Fish Reproduction: How Do Fish Have Babies?

Have you ever wondered how fish reproduce and have babies? In this article, we will dive into the mesmerizing world of fish reproduction. Discover the various methods fish use to ensure the survival of their species, from egg-laying to live-bearing, and learn about their fascinating courtship rituals and parenting behaviors.

fish reproduction

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What are the Basics of Fish Reproduction?

Fish reproduction might seem like a complex subject, but once you learn the basics, it’s quite easy to understand. At the heart of it all, fish reproduction primarily involves the process of producing eggs and sperm, which then fuse to develop into new fish.

Fish have two main reproductive strategies: oviparity and viviparity.

  • Oviparous fish lay eggs that are then fertilized externally, resulting in the development of embryos outside the mother’s body.
  • Viviparous fish give birth to live young, with fertilization and embryo development occurring internally.

Fertilization can be external or internal, depending on the species:

  • External fertilization: This happens when the female releases eggs into the water, and the male releases sperm. One example is the process of “broadcast spawning” in which fish release their gametes over a large area.
  • Internal fertilization: This process occurs within the bodies of fish through mating, common in live-bearing species like guppies and mollies.

Additionally, some fish follow unique reproductive techniques, like mouthbrooding or bubble-nest building. The variety of reproductive methods in the fish world helps ensure the survival and diversity of species in different aquatic habitats.

To become an expert in fish reproduction, it’s essential to:

  • Understand the differences between male and female fish
  • Learn about courtship rituals and mating habits
  • Know the various breeding challenges and adaptations in marine environments
  • Grasp the importance of parental care and its impact on fish fry survival

Remember that fish reproduction can also occur in home aquariums! Setting up a breeding tank and raising fish fry at home can be a rewarding experience.

What are the Different Ways Fish Reproduce?

In the diverse world of fish reproduction, there are primarily two main methods by which fish reproduce: through egg-laying and live-bearing. Let’s dive into these methods and explore how different fish species have babies.

  • Egg-Laying Fish:  Egg-laying, or oviparity, is the most common method of fish reproduction. The majority of fish species fall under this category and follow different spawning processes. Here are some examples of egg-layers:
  • Live-Bearing Fish: The second method of fish reproduction is viviparity. In this process, the fertilized eggs develop inside the mother’s body, and she eventually delivers fully-developed babies, known as fry. Live-bearing fish are generally less common but can still be found in a wide range of species. Examples include guppies, swordtails, and mollies.

Live-Bearing Fish

Live-bearing fish give birth to fully-formed, free-swimming offspring, which makes them unique in the world of fish reproduction. Among the common species of live-bearing fish include guppies, mollies, platies, and swordtails.

There are two main types of live-bearing fish:

  • Ovoviviparous: In this type, the eggs develop and hatch within the mother’s body, with little to no connection to her bloodstream. The developing embryos rely solely on the nutrients provided by the egg yolk. A good example of ovoviviparous fish is the guppy.
  • Viviparous: These fish have a direct connection between the mother and the developing embryos, often through a placenta-like structure. This connection allows the mother to provide nutrients and oxygen to her offspring throughout their development. Some examples include certain species of sharks and rays.

For aquarists, livebearers are often the most manageable fish in terms of breeding. Their reproduction process is straightforward:

  1. The male fish uses its modified anal fin (gonopodium) to transfer sperm into the female fish.
  2. The female fish becomes pregnant, with gestation periods varying by species, and then gives birth to live young (known as ‘fry’).

Keep in mind that live-bearing fish have a higher rate of reproduction compared to egg-layers. In some cases, they can produce offspring every month and give birth to several dozen fry at once.

Make sure to provide a safe space and adequate hiding spots in your aquarium for the newborn fry, as adult fish may sometimes feed on them. Also, maintain proper water parameters to ensure the health and success of your live-bearing fish’s reproduction process.

Egg-Laying Fish

Many fish species are egg-layers, also known as oviparous fish, which means they reproduce by laying eggs. These fish can further be categorized into three different groups based on their spawning behavior: substrate spawners, bubble nest builders and mouthbrooders.

Substrate Spawners are those fish which lay their eggs on solid surfaces like rocks, plants, or the aquarium glass. Examples of substrate spawners include cichlids, killifish, and some species of catfish. Here’s how they do it:

  • The female fish lays her eggs, or roe, on a chosen surface
  • The male fish then fertilizes the eggs by releasing sperm, or milt, over them

Bubble Nest Builders are fish that create nests made of bubbles at the water’s surface to protect their eggs. Bettas, gouramis, and some catfish are such fish. The process involves:

  • The male fish creates a bubble nest by releasing bubbles coated with saliva
  • The female lays the eggs in the nest, and the male fertilizes them

Mouthbrooders are unique fish that carry their fertilized eggs inside their mouths for protection until they hatch. Some popular mouthbrooders include African cichlids and arowanas. Here’s how it goes:

  • The female lays the eggs and then picks them up in her mouth
  • The male releases milt, which is drawn into the female’s mouth to fertilize the eggs

It’s important to note that egg-laying fish generally don’t provide parental care after the eggs are fertilized, except for some cichlids which may guard their eggs and fry. The newly hatched babies, called fry, are left to fend for themselves, facing a harsh world full of predators and other challenges. As a result, many of the hatched fry may not survive to adulthood.

How to Tell Male and Female Fish Apart?

In the world of fish reproduction, determining the sex of your fish is crucial. Being able to tell male and female fish apart can help ensure the success of breeding projects. Here are some general guidelines to help you differentiate between the two sexes.

  • Size and color: Male fish are often more colorful and slimmer than their female counterparts. Females may have duller colors, but have a more rounded body shape, especially when they’re carrying eggs. Observe your fish carefully and look out for vivid colors or distinct patterns more apparent in males.
  • Fins: Male fish often have longer, more elaborate fins than females. These may include longer dorsal or anal fins, which they use to impress females during courtship rituals. Pay attention to the fins’ length and shape on each of your fish.
  • Tubercles: Some male fish develop small, white bumps on their heads or bodies during breeding season. These bumps, called tubercles, help males grip onto females during the mating process. Monitor your fish for these telltale signs during breeding periods.
  • Genital papilla: This small, fleshy opening is where the sperm or eggs are released from the fish. Males often have a pointed, elongated papilla, while females have a more rounded, often larger one. Examine each fish closely to spot these differences.
  • Behavior: Male fish tend to be more aggressive, especially during breeding season. They may chase females, display territorial behavior, or exhibit other signs of aggression. Watch your fish interact with one another to help determine their sex.

Keep in mind that these guidelines may not apply to every fish species. It’s always useful to research your specific fish species to understand the particular characteristics of males and females.

What Courtship Ritual Do Fish Have?

When it comes to fish reproduction, courtship rituals play a significant role in attracting mates and ensuring successful breeding. These rituals can consist of vibrant displays, complex dances, and other fascinating behaviors.

Some common courtship rituals among fish include:

  • Colorful Displays: Many fish change their colors during courtship to attract a mate, such as the vibrant hues displayed by male betta fish.
  • Spreading Fins: Fish like guppies often spread their fins to make themselves appear bigger and more impressive to potential mates.
  • Dance-like Movements: Some fish, like cichlids, perform unique dance-like movements to catch the attention of a potential mate.
  • Nest Building: Male fish may build nests or create safe spaces for their future offspring, attracting females who are looking for a secure place to lay their eggs.
  • Chasing: Some fish, like mollies and platies, engage in chasing behaviors where the male will pursue the female.
  • Nipping: Other fish like goldfish may resort to nipping at the fins of a potential mate to get their attention.

It is essential to note that not all fish participate in courtship rituals, particularly those that reproduce through external fertilization, such as most marine fish. Nonetheless, these rituals are vital for species that rely on specific pairings or mating partners to ensure the survival of their offspring.

What is Oviparity in Fish Reproduction?

Oviparity refers to the method of reproduction in which fish lay eggs that hatch outside of the mother’s body. It is the most common mode of reproduction in fish, with a high percentage of fish species, both freshwater and marine, being oviparous. The eggs are released and fertilized externally, often with elaborate courtship and nesting behaviors.

To help you understand better, let’s look at three main types of oviparous fish:

  • Substrate Spawning Fish
  • Bubble Nest Building Fish
  • Mouthbrooding Fish

Substrate Spawning Fish deposit their eggs directly onto various types of substrate, such as rocks, plants, or even in specially dug pits. Some common examples of substrate spawners include goldfish, cichlids, and killifish. They often engage in active courtship rituals before laying eggs and may exhibit parental care for the eggs and fry.

Bubble Nest Building Fish are unique in their nesting behavior. They create nests made of bubbles on the water surface, where they deposit their eggs. The male fish often builds the bubblenest, and the female lays the eggs into the nest. The male defends the nest and may care for the young fish. Anabantoids, such as bettas and gouramis, are famous examples of bubble nest builders.

Mouthbrooding Fish have a very interesting method of egg incubation. After the eggs are fertilized, either the male or female parent (or sometimes both) will carry the eggs in their mouth until they hatch. This behavior provides a secure environment for the developing embryos, protecting them from predators and unfavorable environmental conditions. Mouthbrooders are commonly found in cichlid species, such as some African and South American varieties.

Each of these oviparous fish exhibit unique reproductive strategies that have evolved to ensure the survival of their species. Understanding these behaviors can help you take better care of your fish and even breed them successfully.

Substrate Spawning Fish

Substrate spawning fish are a group of egg-laying fish that deposit their eggs on a surface, referred to as a substrate. The chosen surface varies depending on the species: it could be rocks, plants, or the aquarium glass. Their choice of substrate highlights an important aspect of their reproductive behavior – the need for a stable and secure location to lay their eggs.

When spawning, the male and female fish engage in courtship rituals, such as dancing or displaying bright colors. Here’s a brief look at some common substrate spawners and their unique methods:

  • Cichlids: Many African and South American cichlids are known to practice substrate spawning. They find a flat surface, clean it thoroughly by removing debris or algae, and then the female lays her eggs while the male follows to fertilize them.
  • Killifish: The majority of killifish species are substrate spawners. They can be divided into those that use plant matter and those that lay their eggs on the substrate (either land or water). The plant-spawning killifish deposit their eggs in submerged or floating plants and wait for the eggs to hatch in water.
  • Catfish: Some catfish such as the Corydoras species are substrate spawners. They lay their eggs on flat surfaces like aquarium glass, leaves, or even on the shells of other mollusks. The female will deposit adhesive eggs which remain secured to the substrate until hatching.

Substrate spawning fish often exhibit some form of parental care, ensuring the safety of their eggs and fry. This can range from guarding the eggs and chasing away potential predators, to cleaning and fanning the eggs to provide oxygen and remove waste. As a result, substrate spawners may offer higher rates of hatching success and fry survival compared to other spawning methods.

Bubble Nest Building Fish

Bubble nest builders are an interesting category in the world of fish reproduction. These fascinating creatures use bubbles as a primary tool in breeding and protecting their young. Some common examples of bubble nest builders include Betta fish (also known as Siamese fighting fish) and Gouramis.

The process of bubble nest building starts when the male fish prepares a suitable site, usually near the surface of the water. It begins blowing bubbles using a combination of air and its own mucus, which creates a sturdy floating structure. This activity is a component of their courtship ritual, as a beautiful and secure nest can attract female fish.

Once a female fish’s attention has been caught, she arrives at the bubble nest site. The two fish begin their courtship dance and if successful, spawning occurs. The female will release her eggs, and the male fertilizes them externally. The fertilized eggs then float up towards the bubbles.

The male fish takes on the responsibility of collecting the fertilized eggs and placing them safely within the bubble nest. To protect the eggs, the male fish:

  • Continuously blows new bubbles
  • Reinforces existing bubbles
  • Removes any debris or other intruders

Temperature also plays a crucial role in the incubation period of the eggs within the bubble nest. Generally, eggs will hatch within 24-48 hours, depending on the species and water temperature.

Bubble nest building fish display a unique and fascinating approach to fish reproduction. Their ability to create secure and floating nests showcases the diverse methods that aquatic creatures can use to ensure the survival of their offspring.

Mouthbrooding Fish

Mouthbrooding fish are a fascinating group of fish species that carry and incubate their eggs inside their mouths. This method of reproduction helps protect the eggs and fry from predators, and increases survival rates. One of the most well-known examples of mouthbrooders are certain cichlid species, such as the African cichlid.

In most mouthbrooding fish species, the female lays the eggs, and then the male fertilizes them. Once the eggs are fertilized, one or both of the parents will pick them up and hold them in their mouths.

Some species are maternal mouthbrooders, meaning only the female carries the eggs, while others are paternal mouthbrooders, where only the male takes on this responsibility. There are also cases of biparental mouthbrooding, where both parents share the responsibility of carrying the eggs.

Mouthbrooding fish have several adaptations to cope with this unique reproductive method:

  • Enlarged oral cavities: Mouthbrooders have larger mouths to accommodate the eggs and fry inside.
  • Reduced teeth: Some species have fewer or smaller teeth to make space for the eggs and fry and to avoid damaging them.
  • Modified gill arches: The gill arches in mouthbrooders often have reduced or specialized structures, allowing for water circulation while minimizing the risk of the eggs being accidentally expelled.

During the mouthbrooding period, the parent carrying the eggs does not eat, which can lead to a significant loss of body weight. Once the eggs hatch and the fry start to swim, the parent will release them to find their own food and live independently.

Mouthbrooding fish, with their unique reproductive strategy, provide excellent examples of the diverse ways in which fish reproduce and care for their offspring.

What is Viviparity and Live-Bearing Fish?

Viviparity is a mode of reproduction in which fish give birth to live young ones, instead of laying eggs. Live-bearing fish, as the name suggests, are fish species that exhibit viviparity, meaning they give birth directly to live babies rather than laying eggs.

In live-bearing fish, fertilization usually happens internally, with males transferring sperm to females using a specialized organ called the gonopodium. There are three types of viviparity in fish:

  • Ovoviviparity: Fertilized eggs are retained within the female’s body until they hatch, and the young fish are born alive.
  • Histotrophic viviparity: The embryos receive nutrients from the female’s body, and they are born fully formed and ready to swim.
  • Hemotrophic viviparity: The embryos are connected to the female by a structure called a placenta, which provides the young fish with nutrients and oxygen.

Some well-known examples of live-bearing fish include:

  • Guppies
  • Mollies
  • Swordtails
  • Platies

These fish are popular among aquarium enthusiasts due to their ease of breeding and the fascinating experience of watching live birth. Live-bearing fish generally gestate for around 28-30 days, but the exact duration can vary depending on factors such as water temperature and stress.

Viviparity refers to the mode of reproduction where fish give birth to live young ones, while live-bearing fish are the species that exhibit this form of reproduction. This fascinating method enables the young fish to be born fully formed and ready to swim, providing a higher survival rate compared to egg-laying species.

How do Marine Fish Breed? (Challenges and Adaptation)

Marine fish face several challenges when breeding, such as changing water temperatures, strong currents, and competition for resources. To overcome these challenges, they have developed a variety of reproductive adaptations, such as synchronized spawning, pelagic egg development, and live-bearing reproduction.

  • Synchronized spawning: Many marine fish synchronize their reproduction, often spawning during specific lunar phases or tide periods, to increase the chance of fertilization. This tactic also helps to reduce predation, by releasing vast numbers of eggs or offspring at once, making it difficult for predators to consume them all.
  • Pelagic egg development: Some marine fish produce buoyant eggs that float and drift in the open ocean. This allows the developing offspring to disperse and avoid crowded environments where predators and competition for resources are high.
  • Live-bearing reproduction: In this mode of reproduction, the mother fish nourishes and shelters her developing embryos inside her body, protecting them from predators and environmental threats. This strategy, called viviparity, is common in marine fish such as sharks, rays, and some species of bony fish.

Marine fish species also display a range of mating systems and parental care behaviors, depending on their specific environmental and ecological requirements. For example, some fish form stable monogamous pairs that protect a specific nesting site, while others use mass spawning events to increase fertilization chances and genetic diversity.

These breeding adaptations help marine fish to survive and prosper in the challenging conditions of the ocean, allowing them to maintain successful reproductive rates and contribute to the diversity and richness of marine ecosystems.

How Many Babies Do Fish Have?

The number of babies, or fry, that fish can have varies greatly depending on the species, their reproductive strategy, and the environmental conditions they live in. Some fish lay only a few eggs, while others can lay thousands, and live-bearing fish can give birth to as many as a couple of hundred babies at once.

In general, there are two main factors that affect the number of babies fish can have:

  • Reproductive strategy: Fish species with high fecundity (ability to produce a large number of offspring) usually lay a large number of eggs, while those with lower fecundity will have fewer babies. For example:
    • Many egg-laying fish, such as salmon, lay thousands of eggs at once, allowing them to produce an enormous number of babies in one reproductive cycle.
    • Live-bearing fish like guppies, on the other hand, typically give birth to a few dozen babies at once but can continue to breed multiple times throughout their lives.
  • Environmental conditions: The number of babies that fish can have is also influenced by the survival rate of their eggs and fry under the specific conditions in their habitat. In favorable conditions with abundant food and low predation, more babies will survive, while in less favorable conditions, the survival rate will be much lower.

The number of babies that fish can have depends on various factors, mainly their reproductive strategy and the environmental conditions they live in. While some fish can have thousands of babies at a time, others may have only a handful.

What is the Role of Parental Care in Fish Reproduction?

When talking about fish reproduction, parental care plays a crucial role in the survival and successful breeding of many species. Parental care can significantly increase the chances of survival for their offspring, and it includes a wide variety of behaviors.

  • Guarding behavior: Many fish species, like Cichlids, are known to guard their eggs closely, protecting them from potential predators.
  • Nest preparation: Some species, like Betta (Siamese fighting fish), build nests to provide a safe and suitable environment for their eggs.
  • Mouthbrooding: In some species, such as the African Cichlids, the eggs are kept in the parent’s mouth until they hatch, providing maximum protection and a constantly regulated environment.
  • Sibling care: In certain species like the Discus fish, the young ones feed off their parent’s body mucus, which contains vital nutrients and promotes growth.

Despite these examples of parental care, it should be noted that not all fish exhibit such behaviors. Many fish species release their eggs and sperm into the water column, relying on the vast amount of offspring they produce to increase chances of survival.

However, for those species that do indulge in parental care, they invest more time and energy into each offspring, meaning they usually produce fewer eggs. This trade-off between the number of offspring and their survival rate plays a significant role in the evolution and adaptation of various fish species.

The role of parental care in fish reproduction is essential in increasing the survival rate of offspring and ensuring the continuity of various fish species. Each species has developed distinct parental care strategies that are best suited to its specific environmental conditions and reproductive needs.

What is the Survival Rate of Fish Fry? (Wild and Home)

The survival rate of fish fry, or baby fish, varies greatly depending on the environment they are born into and the care they receive. In the wild, fish fry face numerous challenges that can result in a low survival rate, while in a home setting, the survival rate is generally higher due to the controlled environment and the opportunity to provide proper care.

In the wild, fish fry are exposed to many factors that may reduce their chances of survival, including:

  • Predators: Larger fish, birds, and other predators pose a significant threat to fish fry.
  • Disease: In a natural environment, fish fry are exposed to various parasites and diseases.
  • Food Availability: Competition for limited food resources among fish fry may result in some not getting the necessary nutrients to grow and thrive.
  • Water Quality: Pollution and water conditions can impact the overall health and survival of fish fry.

Conversely, in a home aquarium setting, fish fry have a higher survival rate due to the stable environment and proper care. Some factors that impact survival rates in home aquariums include:

  • Adequate Nutrition: Providing sufficient and appropriate food ensures that fish fry can grow and develop properly.
  • Water Quality: Maintaining optimal water quality, including stable temperature, pH, and water hardness, contributes significantly to fry survival.
  • Disease Management: Keeping the breeding tank clean and monitoring for signs of illness can help prevent the spread of diseases among fish fry.
  • Appropriate Fry Care: For livebearers, separating pregnant females before giving birth, and for egg-layers, removing adults after spawning can help increase fry survival.

Thus, while it is impossible to guarantee a specific survival rate for fish fry, creating a controlled environment and providing proper care can significantly increase the chances of fish fry reaching adulthood.

How to Set Up a Breeding Tank at Home?

Setting up a breeding tank at home can be an exciting experience, and easier than you may think. Follow these simple steps to create the perfect environment for your fish to reproduce safely and successfully.

  • Select an appropriate tank size. It should be large enough for the fish to swim comfortably, but small enough to allow you to monitor their behavior closely.
  • Prepare the water by ensuring proper temperature, pH, and hardness levels. Some fish species have unique water requirements, so research the specific needs of the species you are breeding.
  • Set up proper filtration and aeration. Use a sponge filter or air stone in the tank to provide adequate oxygen levels and maintain proper water quality.
  • Provide hiding spaces and breeding sites. These can be plants, rocks, or artificial structures, depending on the preferences of your fish species.
  • Use a tank divider or separate breeding tank to protect the eggs and fry. This prevents cannibalism and allows them to grow safely away from other fish.

Once your breeding tank is set up, it’s essential to keep a close eye on your fish. Watch for signs of courtship, mating, and egg production. After your fish reproduce, you’ll need to focus on raising and caring for the fry.

  • Feed your fry a suitable diet. Research the exact nutritional needs of your fish’s fry and provide them with the appropriate food.
  • Maintain optimal water quality. Regularly monitor the conditions in the tank and make adjustments as necessary.
  • Observe your fry closely. Monitor their growth, appearance, and behavior to ensure they remain healthy and happy.

Finally, enjoy the experience! Raising fry can be rewarding and educational. Once they’ve matured, you may decide to join them with the adult fish once again, sell them or give them to other enthusiasts.

Fish Species Breeding Requirements

Just like humans, fish species have their unique breeding requirements. Some need specific water conditions, while others require certain natural triggers. Let’s look at a few examples of breeding requirements for different fish species.

  • Goldfish: Goldfish require a larger tank with quality water conditions (pH: 6.0 – 8.0 and temperature: 68 – 72°F) and a protein-rich diet to encourage breeding. A slight drop in temperature can also stimulate spawning.
  • Betta Fish: Bettas require a water temperature of 78 – 82°F and soft, slightly acidic water (pH: 6.0 – 7.5) for optimal breeding conditions. Introduce a breeding tank with a two-inch depth, a hiding spot for the female, and floating plants.
  • Guppies: Guppies are livebearers, and they prefer warmer water temperatures (76 – 80°F). Ensure stable pH levels (6.8 – 7.8) and avoid drastic water changes. Provide plenty of live plants to produce microorganisms for the fry to feed on.
  • Cichlids: Cichlids are substrate spawners, preferring a range of water conditions depending on the specific species. It is essential to research the exact requirements for the type of cichlid you want to breed. Generally, they appreciate a protein-rich diet and hiding places in their tank for egg-laying.
  • Angelfish: The breeding tank for angelfish should be at least 18 inches tall, with the water temperature maintained around 78°F. The pH level should be between 6.5 and 7.1. Additionally, provide a flat, smooth surface for the angelfish to lay eggs on.

The breeding requirements for fish species are diverse, so it is essential to research the specific requirements for your chosen fish. Aquarists should ensure water quality, temperature, and pH align with the fish’s needs to encourage successful breeding and fry survival.

Raising and Caring for Fry

Raising and caring for fry is an essential part of fish reproduction. As a fish hobbyist or breeder, it is your responsibility to ensure the best environment for the health and growth of your baby fish. Here are some essential tips and guidelines for raising and caring for fry:

  • Feeding: Fry have small mouths and specific dietary requirements. Make sure you provide them with the appropriate food, such as baby brine shrimp, micro-worms, or specialized fry food.
  • Water Quality: Maintaining optimal water quality is crucial for the survival and growth of fry. Regularly monitor and adjust water parameters, such as temperature, pH, and ammonia levels, to ensure a stable environment for the fry.
  • Aquarium Setup: Set up a separate aquarium specifically for the fry that includes an air-driven sponge filter or a gentle air stone to maintain water oxygenation. This will prevent new-born fish from being sucked up by powerful filters.
  • Siphon the Tank: Use a siphon or airline tubing to remove leftover food or debris daily to maintain cleanliness in the fry tank.
  • Separate Predatory Tank Mates: As a precaution, separate adult fish or predatory tank mates from the fry to avoid any unwanted casualties.
  • Monitor Growth and Competition: Keep an eye on the growth and development of your fry, and make sure to separate any strong or fast-growing fish from others to give them equal chances to thrive.

Raising and caring for fry require proper attention to feeding, water quality, and tank maintenance. By following these guidelines, you can help to ensure the health and survival of your baby fish, ultimately contributing to the success of fish reproduction.


In conclusion, fish reproduction is a fascinating and diverse process that varies among different species. From live-bearing to egg-laying, each method presents its own unique set of challenges and adaptations. We hope this article has shed some light on the intriguing world of fish reproduction, and we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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