Siamese fighters: Fins of fury!

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If Bruce Lee had been a fish, it would probably have been a Siamese fighter! Nathan Hill spotlights this fish from the Far East, which performs just like the martial arts icon - and shows no mercy in combat...

The Siamese fighting fish is a dual-purpose animal. Depending on its audience, it might be brightly coloured with draped fins trailing. It may be compact and squat, short fins pert and erect, drab coloured and with a head full of mean thoughts.

Both examples are of the same fish: the Far Eastern Betta splendens and one of the most contentious pets in the hobby.

Plakats, the true Thai fighters, have long histories. Indigenous Thai peoples have probably kept them for 700 years or more. Farmers, began collecting and breeding the fish they found in rice paddies but, due to increasing use of agricultural chemicals, not so many are found there today.

Official reports of fights began in the 1800s and the King of Siam — as the country was then known — licensed Betta fights as well as owning a collection himself.

By the 1840s he gifted Danish zoologist Theodor Cantor some of the fish, which Cantor named Macropodus pugnax. Later, the ichthyologist Charles Tate Regan formally described and gave it the name we know it by today — Betta splendens.

Even this reflects a fighting heritage, being named after the Ikan Bettah people of Asia who were fearless warriors.

Fans of Siamese fighters hate misinformation and are keen to dispel 'myths'. Uppermost is that fighters are fine in small, unheated or unfiltered aquaria.

The idea that Betta can thrive in tiny bodies of water emanates from breeders who keep and rear them in cups, bottles, jars or tiny bowls. There are also reports that they are occasionally found in natural pools as small as the flooded footprints of cattle.

It’s hard to believe that a footprint could become a long-term home, though not possible to rule out short-term. Betta countries of origin — Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia — are subject to flash floods and dry seasons, and the fish might become stranded in pools during receding periods.

It’s also possible to imagine one attempting to cross land, bounding from one pool to another, inadvertantly stranding itself in a temporary body of water mid-way.

Undisputed is that Betta are kept in tiny tanks by professional keepers and fighters, and it’s equally impossible to deny that some of the most visually amazing fish have been produced this way. Their resilient physiology comes into play, along with that perpetually helpful labyrinth organ.

Caged fighters

Wild fighter environments are slow flowing. Betta are not powerful swimmers, preferring to use their pectoral fins for mobility. As well as rice paddies, they inhabit ponds, marshes, floodplains, canals and even lazy rivers — but never anywhere torrential.

They live in shallows and need access to the surface. Wild Betta splendens are rarely found deeper than 50cm/20” and any more in a home tank is wasted.

Siamese fighters are obligatory air breathers once past the fry stage. If denied access to frequently gasp they will suffocate. Many fishkeeper newcomers are fazed by this activity, but it is quite natural.

Larger tanks are better and should always be well decorated. Even though fancy Betta in the UK are far removed from their origins they thrive in an environment that mimics the wilderness.

The natural range of a male is around 1m square/ /11’ square, which they prowl for passing females or rivals seeking to expand their own territories

Offer 60cm/24” or more for a male and certainly not under 45cm/18”. Depth is not essential, nor open spaces. Go for dense planting and twiggy ornamentation. Some keepers avoid sharp objects, fearing they’ll tear those delicate fins but, provided the fish isn’t battered by rampant currents, this isn’t an issue.

Any plants are suitable, but if opting for a natural biotope try regional foliage, including Leersia hexandra, Ipomoea aquatic, Ceratopteris thalictroides, Nymphaea stellata, Hydrilla verticillata, Ceratophyllum demersum, Ottelia alismoides and Salvinia cucullata.

However, any dense, bushy planting will be explored, though, come breeding time, the fish may start to disassemble softer-leafed varieties. Planting wants to be intense and the fish are often found nestled among 75% plant cover or more.

Never use tanks with mirrored backs as the fish will react violently to their own reflected image and exhaust themselves trying to reach their non-existent foe.

Sparring partners

Placing two males together is a non-starter. Though females are feisty, males contest to the death.

Males and females can be tricky in small aquaria. Males often reject the female’s presence until ready to spawn and domestic assaults are commonplace.

Females are identified by their shorter fins, smaller bodies and smaller 'throat flap' which males flare in combat. When they first meet he may flare, while she develops a dark bar on her flank. Rival males don’t do this and respond to flaring with reciprocal flaring and attacks.

Long finned or Betta-looking fish may be seen as rivals and treated accordingly. Long-finned guppies have also been savaged by a jealous fighter.

Fancy fighters are also delicate flowers. Many other fish cannot resist those long fins and certain barbs and tetras can strip a Betta to a ragged sausage in minutes!

Don’t confuse 'fighting' fish as meaning that they can hold their own against allcomers. The faster, more agile and curious will shred a Betta and once those fins are stripped any recovery will take months — if ever.

Low toleration

Fighters won’t tolerate poor water quality. Though they can exist in water with low oxygen and high carbon dioxide, they don’t always thrive in polluted waters.

Just as other fish they have no defence against ammonia or nitrite poisoning, aside the lowered toxicity of ammonia often offered by their acidic environments.

Aquarium conditions should be as those for other fish, with no ammonia or nitrite and minimal nitrates. Create these with light stocking and mild flow filtration. Avoid any powerful internal or external canisters, opting instead for slow hang-on or air-driven filters.

Native water hardness varies from source to source and readings between 4-20°DH pose no problems. A pH value between 6.0-8.0 will keep all but the most fickle happy.

Temperature is open to debate. Fighters are often marketed for unheated tanks and, although they can tolerate a range of temperatures, thresholds tend to be higher than lower.

Fish kept in cooler water often have health issues relating to slow metabolism and take long to repair after physical damage. They may also develop bloat and become susceptible to pathogenic infections if kept chronically cold.

Most keepers opt for between 24-30°C/75-86°F, as there’s no definitive consensus. Fighting Plakat have been kept up to 38°C/100°F with no ill effects.

Salt is offered to keep fighters in fine fettle, but the benefits are negligible and can be detrimental over a long period. It should only be used to treat specific problems and avoided as a daily tonic.

What is a Plakat?

Plakat translates as 'biting fish'. Technically, a range of Betta species reared for fighting may be Plakat, though in this feature I’m only applying the term to short-finned Betta splendens.

Types of domestic Betta bred as pets, not fighters, are Plakat cheen. These have elegant fins, colourful scales and are less aggressive.

Shorter finned Plakat are Plakat morh, or Plakat luk morh — meaning Plakats from earthenware, pertaining to how they are kept. Having thicker scales, less colour and almost psychopathic aggression, their purpose is clear.

Betta, other than Plakat morh, also appear at bouts. Plakat pah (Plakats from jungle) usually refers to Betta imbellis. Occasionally Betta imbellis, Betta splendens and other Betta species have been crossed to make deceptively powerful but fraudulent Plakat pah. You even have Plakat thung — Plakats from flooded areas.

Breeding them

Fighters are bubblenesters, with the male using his adhesive saliva and pieces of vegetation to create a nest in a quiet part of the tank.

Breeding tanks should be 45 l/9.9 gal or more and plenty of hiding places for the female are sensible. Keep pH at around neutral and temperature at 25-26°C/77-79°F Bare-bottomed tanks will be easier to clean too.

The male and female will come together underneath the nest, becoming intensely coloured, and the two will interlock to form connecting horseshoe shapes. As this occurs she releases her eggs and he his sperm. Afterwards the male collects the sinking eggs and spits them into the nest.

After spawning, remove the female as the male will then turn on her to protect the brood.

Expect the first young to hatch after a couple of days.

During that time he will still look after them. Remove the male from the fry after two days, just before the young start to swim, for at that point he may be getting ready to eat them.

Rearing babies is easy with a mixture of Liquifry no.1, freshly hatched Artemia and infusoria.

Leaf litter will also help promote tiny organisms the fry will browse on as they grow.

Warrior meals

Fighters take a wide range of foods, but are happiest grazing through small, live meals.

Colour-enhancing flakes are available, as are dedicated Betta foods, but to see these fish at their very best offer plenty of frozen and live Daphnia, Cyclops and occasionally bloodworm.

Don’t be averse to offering the occasional flaked pea to help stave off constipation and bloat, which fighters can get when fed excess dry food.

Some breeders allow the fish to eat at leisure by having live foods like Daphnia constantly in the tank. Though many fighters are not gluttonous, plenty are fussy and keeping weight on them can become an issue.

Betta can miss out in community tanks with faster fish, so ensure they always get their fill.

Short reigns

Siamese fighters are not long lived. Wild specimens can expect a year or two until conditions such as drought or predation take them and in the aquaria don’t expect them to reach ripe old ages.

Bear in mind that the fish sold in stores will already be around six months of age, so expect a realistic year to eighteen months from them.

There are many reports of domestic fighters reaching four or five years in the aquarium and there’s one contentious report of steroid use prolonging life to more than seven years.

A taste for almond

Plakat breeders and keepers have long recognised the merits of having almond leaves in Betta tanks. Not only do these acidify the water as they release tannins, but also have health benefits.

They contain antifungal and antibacterial chemicals for their own protection and these leach into the water where they have a mild disinfectant value.

Some chemicals are known, like the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol. Other constituents like saponines and phytosterols are also present and almond leaf derivatives are often used as herbal medicines.

These agents aid recovery in true fighters and it’s thought that the presence of almond toughens the scales and skin to make them more durable battlers.

Are fish fights still legal anywhere?

Put two fighting fish together in the UK and you’ve violated the Animal Welfare Act, facing a fine and ban from keeping fish.

However, other countries have more vague legislation and Thailand is introducing a range of measures which would also end cock fighting there.

Restrictions on fighting fish are in place there but not from a welfare perspective, rather on volume of unregulated gambling. At the moment you can fight, but can’t put money on any outcomes.

Other Far Eastern countries have taken mixed and contradictory approaches and contests still regularly take place in Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Genetic strains of fighting fish

Wild Betta splendens have experienced selective line tinkering and now a vast range of colours, fin and body shapes are available. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Plakat – wild-type fighter.
  • Halfmoon Plakat (HMPK) – short ‘D’ shaped tail.
  • Crown tail Plakat – short tail but heavily spiked.
  • Veil tail – long, drooping tails and most commonly seen on sale.
  • Crown tail – like the Veiltail, but with extended fin rays, giving ragged effect.
  • Comb tail – a crowntail with much shorter extensions.
  • Spade tail – tail culminates in sharp point.
  • Halfmoon – tail ‘D’ shaped, but not over 180° spread.
  • Over Halfmoon –short tail spreading more than the 180° ‘D’ of a standard Halfmoon.
  • Delta tail – tail with less spread than a Halfmoon, with sharp edging.
  • Halfsun – Halfmoon tail with slight crowning.
  • Double tail – tail split so that top and bottom halves appear distinct.
  • Rose tail – overgrown tail which appears ruffled and rose-like.
  • Dumbo –variant with hugely enlarged pectoral fins, like elephant ears (pictured above).

New crosses and finnages are constantly being developed and it’s not unusual to encounter a mixture of shapes and strains.

The making of a champion

In Thailand there’s more to fighting Plakat than just putting two together and (illegally) placing bets. There are distinct fighting characteristics as well as different Plakat forms.

Considerations include family, using phrases like ‘harsh’ or ‘crazy’ to describe its background. There’s bloodline or origin and age, though colour is less of a factor.

Fish will be categorised by fighting style, using terms like ‘strong mouth’, ‘chase’, ‘force bite’, and ‘good skin’. Fighting focus is recorded as ‘face’, ‘fins’, ‘stomach’, ‘ear’ and so on. Even teeth types and stamina are taken in to account.

Good history fish command high prices and figures of US $65/£42.50 or more per fish are not unknown.

Four forms of Plakat body shape are usually recognised.

There are snake-fish head/long bodies (Plachon) noted as fast, aggressive and with sharp bites; short head/short body types (Plamor) considered slower, but tough; sharp curve mouth/long body types (Plakrai) being very fast with strong bites and the hybrid (Plasang) which is often a smaller blend of wild and line-bred fish.

There are also noted styles of combat and techniques include double hits, turn-back hits and even persistent hits.

If a fish loses a bout but survives, he may be released back into the wild, or, if he showed potential, used for breeding. He may be retired and kept as a pet, or even end up in a water tank to help keep nuisance mosquito and midge larvae in check.

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