Betta buddies blossom from biology specimens to beloved household pets

Upon finally finding MSL 130 in the labyrinthine Morley Science Center – although not before several cringe-inducing forays into labs with objects that resembled torture equipment – I was greeted by a friendlier sight: 20 male Betta fish and a handful of female Betta fish in tanks that lined the edges of the room.

Biology students bond with the Bettas during a three-hour lab. (SEVONNA BROWN/PHOTO EDITOR)

My class, “Animal Behavior” with Associate Professor of Biology Manuel Morales, was about to embark on a three-hour study of aggressive behavior in male Betta fish, which Morales stressed conformed with the protocol set forth by the Institutional Use and Animal Care Committee. Male Betta fish, commonly sold at pet stores across the country, are typically brightly-colored, ranging in hue from vivid violets to radiant reds. When these fish encounter a rival male or a female friend that they would like to, ahem, impress, their fins fan out, creating a fantastic display of color to frighten competitors and show their strength. Our instructions in lab that day were to examine such aggressive behavior, but what our lab handbook did not account for were the affectionate bonds that would form that afternoon between student and Betta.

After a brief introduction from Morales, we were each assigned a letter that would determine whether our male Betta fish would be paired with a female for the course of experimentation. My lab partner and I waited with bated breath to see our fish’s fate. I reached into the hat and drew the letter ‘A,’ indicating that my Betta fish would thankfully have a lady friend to occupy his attention for the next three hours.

The next step was to choose our Betta. Upon Morales’ release, I leapt from my seat and rushed to the desk. But once I arrived, the fanciful colors of the fish all beckoned to me as a mermaid’s siren song lures unsuspecting divers. I reached first for the blue fish, thought better and grasped the aquarium containing the blue and red fish, then finally decided that the red one, with its beady eyes and flowing fins, would be my specimen that day. I snagged a female Betta fish, less colorful and thus less difficult to choose, and carried her aquarium to the side of my male fish’s aquarium.

Five minutes later, we began experimentating, using mirrors or other male fish to elicit a reaction from the male Betta. My fish, affectionately named Lawrence, flexed his muscles, terrifying competing males and enrapturing Betty, his yellow female compatriot. While my Lawrence was certainly a heavyweight, there was one Betta fish that terrorized the other males in the experiment. A true tyrant, his blue fins remained flared for the majority of the exercise, his teeth gnashed at casual passersby and he even attempted to leap out of the water to attack another fish. Other teams attempted to encourage their fish to stand up to the bully, shouting “Don’t back down, Billy,” or “Fight back, Wilmer!”

Looking down the schedule of the male Betta fish against which Lawrence would be paired that day, I realized with horror that he would next face the snarling blue militant. I took a deep breath as I positioned Lawrence’s cage next to the fish, hoping that the fin-flashing showdown would not end in Lawrence’s humiliation. As we revealed the two Bettas to each other, the blue fish quickly sidled up to the border with Lawrence’s aquarium, attempting to engage him in a fish-on-fish conflict. However, Lawrence feigned disinterest, choosing instead to flirt with Betty, trying desperately and vainly to enter her aquarium. Frustrated, the blue fish eventually swam away, and I breathed a sigh of relief that Lawrence had shown such restraint, definitively proving the power of love to vanquish hatred.

At the end of the lab, I had to place Lawrence back in the line of Bettas on the desk, but for a few fortunate students who signed an adoption contract and procured the appropriate accessories for caring for a Betta, the fish would find a new home in their dorm rooms. Luckily for me, a couple of friends of mine, Jake Butts ’14 and his lab partner Daniel Levine ’14, became adopted parents of their Betta. Butts brought the fish home on Feb. 10, settling on an illustrious red Betta to complement our common room and providing him a cozy, heated aquarium in Fayerweather. “As college students, we’re not allowed to have many pets,” Butts said. “This seemed like a great opportunity to bring home a new member to our family.”

Upon situating his Betta, Butts became extremely concerned by the fish’s lack of a name. Seeking to rectify the unfortunate situation, he quickly opened a poll for our friend group to brainstorm appropriate titles. With suggestions ranging from the inexplicable Blue Ivy to the fringe pop-culture reference of Red Oyster, it quickly became clear that only one name would suit the dignity of our newly acquired Betta. Over Driscoll dinner, we decided to christen the fish “Reginald,” paying due homage to the gentle swirls of his rust-colored fins and his graceful swimming technique. “Naming him was a difficult choice,” Butts said. “We think Reginald really encompasses his personality.”

Reginald has made quite the impression on Fayerweather, assuming the status of a minor celebrity on the quad and attracting visitors day and night. He’s taken the attention humbly, rarely flaring his fins and remaining content to roam his small tank with little disruption. After his prolonged study in our experiment, I’m glad he has found a new home in which to retire, albeit amidst nine noisy college students. While Reginald’s aggressive behavior will be buried in the abyss of data collected that day, he has undoubtedly swum his way into our hearts and our home.