Bettas are some of the most popular tropical fish available and are recognizable by fishkeepers and non-fishkeepers alike. They are also known as Siamese Fighting Fish and are so-called because of the infamous battles where male “Pla-Kat” will fight to the death, and cannot be kept together because of this. There is truth to this tale as Bettas are still matched against each other and bet-on in fights in Thailand (formerly Siam). Although, the tough fish they use in battles are a long way from the ornamental, flowing finned Betta we keep in our aquariums which in their own right require special care.
In the Wild
The proper care of Bettas divides people across the globe because they are often seen for sale in tiny jars with no filtration, causing obvious alarm. But to understand how to properly care for Bettas, first, we need to understand how they live in the wild.
Betta splendens is native to Thailand, where it lives in marshes, shallow ditches and ponds. The water is often choked with mud, leaves and vegetation and the combination of high temperatures and sluggish or no water flow often lead to low oxygen levels. But Betta spp. and their relatives the gouramis are labyrinth fishes, meaning they have evolved special breathing apparatus that enables them to gulp atmospheric air from the water surface. This equips them to survive where other freshwater fish cannot and take advantage of the habitat to feed and breed.
These shallow ditches may be subject to high temperatures of 86F degrees or more and at those temperatures, the water evaporates rapidly. When it rains, water levels fluctuate and temperatures drop, and the saying is that a Betta can survive in an elephant’s footprint, a testament to their hardiness and type of habitat in nature. When the water is very muddy or there are more plant stalks than water, the territorial male fish are either physically separated or are out of each other’s line of sight. And that’s how they survive in the wild without killing each other. Wild Bettas live fast and die young and can complete their life cycle within one year, making them virtual annual fish in nature.
So, it’s the adaptability and hardiness of Bettas which aided their introduction into the aquarium world long ago. That tolerance of temperature and the ability to breathe air gave Bettas the necessary survival skills to weather the mistakes of early aquarists and they were soon being bred in captivity, with many beautiful aquarium strains being produced. The males still maintained their aggression and territoriality, however, as we keep them in clear, unobstructed aquarium water, those male colors and ornate finnage have been refined to make them even more beautiful to us and to females, but evermore unlikeable to rival males.
Betta Care in the Home Aquarium
First, a few rules to keeping Bettas:
- Rule No. 1: Do not to mix males together. It is recommended to not even have them in the next tank without the line of sight being blocked as they will spend all day everyday gill flaring and displaying, and they will wear themselves out.
- Rule No. 2: Do not keep Bettas in strong water flow. Bettas in the wild live in still water and veil-tailed males cannot swim against the current, quickly tiring and even getting stuck to filter inlets.
- Rule No. 3: Do not keep similar shaped fish or fin nipping fish in the same tank. Be careful what you choose to mix with the male betta. Add a brightly colored, Veiltail Guppy to a tank containing a resident male Siamese Fighter and he may think it is a rival male and attack it. But add a Veiltail Betta to a tank containing large or fin nipping fish like Tiger Barbs and some tetras, and they will think its fins are food and attack the Betta. Male bettas can even attack female bettas which are in their tank but aren’t ready to breed, so mixing male Betta splendens with any other fish should be carried out with extreme care, if done at all.
The Tank Size Debate
Tank size is the one topic that people debate over. There are even petitions against stores selling Bettas in tiny jars. The fact that male Bettas only grow to 2” and the fact that they are better off alone, means that many people opt to keep them in small tanks, even as small as a gallon, or smaller, like a wine glass, or a vase. Knowing they prefer still water, nor make filters small enough to filter a jar, many bettas kept in small, unfiltered containers are a common sight.
Another reason for the tank size debate is knowing some Betta farms in Thailand keep some of the world’s best, show-winning Bettas are also kept and raised in small unfiltered jars and bottles. This is partly because the farms need to keep close to 10,000 male fish separate from each other and and lessens the chance they damage their ornate fins. However, some find a lack of Betta care at the fish farms, not changing the water regularly in those tiny jars to wash away the pollution, waste and uneaten food, and to encourage growth. No Betta should be kept in a small, unfiltered tank without almost daily water changes to remove waste and to keep a fish that way is not only high risk, it’s also unethical to many people.
Setting up a Better Betta Tank
Set up a small, planted nano tank specifically to care for a single male Betta splendens and it will do well. There are many great choices of small tanks from Lifegard, Dennerle and AquaMaxx and recommend starting at a minimum of 5 gallons. Otherwise you can spoil your fish and get something bigger like a 10 or 20 gallon. The tank is still small in terms of finding somewhere to put it on a shelf, counter or table, but big for a single, sedentary fish. A bright red or blue male showing off to you on a background of bright green live plants will look fantastic.
For the plants, start with a bed of aquascaping soil, like Dennerle Scapers Soil, then place some wood, and plant around it. You can plant heavily like they experience in the wild with the benefit of it helping to fight off algae. Floating plants look natural, filter water and the fish will use them to rest amongst the roots and to anchor a bubble nest, so should be considered. Also, note that plants do require a source of CO2.
Install a small heater to keep temperatures stable and add a small internal filter or small canister filter like the Zoo Med Nano 10, but the water outlet should be directed to not create a strong current in the tank. Go open-topped to allow the fish to breathe (labyrinth fish must be able to access the surface,) and finish with an LED light capable of keeping the plants happy.
Bettas are carnivores and will eat different types of live food that will fit in their mouth like small crustaceans, bugs or worms. They will gladly accept frozen and dry foods as well – provide them with a variety for better Betta care, just remember to not overfeed.