Swordtails are colorful fish that make great additions to any passive community aquarium. They add interest and color to your tanks and are ideal for both novices and experts alike.
Dedicated breeders are developing iconic swordtail varieties, most of which are instantly recognizable even to those who’ve never owned an aquarium.
Although they’re fairly low-maintenance, swordtails require more than just a bowl and some food. You do have to keep the temperature and water conditions within a very specific set of parameters.
|Level of Care
|Easy for Beginners
|Various colors in the rainbow
|Live for over 5 years
|Average length of 7 inches
|Modest requirements with freshwater tank and ample swimming space
|Generally peaceful with other community fish
What is a Swordtail Fish: Brief Overview
Swordtails (Xiphophous helleri) are a small freshwater fish originating from North and Central American waters. Their natural habitat stretches from Central Mexico in the north, to Honduras in the south, but these days they can be found on nearly every place on earth – thanks to dedicated pet stores worldwide.
Most swordtail varieties prefer to live in fast-flowing rivers and lakes with lots of greenery, they can be found in other habitats that may be easier for fishkeepers to replicate, ranging from slow-moving drainage ditches to smaller ponds.
Because their natural habitat is incredibly varied, swordtails have developed hardy bodies with strong immune systems and can adjust to a wide range of conditions in the aquarium. They will do well in most water conditions, so long as you don’t deviate too further away from the recommended settings.
Swordtails have an uncanny resemblance to guppies and platies. Their colors tend to dramatically vary. Those found in the wild will have red and yellow streaks on either side with a generally olive green appearance. For this reason, locals aptly name wild swordtails after the color of their skin; examples include Green Swordtail and Red Swordtail.
Some rare varieties have been observed to have vibrant and colorful spots along their fins. Under captivity, breeders have selectively bred them to produce different types of fins and interesting colors.
The name swordtail itself comes from the unique appearance of the males. Males have protruded extensions that grow along their lower tail fin lobe, giving the appearance of a ‘sword’. This property is unique to males only, and females have not been observed to have caudal fins with similar protrusions.
The tail is arguably their most striking physical characteristic, although it doesn’t serve an apparent purpose. The male’s tail accounts for 1/3rd to 1/4th of their total length. Swordtails in the wild have been observed to have more majestic ‘sword’ tails reaching over 6 inches in length. Males will typically reach 6 inches in length, but females could be an inch bigger.
Swordtails are ideal for novices because they are generally peaceful, lively, swim in loosely grouped school, and thrive in communities of other peaceful small fish. Although they live in groups, they’re not known as shoaling species.
Males have been known to be aggressive towards one another in their efforts to mate with females, so make sure that females outnumber them by a ratio of 4 females to 1 male.
Swordtails may become somewhat shy when kept in the same tank with active fish species and may try hiding in decorations and plants. Their favorite spots in the aquarium are the upper and middle levels, rarely swimming below. If you provide them with a large enough tank, they will become much more active.
Swordtails are so active that they’ve been known to jump out of the tank. If you don’t want your swordtail drying up on the carpet next to its tank, make sure the lid is tightly kept on the tank at all times. Also, ensure that the tank doesn’t have any bullies and that the water’s conditions are favorable enough for all species.
Tank Requirements and Conditions
One swordtail needs at least 15 gallons of space in the tank. Double that too at least 30 gallons if you plan on breeding them
Although they’re not particularly big, they do need lots of space to swim. Each additional swordtail needs roughly 5 gallons of extra water for maximum comfort. The water needs to be kept at temperatures between 73 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit at a pH of between 7.0 to 8.5. The hardness level of the water can vary between 1DH to 24DH.
Make sure that the tank conditions are not changed too abruptly otherwise it could cause health problems.
Use an aquarium heater to maintain the correct temperature if the room isn’t at the right temperature. You will have to partially change 10% of the water every week, or about 25% of the water every 2 weeks.
Although they live in fast-moving waters, like rivers, streams, and mountain creeks, you don’t need a pump to move the water around the aquarium. A filter outlet should provide them with enough current.
Go for the biggest filter you can buy for your swordtail. A good choice would be HOB filters because they create currents that your swordtails will enjoy.
Their original habitats are densely populated with vegetation and lots of rocks. This can be easily replicated with rocks and plants. The plants provide them with shade from sunlight and shelter from other fish and flowing water. Although swordtails have been found in brackish waters, this is relatively rare and can hurt their chances of living a healthy life.
Because Swordtails rarely swim to the bottom of the tank, you don’t have to worry about substrates unless you have other species that do lurk at the bottom.
A good combination would be to use bogwood and rocks to mimic the natural habitat in your aquarium – they also double as excellent hiding spots for your swordtail. Spread plants around the aquarium, but leave enough space for active swimmers.
There are various plants to choose from, including Java Fern, Anubias Nana, and Java Moss. While you can make do with fake plants, your tank is missing out on the benefits of live plants.
Tank Mates for Swordtails
Swordtails are peaceful species and rarely show aggression to other fish, but they have been known to pluck the tails and fins of veil fish. Older males have been known to attack others, but only in cramped aquariums. In the wild, they are seen living alongside platy fish, making them an obvious choice for your tank.
Other species include Dwarf Corydoras, Otocinclus, Neon Tetra, Rosy Barbs, Angelfish, and Zebra Loaches. Some of these fish like to hang out in the middle portion of the tank, which also happens to be the spot where swordtails swim the most – so make sure your tank has enough swimming space for everyone.
As a general rule, do not keep aggressive species in with your swordtails as they will attack them. This means no Convict Cichlids or Jack Dempseys. Swordtails don’t typically encounter predator fish in the wild. You can also add a few invertebrates here including apple snails and ghost shrimp.
What do Swordtail Fish Eat?
Swordtails are omnivorous species that will eat just about anything, including commercially prepared flakes, algae, as well as brine shrimp, freeze-dried worms, and tubifex.
But you can provide them dried foods for a nutrient-rich diet. Feed your swordtails with some vegetables as well to provide enough giber so it helps with digestion.
Algae wafers are an excellent choice because they provide enough nutrients. You can also add leftover vegetables in your home.
Swordtails like to eat 2 to 3 times a day, just don’t overfeed them because it could adversely affect the tank’s settings. Do not feed them more food than they can eat within a few minutes. After your fish have done eating, remove any leftover food so that it doesn’t get broken down and cause pollution.
Fish specialists advise sticking to a routine, this way your swordtails will know when to eat and become more active during feeding times.
How to Breed Swordtail Tropical Fish?
Swordtails are livebearers, which means instead of laying eggs, they give birth to live fry that are big when born and ready to swim. Like most livebearers, they don’t need much prodding to populate the tank. Any tank containing males and females will quickly fill up with fry, hence it is recommended to buy large enough tanks to accommodate everyone.
Fish specialists recommend adding more females than males in the tank to encourage spawning. During spawning, male swordtails will swim over to the females in their efforts to mate with them. This can be a stressful experience for females and could quickly overwhelm them.
Is my Swordtail Fish Pregnant?
Once the egg is fertilized, it will take around 6 weeks for the mother to give birth to her first batch of fry. She will give birth to dozens of fry at a time, with the possibility of giving birth again in the coming weeks, without the presence of a male.
Pregnant swordtails develop swollen bellies and show a dark gravid spot that is easy to identify. They will often struggle to move around the tank. Before birth, the swordtail will feel extremely tired and may not be able to eat.
Taking Care of Swordtail Fry
Like most freshwater fish, swordtails lack parental instinct and will eat their own young. To prevent this dangerous situation, it is recommended to separate the parents from the fry.
If you don’t have an extra tank, you can add more hiding spots in the form of dense vegetation and decorative items. Ideal tank conditions for fry are almost the same as that for their parents, just make sure that the nitrite, ammonia, and nitrate levels are at 0 ppm.
The good news for breeders, however, is that swordtail fry are low-maintenance and only need protein-rich food. Swordtail fry need a lot of proteins when they’re first born. This means frozen and live foods like daphnia, brine shrimp, and bloodworms along with dried foods.
Juveniles are not big enough to eat and digest adult food. But you can provide them with liquid food that is easily available from pet stores. You can also feed them powdered fish flakes and live worms.
Some fishkeepers convert boiled egg yolk into powdered form and feed it to the fry, this provides the juveniles with an immediate source of minerals and nutrients.
The growth rate of juveniles can be incredibly slow at times, but if you want them to grow faster, change the water every few weeks and provide them with a good source of protein. It will take around 4 to 6 months for juvenile swordtails to achieve adulthood and need to be safely kept away from adult fish until they’re large enough to not be viewed as food. When they’re fully grown, they won’t fit into an adult’s mouth.
If the fry don’t move at all after birth or are sinking below, it’s a sign they were born premature and could not consume their yolk.
To grow, swordtail fry need to rest and sleep for several hours at a time in a peaceful environment. Make sure to keep the aquarium lights on because the light rays will prevent them from developing a risk of deformities during growth.
Preventing Swordtail Fry from Dying
To increase your swordtail fry’s chances of staying healthy and alive, do the following:
- Regulate the water parameters to prevent complications and take immediate action when the tank conditions deteriorate.
- Provide them a well-balanced diet that contains a mix of proteins and vegetables. Do not overfeed them and remove the leftover food once they’ve had their fill.
- Buy a larger tank because overcrowding increases their risk of stress and could cause them to die.
- It is common for swordtail fry to get caught up in the aquarium filter and die if they are not covered. Cover the filter with a sponge filter to keep the juveniles out of danger.
Swordtail Fish Diseases
Despite being resistant and hardy to diseases, swordtails are under threat of the following diseases:
i) White Spot or Ich
Ich is a common disease affecting swordtail fish. It appears on their fins, gills, bodies as white spots that look like grains of salt. This usually happens because of poor water quality that can be easily treated with medication from your local pet store. However, ich is a sign of something wrong with the tank, it could be temperature, dirty filters that haven’t been cleaned out yet, or an infectious outbreak.
Dropsy is a sign that your swordtail fish is suffering from an underlying problem. It happens when your swordtail fish bloats up in size. Bloating is primarily caused by the buildup of fluids along body cavities and tissues. The best way to treat dropsy is by separating your fish to contain the disease. Salt treatment also works well, simply add one teaspoon of aquarium salt per gallon of water.
For a speedy recovery, you will need to provide your swordtails with a healthy diet including flake food and pellets.
iii) Tail Rot
During this disease, your swordtail’s fin appears ragged and torn. It can be caused by poor water quality but could be a result of aggression from other fish. Tail rot is a symptom of bad water conditions and can be treated by regularly monitoring the water’s parameters like temperature, hardness, pH, and more.
Treatment requires fish antibiotics and increasing the temperature to around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Are Swordtail Fish Aggressive?
Swordtails are not aggressive but males have been known to fight one another in their attempts to secure breeding and territorial rights within the aquarium. Males will not fight females, but they will often overwhelm them in their mating efforts. This could tire out the female if there aren’t other females for the male to pursue.
Where to buy Swordtails?
Most pet stores have many varieties of swordtail fish for sale. But if you want to buy rarer species, you may have to look for them via online stores and internet forums for specialist breeders and hobbyists. They’re not very expensive and usually only cost about $3 per swordtail fish.
How Big do Swordtail Fish Get?
Swordtails are large livebearers that tend to grow unusually larger than what is normal for freshwater fish. Males will grow 5.5 inches and females will reach 6 inches or more in length. Some species do not grow over 3 inches. The final size depends on how well you’re feeding them and the tank’s conditions.
Are Swordtails the Right Fish for Your Tank?
Swordtail fish are peaceful and make as great additions to any aquarium. That being said, novices will have to be extra careful with the water’s parameters, maintenance, and keeping the area clean. You could end up with more fish than you can handle because swordtail fish mate frequently.
All in all, swordtail fish are ideal for beginners and give you the perfect head start into the world of fishkeeping.