I recall the first time I ever laid eyes on Betta splendens. Like most people, I was wandering about a local pet store and thought I’d pop through the fish section. I had not owned fish since the deaths of my tropical fish in a grossly overstocked 10g (40L) tank I owned as a kid – how I wish I had the internet to educate me then rather than pet store staff! Still, I always liked to look at the fish section and dream, when I noticed row upon row of little cups; clear drinking cups of the variety used in water coolers, each about half-full and each containing a single, amazingly colourful, long finned fish. At this point I was still uneducated on the nuances of fish care, but I could be certain these fish must be suffering and wondered why, considering all the other fish were in display tanks, these creatures were housed this way. I asked a staff member what these fish were and why they were in cups like this, barely moving. She jauntily replied, “Oh, these are Siamese fighting fish. They fight with any other fish and have to be kept alone. Their fins are really heavy so they don’t swim much, and in the wild live in puddles made by buffalo footprints! They also tend to freak out and die in larger tanks, so they’re happy like this.”
Hmmmm. I’m sure this sounds familiar to you all.
I assumed she knew what she was talking about (well, she was working in a pet store after all!), though with some doubt as there were a few dead ones. Months later, my tiny daughter was turning two and I thought of getting her a small pet of her own with the ulterior motive of using this excuse to finally keep a fish again. I went to another store and looked at the bettas, thinking this would be perfect if indeed they were suited to tiny bowls. I picked up a 1/4g (1L) plastic critter keeper, thinking I was wonderful for giving these fish a bit more space, and asked the staff member about the fish. Thankfully, this staff member did inform me these were tropical fish, and required a heater which would not suit the little plastic tank;however, he did not recommend a filter. I acquired a secondhand 5g (20L) from a friend, put in my old heater and filter, and went back for a nice purple betta as I now had a heated tank. Despite not having cycled the tank, he survived, though quite lethargically, and when he seemed to pick up I proceeded to add several other tetras until I had about 10 fish. He did hide and not swim very much but I put this down to his large fins. I also think doing very large weekly water changes saved him from death by nitrogen cycling stress, though several tetras did not fare so well. Indeed, many were constantly hiding. There were regular tetra deaths, and my betta soon got dropsy and died. The same soon happened to the next betta, so I went online to get some advice and do some rather late research. The results were astounding.
Not only was my fish succumbing to awful stress from overcrowding, ammonia and nitrite spikes, and very high nitrates, but the grand palace I thought I was keeping him in was the bare minimum for a thriving betta. Indeed, nearly the whole story I’d been told was completely untrue.
So, how did this story evolve? Why are bettas still being sold in cups only to graduate to ‘tanks’ which are barely any bigger? Why do I still hear people (and pet store staff) claim they don’t need filters, and only really need a heater if it’s a cold winter? To answer this it is crucial to understand the native environment these fish are kept in; their biology.
Bettas are said to have gained their name from the “Bettah” clan of ancient Asian warriors, chiefly as they were known to be aggressive to other males. This made them popular for ‘fish fighting’ in Siam (now Thailand), a practice still condoned in rural areas. However, these were not fights, but tests of bravery to see which fish would be first to retreat after flaring at each other. The fish rarely, if at all, actually fight. In the wild, displays are to assert their dominance, and usually occur over territory and females, and are over when a competing male retreats . In fact, betta males will only ever usually fight to the death if they are in a confined space, and/or if one is a particularly aggressive individual. Still, these fish are considered to have an aggressive temperament, particularly as the domestic strains had originally been selected for aggression. Males should not be kept in the same tank. A divider is ok, providing there is a lot of space on both sides for each to swim freely without always having to see his neighbour,. A lot of cover is also required on both sides of the tank so each fish can retreat if he feels threatened. It is ill-advised to divide anything less than 10g.
Indeed, bettas are territorial, and contrary to common belief, territories are estimated by some to be approximately 1 square meter (or 3ft sq). These territories are the thickly vegetated, slow moving streams, marshes, large vegetated drainage ditches (klongs) and rice paddies of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, specifically the Mekong and Chao Phraya River drainage basins. These ecosystems are shallow, though deeper than many aquaria, and extensive, providing ample space for establishment of such territories as well as a wide area for hunting insect larvae and finding mates. Naturally, all of these activities would be nearly impossible in a tiny puddle, so why is the most common betta myth, being that these fish live in ‘hoofprints’, so prevalent?
The answer to this seems to arise from the bettas remarkable adaptation to the changing seasons in these areas. In the dry season, the shallow streams and marshes inhabited by these fish can dry considerably due to evaporation, which can leave these fish trapped in small vegetated water pockets, which is the likely source of the ‘puddle’ myth. Though rather than continuing to live happily in this situation, bettas merely endure these predicaments and opt to escape whenever possible. Indeed, being trapped in a puddle prevents them from finding adequate food and mates, and unless they can escape, these fish are doomed to either starvation or death from toxin buildup, and at best, an inability to find a mate and reproduce.
To survive a temporary period of entrapment, and to assists them in obtaining oxygen from larger water bodies which may be low in dissolved oxygen due to slow movement or stagnation, bettas possess a hardy nature and the labyrinth organ. The labyrinth is a highly vascularised modified gill structure which enables these fish to supplement oxygen from the surface. The additional myth that this feature removes the need for a filter is also erroneous here, as bettas, like all other fish require filters not only to remove waste but to increase oxygenation of the water, as the labyrinth is a supplemental oxygen source only, and bettas must obtain the bulk of their oxygen from the water in which they live.
To escape to a larger body of water, bettas make use of their excellent jumping abilities, where they jump from puddle to puddle until they are able to reach a larger body of water, which is usually not far away, and they can even survive out of water for a limited time providing they and the labyrinth do not dry out. Indeed, many owners will attest to this jumping and amazing survival abilities. This includes myself, where I have personally returned home to find one of my bettas having escaped his tank via a small hole in the lid, and laying almost dry on the floor. Upon returning him to the tank, he went on to make a full recovery. Many others have had similar experiences, and it is no wonder that despite being kept in the worst conditions, these fish continue to survive where most fish would perish.
Another natural assistance to bettas when trapped in natural vegetated water pockets is that the water in these is regularly refreshed either by regular tropical rains (light rains still are frequent in the dry season), or by dilution as these pockets are generally part of a larger body, and thus waste is kept to a minimum. Additionally, waste (in form of nitrates) is also constantly being absorbed by the surrounding vegetation, also reducing toxicity to the fish. Such refreshment is not available in tiny jars, where water will rapidly become toxic, and fish are slowly poisoned from the accumulation of their own waste and lack of dissolved oxygen. Additionally, tropical forests are almost constantly warm and humid, and ground/vegetation/water absorption of this heat also keeps bettas warm and in a relatively stable temperature. This is something small containers cannot provide, as tiny volumes can suffer dramatic temperature fluctuations and cannot accommodate heaters to maintain a constant tropical temperature, providing another source of stress.
Sadly, it is obvious that fish stuck in puddles are easier to find than fish swimming freely in rivers, and are therefore more commonly seen by passing humans – much the same way as whales are easier to find on the beach than in the ocean by your average beachcomber. Likewise, because we find a whale on the beach we cannot conclude it likes to live there, and the same can be said for bettas stuck in seasonal puddles.
Many have also claimed that bettas will ‘freak out’ and/or hide in larger tanks and require smaller volumes. Another misinformed fact bent from truth. Indeed, while bettas are able to survive in smaller areas, they do not prefer them, as they are inquisitive, active and intelligent fish who like to patrol and explore their territory. Without this environmental enrichment many will become lethargic and deteriorate. However, hailing from thick vegetation, bettas also can become nervous in open water, and while they prefer a large space, they require it to be filled with plants and cover in which they can hide if they feel threatened. A lone betta in a 20g open dealers tank housed with a hundred tetras can obviously show signs of stress and will hide, though the same fish in the same volume in a planted tank with few other fish will be actively out and swimming confidently. Given space to exercise and cover to explore, they will feel secure enough to display their true colours – in terms of both their appearance and lively persona.
Given this understanding of the bettas natural habitat, we can now see how these myths arose and are now perpetuated by the aquarium industry. Certainly, it seems a perfect sell – a colourful exotic fish you can keep on your desk which can take up no more space than a coffee mug. Indeed, it needs such a tiny space as this is its preferred environment! While this angle may sell thousands of novelty containers, it is capitalizing on the basic survival mechanisms possessed by these fish and exploiting them far beyond what is humane treatment.
The only way to end this treatment of domestic bettas is through educating others, particularly pet store staff, next time you see the the bettas suffering in cups in stores. As the customer, you have a right to politely voice your concerns and point out inappropriate care to staff. If they espouse the common betta myths to you, you can confidently debunk them with this information, which I have gathered from experienced betta keepers and wild fish collectors, who have seen and catalogued natural habitats properly. Feel free also to post short points on these myths on online product reviews of betta tanks, such as ‘photo frames’, desk lamps, and other novelty containers which, though cute, have no right housing any animal. With enough education, less people will purchase these tiny containers and hopefully, one day, aquariums marketed to bettas will be filtered, heated, 3-5gal (12-20L) tanks with silk or real plants which will keep any betta safe and happy for their full lifespan.
Thanks for reading, and happy betta keeping!
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