Fishtory Series: History of the Betta Fish

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Read Time: 5 mins

Welcome back to the second installment of the aquarium history series (Check out the first on the history of fishkeeping and aquariums)!

We'll dig into the history of one of the coolest and most popular fish species on the planet: the betta. 

A red betta fish

When, where, and how were betta fish discovered?

Bettas are all over the world these days, but they're native to southeast Asia, originating in Thailand (fun fact: they're the national aquatic animal of Thailand).

Thailand, previously called Siam, is where their history with humans began, as they were collected in shallow pools and pitted against each other in betta fights after observers discovered their inherent aggression. It was a common pastime of children playing in the shallow pools and rice paddies bettas frequent. 

Eventually, this gained such a following that regular, high-stakes gambling cropped up - and when we say high-stakes, we mean there's evidence homes and even other people may have been used to bet on these tiny fish. The sport established licensing, taxation, and regulation, and the king of Siam himself joined the hobby. This is also where the betta got its alternate name: the Siamese Fighting Fish

How did bettas spread across the world?

Gradually, the popularity of betta fighting died down as fish enthusiasts realized how stunning (and easily manipulated/selectively bred) several betta species' colors were. It didn't take long for them to take off as an ornamental fish on a global scale. Here's how it happened:

Timeline of betta fish history

After several scientists expressed interest in the fish, the king of Siam gave several of his own to a brilliant botanist and zoologist named Theodor Edvard Cantor, who described bettas and several other species scientifically for the first time in the west. 

It's incredibly difficult to find evidence for exactly when bettas were introduced to other parts of the world, but based on documentation, we know you could find them in France in 1874 thanks to Pierre Carbonnier. You might recognize his name from the first Fishtory article: he created one of the oldest public aquariums in the world. 

Paul Matte, who is responsible for introducing many popular fish to Germany (like the goldfish), introduced the betta there in 1896. 

Bettas were first imported in the United States via San Francisco several times in the early 20th century. The best records we have right now indicated there were significant imports in 1910 and from Cambodia in 1927. 

As more colors and patterns emerged with selective breeding in the aquarium trade, the International Betta Congress (IBC), one of the best known and most respected aquarium organizations for betta fish, formed in 1967 and is still operating.

Bettas' popularity continued to increase until they became one of the most recognizable fish on the planet. Given their huge variety of colors, several genetics projects on the betta began in the 2000's, with one of the largest published in 2021 after scientists sequenced betta genomes, mapped their chromosomes, and decoded genes associated with color, patterns, and aggression. 

How did they get the name "betta fish?" (hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you've probably been saying this fish's name incorrectly)

A favorite science professor of mine once said it was a good thing we didn't have to give a different scientific name to each human being, because if scientists named us the way they did other organisms, we'd never want to leave the house (you'll see what I mean in a moment). The ornamental betta fish you see in pet shops changed names several times. This change surprisingly ended up being a solid prediction for how their history played out.

Thanks to that first scientific article by Cantor, they started off with the name Macropodus pugnax. 
Anyone familiar with Latin or the word "pugnacious" can see why they picked the name: "pugnax" in Latin translates to "inclined to fight / prone to combat." What makes it funny (and what my professor meant by being grateful scientists don't name us all) is that Macropodus means "big feet / big-footed."
So the betta fish, originally, was literally translated as the world's most argumentative creature with giant feet. Can't lie, having owned several betta fish? It kinda tracks.
It's not 100% certain where good ol' Cantor got the foot idea, but it's most likely referring to the fish's large fins carried beneath them. 
In 1909, however, zoologists realized there was a distinction between the wild species Macropodus pugnax and the flashy betta they wanted to describe, so they renamed the ornamental betta fish Betta splendens. 
This name actually comes from the Malay word for "warrior / enduring," from a group of warriors called bettahSplendens, yet another Latin word, most directly translates to shining / shimmering (think "splendid." Or maybe we're getting too close to Aladdin, here). So, translated, the fish's name changed from strictly a warrior to a beautiful fish who kept a fighting spirit. Fitting, given its history. 
A collage of several wild-type bettas

Several Wild-type Betta Species

How'd bettas get their colors?

Short answer? A thousand years of passion and some useful genetics. We originally thought bettas were domesticated much later than they were, but the recent groundbreaking genetics research I mentioned earlier has uncovered this actually happened at least a thousand years ago. 

They did not start off as flashy or large as they are in captivity (wouldn't be advantageous in the wild). It may surprise you to know there are actually between 70 and 80 recognized betta species today, but the Betta splendens often steals the show like it's the only one. Betta imbellis, AKA the crescent betta, is another popular species in the aquarium trade, and there are several other wild-type bettas at risk of extinction (or already extinct) in spite of their colorful counterparts' extreme popularity. 

Thanks to the genetics projects, we now know the genes for betta colors and patterns are easily selected and not affected by as many genetic factors as we previously thought. Also, given how quickly they breed (1-2 weeks carried by the female prior to fertilization and hatching after around 3 days), it's also easy to get multiple generations quickly and rapidly change betta bloodlines' color. 

Interestingly, there may also be a reproductive advantage in having certain colors, because there's research to suggest female bettas have color preferences. 


Fallen in love with these fierce, gorgeous fish? See how much you know with one of our other posts: 10 Myths You Might Believe about Betta Fish. 

Tank on!!

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