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Rare and unusual bettas at BAS
24 April 2008
Most aquarists will be familiar with Betta splendens, the Siamese fighting fish, but there are in fact more than sixty species of Betta known to science. Only a handful of these other species turn up in tropical fish shops with any regularity, so the appearance of no fewer than twelve Betta species at Britain's Aquatic Superstore will be welcomed by aquarists interested in these beautiful fish.
Bettas are endemic to Southeast Asia with a particularly high concentration of species being known from the Indonesian island of Borneo. They can broadly be divided into two sorts, nest-building species and mouthbrooding species. Nest-building species are usually found in environments where this is little or no water movement but lots of vegetation. These bettas build their bubblenests among the plants, with the male usually taking care of the eggs until the fry become free swimming. The Siamese fighting fish is by far the best known nest-building species, but other examples include Betta bellica and Betta imbellis.
The mouthbrooding bettas can usually be recognised by their proportionally much larger heads. According to German labyrinth fish expert Jorg Vierke, if the length of the fish is less than 3.5 times the length of its head, then the Betta species in question is most likely a mouthbrooder. Being able to predict the reproductive behaviour is very useful given how little information is otherwise known about some of the newly discovered species of betta.
Mouthbrooding bettas tend to inhabit flowing water habitats, and most likely evolved the mouthbrooding trait because bubblenest building wasn't possible in such environments. They are good swimmers and much less tolerant of stagnant conditions. Needless to say, aquarists will need to take these issues into consideration and provide them with an environment with lots of water movement and excellent water quality.
Bettas are well known for their territoriality. Male bettas are invariable hostile towards one another, though the degree of aggression between males does vary from species to species. Siamese fighting fish will famously fight to the death if the weaker fish cannot swim away, a behaviour exploited in Southeast Asia where 'matches' between fish are staged for the purposes of gambling.
Other species don't actually bite one another, at least not at first, but rather engage in complex displays. In the wild the weaker male will eventually swim away to safety, but in the confines of the aquarium this doesn't always work out, and the stronger male may chase and damage the weaker male.
As a broad rule then though aquarists should avoid keeping more than a single male of any species in an aquarium. Male bettas will fight with males from other betta species as well, so mixing species isn't recommended. Some bettas are aggressive towards similar looking labyrinth fish of other types, including dwarf gouramis and paradisefish.
Female bettas generally tolerate one another reasonably well, though a little chasing and nipping sometimes occurs.
Males tolerate females during breeding, but at other times can be quite hostile towards them. Prior to spawning, males will chase unreceptive females away from their territories, and after spawning males will vigourously drive away their partners. Under most circumstances males won't physically harm the females, but in a cramped aquarium without sufficient hiding places, males have been reported as damaging and even killing the females. This applies equally to mouthbrooding as well as nest-bulding species.
As aggressive as bettas can be towards one another, they are often easily bullied by other aquarium species. Larger, but equally territorial species including gouramis and cichlids can sometimes get into fights with bettas over nesting sites. Some bettas are simply shy and lose out at feeding time, while other species find themselves getting nipped by things like tetras and barbs. While fancy strains of Siamese fighting fish are particularly vulnerable to fin nipping, aquarists should assume that any betta species is potentially at risk.
Because the social behaviour of bettas is complex and quite tricky to work around, these fish should be considered species best suited to their own, single species aquarium.
Wild bettas feed primarily on insects and insect larvae, and aquarium specimens enjoy live mosquito larvae and bloodworms. Frozen alternatives are equally welcome, as are live foods such as daphnia, brine shrimp, fruit flies and small earthworms. It should be noted that the larger bettas are accomplished predators and can catch and eat small fish.
The value of flake and pellet foods is variable. Many fancy bettas do perfectly well on flakes and pellets for long periods, but over time do become more prone to constipation and bloating. Remedial foods such as tinned peas, daphnia and brine shrimp can help clear the blockage before serious harm is done. While the fish is receiving these food items, dried foods must not be used.
Ideally, bettas are best maintained on a diet consisting primarily of frozen and live foods, with flake, pellet and freeze dried foods used only as occasional treats.
Water chemistry and filtration
Bettas are generally adaptable with regard to water chemistry, though soft and slightly acidic water is preferred. Most species will do perfectly well between 3-15 degrees dH and pH 6-7.5. Harder and more alkaline water is not recommended, particularly when wild caught bettas are being maintained.
Next-building bettas are best kept in planted aquaria with low to moderate levels of water movement. Air-powered filtration systems are particularly useful when these fish are being kept because the gentle flow of water will not disrupt the bubblenest too much.
By contrast, the mouthbrooding bettas like a good flow of water, so canister filters will work well when these fish are being maintained. These bettas don't necessarily spend all their time swimming into the current, so the aquarist should provide a variety of areas with less water flow. Rocks, bogwood and robust plants could all be pressed into service to create resting places sheltered from the main flow of water.
Aquarists maintaining fancy bettas sometimes keep them in unfiltered bowls, but it has to be stressed that wild-caught bettas will not tolerate such conditions. Indeed, maintaining even the fancy betta varieties in bowls isn't recommended because it presupposes daily water changes and a full understanding of how to ensure good water quality in the bowls.
With a few exceptions, bettas come from lowland rainforest habitats and are consequently adapted to consistently warm conditions. Indeed, most species prefer water that is a little on the warm side compared with the majority of tropical fish. Aim for a temperature around 26-28 degrees C for these warm water species.
The exceptions to this are those species from mountain stream habitats, such as Betta picta. These will need quite cool conditions to do well, around 22-24 degrees C being recommended.
All bettas are extremely adept at jumping out of tanks. They should never be kept in uncovered aquaria.
Betta anabatoides 'Pearly Betta'
This betta is native to Borneo and is notable for its remarkably large size (by betta standards at least) of between 10 to 12 cm, and consequently is sometimes known as the Great Borneo Betta.
In its natural habitat Betta anabatoides is found in very soft and acidic water, with hardness levels around 1 degree dH and a pH between 4.5-5. Aquarists will probably not want to maintain this species in quite such an acidic environment because of the problems of keeping the pH stable and getting biological filtration to work, but certainly this is a species that prefers soft, slight acidic water conditions around pH 6, 5 degrees dH. Hard, alkaline conditions are toleratedÂ but not recommended.
Colour is variable, but Betta anabatoides is essentially uniformly pinkish-brown to golden ochre with two dark horizontal bands on the face. There is little difference between the sexes, though males have longer fins and females will be stockier as they approach spawning and fill up with eggs.
Although not a brilliantly coloured fish by any means, the size and overall hardiness of Betta anabatoides makes it one of the best species for the aquarist looking for an unusual betta to mix with peaceful community fish of appropriate size. Obviously potential fin nippers should be avoided, as well as any fish small enough to be eaten (such as neons). But beyond that, this species is relatively placid and pairs adapt well to medium to large community tanks with plenty of plants and other hiding places.
Betta anabatoides is a mouthbrooding species. After spawning the male incubates the eggs for a period of about twelve days, at which point the free swimming fry are released to fend for themselves.
Betta cf. anabatoides 'Towkay Betta'
A similar fish to Betta anabatoides but distinguished by its somewhat larger adult size, around 12 cm, and the presence of black markings on the mouth and throat. Basic care would appear to be identical to Betta anabatoides, given that this species is also found in blackwater streams.
Betta cf. anabatoides is a native of Borneo, specifically the rainforests of Sarawak.
Betta channoides 'Cherry Betta'
As its common name suggests, this species is remarkable for the brilliant red colouration seen on the males. Apart from having bright red bodies, the males have black and white bands edging the pelvic, anal, and tail fins, resulting in a very eye-catching fish. Females are not uniformly coloured but instead have alternating light and dark vertical bands on the flanks and red dorsal, anal and tail fins. Colours are strongest during spawning, the colours usually fading to mottled reddish-brown at other times.
Betta channoides is confined to the Mahakam River basin of Borneo. It is a small species barely exceeding 4 cm in length. Males are a bit bigger than females. In its natural habitat it is found among leaf litter and plant roots in acidic, tannin-stained forest streams.
Despite its small size, Betta channoides is quite hardy and easy to care for. Although soft and acidic water is preferred, it appears to be adaptable to maintenance in hard, alkaline water as well. They are mouthbrooders and spawn quite willingly under aquarium conditions. Incubation of the eggs lasts about two weeks, at which point the free swimming fry are released and the male no longer cares for them.
A superbly coloured yet relatively undemanding species highly recommended to aquarists with limited space for the dedicated betta aquarium. Pairs will get along fine in tanks as small as 30 litres, though as with other bettas the female may need to be separated or removed to another tank after spawning.
Betta ideii 'Sakura Betta'
Another Bornean species, the Betta ideii is a betta that gets to about 8-10 cm in length. Males are dark orange to brown and sport a distinctive orange patch in front of the eye. The lower jaw is bluish and there may also be a coppery coloured region on the gill covers and the base of the dorsal fin. Two dark longitudinal bands are apparent at times. The pelvic fins and all the unpaired fins are attractively marked with spots and have a slight orange hue. Females are much paler in comparison to the males.
This is a subtle but attractive species that has become popular because of its basically hardy nature and the willingness with it breeds under aquarium conditions. Care is similar to other bettas from lowland rainforest habitats, though it should be mentioned that this species is quite aggressive, so shouldn't be overcrowded.
Betta imbellis 'Peaceful Betta'
Despite its common name, male Betta imbellis are not especially tolerant of one another. The main difference between this species and the common Siamese fighting fish is simply that this species engages in mostly show fights with little actual damage being done to each participant. Still, in a small aquarium these fish can wear themselves out simply by constantly threatening and chasing one another, so as with any other betta they are best kept as pairs in their own tanks. If you want to keep more than one male, make sure the tank is sufficiently large that each fish can establish its own territory.
This is a very variable species, but typically fish have a pinkish-brown body with irregular dark vertical bands; blue unpaired fins; and a distinctive red crescent marking the distal edge of the tail fin. Colours are particularly brilliant during spawning and when males are threatening one another. Maximum size is around 6 cm, with females being smaller and less strongly coloured than the males. In overall appearance these fish strongly resemble wild-type Siamese fighting fish.
Ecologically this species is very variable as well, being found in pools, ditches, swamps and paddy fields. Unsurprisingly then this species has proven to be adaptable in aquaria as well, and exhibits no particular demands beyond those of other tropical fish in terms of water chemistry or temperature. Although no betta is truly a good community fish, this is one species that might be considered appropriate for a thickly planted community alongside other docile species, such as kuhli loaches and pygmy Corydoras. It is shy though, and needs lots of hiding places close to surface of the water. Tall plants or floating plants with long roots would be most appropriate.
Although a typical bubblenest builder in most regards, one distinct aspect of the breeding behaviour of this species is that the female participates in moving the eggs from the bottom to the bubblenest. In most other bubblenest building species the male gathers the eggs by himself. Once the eggs have all been placed in the nest, the female's job is done, and the male will drive her away.
Betta ocellata 'Blue Dragon Betta'
This betta comes from northeastern Borneo and is one of the bettas closely associated with fast water habitats. As with other bettas from these sorts of environments it doesn't swim in the open current where the flow is strongest, but prefers the less turbulent pools behind large rocks and sunken wood. Wild fish spend a lot of time hiding under leaves but are excellent jumpers when alarmed.
As its common name suggests, this species is notable for its brilliant blue colouration. Males have extensive patches of metallic blue on the lips, cheeks, gill covers, upper part of the flanks, and the fins. There is normally a prominent black eyespot (or ocellus) at the base of the tail fin, from which the Latin name is derived. Females are similar, though the patches of colour tend to be smaller. The male also sports an orange dorsal fin, whereas the dorsal fin of the female is much more weakly coloured. Maximum size is about 8-10 cm, both sexes being of around equal size.
Like the other bettas from mountain stream habitats, these bettas like water that is not excessively warm; around 22-24 degrees Celsius is recommended. Otherwise Betta ocellata has proven to be quite hardy and adaptable. Wild fish normally come from water that is soft and slightly acidic, but neutral to moderately hard water doesn't seem to cause particular problems.
Betta ocellata is a mouthbrooding species. Breeds quite readily when properly maintained.
Betta patoti 'Zebra Betta'
Yet another betta from Borneo this species is essentially pale brown with a series of dark vertical bands along the flanks. When in spawning condition the contrast between the ground colour and the bands intensifies, and for this reason the species is known among aquarists as the zebra betta. The head is marked with patches of blue, though the intensity of the colouration varies with mood. In this sense they resemble Betta unimaculata, but the distribution of the blue colouration is significantly less. The pelvic, anal, dorsal, and tail fins are orange. There is a great deal of variation with this species, some fish having much more blue or orange than others. Females are similar to the male, but are less strongly coloured. Maximum size is around 12 cm.
The breeding behaviour of this species is very interesting. It is a mouthbrooding species, but the female produces two distinct types of eggs in each batch. The larger type are the normal, reproductive eggs that develop into fry, but the smaller, trophic type are apparently used as food by the male while he is mouthbrooding the other eggs. During spawning the female releases the trophic eggs first and then the reproductive eggs. The male then collects the reproductive eggs first and the tropic eggs second, and somehow seems able to separate or identify them during incubation so that he only swallows the trophic eggs. Incubation is about two weeks, and after the fry are released the male offers them no further protection.
Unfortunately for the aquarist, this species does not breed as readily under aquarium conditions as is the case with many other Betta species. Optimal diet and the right water chemistry are important. In particular, this species almost certainly needs soft, acidic water to successfully spawn and rear young, even though it can be maintained perfectly well in hard, alkaline water conditions. Betta zebra is one of the bettas that prefers relatively cool water with lots of oxygen and a decent flow of water.
A fascinating species for the aquarist interested in fish behaviour as well as good looks.
The common name of this species comes from the distinctive pi-shaped marking formed by black lower lip and two black markings running downwards and slightly divergently from the lower lip along the throat. There is another complex pattern of black spots and stripes across the gill covers. But apart from these eye-catching markings, this species is not otherwise remarkably coloured, being basically mottled brown with yellowy fins. Depending on their mood, a pair of dark vertical bands will be apparent running along the flanks. Maximum size is about 12 cm, though specimens this size are relatively uncommon.
This betta comes from Thailand and is found in swamps where the water is soft, acidic, and stained brown by the peat and decaying vegetation. Although apparently adaptable to a range of conditions in the aquarium, soft and slightly acidic water is the ideal. Betta pi is one of the mouthbrooding species but reports of spawning under aquarium conditions are few. Almost certainly, providing the right diet and optimal water conditions are pre-requisites.
Betta rubra 'Toba Betta'
One of the bettas from Sumatra, Betta rubra is not often seen in the trade. This is a pity, because it is among the most attractive bettas. Males are pinkish brown with a series of incomplete pink or red vertical bands along the flanks. The pelvic and unpaired fins are metallic green-blue close to the body and red further out, with a narrow white fringe. There is also a prominent metallic patch on the gill covers. Females are less strongly coloured and have dark longitudinal bands running along the flanks. Colouration varies dramatically with mood. Maximum size is about 5 cm.
Betta rubra is a bubblenest builder and in terms of care is rather similar to the common Siamese fighting fish. Slightly acidic to neutral, soft to moderately hard water is recommended. Maintain the temperature at around 25-27 degrees C. Males are snappy towards one another, but they are not quite so aggressive as Siamese fighting fish.
Betta simplex 'Pumpkin Betta'
This betta comes from Thailand and is found only in a relatively limited area in the south of the country. Its natural habitat is shallow, muddy streams and pools thickly vegetated with aquatic plants. The water in these places flows through limestone sediments, and consequently tends to be moderately hard and has a neutral pH. Aquarists should aim for around 10-15 degrees dH and pH 7-7.5. The water is not particularly warm here either, between 22-26 degrees Celsius.
Males and females share the same basic colouration, being yellowy-brown with three dark longitudinal bands on the flanks. But the contrast varies with mood, and when settled in these fish can be quite dramatic. Males also sport shiny blue and black bands along the anal and tail fins. Because of its rather subtle though far from unattractive colouration, this species is not widely traded, but given its preference for moderate hard, neutral water it is particularly well suited to maintenance in many parts of England. Maximum size is around 5 cm.
Betta simplex is a mouthbrooder. The male incubates the eggs for about 12 days.