When you think of fish in an aquarium, you probably think about a relaxing scene with the white noise of the pump completing the image. That seems to fit unless you’re talking about Siamese Fighting Fish or bettas. Few species have the same allure as this one. Not surprisingly, selectively breeding bettas for this purpose has gone since people first discovered this behavior. Enthusiasts refer to this display as flaring.
Scientists have used this reaction to study the behavior of fish because it’s easy to replicate in the lab. It’s also predictable. Put two males in sight of each other, and they will put on a display, even if they can’t fight it out between them physically. It almost plays out like a ritual between the two opponents. Interestingly, bettas react the same way to other things, too, such as dummies and mirrors.
You may wonder what motivates this behavior in these fish or if they enjoy it. To answer that question, we must first investigate the how, when, and why of flaring and the purpose that it serves the betta. It turns out that there’s a lot more going on than you may realize.
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Aggressive Behavior in Bettas
Aggressive behavior is a common theme in the animal kingdom. It occurs most often when resources are limited, which can directly impact survival. That includes food, territory, and mates. Many animals will signal that something belongs to them to avoid conflict. After all, fighting requires considerable energy. Of course, you may not be successful every time, either.
Bettas will show their dominance through several means, such as building larger bubble nests. They are more likely to be aggressive if they’ve spent time in an aquarium and have learned its layout. That plays out in fish that are more likely to assert themselves with females and react to their own image in a mirror. All of these things speak to the species’ territorial behavior.
Flaring refers to the way male bettas will move their fins to make themselves appear larger. They will also flare their gills and deepen their colors. These fish also show a tendency to present their left side and eye over their right, something researchers call lateralization. Interestingly, bettas also monitor the responses of other fish around them, which can influence future interactions. But what about mirrors?
Comparison Between Mirrors and Real Opponents
Numerous studies have shown that bettas react similarly in front of mirrors, with the same flaring behavior we described earlier. It almost appears as if the ruse tricks them. They seem to believe there is a real opponent in their midst, hence, the reaction. However, there are some differences between how bettas respond to fake threats versus the real thing.
Research confirms that bettas will use surface breathing more and for longer times when faced with a mirror image over an actual opponent. These fish, like gouramis, are labyrinth species. That means they can get atmospheric oxygen from the air above the tank. You may notice them opening and closing their mouths at the surface. You may ask why they would respond differently?
Another study considered that very question. The researchers observed that male bettas released more pheromone secretions in front of a mirror than faced with an opponent. These findings suggest that these chemicals may act as the catalyst to explain the behavior. Another factor also may play a direct role in the frequency and duration of labyrinth breathing, the betta’s ability to learn.
We mentioned that bettas get to know their environment. They know where the rock displays and plants are located. Some research has even suggested that fish have predictable behavior patterns of how they swim. That implies that bettas can learn and remember their habitat. They can also learn to recognize and respond to visual cues in their tank.
Can that mean that bettas are acting instinctively even if they “know” a mirror image isn’t a threat?
Value of Mirrors
It turns out that how a betta reacts to a mirror isn’t an indication of its dominance or aggressiveness. Instinct stands out as the most reasonable explanation. These fish are social to a degree. The more they are kept isolated, the more likely they are to flare when they encounter another male. Already, we’re seeing some red flags about the value of mirrors for pet fish.
Remember that bettas are reacting the way they do because of a perceived threat that will likely end in a fight. That takes energy and increases stress. Since survival depends on using its resources wisely, it doesn’t make sense to provoke the flaring behavior in bettas if it isn’t necessary. From an ethical point of view, we can’t help but think that it’s cruel to tease a pet fish with a mirror.
They probably don’t like them, anyway.
However, if there are any benefits to using a mirror, it may rest with the chance to relieve boredom. Territorial fish, such as bettas, patrol their environment constantly, looking for threats. We recommend limiting the times you use a mirror to avoid overstressing your fish.
Bettas are fascinating fish. They have gone from a drab-looking pond species to an ornamental one that enthusiasts praise for their splendor. It’s hard not to see the disconnect between these two camps. A male beauty can’t compete as well as a fighter. The latter can erase the value of the former in a single conflict. Perhaps, it’s best to enjoy bettas for their looks and put the mirror away.
Featured Image Credit: Daykiney, Shutterstock