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Issue: April 2007

Better Betta-Keeping

Author: Philip A. Purser

PURS 0407
Photographer: Tony Terceira
While many are content with keeping their betta in a small unheated bowl, these beautiful fish look better and live healthier lives in proper setups.

“Excuse me, sir,” a tiny voice called from behind me as I flailed about in another tank, fruitlessly chasing a specific Chinese algae eater with a net. Frustrated with the futile chase, I dropped the net into the aquarium and turned to face my questioner, a wide-eyed, blonde-haired boy, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. In one hand he held a tattered slip of paper, and in the other fist he clutched a crumpled five-dollar bill.

“Yes?” I replied, wiping the aquarium water from my arms on a nearby utility towel. “What can I do for you?” The boy glanced down at the sheet of paper in his hand and cleared his throat. He twisted the toe of his shoe into the tile floor as he spoke.

“My daddy wants me to buy a…a…” His brow furrowed as he read the paper. “A betta splendid.”

I smiled and reached for another dipnet.

“A betta splendid, eh?” I joked as I headed for the betta display at the other end of the store. “I think we’ve got a few of those. What color does your daddy want?” The boy followed close on my heels and, after surveying each of several 5-gallon tanks in which our bettas were individually housed, he pointed to the most splendid pastel blue betta in the house.

The fish that the young man purchased was a Betta splendens, more commonly known as simply the “betta” or “Siamese fighting fish.” Frequently kept by hobbyists in tiny bowls, glass vases, or other desktop aquaria, the betta has long been a subject of controversy. Adherents on one side of the war say that bettas don’t need excessive space to swim and move, and that they are perfectly at home in a softball-sized bowl. Members of the opposite faction contend that no self-respecting aquarist would imprison an animal within such a minuscule enclosure. As a former fish retailer and longtime hobbyist who’s answered the same betta questions from customers more times than I care to remember, I’ve reached the conclusion that both sides of the betta argument are right and both are wrong. So dive in, if you will, to the underwater world of the bettas, and let’s answer once and for all some of those prickly questions about our flamboyantly finned friends.

Some Background

Understanding the biology and natural history of Betta splendens is paramount to really knowing your fish. Hailing from the warm, oxygen-poor waters of Thailand, Burma, and surrounding areas, bettas belong to a group of fish known as labyrinth fishes, whose name comes from a breathing-accessory organ known as a labyrinth. Functioning as a sort of rudimentary lung, this organ allows the fish to gulp air directly from the atmosphere; the fish need only break the surface with its mouth, swallow some air, and slip back under the water while the atmospheric air absorbs into its bloodstream. While not an overly efficient means of breathing, this method of augmented respiration is highly beneficial to bettas. In their natural environment of slow-moving, oxygen-poor waters, this adaptation allows them to live and thrive, despite such harsh conditions.

So a shallow tank of unmoving water is nothing new to a captive betta, and these fish have shown they can survive in a small bowl, but does this mean they can thrive in this type of environment?

Bigger Is Better

Speaking to the technical side of the matter, we know that more room to move about isbetter. A higher volume of water allows for more stable water conditions and thwarts the waste concentrations that a polluted betta bowl is subject to—it can go from livable to toxic literally overnight. A larger tank also grants the fish more room to move and swim about.

Having room to move about is critical, as recent scientific findings suggest that the long-term health of bettas housed in tiny enclosures is compromised, with the life span of closely confined specimens being drastically shorter than those animals that have plenty of room to swim about. Autopsied specimens that were kept in small enclosures have been found to have died from atrophied muscles and fatty degeneration of tissues, while their spacious-dwelling counterparts maintain a high degree of muscle tissue and experience much longer life spans. Specimens confined to tiny bowls seldom exceed 18 months to 2 years in captivity, while free-ranging specimens housed in larger aquaria may thrive for more than seven or eight years!

So larger is better in terms of tank size and the amount of space your betta has in which to live, but what type of larger aquarium is fit to adequately house a betta? Can the average hobbyist simply drop a betta into his or her tank without making any modifications catering to the betta’s specific needs?

Let’s look at the morphology of the betta in order to better understand this issue. Bettas have thin flowing fins that are very elegant and frail, even in the wild-type, short-finned varieties. These are fit for life in still water, though they are poorly equipped for rapid swimming in an area of swift current. Likewise, the gills of the betta are thick and full of filtering membranes, a sign that these fish are well adapted to life in silt-rich, oxygen-poor, murky waters.

Taken together, these adaptations, along with the presence of the labyrinth organ, allow for a fish that is suited for life in quiet, shallow, and muddy waters, as anyone who has ever captured wild bettas from their native swamps and rice paddies in southeastern Asia will attest. It is just that shallow, warm, still water environment that has supported bettas for millions of years. With this in mind, why would a hobbyist drop a betta in a deep, clear aquarium outfitted with powerheads and swift-moving filtration? While rigid-finned fish such as cyprinids, tetras, and barbs are well equipped for life in moving waters, bettas are easily overwhelmed by swift water currents. It is even worse for males of ornamental strains that have extra-long finnage. What some hobbyists might see as the generous act of granting freedom and more space by placing their betta in a standard aquarium might actually be doing a great disservice to an animal that is poorly suited to life under such conditions.

Optimal Housing

So an optimal betta enclosure must maintain a balance of space and sufficiently mild current. Excessively powerful and jet-like powerheads or other mechanical filters that severely roil the water have no place in a betta aquarium, as these items generate oppressive currents that will force your betta to seek out and remain confined to only the most placid, calmest sections of the aquarium. Aside from being physically oppressive, excessively powerful water currents are also a great stress factor on bettas. Continued buffeting and blustering by powerful currents can weaken a betta’s protective slime coating and wear down its immune system in a short amount of time, thereby opening the door for bacteria and disease to take hold.

The alternative is a large community tank with minimal current. Employing a bio-wheel or trickle-style filter is a good start. Use a model that isn’t too powerful, but which cycles at least five times the volume of the tank per hour, and extend the intake tube as deeply into the aquarium as it will go. Because bettas favor the upper reaches of the water column, they will not likely venture close to a deeply-positioned intake stem, so they won’t have to fight the suction of the intake.

If possible, situate the return of this filter in such a way as to angle the returning water into one corner of the tank, leaving the rest of the aquarium largely current-free. Air-powered filters such as the undergravel or sponge filters are also great, since they do not produce much current and the air flow can be adjusted.

Living plants are great natural filters. Looking again at the betta’s native environment, we see that the ponds and swamps of southeastern Asia that the fish calls home are usually choked with living aquatic plants. In the aquarium these plants absorb copious amounts of nitrogenous wastes from the water. Bear in mind, though, that many live plants may also require higher intensities of light than your tank may currently be receiving.

Denying your betta the benefits of filtration—as a great many hobbyists unwittingly do by housing their pets in desktop bowls and decorative glass dishes—will, in time, lead to health degradation and a shorter life span in your fish. On a purely aesthetic level, high levels of ammonia/nitrogenous wastes also cause a betta’s fins to split, break down, and literally fall apart, leaving your poor fish pale, tattered, and stripped of its former beauty. If unchecked by biological filtration methods, these nitrogenous wastes will soon spike to lethal levels in an unfiltered bowl and claim your betta’s life.

A Native of the Tropics

Another topic of controversy among betta keepers is the matter of temperature. Many hobbyists feel that housing their bettas at room temperature is a viable practice. This is not true. But who can blame the hobbyist for this mistake, since many of the pet shops from which the hobbyists buy their bettas display them on a shelf in cups or bowls left at room temperature? Bettas, in fact, do require warmer waters if they are to thrive. Aquaria should be heated to between 74° and 79°F for optimal comfort and metabolic efficiency. At temperatures below 70°F, bettas enter a state of minimal activity; their metabolic processes slow to a snail’s pace, and the fish limits its physical movements to only what is absolutely necessary (picture the fish just lying on the bottom until it rises for a gulp of air).

Ironically, this metabolic stasis is largely responsible for the popularity of the betta bowl environment. If it moves very little and is slow to emit organic wastes, a betta is more easily housed in smaller quarters. And of course, since the typical betta bowl is too small to contain an aquarium heater, the water temperature rarely reaches the upper 70s, at which the betta’s systems kicks into a higher gear, and more space/volume of water would be necessary. So limited space and lower temperatures are co-requisite to one another if the betta is to be “successfully” housed in a miniature aquarium or bowl. But is chilling the animal into inactivity what we want to do?

At temperatures above 81°F, the exact opposite scenario will occur. Moving about at rapid rates, and processing biological wastes quickly, the betta’s body functions at an accelerated rate and causes the fish to age more quickly than it would when housed at cooler temperatures. Thus, the life expectancy of a betta housed in excessively warm waters is shorter than that of those individuals kept in cooler conditions. Again, the answer here is balance. Negligence of the temperature at which you betta is housed—either at the high end of the spectrum or the low end—is a practice that will cost your betta years off its life.

Proper Diet

A final point of contention among betta keepers is the matter of diet. Some hobbyists feed tropical flakes, while others go to great extremes to feed only the finest organic foods to their fish. In this instance, I must fall into the purists’ camp. Unlike a great many tropical fish families (Cyprinidae, Gyrinochelidae, Loricariidae, etc.) who will take both vegetative and animal-based foods, the bettas are powerfully carnivorous, their native fare being fish fry, crustaceans, insect larvae, and minuscule worms. The optimum captive diet, therefore, should cater to the high protein needs of the betta. Avoid feeding regular fish flakes, spirulina, or other vegetative foods in favor of newly hatched brine shrimp, tubifex worms, white worms, mosquito larvae, daphina, or even very tiny bits of raw liver. Processed flakes, tablets, and pellets that are high in protein will also suffice.

Young bettas that are in a rapid stage of growth need particularly meaty fare, and lots of it too. Two small feedings per day is sufficient for growing bettas. Because the betta’s bodily systems have adapted to process high quantities of animal protein, their growth rates, fin development, and vivid coloration all hinge upon receiving adequate prey items. Bettas that are fed vegetative matter may live their entire lives undernourished. The side effects of this malnourishment are low body weight and small size, unrealized finnage, and paler, less dynamic coloration.

A New Way of Thinking

The summation of all these efforts, the end product of our discussion here, is a general increase in the quality of life for your pet betta. By addressing and carefully controlling each aspect of captive husbandry (tank size, filtration methods, water current, temperature, and diet), you can optimize the life span, colors, health, finnage, and activity levels of your pet.

The old notions of a betta as a maintenance-free pet are simply incorrect. While a betta can survive in the unheated, unfiltered betta bowls of old, it cannot thrive under such conditions. The key to successful, long term betta health is to adjust your current community aquarium and modify it such that it will satisfy all your betta’s captive needs, or to provide a small heated and filtered aquarium just for him. Then, and only then, will you ensure that your experiences with Betta splendens will be just as splendid as they can possibly be!

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