Caring for Your Fathead Minnows 

Pimephales promelas – also known as the “crappie minnow” -- the easiest egglayer to breed
By Eric Crouch, Aqualand’s “Fathead Expert

 
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Fat Head Minnow Factoids

Origin

Iowa and other states

Use

Forage fish, bait fish

Max Size

Three inches

Sexing

Males have fat pads on head when breeding

Temp

Room temp fine

Attitude

Schools except when spawning

Substrate

Immaterial

Security

Not needed

Foods

Flake foods plus treat foods

Lighting

Long days (like summer)

Breeding 

May thru August in nature

Comments

Provide a cave or ledge.

Egg Incubation

Five to six days

 

 

LA
Fathead minnows in a spawning "set up."

Many hobbyists want to see their fish reproduce. 

LA
Fatheads just hanging out looking for lunch.

To know that you have provided your aquatic charges with conditions that are good enough to rear their offspring is a great feeling.  After all, no organism reproduces successfully unless proper conditions exist.  If you are the one who has provided these conditions, it says something about how well you take care of your fish. 

LA
Darker ones are the wild fathead color.  The gold ones are the "rosy reds."

Most aquarists have had one or more of the livebearer species (guppies, mollies, swordtails, and platies) breed, often in a community aquarium that wasn’t intended for the purpose.  Egglayers also spawn in community aquariums, but fry are almost never seen.  The eggs get eaten before they hatch.

LA
Gambusia females in a plastic cup.

Look-a-Likes.  Mixed in with your rosy reds you may find gambusia, a drab grey livebearer.  Besides being drab, these gals (the males stay small) get mean.  They can whup lots of fishes.  You can mix them with African cichlids.

 

Most Get Eaten.  Egglayers are trickier to rear than livebearers.  Most aren’t ready to eat food immediately after hatching.  They are still in the larval stage, receiving their nutrition from their yolk sac.  Newly hatched eggs are very vulnerable to predators at this larval stage. 

Tiny Mouths Need Tiny Foods.  Also, many species have such small mouths upon metamorphosis from the larval to the fry stage that they require microscopic feed (infusoria, unicellular free-floating algae, etc.).  It is usually wisest for the beginning aquarium fish enthusiast to attempt some of the easier species before attempting more difficult ones, as a means of gaining experience.

Start Easy.  Several “easy” egglayers available to try your hand at include:

     Barbs,

     Danios,

     Rainbow fishes,

     Convict cichlids.

LA
Fathead minnows in a five-inch net.  Their skinny shape makes them a popular fish food.

Easiest Egglayer.  The easiest egglayer  isn’t even a tropical fish, let alone a standard aquarium fish.  It is a species native to North America; thefathead minnow, Pimephales promelas, also known around bait houses as the “crappie minnow.”  We sell them as feeder fish for predator fishes three inches long and larger. 

Personal Favorite.  Years ago, I worked for a professor in Animal Ecology at Iowa State University.  He needed bluegills and fathead minnows for aquatic toxicology research.  I took care of his aquatic lab.  I fed fish, did water changes, took care of fry, etc.  We were cranking out the fatheads until they were practically coming out our ears.
 

In the Wild.  Fatheads lay their eggs on the under surface of rocks or other objects.  Males spawn with multiple females, so long as there is space for more eggs.  He will care for the eggs and fry until they are free-swimming. 

I once pulled a flat rock up in the shallow water along the shore of a Wisconsin lake, having noticed a male fathead defending the rock from other fishes.  There were at least 2,000 eggs on the under surface of this rock.  The old boy had been mighty popular.  (The average clutch of eggs per female is 150).


LA
Seems to be a popular rosy red "pick up" location.

In the Aquarium.  Our basic setup for breeding this fish in the lab was a 10-gallon aquarium with an under gravel filter.  We used 4-inch-long sections of 4-inch diameter PVC pipe for the egglaying sites, two per tank.  A new clay flowerpot laid on its side or a slate cave would work as well. 

Lighting.  Two males and four females went into each breeding tank.  Photoperiod (duration of lighting) was 15 hours per day.   Temperature was 72 to 74 degrees. 

Egg Harvesting.  At peak breeding, I was removing one or both tubing sections with eggs weekly and replacing them with fresh ones.  The ones with eggs were placed in separate aquaria with aeration and treated with a fungus preventive.

Parental Care.  It wouldn’t have mattered to the fry whether they hatched in Papa’s presence or not.  Once free-swimming, the fry are ignored by the parents, so long as those parents are kept well-fed. 

Increased Eggs.  We merely removed the eggs to increase egg production.  Once Papa is done with previous responsibilities, he’s ready to go again.  Females seem to be egg machines.  If the eggs aren’t removed, Papa will clean and protect them until they hatch.

Real “Fat” Heads.  Fathead males earn their name for the pads of fatty tissue they grow about their heads, particularly on top.  This pad makes the male look larger to both potential competitors and egg predators.  It also secretes an anti-fungal substance that he periodically rubs onto the eggs. 

 

Sexual Differences.  Males also become very dark about the head, and turn almost completely black when actually courting.  Females remain light gray, and never develop the fatty pad, or the little white bumps -- breeding tubercles -- that a spawning male has about the head.

Breeding Season.  Water temperature and photoperiod are crucial to breeding success.  If a fathead minnow perceives itself living in a “perpetual late spring/early summer” environment, it develops and acts accordingly, spawning with wild abandon.  Temperatures between 68 to 76 degrees, with 14 to 16 hours of light daily will do the job just fine. 

LA
Fathead minnows eat whatever you feed them.  Multiple feedings make the difference.

LA
An entire 10-gallon tank to patrol and they choose this flower pot (where we feed them).

LA
Conditioned male in breeding tank.

LA
Stud muffin of the tank pushing the other suitor away.

Conditioning Foods.  Diet should consist of a high-quality flake food (OSI being my preference), and a higher fat component (HBH makes several micro-pelleted foods that fill the bill well).  Be careful not to overfeed.  The micro-pellets especially are very easy to overfeed.  Frozen brine shrimp is another excellent option.  Feed at least twice daily.  Three times is better.
 

Krystal (Fish Haven), Pinehurst, TX, September 21, 2007
I was reading on your page about Rosy red minnows. I manage a retail tropical fish store in Pinehurst, Texas. I could never keep those things alive. One day I decided to put an algae wafer in their tank to feed the pleco and those rosies went crazy! They gobbled up every bit of the wafer and the next day there were very few dead. From then on, that is all I feed them and they love it! Not to mention -- we have cut our minnow loss by about 80%. Just thought I would pass on the info. Thanks.

A:  Thanks for the excellent info.  I didn't get any rosies in today's shipment.  I'll try it out next Friday.  In the meantime, I'm adding it to my (actually Eric's) rosy red page.  LA.

Fry Foods.  Fry develop quickly.  From the moment they are free-swimming, the fry can take very finely ground flake food.  Newly hatched brine shrimp (frozen or live) would be better.  They grow to adult size in six to eight months and spawn at one year of age.

LA
So-called "rosy red."  Actually, a bag of a 1,000 or so does look kind of rosy.

LA
Here's another batch of the two colors.

Rosy Red Minnows.  Often sold as feeder fish, the rosies are a yellow/pink version of our native fathead minnow.  They are much more attractive than the gray color of the wild ones, or the farm-raised ones you buy at a bait shop.  I have heard the rumor that these golden fatheads are harder to spawn than the standard gray.  Whether this is true or not, I don’t know.  I’ve never tried to spawn them.

Minnow Safari.  Wild fatheads are easy to obtain.  A standard minnow seine works quite well.  Fatheads can be found in almost every body of water in Iowa.  You can buy them at the bait shop, as well.  Bait minnows are usually rather stressed from shipping, crowded conditions, and lack of food.  Quarantine them and feed them heavily.  We carry the “rosies.”

LA
Fatheads make tasty skinny bites for predators too skinny to eat goldfish.

LA
Rosy reds kept under "bait house conditions."

LA
Occasionally they "clump up" like this but not often.

LA

Oh, don’t bother to tell the bait dealer what you want them for.  I’ve had more than one dealer snicker at me when I went to buy fatheads to breed myself.  They insisted that these fish couldn’t be spawned in an aquarium, even when I told them I’d done it countless times … Eric

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