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Editorial Note: The below article I took from the book “THE FRESH-WATER FISHES OF SIAM, OR THAILAND” By Hugh M. Smith*. The SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, UNITED STATES NATIONAL MUSEUM BULLETIN 188, reprinted 1965 by T.F.H. Publication, Inc. Jersey City, N.J. 07302, U.S.A.
A book has about 622 pages. I am only extracting some parts of the book that concerning to the Plakat Thai. I just hope that the copyright holder of this book do not mind.
The sole intension to present this article in my website is only for an educational purpose. I am quite sure that there are not many Betta fans ever read this article before. Though it has been using as a material in many Betta books. I am considering the “ THE FRESH-WATER FISHES OF SIAM, OR THAILAND” By Hugh M. Smith is the valuable historical manuscript that, whoever interested in Plakat Thai is compulsory to read.
To avoid any promotive mind to the Plakat Thai, I am not giving any comment at any point in the article. Dr. Huge M. Smith has presented the picture in that period of time very complete and clear. A story has told itself. Though article was written in 1923. But I believe that the story of Plakat Thai that Dr. Huge M. Smith has mentioned lead back at least in the year 1900 or even longer. Because when one telling something one is telling the past experiences. Whatsoever, I hope the reader can enjoy very much in this classic article.
* Dr. Hugh McCormick Smith, formally United States Commissioner of Fisheries (1913 – 1922), Adviser in Fisheries to the Siamese Government (1923 – 1935), and after 1922 Associate Curator in Zoology in the United States National Museum, died on September 28, 1941.
The principal basis for this work is the collections and observations made in Siam by the writer in the years 1923 – 34, during which he was adviser in fisheries to the Siamese Government. All sections of the country were visited, large collections were preserved and information was obtained by personal observations and by interviews with local officials and fishermen. These collections were supplemented by specimens brought in by various assistants in the Siamese Bureau of Fisheries. (p.3).
The Thai people share with the people of other nationalities a keen interest in and love for contests of skill, fleetness, and endurance among the lower animals, whether racing horses, racing dogs, fighting cocks, jumping frogs, fighting crickets, or fighting and wrestling fishes.
The idea of using fishes in matched contests seems to have originated among the Thai, and Thailand is the only country in which fish - fighting may be considered a national sport.
The fishes that in Thailand have for many years been employed as combatants are a cyprinodont (Aplocheilus panchax), two anabantids (Betta splendens and Trichopsis vittatus), and a hemiramph (Dermogenys pusillus). Two of these have long been cultivated, and their fighting stamina has been greatly improved by cultivation. In the case of all these species, only the adult males are employed.
The pugnacious disposition of the little halfbeak Dermogenys is manifested in an entirely different manner from that of Betta. The exhibition of strength and endurance, on which the encounters are decided, can best be described as wrestling; and as the fish had no distinctive English name I ventured in 1923 to suggest that it be called wrestlingfish, a designation that has since been generally used. The Thai name, pla khem, or needlefish, in allusion to the long sharp lower jaw, is applied to various other halfbeaks, which, as far as known, do not engage in combats. (p. 35)
This, the celebrated fightingfish of Thailand, has a wide natural distribution in ponds, ditches, drains, and sluggish waters generally throughout the country. It does not appear to have been indigenous to any other country, but it is now to be found around the world because of its attractiveness, hardiness, and adaptability to small aquariums.
The maximum length of wild fish Is about 5 cm. For males, females being somewhat smaller. A length of 6 to 6.5 cm. Is attained by male fish bred in captivity.
Earlier references to this species were usually under the name of Betta pugnax (Cantor). It remained for Regan in 1910 to point out that B. pugnax is native to the island of Pinang and that the Thailand form is distinct.
For several hundred years the fish has been used locally for sporting purposes, and for more than 90 years it has been domesticated and cultivated. Cultivation has increased the size, improved the colors, and enhanced the fighting qualities.
The habits, cultivation, and fighting of this fish are the subjects of a rather voluminous literature. Accounts based on first-hand information and personal observations and experience have been published by the present writer. (1937a, 1937b). From the latter account the following statements have been abstracted:
In a wild state the fighting fish is an inconspicuous, retiring little creatures, seeking protection from the glare of the sun’s rays and from fish-eating birds like egrets, herons, and kingfishers by hiding beneath and among water plants.
The general coloration of a quiescent fish is dull grayish brown or green with or without obscure dark lateral bands, and conveys no suggestion of the wonderfully brilliant hues assumed by the male under proper stimulations Under the stress of excitement the male fish exhibits a remarkable change. All the fins are widely spread, the gill membrances are expanded and project like a frill or ruff suggestive of the raised hackles of fighting cocks, and the entire body and fins become intensely suffused with a lustrous blue or red color, which makes the fighting fish one of the most beautiful of all fresh-water fishes. The normal incitement to the display of latent colors is the approach of another male, but the same effect is produced when a fish sees his reflection in a mirror.
Observations on fishes kept under the most favorable conditions in aquaria indicate that this species is normally short-lived. Possibly as a result of its strenuous activity and rapid metabolism, possibly because its span of life is predetermined by some immutable hereditary requirement, the fish in Siam appears to reach its age limit in 2 years, but under domestication in colder climates a somewhat greater age may be attained.
The common human custom of making animals compete among themselves for individual supremacy, and of laying wagers on the outcome of the contests, has, among the Siamese, been directed particularly to fish. At least for different kinds of fishes belonging in three families are employed by the Siamese in matched encounters, but only one of these has ever attained national importance or international celebrity.
Just how early in Siamese history the fighting fish acquired its reputation is not known, but for several hundred years its pugnacious qualities have been recognized and utilized in popular contests.
Up to the year 1850 or thereabouts, the use of the fighting fish in sportive contests in Siam was confined to fishes obtained in open waters; but, in order to insure a regular supply of fighting and betting purposes, domestication and cultivation were then instituted and have since been conducted on an increasingly large scale. It may be noted, however, that in recent years cultivation has been less important as a factor in fighting contests and has represented a better appreciation of the fish’s beauty of color and form.
While many kinds of fishes exhibit a belligerent attitude both among themselves and toward other species, it seems probable that in few other fishes is the combative instinct so highly developed as in Betta splendens. It is certainly true that in no other fish has the fighting ability been so much improved by cultivation.
The fighting instinct is peculiar to the males and is so strong that a normal fish exhibits it under every condition and at every opportunity. One might reasonably infer that the fighting instinct would develop at the approach of maturity. As a matter of fact, the pugnacious tendency shows itself at an early age; and in captivity fish only 2 months old and less than half – grown should be separated to prevent continual scrapping.
Because of their ever-present eagerness to fight, adult male fish must not only be kept in separate aquaria but the view of rivals in nearby vessels should be cut off by pieces of cardboard; otherwise their vitality and fighting ability will become impaired by incessant futile effort.
The fighting fish has responded well to efforts to produce changes to meet the popular demand. Even in the hands of persons ignorant of the laws of heredity, noteworthy improvements in form, size, coloration, and fighting ability have been brought about; and there is reason to believe that still further improvements may be made.
A person seeing for the first time a wild fighting fish would never suspect the wonderful possibilities in coloration that have been realized under cultivation. The most noteworthy of the color phases that have been established, in addition to intensified reds and blues, are lavenders, iridescent greens, cornflower blue, blue and white and yellowish and reddish creams with bright red fins. The latter, first produced about 1900, are known to the Siamese as pla kat khmer (Cambodian biting fish), probably from having originated among fanciers in French Indo-China.
Along with the development of intensified and new colors, there has come about an increase in the size of the vertical fins, culminating in graceful crapelike effects, which vie with those in the veiltailed and other highly cultivated Japanese goldfish, so that there are now fighting fish whose caudal fins are about as long as the head and body combined.
Fishes caught in open waters and taken indoors will, after a few days, readily respond to an opportunity to fight. The fighting stamina of the wild fishes, however, is not sufficiently developed for present – day requirements in Thailand, and practically all matched combats are now between fishes that have been bred n captivity. Wild fishes may fall to show any pugnacious spirit after a few minutes of active attack, and for an encounter between them to last more than 15 to 20 minutes is unusual.
On the other hand, in fishes reared under careful domestication and intelligent selections of parents, the inherent desire and ability to fight are markedly strengthened. Well-matched fishes may continue their attacks hour after hour without intermission, with only brief excursions to the surface for air. There is a partial respite from active effort while the fishes are in a sparring position, but even then the fins are kept extended, the gill membranes remain expanded, the body muscles are taut, and an alert attitude is constantly maintained. Some of my own fishes have remained pugnacious after 6 hours of uninterrupted combat, but fight do not ordinarily last more than 3 hours. From reputable Siamese informant has come the information that fish have been known to struggle for a whole day and night.
In Siam, as in the various countries into which the fish has been introduced, the usual procedure in arranging a fight is to select two males of approximately the same size and bring them together in separate jars. If they spread their fins, show their colors, and make head-on efforts to reach each other, they are placed together in the same vessel. An ordinary porcelain or tin washbasin makes a good arena, but a rectangular glass receptacle, such as a battery jar, affords a better view. The fish immediately approach each other and indulge in a preliminary display of spread fins, expanding gill membranes, and color waves. A common sparring position finds the fishes side by side with the heads pointing in the same direction and with one fish slightly behind the other. This position may be held for a period varying from a few seconds to several minutes. Then, in quick succession, the fishes attack, their movements, being so swift that the human eye can hardly follow the actual impact of the teeth, and the assaults are repeated with sort intermissions, during which the same sparring attitude is taken.
The most common points of attack are the anal, caudal, and dorsal fins. The ventral and pectoral fins may be practically untouched at the end of a protracted encounter, but may receive early attention from one or both contestants. The vertical fins, however, are always involved. The first evidence of a spirited encounter is likely to be torn or split fins. As the contest proceeds, there may be extensive loss of fin substance, and with well-matched fishes the vertical fins may utimately be reduced to mere stubs.
The loss or extensive damage of the fins impairs the swimming, steering, and balancing powers and hence places a fish at a disadvantage, but in evenly matched fishes this is not likely to be a final factor in deciding the issue.
Another point of attack is the side of the body. Single scales or clumps of scales may be loosened or detached by a quick nipping act, but in many contests this kind of injury may not occur. Exceptionally the gill covers may be bitten and slight injury may be done to the gills.
An interesting variation in fighting tactics ensues when the fishes come together in a head-on assault and lock jaws. With their jaws firmly locked and their bodies extended, the fishes struggle while partly or completely rotating on their long axis. In my observations, the locked-jaw attack was always comparatively brief and was invariably terminated by the fishes settling to the bottom and remaining perfectly still for, say, 10 to 20 seconds. The hold was then broken and the fishes rapidly sought the surface for air, and then resumed their ordinary tactics. The locked-jaw position interferes with respiration and lasts only s long as the fishes can resist the call of the system for extra oxygen.
During the short interludes in fighting when the demand for oxygen forces the fishes to go to the surface for gulps of air, attacks are always suspended. I have never known one fish to assail another at such a time. It is literally a breathing spell provided for in the fighting fish’s code of ethics.
Fighting contests are decided by the general exhaustion and the failure of stamina in the combatants rather than by a definite injury or a knock - out assault. Sooner or later one fish shows a lack of ability or desire to continue the fight and swims away—literally turns tail—when his rival assumes a position for attack. The engagement is then over, the fishes separated, the wagers, if any, are paid, and the owners put their charges into jars and go their respective ways.
At the end of a protracted contest both fishes may present a most unattractive appearance because of their mutilated fins, but they seem to experience no discomfort and, if permitted, would fight again the next day. The fins regenerate rapidly and completely, and at the end of a few weeks may show no signs of injury. Loss of scales may be more serious, inducing the development of fungus.
My experience, which extended over 12 years and covered many hundreds of exhibitions, coincides with that of most observers in finding nothing brutal, cruel, or repulsive in fighting-fish contests. The participants seem to get so much satisfaction from their encounters, their physical discomfort is apparently so negligible, and their recovery is so complete that there is little occasion to expend sympathy over them, while their graceful movements, muscular agility, acumen, tenacity and wonderful color displays cannot fail to arouse enthusiasm even in the most sensitive spectators.
Wholly erroneous impressions on this subject have been conveyed in some published articles. In an account that has often been quoted, one of the unfortunate combatants always terminates his fighting career and his very existence by literally bursting because of his futile efforts to reach his adversary kept in a separate jar. Another description of the fish and their fights concludes with a statement which, if true, would enlist our sympathy:
“The two [fishes] are brought together in the same bowl and they forthwith begin to tear at each other with their mouths and sharp spines, until the one is overpowered. The victor seldom lives to enjoy his triumph.”
As has been pointed out, fighting is done wholly with the teeth, and one fish is not overpowered. I never knew the victor, or even the vanquished, to succumb to a fight or to undergo serious injury.
An outstanding peculiarity of the fish is its dependence on atmospheric air. In an open water course, just as in a well-aerated aquarium, the fish cannot obtain through its gills dissolved oxygen in amount sufficient for its needs, and hence it has to make frequent excursions to the surface to take in mouthfuls of air which it utilizes by its accessory respiratory apparatus. The fish does not loiter at the surface where, in a wild state, its is exposed to attack by birds and other fish-eating animals. It projects its mouth for only an instant, expelling a bubble of vitiated air and taking in a new supply and then rapidly retreats toward the bottom.
The air-breathing apparatus is of simpler construction than in some related species, the “climbing perch” for example, which can and do spend considerable time out of water. Above the gills there is in each side of the head a cavity lined with vascular epithelium, the absorptive surface being increased by several projecting laminae.
The bubble-blowing habit is strongly developed in the male fish. At the time the bubbles are made there is a viscid mucous secretion of the mouth or pharynx, which strengthens and makes more lasting the walls of the bubbles and tends to keep the bubbles in a compact mass.
The purpose of the bubbles—to serve as a nest for the eggs and a hover for the newly hatched young—is admirably achieved. As the bubbles gradually lose their stickiness and become scattered or ruptured, one may observe the male constantly engaged in renewing the supply.
If one day a mature female fish is introduced into a vessel with a male fish that has been blowing bubbles, the probability is that next morning the bubble mass will be found to contain several hundred minute transparent eggs not easily distinguished from bubbles without a magnifying glass.
At egg-laying time the fishes consort near the surface, and at short intervals the eggs are extruded in small batches. As the eggs slowly sink toward the bottom, both the male and the female fishes go after them, gently take them in their mouths, and returning quickly to the surface blow the eggs into the bubble nest, repeating the performance as often as may be necessary to gather up all the eggs. This continues of several hours until all the ripe eggs have been voided.
The role of the mother fish is almost entirely restricted to the production of eggs. After the eggs are once placed in the nest, her family duties cease, and all subsequent care of eggs and young devolves wholly on the male.
The fish is rather prolific. At one spawning period from 200 to 700 eggs may be expelled, the average number for a fully developed normal fish being 400 to 500. A month after one batch of eggs has been produced, a given female may be ready to yield another lot, so that in the course of a year one fish may be responsible for 2,500 to 5,000 or more eggs.
Aided partly by capillary attraction, partly by the viscidity of the bubbles, the eggs are held in the nest until hatching ensues. The incubation period is remarkably short, covering only 30 to 40 hours in water at 80° to 85 ° F. Should any of the eggs drop from the nest and fall to the bottom, the male recovers them and blows them back.
The newly hatched fishes find shelter under the bubble nest, and remain there while their yolk sacs are being absorbed and their fins are developing. If they stray from their proper place before they are old enough, the male carries them back to the nest and gently ejects them; and during the entire period of infantile helplessness the male repeatedly takes the young in his mouth and blows them out with new bubbles, thus insuring proper oxygenation.
Throughout the nesting period the male fish is extremely busy and his vigilance never relaxes. In addition to making and maintaining the bubble nest, replacing eggs that may drop from the nest, rounding up the straggling young, and mouthing the young at intervals, he is constantly on the alert to protect the eggs and young from intruders that may devour them. The chief offender is the mother fish. In a wild state, she can be forcefully driven off and kept at a distance, but in the restricted quarters of aquarium she must be removed as soon as egg laying is completed.
The presence of the male seems to be essential in the development and hatching of the eggs. If the male is removed from the aquarium, the eggs, or most of them, will fall to hatch. Those that fall to the bottom will suffocate; while the vitality of those that remain in the nest may be impaired by the lack of the aeration that comes from mouthing and bubble blowing.
It is of interest to note that the forbearance of the male from eating the eggs and young is not due to any temporary impediment to his digestive powers, such as a physiological closure of the esophagus. He can and does eat mosquito larvae throughout his period of guard duty.
With all the solicitude shown by a male for his progeny, it may be noted that he cannot distinguish his own young from those of another parent introduced into his aquarium. Foster offspring receive the same care as his own.
Another aspect of the interesting behavior of Betta is shown when a male parent is taken away from his nest and returned after a few days; he promptly devours his young.
The fighting fish is a confirmed carnivore. This would be indicated by its dental equipment and short intestine even if not shown by direct observation on wild and domesticated fish.
In a wild state, the fish renders a useful service to mankind and to land animals generally by its destruction of mosquito larvae. The fish inhabits the same kinds of weedy waters in which the eggs of various mosquitoes are laid and hatched, and mosquito larvae are the favorite, often the exclusive, food throughout the year. As the fish’s appetite is keen, its digestion rapid, and its feeding activities more or less continuous during daylight, the daily consumption of potential blood sucking pests is large. Based on the observed requirements and the actual consumption of mosquito larvae by fighting fish in small aquaria, I would not hesitate to estimate an annual intake of 10,000 to 15,000 larvae per adult wild fish under normal conditions.
When the young fishes first begin to feed their mouths are too small to admit mosquito larvae, and during a period of 10 to 12 days following the absorption of the yolk sac they subsist chiefly on minute crustaceans, which swarm in the local waters.
The preference is for living, moving food. Given the choice of both active and dead larvae, the fishes may entirely reject the latter until driven by extreme hunger. Under the stress of necessity they will take selected nonliving food and thrive on its. A lot of fishes that I took from Bangkok to San Francisco were, after the first few days of the voyage, fed successfully on minute scrapings of raw fish provided by the ships’ stewards.
In Siam, mosquito larvae are regarded as essential for the proper nourishment of fish under domestication. For supplying the daily needs of my fighting fish in Bangkok, two coolies spent much of their time in locating breeding places of mosquitoes, collecting the larvae with fine-mesh nets, separating the larvae from plant and animal debris, and feeding the clean larvae to the fish at regular times and in quantities based on the reactions of the fish. The wrigglers, held in a coffee cup or rice bowl, were administered with a spoon.
In the capital of Siam where there are some thousands of amateur fighting-fish fanciers and many professional breeders and dealers, there is a large and steady demand for mosquito larvae. To meet this demand, which becomes acute during the dry season, there has sprung up the strange business of breeding mosquitoes and selling their larvae to owners of fightingfish; and a number of people thus gain a livelihood.
The Thai name is pla kat (biting fish) (pp.456- 461)
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