It Was Survival of the Pinkest Until Breeder David Liebman Hit Bingo with the 'pingu' Guppy

updated 07/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As Melville, Hemingway and even Peter Benchley have observed, man is obsessed with creatures of the deep. Yet a Norfolk, Va. marine biologist carried this obsession to new, ah, depths. He devoted the past 10 years to the search for the perfect guppy.

And what does the perfect guppy look like? Among other things, it's shocking pink. For breeder David Liebman, 35, the "pingu," as he has dubbed his creation, is worth more than its weight (1/28 of an ounce) in gold. At $ 100 a pair, pingus are the summer sensation of tropical fish fanciers. "I could be wealthy in months," exults Liebman, who co-owns an aquarium supply store.

He undertook the pingu project when he spied a mutant guppy in his aquarium in 1969. It had a pink spot that "stood out as promisingly as a bright light on a dark night," recalls David. "I wondered if that iridescent pink could be extended into its entire body." Bred selectively for color, only one of every 4,000 guppies qualified for Liebman's gene pool. The other 3,999 were fed to catfish.

Liebman became so engrossed with the pingu that he quit his job teaching science at a prep school. "I worked on the breeding 16 hours a day, seven days a week," he declares. An associate, Anthony Provenzano, professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University, marvels: "He persisted against the odds and common sense. Anybody in his right mind would have quit a long time ago."

The long years in a humid, windowless room were just minor difficulties. When a pesticide from a garden spraying service spewed into his laboratory in 1974, David feared that five years had been wasted, but a handful of protopingus survived. His breeding room was also broken into on several occasions. "There is a lot of industrial espionage in the fish business," explains Liebman. Three years ago he had a secret lab built.

Now that he's made it as a pingu potentate, the bachelor Liebman is especially grateful to his lady friend, lab technician Rona Goldberg. "She hung in, putting up with the long hours and nonexistent weekends," he notes, when his pursuit was less avid than that, say, of the male of the guppy species.

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