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Working with Wild Bettas

 Gerald Griffin, IBC – SMP

So many times I get asked what do I need to do to work with wild betta species?  This question is commonly asking about care in captivity especially with several new species becoming available in the pet market.  Since this question is asked so often an article about general husbandry would be in order.  Remember that many species are found in so many different environments from Salt marshes of Mahachai to the Blackwater Peat Swamps of Selangor to the hard alkaline waters of Krabi.  So how important is it that I match those conditions for these wild species?  Well in a word it not.  The vast majority of species do fine in neutral water that is clean.  I am breaking each complex down and going to cover the general conditions for each complex.  There may be some exceptions in each complex but for the most part the general rules will apply.  This is not intended to cover all species specifically but offer general patterns of husbandry that should allow one to keep any of the species available now and some that will be available in the future.  If you wish further information I would recommend buying The Betta Handbook by Dr. Goldstein, it is well worth money and is filled with lots of invaluable information

General Information:  With many wild betta species their wild instincts are intact and captivity can be very stressful.  To minimize stress tanks should be painted or covered in paper so that they will not see movements outside their tank.  In a typical painting scheme the bottom and one side and the back is typically painted so that the tank have a visible surface on one end and the front.  If all of the tanks are painted in the same manor they can be used on racks without the fish being able to see the fish in the other tank which can cause stress.  The bottom should be painted or papered also so the fish realize there is a bottom.  All wild bettas are jumpers and their tanks must be totally covered to prevent them from jumping out.  Do not underestimate their jumping ability, if there is a gap or a crack they can find it.  If using outside hang on back filters I recommend using cross stitch plastic mesh siliconed into any gaps the filter creates with the tank hood.  Many species do well with heavily planted tanks with flower pot caves and PVC pipe sections or elbows.  Most people report the male swallowing the brood around day three.  It has been surmised that that is when the eggs hatch and turn into the wiggling stage and the slightest disturbance startles the male and causes him to swallow.  For best results after spawning pull the female and do not disturb the male.


Splendens complex:  This is the most common complex kept in captivity.  Species include imbellis, smaragdina, splendens, stiktos, and sp. Mahachai.  All of these species prefer slightly soft, slightly acidic water with the exception of sp. Mahachai which likes hard alkaline water with some salt added.  This complex will do well in almost any water condition.  The best set up for these species would be a species tank with numerous hiding places that is well planted.  The plants can be real or artificial as the fish do not seem to care.  Some specimens can be very shy and some wild caught specimens will be ambush hunters that only feed when they feel secure and will come out of their hiding places to eat food.  The majority of these individuals will need live food until they adjust to captive conditions.  As to breeding pairs work best.  The pair should be placed in a ten gallon tank with half the water level.  A half styrofoam cup should be floated for the male to build a nest under.  All species breed in the typical splendens fashion with the exception of sp. Mahachai.  Mahachai females will clamp their pelvic fins to hold the eggs so they don’t drop and the male will pick the eggs out of her fins.  The other exception is that males will build a satellite nest and after spawning will transfer the eggs from one nest to the other.

Coccina complex:  The red fighter complex has the most varied species in any complex.  Two species have been confirmed mouthbrooding while the vast majority are submerged bubblenesters.  These species are brownorum, burdigala, coccina, livida, miniopinna, persephone, rutilans, tussyae, sp. Pangkalanbun, and sp. Sukadana.   These species typically come from the peat swamps where the pH is from 3.9 to 6.5.  Many species are imported with various parasites which are not typical of their wild environments but are from the holding tanks they are placed in.  Since many of these species have never encountered these parasites they can be quite deadly to them.  All of these species can be kept in neutral water that is slightly soft without any problems and for tank maintenance this is the best way so you can have a biological filter.  The vast majority of these species easily adapt to dry prepared foods but some may require a transition from live to frozen to dry food.  These species are best maintained in species tanks with numerous hiding places and is heavily planted.  In the wild these fish come from sterile environments with little plant material other they few cryptocornes and overhanging vegetation where they feed primarily on insects that fall into the swamp such as ants and flying insects.  Many of these species will spawn in pairs but sometimes need to see a rogue male to get the male into the breeding/territorial mode he needs to be in for spawning.  Sometimes a gallon of distilled water with blackwater extract will stimulate the male to spawn.  Males will often seek out dark submerged spawning sites such as large leafed cryptocornes.    To give the pair spawning sites one inch diameter black PVC pipe cut in 2 inch lengths or black film canisters has been used with great success and males seem to prefer them over large leafed plants.  Fry should be started on vinegar eels and switched over to baby brine in a week.  Fry are slow growing reaching adult size in a year.

Bellica Complex:  Rarely kept in captivity these are the big bubblenesters which can get to almost five inches in length but most never get more then four inches.  Two species are recognized, bellica and simorum and their husbandry is identical.  Males tend to be larger and have a spike caudal fin, females will have rounded abdomens.  Because of their large size the breeding tank should be a twenty gallon or larger.  These bubblenesters make larger bubbles and should have surface plants such as water sprite to support the nests.  Water conditions should be soft and pH should be around neutral.  To induce spawning high temperatures are sometimes required, high 80s to 90 degrees.  Do not exceed 90 degrees F for any wild betta.


Picta Complex:  These mouthbrooders are the most common kept in captivity and consist of picta, simplex, falx, taeniata and Goldstein places edithae in this group.  The majority of these species rarely exceed two inches in length, taeniata will reach just over three inches and edithae can reach four inches.   These species are quite adaptable to the aquarium except for taeniata which can be problematic.  All of these species will eat prepared foods but relish live foods and live and frozen foods help condition them for spawning.  The spawning tank should be a ten gallon aquarium around 76 degrees F.  The tank should have some caves so that either fish could retreat if needed and plants are also helpful.  The courtship can last a few days with the male displaying for the female.  When the female is ready she will signal the male by nipping at his caudal fin and the two will embrace at the bottom of the tank.  Many embraces may take place before eggs are produced.  Once the eggs are produced the female will pick up the eggs in her mouth and spit them out and take them up until the male takes them from her.  Once the male has all of the eggs from the embrace the pair will embrace again.  Spawning can take a day to complete.  Taeniata can produce 300 eggs in a spawning.  Although incubation can be from 9 to 12 days most species incubate for 10 days except for edithae which incubates for 7 to 10 days.  Females should be removed after spawning as their egg cycle is seven days and a female could reinitiate spawning forcing the male to swallow or prematurely releasing the fry.  These species are quite tolerant of pH and hardness but do require clean water conditions.  Taeniata are prone to sickness when water conditions are not kept clean.

Pugnax Complex:  These are also commonly kept in the aquarium and grow quite a bit larger then the picta complex with some species reaching 5 inches in length.  This complex includes pugnax, pulchra, breviobesus, enisae, schalleri, fusca, lehi, raja, pallida, prima, stigmosa, and cracens.  These species are typically a brown in coloration with green or gold iridescence.  Males typically have a spike tail and long anal and pelvic fins.  For spawning pairs should be placed in twenty gallon aquariums that are heavily planted with flower pots or PVC sections or elbows for retreat.  Typically the male will display for the female like the picta complex and the female signals readiness by biting on the males caudal fin.  In some species non receptive males will be killed by females and females can be quite territorial chasing off or killing intruders.  The species in this complex typically incubate the fry for 14 days but can go as long as 21 days depending on water temperature.  Usually a pair will ignore the fry after they emerge if kept in a well planted tank.  Fry are large enough to take baby brine shrimp and grow at moderate rate taking about a year to reach full size.  

Waseri Complex:  These are the big “yellow” bettas which are quite stocky, some species attain a length of five inches most stay a bit smaller.  The species include waseri, tomi, spilotogena, pi, renata, hipposideros, and chloropharynx.  All of the species are identified by their face markings and by location.  Many of these species come from blackwater habitats that are less then 5.5 pH.  Most of the species do well in almost any water condition however for spawning soft water is needed and sometimes a lower pH spike from blackwater extract added to a gallon of distilled water will initiate spawning.   These species require area more then volume so thirty gallon tanks are best used for these fish.  These fish are quite tolerant of each other and seldom have the aggressive displays that so many of the other species have.  Spawning produces between 100 to 200 eggs and the released fry are large and take baby brine shrimp immediately. 

Akarensis Complex:  These are large bettas up to about six inches in length with green or gold iridescence.  Species include akarensis, balunga, chini, aurigans, obscura, ibanorum, and pinguis.  They are identified by the stripes on their faces and by location.  These are medium sized bettas between three to five inches in length.  Some species come from blackwater environments and others from more neutral waters.  Feeding does not pose a problem as they adapt quite readily to prepared foods however to bring any fish into spawning condition live foods are best.  The females of the species initiate spawning by nudging the male’s caudal fin.  Males hold for 12 to 15 days with 14 days being the typical.  These species often produce broods of 100 or more which are able to take baby brine shrimp immediately with the exception of chini which produce 40 to 50.  The breeding tank should be soft water and neutral to acidic.  Water quality is important for these species so good filtration is very important.  Members of this complex have been noted spawning in mid water but typically spawn in caves.  As with other species their tanks should be covered or painted and surface plants used to subdue the light coming into the tank.   

Unimaculata Complex:  Species include unimaculata, patoti, pallifina, ocellata, gladiator, and macrostoma.  These are large slender wild bettas not exceeding six inches in length.  These slender fish have a very pronounced jumping ability.  In the wild these species come from swifter moving waters that vary in pH from alkaline to blackwater environments.  These fish are quite adaptable to the aquarium and like the waseri complex can develop a pet like relationship with the owner.  This complex appears to be very inquisitive and can be very aggressive.  Betta gladiator is said to not tolerate any fish at all in its territory hence its species name.  In this complex the female has definitely been noted as defending the male and the territory during and after the spawning.  In captivity these fish are quite adaptable and will tolerate almost any water condition with one exception.  Betta macrostoma is very sensitive during acclimation.  To acclimate macrostoma use the saltwater method of using a baster and placing one ounce of water in it bag every fifteen minutes for about four hours.  After that they can be released and will tolerate virtually any water condition.  However the water must be well filtered and kept very clean.  These fish should be definitely kept in pairs and not in communal settings.  These fish also need caves and heavily planted tanks to feel secure.  Spawning is in the typical mouthbrooder fashion and the males brood for around 10 days.  They are very sensitive when brooding so a totally covered tank is the best option and periodically checking on the male as to not spook him.  The fry can reach adulthood in 6 months to a year.

Albimarginata Complex:  Currently species include albimarginata and channoides however there are many populations with distinct differences so they could be classified as separate species before long.  As a general rule if you have location data for a species do not mix it with the same species without location unless no choice is available.  These fish come from blackwater environments but are not required for captivity.  Albimarginata can be kept in almost any environment but do best in soft acidic water.  Channoides require some iron in its water for its health.  Dry foods are not recommended.  These species are not gluttonous eaters but are more of a foraging eater.  For best health live foods that they can casually feed on is best.  Examples would be grindal worms and daphnia.  These species are high in demand because of their brilliant coloration which the males tend to keep in the aquarium even when not spawning however during spawning the already bright colors intensify beyond belief.  They do best with a lot of aquatic vegetation and flower pots for hiding spaces.  The pair will spawn at the bottom of the tank and spawning can take half a day.  These species incubate under two weeks.  Goldstein recommends moving a male to a livebearer trap at day 7.

Foerschi Complex:  These fish come from blackwater environments and can be fragile in captivity.  They do best in soft acidic water but will reproduce in non blackwater conditions.  Tank size can be from ten gallon to twenty gallon, the larger the tank the better and tanks should be well filtered and these fish prefer leaf litter as or on the substrate.  Species include foerschi, strohi, and rubra.  Foerschi and strohi are occasionally available in the hobby but rubra only exists in museum collections and have not yet made it into the hobby.  These species reach lengths of  over two inches.  Incubation is around 14 days and broods typically are around 40 which can take baby brine shrimp immediately. 

Hopefully this is enough information to get one started.  Before purchasing any species one should do their homework but with a number of the new species coming in, there is no literature.  By following these simple guidelines one should be successful in maintaining any of the species.  If there are specific questions you contact me via the SMP website.

Gerald Griffin


Goldstein, Robert J.  The Betta Handbook, Hauppauge, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2004

IBC-SMP  Website, http://www.ibcbettas.org/smp/


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