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'How to Choose and Keep Fancy Betta Splendens' By Neale Monks
26 August 2019
Fancy Bettas, sometimes called Siamese Fighting Fish, are very popular aquarium fish. While their wild ancestors (known as Betta splendens) have presumably been living in the ponds and slow-flowing streams of Thailand and Malaysia for millions of years, the tank-bred 'fancy' Betta has its origins in the Nineteenth Century.
Local people had observed that the wild fish would fight over territories and began collecting them for use in staged contests in much the same way as dogs and cockerels were used for fighting purposes in England. People would keep the fish that fought the hardest, breed from them, and over the generations produce fish with more aggression and fighting prowess. These fish fights were incredibly popular, not just with the peasants living in the countryside, but even with the Thai royal family, and considerable sums of money would be wagered on the outcomes.
By the 1890s, examples of these 'fighting fish' (or 'plakat' in Thai) were imported into Europe, and French and German aquarists began to breed them for looks rather than aggression. Fin length as well as colour were selected for, and over time the modern long-finned fancy Betta appeared in the form that we know it today. Fish farms around the world, but particularly Southeast Asia, continue to create new varieties, some of which can command high prices.
Understanding the varieties
Bettas are classified in several different ways. One of the most important categories is the Plakat, which simple means 'fighting fish' in Thai. These are fish with short fins similar to those on wild Bettas.
Long-finned Bettas are primarily distinguished on the shape of the tail fin. The standard sort is called a Veiltail and has long fins with smooth edges because the fin membrane extends all the way along the fin rays. By contrast, the Crowntail has fin rays joined by membranes that only extends about halfway along the rays. Halfway between these two varieties is the Combtail which has incomplete fin membranes further along the fin rays than on the Crowntail, but not to the very edges of the rays, as with the Veiltail.
Some Betta varieties can also be distinguished by the shape of the tail fin. On the Spadetail variety the tail tapers towards a distinct point, whereas the Halfmoon has a tail that opens up a full 180 degrees, like a half moon. Deltas have more triangular than semicircular tails, while Double Tails have, as their name suggests, what appear to be two distinct tail fins, the upper and lower lobes of the tail being separate where they join the caudal peduncle.
The tail fin can be ruffled to varying degrees, resulting in the Rosetail, while some Bettas with normal tail fins can have extended pectoral fins, and these are called Dumbo or Dumbo Ear Bettas.
There are countless varieties combining colours with fin shapes, so a good-quality Blue Half Moon Betta would be one that is entirely blue, with no red colouration, and sporting the full half-moon tail fin shape. Wild fish are predominantly reddish-brown fish with blue speckles on their flanks and fins, so unsurprisingly red and blue colouration are the most commonly seen on domesticated Betta stains. The less expensive Bettas seen in aquarium shops tend to have both red and blue colouration, whereas fish that are just a single colour, called Solid colour Bettas, tend to command higher prices because they were more difficult to produce. Other colours do exist, including black and gold, but again, these rarer colours will be even more expensive because producing them was that bit harder. Among these, the Dragon Betta is among the most famous, sporting large metallic scales on its flanks and fins, produced by crossing domesticated Bettas with a different species, Betta mahachai, that naturally has this sort of appearance. Over time several colour varieties of Dragon Betta have been produced, but not without some genetic problems becoming established within the variety. Specimens with these metallic scales on their faces (called Full Mask Dragons) can go blind because the scales continue to grow throughout life, eventually cover the eyes.
Some breeders have produced forms that blend two or more colours in especially attractive ways. Butterfly varieties will have a body that is one colour, fins that are another colour, the two colours blending into each other at the base of the fins. Some of the most expensive Butterfly varieties have transparent fins because this type of colouration is especially favoured by Betta aficionados. If the two colours blend partway along the fins in a less controlled manner, the Betta is referred to as a Bi-Colour variety. Other important colour forms include the Cambodian, which has a pink body and coloured fins, and the Marbled Betta, which has a pale head, darker body, and irregularly coloured patches on its fins. The Koi variety resembles the Koi Carp, with black and red patches on an essentially white body, while the Nemo has orange and white banding similar to that on a Amphiprion Clownfish.
In many ways Bettas are easy to keep, but the idea that they can live in jam jars is a persistent myth that needs to be dispelled. It is absolutely true that Betta breeders keep their male Bettas in jars, but these jars are kept in heated 'fish rooms' that ensure the water is maintained at 25-28 degrees C. Furthermore, the water is changed daily, so the lack of a filter isn't a problem.
For casual aquarists however, this sort of maintenance just isn't practical, so an aquarium with a heater and filter will be essential. Kept on their own, Bettas don't need a huge amount of space, but certainly upwards of 15 litres will make maintaining good water quality and steady water chemistry much simpler. Filtration is tricky because Bettas cannot handle strong water currents, so an air-powered sponge filter is the ideal.
But apart from space, heat, and filtration, Bettas aren't demanding. A dark substrate rather than brightly coloured gravel will show their colours off best, and overhead shade, such as floating plants, will make them feel more secure. Bettas can be jumpy, so a hood or lid is important. Because they spend most of their time at the surface, ornaments and caves at the bottom of the tank don't serve much purpose and can be left out.
As mentioned above, Bettas are tropical fish that need warm water, 25-28 degrees C being recommended. They dislike cold air, but the lid should keep the humidity right. Because Bettas are air-breathing fish, exposure to cold air can damage their labyrinth organ leading to health problems. Water chemistry isn't a critical issue, though soft, slightly acidic conditions are ideal. But on the whole, water quality and temperature are more important than water chemistry.
In short, don't try and keep fancy Bettas with tankmates! It's very rarely worth the trouble. Because of their long fins, Bettas struggle to swim at the best of times, hence the need for only the most gentle filtration in their tank. But being so slow also means they can't compete well with other fish at feeding time, and neither can they swim away from nippy or simply playful tankmates.
Some aquarists have kept Bettas successfully with peaceful bottom feeders such as Corydoras, Kuhli Loaches, Bristlenose Plecs and Whiptail Catfish. Because these fish are so gentle, and only eat food from the substrate, they aren't going to compete with the Betta at feeding time. On the other hand, things like tetras and barbs tend to be risky, and may even nip at the fins of the Betta!
If you're after a Betta for use in a mixed-species set-up, Plakats are often suggested as the best all-around choice. Their shorter fins make them less of a target for curious tankmates, and they are also able to swim that bit more effectively. Some aquarists argue that Plakats are also less inbred, which means they're less prone to disease.
Bettas are often kept with small freshwater shrimps, but this isn't always a success. Bettas will view bite-size shrimps as food, and male Cherry Shrimps for example are so small they're bound to be eaten unless there's plenty of vegetation for them to hide within. Larger shrimp species, like Amano Shrimps, can work more reliably. Fan Shrimps (also called Bamboo Shrimps) might seem a good choice, but these shrimps need strong water currents to do well, so aren't going to cohabit well with Bettas for long.
Social Behaviour and Female Bettas
Aquarists sometimes keep male and female Bettas together, and in a big tank with plenty of floating vegetation this can work. But it is important to understand that male Bettas are not only territorial but also solely responsible for looking after the eggs after spawning. Because of that, there's no such thing as a pair bond between Bettas. A male will tolerate a female in his territory only for spawning, and after that occurs, or if she's not ready to mate, she'll be forcefully encouraged to leave! In a big tank she might be able to swim away unharmed, but in a small aquarium the male can harass the female so persistently he can end up killing her.
If male Bettas are best kept singly, what about the females? Can they be kept in groups? Groups of females (say, five or more specimens) in large, well-planted tanks are sometimes called Betta Sororities after the famous societies for young female students at American universities. These are advocated as a good way to enjoy the colours seen on female Bettas without having to deal with the aggressive behaviour seen with male Bettas. In truth, while these sororities sometimes work, the females aren't really gregarious, even if they aren't as overtly territorial as the males. Fights do occur, weaker females becoming stressed, even killed in the process.
On the other hand, female Bettas aren't as encumbered by their fins as the males, so may work better in mixed species set-ups. They are often just as nicely coloured as the males and can combined with very placid community fish that won't chase or harass them. Small catfish and hatchetfish would make ideal tankmates, but on the other hand, because they are aggressive towards similar-looking fish, gouramis and dwarf cichlids would probably be poor choices.
Domesticated Bettas are very accommodating in this regard, consuming all the usual dried and frozen foods. A good quality colour-enhancing flake food makes a good staple, while frozen brine shrimp and bloodworms are popular additions to their diet. Bettas are carnivorous in the wild, but some specimens will nibble at cooked peas if sufficiently motivated (i.e., not fed anything else for a couple of days) and this is a useful precaution against constipation.
Many of the Bettas sold in pet shops are red and blue Veiltails of varying quality, usually bi-coloured though some solid coloured specimens will be seen. Males are normally housed away from other fish in little compartments that prevent them from fighting, while females will usually be kept all together in a single tank. Of course all the usual fish-buying rules apply here, such as the need to avoid specimens with obviously damaged fins or signs of disease, but if you're after a particular variety, you also need to be able to identify a specimen that displays the traits you want.
If you want one of the premium varieties, you may need to contact a retail that specialises in rare fishes. Wildwoods is one such, and at the time of writing, their stocklist included Crowntails, Dumbos, Koi, Nemo, Giant Plakats and Halfmoon Plakats.
If you wish to see the full list of Betta splendens available to buy today, please click here.