The Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens), also called the betta, is from Malaysia and Thailand and has been introduced elsewhere. This fish grows to about 3 inches — longer if you account for their long, flowing unpaired fins. Females are much shorter, growing to about 1.5 inches. Many bettas sport mutations (about 13 colors and multiple tail configurations).
Bettas are labyrinthfish, members of the suborder Anabantoidei. Along with the gouramis, climbing perches, paradisefishes and others, they possess an auxiliary breathing apparatus (the labyrinth organ) that aids them in aerial respiration; it is said that bettas may drown if not allowed access to air, which they periodically gulp from the surface.
To select a good betta specimen, consider its source, apparent health, size and age before making a purchase.
The male bettas offered in retail outlets are generally fine, unless you have become exposed to (and spoiled by) the spectacular bettas from private breeders. These fish are more carefully bred, reared and cared for than those in retail stores. Retailers’ inexpensive bettas are beautiful and typically hardy. Should you delve into what specialty breeders have to offer, you may get hooked, becoming a betta fanatic! You’ve been warned.
Health is easier to determine with Betta splendens than with most other fish species. Alertness and openness of finnage are extremely important. Don’t buy a “sulking” betta with clamped fins. Look closely at the fins and skin of potential purchases. Often external parasites, such as velvet (Oodinium) and ich (Ichthyophthirius), can be seen on infested bettas. If any fish display these ectoparasites, do not buy a specimen from that particular store at that time. Small tears in large fins are no real problem, and they generally repair quickly on their own. However, evidence of rotting fins negates acquisition.
Size and age
Take care to not pick out the biggest individuals. Bettas are not long-lived animals, most perishing within two years of birth. They are usually offered for sale at a few months of age. Generally, the larger the fish, the older it is.
Though they are often displayed in simple bowls and are tolerant of up to appalling, deteriorating water conditions, bettas do best when kept as other tropical fish are — in heated aquariums. Most bettas likely die directly or indirectly from the ill effects of chilling. Bettas are tropical fish that live in waters from the mid-70s to mid-80s Fahrenheit in nature. These fish will do much better if kept in an aquarium with filtration, steady heating and regular maintenance. Yes, bettas can be kept in bowls, but the bowl should be large, not filled to the top (to keep them from jumping out), kept in warm and stable conditions, and cleaned regularly.
An ideal betta setup includes live plants, warm water (low 80s Fahrenheit), not much surface disruption (no splashing, hang-on-the-tank filters or above-water canister filter discharges) and a tight-fitting cover to prevent jumping. Water should be moderately hard with a pH that is neutral to slightly acidic (the last two are not extremely important to hobbyists who have well-acclimated specimens).
Read the Betta Bibliography at FishChannel.com/BettaRefs
Read Bob Fenner’s Betta Keeping History at FishChannel.com/BettaHistory
Betta splendens derives its common name (Siamese fighting fish) from the long-standing practice of people in Thailand using them in competitive bouts. These “fights” are often staged in bars or other social settings. Two short-finned bettas (fighters aren’t bred for beauty) are placed contiguously with a panel between them. After the panel is taken away, the combatants engage in a semi-ritualistic battle of fin biting and tearing. Combatants are rarely killed outright; a referee (bookie) judges when one has “lost” and declares the other one the winner.
Because of their propensity to fight, only one male of this species should be housed in any given system, irrespective of the tank’s size. The only exception would be setups that have physical separations (dividers) to keep the males separated.
Some aquarists would not keep female bettas together, but I think they can generally be kept together in the same tank without a divider. Some may be too aggressive for this setup, though. I don’t recommend permanently housing females with a male. The male will chase and harass the females to the point of poor health and even death.
Most male bettas are “medium-aggressive” freshwater fish and will get along well with other community fish species. Angelfish, smaller gouramis, livebearers (swords, mollies, platies) are appropriate tankmates. Slower-moving fish with long, flowing fins, such as male show guppies, do not make good tankmates because the male will bite at their fins. On the other hand, male bettas themselves can get nipped by fast-moving nippers, such as some medium-sized barbs (tigers and rosies) and bigger danios. These fish may also steal all of the betta’s food during feeding time. Bettas eat slowly, so during feeding, you may need to sequester your betta in a container away from tankmates to make sure it gets enough to eat.
Betta splendens is a bubblenest-builder. Males build a nest of bubbles anchored to a floating item. A male will attract a female, which will lay her eggs. The male fertilizes, collects and spits the eggs into the floating mass. Then the male chases away the female and guards the nest until the eggs hatch. The eggs hatch after 24 to 36 hours, depending on temperature, and fry are free-swimming after about five days. Young fish accept very fine foods, the best being small live foods, such as infusoria. Larger foods, such as live baby brine shrimp, can be fed after the young grow a bit.
To actively breed your bettas, read some books, magazine articles and Internet articles, as there are many methods to try. When I was younger, I worked for a betta breeder in Japan who bred bettas in a small closetlike room that was heated with its doors closed to prevent drafts. In this small room were gallon jars filled with about 6 inches of water, a “sprig” of live plant and a male betta. In the morning, a ready female (with a white papilla evident at the vent) was added to each jar. Whether the fish spawned or not, the females were removed in the afternoon.
Keep drafts to an absolute minimum. Cold air will quickly kill young bettas. Start infusoria early and culture it often. Some cultures “go bad,” and many young bettas can consume a surprisingly large amount of food.
One of the most common causes of betta death is a lack of adequate nutrition. Though there are a few standard pelleted betta foods offered on the market, many bettas refuse them (at least initially) when unfamiliar. Offer your bettas at least some live or frozen meaty food. Bettas enjoy small worms (tubificids, Grindal, whiteworms), crustaceans (brine shrimp, Daphnia) and insect larvae (bloodworms). Feed the other fish at the same time in another spot. This draws the other fish away and allows your betta to eat alone at his own pace. Also offer the food in about the same place at about the same time daily. Eventually your fish will be “trained” to eat their own food in their own place.
Disease Prevention and Treatment
The three most common infectious and parasitic diseases of bettas are fin rot, velvet and ich. The best way to deal with these problems is with prevention and good maintenance practices (all occurrences are linked to introduction, chilling or poor water quality). If your betta does come down with fin rot, velvet or ich, these problems can be treated with simple remedies. Some recommend using aquarium salt or acriflavine, while others recommend malachite green as a remedy. The betta breeder I worked for in Japan years back utilized a drop of diluted malachite in the new water of all just-cleaned betta bowls. Yes, my hands were perennially bluish!
The betta is a true gift to aquarists. These fish are among the most beautiful of aquatic animals, extremely tolerant of a wide range of water conditions and are not demanding wet pets. Bettas just need regular water changes, meaty foods and a lack of aggressive, fin-nipping tankmates. And why not try your hand at breeding and rearing Betta splendens? It is a delightful and tremendous learning experience. AFI
Bob Fenner is a well-known hobbyist and the author of the popular book The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. He has spent most of his adult life in the aquarium hobby and owns and manages wetwebmedia.com.