Bettas are commonly referred to as Siamese fighting fish, due to the male’s aggressive territorial behaviors. The variety sold in pet stores usually display eye-catching colors and long fins. Bettas are easy to find, cost only a few dollars in most local pet stores, and require very little maintenance, making them useful classroom pets for science investigations.
In this activity, students will research general information about bettas and use that information to determine suitable habitat requirements and maintenance. Students will work collaboratively to perform weekly maintenance duties to keep their betta alive. Students also will observe physical characteristics of their betta and conduct investigations on the behavioral characteristics of their betta.
Grade Level: 6th – 8th grade
Subject Matter: Life Sciences
National Standards: NS.5-8.1, NS.5-8.3
Justin Muir, founder of City Aquarium in Brooklyn, N.Y., designs custom fish tanks. But think big: these aquariums run his clients (primarily celebrities, professional athletes and Wall Street moguls) anywhere from $50,000 to $400,000. We went on a fish shopping expedition with Muir and visited his warehouse, where he cultivates giant clams and coral, and medicates his fish before they are transplanted to his client's aquariums.
2 or 4 one-gallon plastic aquariums or strong transparent containers, depending on the size of your class
2 or 4 small rocks (about the size of a peach), depending on the number of aquariums
Science notebooks – one for each student
Pen or pencils – one for each student
The following can be purchased from a local pet store:
Betta water conditioner
2 or 4 adult bettas – one for each aquarium. Half of the bettas must be of the opposite gender, so that students can make comparisons.
Betta fish flake food
Small aquarium plant (such as a banana plant or elodea) for each aquarium
Small aquarium net – one for each aquarium
Betta: a large genus of small, often colorful, freshwater ray-finned fishes in the gourami family (Osphronemidae).
Genus: a set of closely related species.
Species: the classification for a group of organisms that resemble one another and may interbreed.
Acclimate: to become accustomed to a new environment.
Labyrinth: in anatomy, a structure of connected cavities or canals.
What to Do:
Prep: Begin to set up aquariums one day before conducting this lesson; the aquarium water must be conditioned before you can introduce bettas into the tank. To condition the water, fill each aquarium, and then follow instructions on the water conditioner that you purchased. Finally, place a layer of gravel on the bottom of the tank.
Review basic care maintenance of bettas online.
Begin the lesson by having students watch the Science Friday Video, Aquarist to the Stars. Ask students if any of them have kept an aquarium. Based on the video, do they think that it is easy to maintain an aquarium? What do they need to know in order to maintain an aquarium?
Inform students that they will collaborate to maintain a betta aquarium and observe some behavioral characteristics of their pet betta. Have students research general information on bettas online or at their local public library. Students should research and record the following in their science notebooks:
Where did bettas originate? How many species are there?
What do bettas eat? Are they herbivores or carnivores?
How do bettas breathe?
Why are some bettas called Siamese fighting fish?
What do bettas look like? What are the differences between male and female bettas? Can you distinguish males from females with the naked eye?
What is the average size range for a betta?
Divide students into groups of two to four, depending on the number of betta aquariums that you have purchased. Ask students to discuss, drawing on the research they have done, appropriate maintenance of a betta aquarium. What should the betta be feed? How often should it be fed? Should two male bettas be placed in the same tank together? What about two females? How many times should the water be cleaned if there is no water filter? Students should divide duties for the next few weeks among members of their group, and record completion of each duty on a sheet of paper that you place near each aquarium.
Have students observe and record physical properties of their betta in their science notebook. They can sketch an image of their betta and describe body parts, colors, and measurements. Students can compare their betta with the other bettas in the classroom. What do they notice about the fins of the male as opposed to the fins of the female?
Inform students that for the next few weeks, they will be observing and recording behavioral characteristics of their betta in their science notebooks. Have students conduct the following investigations:
Feeding behavior – Does the betta eat from the top or does it wait for the food to sink to the bottom? Does the betta prefer the fish flake food or the bloodworms?
Swimming behavior – Does the betta swim around the tank constantly? Does the betta swim differently from the other bettas? Is there a particular part of the aquarium that the betta prefers? Does the betta swim frequently to the surface?
Environmental stimulus – Add a small plant to the aquarium. How does the betta react to the plant? Add a small rock to the aquarium. How does the betta react to the rock?
Temperature change – Does the betta’s behavior change with the air temperature in the classroom?
Students also can create their own investigations, make predictions for each investigation, or use their prior research to make connections.
Once students have completed all investigations, have students compare and contrast their findings. Did all classroom bettas behave in the same way for each investigation? What are possible variables that could account for any differences?
There are more than 50 known species of bettas, but the most popular variety found in pet stores is the Betta splendens. These fish are native to tropical Southeast Asia in such countries as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They tend to live in shallow freshwater that can be low in dissolved oxygen, such as ponds, slow-moving streams, and rice paddies. Bettas have adapted to environments with low oxygen levels by developing a special organ called a labyrinth, that allows them to breath air directly from the surface as well as through their gills. They are carnivorous fish, feeding mostly on insects and insect larvae in their natural habitat.
Male bettas tend to have broader and more flowing fins, whereas the females have smaller, more box-shaped fins. Male bettas have been observed to be territorial in response to other male bettas. The males are known to fight with each other when they are in close proximity to one another. In their natural habitat, defeated male bettas are able to swim away or hide among plants. Without an escape route, captive male bettas may fight with each other continuously by biting and shredding one another’s fins. Females, on the other hand, are not aggressive, and can be kept together with other females.
Although bettas thrive in warm waters, they cannot tolerate being in direct sunlight for long periods of time, and will usually hide under plants to shield themselves from sunlight. The aquarium trade often breeds bettas for specific coloration and fin structure. So bettas come in a variety of colors such as blue, red, purple, yellow, and green with different fin structures that reflect variation within the species.
Topics for Classroom Discussion
What are some common misconceptions about bettas?
What are some possible reasons why bettas have developed and rely upon a labyrinth organ for breathing?
Why are there so many breeds of bettas?
Extended Activities and Links
Have students create a three-to-five minute video, documenting and narrating one or more of their betta’s behavioral characteristics. Have a Betta Appreciation Day and present all the videos in class.
Have students research images of different species of bettas. Compare and contrast color shape and size of various species. Can any of these physical characteristics help them survive in their environment?
View images of various betta species:
Try to train your betta:
Conduct further investigations using live bettas:
This lesson plan was created by the New York Hall of Science in collaboration with Science Friday as part of Teachers Talking Science, an online resource for teachers, homeschoolers, and parents to produce free materials based on very popular SciFri Videos to help in the classroom or around the kitchen table.
The New York Hall of Science is a science museum located in the New York City borough of Queens. NYSCI is New York City's only hands-on science and technology center, with more than 400 hands-on exhibits explore biology, chemistry, and physics.