The Thai people share with the people of other
nationalities a keen interest in and love for contests of skill, fleetness, and
endurance among the lower animals, whether racing horses, racing dogs, fighting
cocks, jumping frogs, fighting crickets, or fighting and wrestling fishes.
The idea of using fishes in matched contests
seems to have originated among the Thai, and Thailand is the only country in
which fish - fighting may be considered a national sport.
The fishes that in Thailand have for many
years been employed as combatants are a cyprinodont (Aplocheilus panchax), two
anabantids (Betta splendens and Trichopsis vittatus), and a hemiramph (Dermogenys
pusillus). Two of these have long been cultivated, and their fighting
stamina has been greatly improved by cultivation. In the case of all these
species, only the adult males are employed.
The pugnacious disposition of the little halfbeak
Dermogenys is manifested in an entirely different manner from that of Betta. The
exhibition of strength and endurance, on which the encounters are decided, can
best be described as wrestling; and as the fish had no distinctive English name
I ventured in 1923 to suggest that it be called wrestlingfish, a designation
that has since been generally used. The Thai name, pla khem, or needlefish, in
allusion to the long sharp lower jaw, is applied to various other halfbeaks,
which, as far as known, do not engage in combats. (p. 35)
This, the celebrated fightingfish of Thailand,
has a wide natural distribution in ponds, ditches, drains, and sluggish waters
generally throughout the country. It does not appear to have been indigenous to
any other country, but it is now to be found around the world because of its
attractiveness, hardiness, and adaptability to small aquariums.
The maximum length of wild fish Is about 5 cm.
For males, females being somewhat smaller. A length of 6 to 6.5 cm. Is attained
by male fish bred in captivity.
Earlier references to this species were usually
under the name of Betta pugnax (Cantor). It remained for Regan in
1910 to point out that B. pugnax is native to the island of Pinang and that the
Thailand form is distinct.
For several hundred years the fish has been used
locally for sporting purposes, and for more than 90 years it has been
domesticated and cultivated. Cultivation has increased the size, improved the
colors, and enhanced the fighting qualities.
The habits, cultivation, and fighting of this fish
are the subjects of a rather voluminous literature. Accounts based on
first-hand information and personal observations and experience have been
published by the present writer. (1937a, 1937b). From the latter account
the following statements have been abstracted:
In a wild state the fighting fish is an
inconspicuous, retiring little creatures, seeking protection from the glare of
the sun’s rays and from fish-eating birds like egrets, herons, and kingfishers
by hiding beneath and among water plants.
The general coloration of a quiescent fish is dull
grayish brown or green with or without obscure dark lateral bands, and conveys
no suggestion of the wonderfully brilliant hues assumed by the male under proper
stimulations Under the stress of excitement the male fish exhibits a remarkable
change. All the fins are widely spread, the gill membrances are expanded
and project like a frill or ruff suggestive of the raised hackles of fighting
cocks, and the entire body and fins become intensely suffused with a lustrous
blue or red color, which makes the fighting fish one of the most beautiful of
all fresh-water fishes. The normal incitement to the display of latent
colors is the approach of another male, but the same effect is produced when a
fish sees his reflection in a mirror.
Observations on fishes kept under the most favorable
conditions in aquaria indicate that this species is normally short-lived.
Possibly as a result of its strenuous activity and rapid metabolism, possibly
because its span of life is predetermined by some immutable hereditary
requirement, the fish in Siam appears to reach its age limit in 2 years, but
under domestication in colder climates a somewhat greater age may be attained.
The common human custom of making animals compete
among themselves for individual supremacy, and of laying wagers on the outcome
of the contests, has, among the Siamese, been directed particularly to fish.
At least for different kinds of fishes belonging in three families are employed
by the Siamese in matched encounters, but only one of these has ever attained
national importance or international celebrity.
Just how early in Siamese history the fighting fish
acquired its reputation is not known, but for several hundred years its
pugnacious qualities have been recognized and utilized in popular contests.
Up to the year 1850 or thereabouts, the use of the
fighting fish in sportive contests in Siam was confined to fishes obtained in
open waters; but, in order to insure a regular supply of fighting and betting
purposes, domestication and cultivation were then instituted and have since been
conducted on an increasingly large scale. It may be noted, however, that
in recent years cultivation has been less important as a factor in fighting
contests and has represented a better appreciation of the fish’s beauty of color
While many kinds of fishes exhibit a belligerent
attitude both among themselves and toward other species, it seems probable that
in few other fishes is the combative instinct so highly developed as in Betta
splendens. It is certainly true that in no other fish has the fighting
ability been so much improved by cultivation.
The fighting instinct is peculiar to the males and
is so strong that a normal fish exhibits it under every condition and at every
opportunity. One might reasonably infer that the fighting instinct would develop
at the approach of maturity. As a matter of fact, the pugnacious tendency shows
itself at an early age; and in captivity fish only 2 months old and less than
half – grown should be separated to prevent continual scrapping.
Because of their ever-present eagerness to fight,
adult male fish must not only be kept in separate aquaria but the view of rivals
in nearby vessels should be cut off by pieces of cardboard; otherwise their
vitality and fighting ability will become impaired by incessant futile effort.
The fighting fish has responded well to efforts to
produce changes to meet the popular demand. Even in the hands of persons
ignorant of the laws of heredity, noteworthy improvements in form, size,
coloration, and fighting ability have been brought about; and there is reason to
believe that still further improvements may be made.
A person seeing for the first time a wild fighting
fish would never suspect the wonderful possibilities in coloration that have
been realized under cultivation. The most noteworthy of the color phases that
have been established, in addition to intensified reds and blues, are lavenders,
iridescent greens, cornflower blue, blue and white and yellowish and reddish
creams with bright red fins. The latter, first produced about 1900, are known to
the Siamese as pla kat khmer (Cambodian biting fish), probably from having
originated among fanciers in French Indo-China.
Along with the development of intensified and new
colors, there has come about an increase in the size of the vertical fins,
culminating in graceful crapelike effects, which vie with those in the
veiltailed and other highly cultivated Japanese goldfish, so that there are now
fighting fish whose caudal fins are about as long as the head and body combined.
Fishes caught in open waters and taken indoors will,
after a few days, readily respond to an opportunity to fight. The fighting
stamina of the wild fishes, however, is not sufficiently developed for present –
day requirements in Thailand, and practically all matched combats are now
between fishes that have been bred n captivity. Wild fishes may fall to show any
pugnacious spirit after a few minutes of active attack, and for an encounter
between them to last more than 15 to 20 minutes is unusual.
On the other hand, in fishes reared under careful
domestication and intelligent selections of parents, the inherent desire and
ability to fight are markedly strengthened. Well-matched fishes may
continue their attacks hour after hour without intermission, with only brief
excursions to the surface for air. There is a partial respite from active
effort while the fishes are in a sparring position, but even then the fins are
kept extended, the gill membranes remain expanded, the body muscles are taut,
and an alert attitude is constantly maintained. Some of my own fishes have
remained pugnacious after 6 hours of uninterrupted combat, but fight do not
ordinarily last more than 3 hours. From reputable Siamese informant has come the
information that fish have been known to struggle for a whole day and night.
In Siam, as in the various countries into which the
fish has been introduced, the usual procedure in arranging a fight is to select
two males of approximately the same size and bring them together in separate
jars. If they spread their fins, show their colors, and make head-on efforts to
reach each other, they are placed together in the same vessel. An ordinary
porcelain or tin washbasin makes a good arena, but a rectangular glass
receptacle, such as a battery jar, affords a better view. The fish immediately
approach each other and indulge in a preliminary display of spread fins,
expanding gill membranes, and color waves. A common sparring position finds the
fishes side by side with the heads pointing in the same direction and with one
fish slightly behind the other. This position may be held for a period varying
from a few seconds to several minutes. Then, in quick succession, the fishes
attack, their movements, being so swift that the human eye can hardly follow the
actual impact of the teeth, and the assaults are repeated with sort
intermissions, during which the same sparring attitude is taken.
The most common points of attack are the anal,
caudal, and dorsal fins. The ventral and pectoral fins may be practically
untouched at the end of a protracted encounter, but may receive early attention
from one or both contestants. The vertical fins, however, are always
involved. The first evidence of a spirited encounter is likely to be torn
or split fins. As the contest proceeds, there may be extensive loss of fin
substance, and with well-matched fishes the vertical fins may ultimately be
reduced to mere stubs.
The loss or extensive damage of the fins impairs the
swimming, steering, and balancing powers and hence places a fish at a
disadvantage, but in evenly matched fishes this is not likely to be a final
factor in deciding the issue.
Another point of attack is the side of the body.
Single scales or clumps of scales may be loosened or detached by a quick nipping
act, but in many contests this kind of injury may not occur. Exceptionally the
gill covers may be bitten and slight injury may be done to the gills.
An interesting variation in fighting tactics ensues
when the fishes come together in a head-on assault and lock jaws. With their
jaws firmly locked and their bodies extended, the fishes struggle while partly
or completely rotating on their long axis. In my observations, the
locked-jaw attack was always comparatively brief and was invariably terminated
by the fishes settling to the bottom and remaining perfectly still for, say, 10
to 20 seconds. The hold was then broken and the fishes rapidly sought the
surface for air, and then resumed their ordinary tactics. The locked-jaw
position interferes with respiration and lasts only s long as the fishes can
resist the call of the system for extra oxygen.
During the short interludes in fighting when the
demand for oxygen forces the fishes to go to the surface for gulps of air,
attacks are always suspended. I have never known one fish to assail
another at such a time. It is literally a breathing spell provided for in
the fighting fish’s code of ethics.
Fighting contests are decided by the general
exhaustion and the failure of stamina in the combatants rather than by a
definite injury or a knock - out assault. Sooner or later one fish shows a lack
of ability or desire to continue the fight and swims away—literally turns
tail—when his rival assumes a position for attack. The engagement is then
over, the fishes separated, the wagers, if any, are paid, and the owners put
their charges into jars and go their respective ways.
At the end of a protracted contest both fishes may
present a most unattractive appearance because of their mutilated fins, but they
seem to experience no discomfort and, if permitted, would fight again the next
day. The fins regenerate rapidly and completely, and at the end of a few weeks
may show no signs of injury. Loss of scales may be more serious, inducing
the development of fungus.
My experience, which extended over 12 years and
covered many hundreds of exhibitions, coincides with that of most observers in
finding nothing brutal, cruel, or repulsive in fighting-fish contests. The
participants seem to get so much satisfaction from their encounters, their
physical discomfort is apparently so negligible, and their recovery is so
complete that there is little occasion to expend sympathy over them, while their
graceful movements, muscular agility, acumen, tenacity and wonderful color
displays cannot fail to arouse enthusiasm even in the most sensitive spectators.
Wholly erroneous impressions on this subject have
been conveyed in some published articles. In an account that has often
been quoted, one of the unfortunate combatants always terminates his fighting
career and his very existence by literally bursting because of his futile
efforts to reach his adversary kept in a separate jar. Another description
of the fish and their fights concludes with a statement which, if true,
would enlist our sympathy:
“The two [fishes] are brought together in the same
bowl and they forthwith begin to tear at each other with their mouths and sharp
spines, until the one is overpowered. The victor seldom lives to enjoy his
As has been pointed out, fighting is done wholly
with the teeth, and one fish is not overpowered. I never knew the victor,
or even the vanquished, to succumb to a fight or to undergo serious injury.
An outstanding peculiarity of the fish is its
dependence on atmospheric air. In an open water course, just as in a
well-aerated aquarium, the fish cannot obtain through its gills dissolved oxygen
in amount sufficient for its needs, and hence it has to make frequent excursions
to the surface to take in mouthfuls of air which it utilizes by its accessory
respiratory apparatus. The fish does not loiter at the surface where, in a
wild state, its is exposed to attack by birds and other fish-eating animals.
It projects its mouth for only an instant, expelling a bubble of vitiated air
and taking in a new supply and then rapidly retreats toward the bottom.
The air-breathing apparatus is of simpler
construction than in some related species, the “climbing perch” for example,
which can and do spend considerable time out of water. Above the gills there is
in each side of the head a cavity lined with vascular epithelium, the absorptive
surface being increased by several projecting laminae.
The bubble-blowing habit is strongly developed in
the male fish. At the time the bubbles are made there is a viscid mucous
secretion of the mouth or pharynx, which strengthens and makes more lasting the
walls of the bubbles and tends to keep the bubbles in a compact mass.
The purpose of the bubbles—to serve as a nest for
the eggs and a hover for the newly hatched young—is admirably achieved. As
the bubbles gradually lose their stickiness and become scattered or ruptured,
one may observe the male constantly engaged in renewing the supply.
If one day a mature female fish is introduced into a
vessel with a male fish that has been blowing bubbles, the probability is that
next morning the bubble mass will be found to contain several hundred minute
transparent eggs not easily distinguished from bubbles without a magnifying
At egg-laying time the fishes consort near the
surface, and at short intervals the eggs are extruded in small batches. As the
eggs slowly sink toward the bottom, both the male and the female fishes go after
them, gently take them in their mouths, and returning quickly to the surface
blow the eggs into the bubble nest, repeating the performance as often as may be
necessary to gather up all the eggs. This continues of several hours until all
the ripe eggs have been voided.
The role of the mother fish is almost entirely
restricted to the production of eggs. After the eggs are once placed in
the nest, her family duties cease, and all subsequent care of eggs and young
devolves wholly on the male.
The fish is rather prolific. At one spawning
period from 200 to 700 eggs may be expelled, the average number for a fully
developed normal fish being 400 to 500. A month after one batch of eggs
has been produced, a given female may be ready to yield another lot, so that in
the course of a year one fish may be responsible for 2,500 to 5,000 or more
Aided partly by capillary attraction, partly by the
viscidity of the bubbles, the eggs are held in the nest until hatching ensues.
The incubation period is remarkably short, covering only 30 to 40 hours in water
at 80° to 85 ° F. Should any of the eggs drop from the nest and fall to
the bottom, the male recovers them and blows them back.
The newly hatched fishes find shelter under the
bubble nest, and remain there while their yolk sacs are being absorbed and their
fins are developing. If they stray from their proper place before they are
old enough, the male carries them back to the nest and gently ejects them; and
during the entire period of infantile helplessness the male repeatedly takes the
young in his mouth and blows them out with new bubbles, thus insuring proper
Throughout the nesting period the male fish is
extremely busy and his vigilance never relaxes. In addition to making and
maintaining the bubble nest, replacing eggs that may drop from the nest,
rounding up the straggling young, and mouthing the young at intervals, he is
constantly on the alert to protect the eggs and young from intruders that may
devour them. The chief offender is the mother fish. In a wild state, she
can be forcefully driven off and kept at a distance, but in the restricted
quarters of aquarium she must be removed as soon as egg laying is completed.
The presence of the male seems to be essential in
the development and hatching of the eggs. If the male is removed from the
aquarium, the eggs, or most of them, will fall to hatch. Those that fall
to the bottom will suffocate; while the vitality of those that remain in the
nest may be impaired by the lack of the aeration that comes from mouthing and
It is of interest to note that the forbearance of
the male from eating the eggs and young is not due to any temporary impediment
to his digestive powers, such as a physiological closure of the esophagus.
He can and does eat mosquito larvae throughout his period of guard duty.
With all the solicitude shown by a male for his
progeny, it may be noted that he cannot distinguish his own young from those of
another parent introduced into his aquarium. Foster offspring receive the same
care as his own.
Another aspect of the interesting behavior of
Betta is shown when a male parent is taken away from his nest and returned
after a few days; he promptly devours his young.
The fighting fish is a confirmed carnivore. This
would be indicated by its dental equipment and short intestine even if not shown
by direct observation on wild and domesticated fish.
In a wild state, the fish renders a useful service
to mankind and to land animals generally by its destruction of mosquito larvae.
The fish inhabits the same kinds of weedy waters in which the eggs of various
mosquitoes are laid and hatched, and mosquito larvae are the favorite, often the
exclusive, food throughout the year. As the fish’s appetite is keen, its
digestion rapid, and its feeding activities more or less continuous during
daylight, the daily consumption of potential blood sucking pests is large.
Based on the observed requirements and the actual consumption of mosquito larvae
by fighting fish in small aquaria, I would not hesitate to estimate an annual
intake of 10,000 to 15,000 larvae per adult wild fish under normal conditions.
When the young fishes first begin to feed their
mouths are too small to admit mosquito larvae, and during a period of 10 to 12
days following the absorption of the yolk sac they subsist chiefly on minute
crustaceans, which swarm in the local waters.
The preference is for living, moving food.
Given the choice of both active and dead larvae, the fishes may entirely reject
the latter until driven by extreme hunger. Under the stress of necessity
they will take selected nonliving food and thrive on its. A lot of fishes that I
took from Bangkok to San Francisco were, after the first few days of the voyage,
fed successfully on minute scrapings of raw fish provided by the ships’
In Siam, mosquito larvae are regarded as essential
for the proper nourishment of fish under domestication. For supplying the daily
needs of my fighting fish in Bangkok, two coolies spent much of their time in
locating breeding places of mosquitoes, collecting the larvae with fine-mesh
nets, separating the larvae from plant and animal debris, and feeding the clean
larvae to the fish at regular times and in quantities based on the reactions of
the fish. The wrigglers, held in a coffee cup or rice bowl, were administered
with a spoon.
In the capital of Siam where there are some
thousands of amateur fighting-fish fanciers and many professional breeders and
dealers, there is a large and steady demand for mosquito larvae. To meet
this demand, which becomes acute during the dry season, there has sprung up the
strange business of breeding mosquitoes and selling their larvae to owners of
fighting fish; and a number of people thus gain a livelihood.
The Thai name is pla kat
(biting fish) (pp.456- 461)