Livebearers Unlimited: My Big Dogs from Cuba: Limia vittata
Author: Ted Coletti, PhD
The denizens of a fishroom easily fall into two camps: those that come and go, and those that become permanent or long-time residents. Limia vittata, the Cuban limia, is one of these special fish in my small fishroom. Friends who have acquired some of my stock tend to keep them around too…
Limia vittata Basics
Limia vittata was described in 1853 by the French scientist Antoine Alphone Guichenot. Some hobby and scientific texts still refer to it as Poecilia vittata, a re-naming from Rosen and Bailey’s 1960 taxonomical lumping frenzy. Limia is now firmly established as its own genus.
Endemic to the island of Cuba, Limia vittata inhabits a variety of calm waters, including small streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal lagoons, and mangrove swamps. It is often found in the company of Girardinuslivebearers, sailfin mollies, and mosquitofish. It primarily feeds on worms, crustaceans, insects, and plant matter.
The feral variety of Limia vittata has a blue-gray back and was sometimes known as the “blue limia” before the fancy variety took hold. The flanks are silvery with a slight band (which appears on the dorsal as well) in some populations, hence the name “vittata” (with band). The scales are edged with black and visually produce a slight mesh effect. Females possess a slight yellow/orange patch near the vent, while the male’s dorsal and tail show some of this same color along with a few blue/black speckles. It is this color pattern that was capitalized upon by breeders to create the fabulous showy fish we enjoy today.
But it is the cultivated strain of Limia vittata that makes such a splash in an aquarium. A white, almost silvery body with random black spots is accented by vibrant orange, yellow, and gold markings (some sources state the latter is a form of melanoma). These traits are especially marked in alpha males, who can reach up to 3 inches in length. They are also the largest of the limias, with females up to 4 inches and exhibiting significant girth. I like to call them “dalmation limias,” as they are the big, spotted dogs in my fishroom.
Better with Age
One thing you must know about nearly all limias is that they are like wine—their coloring and extroversion just gets better with age. And the dalmation limia is no exception. This is a trait that many hobbyists in breeder’s award programs fail to appreciate as they get swept up in the “breed ‘em, bag ‘em, buy another” mentality.
Cultivar or Hybrid?
There is some debate whether the aquarium form of Limia vittata is the result of selective breeding or hybridization. We know Limia vittata was displayed at American public aquariums and occasionally made available to the public during the late 1920s to 1930s. But the fabulous strain we enjoy as hobbyists today did not seem to enter the hobby until the 1970s. All Limia species hybridize readily.
C. H. Peter’s classic work, Life and Love in the Aquarium (1934), described Limia vittata males as “lacking color or interesting markings” except in some dorsals, and females as “adding nothing to the aquarium.” The late great William T. Innes noted as late as 1956 (in Exotic Aquarium Fishes) that Limia vittata was “often not brightly colored in any respect.” Oh how things have changed for this fish!
On a trip to Cuba in 1982, a collector by the name of Weil found that most of the fish were not variegated like the current aquarium strain, nor displayed flank coloration. Males did display some coloration in the finnage though. Indeed, some wild populations showed little spotting, and those that did displayed more of a horizontal pattern along the flanks (like Innes’ description). Weil also noted morphological differences with the aquarium strain and even among wild populations. There are pictures on the Internet of European vittatas that look nothing like my fish. My livebearer buddy Tom Crane commented how these fish looked almost exactly like the Grand Cayman limia, L. caymanensis, another fish we worked with. Indeed, DNA analysis has confirmed a very close relationship between L. vittata and L. caymanensis.
It should be noted that cultivation can alter the wild shape of many fish. Limia vittata is reported to be widespread in Cuba, often found in coastal waters that are brackish or marine, which could lead to many local varieties like we have with native platies in Mexico. If Cuba ever opens up its repressive society, we may indeed determine that we are dealing with various species, as well as races, in a vittata complex.
When keeping the wild stock, a brackish tank with a temperature in the mid-70s to low 80s would be the safest bet. My experience has been with the aquarium strain, and here the parameters are more lenient. My stock definitely prefers calcium-hard, alkaline water and seems to do a little better with some added salt. Indeed, I have found that males color up much better in brackish conditions. I initially kept my dalmation limias as dither fish in a brackish aquarium along with orange chromide cichlids Etroplus maculatus. I was naturally left with only adult dither fish!
Upon moving them to their own aquarium, regularly fed dalmation limias rarely touched their fry. The “pups” seemed to prefer the lower reaches of their tank among the Vallisneria crowns, until they were big and bold enough to venture to the upper half of the water column where the adults usually played. You will be able to spot Limia vittata fry easily, as their “Dalmatian pattern” is evident from birth. They are robust from day one and grow at a fast rate, just like their Cuban neighbor Girardinus metallicus. I always wondered whether this was an adaptation to predators like the Cuban cichlid.
Uniqueness of the Sexes
I’ve observed a male hierarchy in my dalmation limia colonies, where an alpha male will emerge who is either larger or more colorful. Sometimes this fish “owns” nearly all the gold markings among the males. Males do chase females, but not as incessantly as Girardinus or guppies. Males have a classic Limia shape, with a fine dorsal that they erect while fluttering their body before a particularly mature female.
But it is also the female vittata that draws my attention. This is the biggest Limia female I have ever encountered. It resembles a fancy molly female in this respect, only broader and wider in the body. A gravid female reminds me of a little manatee with its extra girth. This unique body characteristic helps one accept the claim that this fish can produce over 100 fry in a single birthing. A mature female at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago during the mid Twentieth Century delivered 242 fry from a single litter! Remember, this is still a relatively small, minnow-like fish. That’s a big dog!
If you ever come across these wonderful fish for sale or trade, don’t pass them up. Just prepare a permanent tank for a new resident of your fishroom.
The snakeskin pattern is one of the most dramatic and versatile guppy patterns ever developed. The International Fancy Guppy Association (IFGA) has several member breeders and show classes dedicated to just this particular pattern. In a recent issue of the IFGA Bulletin, master guppy breeder Greg Dickman provides valuable and unique insights into one particularly beautiful and delicate variety of snakeskin, the red lace.
While stunningly beautiful, red lace snakeskins have a reputation for split tails, raggedy fins, and in-breeding line breakdowns. The creator of the red lace snakeskin, Franz Zeipelt, commented once in an interview that if you see young males with clear areas in the caudal, you are overdue for an outcross. This could occur as early as in four-week-old fry. Zeipelt uses gray-bodied, y-linked HB red females for outcrosses. Singaporian Derrick Tan, who is famous for his red lace snakeskins, recommends a good line of ivory-colored German HB yellow (our HB pastels) to use as an outcross every five or six generations.
Fry drops can also be problematic. Dickman stated that it takes up to three months to get fry out of initial, fully adult trios—and then only a few fry per drop appear. In reality, the fry of red lace snakeskins are very tiny (almost the size of egglayer fry). Atypical of Poecilia fry, they tend to stay at the bottom of the tanks for many hours. Dickman resorted to a breeding trap and collected drops of about 30 fry. “This is obviously necessary if you don’t have enough stock to work with initially,” Dickman points out, “but once you are established [breeding traps] camouflage a lot of sins.”
Dickman criticizes a practice that I have often questioned as ruining the fancy guppy hobby: the use of near sterile conditions for raising fish. The recent disasters at some IFGA shows where fish die off en masse may be the result of this practice. Dickman uses lower temperatures, green water, and feels that raising guppies in heated, sterile conditions can only result in weak fish. He also feels that sunlight and/or strong light greatly intensifies the colors of red lace snakeskins.
Dickman’s snakeskins are now one of his hardiest strains of guppies, contrary to their reputation. He attributes this to his methods of ensuring initial viable fry, keeping an eye out for the outcross time, and not over-pampering his fish with sterile conditions so truly “only the strong survive.”
If you would like to learn more about the fabulous fancy guppy hobby and find a show near you, go to www.ifga.org.
Ted Dengler Coletti has been a hobbyist for over 20 years and resides with his patient family and guitars in the beautiful New Jersey Skylands. A founder of the Northeast Livebearer Association and the Aquarium Hobby Historical Society, Dr. Ted currently sits on the Board of the American Livebearer Association. Questions, suggestions, and “Pinky and the Brain” t-shirts can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org