It was before the 1800s when the people of Siam (Thailand) first started to collect the betta fish for fighting. In those days they were not the long finned beautiful colours that we know today, they were developed later. The wild form of betta was short finned and fast, built perfectly for combat.
The origin of today’s long finned betta fish appears to be shrouded in mystery. Some believe that it was selective breeding by the early Thai breeders that produced them. Another theory suggests that it was a Chinese monk/breeder who introduced the first long fins to Thailand. Whoever is responsible there is no doubt these are among the most beautiful of aquarium fish.
Today’s Betta splendens
Today we can find these beautiful fish kept as pets all over the world. They now come in a vast range of colours and tail types from solid to metallic and the more recent Dragon scale bettas with their thick heavy white body scaling similar to armour. There are HM (Halfmoon) DTHM (Double tail halfmoon) HMPK (Halfmoon plakads) CT (Crowntails) CTPK (Crowntail plakads) and a variety of others including Veiltail and Rosetail forms.
The wild forms of betta still exist of course and are great favourites of the specialist breeders.
I am regularly asked about breeding bettas. I breed them on occasion, I would do more but time constraints make it impossible.
I have been a long-time animal breeder though and have a good deal of understanding of animal husbandry. I bred Birman cats specifically and showed them successfully in the UK for many years. On re-locating to Australia in 1998 I brought important breeding stock including two studs with me to Australia in order to boost the gene pool here. One of those cats was a new tabby point birman line. Why am I discussing cat breeding you may ask? It is to illustrate how in-breeding and line-breeding occurs when we are working with pedigree animals.
Many people express an aversion to in-breeding or sibling pair breeding as either causing defects or being simply disgusting. Attaching human morals to animals is rather silly given the animals themselves have no such anxiety! However there is a good reason many serious breeders do such matings, and it is to ‘prove’ the line BEFORE you do an outcross. Read this Facebook Note I wrote earlier for further information.
Of Cats & Fish
The Birman cat breed is a classic example of a man-made breed just as Fancy bettas and most other unique types of pets are also man-made, having been created through selective breeding.
The Sacred Cat of Burma as it is also known may have once been greater in numbers, but ultimately around the 1930s a reconstruction of the entire breed was required and was based on only one or two cats. As is the custom in cat breeding the breeders used a prefix to identify who bred the animal mine was with the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy UK and is Rishabha.
Every Birman cat bred in the UK/ and the world before new colour birmans (red, chocolate, tabby points) started to be developed were either Seal Point or Blue Point. All had come from similar litters and backgrounds to the six foundation cats imported into England in the 60s produced from only a few cats. You may think that is shocking but when you discover that all of these first six were closer than half brother to sister genetically you may be even more surprised. I know this because my then husband and I built a database of the breed; initially to track any lines producing defects.
Kittens produced by these early cats were sold and given to others to breed, and who registered them under their own prefixes. Obviously top show results would mean a male cat would be used more often at stud. Eventually there were thousands of prefixes and breeders each with their ‘line’. The only thing is they were all a mash up of the first six cats, regardless of the prefix name given to them.
Over 60 years of breeding the extremely limited gene pool some issues in the breed emerged although not as often as people who speak out against inbreeding would have us believe. Some lines were suffering from heart problems and others from Dermoid cysts in the eye. Both these issues were tracked back to specific stud cats in all cases. This is an example of how not proving the line (or ignoring the obvious) can decimate a breed. When selecting purely for show grade above all else, it happened that one of the males carried a gene for Cardiomyopathy. This presented in some of his kittens only mildly causing ongoing illness, but others died at birth. The owner of the stud cat chose to ‘blame’ the random females when this was brought to her attention and kept the male at public stud for many years. The same applied to the Dermoid cyst, this was a different male, one who was also extensively used. This unsightly but relatively harmless defect was recessive and required both sides to carry the gene, which soon became hard to avoid given the popularity of this male. You would often see his name on both sides of 4 x generation pedigrees sometimes more than once.
Unlike cats, betta breeders have no prefix attached to their fish. However when a new fin form or colour is being developed it happens in a similar way to the story of the six foundation Birman cats. A breeder as an example developed the Nemo Koi via the Emerald and his spawns were keenly sought after by others to develop the breed. In order for the nemo colour to be present in a spawn, both male and female need the genetics, so brother to sister matings happened regularly to kick this new colour off especially as they attracted big money. Responsible breeders would buy a nemo female from one breeder and a nemo male from another but in reality they were still breeding the same original very limited in-bred gene pool. And yet beautiful healthy fish are born.
Sometimes in cat breeding and with fish, a spawn or litter contains a prized show grade cat or betta. That same spawn or litter may have also shown up other problems in the line. some defective fry perhaps. It is possible the Grand Champion Stud referred to above had defective siblings in his litter. It is at this point that a decision to not breed further with the line must be made regardless of how wonderful one or two of the progeny may be whether cat dog or betta. How many breeders do this? Instead they ignore the spawn defects and breed on with the sound looking fish. But they may not be sound, and if you MUST do this you should definitely do a sibling mating to try to establish whether the line is carrying problems forward.
All types and colours of fancy bettas are developed in this way, starting with a small gene pool. Hopefully defect free. Sibling matings ensure that the colour or type required to establish a specific variety is set into the line and hopefully will also identify early on that the line is sound. Even if you intend to cross a Nemo line to a Super Red or dumbo line etc both lines should be proven because if only one line carries a defect, that can be hidden through many generations only to pop up later. By then it is too late after it has polluted all the lines in a similar way to the heart defects and Dermoid cyst in the Birman. It is possible that all the original cats carried these defects but through luck or careful testing and culling some of the ongoing lines proved free of them. These are the only animals that should be used to further any breed.
If you throw two unrelated types together you essentially get mutts, the spawn or litter could be a ticking time-bomb of problems that can cause the line to collapse later down the track. Sad to put in a couple of years of work developing something only to have the end result in a spawn with x-factor scales. So after doing an out-crossing with unproven lines one first needs to in-breed the result and do hard selection over many generations to get the quality and form you may have had in each of the original lines to begin with. I personally would do one sibling mating and then out-cross before line breeding back to one side of the cross.
The Birman line I brought to Australia was originally produced by out-crossing the proven seal and blue Birman lines to a brown tabby Persian that had the broadest pedigree I have ever seen. The result produced a blue tabby male, who was then bred back to three female Birmans. Two female kittens were given to breeder friends to put to their studs that were not known to throw any defects. They were placed with a view to receiving back in return a tabby male kitten. This wild-card cross to the unproven tabby line was a risk. that was then mitigated by line breeding back to proven lines.
It was a male resulting from one of these matings that was one of the two I brought here. He was a stud for a short time and new blood was injected into the small Aussie Birman lines. I can trace him back through some of today’s Grand Champions, his name was Dubrova Rocketman (Dubrova being my friend Pam’s prefix).
I found this lovely dedication to one of his sons on the Birman Cat Club site at his death aged 18.
Rishabha Will Scarlett (RP Red Point male, 13.4.1999 – 12.5.2017, Rishabha Marmalady x Dubrova Rocketman)
Bred by Linda Steven. Beloved companion of Juliette, Margaret, Rally and Greg. Outlived by his litter brother, Robbie (Rishabha Robin Hood). Lover of shoes, rump-patting and butter. He was known to forward somersault onto his back for tummy rubs. During the last 12 months of his life he had CRF, weight loss and megacolon, however, he kept his appetite till the very end. Rest in peace lovely sweet Willie.
Ch. Rishabha Marmalady was a red point from the other new colour line I developed. And although I in-breed, my end result produced Birman lines with some of the widest gene pools available.
So as you can see with a Prefix system for breeding the history and background becomes obvious. Betta are not so transparent, perhaps they should be? It would be interesting to see if specific lines over generations were influential instead of breeders attaching all the honour to themselves while standing on the history that went before them.