where you can get some.”

Where I could get some was from the research lab of Bruce’s friend, the evolutionary biologist Dr. Margaret Ptacek. For the last decade or so, as I soon discovered from reading her website, Dr. Ptacek has been engaged in research centered on all three species of sailfin mollies, but with a particular emphasis on P. velifera and P. petenensis. This research has, needless to say, involved numerous collecting trips to Central America to collect wild specimens of velifera and petenensis and Bruce mentioned that in her lab, Dr. Ptacek maintained several populations of wild caught velifera and petenensis. Bruce provided me with Dr. Ptacek’s email address at Clemson University and I immediately dropped her a note. Dr. Ptacek’s answer was quickly forthcoming and within a few weeks I had a number of young velifera and petenensis swimming in my tanks. Due to an accidental packing problem and a wise unwillingness to guess location data, the two species ended up in my tanks without exact collection information. The species sent were pure wild forms but simply lacked the location documentation so popular with today’s hobbyists. I was a happy camper.

Each species was placed in its own 55 gallon aquarium in an extremely sunny room. The tanks were each filtered by a large Eheim canister filter – Professional Model # 2226 I believe -- and sponge filtered power heads for simple water movement – so necessary for good sailfin molly development. I maintained a temperature range in the tanks from 78-84 F. The tanks were bare bottom but contained multiple clay pots of various species of aquarium plants. Drift wood with attached Java Fern was also included as a decoration. Both tanks contained a large population of pond and red ramshorn snails. Each aquarium received massive water changes 2-3 times a week – around 80-90 %. Local Houston tap water runs a pH of about 7.8 and has a GH and KH both around 18 which is the perfect water -- hard and alkaline -- for sailfin mollies. Nothing else was added to the water – especially not salt.

In the early 1970’s, Dr. Norton exploded the age old myth that mollies required salt in their water. She found that salt did not matter with mollies one way or the other, but space, water movement and cleanliness did. Now, I’m sure there are populations and species of mollies that do need salt in their water but the sailfin species - or at least the vast majority of their populations and domesticated varieties - are not those species. I would guess that the salt habit was formed from its use as an all purpose disease treatment in stores and home aquariums in the early years of the hobby (It still works well on some diseases – like velvet.), from the fact that latipinna and velifera populations exist in brackish to salt water in the wild (I’m not sure about petenensis populations) and from the fact that the area of the country where the hobby originated – the Northeast – often has rather neutral to soft and slightly acid water and salt helped make this water more suitable for the keeping of these species. Sailfin mollies do not usually like soft acid water.

Besides the ample living room and massive weekly water changes I consistently gave the velifera and petenensis, I also made sure I provided them with a rich and varied diet – and a lot of it. One part of the secret to raising sailfin mollies that develop into large, big-finned adults is FOOD! FOOD! FOOD! Mollies love to eat; never seem to stop eating and need to eat often. It is nothing to feed a colony of sailfin mollies or a tank of their fry 6-8 times a day. Mollies continually graze looking for food and that dietary behavior needs to be respected when keeping this fascinating fish. These are not fish that you just throw a handful of flake or dry food to once or twice a day. Their diet in my fishroom was built around two daily GENEROUS feedings of newly hatched brine shrimp to both the adults and fry. In addition to the baby brine shrimp the following foods were alternated over the course of each week: frozen adult brine shrimp, frozen bloodworms, a frozen beef heart/vegetable mix, a frozen salmon based mix, frozen mysis shrimp, live daphnia, live wingless fruit flies, live grindal worms, live microworms, Hikari Micropellets, Hikari Algae Wafers, garlic flakes, brine shrimp flakes, beef heart flakes, spirulina flakes, earthworm flakes, decapsulated brine shrimp eggs and all purpose tropical fish flakes. Also, the sides of the tanks as well as other surfaces within the tanks were covered with soft algae for the mollies to nibble all day long. I fed and fed and fed – which is not the same as overfeeding. I used portions the fish could easily consume at each meal in 5-10 minutes. Overfeeding leads to water pollution and overweight fish. At times I would overdue the feeding and produce large fish that were far too bulky for their species. When I got it right, my reward was truly giant and spectacularly formed and colored velifera and petenensis specimens. The male velifera developed into true bulls – thick bodied 5-6 inch fish with huge cup shaped dorsal fins. The petenensis males grew even longer but more streamlined. The female velifera were also deep bodied powerhouses and the female petenensis were again longer than the velifera females and, like their males, more streamlined. These velifera were the largest velifera I had ever seen.

Now this kind of feeding cannot happen without massive water changes and tanks and filters large enough to deal with the waste. Raising good sailfin mollies, like raising good hi fin and hi fin lyretail swordtails requires time, space, good filtration, water changes and food. A 20 or even 30 gallon tank housing one of the species of sailfin mollies robs the fish of their vivacious natural behavior and the aquarist of the full potential beauty and excitement offered by this small piece of the natural world. In large tanks – 55 gallons and preferably larger – sailfin mollies become a true delight. The same can be said for most swordtail species and hybrids too – ROOM. One must realize that velifera and petenensis are not easy or cheap fish to keep and breed even though they are, more often than not, treated that way. This is one reason why few people have ever seen truly exceptional specimens. Once seen, they are never forgotten and few fish species will ever compare. The sight of male sailfin mollies displaying their fine finnage to one another or a favored female is breathtakingly beautiful. The colors sparkle and the bodies move like brilliant modern dancers, twisting, turning, darting, commanding. Fascinating!

Now, having said all this, I would often keep 50-60 sub-adult velifera or petenensis growing up in a 55 gallon aquarium with their respective adult breeding colony. This adult colony consisted of 5-6 males which served to spread the male competition around and thus lessen its effects and usually 8-10 females. These adults were 5-6 inch fish in both species. One can see that these 55’s were not uncrowded by any stretch of the imagination. I have found that one can successfully raise a fairly large number of choice specimens in a large tank, even under seemingly crowded conditions. The trick, I have found, is to religiously change large amounts of water several times a week – plus generous feeding. I have not found that it is possible to raise exceptional specimens in slightly overstocked small tanks (30 gallons or less) even with regular massive water changes. In small tanks one has to keep the fish in uncrowded conditions and still due massive regular water changes. I was lucky that my tap water - with simple dechlorination of course - could be added directly from the faucet to the tank. Some people might have to age, aerate and condition their water to make massive water changes safe and practical. What works for one person might not work for another. Proceed with caution.

The velifera presented an interesting problem in that they would always produce a small number of males that took the idea of “early developing” quite seriously. These little over achievers would sex out at about 4 weeks of age at a size rarely exceeding ¾ of an inch! I had to watch the colony very closely for these hotrods as allowing them to mate could have ruined my whole breeding project. Even with this problem, I did not worry about keeping a group of virgin females as I just did not have the room. To keep the females as potentially virgin as possible, I was also diligent about netting out all normal “early developing” males – males sexing out at 2-3 inches in size – so that the females had little chance to mate with them. One learns to watch for the barest beginning of the thickening of the ventral fin into the gonopodium and the slight streamlining of the male’s body that begins to occur at this time. I used this attentive behavior on my part over the years to establish several self-sustaining colonies of livebearers that consistently produced from generation to generation mainly late developing large bodied offspring - particularly large bodied and finned males. These colonies included the mollies, X. nezahualcoyotl (spotted and unspotted populations), X. montezumae (spotted and unspotted populations), hi fin swordtails and hi fin lyretail swordtails. If one is careful, it works. That said, I still prefer the time tested method of isolating select virgin females and superior males to establish a line.

The only problem with the petenensis population was a seriously lopsided sex ratio in the fry they produced. Very few females developed. Needless to say, this caused me great concern. Luckily, over a couple of generations the problem seemed to be abating. At about the same time, I was fortunate to receive another population of petenensis from Dr. Ptacek lab which, owing to space issues, I was forced to place in the original population’s tank. This turned out to be a lucky break as the sex ratio problem completely disappeared in the fry from the resulting cross of populations. In addition, the males of the new population of petenensis sported a slightly longer and better formed sword extension on the bottom of their caudal fins when compared to the males from the original population and this trait was carried over into the cross. It was a win-win situation. Crossing populations did not cause any fertility problems.

In 2006, I temporarily closed down my fishroom due to a cross country move and one of my biggest concerns at the time was finding a home for the velifera and petenensis which would insure their continued existence in the hobby and hopefully their expansion into more and more hobbyists’ breeding programs. I had privately distributed a few pairs to friends and some of them had kept the lines going but I wanted a safer bet. That safer bet was Charles Clapsaddle at Goliad Fish Farms. I had known Charles for a number of years as we shared a common interest in fancy livebearers and killifish. I had turned over my stock of hi fin and lyretail swords to Charles a few years earlier, so he was the first person I contacted to see if he would be interested in taking the velifera and petenensis and in keeping the pure species going. As it turned out, Charles had been looking for velifera and petenensis and he was overjoyed to find a source for these rare fish and one so close to home. I knew he loved the fish and that they would be safe with him, plus I was anxious to see what would happen in Charles’ extraordinary molly breeding program with the introduction of pure velifera and petenensis genes into his commercial latipinna x velifera x (‘shenops’?) molly strains. Charles was already using two wild populations of latipinna to improve his commercial molly strains and the results were stunning, so I could only imagine what the genes from the Giant Sailfins would do to his fine fish.

In addition, I do not believe any breeder of mollies has used petenensis in a breeding program since William Sternke did so in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Having a source of petenensis genes in a breeding program might be important as Sternke claimed that crossing the petenensis he had with older Black Molly lines helped to produce a hardy strain of what I assume – Sternke is unclear in his report – were Black Sailfin Mollies. As to this hardiness in petenensis, anyone keeping this species will soon notice that it is more like keeping a tank of ‘shenops’ or related short finned species than the more demanding velifera and, especially, latipinna. Even the physical behavior of petenensis more closely resembles the behavior of the short finned molly species.

Happily, my hopes have been realized and Charles has established a large population of both of these species on his farm and distributed pairs around the country, if not the world. (Now, if I can just get him to post photographs on his site that truly capture the grandeur of these species when fully grown – hint, hint, hint!)

For some reason unknown to me, the three species of sailfin mollies have not been popular aquarium fish with serious hobbyists and breeders since probably the 1930’s. I have never understood this but it appears to be so. I hope this article motivates its readers to take a fresh look at these species. Poecilia velifera and Poecilia petenensis are not your average “grey ditch minnows” – as so many people characterize our beloved livebearers. These are big, powerful, gaudy, friendly, demanding, stunningly beautiful fish. I urge everyone to fall in love with - taking William T. Innes’ description one step further – what I would call “The Aristocrats of the Livebearers.”

Postscript 2010:

In 2008, I received a population of naturally occurring black spotted velifera from Armando Pou, which he had collected a few years before at Isla Mujeres, Yucatan, Mexico. I was stunned when Armando told me he had a naturally occurring population of black spotted velifera, considering no one had heard of a wild black spotted velifera since the 1930’s! Armando had been selecting for a greater amount of black for a couple of few generations but had yet to produce an all black fish. The fish Armando sent me included several lightly spotted females, green females and one green male. The male was a real beauty, possessing much better coloration overall than the similar green males in my previous population. Based on what Armando told me, I did not expect to see any all black fry from these fish. Boy, were we both wrong!

Unintentionally, we sort of repeated what happened with the introduction of the all black angelfish in the mid-1950’s. H. Woolf and Son fish farm in Florida had been working on an all black angel for a number of years and by the mid-1950’s had achieved their goal. They had a few all black angels but they felt they would not have enough young to commercially release the strain for another couple of years. In the development process they had held back an enormous amount of what would come to be called black lace angels. Now that the all black angel was a reality, they decided they needed the space these “almost blacks” were using. They chose to release some of these dusky blacks to their customers. Well, when these almost all black fish were bred they started producing all black fry. At the time, this occurred in hobbyist tanks from coast to coast and several aquarists claimed credit for “developing” the all black angelfish. What actually happened was Woolf released fish that were the brothers, sisters and relatives of their new but unreleased all black angels. They released their “culls” and hobbyists simply reaped the benefits of Woolf’s work. Something similar happened to me with Armando’s black spotted velifera.

The first generation I raised in my tanks produced a number of gorgeous all black male and female velifera! It took time to see this, as these fry developed like the old black latipinna strains of the 1930’s. They were born dark, turned green a few days later and then began to develop black spotting after a couple of months, with a percentage continuing to blacken until the entire fish turned black – around 6-8 months. Needless to say, I was thrilled. The hobby had not seen an all black undoubtedly 100% velifera strain since the 1930’s.

These fish looked identical to the extraordinary pair of Black Sailfin Mollies pictured in Innes’ Exotic Aquarium Fishes. Innes felt the pair he pictured was a hybrid between velifera and latipinna because of the shape and positioning of the male’s dorsal fin. I am no longer so sure that was true. Judging from mine, the genetics for the all black coloration slightly decreases the size of the velifera sailfin which would explain why Innes felt his were a hybrid and not the pure article. His sense of velifera was most likely based on the Hubbs photograph mentioned above and that photo shows a wild green velifera in all its sailfin glory. Indeed, the green brothers of my black velifera all had slightly larger and fuller sailfins. Even so, the black velifera were true jewels as they grew into the big robust hardy bodies of velifera mollies.

I hoped I had the basis for a line of black velifera. It was not to be. The all black fish never produced a batch of babies. All my fry came from the spotted and green females which were their sisters and from their green father. I can only assume the all blacks were infertile. A few would appear in each generation but I was unable to create a true breeding strain. Hopefully some of the other hobbyists who have these fish will be luckier than I was. But for a moment it felt as if I was reliving the history of the Sailfin Molly in our wonderful hobby!