Fancy keeping goldfish?

The common goldfish has been domesticated over many, many years. From the original greeny/bronze ancestor man has developed a whole range of fascinating pet fish. The outward appearance of many of these varieties in no way resembles their original stock. The insignificant original Cyprinid, Carassius auratus, has been manipulated by selective breeding from “sports” to evolve such way-out varieties as the Bubble-eye goldfish. From wolf to Pekinese dog springs to mind as a similar comparison in this context! No other fish has been so dramatically changed in so many ways as the goldfish. Guppies, swordtails, platies, angel fish, bettas and others have been increased in size, blessed with greatly enlarged and otherwise modified finnage, given different colour forms. But the goldfish has had those same features developed, and so much more. Bulging eyes – some looking skywards, others with huge fluid-filled sacs beneath them – have been a notable development. Egg-shaped, globular, “hunch”-backed, basic body shapes may or may not include a dorsal fin in their array of attendant finnage. Tail fins may be greatly elongated or relatively stunted, narrow or broad, single or paired, and carried in a variety of ways. Anal fins may also be single or paired. Some varieties develop a cranial growth which can sit on the top of the head like a coronet, or may envelop the entire head to the extent that the eyes are almost concealed. Even the nasal flaps have been cultivated from their diminutive original, hardly-noticeable form into sometimes huge pom-pons. Variations on a theme produces a number of fancy goldfish which combine something of all of these features. The dismal carp-like fish has become a large ball-shaped creature, with a huge growth smothering its head and pom-pons bobbling around from its nose. Its caudal fin has gone from a stocky single form with a slight forking to become a broad swathe of elongated finnage gracing its rear end. The compact dorsal fin of the original has either gone completely or been extended like a full sail. The colour might be white, gold, yellow, red, black, blue, mottled, chocolate, or in any imaginable combination. The eyes may be greatly enlarged and protruding, with a distinct iris visible or be completely black. Seemingly endless combinations of existing features are joined by new developments to produce a staggering list of varieties.

Natural selection would never allow most goldfish varieties to survive. Only through the endeavours of man and the attendant protective care, isolated away from predation, adequately fed, and cosseted with conditioned water, have they been continuously developed since about 400 AD. It is said to have all started when Chinese breeders of Carassius auratus as food fish found some specimens displaying coloured markings. Selective breeding produced self-coloured fish which were kept as pets, and commonly so by about 1200 AD. Some 400 years later body variations were developing, followed shortly by finnage development. Specimens taken to Japan formed the basis of an accelerated programme to develop yet more varieties of fancy goldfish. A hundred years on at around 1700 the Far East became an enthusiastic pet goldfish keeping area. The pure golden colour was considered to be lucky by people of Chinese descent and care was lavished on their pets to ensure the perpetuation of this good fortune. Goldfish came to Europe some time in the 1700’s, and to North America about 80 to 100 years later.

While most ornamental varieties of the goldfish are pleasing to the majority of people, there are those few which are thought to be grotesque, their development criticised as being “inhumane”. It is difficult to defend against such a stance where the fish suffer problems as a result of their deliberate “deformity ” through selective breeding. The globular body which is such a feature of many varieties is likely to congest the internal organs in a way which causes the fish to be prone to swim bladder derangement. The afflicted fish will either suffer lack of buoyancy and spend most of its life scudding around the substrate, or conversely it may bob around upside down at the surface. Either condition is due to the inability of the swim bladder to function effectively. The situation may be temporary and caused by ingested dry food rehydrating, putting pressure on the already congested organ. Less often simply filling up with food of any kind may cause the problem to occur spasmodically. But it can be permanent due soley to the totally changed shape of the body from its natural original form. Excessive growth of the cranial hood in such varieties as orandas or lionheads can render the fish almost visionless when it envelops the eyes. The extreme development of pom-pon nasal flaps might cause the fish to draw in some of the ruffled tissue as it takes in water through its mouth, causing irritation and laboured respiration. Upturned eyes in Celestial varieties and to a lesser extent Bubble-eyes, forces the fish to rely on its sense of smell to locate food once it has sunk below the restricted field of vision.

But why have varieties been developed with upturned eyes in the first place? And why have some varieties been developed to be devoid of the beautiful dorsal finnage, which is such a notable feature of other varieties? The answer to these two questions lies in the way in which the fish were kept by the ancient fishkeepers. They did not have glass sided aquariums, of course, but kept their ornamental fish in ceramic or earthenware pots, which were often highly decorative in themselves. So fishkeepers only viewed their fish from above. Sideways-looking eyes were hardly visible in this situation, but upturned ones could be clearly seen. Even bulging “telescopic” eyes were able to be appreciated as a feature this way. Dorsal finnage also became insignificant from a plan view, so why develop it? Fortunately not all keepers and breeders shared this view, and continued development of features able to be fully appreciated today persisted.

The more outlandish varieties of fancy goldfish remain most popular in the Far East, having far fewer advocates in the western world, where they are kept as oddities for their novelty value rather than as ornamental assets to the coldwater aquarium. The pure gold colour also remains particularly valued by many oriental fishkeepers, while the western hobby has taken to the multi-coloured calico types and other colour variations with enthusiasm. Flowing, full, evenly formed caudal and dorsal finnage is valued in fish which are able to swim without undue effort. Over-developed finnage which inhibits graceful movement is not welcomed. Excessive development of the cranial hoods of those varieties which sport it is also shunned. We like to see the eyes of the fish, and want it to be able to breathe easily. For show purposes the twin tailed varieties need to have a fully divided caudal fin without any joining together of the two upper lobes. The anal fins must also be paired and not single. Other desired features will cause any potential show specimen to be carefully scrutinised during its development to maturity. Only the very best is retained for showing, allowing the rejects to be culled and destroyed or released to the pet market. A lack of any of these required features for show purposes will hardly be noticed in pet fish.

Although frequently labelled as “coldwater” fish the more delicate varieties will benefit from a steady, constant aquarium water temperature which does not fall below about 70 degrees F. Less delicate types will be more comfortable and prove to be more rugged when kept in the mid-60’s F. Few pond raised fancy goldfish will successfully overwinter in areas where periods of freezing weather is a possibility. This is especially true of specimens less than two years old. For safety they should be brought into sheltered conditions to see the winter out, only being put outside again when the risk of frost is past. Some strains of the fantail goldfish are hardy enough to overwinter almost as successfully as the common goldfish.

Despite the poor eye sight some of the fancy goldfish suffer they have a very keen sense of smell, and will detect food quickly once they have its scent. Quite often the globe or “telescopic” eyed, varieties of fancy goldfish will hand feed more readily than their better sighted relatives. This may be because of their inability to see clearly the human form dabbling food-holding fingers in the aquarium water. The smell and the activity attracts them fearlessly while those with good vision hold back – at least until recognition and trust have been established. The acute sense of smell is useful at times when wanting to photograph your pet goldfish. If you need them gathered more or less in one spot and away from the water’s surface bury some smelly kind of food just below the surface of the substrate at the point where you want the fish to congregate. Usually they will quickly detect the spot and begin to rout as a group right at that place. With imagination this trait may be used to control your fishes movements to a degree, saving much time poised with a camera, waiting for them to come together by chance.

With such a long history of domestication it is little wonder that the fancy goldfish has such an affectionate following throughout the world. Kept in all manner of ways from the traditional goldfish bowl to expansive lakes and numerous other accommodations between. Ease of keeping, ease of breeding, easily tamed to become knowing and responsive pets. These are just a few of many attributes which has endeared this largely “man-made” creature to people’s hearts, and given it the status of being the most universally popular pet fish, by far.

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