The betta fish, also known as Siamese fighting fish, is one of the best-known aquarium fishes in the world. It is a lovely fish for the small aquarium. But don’t let the flowing fins fool you- he’ll fight to the death any male of his species. But if you are asking the questions “Are betta fish Japanese or Chinese?” “Where was the first betta fish found?” or “Where are betta fish in the wild?”, keep reading this brief history of Betta Fish, Betta splendens, or Siamese fighting fish.
The Betta is said to have been named for an ancient Asian warrior clan known as the Bettah. Unlike cockfighting and dogfighting in the West, Betta fighting was a test of bravery to see which fish continued fighting and which gave up and swam away. Typically a Betta was fought only once in his lifetime and then bred if he were the winner.
The Betta’s natural habitat is the shallow, tropical waters of Asia and the Mekong basin. They thrive and survive in the rice paddies, shallow ponds, and even slow-moving streams of Thailand (Siam), Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and parts of China where they feed on insects and mosquito larvae
The beginning of the chain of events that brought the betta fish from rice paddies in Thailand (formally Siam) to living as your pet started almost 600 years ago. Although Americans sometimes mispronounce the name as “bay-tuh” after the second letter in the Greek alphabet, the betta fish was named after the ancient Asian Bettah warrior tribe – pronounced “bet-tah”. (Think “My fish is bettah than yours”!). In Thailand, they are called “plakat”, which means “biting fish”.
People in Thailand would fight these fish and bet on which fish would come away from the winner. These fights were so popular with the people of Siam that the King of Siam decided to collect these fish. These original Siamese fighting fish did not look like the fish we see in the pet store today. These wild bettas had iridescence like the pet store bettas but did not come in a wide range of colors or have such long fins. Below is a wild betta smaragdina. Eventually, two strains of betta were developed. A short-finned fighting variety, and a long-finned show variety.
In 1840, the King of Siam presented Dr. Theodor Cantor with some of his prized fighting fish. Dr. Cantor later published an article in which he called the fish Macropodus Pugnax. In 1909 Mr. Tate Regan pointed out that the name Macropodus Pugnax was already used to describe the Paradise Gourami, and coined the name Betta Splendens. There was a legendary tribe of warlike people called the Bettah, so the name Betta Splendens can be translated as Splendid Warrior.
In 1869, bettas in their short-finned variety were introduced to Germany and then later in 1910 were brought to the United States. It wasn’t until 1928 that the first long-finned betta fish made their way from Bangkok into the United States when two shipments of fish reached Mr. Frank Locke in San Francisco. These shipments included dark-bodied fish with red fins and light-bodied fish with red fins. Mr. Locke mistook these light-bodied fish for a new species and called them Betta Cambodia. They were actually just a new color mutation. It is easy to see how Betta Imbellis could have been an ancestor of these fish. On the left, a wild-caught Betta Imbellis, on the right, a long-finned Betta Splendens similar to the fish Mr. Locke received. Note, the fish on the right has a Halfmoon tail structure which is a relatively new form. The first long-finned bettas would have details like the ones you see in pet stores.
This first shipment of long-finned Bettas created a commotion in the aquarium community which led to more tail structures and color strains over the years. Bettas now come in virtually every color and are now being bred to isolate a giant betta gene.