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    Species: Betta splendens

The Frightened Fighter

Siamese Fighting Fish, Betta splendens, is native to the ponds and marshes of Thailand, and come in to variations to the Thais – plakad lukmoh and plakad pah. The latter have longer bodies but less stamina, whereas the former are now hardly found in the wild at all, but change hands between fight enthusiasts for up to twenty dollars, if the fish is a good fighter. The fights can last for up to two hours, and may well prove fatal for the weaker male.

With a reputation like this you would expect the fighting fish to be a fearsome creature well able to terrorise any tank of fish. Unfortunately for the fighting fish, the exact opposite is true. While the sight of another male fish (or even, in a series of experiments, a cutout that only vaguely resembled one) does indeed send a male into paroxysms of gill flaring, fin spreading and generally preparing for war, most other fish scare the wits out of them. With their beautiful finnage, the males are easy game for even the slowest fish to take a quick bite, and a Siamese fighter in a community tank can rapidly be reduced to a terrorised wreck with shredded fins.

In Thailand, the fish are kept in individual jars, and many fish shops follow the practice in as far as the fish are kept and displayed in very small tanks, with one male in solitary splendour in each. Siamese fighting fish are fish without friends – they loathe each other (and aren’t even that keen on females, which we’ll come to later) and are harassed by everything else, so a solitary existence really is the best thing for them. They can manage in such small tanks because they are labyrinth fish – the labyrinth organ is found in all anabantids, and is a folded mass of tissue with a huge, damp surface area – just like lungs, which is indeed the purpose it serves. This means that the fish do not need well aerated water to survive, and can thrive in almost anoxic conditions.

When you see these beautiful jewels in the aquarium shop, it is hard to resist the lure of possessing one. However, a few factors might make you think again. All the fish you see are well-aged, to say the least. The beautiful finnage takes time to grow, and they are not long-lived fish in any case. A life span after leaving the shop of only a few months is not uncommon. They do need a species tank. It can be a very small one, but a fish in a jar is a sad creature, and you should at least be able to provide room for some swimming space and some plants. Siamese fighters don’t like being forced to be on constant display any more than any other fish. The water needs to be soft – they will get by for a while in harder water but eventually start to have problems expelling water from their bodies, and become swollen and dropsical. If this happens, they are unlikely to recover. If you would like to try breeding them, then you will need a considerably larger tank. It isn’t the breeding that takes the space – it’s the distance the female needs to be able to put between her and her erstwhile love to stop him killing her.

Provided conditions are right (which means soft water and lots of live food) the female will soon fatten with eggs, and can, with caution, be introduced to the male. A few females is better, as there is safety in numbers and one fish is unlikely to get severely battered before the male’s attention is caught by a different one of his wives. Assuming he has built his bubble nest – an elaborate construction created entirely by taking in surface air and blowing it out as mucous covered bubbles – the male is in the mood to spawn, and does not take rejection with placid acceptance. This is the first danger point for the female. If she isn’t in the mood, the consequences can be nasty. In the event he is lucky enough to find a female who is fat with eggs and impressed enough with his construction to want to start a family, the proceedings get even more fraught. The female will venture under the nest and eventually succumb to the lure or his frantically flaring fins. Like all their anabantid cousins, the two wrap around each other in an embrace, gently sinking to the bottom in a kind of trance. This trance is a good chance for the female to get away, if she has her wits about her. The male fish knows that female Siamese fighters like nothing better than eggs for breakfast, and he will drive her away forcefully, Once he has the field to himself, he gathers up the eggs painstakingly in his mouth, and spits them up into his bubble nest. Unfortunately, each mating produces only a few eggs, so the proceedings must be repeated over several hours. Once the female has used all her eggs and is not prepared to mate anymore, she had better have a good place to hide out of the way where he can’t see her.

For her own safety she is best removed at this point.
The Thais adopt a different method – the jars containing the two fish are placed side by side for a couple of months to get the fish used to each other. Once the female appears swollen with eggs, a one meter basin with a few plants is set up, kept well away from where rainwater might fall in and contaminate the nest. The male then chases the female until she is exhausted, then wraps himself around her and the eggs drop out of the tired female. As she then tries to refresh herself by eating the new eggs, the male prevent her doing so aggressively. Once she is removed then the male is left in the bowl to care for his new offspring, which he does with uncharacteristic gentleness, precision and care.

Like many anabantid fry, baby Siamese fighters are miniscule – you have to look very, very hard before you realise you’ve even got any. In Thailand they are started off with tiny red plankton. Here you could try some of the frozen fry foods (mashed if necessary), Once they have graduated to mosquito larvae the danger period is over and they should all eat and grow well and quickly. By six or seven months the fish can be sexed, and in Thailand this is the time for the male to undergo ‘training’. It will be used in test matched against fish of its own size, and the owner will churn the water in its bottle, to build up strength as the fish tries to swim against the whitewater currents. In the UK, the baby fish will, hopefully, have a less fraught upbringing, and will grow its beautiful fins in an untaxed environment.
Only the males have to put all that energy into growing fins. The females are pretty, iridescent little fish, but are eclipsed easily by their male counterparts.

The lure of a Siamese fighter usually leads a fishkeeper to come home with one at least once in his or her career. If this happens to you, set up a little tank for the fish to call his own where you can enjoy his glowing, spectacular colours and magnificent trailing fins. The best chance of a long life for your fighter is a peaceful and solitary one. If you want to spawn them, be aware that the fry need to be separated into their jars or individual homes at a very early age, before they start to do the culling for you. Also provide a separate home for the females – living with the male constantly is a very nerve-wracking experience for her. While you can carry your solitary male home in a jar, and provide a comfortable life for him with little more, a successful breeding project will result in jars all over the place with little male fighters, who are completely unsalable until at least six months old. Not a project to be started on the back of an impulse buy!

This article has been written by Kathy Jinkings and cannot be reproduced without her permission.

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