Potentially Misidentified Species:
As mentioned above, two other poeciliids
are found in the IRL: the mosquitofish, Gambusia
affinis; and the mangrove gambusia, G. rhizophorae.
Both species are much smaller than the sailfin molly, reaching
a maximum length of 4 and 5 cm, respectively (Robins & Ray
1986). The mosquitofish is silvery, with pigmented borders on
the scales forming a dark diamond pattern. The body and caudal
fin usually bear rows of small black spots, and a dark bar is
present below the eye. The lining of the body cavity, or peritoneum,
is black and visible through the abdomen. The mangrove gambusia
is similar to G. affinis, but lacks the dark bar below
the eye and the spots on the caudal fin. Small but conspicuous
black spots line the upper side, and the fins are yellowish
in color. A third species that may be mistaken for P. latipinna
is the invasive guppy, P. reticulata (Ferriter et
al. 2006), which most likely was introduced to Florida
waters via the aquarium trade. The guppy reaches lengths of
approximately 6 cm, with females larger than males. Males also
have large, colorful caudal fins.
II. HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Regional Occurrence & Habitat
The sailfin molly is native to the coastal
waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, from southeast
North Carolina to the Yucatan, including estuaries and freshwater
tributaries (Burgess 1980, Meffe & Snelson 1989, Robins
& Ray 1986). Individuals have been found in shallow marsh
areas, and large populations inhabit areas were water flow has
been altered (eg. mosquito impoundments) (Williams
et al. 1998). Because of its wide environmental tolerances
and popularity as an aquarium fish, P. latipinna has
been introduced throughout the world (Courtenay & Meffe
1980) to locations such as: California, including the Salton
Sea (Zedler 2001); and the cave and basin hotsprings of the
Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada (Nelson 1983).
The sailfin molly is found throughout
the IRL in many habitats. However, most populations are concentrated
in mangroves and salt marshes, including closed and restored
mosquito impoundments (Klassen 1998, Lin & Beal 1995).
III. LIFE HISTORY AND
Age, Size, Lifespan:
The maximum age and lifespan of P.
latipinna is unknown, and growth varies with food availability,
environmental conditions and other factors. The maximum reported
size of the sailfin molly is 12.5 cm (Robins & Ray 1986),
although most specimens collected in the IRL are less than 6
cm (Klassen 1998).
Sailfin mollies reportedly live in small
shoals, or groups, comprised of 10-20 individuals of both sexes
(Aspbury 2007). Abundance of P. latipinna throughout
mosquito impoundments surveyed in the IRL exceeds 3,500 individuals
(Klassen 1998), accounting for over 30% of the total catch in
the impounded areas of St. Lucie County, Florida (Lin &
Many studies have investigated the reproductive
behaviors of P. latipinna, and several countries have
successfully cultured the species for the aquarium industry
(Ghosh et al. 2003, Ramachandran 2002). Sex can be
determined when individuals reach a length of about 1.6 to 1.8
cm (Snelson & Wetherington 1980). Populations are comprised
of females, dominant males, and small “sneaky” males (Snelson
1982). Studies have shown that females prefer larger males when
presented with several mates simultaneously (MacLaren &
Rowland 2006). These larger males frequently engage in territorial
courtship displays, and smaller males must “sneak” in to inseminate
females without courtship in order to be reproductively competitive
(Farr et al. 1986, Travis et al. 1990, Travis
1994, Travis & Woodward 1989). Sperm production and expenditure
also vary in mollies as methods of reducing competition between
males (Aspbury 2007). In high-risk situations, more sperm is
produced in all males, and smaller males expend more sperm during
insemination. Female P. latipinna also have the ability
to store sperm, allowing a single fertilized female to establish
a new population (Courtenay & Meffe 1989).
In addition to conspecific reproduction,
breeding between the sailfin molly and the shortfin molly, P.
mexicana, produces the Amazon molly, P. formosa
(Gabor & Aspbury 2008, Gabor & Ryan 2001). This hybrid
species is unisexual (all female), and sperm is needed from
one of the parent species to begin egg development, although
inheritance is completely maternal (Gabor & Aspbury 2008).
This process of reproduction is known as “gynogenesis”. Male
P. latipinna successfully reproduce with P. formosa,
but tend to prefer copulation with conspecifics females, especially
when they are larger (Gabor & Aspbury 2008).
Embryological information for P. latipinna
is sparse when compared to studies on reproductive behavior.
Although they are considered livebearers, the degree of viviparity
in sailfin mollies appears to vary with nutrient availability
(Trexler 1985). When maternal females have access to abundant
nutrient sources, they partition internal nutrition for their
young throughout development, and are considered “truly viviparous”
(Amoroso 1960). When nutrients are scarce, females expend energy
at the beginning of development to produce a yolk that will
sustain the embryos until birth, a process known as "ovoviviparity"
(Scrimshaw 1945). Females brood several times throughout the
year, producing batches of up to 140 fry (Zedler 2001) measuring
about 8.7 mm each (Snelson 1982). Growth rates in female juveniles
and adults usually exceed those in males.
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
The sailfin molly resides mostly in warm
coastal waters. However, this is a robust species that can withstand
a wide range of water temperatures. The thermal tolerance of
P. latipinna has been documented from approximately
6 to 40 °C, and depends somewhat upon the temperature to
which the individual was previously acclimated (Fisher &
Schlupp 2009). As with all livebearers, the optimal temperatures
for reproduction are reported to be between 22 and 26 °C
The sailfin molly is one of only a few
species of bony fishes that are considered to be truly euryhaline,
inhabiting fresh to hypersaline waters (Nordlie et al.
1992, Zedler 2001). Populations have tolerated salinities up
to 80 ppt, depending on the salinity to which the fish were
previously acclimated (Nordlie et al. 1992). An even
wider salinity range of 0 to 94.6 ppt has been documented in
other studies (Kumaraguru Vasagam et al. 2007). However,
captive breeding of P. latipinna is reportedly least
successful in freshwater (eg. Kumaraguru Vasagam et
al. 2005). Salt is typically added to molly tanks to induce
breeding (Whitern 1983), and a salinity of 25 ppt yields faster
growth and the most fry per clutch (Kumaraguru Vasagam et
Sailfin mollies are often found in stagnant
or low-flow areas. Studies have shown that individuals can become
acclimated to hypoxic conditions, with dissolved oxygen concentrations
as low as 1 mg per liter (Timmerman & Chapman 2004). The ability
to tolerate hypoxic conditions may be due in part to the larger
gill surface area found in natural populations that inhabit low
V. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
The diet of P. latipinna is mostly
herbivorous, containing large portions of algae and detritus
(Zedler 2001). However, decaying animal tissue and microscopic
benthic invertebrates are likely inadvertently consumed as well.
Optimal growth in cultured juveniles is achieved through mixed
diets of fish and soy bean meal, oysters and tube worms (Kumaraguru
Vasagam et al. 2007).
Few predators are documented for this species,
but individuals are likely preyed upon by larger fishes, wading
birds and crabs.
No known obligate associations exist for
P. latipinna. However, sailfin mollies are associated
with several organisms common to mangroves, mosquito impoundments,
seagrass beds and salt marshes. For extensive lists of other
species found throughout the ecosystems in which P. latipinna
occurs, please refer to the “Habitats of the IRL” link at the
left of this page.
VI. SPECIAL STATUS
Three of the top 10 ornamentals imported
into the US are poeciliids, and these species account for approximately
50% of the ornamental market in India (Mahapatra et al.
2000, Ramachandran 2002). As mentioned above, the sailfin
molly is a popular ornamental fish traded globally by the aquarium
industry, and much of the demand for P. latipinna throughout
the world is satisfied by its captive culture in India and elsewhere
(Ghosh et al. 2003, Ramachandran 2002). However, the
invasion of these fish into new locations may have devastating
effects (Williams et al. 1998) and economic consequences
that overshadow their benefits to the aquarium trade.
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Report by: LH Sweat, Smithsonian Marine Station
at Fort Pierce
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Page last updated: 9 August 2009
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