Wagtail Platy

Learn About This Great Community Aquarium Fish With An Unusual Past

The ttrue history of the Wagtail Platy
Thomas R. Reich PhD

Chances are, if you have had an aquarium long, you have kept the playful and beautiful Wagtail Platy at some point. The Wagtail Platy is not only one of the most beautiful of all Platys, but it is available in several color varieties and it breeds true to color and to the tail and fin blackness as well. One would think this fish to be a well-established species in nature with a proper name, classification and place of origin in the world. Well, sometimes nothing is stranger than the truth.

Aquarists are no different than other hobbyists in most respects. In general, they have the typical attitude that uncommon things are the most desirable because these unusual things bring friendly attention to them and their standing with others in the hobby.

For this reason, a number of substantial tropical fish importing firms spent years and millions of dollars on expeditions to the far reaches of the Upper Amazon and the interior of equatorial Africa and Southeast Asia to secure exotic fish that could be bred and distributed from Florida fish farms to hobbyists around the world.

The Origin of the Wagtail Platy

Even though each country has beautiful fish in its own right—America, for example, has the Sun Fish, popular in Europe as an aquarium fish but cooked in a pan on US camping trips — aquarium hobbyists insist upon the exotic, the colorful and the unusual. One notable exception is a little fish that does not exist in the wild anywhere in the world and never did. The Wagtail Platy was created by accident in the New York City laboratory of a distinguished biologist.

The late Dr. Myron Gordon was a widely acclaimed authority on the inheritance of cancer. Much of his experimental work was done with different types of the Platy, which are native to Central America. Dr. Gordon made a number of trips to Central American countries in search of fish that had tumors or at least looked to him as though they might produce tumors.

One group of native Platys brought back to the laboratory by Dr. Gordon had black edges on the top and bottom of their tail fins. He called them Comet Platy. Do not look for the Comet Platy, they may still exist in nature, but they were not registered and Dr. Gordon did not receive scientific credit for either the discovery or the naming if this unique but presumably unattractive little fish.

Now here is where the history takes an even stranger turn. Writing in ‘The Aquarium Magazine’, August 1940, Dr. Gordon said, “When first we discovered the ‘Comet’ Platy in Mexico, we thought we had just another genetic variety of the platyfish’s great natural stock of patterns. While the black-margined tail of the ‘Comet’ was of interest to me in the study of fish genetics, the tropical fish dealer could not see any commercial success for it; and I confess, neither did I.”

However, when the biologist crossed his ‘Comet’ Platy with some of the varieties in his laboratory, he was amazed. The babies produced had jet black fins and lips with a scattering of black on the body. Here was a variety that would appeal to the aquarium hobbyist, which he named the Wagtail Platy. The name stuck with the fish through many variations over the years, but Dr. Gordon’s credit is long forgotten.

Strain Further Refined By Breeders and Commercial Fish Farms

By careful selection, the strain was further refined by breeders at commercial fish farms over the years until the black on the bodies was largely eliminated. Wagtails were crossed with the Golden Platy and the Red Platy, producing the Gold Wagtails and Red Wagtails we see in most every tropical fish store to this day.

Geneticists now know that the wagtail pattern is caused by a genetic phenomenon similar to one that causes Siamese cats and Himalayan rabbits to have dark coloring on all of their extremities. To Dr. Gordon, the Wagtail Platy was another tool to use in his research, but fortunately, he shared his discovery with aquarists. Today the Wagtail Platy can be purchased in virtually every store in the world that sells tropical fish. They are nearly as common as guppies.

If you want a fish that is even tempered, fun to watch, exotic in color and easy to keep in a community aquarium, look no farther than the Wagtail Platy. But remember, behind every fish you keep there is a history, and knowing a little bit if its history makes it that much more fun to be a part of this wonderful hobby of fish keeping.