Betta channoides: The Red Snakehead Betta

My Kinda Betta


By Zack Wilson

According to the information I was able to gather during my research, Betta channoides was originally discovered in 1994 in the blackwater streams of Kalimantan Timur, Indonesia. Since then they have enjoyed a high degree of popularity with wild-type betta enthusiasts. In recent years, the number of known betta species has greatly increased, and this may well have provided the impetus for their gain in popularity. I had never heard of B. channoides until last year, in 2006. I don't know why, but they caught my eye as I was scanning aquabid. "Mouthbrooding" and "channa" are what really caught my eye first. I've always been a fan of the dwarf snakeheads, and I really want to one day find the true Channa orientalis. When I clicked on the auction and saw the picture, I was very struck by the fish. Logically, I'm not sure it makes sense that I would be more compelled to have this fish than B. splendens; at least with regard to appearance. The black and white border to the fins is one striking accent that sets them apart, but certainly color-wise Betta splendens could easily compare. The mouthbrooding aspect definitely contributed. It's an interesting practice in parental fish-care, and in this case it means slightly larger, easier to rear fry in more manageable numbers. These bettas are also much less pugnacious than their common relatives, and so can be kept in groups without problem; something else I like.

After seeing these fish, I immediately set to work to find out what I would need to keep these Red Snakehead Bettas. At $80 dollars a pair, I didn't feel as compelled to do an immediate impulse-buy to make these fish a part of my collection. There isn't a wealth of information on B. channoides, but there are a few online resources and that seems to be growing. From what I could glean of locality information and anecdotal data on care, it seemed I would do best to keep them in moderately soft, slightly acid water. They also, interestingly, seem to prefer slightly cooler temperatures. I settled on 76F, which seemed in following with the majority of successful breeders. Channoides are known for being shy, so a good amount of cover, both plants and driftwood, is appreciated. My standard breeding aquariums are 30 gallon breeder aquariums (30"L x 18"W), and since I was planning on acquiring a few pairs I decided to go with this. I could have gone smaller, but oversized quarters generally reduce issues with stability of water parameters as well as possible territorial disputes.

After satisfying myself that I had sifted through enough information to have a good general picture of their care and breeding, I set about locating a good source. I searched about, and located a reputable breeder here in the US with some nice-looking F1's. I was able to negotiate a deal for three breeding-size pairs and then I was set. They went out next day shipping to me, and I waited with great anticipation. They arrived with no issues and were very well packed. They were some very fine specimens and two of the males were even showing some nice coloring in the bag. I acclimated them in my standard way and then released them into the 30. They were the sole inhabitants, so they didn't have anything to worry about as far as harassment for being the new fish. They settled in fine, but they certainly were shy. For the first few days I didn't see them, except for when I put in some of my concoction of bloodworms, brine shrimp, and other goodies. Even then I had to sit very still. After a couple weeks they began to come out and could regularly be observed hanging out beneath the overhangs of driftwood. To this day that's about as bold as they are, unless it's feeding time. They are ravenous feeders and when I add some food to the tank they always come shooting out and hit the food like a real snakehead. They'll grab the biggest mouthful they can and then run back to their little shelter of plants or wood to try and swallow the wad whole.

Pretty much everything my channoides do takes place under the arches of their driftwood. They like to sit like an old couple--usually one male sitting attentively a short distance from his chosen female--and look out over the rest of the aquarium with a certain detached air. They will move about in the shade of the driftwood, and occasionally venture out to inspect possible snacks. When breeding time comes this takes place in the same area. My bettas show no signs of being shy during courtship and spawning, which is a real switch from their normal disposition. Actually, once spawning begins they seem impossible to deter and are almost oblivious to all else. I've even gone into the aquarium during spawning to move decor for better photographing and they seemed to take no notice.

You can tell they are preparing to spawn because the male will become a much more intense red, and shortly after he and a ready female will begin to follow each other around. The female also changes color and takes on a really pretty (in my opinion) marble-calico-ish pattern. She even gets some nice blue and red hues to her fins and can be an attractive little fish. Usually within days, or even hours, they begin the actual spawning act. This is fairly typical of anabantids in many ways, with the male embracing the female and the two doing their shimmying and such. This only lasts a short while and then they break up. The male sort of swims off a short distance in a daze. Every so often the female will release one to three eggs during their embrace, which oddly (I thought) she picks up right away. Actually it's kind of amusing. The male and female seem to show equal desire to get the eggs, but the female is generally quicker and gets to them first, while the male is left looking intently about. It's not long after that the female will spit them out, one by one, in front of the male, but he has to be quick enough or she'll snatch them up again. She almost seems to like to tease him. This will go on then with her eventually passing all of the eggs to him. From these spawns I have had as few as seven fry and as many as forty-four. Generally the smaller spawns have come from younger females.

Once the male has taken charge of all of the eggs he begins his task of incubating the eggs in his mouth, during which time he will fast. He will become a more muted red, though still attractively colored, and you can see his throat bulging with eggs; even seeing individual eggs through the membrane of his throat. Many people think of conditioning females to obtain large, healthy spawns, but the males sometimes seem to get overlooked. I have found it is best to segregate an intended male for a week or even two and feed him very well to allow him to put on some good weight before attempting to get a spawn. This seems to reduce the likelihood of the spawn being eaten over the next few days. Many others attempting to spawn channoides have had issues with the males eating the eggs after a few days. When I ask, they have rarely made deliberate efforts to condition the males. Male channoides have to hold the eggs for fourteen days before they will release them, and that's a long time to go without food if you haven't been prepared for it. I have had success just leaving a group of males and females together, and this does result in fry, but it seems I much more frequently see them swallow their spawns this way. A little extra effort can go a long way.

When the time is approaching for the fry to be released the male's throat will become much darker, and to some degree less distended. You will still see him puffing and swishing his throat to mix up the young. If you reach at least ten days your chances are pretty good that he will follow through and release the spawn. I have successfully stripped males during the first week when I was worried about the spawn being eaten, but this is a nerve-wracking experience for both participants and with such a small fish carries a lot of risk. I don't recommend it. I really only tried this when I first got the fish and was most concerned about getting some offspring as a backup. These were successfully reared in an egg-tumbler. Back to the main idea though; once you reach ten days or so it isn't a bad idea to remove the male gently and place him either in a separate small aquarium with water of the same values, or to perhaps put him in a small specimen enclosure within the main aquarium. With some plant cover such as java moss and duckweed he will feel more comfortable releasing the fry and you will have an easier time than trying to rescue them out of the main aquarium. As I said they can have spawns of over forty fry, though twenty to twenty-five seems more average. Females fill quickly when well-fed and I've had the same female ready to spawn with another male just several days later, with both resulting spawns yielding a good number of fry.

The little cute snakehead bettas look a lot like a dark guppy fry, and they will hide nervously in the java moss or other provided cover. They can be fed baby brine shrimp from the start, and I have also observed them eating other foods such as cyclop-eeze and decapsulated brine shrimp eggs which I sprinkled on the surface. I am also eagerly awaiting an order of "No BS" fry food from which I expect will yield good results as well. The fry are not extremely fast growers in my experience, but they do grow steadily and they seem to maintain a healthy appetite. By two months I have seen some fry starting to get some adult patterning and they look very similar to their parents with regard to their body and fin shape. By three months they start to become more mature looking and I've even noticed some youngsters showing signs of adult male markings; namely the white fringe on the fins which the females lack. If you've reached this point you should be pretty well set and they shouldn't prove problematic.

I have had some issues with my fry getting infections at a very young age. At this point it seems as good a spot as any to talk about difficulties in keeping channoides. I've talked to a number of other B. channoides keepers and more so than any other fish I've had in common with others, these guys seem to give people trouble. Not sure why, but they are a notably sensitive fish. As to my fry; one of my first spawns, after reaching about two weeks of age, began to mysteriously die off. They had been eating well and were even growing at a good pace when suddenly they became very lethargic and the food was going uneaten. I couldn't figure it out for about three days. Finally I removed one of the fry for observation. Because of their very small size (and the fact that I don't keep them under any lights) it had been hard to see, but they had developed an infection of the common ich parasite. It made sense, but by then I had lost almost a third of my fry. I quickly treated with nox-ich and this was effective, but had I waiting longer it might have proved fatal for the whole spawn. Even so they were very hard to bring back and did not show the same vitality afterwards. Older fish are not immune to problems either. I have had my channoides breeders get ich once as well, and on two occasions I have had sudden and seemingly unexplained fungal infections. The first time occurred with a female and she died due to a lethal infection of the gill/eye area. Being shy fish it's easy to overlook them for a few days and I can't be sure that she hadn't been showing earlier signs. She was beyond treatment by the time I noticed her infection, though I did try. The second time happened with one of my males. He became infected inside of his mouth on the lower lip. I would assume this was due to an open wound from possible light sparring. I thought for sure that I'd lose him, but I treated right away with Maroxy. He continued to eat normally and within a few days the fungus had gone down. He recovered fully, thank God, but it has lead me to believe that this is a possible weak-spot in their immune-system. I have not had any other issues with disease and overall I would have to say they have proved reasonably hardy for near-wild fishes. Not everyone has had the same experience though. Some have had their fish die suddenly without any signs of infection, while others have had their fish just slowly list away over time. This suggests to me that something is still not fully understood about these fishes, but what that something is I haven't been able to define. Certainly very clean water should help to reduce wastes in the water and increase oxidation, both of which will reduce the presence of mold spores in the water. I have to admit here that on both occasions that I had issues with fungus I had been letting the water changes slide. Before treating I did a good water change and after having been more diligent in this aspect I have not had further issues for several months.

Though they come from blackwater streams I have found in personal experience that this condition is not at all a necessity for their well being. The female I lost was in a very dark, tannin-stained aquarium with a low pH, not that this is to blame. Right now I am having regular and what I would consider good success with both keeping and breeding my bettas in straight tap water. This for me means a pH out of the tap of 7.4, dKH of 3, GH of 8, and conductivity of about 200µS. After it's been added to the aquarium, the water assumes the tank pH of 6.5. Since I do small, frequent water changes the pH of the aquarium is not greatly impacted. I am also now keeping my channoides in a planted aquarium with CO2 and this helps to maintain the lower pH. The water is very clear and colorless. I use a dark substrate of natural gravel and the aquarium also has ample hiding places made up of driftwood caves and arches. I regularly feed the fish in this tank pellet food and also a concoction of frozen foods, cyclop-eeze, spirulina powder and some extra nutrient-rich stuff. It basically looks like nasty worm-mud, and smells about as good.

Over the last year or so I've really enjoyed keeping these fish. Many fish I have acquired I simply bred and then moved on, but these guys have become a permanent fixture. I have made arrangements for keeping them long-term and as such I have also made efforts to work with other hobbyists to exchange bloodlines to maintain the vitality of my fishes. These are still a rare enough fish to justify some effort for, and due to their value they certainly they help to offset the expenses of a fishroom full of hungry mouths!



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