Piranha Bites, Betta Fights & Making Babies
The Fish Farm Stories - Two
The Fish Farm was the name of our wholesale tropical fish business. It wasn't actually a fish farm; mostly we were resellers. We also did breed some fish, particularly those that were often hard to get, so that we would have something our competitors didn't. And some we bred because we had beautiful specimens and we wanted to offer more like them. We supplied the pet stores in New England with the tropical fish that they sold to hobbyists. If you've read our ezine story "Why Wouldn't the Fish Breed" you've heard some about that, including our learning just how critical clean water for them was. We also had a few reptiles and a few other little critters. There is a steady of stream (yep, pun intended) of great stories from that business.
Tropical fish were shipped in from South America, several Asian locations, Florida and the US Midwest. Each had their specialties. From South America came piranha among other fish. The way you count fish, which one needs to do to fill orders for pet stores, is that you scoop a group of fish from a tank and then hold the net in your hand from underneath and 'pop' the fish into a smaller water container to await bagging. I was doing this one day to count out 25 small piranha for delivery to a large pet store - when one of them gave me a major chomp through the net. I spooked and lost control of the whole net full. I was faced with a big group of small piranha flopping on the floor. What to do now? I 'd just learned the risk I was in! Well I managed and got them all gathered up and back into the tank.
I couldn't do that sort of thing now, having come to understand the threats to our environment. At the time, South American fish were grown in semi-wild conditions. Fish farmers would 'seed' an area, make sure they were fed, and later collect the fish. There is a recent and controversial study that says fish don't experience fear or pain. I hope it's true. Not that we ever hurt any of them, we always treated them great. But I'd have to believe the whole experience would be scary - if they could be scared. I can't say that I ever saw anything to suggest the fish were fearful. They had conditioning that would lead them to look for a safe place and avoid danger, but I never saw fear. But would I know? I think so. When you spend that much time with any living thing you get to know them pretty well.
Another time we got some fiddler crabs in stock. Those of you in Florida know them. I was unloading a big bag of them into a specially-prepared "beachfront property" tank when I lost control of the bag and hundreds of fiddlers scuttled off sideways. My partner, who was nearby, really enjoyed doing nothing but standing there saying "Oh my!" It took quite a while to gather all of them up.
One of the more beautiful types of fish is the Siamese Fighting Fish, or betta. Siam is the former name of Thailand, and these fish are found there and in surrounding countries. These are the fish you see individually in tanks in people's offices. Don't think that they are lonely. In nature, when it gets dry in Thailand, they get separated into small ponds, and only one male is going to stay in that small amount of water. Those you see are raised in tanks. We kept them each in a separate small tank at The Fish Farm. We built narrow glass shelves against a high-gloss white wall to showcase them. It was gorgeous.
It's the males who have the very long fins. And they look especially terrific when they see another male because they strut their stuff by looking as big as they can, spreading their fins to the max, and flashing back and forth in the water like barracuda. You can see this if you hold a mirror up to one. If two are together, after plenty of show time, they line up side-by-side, head of one against the tailfin of the other, and to the sound of some gong only they can hear - start ripping at each other. They have very sharp little teeth and they rip at their opponents. They keep this up, moving at a startling speed - until one of them needs a breather. When he does, he backs off and moves to the top of the water. His opponent will never attack at that time.
In order to get air in the tiny ponds where they sometimes find themselves in nature, since there isn't enough oxygen in the water, bettas have evolved lungs. They do have gills like other fish, but they also have the ability to directly pull in oxygen from the air. So they go to top to get a breather. And their gentleman combatant 'steps' back to let them do it.
Our favorite Siameses Fighting Fish was named Mongo. He was big. He was red. No, we didn't fight him; we bred him. The way these fish breed is as fascinating as the way they fight. I'll use Mongo in this story, but they all do it the same way. First we'd put a female in the tank next to Mongo. He seemed to like most of them. This would stimulate him to both show off and to start building a nest at the surface of the water. He'd build the next by making bubbles using some mucous he could generate from his mouth, and he'd add more and more bubbles until he had a (proportionally) big nest ready. The female in the meantime would also take the signals, and would grow large with eggs.
We'd then put the female into the tank with Mongo. He'd carry on quite a bit, trying to impress the lady. He'd be sure to show her he was the boss. Then they'd get to it. Mongo would go crosswise against the female - oh let's call her Betty - and then wrap his body around the middle of hers. Are you getting the picture? Before the "wrap" they'd form a cross. Mongo would squeeze Betty's middle, causing many many eggs to fall through the water from her. Betty would float away, kind of zoned out for a while. Mongo however, would quickly fertilize the eggs. Then he would gather them all up in his mouth as they fell through the water and then blow them into his bubble tank. The couple would keep this up for hours - maybe four hours. Hundreds of eggs got produced and fertilized.
When they had finished, we'd have to take Betty out. She'd be a bit roughed up and needed some recuperation time without Mongo around. But.... it was Mongo who raised the brood. He would continually create new bubbles to make sure the nest was in good shape. And he carefully picked up and returned any eggs that fell from the nest. After a day and half, the eggs would hatch and we could see their tails hanging down from the nest. Then they would drop out of the net and swim together in a school of tiny fish. For a while they would live on their yolk sacs before we would start to feed them. Even when they started swimming, Mongo cared for them, taking them in his mouth to clean and release them.
These are just a few examples of the amazing-beyond-belief things that happen in nature. Let's protect our waters so this extraordinary expression of life continues.