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A Look at the American Killifish Association

Glimpse into the American Killifish Association, as well as the killifish themselves.

By Anthony C. Terceira |

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The killifish was introduced to fish literature a little late
One reason for the mystique surrounding killifish is they had a late start in published fish literature.
PHOTO CREDIT: (Aphyosemion bitaeniatum) Tony Terceira

The American Killifish Association (AKA), founded in 1962, is the oldest national aquarium group in the hobby and has served as a model for most of the other national groups which followed. Being a national association, it has no monthly meetings or other general activities associated with a local aquarium society. Rather the AKA promotes the study, enjoyment, propagation, conservation and dissemination of information about killifish. The AKA has established many programs to ensure its goals are met (i.e., committees which focus on publications, video and slide sales, fish and egg listings and species maintenance). A number of regional clubs throughout the United States have become affiliated clubs. These clubs meet regularly, and some hold local shows. The affiliates are one of the best ways to find others locally who share an interest in killifish. The AKA holds a single annual meeting at its national convention and killifish show.

The establishment of the AKA has led to the formation of other killifish organizations worldwide. Organizationally, two critical parts of the bylaws drawn up by Al Klee (one of the AKA’s founding members) and approved by the Charter Committee ensured that the group would not become a local or regional group as others had so that there would be representation from different parts of the country.

First, the business of the AKA would be done by correspondence. This ensured that anyone who was interested could participate in the decision-making process, regardless of their physical location or professional status. The membership at large votes annually for the Board of Trustees. The trustees elect a chairman, who is responsible for organizing and conducting the business of the Association. The second clause which helped ensure a national focus stated that no more than two trustees could reside in the same state (or province, in the case of Canada).

Given the prevalence of e-mail today, I am sure the idea of writing letters and mailing them to the other members of a governing board sounds strange — and in today’s world, it is. Yet having had the privilege of serving on the Board of Trustees and being its secretary during 1974 and 1975 when the only available communication was to write seven letters every month to your fellow board members, I assure you the correspondence was done in an organized and structured way. It ensured that all voices were heard and the decisions that were made honestly attempted to put the principals and goals of the organization above any one person or region’s desires. It often took months for a vote to be taken because suggestions were discussed by mail, and often, differing opinions resulted in multiple letter exchanges before a vote was taken on the topic.

Hobbyists keep killifish in species tanks for breeding purposes
Hobbyists often keep killies in species tanks, especially if they want to breed them.
PHOTO CREDIT: (Nothobranchius rachovi) by Tony Terceira

Finding and Learning About Killies
Due to the general scarcity of killifish in the early years of the AKA, finding a way to increase the distribution of killies to more hobbyists was a major goal. In order to help the membership, one of the first booklets produced was Killifishes Exchange. This booklet explained how to collect and safely ship killie eggs to other hobbyists all over the world. One of the unique things about killifish is that they lay a few eggs every day of their life, and the eggs require at least 14 days prior to hatching. Additionally, killifish eggs are not damaged by handling. Eggs are shipped in very small containers of water (i.e., plastic test tubes or stored on damp peat moss in a small plastic bag which can easily be mailed).

Because of the general lack of literature available to the American hobby, another early goal of the AKA was to make literature concerning all facets of the killifish hobby available. The Journal of the American Killifish Association was published early in the history of the AKA and contained material of a scientific nature. Killie Notes fulfilled the need for available literature focusing on the maintenance and breeding of killies; this monthly publication mailed to each member contained information contributed by members of the AKA. A typical issue would focus on material of interest to both the beginner and advanced members. Many early issues contained translations of material being published in Europe.

By far, the most anticipated section of Killie Notes was the fish and egg listing, a list of killifish and eggs other members of the organization have available for trade or sale (and it is still featured). Considering the general unavailability of killies during the 1960s through the mid-1980s, indeed the AKA was the primary source for those hobbyists who had fallen in love with this family of fish. Add to this the ease in shipping, and it is a wonderful way to add to your species list, and perhaps more importantly, meet someone else who enjoys the same type of fish.

The National Meeting
It wasn’t long before those die-hard “killie nuts” saw the need to have a national meeting, and soon the American Killifish National Convention was born. In the early years, the convention was held during Labor Day Weekend. However, within the last 30 years or so, the convention has been held on Memorial Day weekend. It is in a different part of the country each year and brings together people from all walks of life who share a love for these wonderful fish. Speakers from around the world are on hand to share their experiences. Many very experienced members of the AKA also present workshops on various aspects of the hobby.

Then there are the fish. Members from all over the world enter fish into the national show. It is a place where one will see fish that they have only read about or have only seen in pictures. The most exciting part is that every fish entered into the national show is available at the auction held on Sunday.

Members of the AKA donate their fish to the organization, and the money raised is used to further the goals of the Association. In this way, the AKA has been able to publish and produce a plethora of literature over its 40-plus years. It is safe to say that the majority of literature available in the killifish hobby today has been published by the American Killifish Association. This includes the Killifish Master Index, a synonymy and bibliography of killifish which is a 624-page annotated checklist that has a list of all valid species along with any synonyms that have appeared in literature, as well as A World of Killies. There is also the Atlas of the Oviparous Cyprinodontiform Fishes of the World, a multi-volume work; currently, four volumes are complete, with additional volumes in press. Each volume contains individual species information concerning taxonomy, maintenance and breeding requirements. This is an amazing accomplishment for a national association, considering that all the material has been produced because of the dedication of its members and their desire to make information known about this wonderful group of fish.

The Killies Themselves
The single most important reason for much of the mystique surrounding killifish is the late start that these fish received in published literature. Data concerning the acquisition of killifish was almost nonexistent in this country until after World War II. It is known, however, that the first aquarium killifish was Valencia hispanica, which was kept as early as 1881. Pre-World War II literature on killies is found for the most part in Germany, where early records were kept.

Killifish belong to the suborder Aplocheiloidei and are often referred to as “egg-laying tooth carps.” This is to distinguish them from the families Poeciliidae, Goodeidae, Jenynsiidae and Anablepidae (or live-bearing tooth carps, their closest relatives). Killies are readily distinguished from the live-bearing tooth carps (e.g., guppies) by the absence of an external male sex organ or gonopodium.

Killies are widely distributed in both the Old and New Worlds. They are not native to Australia, China, and northern Europe. Killies include some of the most exotic, colorful fish in the aquarium world. The African annual species of the genus Nothobranchius are best-known for their vibrant red and blue colors. Annualism is an adaptation which allows these fish to occupy a temporary water habitat. When their environment contains water, the fish deposit their eggs in the substrate where they remain as the water evaporates. With the onset of another rainy season, the rains fill the baked-out habitats, and some eggs hatch immediately to begin the cycle anew. This adaptive behavior has evolved, and these fish are true annuals whose life cycle duplicates their environment. Because of these killies’ life cycle, many hobbyists believe that all killies only live one year. This is simply not true. Annualism is only one survival strategy, and most killifish in the hobby today are nonannuals that will live three to five years in the aquarium.

The most popular killies in the hobby are the nonannual fish from tropical West Africa. These fish lay a few eggs every day in plant roots or in the substrate. On average, the eggs take approximately 14 days to hatch. The fry are quite large and are able to consume newly hatched brine shrimp. Some species are among the easiest to maintain in the aquarium, as long as water is changed often and a varied diet is provided. They also represent species which are likely to be found in local fish stores. Fundulopanchax gardneri nigerianus and Aphyosemion australe are among the most common in the hobby.

Killifish are generally not considered to be community fish, though some species will do well in most nonaggressive community tank environments (e.g., Procatopus, Poropanchax, Aplocheil-ichthys). Hobbyists who enjoy killies generally keep them in species-specific tanks because they are interested in breeding them. The continuous hatching of eggs at different times requires many small containers to keep larger fry from consuming newly hatched fry. A collection of small containers each containing a few young fish becomes the trademark of the killie hobbyist.

The numerous small containers demand that attention be paid to the amount of food fed and the frequency of partial water changes. This increased maintenance is one reason that killies are not kept by some aquarists. A 2-gallon aquarium is more than adequate for most species, as long as some cover is provided for females. Males of most species may tend to be somewhat aggressive.

Today’s AKA
The AKA is alive and well today, and still operates in the same manner as before, except that e-mail has replaced hand-written or typed correspondence. There are now nine members of the Board of Trustees. Three are elected annually to ensure continuity. The restrictions placed on the number of board members residing in different states and regions is still in place. Many regional affiliate clubs have been started from coast to coast. Regional shows have been added so that members unable to attend the annual convention can still find people with whom to share the hobby.

Another important committee now in place is the Killifish Conservation Committee. Under the Chairmanship of Charles Nunziata, this committee strives to help ensure that species remain within the hobby; these fish could also be threatened or endangered in their natural habitat, but the committee focuses on trying to establish species not widely available in the hobby. This committee has grown, and national groups in other countries have joined the effort to preserve species. A conscious effort is being made to try to keep the fish we have in the hobby. There are many difficulties involved in trying to focus on conservation in the hobby, but as it has been said so many times before, “The only failure is not to try.”

The AKA has a wonderful website providing information about killifish and allows those interested to join electronically. You will also find a public gallery of images and a listing of all affiliate clubs throughout the United States, along with the international killifish associations. The website has become a primary source of information about the organization, its regional affiliate clubs and forums. The site also contains information about killifish care and breeding.

The AKA also sponsors “Killitalk,” an online user group consisting of an e-mail list and forums where anyone can find information and ask any questions they may have about killies. Members of the AKA have access to sections including a member search list and a species database.

Today, members receive the monthly AKA Business Newsletter, which contains general business information and the fish and egg listing. Membership also includes a bimonthly subscription to the Journal of the American Killifish Association. This journal contains more than 30 pages and is in full color. It includes information of interest to the beginner and advanced hobbyist alike, and is the flagship publication of the AKA. It has been continuously available for more than 44 years. New members to the organization also receive The Beginners Guide, a 65-page color booklet that contains information about the selection, care and breeding of many different species. Chapters are included on disease, selection and incubation of eggs. As always, there is a chapter devoted to killifish exchange. Regret-tably, even today killifish are still not as readily available as other groups of fish, so the exchange of eggs worldwide continues today.

Ready to join the AKA or just want to know more? Additional information is available at www.aka.org.

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