Last Updated: 3/30/16
Description and Size
Care and Water Preferences
Breeding and Fry Care
Photos of Rosy Red Minnows Spawning, Their Eggs, and Fry
My Fathead and Rosy Red Minnows
If you came here first for whatever reason, be sure to visit the main rosy red and fathead minnow page as well!
Description and Size
The species Pimephales promelas is known as both the fathead minnow and the rosy red minnow depending on its color variation. The fathead minnows are olive-brown and black whereas the rosy red minnows are a light orange color. Fathead minnows are often sold as bait and are native to the Northeast of the United States, in fast flowing streams. They are also found in as far from there as Chihuhua, Mexico, Louisiana, and Great Slave Lake in Canada. The mutant rosy red minnow was developed because it is more visible. It is often sold as bait and in aquarium stores to be used as "feeder fish." Rosy red minnows are often called tuffies when sold as "feeder fish." By some accounts, they are the most popular bait fish in the USA. They are wonderful fish, however, to keep in aquariums and ponds.
Studies have shown no differences between fatheads and rosy reds aside from appearance. In my experience, the fathead minnows seem to be more aggressive breeders and usually beat out the male rosy red minnows for prime breeding sites. Rosy red minnows were developed at Billy Bland Fishery, Inc. (go to the link to read their history). In my ponds, I have seen fish that have splotches of both rosy red and fathead coloration on the same fish. On 11/18/03, Bob asked me about his rosy reds who also had developed dark splotches and if this was normal. In my experience, it is normal to get these half and half fish. Splotches can be any size and can change as the fish ages. The minnows tend to want to revert to their natural fathead coloration.
Pimephales promelas has 8 rays on its dorsal fins, 8 rays on its pelvic fins, 7 rays on its anal fins, and 15 or 16 rays on its pectoral fins. Its incomplete lateral line has 42 to 48 scales.
This species is the only known member of the family Cyprinidae in the United States that practices brood care. In other words, just like cichlids, the males protect their eggs and newly hatched young. They stand guard and fan the eggs. Males can grow to 3 inches long and females to 2 inches but in most cases, males are about 2 inches and females about 1.5 inches long at full size. They only live about two years in captivity (but I had one live four years). In the wild and in ponds, most die young but those that survive may live more than two years because it is as if the winter time of hibernation does not count in their lifetime. Most minnows, however, get eaten before their first birthday but by then they have hundreds of children and grandchildren. Both sexes sexually mature by about six months of age but in my ponds, have been known to breed at only about 2.5 months old! They grow extremely fast in my ponds, growing to about an inch in two months. In my tanks, it takes about five months to grow to an inch.
An aquarist has informed me that albino fathead minnows also exist. See my rosy red minnow page near the bottom for a photo. While they look similar to rosy red minnows, they have red eyes and are much more pale. They are true albinos whose parents (that the aquarist obtained and bred) were albino but whose grandparents were most likely mostly regular fathead minnows.
There is one site that believes rosy red minnows are a mix of P. promelas, P. notatus (the bluntnose minnow), and P. vigilax (the bullhead minnow). Check it out for the details. I really do not know what is true. I can say that by interbreeding rosy reds and fatheads together, I always get fatheads from the mix that look like fatheads and not the bluntnose minnows that I have had. I have not seen bullhead minnows in person. Since they can all interbreed, it is not a surprise that they may have done so somewhere along the line. One batch of rosy reds from one part of the country may not be genetically identical to another somewhere else that may have interbred.
Care and Water Preferences
Fatheads and rosy reds come from fast flowing streams. Thus, they prefer fast flowing waters and high oxygen content. At least, that is what I have always provided. I recently read that they are good fish because they can handle low oxygen and lots of waste. I do believe that they are hardy but do not believe any fish should be put in non-ideal setups just because they can take it. They get along with every fish I have tried with them including: guppies, white cloud mountain minnows, danios (any kind), plecostomus, otocinclus, cories (any kind), and in a pond setting, goldfish, koi, and orfe (who will eat some of them). A solitary specimen or a bunch of female(s) with no male(s) will go insane and try its best to leap to its death (trying to find another minnow?). I would suggest at least 2 females and 1 male in a tank and at least a dozen in a pond.
They prefer a temperature of about 70 degrees F if you do not want to vary the temperature. They can survive (and even thrive) from right above freezing into the 90's (degrees F). Thus, a tank without a heater or a pond make perfect homes for them. Rosy reds and fatheads are known for actively swimming right under the ice in the winter. My fish are kept in soft water where they breed readily but I have read that they also thrive in hard water.
They eat flakes, mosquito larvae, other insects and fry, some algae, etc. but only do minuscule damage to plants which they occasionally nibble. They can take a surprising density. I put 6 in a 50 gallon pond. Two months later, there were about 100 fish of 0.5 inches or larger. I would not start out with more than 6 adults per 10 gallons (if no other fish are added). Two males and two females per 10-20 gallons seems to be the best breeding setup for me (with other species of fish around) while some people prefer two males to four females (with no other fish around). While breeding males do not school, females hang out together and fry school with their own age groups.
Male fathead minnow males get black heads and vertical stripes down their bodies and on their fins. They also get white breeding tubercles like goldfish and fleshy black growths on top of their heads. The breeding tubercles occur in three rows on the snout. Rosy red minnow males pretty much lack the color change but do get a clear fleshy growth on top of their heads and barely visible white tubercles. Females lack tubercles, fleshy growths, and vertical stripes. They are much smaller, shorter, and plumper. They also have a very visible ovipositor once sexually mature. The ovipositor is a short, fat tube near the vent from where eggs are deposited. Female fatheads are an olive-brown color with a horizontal stripe down the length of their bodies. Female rosy reds are a washed out orange-white.
See the wonderful photos below for male and female rosy red minnows next to each other during spawning.
Breeding and Fry Care
Fatheads and rosy reds begin to breed at about 6 months old, and females are at their prime at about 1 year old. Males mature a little later, peaking often in their second year. Maximum size is usually achieved at two years of age for both sexes. The exact age of maturity depends on temperature, crowding level, and water conditions as with most animals. They live from 1 to 3 years in tanks but less in ponds with predators.
Mature males stake out territories when the temperature is between about 65 to 85 degrees F. Fatheads and rosy reds breed from late April into early September in Zone 6/7 of the USA. They prefer rocks, logs, hard leaves, or other hard surfaces. I provide broken-in-half small terra cotta or clay pots in my tanks. In the pond, they use the undersides of rocks and plants, mostly using the eaves of rocks. If no pots, pipes, or other hard surfaces are provided, these minnows may even lay eggs on a heater (not a great spot!). Pots are best for aquariums. The male will guard the pot (or rock overhang, etc.) and clean off the site. Egg-laden females are allowed access where spawning takes place. All other fish, especially other male minnows and females devoid of eggs, are driven away. My males never harm these fish and do not stray far from the pot. Two breeding males may get in quite a tussle with head shoving but do not really bite. They can however exhaust each other. Also, females take advantage and eat the eggs if the males get caught up in fighting. Thus, for breeding purposes, it is best that each male have his own pot at least 8 inches apart.
Often, the presence of another male makes a male more willing to breed than if he were the only male. I guess the competition gets their hormones flowing. Sometimes, the presence of a male with breeding experience seems to help an un-experienced male figure out what to do. So, if a solitary young pair are not breeding, try adding another male (preferably older).
During spawning, the male pushes the female's rear up onto the hard surface. She deposits eggs on the pot, etc. while he expels sperm. She may return half a dozen times during one day before being emptied. After this, it takes her about 1-3 weeks to be ready to lay eggs again. Multiple females may visit the male and leave their eggs. Thus, a "lucky" male may have a nest with eggs at all stages of development. The male takes over duty of the eggs. He defends them and fans them to keep water flowing over them. He will also remove unfertilized and/or fungused eggs. After about 5 days near 75 degrees F, the eggs hatch. The fry lay around on the bottom and sides of the tank or pond for a few days. Then, they swim at the surface, at the brightest spot looking for microorganisms to eat. Infusuria, paramecium, cyclops, and newborn brine shrimp are all good foods to feed during the first few weeks. The fry can eat exclusively baby brine shrimp after a few weeks if so desired. Depending on temperature and water volume and conditions, the fry will begin eating fish food flakes and other prepared foods as soon as they are large enough to bite at them.
Unlike goldfish and koi fry, rosy red fry are orange from the start. Once they reach about 0.25 inches, rosy reds can easily be told apart from fatheads as they have adult coloration. At smaller sizes, both are see-through but do have faint color.
Keys to Breeding Fatheads and Rosy Reds
Cross-Breeding Fatheads and Rosy Reds
For those of you interested in genetics, if a fathead and a rosy red breed, all of their young are fatheads. If these young breed, 75% of the resulting fry are fatheads and 25% are rosy reds. Fathead coloration is dominant over rosy red coloration. This classic genetics scheme was played out when I put seven fathead x rosy reds in a pond by themselves and got fry who were about half fatheads and half rosy reds. As more generations have bred in my big pond, I now have minnows that are orange splotched with brown! So, I can no longer say that the minnow must be rosy red or fathead, it can be a visual mix of beauty! Over time, the fish have deviated from classic genetics.
Artificial Rearing of Eggs and Fry:
The clay pot or other laying surface may be removed a few hours after spawning (to allow fertilization to occur) to a 5 gallon tank with heavy aeration and methylene blue (follow recommended dosage for eggs). After one day, use tweezers to remove any eggs that have taken on the dye (they are unfertilized or fungused). Then, the eggs, still attached to the pot, are placed in a 5 gallon tank with moderate aeration. Two to three days later, they should hatch. Feed newborn brine shrimp and other foods as mentioned above.
For more information on rearing fry, visit my breeding and fry care page.
A Rosy Red Breeding Story:
Here is one aquarist's recounting of the activities of her three rosy red minnows and their breeding activities. These were e-mails between Judy and I on 5/13/03 (and the last one on 5/20/03). I did not save copies of my replies to all her e-mails so those ones are not included. Rosy is the female and Fluffy and Flash are males. If you read this, I am sure you will see why I love these fish so much! To see Judy's new web site with photos of her rosy reds and fry and a MOVIE of Rosy and Fluffy mating, go to Judy's rosy red site:
Judy: "Rosy and Fluffy, my rosy reds, mated this morning and produced some eggs in Fluffy's
house....Now, what do I do with the eggs? Leave them and see if any survive? Try and rescue
babies when they hatch? I don't want tons of rosy reds but it would be cool to raise a few."
Robyn: "The dad will tend the eggs so they don't fungus and keep them aerated as long as he can fend off the other hungry fish. Once they hatch, they are fare game for him and other fish to be eaten. If you want to save some, try using a turkey baster or plastic pipette (if you have a scientist in the family who can get you one) to suck them up. It's easiest right as they hatch off the pot and hang there a few hours or at surfaces (like the glass sides of the tank) for the first few days if not eaten right away. To ensure babies, you take the pot away. I wouldn't do that this time as the new daddy would be upset, it's not so easy to keep fungus at bay (methylene blue and aeration needed), and you'd have lot of babies. They will lay again so you might try this in the future if you want to raise babies and can't catch a few here and there before they get eaten. If the tank has a ton of hiding places (like a jungle), then it's possible a baby or two might survive on its own but if I recall your setup, that's not likely without intervention."
Judy: "...Thanks for the baby fish advice. I put Mina the goldfish back in the other tank with the other goldfish so there is just Fluffy, Rosy and Flash in the tank (25 gal)....The 25 gal tank is beginning to resemble a jungle so maybe a baby could survive in there. I will try and catch some and put them in my tiny tank where I have plants, snails and pond water....Oh, it's so exciting to be a grandmother!"
Judy: "Well, Flash, the bigger male, got into Fluffy's pot and started eating the eggs and chasing the others away. I guess that accounts for why I never saw any eggs they were mating before! I took out the pot with the remaining eggs and put it in my little tank with an airstone. I'll see if any hatch. I substituted another pot so I hope Fluffy isn't too upset. He didn't seem to mind Flash eating all his babies anyway!"
Robyn: "Rosy reds are territorial so they both want a pot!"
Judy: "They each have their own pot already at opposite ends of the tank! Flash just wanted Fluffy's pot as well, or to eat the eggs. Flash is the bigger fish. But Fluffy has grown a lot since I got them and he's now almost as big as Flash. Maybe if Flash mates with Rosy he can protect the eggs...."
Judy: "HA HA! Now Flash thinks he wants BOTH pots. He swims frantically to one pot, squirms around in it, then swims back to the other pot and squirms around in it. Meanwhile Flffy sneaks into 'his' pot when Flash is at the other end of the tank. Rosy is just hanging out in the plants taking it easy. I think I'll add a third pot and see what happens. They're such interesting fish to watch! I'm glad I saw your web site and started keeping them."
Judy on 5/20/03: "...I was going to write you today and tell you how the fishy soap opera is coming. Saturday Flash and Rosy laid eggs (in Fluffy's old house) and they have not been eaten yet. Flash is SO PROUD of himself - he is swimming around with his top fin sticking up in the air and chasing everyone else away. Hopefully these eggs will hatch...."
Update: Some hatched. She took some photos of the fry and put them on her site. Judy is trying to raise some of the babies now.
Update: 12/9/03 - Judy says that Flash, Rosy, and Fluffy have all died over the summer. She has eight babies doing okay though. She had Flash for 1.5 years. The other two got dropsy-type symptoms before dying. I suspect that rosy reds raised in good conditions from the start have much longer lives. Her original three fish were all mistreated "feeders."
Photos of Rosy Red Minnows Spawning, Their
Eggs, and Fry
In addition to the great photos from Mike below, Dave recently sent me these photos of rosy red minnow eggs on the underside of a water lily leaf from his pond: eggs, eggs, and close-up of eggs. While rosy reds prefer laying on hard surfaces, they do sometimes lay on softer plant materials.
These photos of aquarium rosy reds are absolutely amazing! You must see them! They were sent to me by Mike. Thank you so much!
Spawning Photo One - here you can see the male on the top with his white breeding tubercles on the top of his nose and a clear fleshy growth on the top of his head, the female on the bottom with her enlarged ovipositor and abdomen, and the eggs on the roof of the spawning site.
Spawning Photo Two - here again the male and female are spawning with the eggs at the top of the photo. The female appears to be on top (in the back). You can see the male's vent where he has an enlarged tube of his own during spawning. This is not to be confused with the female's larger ovipositor. Again, you can see the male's fleshy growth on the top of his head.
Spawning Photo Three - here again the male and female are spawning with the eggs at the top of the photo. The female is on top.
Eggs - here is a view of all of the developing eggs. There are lots of eggs. You can see the eye of the developing fish. There are a few white eggs. Those have egg fungus on them. For more information on egg fungus, check out the egg care sections. Fungused eggs can be removed with tweezers or by a 24 hour dip in a methylene blue solution before the fry hatch.
Eggs - this is a closeup of a few of the developing eggs. You can see the fry's eyes. If you were there, you could see the fry spin around in their eggs!
One-week-old Fry - here are the fry at about a week old. The photo shows a bunch of them. As the owner, Mike, said, "As you can see, they are mostly eyes and stomach!" Look at the that gorgeous sword plant in the photo too. The week-old fry are about 5 mm long.
One-week-old Fry - this is a closer view of a few of the week-old fry. They already appear a little orange but are still mostly clear. Their stomach is shiny.
Two-week-old Fry - here is one of the baby rosy red minnows at two weeks of age. It is about 8 mm long. The eye, spine, orange intestinal tract, and swim bladder are obvious. The swim bladder is the air-filled area above the orange intestines.
16-Day-Old Fry - this is a 16-day-old fry in the act of expelling waste.
16-Day-Old Fry - here are a bunch of 16-day-old fry with nice orange guts.
Some hydra got into the fry tank via some plants. They began to eat the above fry. The hydra
about 9 mm long from the anchor to the tip of the tentacles. Here are some photos of the
Hydra close up
Hydra eating a fry - note that fungus has attacked the fry as well.
My Fathead and Rosy Red Minnows
For more photos of my minnows, see here.
For the story of how I got started keeping these fish, go to my intro page. I was working as an intern breeding and torturing these fish. When the two month assignment was over, I just had to bring some home to assuage my guilt.
In the past (1998 and a few years thereafter), I had hundreds of rosy reds and fatheads of all ages and sexes in my 1800 gallon pond. Over time, they mostly reverted back to fathead minnows as the rosy reds were more often eaten and fathead traits are dominant. There were only a few rosy reds left by 2002 but the fatheads have it in their genes! A few years later and all the minnows had vanished in my big pond.
I had one female fathead minnow left in my 50 gallon tank but she died on 7/31/01. She was born in 1997 and lived in the 20 gallon tank until 6/16/01 when she moved to the 50 gallon tank. At the time of the move, she was anorexic and weak. She may have had some tuberculosis tumors which appeared as dark spots under her skin. In the new tank, she put on a lot of weight, ate like a pig, and looked great. Then, she got dropsy-like symptoms and then dropped all the weight to be skinny and weak again. She was having trouble swimming by the end of July. The last I saw her was 7/30/01. I found her body when cleaning on 8/4/01. Her father was a rosy red, and her mother was a fathead. Her siblings great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, etc. live in the 1800 gallon pond. This female fathead was over four years old! She did not even die of old age. And to think people told me they only live at most two years! The pond minnows are extremely big and strong as predators pick off the young, old, and weak. I love watching the baby minnows swim as they change course quite a bit!
In October 2002, I bought 15 rosy red minnows and overwintered them in my indoor 20 gallon tub pond and treated them heavily for illnesses and parasites with Aquari-Sol (for ick and parasites), salt, MelaFix by Aquarium Pharmaceuticals, Maracyn by Mardel (erythromycin), etc. On 4/12/03, I caught eight of them and put them in my 153 gallon pond. I will catch the rest later. Here are two photos of those eight taken that day: one and two. The large fish in the front is a mature male. They did not sit still for examination but I could see at least two mature males, one mature female, and a deformed one (kinked spine) in the bunch of eight. In my 1800 gallon pond, all the minnows have reverted to fathead coloration. Since these guys are in a separate pond, perhaps they will retain their orange color over time if they do not have too much percent fathead in them. See my pond newsletters for more on the story of the new rosy red minnows.
On 5/17/03, I removed the remaining five big rosy red minnows from my 20 gallon basement tub pond and put them into my 153 gallon pond with the other eight fish for a total of 13. That means that two must have died from October to May (no bodies were found). Saving 13 of 15 diseased rosy reds to turn them into healthy breeding adults seems pretty good to me!
A few months later, I saw a few rosy red fry that were beyond the easily-eaten stage.
On 3/29/04, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond (see this page for details about the cleaning). There were 9 female rosy red minnows and 3 males. That means that only one died in the last year! It also means that none of their fry survived. One female rosy red went through the Pondovac vacuum and was injured and suffered from it and could not swim (I am pretty sure she later died). Here are photos of four of them.
Rosy red minnows - male on bottom front,
female in the back.
Rosy red minnows - two females (not the same individual as previous female).
On 3/25/05, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. Details are on this page. While doing so, I counted all the rosy reds I removed as I found them in the gunk. There were 63 rosy red minnows! They had a lot of babies last summer and a good amount survived! I also saw a small school of fathead minnows still alive in my 1800 gallon pond! There are not that many but I am glad there are some at all!
On 3/30/06, I cleaned out my 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on here. I found 51 rosy red minnows, fewer than last year. There were about 20 males, 23 females, and 8 too small to tell.
On 3/29/07, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2007 pond cleaning page. I found 48 rosy red minnows - approximately 12 males, 15 females, and 21 youngins.
I found a dead 3" male rosy red minnow floating on the surface of the 153 gallon pond on 3/4/08. He looked okay except his left gill cover was gone. I think the raccoon beat him up. He had white tubercles and his upper lip and the spongy head so he was ready to breed even though it is still cold out (we did have some warm days there).
On 3/14/08, I bought seven rosy red minnows for my turtle, Tator, to eat. I did not want to buy "feeder fish" for him ever (I like the fish too much and did not want to introduce disease and parasites) but Tator was not eating, and the store guy said they would work for sure. Tator bit in to two fish but never ate any. By 3/18/08, it was evident that Tator would never eat the remaining five rosy red minnows. So, I moved my betta Homer to my 20 gallon tank and moved the minnows to the basement pond where I began their intensive rehabilitation - aquarium salt, MelaFix, Maracyn I, Maracyn II, and AquariSol. In May when I am done with the basement pond, they will join the other rosy red minnows in the 153 gallon pond. I am afraid to harm them with anything these guys might bring over but these guys deserve a chance and would infuse some new genes into the old pond. So, my fingers are crossed that they will not be contagious. They did great! I put them in to the 153 gallon pond on 5/7/08 to join the others.
Here is a photo of two of the "feeder" rosy red minnows in Tator's 40 gallon feeding tank on
3/16/08. You can see how emaciated they are (typical for "feeders"):
Two rosy red minnows
On 4/1/08, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2008 pond cleaning page. I found 31 rosy red minnows - approximately 10 males, 18 females, and 3 youngins.
On 5/18/08, I put six little rosy red fry in to my 50 gallon tub pond to control insects.
On 5/25/08, I found a dead rosy red minnow. It was a 2" female with a hold in her gut with eggs coming out. I do not know what happened to her. On 6/14/08, I found and removed a dead 2.5" male rosy red minnow that had been dead for a few days. I do not know what happened to him.
On 4/1/09, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2009 pond cleaning page. I found 42 rosy red minnows - approximately 6 males, 16 females, 13 juveniles, and 7 fry.
On the morning of 6/11/09, I found a dead 2.5" male rosy red minnow in the 153 gallon pond. He was in full breeding mode with white tubercles on his muzzle and a pad on top of his head. There was some abdominal bruising. I am not sure if another male beat him up, a predator beat him up, or he died from the weather the night before. We have been having rain and storms pretty much daily for weeks now (very unusual). The storm that night dumped 1.5 inches of rain in about 20 minutes. There was standing water all over. The sudden influx of a lot of water to a pond can cause problems such as a drop in the pH, drop in the hardness and alkalinity, and a drop in the oxygen levels. Given the right conditions in smaller ponds mostly, those can be deadly.
On 3/31/10, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2010 pond cleaning page. I found only 24 rosy red minnows - approximately 7 males, 10 females, 6 juveniles, and 1 fry. That means more than a dozen must have died, probably from predation from the raccoon but possibly other animals as well. Hopefully, they will breed their numbers back this year.
On 6/30/10, I found a dead ~2" rosy red minnow in the 153 gallon pond. I had seen a struggling male rosy red a few days before who appeared emaciated so it was probably the same fish. There are a lot of babies in the pond right now. Few will live to next spring (as is the case each year) so I wonder what happens to each of the individuals before then.
On 3/30/11, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2011 pond cleaning page. I found only 41 rosy red minnows - approximately 9 males, 11 females, and 21 juveniles.
On 3/14/12, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2012 pond cleaning page. I found 36 rosy red minnows - approximately 10 males, 12 females, and 14 juveniles. One rosy red died from suffocation I think during the cleaning.
On 3/30/13, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2013 pond cleaning page. I found 26 rosy red minnows - 6 males, 14 females (or immatures, too young to say if male), and 7 juveniles.
On 3/37/14, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2014 pond cleaning page. I found 31 rosy red minnows - 7 males, 12 females (or immatures, too young to say if male), and 12 juveniles. Despite a harsh winter, the population is very stable.
On 4/8/15, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2015 pond cleaning page. I found only 13 rosy red minnows - 6 males, 3 females (or immatures, too young to say if male), and 4 juveniles. I found one dead juvenile.
On 3/30/16, I cleaned out the 153 gallon pond. You can read the details on my 2016 pond cleaning page. I was shocked by how few fish I found!
I found only 17 rosy red minnows - 1 male, 2 females (or immatures, too young to say if male), 3 juveniles, and
11 babies (born 2015). This is the least adults ever! Should I blame the 14 frogs or the heron?
Return to the main minnow page.
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