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Betta rubra, A Fishy Phantom

Originally ran in http://www.wetwebmedia.com/ca/WWMDigitalMagV1Ish4.htm

By Colin Dunlop

A female Betta rubra. Photo © Colin Dunlop.


     How can it be that a fish ends up with being nicknamed 'a phantom'? When Perugia first described Betta rubra to science in 1893 it was to be the first and last time for one-hundred and twelve years that the fish was ever seen. It actually got to a point in the twentieth century where many people argued that it was not in fact a species and depending on whom you were talking to--some people even thought that the mystery fish was a regional variation of Betta picta or B. imbellis. The original species description had no drawings and the entire description, written in Perugia's native Italian, was only a couple of hundred words long. To compound the problem further the original text gave Lake Toba in Sumatra as the collection location but despite people trying, the fish could not be found there. Ultimately the validity of Betta rubra was called into question and dismissed by most as a phantom.

That was how it was to be right up until 2005 when Tan & Ng were able to get access to Aceh, a special territory in northern Sumatra, that the hundred-year-old mystery could be unravelled. For many years it had been impossible for outsiders to travel to this area due to a violent struggle between the government and local freedom fighters but when Aceh was the closest area of land to the 26th December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake--which caused the infamous tsunami--it is reported that some 230,000 people died during the resulting floods in that one area alone.

This unfortunate and devastating act of nature helped ultimately to trigger a peace agreement between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement ending almost thirty years of war. With the end of the violence it became possible for outsiders to travel to the area once again and it was thus so that Betta rubra would once again be discovered, alive and well, in Aceh.

In the aquarium for the first time

A couple of years later, in March 2007, some of the world's first ever published photographs appeared on a Singapore based website's forum quite clearly showing the genuine Betta rubra in a collecting net and photography tank in the wild. The forum thread immediately exploded with activity and within days the first reports of fish being made available to hobbyists started to appear. Quite surprisingly in little over a month the first accounts of captive spawning started to trickle in. It really was a whirlwind adventure for everyone involved and the thread amassed some three-hundred posts in virtually no time at all. Some important information was still missing though and that was regarding the fish's natural biotope. It was being held as a closely guarded secret to prevent others from pillaging the waterways the fish was found in, as so often happens. This meant a bit of guesswork was needed on the ideal parameters for captive care.


A female Betta rubra. Photo © Colin Dunlop.

I managed to get my own hands on some B. rubra in the spring of 2008 at the meeting of the Internationale Gemeinschaft für Labyrinthfische (IGL) which is a European club for people who are interested in Labyrinth fish. This particular meeting took place in Zwolle in the Netherlands and people from all over Europe came to the three day event. My four young fish were arranged to be hand delivered to me from Paris, France by Herve Gonin who I am extremely grateful to for the offer.


Back home the two pairs were acclimatised to my own tank that I had set up in advance for them. Going by what people had been reporting about their own successes, I had ensured very soft water with an acidic value of about pH 5. I was using a mix of RO and rain water and the tank was decorated with clay caves and plastic pipes with no substrate other than a few handfuls of locally collected leaves. Filtration was provided by using an air-operated sponge filter and lighting was only received from ambient sources with no directly overhead light.

Spawning and mouthbrooding


With a good diet of grindal worm, newly hatched Artemia nauplii and small earthworms the fish quickly came into breeding condition and spawned. Betta rubra is a paternal mouthbrooder which has been allocated a place in the Foerschi complex of the Betta genus and like the other members of that particular group the male broods the eggs--and eventual fry--in his mouth for a period of time before spitting out a number of relatively large fry. I was very excited to see a male exhibiting the obvious signs of a bulging 'throat area' and the occasional accompanying gulping motion indicative of having a mouthful of eggs. The excitement didn't last long however as the male ate the eggs after two days but this sometimes happens with inexperienced or stressed males so no big deal. The second male was seen brooding within only a few days of the first and looked to go full term.

A male Betta rubra mouthbrooding a batch of fertilised eggs. Photo © Colin Dunlop.


I have kept and bred some forty species of Betta and therefore I know that some adults can be trusted to cohabit with their fry and while others, particularly the females, will hunt down and eat every last fry as they are ejected by the male. So it was with this knowledge that I decided to 'hedge my bets' and I left one male in the tank with the females and removed the other male to his own tank to complete his oral incubation by himself.


After about two weeks I was growing concerned that I hadn't seen the brooding male for a few days and there was no sign of any fry so I had a browse about in the tank and found a very ill-looking male, but still incubating. I moved him out of hiding and on closer inspection there were tufts of fungus coming out of his gills. I had a gentle examination of one bit and out came a dead, fungus covered fish fry. Some of the fry were dead and he was very ill from holding the decomposing ones in his mouth. Unfortunately he later died from this experience although I did get twelve live babies from him.


In retrospect I think that he was not comfortable about releasing his fry in the tank with the other fish and he held onto them too long to the detriment of his and some of his progeny's health.


Rearing the fry


The fry proved to be unproblematic in their rearing and easily accepted grindal worms and newly hatched brine shrimp from their second day out of his mouth. The growth rate was steady and although not as fast as others the young fish could be sexually mature in about nine or ten months and fully grown at about 70mm shortly after.


Over the next couple of years I had very mixed results with this species and I had to obtain new specimens from other fishkeeper friends needed to bolster my own group several times. I had to get a new male from Stefan van der Voort in the Netherlands and then again from Paul Dixon at the Bolton Museum. I believe now that a large part of the failures I was experiencing was due to me keeping them in unsuitable water conditions. Specifically I now believe that I was keeping them much like I would Betta macrostoma--which is without doubt the fussiest fish I have ever kept with regards to having perfect water quality. I was using water which was so soft it hardly registers on a test kit and performing large regular water changes. I was fussing over the total dissolved solids and worrying about the water's electrical conductivity not to mention keeping the pH at between 4 and 5 which many of the bettas naturally come from.


Take two; trying the species again


In early 2010 I managed to obtain a group of eight wild caught young adults from Aceh and this time took a different, more relaxed, approach to their husbandry. This time the whole group were settled into an eighteen inch cube-shaped tank which had a dark sand substrate, pH of 6.5 to 7, lots of thin branches of wood, some clay pot caves with a good thick layer of beech and oak leaves. Two other differences is that this new tank is quite heavily planted with Cryptocorynes, Ceratophyllum and Hygrophila polysperma but now they also have a shoal of a peaceful undescribed species of dwarf barbs (brought in as Puntius tiantian) in beside them too.


This is now, by far, the most that I have ever seen non-breeding members of this species out in the open in an aquarium. The addition of some dither-fish and the extra cover has really made a world of a difference and quite importantly they are now also eating dried fish food, something that the originals were never so keen on. One drawback is that there is virtually no chance of any home bred fry surviving in the tank as there are so many barbs that will happily eat young fish. The brooding males are often hiding in amongst the leaf litter and caves but if I want to collect any fry I first need to remove one of them. They are normally easy to catch when they hang about underneath floating leaves and can be quickly transferred into a small tank full of more dead oak leaves and caves where he can spit them out when ready. After the thirty or so fry are out he is then moved to a third tank where he can have a good few undisturbed meals--as he needs his strength back after starving for the couple of weeks. The male will normally spawn with a female within only a day or two of being put back into the main tank again starting another long fasting period. All in I am finding that the process from spawning to brooding to fry release is about fourteen days, give or take.

These two male Betta rubra are flaring their gill covers as part of their territorial threat display. Photo © Colin Dunlop.


Betta rubra is no longer considered a phantom fish and they are gradually finding their way into hobbyists' tanks all over the world. Importantly, their ease of breeding has started to make the fish much less expensive as the first few fish offered for sale in the UK had a price tag of about £150 ($230 US) each! These days they are about a quarter of that price from shops and even cheaper from breeder-hobbyists. If you get the chance to keep a pair of these fish you will not be disappointed.



My thanks go to those who helped me track down and keep these fish, and to the community of Petfrd.com for continuing to supply such useful information on the appearance of new and rare fish.

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