Siamese Fighting Fish: Colourful Enchantress

Iridescent scales and long fins that twirl around them like underwater ball gowns, the Betta Splendens continues to seduce, hypnotize and captivate till today.
By Patricia E Tan
Published on Monday, 20 April 2020
Photo: Chevanon Photography|Pexels


With its stunning colours and gorgeous tails flashing around, the Siamese Fighting Fish (Betta Splendens), also known as the Betta, is among the most popular of fishes found everywhere from pet shops, right up to the corner aquarium store in wet markets.

These undeniably enchanting fishes with its ease of maintenance and relatively small footprint in the house make them ideal pets to consider. The Betta (pronounced “bet-tah”, not “bay-tah”) fish, have long been clear favourites of both novice and advanced aquarists alike. And, as they live in a freshwater environment, the tank is easier to set up and maintain than a saltwater alternative.

While there seems to be plenty of good reasons to want to acquire one, it must be noted that they do require the same amount of care and equipment as any other fish. They should not be seen as low-maintenance alternatives.

LOOKING BACK
Early in 2019, Thailand's council of ministers confirmed "Siamese Fighting Fish" as Thailand's national aquatic animal. While they were once selectively bred for fights, collectors now hold beauty contests instead. Fancy-shaped tails like the veil tail, half-moon, crown tail, comb tail or short-finned fight-style tail are prized, as with its iridescent colours and flamboyant looks.

Yet the Siamese fighting fish we see now are a far cry from those found in their natural habitats. The colours are generally subdued, and sorry, no fancy tails. They are a member of the gourami family (Family Anabantidae) and the species is native to the Mekong basin of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Found mostly in the Chao Phraya river in Thailand, they are called "pla kat," which means "fighting fish” by the locals.

These flashy fishes are fully matured by about seven months of age and grow to a length of 6cm - 8cm. Lifespan is about two to three years on average. The male Bettas are well-known combatants, aggressively flaring their gill covers and nipping at the fins of other males (or even females) who venture near. Put a mirror in front of them, and you see them flare-up, ready to attack.

LIVING CONDITIONS 
While Bettas are perfectly fine living without other fish around, the life of the fish depends on three things: habitat, temperature and food. Poor water conditions and poor fish husbandry are often the cause of an emptied tank.

Owners should look for a tank of a comfortable size with suitable water conditions. If the water condition is not quite right, you will be able to notice it quite easily ‒ the once vibrant and lively Betta will become dull and lethargic with fins clamped up.

They live in warm water, typically 24 - 27 degrees Celsius, and a “failure to thrive”, a condition most new owners are faced with, is most likely due to water temperatures that are too low or water hardness that is too high.

All Bettas can also breathe oxygen from both the air and the water because of a lung-like organ called the labyrinth. While that means they can live in much smaller tanks and tanks that do not require consistent oxygenation, it does not mean that is best for the fish.

The fish is just as sensitive to the effects of ammonia exposure as any other aquatic species. They are prone to fin rot and a poorly maintained or undersized tank can make them more susceptible to this problem. Veterinarians suggest that hobbyists keep the fish in at least a 7.6-litre tank filled with slightly acidic water (pH 6.5 to 7). By the way, the larger the chosen tank, the easier it is to maintain ‒ better water stability.

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
Bettas have upturned mouths, indicating that they are top feeders and will scoop up their food on the water's surface. These are naturally insectivores and while there are advocates for live food, the potential of introducing parasites and bacteria to your fish is something to ponder on.

The alternative, feeding them with pellets and flakes, take away the risk of infections. Preference should be given to dried food with a lot of protein, and one that offers a complete nutritional diet. Betta fish can be given treats, too! Favoured high-protein items such as bloodworms or brine shrimp fed live or freeze-dried are viable options. As with all treats, moderation is best.

Dr Krista Keller, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, USA, who is a board-certified specialist in zoological medicine, suggests that every day a Betta fish should be given the amount of food it can eat within 3 to 5 minutes, without any leftover. Leftovers will sink to the bottom of the tank and as can be expected, problems will surface soon enough as they start to decompose.

SOCIAL DISTANCING
While most of them can be happy in a tank all by themself, their environment still needs plenty of enrichment. Look for caves, plants, and other accessories to keep them mentally alert and happy.

With ample space and hiding areas, female bettas may be able to live in a peaceful group. While males will fight with other males and male gouramis (a similar-looking species), they may be able to live singly in a “community” aquarium.

“There are a variety of other species of tank mates that can be safely added to a Betta’s tank, such as snails, ghost shrimp, certain species of fish, and African dwarf frogs,” Dr Keller says. However, check that the size of the tank and filtration system can accommodate all in the community.

Keeping Bettas in Singapore is more than just a hobby for enthusiasts and aficionados alike. To know more, join The Betta Club Singapore (BCS) or such groups, where like-minded hobbyists can band together and share in the knowledge of raising better Bettas.


Photo: HolgerGrybsch

 

FAST FACTS
Temperament:
The Siamese fighting fish is known for its feisty temperament displayed towards other males and smaller species of fish and can often display very aggressive behaviour towards anything that the fish deems as a threat. 
Size:
Betta fish have an average length of 5.7 cm when they are fully grown. On occasion and under the right conditions, a betta fish can grow to as big as 7.6 cm in length.
Lifespan:
2 – 3 years
Health issues:
Fin and Tail Rot, Columnaris, Hemorrhagic, Dropsy, Pop Eye, Eyecloud, Mouth Fungus, Furunculosis, Fish Fungus, Velvet, Ich, Anchor Worms
Suitable for first-time owners?:
It’s a popular freshwater fish for novice fish keepers, but as with all things – it’s best to find out more before you rush to the store.  
Suitable for households with children?:
Yes, provided the tank is out of the reach of very young children.
Suitable for Singapore’s climate?:
Yes. 
Good “Home Alone”?:
Yes. Just make sure their feeding and cleaning schedule is followed up – religiously. 


DID YOU KNOW?
• Around 150 years ago in Thailand, betta fish started to become pets when kids would collect them from the rice paddies and place them together to watch them spar. As these contests grew in popularity, the King of Siam began to regulate and tax betta fish.

• The Betta fish gained European attention in 1840 when the King gave a few of them to a Danish physician named Dr Theodore Cantor. He studied and bred them, and by the 1890s, betta fish were being imported into France and Germany.

• The first betta fish didn’t enter the United States until 1910.

• The pet trade’s population of bettas is stocked almost entirely from captive populations, not from the wild according to Earth.com.

• Just like us, betta fish are diurnal. That means they are active during the day and sleep at night, requiring darkness for a good night’s rest.