March 30, 2007
There is nothing as peaceful as a sleeping fish. This afternoon I spied a wild goldfish engaged in counting sheepshead (that’s a joke, by the way – sheepshead are a kind of fish and since we landlubbers are said to count sheep, I….never mind). The fish was suspended just below the surface with his dorsal fin protruding ever so slightly out of the water. He was motionless except for a few obligatory waves of his pectoral fins to maintain balance. The gill covers moved ever so slightly in rhythmic time with the opening of his mouth. As gentle currents attempted to turn him around in a circle, automatic tail twitches re-positioned him face first toward the sun. Coming off a cold winter, these warm shallow waters provided the equivalent of a hot tub experience.
We are used to seeing fish doing active things such as swimming, jumping, eating – always on the move. In fact, bunches of hyperactive Carp were living up to that ideal by leaping out of the water and splashing just a few feet away. This one, however, maintained an inactive state for the full 15 minutes I was in his vicinity. I could have stomped my foot or dipped his fin into warm shaving cream to wake him up, but I didn’t. It was comforting to contemplate the lazy afternoon marsh as one of its residents sawed logperch (logperch are another kind of fish and sawing logs is another term for sleeping, so I…o.k., forget it).
The goldfish had his eyes open the whole time. Fish have no eyelids and are destined to have that “I just sat on a pin” look throughout their life. The bright yellow eyes, with centered black irises, were not communicating with the brain for the time being. The sight function was in standby mode. The chosen rest spot was surrounded by ring of tall cat-tail stems that offered some shelter from predators. It was a sizable fish – about 12 inches long – but still vulnerable to eagle talons. Unknown to him, a fish-eating egret was on the prowl for sushi just around the bend.
Internal air bladders act to suspend the fish at his chosen level. The ability to rise or sink is controlled by the gas density of these bladders, so the fish needn’t worry about treading water all the time.
My goldfish represents a fish that is often confused with the Carp. Like its uncouth relative, wild goldfish are mostly greenish brown with large fingernail like scales, but unlike them they do not have any barbels (whiskers). A few individuals express the bright orange which is reminiscent of their domestic background, but wildness and natural selection tends to eliminate the flashy ones.
A few days ago I spotted seven or eight glowing gold orbs in the murky water and assumed this represented only a few goldfish. Eventually, my eye adjusted to the situation and recorded the fact that there were actually thousands of goldfish. A huge school was making its way up from Lake Erie. The dark ones blended into the bottom while the day glow ones stood out. Which ones do you think are picked on by hungry fish eaters? This is called natural selection.
It was reverse selection that was responsible for the development of the ornamental goldfish in the first place. They originated in China. There wild green-brown goldfish were crossbred and cultured into the brightly colored varieties familiar today. They were introduced to Japan sometime after 1500 AD and made it to proper English estates by the late 1600’s. The last step of the journey brought them to America and release into local waters in the 1880’s.
Since German Carp were introduced about the same time, it has become natural to lump the two together. Sometimes they do interbreed (it’s those pretty little gold ones that have all the fun) but, for the sake of my sleeping friend, let me state that they are separate species. Goldfish do Carp one better in the human world, in fact, because of their value in medical and behavioral studies. They have been called “aquatic guinea pigs.”
Have you ever heard of a Carp being referred to as a “guinea pig” – I think not. Have you ever heard of a Carp swallowing contest or seen a Carp given as a prize at the county fair. No. So, let’s just let sleeping fish lie and give the goldfish his due.