Bettas can be trained to do simple tricks by making associations, can recognize their owners, and exhibit curiosity. They can learn. They can also suffer from boredom. Betta fish are pretty smart.
It could also be argued that bettas, or Siamese fighting fish, are remarkably intelligent, since they get people to feed and house them. What else do bettas need?
How Is a Fish Considered Intelligent?
Fish need to find food, find good places to live, find mates, and avoid enemies. Bettas can do this, but also add a little extra. T
hey are more curious than many other species of aquarium fish. This makes them more apt to try to take risks and change their behaviors in order to get a reward.
You can’t measure fish intelligence by people’s intelligence, because fish do not need to do things that people do, such as think about how the universe started, make movies, or write blog posts about the intelligence of betta fish.
Bettas are Curious
If you have the time, check out below the TED talk by marine biologist Evan Moland. Although he primarily studies ocean-going fish, some of his observations can be taken to heart by betta keepers.
He talks about curiosity being a factor of intelligence. Fish can recognize when something in their environment is different. Instead of hiding from the new thing, they often go and check it out. Fish like bettas will often touch new things, as well as look at them.
Looking and touching help the betta learn. The ability to learn is a sign of intelligence.
Do Bettas Have Three Second Memories?
It’s a common misconception that fish like goldfish and bettas have three second memories. Bettas have particularly good memories. They can remember:
- Their owners: It takes time for bettas to get to know you. Once they do, they will come out from hiding when you come up to their fish tank and follow you about.
- Good hiding places: Instead of just swimming blindly when startled, bettas will go directly to a good hiding place.
- Objects or motions that get them food: Bettas can make associations between two seemingly unrelated things, like touching a stick and a piece of food dropping in the water next to them.
In one ethically questionable study from 1998, described in the book Fish Cognition and Behavior (Wiley, 2011) male bettas were made to fight. Winners would more vigorously attack fish they’d beaten in the past than a brand-new fish. If nothing else, this shows that bettas have memories.
Making Associations to Learn
You can teach your betta simple tricks because your betta is smart enough to make associations: “If I do this, then that will happen.” Some of these associations can seem pretty random, but once the association is made, the betta has learned.
For example, your betta associates you with food and other things that make his or her life better, or at least more interesting. You know that your betta recognizes you because he or she will go up to the surface where food falls when you come close to the fish tank.
Although studies have not been done with betta fish, studies done with archer fish show that they can recognize a particular human face out of dozens.
Simple Tricks: Using a Targeting Stick
Make a stick small enough for a betta to touch with his or her nose. This is called a targeting stick. Touch the end of the stick to the water surface. When the betta comes to the surface, drop a food pellet or one bloodworm in.
Move the stick a little further away. When the betta follows, drop another piece of food in. Eventually, after a few sessions, keep the stick still. The betta, hopefully, will eventually touch the stick. Even the smallest touch should get a food reward.
Once your betta has mastered this, then you can move the stick around so the betta will go through tunnels, around plants, or through a hoop submerged in the water. After a while, the betta will go through a hoop or tunnel without the targeting stick, as long as there is a food reward coming.
Another Simple Trick: Getting a Betta to Jump
Not all bettas will do this, but it does not hurt to try. Wet the end of the targeting stick and put a piece of food on it. Hoover the targeting stick just over the water surface. You may have to wait a while. Eventually, the betta will jump to get the food.
You can then extend the targeting stick a little more over the water surface. The betta usually gets the idea to jump to get the food. Remember, that the betta needs to see the food to be interested in jumping.
Yet Another Simple Trick: Pushing a Ball
Get a tiny ball or, at the largest, a ping-pong ball. It needs to float on the water. Eventually, the betta will touch it. Give a food reward immediately after he or she touches the ball. Sometimes, placing the target stick over the ball helps the betta get the idea.
You can get really cute and place a net at one end of the fish tank and teach your betta to push the ball into the net. Just make sure anything you place in the fish tank is smooth, because any sharp edges can tear your betta’s fins easily.
Keep training sessions short, partly because bettas get bored doing the same thing over and over, but mainly because bettas will soon fill up from all of the food rewards. Sometimes, bettas will overeat.
Take the food rewards from the amount of food you normally give your betta. You do not want to get your betta fat. A fat betta can soon get sick.
Warning: Never Pet Your Betta
Teaching your fish tricks is a form of play you can do with your betta. However much you want to, do not pet your betta like you would another pet.
Bettas, like all fish, have a protective coating of slime on their bodies. Petting rubs this slime off. With the slime gone, the fish can get sick from electrolyte imbalance, fluid imbalance, or from an infection by any parasites in the water.
Bettas Need Enrichment
My Dad got male bettas back in the late 1970s to keep in our community tropical tank. They looked terribly drab in the tiny death-trap bowls. Back then, it was thought that bettas couldn’t care less where they were housed, as long as they were fed regularly.
Once in a community tank, the male bettas would blossom. They swum actively, grew brighter and richer in color, and became sassy enough to fight other fish. The last betta I had lived in a 20-gallon tank with a Plecostomus. He also blossomed when “rescued” from the pet store, because he had plenty of things to do.
Bettas in those betta bowls are bored. They need enrichment. It’s like if you were forced to live in a closet. Sure, food gets pushed to you every day or so, but it’s not much of a life. Bettas do best with things to swim around, objects to see, and room for a good swim.
So, How Smart are Bettas?
Bettas are intelligent fish. They are curious about their surroundings, they remember, they make associations, and they can learn. Combined with their brilliant colors, and pugnacious attitude, and you not only have a great pet, but a real companion.
If you want to learn more about Betta’s behavior, advice, and tips, please visit our collection of Betta Tips Articles.
About the author
Hi, I am Rena.
I grew up in a house surrounded by fish tanks.
I have spent my life caring for and writing about fish.
I have studied journalism and worked for online and print magazines.
You can find the articles I wrote here