Nature’s Kaleidoscope, Volume 1: The Betta Fish
The betta splendens, or Siamese Fighting Fish, is one of the most popular fish out there, but it is also probably one of the most misunderstood. Much like the hamsters and guinea pigs so often handed out to young children, there are very few Bettas that die peacefully of old age.
You know that fad that went around several years ago, where people were sold a vase with a plant and a Betta in it? That is in large part responsible for the ton of misinformation out there.
MYTH: Bettas can live off of the roots of plants.
Reality: Bettas are a carnivorous fish. Although one might — might — deign to nibble a plant when it is clearly starving, this is not its preferred food, and it doesn’t provide any nutritional value to it. Bettas should be fed a variety of proteins: specially formulated Betta pellets, such as Hikari’s Betta Bio-gold, offer a good, balanced base-diet. Bettas also love, and will thrive on, frozen and/or live glassworms, bloodworms, and brine shrimp. If feeding the live or frozen foods, it’s a good idea to offer a bite or two of a mashed up frozen pea (shell removed) once in a while, just to be sure your fish is getting his vegetables. If your Betta is in a community tank, he might nibble at the flakes you feed your other fish occasionally, but most Bettas aren’t big fans of flake food.
Wait, what was that? A community tank? But you can’t keep a Betta with other fish, right?!
MYTH: Bettas have to be kept by themselves, they can’t be with other fish.
Reality: Bettas CAN be kept in a community tank, with a couple of caveats. Male Bettas cannot be housed with other male Bettas, or the two will put the fighting in the Siamese Fighting Fish. It is also not a good idea to keep a male Betta with female Bettas, because he will pester them, sometimes to death. A male Betta will do fine, however, in a tank with some fish, such as Zebra Danios, Neon Tetras, Brass Tetras, and other fish who a) do not have long, colorful fins that make them look like another Betta; and b) are not themselves aggressive, nippy fish. You would NOT want to put a Betta in with Angelfish or Barbs, who will nip at his fins mercilessly. But your Betta does NOT have to spend his life in solitary confinement. As for female Bettas, they are fine as community fish, or kept in a sorority tank. They will generally establish a pecking order but will not fight one another to the death, as the males will.
MYTH: Bettas prefer to live in tiny bowls.
Reality: If you’ve ever been in the fish section of the pet store, I’m sure you’ve seen lots of little cups and bowls with a Betta in them, and you’ve probably heard a store employee or another patron say that Betta’s live in little puddles in rice paddies, and therefore they don’t like to have a lot of water. NOT TRUE. Well, the rice paddy part, but they didn’t exactly get to choose where they originated from. And, I mean, YOU could live in a closet if you had to, but you sure wouldn’t want to, would you? Can you keep a Betta alive in one of those tiny bowls? If you change the water EVERY SINGLE DAY, then probably. But it won’t be much of a life, and your fish will only live a fraction of the lifespan he might have if he’d been cared for properly.
Ideally, the minimum size tank a Betta should be housed in is a 2.5 gallon. Notice I said tank, not bowl. Unless you want to do a substantial water change every day or so, you should house your Betta in a filtered tank. Poor water quality is just as harmful to a Betta as it is to any other tropical fish. This can be an internal filter, a sponge filter, a hang-on-the-back filter, or an undergravel, though I personally prefer not to use the undergravel as it can go horribly wrong. An airstone is not a necessity with Bettas, as they have a labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe oxygen at the water’s surface.
Since the male Betta Splendens has long, heavy fins, a filter that has an adjustable flow rate is best; a rapid current can make your fish hide in a corner somewhere so it doesn’t have to exert so much effort swimming against it.
Finally, the Betta is a tropical fish and, as such, requires a heater like any other tropical fish. Heaters are sold in a variety of wattages, and you can find micro heaters for the nano tanks. A steady temperature between 72 and 80 degrees is perfect.
One reason for the male Betta’s popularity is its long, flowing, colorful fins. It used to be that you only saw the veiltails, but as the fish has gotten more popular, breeders have produced a variety of tail-types:
The Veil tail:
The rays of the crowntail’s fins extend beyond the webbing of the fin, giving it a spiky and kinda bad-ass appearance.
The half-moon has a tail-spread of at least 180 degrees, and sometimes more.
The Delta tail resembles the half-moon but has a tail-spread of less than 180 degrees.
There are also the Plakat type bettas, sometimes called wild type:
Plakats have shorter fins and more resemble the wild cousins of the captive-bred Bettas in body and fin type.
Where to Buy Your Betta
Pretty much any store that sells fish will sell Bettas. Depending on where you live, you may be able to find Halfmoons or Crowntails at your local pet store or one of the big box stores such as Petco or Petsmart, but the majority of what they sell will be Veiltails. Nevertheless, if you just want a pretty-colored fish to grace the small tank on your desk, you can find one there for not a lot of money. You want to make sure the one that you choose is healthy, however. A healthy Betta should react when you move his bowl, and he should be free of white spots or growths of any kind. Eyes should be clear, not cloudy, and he should flare at other males if his bowl is placed against another’s.
If you want to be a little more fussy about your finned friend, you can find a wide variety of colors and tail-types at Aquabid.com. Prices range anywhere from $5.00 up to over $80. Aquabid operates much like eBay in that you can bid on fish, and many have a Buy It Now option at a set price. The fish from the breeders in Thailand are generally of a higher quality and greater beauty, but be aware that, if you purchase from a Thai breeder, your fish will not be shipped directly to you; you will need to go through a trans-shipper and pay them a cost separate from what you pay to the fish seller.
eBay itself also allows listings of live fish, and you can find Bettas for sale there directly from their breeders. Most appear to be domestic breeders as opposed to the predominance of foreign breeders on Aquabid.
Finally, there are some websites that sell the fish directly rather than going through one of the bid sites, such as http://www.bettafishstore.com.
As with any pet, the more knowledge you have going into it, the better your chances of keeping your Betta alive and well. A healthy, happy Betta can live for 2-4 years, and 5 is not unheard of. Unlike most species of tropical fish, the Betta is extremely curious about and attentive to what goes on outside of his tank. My office Betta spends a lot of time watching me, following my pen, watching me flip through paperwork, etc. I’ve even had Bettas in the past who will eat directly from my hand. In addition to the pretty fins, Bettas have colorful personalities, and can be a terrific pet.
Can you be a terrific owner?