Wild Bettas: The Betta coccinas
By : Mike Hellweg
Photo: Oliver Lucanus
Most everyone knows, or has kept, the Siamese fighting fish, domesticated strains of Betta splendens that have been line-bred to produce many color and finnage forms over the years. But surprisingly little is known about the other members of the genus Betta, often called “wild bettas” to distinguish them from the captive-bred fancy fighting fish varieties. I am absolutely wild about wild bettas—they are just wonderful aquarium fish.
Among the wild-type bettas, a personal favorite of mine is the wine red betta group, an assemblage of jewel-like, torpedo-shaped, mostly red fish. The group is centered around Betta coccina, the original wine red betta, whose taxonomic name literally translates to “scarlet betta.” They can be tough to find, but the rewards of keeping these amazing little beauties make it well worth the effort.
There are currently 10 described species in the group: B. coccina, B. livida, B. rutilans, B. tussyae, B. persephone, B. burdigala, B. brownorum, B. uberis, B. hendra,and B. miniopinna. There are also a couple of undescribed species that appear in the trade from time to time, though they are possibly just new location types of these 10 known species. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to keep all but B. miniopinna, and I have had all of those but B. tussyae spawn successfully for me.
Most of the wine red bettas are variations on the theme of a deep red or scarlet body color, though a few have little red on them. Looking at them hiding in the corner of a dealer’s bare tank, they are similar enough that the casual hobbyist can be forgiven for thinking that the species are plain and hard to tell apart. But once you get them into a well-planted species tank with the right water conditions, each one will literally glow in its own way and show how dissimilar in appearance they actually are.
All of the members of this group are 2½ inches (6.5 cm) or less at adult size, with more slender bodies and smaller fins than those of their more well-known fighting fish cousin. A couple of species are marked with a large greenish blotch on the side, though I would not recommend using this as a species identifier, as it can vary in size, intensity, and whether it is located on the right side, left side, or both sides, even among the fry in a single spawn.
In Betta coccina this blotch is found only on the males, while in B. livida and B. brownorum it is found on both males and females, and the other species don’t have it at all. B. uberis and B. hendra sport two cheek bars that are either red or golden red, but again, these cannot be relied upon for identification because they will vary in color and intensity from specimen to specimen, and even on the same fish depending on its mood.
In the Wild
In the wild, these diminutive beauties are found primarily on the Malay Peninsula on the nearby Islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and on some of the smaller islands in the area. While much of this land is still forested, large swaths of the forest are under threat by logging and plantation farming.
They occur in family groups and are found in rather extreme habitats thriving in slow-flowing to stagnant black water in swampy areas, roadside ditches, and sometimes in small inlets along larger streams. This microhabitat is often full of submerged plants. Some specimens are found among and under riparian plants or their roots. The water is full of leaf litter and is often very darkly tinted by tannin-releasing plant matter as it decays.
Over a century ago, in 1906, German collector Julius Reichelt noted that the water in the area was the color of dark coffee, and only after filtering it several times could it be lightened to the color of a good Bavarian beer. The water parameters are often extreme, with little to no carbonate hardness, very low conductivity, and pH between 3.5 and 4.5. In a habitat like this, there is usually not much in the way of small aquatic life to serve as the basis for the food chain, so these bettas feed primarily on small terrestrial insects, with ants being particular favorites.
Finding wine red bettas can be a challenge. They won’t be available in a big box store, so you’ll need to go to a good local fish store, and you’ll probably have to ask the owner to special order them for you. They are usually sold as pairs, but since they are almost always young fish, which are hard to sex, it’s best to get a group of six to eight and let them grow out together.
I’ve found it is a good idea to pick them up from the shop on the day they arrive and ask the owner not to unbag and tank them, but rather do this yourself so they don’t experience too many changes in water parameters in a short period of time. The fish you’ll get will most likely be wild caught, so matching your water closely to the blackwater conditions of their wild habitats before they arrive is the best course of action.
The most challenging part of successful maintenance is providing these wild bettas with the proper water conditions. While they are found at a pH between 3.5 and 4.5 in the wild, they do not need this low a pH long-term in the aquarium, which is good, because without any buffering capacity it is very difficult to maintain those levels for long.
I have found a technique for making black water that is easy and reliable. Fill a bucket with reverse osmosis water or distilled water from the grocery store (not spring water). Add a box filter filled with peat and run it for several days until the water becomes dark brown, almost like dark tea. Remove the filter, add a cup or two of dechlorinated tap water to add back some minerals, and the water is ready to use for water changes.
Over time, add a bit more of your local tap water and slowly bring the pH up to around 6.0 where you can keep it a bit more stable. In fact, I’ve seen that over a couple of generations, at least B. burdigala will be happy, spawn successfully, and live a long life in fairly hard, alkaline water with a pH over 7.0.
While they are smaller fish, they do best in groups in a larger tank, with a 30-inch (76-cm) long tank being a perfect home for a group of six to eight of any of the species. They tend to be long-lived when well cared for, so plan on having them around for five to seven years or more.
Add a thin layer of sand on the bottom. Younger fish will forage through the sand throughout the day, picking it up, mouthing it, and spitting it out. Adults seem to only be interested in food from the surface. Add a pile of twigs, driftwood, and boiled dried oak leaves to the tank, along with a couple of almond tree leaves. Put in several plants like Anubias and Java fern (Microsorum pteropus) attached to the driftwood, and maybe some potted Cryptocoryne,which will be easier to remove if you need to net any out.
Since they come from blackwater streams in the forest, lighting should be subdued. Floating plants are an easy way to bring this about. I like to use a mat of water penny (Hydrocotyle sp.) or frogbit (Limnobium sp.). They do not like strong current, so a sponge filter is in order, with the flow running at about half-strength. With a number of plants in a good-sized tank, and only six or eight fish, the bioload will be light, so heavy filtration won’t be needed. A heater set to 77° to 80°F (25° to 27°C) completes the picture.
Most of the wine red bettas prefer live foods like small worms, insects, and crustaceans. Live, newly hatched brine shrimp can serve as a staple diet, though it should be supplemented with other foods several times a week to ensure a balanced diet.
Insects, such as flour or grain beetles and fruit flies, are excellent for their diet and closely replicate what they eat in the wild. Some specimens will come to eat flakes and pellets, but most will not, so don’t count on your new fish taking those as a staple diet.
Breeding and Fry Care
Males build small, often hidden bubblenests under leaves, in root or twig masses, in small hollowed-out areas, and even sometimes in caves if nothing more suitable is available, though I’ve found that they seem to prefer to be fairly high up in the tank. While the males always guard the nest, sometimes the females participate in guarding as well and patrol the area around the nest.
Unlike their better-known cousin B. splendens, male wine red bettas only occasionally scrap with one another, and no real damage is done. They seem to prefer being kept in groups, and I’ve even had multiple males guarding nests at the same time in the same tank. The one exception to prove this rule is B. tussyae, which I’ve found to be very combative in smaller tanks.
One interesting habit that many of the wild bettas in the group have is that, after spawning, the males often make a new nest and move the eggs or fry to a different location. They may do this once or even a few times during the short period before the fry are free-swimming. The first time I saw this was with a spawn of Betta coccina, and after I excitedly phoned a friend to come take some photos, I was embarrassed that the nest was gone when he arrived. After some searching, I discovered that the male had moved it under an Anubias leaf near the surface in another corner of the tank.
B. brownorum and B. rutilans are rumored to be mouthbrooders, though some experts believe that they actually build a nest first and then take the eggs or fry into their mouths in response to some threat and just keep them there for several days instead of moving them. I can’t comment on B. rutilans as a mouthbrooder, since I have only seen them build a nest, but I’ve seen the same male B. brownorum build a nest normally one time and “mouthbrood” several other times. I never actually caught them spawning on subsequent occasions when he would have the eggs or fry in his mouth, though, so I can’t say that he didn’t build a small nest first.
In all of the species, the female lays 20 to 40 eggs during the spawning event. The eggs are white, as are the larvae for the first couple days after they hatch. The fry hatch in 30 to 36 hours at 77° to 80°F (25° to 26°C), and they are free-swimming and ready to eat their first meal about 3 or 4 days later. They will take infusoria, paramecia, vinegar eels, any of the various species of microworms, and are also able to take newly hatched brine shrimp nauplii. Some breeders report success with floating powdered fry foods, but I have not used those, so I can’t comment on their efficacy.
The fry grow quickly, and after about a week, they can be found swimming at all levels of the tank, hunting for food. The parents ignore their fry, and other adults in the tank don’t seem to hunt them down either, so they can be raised with the adults in the same tank. In fact, due to their reclusive nesting behavior, in a heavily planted setup, the first sign of spawning might be seeing juveniles in the tank. The biggest problem with this is that the adults compete with the growing juveniles for food and are able to catch and eat more than the fry, so juvenile growth might be inhibited. For this reason, and because it’s easier to catch the adults, it’s a good idea to remove the adults to another tank and grow the fry out in their birth tank.
Like Fine Wine
The wine red bettas are not common in the hobby but are available if you do a bit of detective work. They are beautiful, hardy, and well worth the effort it takes to both find and maintain them. If you keep them happy, they should reward you with many years of enjoyment. Don’t forget to take time to just sit and watch your wild bettas!