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NFC: Florida Flagfish....

Copyright Wright Huntley Commercial use without Authors permission is
strictly forbidden

The American-Flag Fish
Goode and Bean, 1879
June 1995
Wright Huntley
Santa Clara, CA
Described by Tutaj9  as "An American Beauty," this strikingly lovely and
peaceful algae eater deserves a better break.
Of the hundreds of species of killies kept and propagated by dedicated
specialists, very few qualify as a suitable fish for the more casual
aquarist. The American-Flag fish, Jordanella floridae is a notable
exception. Misunderstood, improperly identified, and frequently described
inaccurately in the general aquarium literature, this pupfish deserves a
place in many community tanks that it has been denied by an undeserved
reputation. While consuming algae like the best Siamese Algae Eater, it
is beautiful, rugged and extremely tolerant of varied water conditions.
Highly prized in Europe, maybe it's too close to home, here, for proper
appreciation. Recently priced at less than $3.00 in local stores, it is a
colorful bargain when it matures.
Originally thought to be a cichlid, this native of the gulf coast, but
primarily Florida, also was identified with the sunfish. Now known as a
unique, single-species genus of native American pupfish, it has uncanny
behavioral resemblance to both the sunfish and cichlid groups. The spiny
dorsal ray is unique among cyprinidontidae. The only time the Jordanella
floridae shows belligerence, above that of a molly, is during courtship
and when guarding eggs. At that time, the female, or any territorial
invader, is at real risk from an irate male, who can do serious damage.
This is no different than almost any nesting cichlid or gourami.
The generic name is for David Starr Jordan, the first president of
Stanford University. The species name is for the state where it is most
prevalent. The habit of shipping wild specimens from selected gathering
grounds in Florida has left the species free of the dominance of ugly
mutations that have ruined many other good aquarium fish. Typical J.
floridae of today probably look identical to the specimens so eagerly
greeted in Europe over 70 years ago. Unfortunately, that appearance gets
masked in the living conditions of many fish shops, and poor
understanding of the needs of this fish often has turned a real swan into
an ugly duckling.
As in most killifish, the male and female are different in appearance,
but their coloring is as variable as any chameleon. Each has a different
kind of attractiveness, but both may be quite dull and drab in the wrong
conditions. Their behavior is as interesting as their appearance. In this
paper, the author proposes a hypothesis to answer the question of why
there are so many conflicting descriptions of this species. The breeding
behavior under two different environments, and their general behavior is
described, following the description of the fish and proper living
conditions. A concluding section puts forth the hypothesis. A proposal
for defining correct conditions for keeping and breeding Jordanella
floridae is advanced.
The body is much shorter and more laterally compressed than most other
cyprynodonts. The unique spiny fin rays and unusual body qualify it for a
separate genus. The body of both sexes is similar, with the male size
about 25-30% larger than the female (3 vs. 2 ). The flattened
sunfish-like shape, with dorsal and anal fins displaced to the rear,
gives it an unmistakable silhouette. It is easily the most colorful of
our native aquarium fishes, rivaling the dwarf gourami in overall
attractiveness. The origin, unique shape, and bright colors should
qualify the Jordanella floridae as the signature fish in the AKA logo,
rather than some non-native that is rarely kept by most modern killifish
aquarists. The particular color pattern of the male is even more reason
we should proudly display this fish as our logo.
In a well lit, heavily planted tank, the male takes on the appearance
that leads to the common name. "American-Flag Fish" requires the hyphen
of a compound adjective, for the male looks as if he dressed in the
national pennant. [Almost all other authors and editors seem to miss this
simple grammatical point] With red stripes on the sides, and an upper
fore-quadrant of deep blue, the resemblance is uncanny. The iridescent
green-white spot on each scale makes the stars in the blue field, as well
as the "white" rows between the red stripes (if you don't mind a
grass-stained look to the white). The upper and lower edges of the scales
are bright red, forming solid, horizontal, brilliant red stripes. The
transparent unpaired fins are a pale sky blue, but dorsal and anal are so
covered with red markings that red is the dominant hue.
The female sports a false eyespot in the center of her side, directly
below the start of her dorsal fin, and another in the rear base of her
dorsal fin. Her basic color is tan to gray, and only the central portion
of two or three scale rows may carry the iridescent green shine. She has
a chameleon-like ability to shift colors and patterns in all kinds of
interesting ways. Sometimes a checkerboard, then vertically barred, her
most happy appearance is to echo the central eye spot several times back
toward the caudal fin, each spot with less contrast as the tail is
approached. At the height of breeding passion, she can become a buttery
bright yellow, with almost no dark body markings.
The eyespot on the side of the male is still present, exactly at the
right angled corner of the blue star field. It is not so hard-edged and
well defined as in the female. While the male loses his dorsal spot as he
matures, the female's jet-black dorsal spot has a brilliant white "iris,"
making it more obvious than her normal eye. It should confuse many
The male flashes his bright red unpaired fins, to attract the female's
attention, and uses them in the actual mating as described below. The
upward facing mouth has somewhat wide fat "lips." His sharp teeth are
capable of taking neat bites out of swordplant leaves, if enough algae,
riccia and duck-weed aren't present to satisfy the craving for vegetable
matter. Their face has an expression that some have described as
Like many partially vegetarian fish, the routine behavior is a slow and
dignified search for algae, and a calm resting position among top weeds.
In shallower tanks, the resting position may be nearer the bases of
plants. A mated pair will spend most of their non-breeding time in close
proximity, with lots of affectionate brushing and touching. Rarely will
they allow the other out of visual range. While seldom molesting others,
more aggressive species can cause the floridae to become timid and to
hide. Like many killies, the young do become frantic when frightened, but
this tends to go away with age. Small babies are often very hard to see.
They instantly dive for cover at any approach to the tank.
The most striking behavior is during mating, described in detail below.
The spawning behavior is radically different in different conditions,
which has led to a lot of confusion in the literature. 1,3-8,10 
Hopefully, this report will start to clarify this point, and future
efforts can proceed with better direction. Most of the cited references
contain some material factual errors, and only the JAKA/Killie Notes
references should be trusted. 2,9 In particular, the males are larger
than the females, they are very brightly colored, they don't "dash
around" the tank, and they don't molest other fish, despite the claims of
some famous encyclopedists.
The literature is, again, somewhat divided on desirable conditions. The
J. floridae so readily adapts to very different situations that most
stated conditions are probably correct. This author has obtained viable
eggs from the same pair, both in soft, too-warm, deep, acid water, and
shallower, hard, cooler water. The only requirement seems to be
reasonable acclimation, and adequate mix of animal and vegetable matter
in the diet.
They first spawned in the top plants of a 55 gallon "Amazon" plant tank.
Since the temperature was 81 F. and the hardness was down around 2 dGH,
with pH about 6.2, the spawning was a complete surprise. These parameters
were well outside the range of almost every reference, yet the floridae
happily deposited eggs on hygrophila leaves, duck-weed roots, floating
water sprite and anything else near the surface. Introduction of a power
head caused enough surface turbulence that they tried spawning on lower
plants and an algae-covered log. They went back to surface spawning when
the current was directed slightly downward, leaving some still corners at
the surface. They never attempted to spawn on the bottom.
Some days after completion of the spawning round, they were generally
peaceful. However, an Apistogramma macmasteri pair started defending a
new brood, and the female J. floridae simultaneously showed some tattered
fins. Moving the pair quickly to an old 10 gallon tank, they received
only hastily drip-acclimation to the 74 F., hard-water tank. dGH was
estimated at about 20, but was not measured, at the time, and pH was well
above 7 (above 7.4 without CO2 injection). The depth of the 10 (8.5 from
gravel to surface) was much less than the tall 55G show tank (16). Some
salt had been added earlier, but intervening partial water changes made
the residual concentration uncertain.
Heavy rear-corner planting in the 10G filled all the swimming space but a
central clearing by the front glass. This turned out to be an
observational jackpot, for the area chosen for next spawn was within
range of a strong hand-held magnifying glass, in the center of the
Even with the abrupt change in conditions, the male harassed the female,
and, within a day, spawning resumed. Fussy about conditions, they are
The initial spawning in the 55G tank was at odds with the sunfish-like
descriptions in many books. The tendency was to just say those authors
were busy quoting each other and had not bothered to observe that the
Jordanella floridae was a typical killifish that should spawn in mops
near the surface. After all, everyone "knows" killies don't guard their
In the shallower tank, the difference in behavior was almost
unbelievable. The mating dance changed completely, and the egg-laying
looked almost as if it really was in the gravel. The male fanned the
eggs, and in all ways fit the cichlid-sunfish-like pattern, described so
often, before.
In the tall tank, earlier, eggs were rescued from the floating roots of
duck weed and placed in a small fishbowl to gestate and hatch. One egg
even floated in the meniscus at the top of the water. They weren't very
sticky, and the one egg led to the belief that the eggs were buoyant.
Later, the author observed that bottom-laid eggs were not buoyant. They
pulled on attached fine strands of algae to hang down when undisturbed.
The difference in spawning was so great it leads to speculation that the
salinity or fat content of the eggs might be different for deep-water
spawning and for shallow-water bottom spawning, to minimize egg loss.
The original mating behavior, in the deep tank, started with a male dance
to attract the female. When she was receptive, she would swim up to him,
and then lead him to some, often distant, part of the tank she had chosen
to deposit her eggs. Snuggling together, head-to-head, she was always on
top, with the male cupping her from below as they semi-inverted to push
her vent up against the plants chosen. His unpaired fins all curled to
clasp her in a cup as they lay on their sides, nearly parallel to the
surface, and vibrated along the plants. Repeated several times each
evening, there were long rest periods while they recovered. When resting,
they tended to stay close and keep within easy eye-contact range.
In the smaller tank, the male so severely chased and bit the female that
physical separation became necessary. He, not the Apisto, had been the
fin shredder. Despite the fighting, both tried to find a way through the
installed barrier. By the next morning, they were getting so frantic that
it was removed. Spawning was resumed, right away. 
This time, the female clearly led the dance. It takes quite a bit of
room, and smaller tanks could be a problem here. She grabbed the exact
center of the clearing, and pointed herself directly away from the male.
Flicking little puffs of water at him with her tail, as he circled the
clearing (always in a clockwise direction), he displayed his fins to her.
She rotated with him to keep him visible in both eyes, and her tail
pointed directly at him. Gradually, his circles tightened and/or she
backed up until her tail was actually stroking his side with each flick.
When he became sufficiently aroused, they moved to a side-by-side
position and started a vibrating spawning pass over the gravel. Cupping
his anal fin near her vent, she deposited the eggs on plant strands in
rows as they slowly wriggled along.
Watching with a magnifying glass, it was possible to observe in detail.
The spawning "in the gravel" was no such thing. Every single egg was
getting deposited on a strand of hair algae, a root, or strand of Java
moss. No eggs were seen attached to, or free, in the gravel.
Driving the female away, the male groomed and fanned the egg site. He
thrust forward with his caudal fin and backward with his pectorals to
create a strong current over the eggs, while tilted, head down, at about
30 from the horizontal over the "nest." Several spawnings were
completed, over the next few days, before he drove the battered female
away for the last time. He diligently fanned and watched the eggs,
driving the female into hiding whenever he could see her, and threatening
the author whenever he approached the glass for a closer look.
Some eggs were lost to ramshorn snails (which the father ignored), but
most hatched successfully, after about a week. No infertile or fungused
eggs were observed. A portion of the spawned-on plants was removed, early
in the process, to a small floating container, but most were left with
the parents to see what happened. When all the eggs were hatched, the
male still fanned and watched over them. The parents were finally
returned to the big tank as the babies started to scatter on the second
day after hatching started. The separated fry were returned from the
floating container to the tank and the babies were started on infusoria,
to supplement the already-active fauna of the aged water in the tank.
Yield of viable, free-swimming fry was very poor in the 10G tank. The
earlier eggs, collected in the deep tank, hatched in a much shallower
container, with much better results. Many killies do not develop proper
swim-bladder function if trapped in too-deep water, and it is easy to
speculate that this is true here, too. The fry struggle very hard to
reach the surface as soon as they can swim. The few who do, seem to grow
better and swim better than the ones left belly-sliding on the bottom.
The ability to stay at the surface seems related to the first attempts to
get there. Filling the swim bladder with air, early, may be critical.
Combining the need for shallow water in the babies, and the two radically
different spawning behaviors leads to an interesting hypothesis. The
spawning of the Jordanella floridae is simply adjustable to the early
needs of the young.
In deep water, surface spawning on free-floating plants allows the eggs
to be blown ashore, where the hatching can occur in shallow water. In
shallower water, the protection of the parent is more safe, so the eggs
are laid in a nest and protected. In nature, 8.5-inch-deep water is
rarely more than a few feet from shore, so shallow water easily could be
reached by belly-sliding fry. Unfortunately, the 10G tank did not provide
that protection, and most of those fry did not get to the free-swimming
stage. While algae growth was prolific in the old water of this tank, the
hydra came out in droves to further deplete the fry population. The fry
do not swim well for the first couple of days, so were easy prey. Only
five or six, that probably started in the floating container, survived.
The next variation on a theme will be to collect eggs and test the growth
of fry hatched at several different depths, to see if an optimum can be
defined. The results may take a while, so they will have to be reported
It may be better to keep only males for quantity display in the community
aquarium, like dwarf gouramis. While mildly territorial, they do well
together if given a little room, and will even school in groups.
Parboiled spinach, algae or veggie flakes should supplement live foods
and regular flake food, if the softer plants are to be protected. After
all, these are pupfish, with long intestines, and they like and need some
vegetable food. Their grazing will, however, tend to keep unsightly hair
or beard algae under control. They are less expensive and much more
ornamental than almost all other really effective algae eaters.
The breeding roughness and fierce male guarding of the young might
suggest that females should be kept only for breeding, and
raised/maintained separately from the males, once breeding age is
reached. This author so enjoys their normal affectionate behaviour that
it seems a shame to keep them apart. If kept with a male, in a small
tank, just provide plenty of hiding places for the female. Otherwise, the
spawning-frenzied male might cause severe injury to her fins. 
This is an easy-to-breed species, and would be an excellent and
entertaining first breeding project for someone just starting out in
killifish culture. Who knows, we might eventually get enough out at our
own shows to rival the large numbers usually entered in the DKG show.

1. 	Axelrod, H. R. & Schultz, L. P. 1955, "Handbook of Tropical Aquarium
Fishes," McGraw-Hill
2. 	Brill, John S., Jr., Jordanella Floridae, Nov./Dec. 1978, JAKA Vol. I
No. 6
3. 	Frey, H., 1970, "Illustrated Dictionary of Tropical Fishes," T.F.H.
4. 	Hoedeman, J.J., 1974, "Naturalist's Guide to Fresh Water Aquarium
Fishes," Sterling Publ. Co.
5. 	Innes, W.T., 1966, "Exotic Aquarium Fishes," 19th Ed. Revised,
Metaframe Corp.
6. 	O'Connell, R.F., 1971, "The Freshwater Aquarium," The Great Outdoors
Publ. Co.
7. 	Petrovicky', I., 1989, Aquarium Fish of the World," Arch Cape Press
8 .	Rataj, K. & Zukal, R., 1972, "Aquarium Fishes and Plants," Spring
9. 	Tutaj, Duane, Aug. 1972, Jordanella floridae, An American Beauty
Killie Notes Vol. 5 No. 8
10.	vanRamshorst, J. D., (Ed.) 1978, "Aquarium Encyclopedia," H.P. Books

huntley at ix_netcom.com

Robert Rice
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 at our website  http://nativefish.interspeed.net/